Click to access Engels_Anti_Duhring.pdf

This whole chapter gives me the headache. For one thing, I had more trouble here than usual in separating Dühring, Hegel, and Engels. I wish he’d used more direct quotes, or been more precise about when he was summarizing. But even aside from that, contemplating infinity hurts, and, before I attempt it, I want some reason to believe it will be useful. I mean, I accept that Herr Dühring said some idiotic things about it, but that isn’t the point of reading this book. Do Engels’ considerations about infinity of time and space actually produce any positive knowledge? Let’s see.

Okay, we’re mostly dealing with absurd definitions of infinity, and attempts to treat it as if it were finite, with predictable results.

And then he quotes Kant, about whom the most that can be said is that he is more easily comprehended than Hegel. But then, so is Cervantes in the original Spanish, and I don’t speak Spanish.

Alright, that next part I sort of get. There is a distinction between an infinite series–which starts at 1 and continues forever; and infinity in space, which has no starting point in any direction. Gotcha. Now onto time:

“But if we think of time as a series counted from one forward, or as a line starting from a definite point, we imply in advance that time has a beginning: we put forward as a premise precisely what we are to prove.”

“For that matter, Herr Dühring will never succeed in conceiving real infinity without contradiction. Infinity is a contradiction, and is full of contradictions. From the outset it is a contradiction that an infinity is composed of nothing but finites, and yet this is the case.”

“It is just because infinity is a contradiction that it is an infinite process, unrolling endlessly in time and in space. The removal of the contradiction would be the end of infinity.”

Okay, yeah. Infinity is itself a contradiction–that is, simultaneously one thing and its opposite (I know there are those who do not believe contradictions are possible in nature; we will deal with them in due course).

“For the basic forms of all being are space and time, and being out of time is just as gross an absurdity as being out of space.”

In essence, Herr Dühring is suggesting a state previous to time, and thus previous to motion. With the entire world in such a state, whence would come the initial motion? Answer: from outside the world, or, in other words, God. Therefore, if we are not to become hopelessly tangled in absurd contradictions–or bring in God by the back door–we cannot assign a beginning to time apart from matter. Time exists as the motion of matter; matter moves through in time. Engels does not actually say that time is a fourth dimension, but he sniffs around it a bit, which is fairly impressive in the 1870s.

Really, I didn’t find a lot in this chapter that did more than crush Herr Dühring.  This by itself may give us a clue as to the importance of infinity to Engels’ worldview.


Anti-Dühring Part 6:Chapter 4: World Schematism

Herr Dühring says that what exists is existence, and all that exists is existence, and, furthermore, existence is what exists. This, he claims, disposes of God. Exactly how it does that is left as an exercise for the reader. But, in any case, we now have a unity, which we created by bringing it together in our thoughts.

Engels mentions that analysis (the separating of elements) is just as important as synthesis in thinking. “Secondly, without making blunders thought can bring together into a unity only those elements of consciousness in which or in whose real prototypes this unity already existed before. If I include a shoe-brush in the unity mammals, this does not help it to get mammary glands.” Or, as Lincoln would have said, to include a dog’s tail in the unity of legs does not make it one.

“To attempt to prove the reality of any product of thought by the identity of thinking and being was indeed one of the most absurd delirious fantasies of — a Hegel.” This is a reference to Hegel as an idealist–as someone who believed thought primary to matter.

I want to make a point here. Idealist thought, except in the most extreme and blatant cases (for example, in mysticism) disguises itself. That is, if I were to ask, “Can there be a thought before there is a brain to think it,” most people would answer no. Yet to many of them, when attempting to understand history, or current events, the question of what people think is not only highlighted above all else, but is utterly divorced from the key question, “what conditions led them to think that?” If they make any attempt to answer that at all, it is usually in form of referring to prejudices or ideas picked up from society, or from parents.  But if this were as determinate as these people believe, not only would no one ever think differently from his parents, but society would never have changed from whatever arbitrary point you want to start at.  But society does change, and, however haltingly, imperfectly, and contradictorily (is that a word? I’m making it a word), thoughts change with it.  If you recall from the previous installment, this lack of connectedness with historical processes is one of the hallmarks of subjectivists, schematists, empiricists  &c. In other words, of those incapable of grasping processes in their complexity and interconnectedness and movement.

In my judgement, American Individualism cannot be understood apart from the circumstances of capitalist development in the United States.  Post-modernism cannot be understood apart from the defeats of the revolutions in Europe and the subsequent demoralization of sections of the intelligentsia. Identity politics cannot be understood apart from the achievement of upper-middle-class income and security among the “radicals” of the 60’s.  Marxism cannot be understood apart from the mass proletarian uprisings of the 19th century. And so on. To do so, in my opinion, is to fall into exactly the error of Herr Dürhing, or Hegel, though not in such a drastic and obvious way. (Note: I really ought not to lump Dühring and Hegel together like that, however; in spite of his idealism, Hegel was a genius who made great contributions to human understanding; Dühring, not so much).

