The Third International after Lenin

Friday, February 17, 2012

Empiricism: a Marxist view

Excerpt from The History of Philosophy by Alan Woods

The Decadence of Empiricism

Whereas the materialism of Bacon reflected the hopeful, forward-looking outlook of the Renaissance and the reformation, the philosophy of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries took shape in an altogether different climate. In England, the rich and powerful had received a shock in the period of the Civil War, with its "excesses." Having effectively broken the power of the absolute monarchy, the bourgeoisie no longer needed the services of the revolutionary petit bourgeoisie and the lower orders of society, the shock troops of Cromwell's Model Army, who had begun to give voice to their independent demands, not only in the field of religion, but by calling into question the existence of private property.

Cromwell himself had crushed the left wing represented by the Levellers and Diggers, but the wealthy Presbyterian merchants of the City of London did not feel safe until, after Cromwell's death, they had invited Charles back from France. The compromise with the Stuarts did not last long, and the bourgeoisie was forced to eject Charles' successor James from the throne. But this time there was no question of appealing to the masses for support. Instead they called on the services of the Dutch Protestant, William of Orange, to take possession of the English throne, on condition of accepting the power of Parliament. This compromise, known as the "Glorious Revolution," (although it was neither) established once and for all the power of the bourgeoisie in England.

The stage was set for a rapid growth of trade and industry, accompanied by giant advances of science. In the realm of philosophy, however, it did not produce great results. Such periods are not conducive to broad philosophical generalisations. "New times," wrote Plekhanov, "produce new aspirations, the latter producing new philosophies." The heroic revolutionary age was past. The new ruling class wanted to hear no more of such things. They even baptised the real revolution, which had broken the power of their enemies, "The Great Rebellion." The men of money were guided by narrow practical considerations, and looked with distrust at theory, although they encouraged scientific research which had practical consequences, translatable into pounds, shillings and pence. This mean-spirited egotism permeates the philosophical thinking of the period, at least in England, where it was only enlivened by the writings of satirists like Swift and Sheridan.

The further evolution of the empiricist trend revealed its limited character, which ended up by leading Anglo-Saxon philosophy into a cul-de-sac out of which it has still not emerged. This negative side of "sensationalism" was already evident in the writings of David Hume (1711-76) and George Berkeley (1685-1753). The latter was the bishop of Cloyne in Ireland, who lived just at the end of a stormy period when Ireland had been drawn into the maelstrom of England's Civil War and subsequent dynastic and religious upheavals ending in the "Glorious Revolution" and the Battle of the Boyne, where the interests of the Irish people were betrayed in a struggle between an English and a Dutch Pretender, neither of whom had anything to do with them.

Reflecting the prevailing mood of philosophical conservatism, Berkeley was obsessed with the need to oppose what he saw as the subversive trends in contemporary science, which he interpreted as a threat to religion. An astute, if not original thinker, he soon realised that it was possible to seize upon the weak side of the existing materialism, in order to turn it into its exact opposite. This he did quite effectively in his most important work, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1734).

Taking as his starting point Locke's philosophical premises, he attempted to prove that the material world did not exist. Locke's empiricist theory of knowledge begins with the self-evident proposition: "I interpret the world through my senses." However, it is necessary to add the equally self-evident statement that the world exists independent of my senses, and that the impressions I obtain through my senses come from the material world outside me. Unless this is accepted, we very quickly land up in the most grotesque mysticism and subjective idealism.

Berkeley was well aware that a consistent materialist position would lead to the complete overthrow of religion. He was, for instance, deeply suspicious of the new science, which seemed to leave no room for the Creator. Newton professed himself a believer. But his explanation of the universe as a vast system of moving bodies, all acting in accordance with the laws of mechanics, shocked the bishop. Where did God come into all this? he asked. True, Newton assigned to the Almighty the task of getting it all started with a push, but after that, God did not seem to have been left very much to do!

Locke, like Newton, never renounced religion, but the bare declaration that God exists (deism), while giving Him no real role in the affairs of man or nature was merely a convenient fig leaf to conceal unbelief. As Marx put it, "for materialism, deism is but an easy-going way of getting rid of religion." (MECW, Vol. 4, p. 129.) Following Newton, Locke was happy to take for granted the existence of an obliging Deity who, after giving the universe a bit of a shove, then retired to the celestial sidelines for the rest of eternity to allow men of science to get on with their work. It was the philosophical equivalent of the constitutional monarchy established as a compromise between parliament and William III after the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, which, incidentally, was Locke's political ideal.

