Gerry Healy


The Relevance of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism Today
Marxist Monthly, Vol. 1 No. 11, January 1989                              


   ‘The Swiss philosopher Richard Avenarius, a professor in Zurich University, was an original advocate of the subjective idealist method of  empirio-criticism. A central feature in this philosophy was based upon his concept of ‘experience’ which in a positivist way seeks to reconcile the opposites, consciousness and the materiality of the external world.  Avenarius spoke of the concept of ‘experience’ which he described as the ‘principal co-ordination’ of ‘combinations of sensations’ as the subject of the thinking individual. ‘Experience’ eliminated the contradiction between the subject ‘self’ and the ‘non-self’ of the external world by toppling over into the subjective-idealist swamp. Mach followed his philosophical footsteps by defining matter as ‘a systematic combination of the elements (sensations)’ (p.145 Vol. 14).  

   Lenin scientifically summed up the struggle between materialism and idealism in a series of important definitions which can be presented as follows:

(a) He firmly rejected both the subjective and objective idealist revisionist methods, emphasising that it is objective reality which is given to us in sensations. The identity of the source of that reality is in the external world. There can be no other reality.

(b) The external world exists outside and independently of us. The use of the term ‘principal co-ordination’ leads to a denial of the objective (external world) independent from the consciousness of the subjects (human beings).

(c) The expression that matter is given to us in sensation is the starting point for self-created images negated from previously acquired abstract knowledge.

d) Lenin defines ‘matter’ as ‘a philosophical category denoting the objective reality which is given to man by his sensations, and which is copied, photographed and reflected by our sensations, while existing independently of them.’ (p. 130 Vol. 14).

Matter in Motion

   ‘Motion’, wrote Engels, ‘is the mode of existence of Matter, hence more than a mere property of it. There is no matter without motion, nor could there ever have been. Motion in cosmic space, mechanical motion of smaller masses on a single celestial body, the vibration of molecules in heat, electric tension, magnetic polarisation, chemical decomposition and combination, organic life up to its highest product, thought - at each given moment each individual atom of matter is in one or other of these forms of motion. All equilibrium is either only relative rest or even motion in equilibrium, like that of the planets. Absolute rest is only conceivable in the absence of matter. Neither motion as such nor any of its forms, such as mechanical force, can therefore be separated from matter nor opposed to it as something apart or alien, without leading to an absurdity.’ (p.410, Engels ‘Anti-Duhring’ 1977 edition).

   The basic form and content of all being (nature and society) consists of matter in motion in which ‘being out of time is just as gross an absurdity as being out of space.’ (p.69 Anti-Duhring).  Time Is eternal while space is infinite. The real infinity of matter in motion is measured within the eternal nature of time. It cannot be perceived except through the finite subject being. As Engels explains: ‘infinity is composed of nothing but finites’ … ‘and is full of contradictions.’ (p.68 ‘Anti-Duhring’).

   Sensation is therefore one of the properties of matter in motion. It emerges out of the relative finite or anti-thesis between matter and consciousness. Matter (the physical) is the whole of objective reality that exists outside and independently of us. Consciousness or the mental is the ideal side of the subject, a reflection of the objective world.

   These are opposites which are analysed in a self-related way through the method of materialist dialectics. There can be nothing indeterminate between them. Human consciousness reflects reality, but reflection is not the property of man alone. As Lenin wrote, ‘All matter possesses a ‘property which is essentially akin to sensation, the property of reflection’ (p.92 Vol.14). Consciousness emerged and developed in the process of the self-development of nature and is inseparable from it. The late Soviet philosopher E.V. lIyenkov refers to this process in his book Dialectical Logic: ‘It is in man that nature really performs, in a self-evident way, that very activity that we are accustomed to call “thinking”. In man, in the form of man, in his person, Nature itself thinks, and not at all some special substance, source or principle instilled into it from outside. In man, therefore, Nature thinks of itself, acts on itself.’ (p.33-34).

   In the process of cognition, the finite limit of the objective world contains the finite contradiction of an unlimited whole within it. This contradiction (infinite within finite) provides the impulse to negate the negation of the external object or objects responsible for the sensation in its finite form, back into the infinite external world as a different object. This dialectical process incorporates a disciplined self-relation between the identity of the objective external source of the image of sensation, negated through the method of dialectical logic into subjective thought. The first simple negation has its origin simultaneously with reflection at the external Identity of the source of sensation. Negation of the negation, implicitly incorporates the laws of the unity, conflict and inter-penetration of opposites; quantity into quality and vice-versa as the ‘essence’ or ‘substance’ of ‘things’ existing objectively in the external world. This ‘essence’ or ‘substance’ is relative, expressing the ‘degree of profundity of man’s knowledge of objects’ (p.262 VoI.14).