I mentioned earlier something about St. Thomas Aquinas and his pure logic proof of the existence of God. Engels quotes it here: “This runs: when we think of God, we conceive him as the sum total of all perfections. But the sum total of all perfections includes above all existence, since a non-existent being is necessarily imperfect. We must therefore include existence among the perfections of God. Hence God must exist.” The flaw, of course, is that at no point in this process have we examined God; we have only examined the idea of God. Hence, if we have proven anything, we have proven that the idea of God exists, which was never in doubt.

“The real unity of the world consists in its materiality, and this is proved not by a few juggled phrases, but by a long and wearisome development of philosophy and natural science.”

I had to dive into that sentence a bit and flounder around, but when I emerged and examined what was in my teeth, it was this: “The unity of the world” means “what is common about everything that exists.” Where to Dühring this was being (which got us nowhere; that which exists, exists), to Engels it is it’s materiality. This may not be a huge advance, but it is at least something to start with: We have the assertion that everything that exists is matter (and energy as a form of matter, and the laws determining the movement of matter), and that that which is not matter, does not exist. But he makes no attempt to prove it by thought, which would be contradictory and futile; rather, for proof, he refers us to the entire history of the development of human knowledge. That is where the proof is; not in argument.

Let me run with that a bit. Materialism, like any other form of thought, did not spring full-blown from the mind of Feurbach, or any of the earlier materialists–it emerged as part of the process of understanding the world, and then fed into that process; just as did the natural sciences. Our conclusion of the materiality of the world does not come from a thought experiment, but as part of the sum-total of all that human society has learned and accomplished. Or, to put it another way: the cars that drive over the Brooklyn Bridge every day not only prove the truth of our knowledge of engineering, but also prove the materiality of the world. Not “proof” in the sense of a conviction in the head of an individual, but proof in the social sense of permitting further conclusions and deeper knowledge and acting with greater confidence and expanding our (society’s) ability to do. In this sense, proof is social and active instead of individual and passive; and material, not ideological. All of which is me, not Engels; but he got me going, so blame him.


Anti-Dühring Part 5:Chapter 3 (Concluded)

Dühring expresses something I’ve run into before (Heinlein pulls a slight-of-hand with it in Rocket Ship Galileo; I noticed the slight-of-hand when I was 12).  It is the belief that mathematics can be produced “without making use of the experience offered us by the external world.” In other words, that mathematics is it’s own thing, fully abstract, existing only in the mind, and independent of the content of the world–that it exists in and for itself. The validity of mathematics is mathematics; there’s no connection to anything else.

Engels concedes that pure mathematics is independently valid from the particular experience of each individual, but then, so is every other fact. But, “The concepts of number and figure have not been derived from any source other than the world of reality. The ten fingers on which men learnt to count, that is,to perform the first arithmetical operation, are anything but a free creation of the mind.”

I want to take a moment here for something that is probably a side note. The subjectivists, the schematists, the empiricists–that is, generally, those who are hostile to theory–nearly always have this in common: an impatience for and a dislike of history.  This seems to hold true whether the subject is social, political, philosophical, religious, or about the natural sciences. While they may be willing to talk about what is (generally in a fixed, static, lifeless way), the process by which anything became the way it is, is contemptuously set aside as unimportant. And yet everything in the world is constantly in movement, everything is part of a process. To blind one’s self to history (in this case, to ignore or disregard that mathematics came from arithmetic, which came from attempts to understand nature, from abstracting number from real world objects) can only produce distorted, or, at best, severely limited, narrow, one-sided understanding.

“Counting requires not only objects that can be counted, but also the ability to exclude all properties of the objects considered except their number — and this ability is the product of a long historical development based on experience.”

“Before one came upon the idea of deducing the form of a cylinder from the rotation of a rectangle about one of its sides, a number of real rectangles and cylinders,
however imperfect in form, must have been examined.”

“Like all other sciences, mathematics arose out of the needs of men: from the measurement of land and the content of vessels, from the computation of time and from mechanics.”

Here, too, by the way (although Engels doesn’t yet go into it) we have a dialectical relationship.  We study triangles in life, and produce the abstraction called trigonometry , we then use trigonometry to both design and use sails to drive a square-rigged ship, and then we use that experience to further refine our understanding of trigonometry. We have the mathematical concepts abstracted from nature, we have those concepts used in order to further understand aspects of nature.

In the end, the theory has built upon itself to the point where the impressionist is able to argue (albeit unconvincingly) that mathematics is just about itself.  The fact that we are constantly using higher and higher forms of mathematics in our understanding of nature; and in technology to change and examine nature, must be, to these people, pure coincidence.   And that these discoveries, in turn, are folded into mathematics and spur it still higher, they simply prefer not to see.

Anti-Dühring Part 4:Chapter 3

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.