The Dream Café

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

Anti-Dühring Part 4:Chapter 3

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One last try to be kind to lj readers:

 

This chapter is less vital for us than it was for Engels. Because Herr Dühring erected his entire theory on the foundation of his philosophy, it was necessary to thoroughly demolish that foundation, so that his whole edifice, from pompous facade of attitude, to opaque windows into the natural world, to misplaced grotesques of logic, would collapse of its own weight like, um, like this metaphor. For us, looking for positive knowledge rather than the destruction of another’s theory, its importance is sensibly reduced.

However, we are getting into stuff that I find personally fascinating, and that provides a wonderful opportunity to explore the method of Marxism, so I’m going to take a bit of time with it.

The initial paragraph in which Dühring is summarized lost me entirely; I was considerably relieved to realize there wouldn’t be a test on it. But one thing I did get was that, to Herr Dühring, the “science of the principles of nature” and “the science of mankind” are separate and distinct things. When he says they divide themselves in this way “quite naturally” it means he is taking that division as a given, as a premise. But it strikes me as a leap, and an invalid one at that. I’m pretty sure Engels will come back to this at some point.

If human beings are part of nature, and human beings are naturally social, then human society is also part of nature. This means the notion of a whole separate class of laws for human society as distinct from nature makes no sense. Of course, to have particular laws for social movement is as reasonable as particular laws for the movement of planets–or the particular laws for the movement of smelt at mating season. But that’s no reason to make them an entirely different type of law. Does that make sense?

“Logical schemata can only relate to forms of thought; but what we are dealing with here is solely forms of being, of the external world, and these forms can never be created and derived by thought out of itself, but only from the external world.”

Yeah, well, I could follow this better if I understood what was meant by “forms of thought.” And, for that matter, “forms of being.” I’m not at all clear on what Engels means by either of those terms. Maybe an example? I’ll keep going and hope for the best.

“the principles are not the starting-point of the investigation, but its final result; they are not applied to nature and human history, but abstracted from them.”

A brief moment to cuddle with a single word, because we’d better be on good terms with it before we go further: the verb “to abstract.” To abstract b from a means that b is a naturally occurring part of a, one aspect of it, and that we are choosing, with our minds, to consider only that part. If I have a dozen eggs, there are several aspects to them: the color, the hardness of the shell, the weight, the number. If I say, “Let us consider the number of eggs in a typical egg carton,” I am abstracting  the number from the notion of a carton of eggs. Thus, if we abstract the natural laws from our investigation of nature, we are, in our minds, removing, or perhaps separating for consideration something actually there–at least, if we have studied those laws correctly. If we abstract passive-aggressive behavior from the motion of molecules, or the activity of God from the origin of species, we’ve probably fucked up somewhere along the way.

So, getting back to that quote, yeah, I feel better, at least for now. This is something we hit on before: We learn the laws of the motion of matter by studying nature; we don’t start with those laws and ask nature to kindly adapt itself to our opinions. Which is just as well; nature is often stubborn and refuses to cooperate in such ventures.

“But if the further question is raised what thought and consciousness really are and where they come from, it becomes apparent that they are products of the human brain and that man himself is a product of nature, which has developed in and along with its environment; hence it is self-evident that the products of the human brain, being in the last analysis also products of nature, do not contradict the rest of nature’s interconnections but are in correspondence with them.”

I’ve had nothing but good thoughts about materialism since this morning. It’s mother beautiful materialism. Uh, sorry. What I mean is that, to a materialist, Man is part of and a product of nature; the development of the human brain can be understood from the point of view of evolution; the ideas in the human brain, therefore, are also a part of nature. The idea of creating special laws for thought in contradiction to the laws of nature must be false. At least, that’s what I get from it.

“Later on we shall see that Herr Dühring is forced more than once to endow nature surreptitiously with conscious activity, with what in plain language is called God.”

Just in passing, I remember the first time I read that, and went, “Holy fuck. Yeah. Nature endowed with consciousness. That’s what God is.” Epiphany! There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good epiphany.

Further down, Engels discusses the absurd notion that humanity can someday know everything. For one thing, if everything is constantly changing, there is no way to keep up with all of those changes.

“Each mental image of the world system is and remains in actual fact limited, objectively by the historical conditions and subjectively by the physical and mental constitution of its originator.”

Okay, I think that’s clear enough. We went over some of that same ground in the previous chapter.  An individual’s knowledge is limited by his time and place, and by his own particular skills and talents.

Let’s stop there for now.

 

 

 

 

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

11 Comments

  1. “If we abstract passive-aggressive behavior from the motion of molecules, or the activity of God from the origin of species, we’ve probably fucked up somewhere along the way.”

    You know, discussion would be a lot more productive if this were a commonly accepted ground rule… but since what’s usually practiced is better termed disputation rather than discussion, it makes a certain amount of sense that what you mention is so seldom observed.

