The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Anti-Dühring Part 2: Chapter 1

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“Like every new theory, modern socialism had, at first, to connect itself with the intellectual stock-in-trade ready to its hand, however deeply its roots lay in economic facts.”

Ideas are, above all, reflections of the material world. But ideas also have their own development and motion. The ideas of Einstienian physics grew not only from discoveries in nature, and improved technology that permitted closer observation of nature, but also from Newtonian physics. The dialectic is here: the discoveries of Einstein negated and overturned those of Newton, yet the former could not have existed without the latter. The same is true of the theories of scientific socialism. They required the increased technological forces (and data!) produced by the industrial revolution, but also the earlier theories of the Utopians. That Marxism negated and overturned those theories does not mean those theories were worthless; on the contrary.

But the really significant point in this chapter is this: other than trivialities, there are no truths for all times. The development of ideas moves with the developments in the material world. Imperfectly, with back-and-forth, with starts-and-stops, yet inevitably. Herr Dühring, in his claim to have found all-time and absolute truth, is being unhistorical, as well as idealistic.

Engels continues this theme further down the page, talking about the relationship between the ideas of the bourgeois revolutions, and the practice of the bourgeois revolutions.
In my opinion, this is key. The Enlightenment brought rationalism into the realm of social systems. Those who did so were great men, but still unable to leap beyond themselves. The ideas of a time are tied to that time. The greatest thinkers can leap ahead–somewhat. But the visions of a “perfect society” created by and for the bourgeois revolution were necessarily visions of a perfect bourgeois society.

“Socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power. And as absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered.”

Just in case anyone is unclear, Engels is being ironic here.

“To make a science of socialism, it had first to be placed upon a real basis.”

That one sentence is vital. The fact that it is one of very few one-sentence paragraphs–that Engels sets it off by itself–indicates how important it is.

It was inevitable that Utopians would exist; that in response to the misery generated by feudal and capitalist societies, there would be opposition. And that, in response to that opposition, various individuals would say, “Here is the solution, I made it up and it’s right.”  Today, we see same the same thing in reactionary form among Libertarians–starting with a vision of what the world should be, and then working to make it so. But to put socialism on a scientific basis required a study of society as it was, required understanding the historical and economic roots, and to then see the future development as part of an historical process. One might claim that Marxists are wrong in their analysis of capitalism, or vision of the future; but no one who is serious can deny that it came from study of the real world, rather than beginning with imaginings. This is exactly Marx’s and Engels’ contribution.

“…branches of science which the Greeks of classical times on very good grounds, relegated to a subordinate position, because they had first of all to collect the material.”

I want to hit this again, because I believe it is so very important. Science, whether chemistry, scientific socialism, or a scientific understanding of history, is not simply a product of thought. That is, the failure of our ancestors to grasp the fundamentals of astrophysics is not because no one was smart enough, or happened to think of it–it’s because the information simply wasn’t there. Our knowledge moves from the particular to the general to the particular, constantly. Improved theory permits improved technology which permits the gathering of more data which leads to improved theory. That is a vital part of dialectics.  Today’s understanding of socialism, of history, of biology, is not the end of the process; it is merely as far as we’ve come. The process goes on, and will go on as long as humanity exists. We make progress; that’s what we do.  Sometimes, in the fight for progress (social, economic, political, or theoretical) we take a step backward, because that, also, is what we do. But we make progress.

“Only sound common sense, respectable fellow that he is, in the homely realm of his own four walls, has very wonderful adventures directly he ventures out into the wide world of research.”

Nothing to add, just quoting it because I love it so much.

On Hegel: “Upon the one hand, its essential proposition was the conception that human history is a process of evolution, which, by its very nature, cannot find its intellectual final term in the discovery of any so-called absolute truth. But, on the other hand, it laid claim to being the very essence of this absolute truth.”

