Anti-Dühring Part 12:Chapter 9: MORALITY AND LAW. ETERNAL TRUTHS (1)

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.

Okay, onward:

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.

Anti-Dühring Part 11:Chapter 8: PHILOSOPHY OF NATURE. THE ORGANIC WORLD (Concluded)

The book is here.

“As is well known, it is only chemical action, and not gravitation or other mechanical or physical forms of motion, that is explained by atoms.”

This is one of those points that no one will dispute; I’m only quoting it because I like it. We learn the laws of motion for biology from the study of biology; we learn the laws of motion of the formation of rocks from the study of rocks. This is not to deny that these interact (indeed, it is to insist on it); rather it is to say that we ought not to promiscuously apply the laws of one field of study to another. One of the recent examples of this (now, thankfully, in its well-deserved grave) was memetics, which tried to apply the laws of motion of evolutionary biology to the laws of motion for the spread of ideas.

“All organic bodies, except the very lowest, consist of cells, small granules of albumen which are only visible when considerably magnified, with a nucleus inside.”

Don’t panic about the word “albumen.”  We’ll get there.

“Life is the mode of existence of albuminous bodies, and this mode of existence essentially consists in the constant self-renewal of the chemical constituents of these bodies.”

Don’t panic! The next paragraph saves us:
“The term albuminous body is used here in the sense in which it is employed in modern chemistry, which includes under this name all bodies constituted similarly to ordinary white of egg, otherwise also known as protein substances. The name is an unhappy one, because ordinary white of egg plays the most lifeless and passive role of all the substances related to it, since, together with the yolk, it is merely food for the developing embryo. But while so little is yet known of the chemical composition of albuminous bodies, this name is better than any other because it is more general.”

So much for the term; it was the generally accepted term at the time because no one had come with a better, because not enough was understood. “Look! These all behave in a similar way!” “Then we need a name for things that behave that way.” “Why do they behave that way?” “We don’t know yet.” “Okay, let’s come up with a name that at least doesn’t mislead us too much.”

Okay, clear?

Let’s move on.

“But what are these universal phenomena of life which are equally present among all living organisms? Above all the fact that an albuminous body absorbs other appropriate substances from its environment and assimilates them, while other, older parts of the body disintegrate and are excreted. Other non-living, bodies also change, disintegrate or enter into combinations in the natural course of events; but in doing this they cease to be what they were. A weather-worn rock is no longer a rock, metal which oxidises turns into rust. But what with non-living bodies is the cause of destruction, with albumen is the fundamental condition of existence.”

What is interesting about this is how well it holds up to this day. A living thing absorbs certain kinds (“appropriate”) of matter into itself, which then becomes part of it, and it excretes what it cannot use. When this process stops, we no longer consider it a living thing, and it immediately begins to dissolve into something else.

We spoke earlier about contradictions in nature: “Life, the mode of existence of an albuminous body, therefore consists primarily in the fact that every moment it is itself and at the same time something else….” It is itself, and not itself; it is constantly becoming itself, making that which is not itself part of itself. Life is the continual creation and resolution of this contradiction.



The book is here.

“In spite of all gradualness, the transition from one form of motion to another always remains a leap, a decisive change.”

Nothing to add; quoted because I think it’s worth bearing in mind.

“And just as the law of wages has maintained its validity even after the Malthusian arguments on which Ricardo based it have long been consigned to oblivion, so likewise the struggle for existence can take place in nature, even without any Malthusian interpretation.”

I just like this. Dare I apply this method to art? Suppose a critic were to claim that Edgar Rice Burroughs was a bad writer (a subject I’m not prepared to discuss). Roger Zelazny based his brilliant story “A Rose for Eccelesiastes” on Burroughs work; therefore, is this critic obliged to hate the Zelazny story? Not so much. The same is true in theories of the sciences: that Darwin was inspired by the work of Malthus neither validates Malthus nor invalidates Darwin.

It is a real pleasure to read Engels vehement defense of Darwin just for it’s own sake; that’s one of the things I love about this book.

Dühring berates Darwin for not knowing what causes alterations in separate individuals. He does not, however, have anything to offer on the subject himself. Engels: “To Darwin it was of less immediate importance to discover these causes– which up to the present are in part absolutely unknown, and in part can only be stated in quite general terms — than to find a rational form in which their effects become fixed,acquire permanent significance.”

Another example of working with a science in its earliest stages.

“It is true that in doing this Darwin attributed to his discovery too wide a field of action, made it the sole agent in the alteration of species. . . once again, the man who gave the impetus to investigate how exactly these transformations and differences arise is no other than Darwin.”

“…it has not yet succeeded even in producing simple protoplasm or other albuminous bodies [ie, life-SB] out of chemical elements….” What I love about this sentence is the word “yet.” In 1876, Engels was convinced that the creation of life in a laboratory was simply a matter of time.

“… the colossal impetus which natural science owes to the driving force of the Darwinian theory….”

“The theory of evolution itself is however still in a very early stage, and it therefore cannot be doubted that further research will greatly modify our present conceptions, including strictly Darwinian ones, of the process of the evolution of species.”



On cosmology: Engels discusses Kant’s hypothesis of celestial bodies forming from primordial nebulae. “It is primordial nebula, on the one hand, in that it is the origin of the existing celestial bodies, and on the other hand because it is the earliest form of matter which we have up to now been able to work back to. This certainly does not exclude but rather implies the supposition that before the nebular stage matter passed through an infinite series of other forms.”