  2. (Rats, I missed the beginning – now I have even more reading to do to catch up.)

    It is well to be careful, though, in saying that “everything keeps changing” – while it does, it does so according to natural laws, not just willy-nilly. Getting at these underlying laws (gravity, etc) is a part of the process of understanding. That said: Not only does everything keep changing, but so do our abilities to understand things, through technological developments, for example. There are things which we do not understand that if we did would make other things clear(er), or at least lead to better questions. As you say, our knowledge is limited by our time and place.

    Lenin goes into this in Materialism and Emperio-Criticism:
    ~In the theory of knowledge, as in every other branch of science, we must think dialectically, that is, we must not regard our knowledge as ready-made and unalterable, but must determine how our knowledge emerges from ignorance, how incomplete, inexact knowledge becomes more complete and more exact.~~

    – looking at things with a materialist dialectic outlook, we can see that just because we do not know *now*, this does not mean will might not know *sometime* – this is where we really see the contrast between dialectics and religious outlooks.

  3. skzb

    Christie: “it does so according to natural laws, not just willy-nilly.” Yes.

    Oh, well, if you’re going drag Materialism and Emperio-Criticism into this, I’ll just go haul down Volume 38, THEN we’ll see! *cough* But, yeah, good point. I especially like that contrast with religion, which had never occurred to me before.

  4. I say that Engels thoroughly demolished Duhring’s claims. But some of his own are quite suspect.

    “The perception that all the processes of nature are systematically connected drives science on to prove this systematic connection throughout, both in general and in particular. But an adequate, exhaustive scientific exposition of this interconnection, the formation of an exact mental image of the world system in which we live, is impossible for us, and will always remain impossible. If at any time in the development of mankind such a final, conclusive system of the interconnections within the world — physical as well as mental and historical — were brought about, this would mean that human knowledge had reached its limit, and, from the moment when society had been brought into accord with that system, further historical development would be cut short — which would be an absurd idea, sheer nonsense.”

    We have various things that suggest that what he says is absurd is indeed improbable. Goedel’s theorem. Chaos theory. Etc. But the question whether this is possible is an empirical one. It is not enough to say that things would be very strange if it happened, therefore it cannot happen. Engels tried to slip one by here.

    However, all his conclusions still hold until the event he says is absurd does happen. And it doesn’t look likely any time soon. So even though he has not proven that his results are inevitable, still we can depend on them for the foreseeable future.

  5. Engels is kind of wrong about mathematics.

    “But it is not at all true that in pure mathematics the mind deals only with its own creations and imaginations. The concepts of number and figure have not been derived from any source other than the world of reality.”

    This was kind of true in his day. Reality certainly inspired the concepts in use then. But mathematicians chose to prove things from sets of axioms, and Goedel proved that any interesting space requires an infinite set of axioms to fully characterize it. So for example everything you think you know about the real number line, is also true for a collection of other spaces which are subtly different. Things that you can prove with a finite set of axioms will be true of all the spaces that those axioms are true for.

    There are suslin spaces which are like the real numbers in every way you can think of, but still subtly very different. Mathematicians can prove things about each of them. Which of these spaces came from reality, and which are different? We do not know.

    Mathematicians can work with 5 dimensions or 11 dimensions or an infinite number of dimensions. Does our universe have an infinite number of dimensions? Not that we have been able to measure. Maybe it does.

    Math started from human needs in the real world, and then it spread. Any pure math might have some application in the real world — we don’t know that much yet of what the real world is like, so we don’t know what weird math will find applications somewhere. But increasingly it is not inspired by the real world.

    Of course Duhring was wrong. You can create pure math out of pure thought, without anything from the real world. But that does not say that it will tell you anything about the world. He thought there was just one version of math he could create out of nothing, and that the world would necessarily fit it! No, you can create lots of them and the world has no obligation to fit any of them. If one of them appears to work, then you can use it until you find out otherwise.

    I strongly doubt that this error on Engels’ part will affect anything important that he does later. He probably will not use it for anything, and if he does it will probably turn out that the same results will hold true if you start from a better foundation. I’ll watch in case it turns out to be important, but I don’t have much hope.

  6. “This is what comes of accepting “consciousness”, “thought”, quite naturalistically, as something given, something opposed from the outset to being, to nature. If that were so, it must seem extremely strange that consciousness and nature, thinking and being, the laws of thought and the laws of nature, should correspond so closely.”

    Wait a minute! Where did he get the idea that these things correspond closely? They do not.

    Thought is something that happens in a human brain. It must fit the limitations of that brain. The laws of thought are largely about those limitations. Nature does not need to fit into a human brain and its laws are very different.

    Brains and thoughts presumably evolved in ways that aided human survival. That presumably involved predicting parts of nature that were important to humans. It would follow that we would be good at observing the things that were important to our survival, and randomly good at observing other things.