I quote this because it relates to a reflection of my own: Any theory that attempts to explain human ideas or behavior ought to be applicable to itself. The fact that, for example, evolutionary psychology does not account for or explain evolutionary psychology, or that memetics is helpless when asked for an explanation of memetics, is sufficient, in my view, to make one cast a suspicious eye on them.

“As soon as each special science is bound to make clear its position in the great totality of things and of our knowledge of things, a special science dealing with this totality is superfluous.”

And here is where I have some trouble. I think what is going on is something like this: philosophy is the branch of science that deals with how to interpret science. But as scientific discoveries show us that the different branches and disciplines are connected (who can now separate archaeology from paleontology, or chemistry from biology?), there is no longer a point to a separate, individual discipline of philosophy apart from other sciences. It becomes folded in, a method for evaluating discoveries. I’m not sure of this interpretation, however.

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skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

12 Comments

  1. There, I’ve read the opening chapter. Things I am glad I looked up: Roussau, concatenation, dialectics (then followed links along to dialectical materialism, which offered a wealth of context – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectics#Marxist_dialectics – and demiurge and eristic. I admit the WP article lost me ‘negation of the negation’ which I did not attempt to comprehend but rather read around), Saint-Simon, Locke, nota bene, Chartists.

    “What was wanted was the individual man of genius, who has now arisen and who understands the truth.” Is Engels speaking here in the general? Is this more irony? It doesn’t sound ironic to me, but neither did the other thing you’re identifying as ironic.

    “And when this way of looking at things was transferred by Bacon and Locke from natural science to philosophy, it begot the narrow, metaphysical mode of thought peculiar to the preceding centuries.”

    I pulled that line because later in the chapter I didn’t think ‘metaphysical’ had been defined. After I typed the above, I re-read the paragraph that follows it, which defines well enough how Engels is using the word.

    However, I’m still not sure I’m comfortable with it. Who are these metaphysicians? Is metaphysics an actual school of thought, or is the label a disparaging invention of Engels?

    “From this point of view the history of mankind no longer appeared as a wild whirl of senseless deeds of violence, all equally condemnable at the judgment-seat of mature philosophic reason and which are best forgotten as quickly as possible, but as the process of evolution of man himself.”

    This! This is what I want to hear. If you can’t assure my disillusioned-but-hopeful little heart that the promise of this sentence is going to bear serious fruit, then I don’t want to read any more. Please advise.

    “A system of natural and historical knowledge, embracing everything, and final for all time, is a contradiction to the fundamental laws of dialectic reasoning.”

    Such a system is contradicted by dialectic reasoning because of its finality, right? A system of knowledge that falsely supports eternally static states of being is wrong? Or is the “all-embracing” nature of such a system also contradicted?

    “But the old idealist conception of history, which was not yet dislodged knew nothing of class struggles based upon economic interests … [skipping a bunch of lines for brevity here] … The new facts made imperative a new examination of all past history. Then it was seen that all past history was the history of class struggles; that these warring classes…”

    So I guess I’m ignorant of the history of philosophy, but is this really the first point in time that history had been examined through the lens of economic class? Is that possible? What the fuck. Were there previous writers who examined economic classes but got it wrong (ie, Engels thought they were wrong)? More background, please.

  2. skzb

    Gonna take this in chunks.

    “What was wanted was the individual man of genius, who has now arisen and who understands the truth.” Yes, that was irony.

    Metaphysics is many things. It is a school of thought; it is a term for certain classes of philosophy, it is a description of some methods. It’s in the latter sense, I believe, that Engels is using it. Perhaps the best description is logic–or a life of the mind–divorced from material considerations. I don’t know if that helps. Hmm…the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, where, for example, he delivers a supposed “pure logic” proof of the existence of God is classical (in two senses) metaphysics.

    In a more narrow sense, Engels is using it here (I think) to refer to what today we call formal logic: The notion that a=a and that we will build our argument from that basis. A dialectitian believes that, in the real world, a never = a, and we can go into that in detail if you’d like.

  3. skzb

    “This! This is what I want to hear.”