My own limited understanding is that Engels is wrong here with regards to the word infinite–there is a definite limit to the different stages; but he is right regarding the existence of stages before the coalescing of the nebulae.  I speak under correction here.

Motion is the mode of existence of matter. Never anywhere has there been matter without motion, nor can there be.”

Okay, this is me speculating: Might it be accurate to define energy as That form of matter that causes motion?  And then we can define matter as That form of energy that is subject to motion.  I might also be totally full of shit here.  My knowledge of physics and mechanical motion and heat transfer &c is almost nil, which makes it very dangerous to speculate. But then, Dühring did, and it seemed to…er…never mind.

“All rest, all equilibrium, is only relative, only has meaning in relation to one or other definite form of motion.”

It was, in fact, in my lifetime (maybe around 1970?), that certain subatomic particles were held by some to be motionless relative to certain others within an atom, which was held out as a proof that the above stated law is incorrect. Or that was the argument I heard in high school. Of course, even if that hypothesis disproved what Engels said, the hypothesis only lasted until the next round of discoveries about subatomic particles.

“On the earth, for example, a body may be in mechanical equilibrium, may be mechanically at rest; but this in no way prevents it from participating in the motion of the earth and in that of the whole solar system, just as little as it prevents its most minute physical particles from carrying out the vibrations determined by its temperature, or its atoms from passing through a chemical process.”

“In ordinary mechanics the bridge from the static to the dynamic is — the external impulse.”

“Matter without motion is just as inconceivable as motion without matter. Motion is therefore as uncreatable and indestructible as matter itself; as the older philosophy (Descartes) expressed it, the quantity of motion existing in the world is always the same.”

“To be sure, it is a hard nut and a bitter pill for our metaphysician that motion should find its measure in its opposite, in rest. That is indeed a crying contradiction, and every contradiction, according to Herr Dühring, is nonsense.”

“From the dialectical standpoint, the possibility of expressing motion in its opposite, in rest, presents absolutely no difficulty. From the dialectical standpoint the whole antithesis, as we have seen, is only relative; there is no such thing as absolute rest, unconditional equilibrium. Each separate movement strives towards equilibrium, and the motion as a whole puts an end again to the equilibrium. When therefore rest and equilibrium occur they are the result of limited motion, and it is self-evident that this motion is measurable by its result, can be expressed in it, and can be restored out of it again in one form or another.”

Any motion that results in equlibrium initates motion that destroys another equilibrium, and so on (and here is an infinity I can grasp). This is one of the contradictions of motion; others will follow.


Anti-Dühring Part 8: Interlude on the word “Contradiction”

“Stop! You’re both right! New Sparkles is a floor wax and a dessert topping!” — Saturday Night Live, Season 1

Before I go on, a brief word from our sponsor concerning the word “contradiction.”  The most common colloquial use of the word refers to intellectual dispute.  That is, “Light behaves as a wave.” “No, I must contradict you: light behaves as a particle.”  Some use (or seem to use) the word as if it were equal to paradox or impossibility–that is, as something that can exist in the human mind, but not in nature.

What it means, in the Hegelian-Marxist sense, is something that is at once itself and its opposite.

Nature abounds with these. Mechanical materialists are profoundly disturbed at the notion that there can be contradiction in nature, and twist themselves into pretzels finding ways the contradictions they see are not contradictory.  (A favorite technique is to make a long explanation that boils down to, “because it exists in nature, it cannot be a contradiction. Therefore it is not a contradiction. Therefore your argument that nature is full of contradictions is without support.”  St. Thomas would have been proud.)  The thorough-going idealist, meanwhile, has no trouble with nature being contradictory, but sees it as contradictions imposed by the mind–his own or God’s, as the case may be.

I’ll add that certain schools of vulgar Marxism use the word as a club, much as a weak academic  uses the word “subtext.” That is, as the end of a conversation where it ought to be the beginning. One points out to one of these fellows that he has said both that the working class must be broken from their reliance on the bourgeois parties and that it is important to support the Democratic Party in it’s fight for Gay marriage. This ingenious fellow might reply, “That’s the contradiction,” and stop. One thing contradictions do is  resolve. If one is going to say, “That’s the contradiction” in answer to an argument, it must be followed with, “Here is the movement of forces which resolves that contradiction, this is why such an action is permissible, and here is the way forward it indicates.”

Contradictions certainly exist in society, and most people don’t have trouble with that.  I can point out that Lincoln suspended parts of the constitution in order to save the constitution, and that isn’t a problem.  I can point out that Bush and Obama are doing the same thing Lincoln did only for the opposite reason–to destroy the constitution–and people don’t have a problem with that.  To me, this is very significant: Society is one thing, the natural world another. But society grew out of nothing except the natural world. That, in itself, is a contradiction.  Discovering it’s resolutions is exactly what the social sciences are (or ought to be) about.

Contradictions do occur in nature, but not just any contradiction anywhere someone wishes it to be for convenience. Indeed, discovering the contradictions and how they resolve to create new contradictions is the very essence of the job of the scientist.

This brief interlude isn’t meant to be either exhaustive or convincing.  I am, for now, only establishing a definition. We will come back to this in more detail, because it is vital for how we analyze everything from the freezing of water to the US policy of assassination. But for now, just keep in mind that I use contradiction to refer to something that is simultaneously itself and its opposite.