The deist disguise, however, did not fool Berkeley for a moment. There was an evident weak link. What if the universe did not start in this way? What if it had always existed? Locke and Newton assumed that, following the laws of elementary mechanics, a clockwork universe must have commenced with an external impulse. But there was no way they could disprove the contrary assertion, that the universe had existed eternally. In that case, the last vestige of a role for the Creator vanished altogether. Locke also supposed that, in addition to matter, the universe contained "immaterial" substances, minds and souls. But, as he himself confessed, this conclusion did not flow necessarily from his system. Consciousness might just be another property of matter (which is just what it is in fact)—the property of matter organised in a certain way. Here too, Locke's concessions to religion hung uneasily from his materialist premises, as if they had been tacked on as an afterthought.

Berkeley's philosophy, like that of Hume, is the expression of a reaction against the revolutionary storm and stress of the previous period, identified in his mind with materialism, the root cause of atheism. Berkeley consciously set out to eradicate materialism once and for all, by the most radical means—by denying the existence of matter itself. Beginning with the undeniable assertion that "I interpret the world through my sense," he draws the conclusion that the world only exists when I perceive it—esse is percipi (to be is to be perceived). "The table I write on I say exists, that is, I see and feel it; and if I were to go out of my study I should say it existed—meaning thereby that if I was in my study I might perceive it, or that some other spirit actually does perceive it...

"For, what are the forementioned objects but the things we perceive by sense? And what do we perceive besides our own ideas or sensations? And is it not plainly repugnant that any one of these, or any combination of them, should exist unperceived?" (Berkeley, The Principles of Human Knowledge, pp. 66-7.)

This, then, is where empiricism, inconsistent materialism, gets us when carried to its logical, or, rather, illogical, conclusions. The world cannot exist unless I observe it. For this is exactly what Berkeley says. In fact, he considers it strange that anyone should believe otherwise: "It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects, have an existence, natural or real distinct from their being perceived by the understanding." (Ibid., p. 66.) The question arises as to what it is that makes the world real by the mere act of perceiving it. Berkeley replies: "This perceiving, active being is what I call MIND, SPIRIT, SOUL, or MYSELF." (Ibid., p. 65.)

All this is admirably clear and unambiguous. It is the doctrine of subjective idealism, with no "ifs" or "buts." The modern philosophers of the different schools of logical positivism follow in just the same line, but lack both Berkeley's style and his honesty. The consequence of this line of argument is extreme mysticism and irrationality. Ultimately, it results in the notion that only I exist, and that the world only exists insofar as I am present to observe it. If I walk out of the room, it no longer exists, and the like. How did Berkeley deal with this objection? Very easily. There may be objects that are not perceived by my mind, but they are perceived by the "cosmic mind" of God, and exist in it. Thus, at a single stroke, the Almighty, who was reduced to a precarious existence on the margins of a mechanical universe, has been reintroduced as the "whole choir of Heaven and furniture of the earth," in a world entirely free of matter. In this way, Berkeley believed that he had scored the "most complete and easy triumph in the world" over "every wretched sect of atheists."

In purely philosophical terms, Berkeley's philosophy is open to many objections. In the first place, his main criticism of Locke was that he duplicated the world, that is, he supposed that behind the sense-perceptions which, according to empiricism, are the only things we can know, there was an external world of material things. To remove this duality, Berkeley simply denied the existence of the objective world. But this does not solve the problem at all. We are still left with something outside our sense-perceptions. The only difference is that this "something" is not the real, material world, but, according to Berkeley, the immaterial world of spirits created by the "cosmic mind" of God. In other words, by taking our sense-impressions as something independent, separate and apart from the objective material world outside us, we quickly land in the realm of spiritualism, the worst kind of mysticism.

Berkeley's arguments only retain a degree of consistency if one accepts his initial premise, that we can only know sense-impressions, but never the real world outside ourselves. This is put forward dogmatically at the beginning, and all the rest is derived from this proposition. In other words, he presupposes what has to be proved, namely that our sensations and ideas are not the reflection of the world outside us, but things existing in their own right. They are not a property of matter that thinks, of a human brain and nervous system, capable of being investigated and understood scientifically, but mysterious things of the spirit world, emanating from the mind of God. They do not serve to connect us with the world, but constitute an impenetrable barrier, beyond which we cannot know anything for sure.