    The thoughts of the subject are generated in objective reality. That branch of physics which studies the phenomena arising from the unseen movement of micro-particles is Quantum Mechanics. Scientific research in this field revealed that a researcher cannot acquire adequate knowledge of a system of interacting objects without active practical participation in such a process. This will reveal a much more close connection between the primacy of the objective world over subjective thought. This led to what Lenin described as a ‘wavering mind’ between scientists dominated by the old metaphysical outlook and Materialist Dialectics. Lenin insisted that: ‘The basic materialist spirit of physics, as of all modern science, will overcome all crises, but only by the indispensable replacement of metaphysical materialism by dialectical materialism.’ (p.306 VoI.14).

   The philosophical categories of matter such as space and time are objectively real forms of being manifesting causality and necessity in nature. They are reflected in the process of cognition through the absolute infinite whole within the finite relative part. We are able through the use of dialectical logic to analyse and study the infinity of nature by an understanding of the phenomenon (finite parts) arising from it. On page 221 of Volume 38 of his Collected Works, Lenin notes: ‘The determination of the concept out of itself (the thing itself must be considered in its relations and its development)’ This is the scientific beginning of the cognitive process.

   Needless to say there were many positivists amongst the scientific and professorial community who wanted to write off the principle of causality by abolishing the method of materialist dialectics in the name of the quantum theory.

   With each new development in the natural and social sciences, materialist dialectics is obliged to perfect its analysis of forms so as to enrich their historical contents. Far from functioning as a philosophy that  stands above the sciences, it must embrace the conception that because of the Infinite motion of matter  there can never be any complete system in philosophy. Rapidly changing forms containing the ‘in-itself’ of historical contents in a state of becoming, cannot be dialectically analysed in any other way. Following in the footsteps of Marx and Engels, Lenin elevated the great achievements in the early part of the 20th century (‘Materialism and Empirio-Criticism’) to demonstrate the leap in the  progress in physics, (see October 1988 Marxist Monthly).  Following in his footsteps again as it were, subsequent debates between Western and Soviet physicists continued this work in relation to the quantum theory by rejecting the positivist approach in relation to the relative changing identity between waves and particles.

   Whilst the laws of the micro-world are contradictory in relation to the macro-world they are contained within the relativity of the wave-particle relationship of the micro-world. The wave-particle relationship, in which a wave can be a particle and a particle a wave, constitute images of objective reality, that are relative in length and duration. Both wave and particle are invariant in space and time as images of objective reality. (Particle in a finite sense). On page 98 of Volume 38 Lenin returns to Hegel when he comments in a box at the top of the page: ‘Is not the thought here that semblance also is objective, for it contains one of the aspects of the objective world?  Not only Wesen, ******* but Schein, too, is objective. There is a difference between the subjective and the objective, BUT IT  TOO, HAS ITS LIMITS.’

   The part of the external object at the identity of the source of sensation is negated through the wave properties of reflection into the finite relative image of sensation. The external object is a particle which has been directly (through reflection) transformed into a wave image of sensation. Both the particle of the external world and the image of sensation are relative images of objective reality. The relative unity of quantity, (quantum particle and finite quality), (wave), constitutes measure. Both particle and wave as invariants are limited in measure through the strength of the object in the external world responsible for the sensation and the duration of the image of sensation itself. In ‘measure’ they are images of objective reality.

   In quantum physics, the differences between the object (matter) and subject, (mind), are relative and objective within limits. A particle of the Quantum objective world is contained within the wave property of reflection, through the simple or first negation.

   The objective (matter) and the subjective (mind) oppose each other exerting their absolute opposition within dialectical logic as a scientific world outlook. Hence the importance of Lenin’s ‘There is a different between the subjective and the objective, but it too has it limits.’ The invariance of these ‘limits’ is the transition from subjective to objective knowledge. The subjective idealists Avenarius and Mach ‘denied physical being that is independent of the mind.’ (p.144 VoI.14). Whereas the ‘arguments of the founders of empirio-criticism entirely and exclusively revolve around the old epistemological question of the relation of thinking to being, of sensation to the physical.’ (p.145 Vol. 14).

What is Experience?

   The concept of ‘experience’ is central to ‘Empirio-Criticism’ and Positivist theory. ‘Positivists’ deny the reality of matter by claiming that the only reality is ‘experience’ by which they mean combinations of  sensations, impressions and moods. The exponents of Positivism try to give their doctrine a scientific semblance, since every science is known to be based upon data supplied by ‘experience’. Simultaneously, they seek to substitute ‘idealistic’ interpretations of ‘experience’ for the philosophical concepts of matter, as an objective reality, existing outside of us. We have already encountered the attempts by positivists amongst the physicists and scientists to separate the absolute of nature from the relativity of the wave-particle relationship, by transforming it into a justification for positivism in the field of micro-particles.