    So our perception of light has giant biases. We see only a narrow band of frequencies. We see some of those frequencies far better than others. And after sensing light, our retinas massage the data before sending it to our optic centers which massage it more. What we see is not much like the actual frequencies that presented themselves. What we see is a fake, a fake built up to be useful to us. A large fraction of people are “color-blind”, meaning they see colors differently. Presumably this is because society has a use for people who see differently, even when the ways they see are often less useful than the standard.

    http://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/color1.html

    This sort of thing happens right down the line. The laws of magic describe the ways that our brains bias things. This is the very sort of thing that science tries to filter out because our biases interfere with precise observation of nature. So — the law of similarity. Similar things remind us of each other. The law of contagion. Things we have seen together remind us of each other. The law of persons. Things we think of as personalities are easier to remember. The law of duality. When we start to think in terms of some pair of opposites, it gets easy to see everything in those terms and remember them that way. Etc.

    “But if the further question is raised what thought and consciousness really are and where they come from, it becomes apparent that they are products of the human brain and that man himself is a product of nature, which has developed in and along with ts environment; hence it is self-evident that the products of the human brain, being in the last analysis also products of nature, do not contradict the rest of nature’s interconnections but are in correspondence with them.”

    There’s a sort of truth to this. You are incapable of thinking thoughts outside the limits of what your physical human brain can think.

    But we are capable of thoughts that have precious little reality to them. Engels is wrong. Duhring is a counter-example, his thoughts are not much in correspondence with nature.

    Still, it is likely that none of Engels’ later conclusions will depend on this one.

  7. Things I had to look up in chapter 3: ‘epigone’ ‘a priori’ ‘prolixity’ — the phrase ‘Manteuffelite Prussians’ wasn’t in my dictionary but I SUPPOSE it probably refers to Dühring.

    “But if the further question is raised …”
    I highlighted that whole paragraph with the note “this seems important and I’m not sure I grasp it.” I think I do grasp it now. Maybe. Probably.

    “A brief moment to cuddle with a single word, because we’d better be on good terms with it before we go further: the verb “to abstract.””
    I would like to cuddle that sentence. Also, thanks for that digression; I found it useful.

    And I guess that’s all the notes I have to extract on that section. Later I’m going to have some questions about Hegel and what we think of him.

  8. skzb

    “This is an allusion to the servile submissiveness of the Prussians, who accepted the Constitution granted by King Frederick William IV on December 5, 1848, when the Prussian Constituent Assembly was dissolved.The Constitution drawn up with the participation of the Minister of the
    Interior, Baron Manteuffel, was finally approved by Frederick William IV on January 31, 1850, after numerous amendments had been introduced.” — Footnote from the pdf version.

    Hegel, yes…now THAT will be interesting. 🙂

  9. Good to know! Thank you.

  10. “If human beings are part of nature, and human beings are naturally social, then human society is also part of nature. This means the notion of a whole separate class of laws for human society as distinct from nature makes no sense. Of course, to have particular laws for social movement is as reasonable as particular laws for the movement of planets–or the particular laws for the movement of smelt at mating season. But that’s no reason to make them an entirely different type of law. Does that make sense?”

    It depends. At the time, there were people who believed in “vitalism”, an idea that living things were essentially different from nonliving things and followed different rules entirely. Also there was the idea that humans were different from other living things and followed different rules, for example humans had “souls”. That idea was being vigorously attacked. Human beings follow the laws of physics. Humans fall at the same rate as cannonballs, their bones break by the same rules as other materials, their fat burns. some people wanted to believe that living things didn’t follow the rules of chemistry, but urea, a chemical from life, had been created without any life involved and other chemicals followed.

    So human beings are made of chemicals, human thought is created by chemical human brains, and humans have no souls. This is all obvious except to people who suffer from superstition. And yet….

    Here’s a metaphor. Books are written on paper with ink. Physical things in the real world. That imposes limits on writing. Any thoughts that can’t be written down with ink on paper, cannot be sold as writing.

    Do the rules for good writing follow directly from the rules for printing? I doubt it. There are limits imposed by physical reality, but the rules for writing good science fiction have only an indirect relationship to physics and chemistry and printing.

    The rules for good writing for that matter have only an indirect relationship to the rules of good grammar. Grammar developed by historical accident, and if your grammar is bad it becomes harder for other people to read and understand your writing. Grammar puts limits on writing, but its rules are not central for good writing.

  11. I was on a plane yesterday and so couldn’t respond, but it seems to me that Duhring was trying to assert a weak mind-body dualism coupled with asserting his own ‘absolute’ model.
    Engels correctly calls him on both fronts. The ‘mind-body’ or ‘humans not being part of nature’ seems like a very strange path for a materialist to be wandering down and probably explains part of why Engels is reacting so very energetically against Duhring.

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