    Not quite clear. I think I can promise that, but I’m not entirely sure what you’re after. The relationship between man’s development as a species and the development of his thought? That I can promise. Otherwise I need more detail.

    “Such a system is contradicted by dialectic reasoning because of its finality, right? A system of knowledge that falsely supports eternally static states of being is wrong? Or is the “all-embracing” nature of such a system also contradicted?”

    As I understand it, mostly the first, although to some degree that implies the second. That is, he is also criticizing the very idea of a “system” as opposed to a “method.” The, “Here is my system; here is now THIS fits into it” approach; as opposed to one that says, “Let us investigate this thing and discover how it connects with other things.”

  4. skzb

    There were (to the best of my knowledge and belief) no previous historian who put the class struggle as the center of the movement of history.

    The most basic tenet of historical materialism is: In order for there to be human history, there have to be humans. That is, we have to exist–to live, to reproduce. But the struggle of Man to wrest life from nature is a social one–we do it together.

    Therefore, to understand history, we need to look, first and foremost, at how a given society solves the problem of supplying material wants to the members of it. With the beginning of civilization (actually, before it), we have the emerging of a surplus–of material wants produced in excess of what is needed to sustain that society. But we do not, as yet, (and didn’t, until the 20th century) have the ability to produce enough for everyone to have plenty. This brings up the question: who will get the surplus? To an historical materialist, the way different societies solve this problem is the key to understanding those societies; everything else flows from that.

    Does that help?

  5. This section explains two things for me:

    1. Why Marx was reluctant to spell out what socialism would look like. A creature of his time, he can’t know–he expects societies to continually evolve as new resources and new problems arise.

    2. Why socialist futures, especially in film, look like what the writers thought would make their friends go, “Cool!”

  6. His irony isn’t ironic enough. *hmph*

    I think that provides enough explanation of metaphysics. Fucking Aquinas.

    “The relationship between man’s development as a species and the development of his thought? That I can promise.” That’s a good start, but I want to feel good about humanity, like maybe there’s a chance.

    “one that says, “Let us investigate this thing and discover how it connects with other things.”” *nod* Okay, good.

    “Does that help?” It’s kinda stunning, but yes, thanks.

  7. skzb

    “His irony isn’t ironic enough. *hmph*” He needed you to copyedit for him.

    “but I want to feel good about humanity, like maybe there’s a chance.” Oh! Yes, there will be good, scientific reasoning to show that such a hope is reasonable. Also, hanging out with me will help.

  8. “Any theory that attempts to explain human ideas or behavior ought to be applicable to itself. The fact that, for example, evolutionary psychology does not account for or explain evolutionary psychology, or that memetics is helpless when asked for an explanation of memetics, is sufficient, in my view, to make one cast a suspicious eye on them.”

    This is a side issue, but still….

    Any theory that attempts to explain everything about human ideas or behavior will have to explain how humans think about the theory and apply it. Yes. But lesser theories may not have to apply to themselves. If you have a scientific theory about how false superstitions get started and spread, your theory might not have started that way and it might not spread that way. It does not have to apply to itself because it does not claim to explain everything about thought and behavior.

    I see no particular problem explaining evolutionary psychology in terms of evolutionary psychology. I will try if you want. The only problem I see with such an explanation is that it maybe embarrassing to evolutionary psychologists.

    Similarly, memetics does perfectly fine at explaining memetics. The idea of memetics is itself a meme that spreads well. People understand it easily and they like it enough to think about it and spread it.

    There is the question why people like this idea enough to spread it. I have an idea about that, with no particular proof. To me the idea is attractive enough that I like it, although in the absence of evidence outside my own mind, it could be all wrong.

    It seems to me that people tend to get intimidated by the idea of evolution. If everything about them is either an evolutionary success or an evolutionary failure, so that some of their genes will spread through the population and others will inevitably be lost due to their inferiority, what does that say about their identity? Should they try to encourage whatever is superior to spread? If they think they are inferior should they avoid having children? All sorts of weighty identity issues connected with possible long-run goals.