   ‘Let us examine how the word “experience” is used in empirio-critical philosophy’. (Lenin, Vol.14 p.147). ‘The first paragraph of The Critique of Pure Experience expounds the following “assumption”:  Any part of our environment stands in relation to human individuals in such a way that, the former having been given, the latter speak of their experience as follows: “this is experienced”, “this is an experience”, or “it arose from experience” or “it depends on experience”. (Russian translation, p.1) Thus experience is defined in terms of these same concepts: the self and the environment; while the “doctrine” of their “indissoluble” connection is for the time being tucked out of the way. Further: “The synthetic concept of pure experience” – “namely, experience as a declaration (our emphasis – GH)  which in all its components has only parts of the environment as a premise” (1-2). If we assume that the environment exists independently (our emphasis – GH) of “declarations” and “predications” of man, then it becomes possible to interpret experience in a materialist way! ‘The analytical concept of pure experience” – “namely, as a declaration to which nothing is admixed that would not be in its turn experience and which, therefore, in itself is nothing but experience” (2) Experience is experience. And there are people who take this quasi-erudite rigmarole for true wisdom!’ (p.148 VoI.14).

   Avenarius defined experience as a declaration which depends solely on experience. An empty word form of experience is stamped upon another empty word-form of experience, in which no mention is made of the objective nature of the ‘experience’. (p.149 VoI.14 ) ‘We know from the history of philosophy that the interpretation of the concept “experience” divided the classical materialists from the idealist. Today professorial philosophy of all shades disguises its reactionary nature by declaiming on the subject of “experience”. All the immanentists fall back on experience.’ (p.149 VoI.14).

   Materialist dialectics treats experience as a reflection of objective reality in which human beings interact with the object empirically through their senses. Viewed scientifically experience is closely connected with the concept of matter existing independently outside human beings. All brands of subjective idealism treat experience in a non-material way, reducing it to combinations of sensations which wall off the external world. They refuse to recognise the objective source of experience in which it implies the existence of its object and its material subject which reflects the properties of the object. It is the interaction of the relationship between the objective material world and the subject’s thought that constitutes the process of cognition. There can be no ‘experience’ without nature acting upon man and in turn through his practice, man acting upon nature. Unless one recognises the existence of real objects in ‘experience’, the concept itself is negated from storehouse of abstract images of previous experiences derived from previous practices. From such an idealist approach it is impossible to develop scientific knowledge.

  ‘To summarise: the word” experience”, on which the Machists build their systems, has long served as a shield for idealist systems, and now serves Avenarius and Co., for eclectically passing from the idealist position to the materialist position and vice versa. The various “definitions” of this concept are only expressions of those two fundamental lines in philosophy which were so strikingly revealed by Engels: (p.151 VoI.14).

   Such fundamental errors over the concept ‘experience’ were not confined to Mach and Avenarius and Co., but were revealed in the writings of Plekhanov, the founder of Russian Marxism. In his 1905 introduction to Ludwig Feuerbach, he wrote: ‘A German writer has remarked that for empirio-criticism, experience is only an object of investigation and not a means of knowledge. If that is so, then the contrasting of empirio-criticism and materialism loses all meaning and discussion of the question whether or not empirio-criticism is destined to replace materialism is absolutely vain and idle.’ To which Lenin remarks: ‘This is one complete muddle’.

   The ‘German writer’ quoted by Plekhanov was Father Carstanjen, whom Lenin describes as ‘one of the most orthodox” followers of Avenarius, and who wrote in reply to Wundt that ‘experience is not a means of knowledge, but only an object of investigation’ (p.151 VoI.14). In reply Lenin posed the question: ‘What then does this statement, uttered by some of the most prominent empirio-criticists and not understood by Plekhanov, mean?’ The source of Plekhanov’s confusion was the he formallv classifies all possible human predications, both idealist and materialist … ‘without going into the essence of the question.’ (p.152 Vol. 14)

   Lenin then paraphrases Carstanjen to demonstrate his meaning: ‘When we speak of “experience” we do not mean it in the ordinary current sense, which leads or might lead to materialism, but in the sense that we investigate everything that people “predicate” as experience.’ (our emphasis – GH)  ‘Experience’ can be a word form whose content contains an eclectical compromise between idealism and materialism.

   ‘Hence there is no doubt,’ says Lenin, ‘that both the materialist and the idealist, as well as the Humean and the Kantian lines in philosophy may be concealed beneath the word “experience”, but neither the definition as an object of investigation, nor its definition as a means of knowledge is decisive in this respect: (p.152-153 Vol.14). In a footnote (p.163 Vo1.14) Lenin wrote: ‘Plekhanov perhaps thought that Carstanjen “an object of knowledge independent of knowledge”, and not an object of investigation”? This would indeed be materialism. But neither Carstanjen, nor anybody else acquainted with empirio-criticism, said or could have said any such thing.’

