The book is here.
This is a long chapter, and, furthermore, I have several metric fucktons of things to say about, so I’ll be splitting it up. Here’s the first part, which goes as far as the claim that there is or ought to be a universal morality, and before we get into universal truths in general.
Engels first quotes Dühring: “He who can think only by means of language has never yet learnt what is meant by abstract and pure thought” and then goes on to say: “On this basis animals are the most abstract and purest thinkers, because their thought is never obscured by the officious intrusion of language. In any case one can see from the Dühringian thoughts and the language in which they are couched how little suited these thoughts are to any language, and how little suited the German language is to these thoughts.”
Engels dismisses this rapidly with a gold-medal level snark, but I’m spending a little time on it, because it’s something that I had given thought to before I first read this (a writer, thinking about thought and language? Naw!). I suspect this will generate a lot of disagreement, which I’ll probably ignore. I’ll try to be brief.
I believe thinking–cognition–occurs in symbol systems, of which the most nuanced, organized, and complex are the ones we call language (music and mathematics certainly fall into this category) . While other arts, sciences, crafts, and techniques in general may not be fully languages insofar as they lack a grammar and a syntax, they are, at least, systems of symbols and mastery of technique means mastering the manipulation of those symbols. That is how thought takes place, in my opinion, and other things are not thinking, or at least, not cognition. Those who attempt to weaken a language by making it less flexible, less capable of making fine distinctions, less precise and nuanced, are working to harm that culture’s ability to think. This is my opinion, not Engels; but I suspect he’d agree.
This also ties into the Political Correctness issue that we’ve discussed before: Many of the changes proposed by it weaken language, which thus weakens thought: our most potent weapon. I recognize that “sanitation workers” are paid and treated better than “garbagemen;” that “custodians” are paid and treated better than “janitors;” that “laborers” are paid and treated better than “micks” and “wetbacks.” And these are all good things. But can you imagine, in the great labor battles of history, if some outside group had come in crying, “Demand that the word they use to describe you changes” the rank-and-file would have said, “Fuck off, we’re busy here,” and management would have said, “Sure, you got it, see how cooperative we are?”* When in the normal course of a language’s development a term becomes an excuse for poor treatment, a forward-thinking person ought not to use it. But none of these changes in language represent the most effective way to fight for better pay and treatment for those groups, efforts to change language often distract from the fight, and attempts to direct and control language for political ends are objectionable on so many levels I can’t being to describe them. I will repeat for emphasis and clarity: someone who attempts to make a change in language in such a way that it becomes less nuanced and elegant, is working against progress.
Engels treats with well-deserved contempt the concept of morals that stand “above history and also above present differences in national characteristics.” This should be no surprise to anyone who has had any of these conversations with me, or, indeed, is acquainted with my work. It is a key element in the latter. To the old chestnut of a question: Are morals absolute or situational, I come down on the side that says: No.
When we speak of morality, we speak of a set of thoughts and beliefs; but all thoughts and beliefs are products of being, of social Man; of Man in conflict with nature, and with himself; more particularly of Man in a given place at a given stage of development. The notion that Man five thousand or five hundred years ago should have invented the perfect morality if only he’d thought of it is as absurd as to suggest he ought to have produced the large Hadron supercolider if only he’d thought of it. And to suggest that we have now achieved the perfect set of moral codes that will not be overturned, negated, and improved upon in the future is as pessimistic as to believe humankind will not survive into the next decades; exactly as pessimistic, because one necessitates the other.
In my opinion (not Engels’, and god knows not Dühring’s) the key to morality, like any other type of thinking, is 1) to try to be as advanced, as progressive, as it is possible to be; to be in the advance of moral thinking as in any other form of scientific thinking, 2) to never forget that morality is tied into economics and politics the way chemistry is tied into physics and mathematics: they can be separated in our minds for purposes of analysis; but never in the real world, and our analysis will be flawed if we forget this.
*Which, in fact, is exactly what happened in several cases, most notably with the Teamsters and the sanitation workers.