By pushing the arguments of empiricism to the limit, Berkeley succeeded in turning it into its opposite. Engels points out that even Bacon in his natural history gives recipes for making gold, and Newton in his old age "greatly busied himself with expounding the Revelation of St. John. So it is not to be wondered at if in recent years English empiricism in the person of some of its representatives—and not the worst of them—should seem to have fallen a hopeless victim to the spirit-rapping and spirit-seeing imported from America." (Engels, The Dialectics of Nature, p. 69.) As we shall see, the propensity for mystical thinking does not disappear, but rather appears to grow in geometrical proportion to the advance of science. This is the price we have to pay for the cavalier attitude of scientists who wrongly imagine that they can get along without any general philosophical principles. Expelled by the front door, philosophy immediately flies back in through the window, and invariably in its most retrograde and mystifying form.

Just as all ideas ultimately are derived from this objective material world, which is said not to exist by Berkeley, so, in the last analysis, their truth or otherwise is decided in practice, through experiment, by countless observations, and, above all, through the practical activity of human beings in society. Berkeley lived at a time when science had largely succeeded in freeing itself from the deadly embrace of religion, and had thereby made possible the greatest advances. How did Berkeley's ideas fit in with all this? What kind of explanation do Berkeley's ideas give of the material world? How do they relate to the discoveries of Galileo, Newton and Boyle? For example, the corpuscular theory of matter cannot be true, according to Berkeley, because there is nothing for it to be true of.

Berkeley rejected Newton's theory of gravity, because it attempted to explain things by "corporeal causes." Naturally enough, since, while the sun and moon, being material, have mass, my sense-impressions of these have none whatever and can exercise a gravitational pull only on my imagination. He likewise disapproved of the most important mathematical discovery of all—the differential and integral calculus, without which the achievements of modern science would not have been possible. But no matter. Since the concept of infinite divisibility of "real space" ran counter to the basic postulates of his philosophy, he opposed it vehemently. Having set his face against the major scientific discoveries of his day, Berkeley ended his life extolling the properties of tar-water as an elixir to cure all ills. One could be excused for thinking that such an eccentric philosophy as this would vanish without trace. Not so. The ideas of Bishop Berkeley have continued to exercise a strange fascination on bourgeois philosophers down to the present day, being the true origin and basis of the theory of knowledge ("epistemology") of logical positivism and linguistic philosophy. This was dealt with brilliantly by Lenin in his book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, to which we shall return later.

Incredible as it may seem, this thoroughly irrational and anti-scientific philosophy has penetrated the thinking of many scientists, through the agency of logical positivism in different guises. In Berkeley's lifetime his ideas did not get much of an echo. They had to wait for the intellectual climate of our own contradictory times, when the greatest advances of human knowledge rub shoulders with the most primitive cultural throwbacks to get accepted in polite society. As G. J. Warnock points out, in the Introduction to The Principles of Human Knowledge, Berkeley philosophy "in our own day has won far more general support than ever before." Thus, "today some physicists...are inclined to argue exactly as he did, that physical theory is not a matter of factual truth, but essentially of mathematical and predictive convenience." (G. J. Warnock, The Principles of Human Knowledge, p. 25.) The scientist and idealist philosopher Eddington claimed that we "have a right to believe that there are, for instance, colours seen by other people but not by ourselves, toothaches felt by other people, pleasures enjoyed and pains endured by other people, and so on, but that we have no right to infer events experienced by no one and not forming part of any 'mind.'" (Russell, op. cit., p. 631.) Logical positivists like A. J. Ayer accept the argument that we can only know "sense-contents" and, therefore, the question as to the existence of the material world is "meaningless." And so on and so forth. Old Berkeley must be laughing in his grave!

The value of any theory or hypothesis is ultimately determined by whether it can be applied successfully to reality, whether it enhances our knowledge of the world and our control over our lives. A hypothesis which does none of these things is good for nothing, the product of idle speculation, like the disputations of the mediaeval Schoolmen about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. A colossal amount of time has been wasted in universities on endlessly debating this kind of thing. Even Bertrand Russell is compelled to admit that a theory like Berkeley's, which "would forbid us to speak about anything that we have not ourselves explicitly noticed. If so, it is a view that no one can hold in practice, which is a defect in a theory that is advocated on practical grounds." Yet in the very next sentence he feels obliged to add that "The whole question of verification, and its connection with knowledge, is difficult and complex; I will, therefore, leave it on one side for the present." (Op. cit., p. 632.) These questions are only "difficult and complex" for someone who accepts the premise that all we can know are sense-data, separate and apart from the material world. Since this is the starting point of a great deal of modern philosophers, no matter how they twist and turn, they cannot dig themselves out of the trap set by Bishop Berkeley.

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