    But then they see that cancer cells adapt in the short run, they get a series of mutations that let them survive and multiply and eventually kill their host and die themselves. No purpose, no goal, random evolution that ends in nothing.

    Your body has tamed some viruses to carry messages around your body, but sometimes some of them revert to feral viruses that attack you and die. Or maybe they started out as messengers and went feral for no good reason.

    Even your thoughts are not there primarily to aid your survival and reproduction. With the chance to spread to other people they get into the evolution business for themselves.

    You can in fact have genes that make you less able to survive and still those genes reproduce better. As the genes spread through the population the population size falls, until it might fall to zero. They evolve themselves into extinction.

    If you had some vague worry about your place in the evolutionary scheme, all of this is reassuring. Evolution goes in random directions to no purpose, often to dead ends. You have no obligation whatsoever to try to further it or hinder it. Just be yourself. Enjoy yourself when you can. There is no evidence that people who try so hard to succeed that they have no fun, actually succeed better through evolution. It’s all OK. Not that people actually try very hard to advance evolution. But if they think they ought to, they feel relieved to get the idea it isn’t needed.

    This may be part of why people get so delighted when they understand the memetics meme. It is definitely a story I made up and maybe it is not any part of why people enjoy the memetics meme enough to spread it.

  9. ““Here is the solution, I made it up and it’s right.” Today, we see same the same thing in reactionary form among Libertarians–starting with a vision of what the world should be, and then working to make it so. But to put socialism on a scientific basis required a study of society as it was, required understanding the historical and economic roots, and to then see the future development as part of an historical process. One might claim that Marxists are wrong in their analysis of capitalism, or vision of the future; but no one who is serious can deny that it came from study of the real world, rather than beginning with imaginings.”

    Good! I very much like the way you have described this. Clear and honest.

    There could be a place for the other approach. If you figure out what you want, then you can look at what would be required to get there. Possibly you might find ways to head in that direction. You can’t head there on purpose if you don’t know what you want.

    But to develop a clear idea how the present system works, and how things have changed before, that’s got to be valuable. They could be wrong but they have more than just hope going for them.

    “Then it was seen that *all* past history was the history of class struggles; that these warring classes of society are always the products of the modes of production and of exchange — in a word, of the *economic* conditions of their time; that the economic structure of society always furnishes the real basis, starting from which we can alone work out the ultimate explanation of the whole superstructure of juridical and political institutions as well as of the religious, philosophical, and other ideas of a given historical period.”

    It sounds like they’re trying to explain everything from a single basis. Kind of like the ideal gas law, this is likely to work sometimes and with limited precision. It might be possible to get better results by adding in a whole lot of minor factors, which is tedious and worse than useless unless the small factors are measured precisely and their effects known to some precision. Alternatively, a similar concept might work even better and over a wider domain, like relativity replacing newtonian gravity or QM replacing wave theory. Then the old theory can still be used where it works adequately but we will know more. We should all watch for opportunities along those lines.

  10. I’ll second Jenphalian’s observation that Engel’s irony is a bit hard to catch on first glance. Have to watch for overstated phrases contrary to what seems to be going on as his thesis. Too bad he didn’t have emoticons. Actually, thinking of this as a series of posts is probably not a bad way to go.

  11. Have you considered getting the text in German and using a good German-English dictionary to double-check the hard-to-interpret bits? I think it might help with some points–for example, I’d be interested to know what the original was for the phrase “is bound to make clear” in your last quote.

  12. “I’ll second Jenphalian’s observation that Engel’s irony is a bit hard to catch on first glance.”

    Steve, so far I’ve mostly seen him use it while he’s knocking down somebody else’s stupid ideas. He doesn’t do it while he’s saying what the real answers are.

    The exception so far is Chapter 9 where at the very end he jokingly makes the same universal claims for Marx’s ideas that Duhring had made for his own.

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