Causality and Necessity in Nature

   Causality is cause negated into effect and effect negated into cause, (negation. of negation) simultaneously with necessity into chance and chance into necessity. Together with the antithesis of Identity and Difference, they manifest the process of nature through objective law.  Lenin defines it: ‘The recognition of objective law in nature and the recognition that this law is reflected with approximate fidelity in the mind of man is materialism.’ (p.155 Vol.14)

   Lenin refers to Feuerbach to explain this:

   ‘Feuerbach’s views are expounded with particular clarity in his reply to R. Haym … “Nature and human reason”, says Haym, are for him (Feuerbach) completely divorced, and between them a gulf is formed which cannot be spanned from one side or the other.”  And Feuerbach replies: “Haym bases this reproach mainly on Section 48 of my Essence of Religion where it is said that nature may be conceived only through nature itself, that its necessity is neither human nor logical, neither metaphysical nor mathematical, that nature alone is that being to which it is impossible to apply any human measure, although we compare and give names to its phenomena, in order to make them comprehensible to us, and in general apply human expressions and concepts to them, as for example: order, purpose, law; and are obliged to do so because of the character of our language.”’ (p. 153 Vol.14)

   ‘”What does this mean?” askes Feuerbach.  “Does it moan that there is no order in nature, so that, for example, autumn may be succeeded by summer, spring by winter, winter by autumn? That there is no purpose, so that, for example, there is no co-ordination between the lungs and the air, between light and the eye, between sound ad the ear? That there is no law so that, for example, the earth may move now in an ellipse, now in a circle, that it may revolve around the sun now in a year, now in a quarter of an hour? What nonsense! What then is meant by this passage? Nothing more than to distinguish between that which belongs to nature and that which belongs to man; it does not assert that there is actually nothing in nature corresponding to the words or ideas of order, purpose, law. All that it does is to deny the identity between thought and being; it denies that they exist in nature, exactly as they do in the head or mind of man. Order, purpose, law are words used by man to translate the acts of nature into his own language in order that he may understand them. These words are not devoid of meaning or of objective content (nicht sinn – d.h.  gegenstandlose Wrote); nevertheless, a distinction must be made between the original and the translation. Order, purpose and law in the human sense express something arbitrary.”’ (p.154 Vol.14).

   ‘With Feuerbach,’ continues Lenin, ‘the recognition of objective law in nature is inseparably connected with the  recognition of the objective reality of the external world, of objects, bodies, things, reflected by our indo Feuerbach’s views,’ Lenin concludes, ‘are consistently materialist.’ (p.155 VoI.14). ‘Engels does not admit even a shadow of doubt as to the existence of objective law, causality and necessity in nature.’

   Engels analyses on page 30 of Anti-Duhring: ‘When we consider and reflect upon nature at large or the history of mankind, … at first we see the picture of an endless entanglement of relations and reactions, permutations and combinations, in which nothing remains what, where and as it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being and asses away. We see, therefore, at first the picture as a whole, with its individual parts still more or less kept in the background … This was the primitive, naïve but intrinsically correct conception of the early Greek philosophers.’ ‘But’, continues Engels, ‘correctly as it expresses the general character of the picture of appearances a whole, it does not suffice to explain the details of which this picture is made up, and so long as we do not understand these, we have not a clear idea of the whole picture. In order to understand these details, we must detach them from their natural or historical connection and examine each one separately, its nature, special causes, effects, etc.’

  This, Engels demonstrates, is the use of dialectical logic in materialist dialectics in natural science and historical research. The negations of ‘shades’ and ‘parts’ from the external world from the identity of the source of sensation have their cause in that Identity. Through the simple negation, they become a finite effect in the dialectical logic of subjective thought, ‘Cause’ and ‘effect’ are polar opposites (both positive and negative) in the material world. After the objective idealism of Hegel, who ‘freed history from metaphysics’ and ‘made it dialectic’ (p.37 Anti-Duhring), ‘now’, writes Engels, ‘idealism was driven from its last refuge, the philosophy of history; now a method was found of explaining man’s “knowing” bv his “being”, instead of, as heretofore, his ‘being” by his knowing”. (p.37, Anti-Duhring).

   When we speak of the self-relation of opposites in concepts we mean what Lenin explains on p.156 of Volume 14. ‘That this natural connection, the connection between natural phenomena, exists objectively, is obvious. Engels particularly emphasises the dialectical view of cause and effect: “And we find, in like manner, that cause and effect are concepts which only hold good in their application to individual cases; but as soon as we consider the individual cases in their general connection with the universe as a whole, they run into each other, and they become confounded when we contemplate that universal action and reaction in which causes and effects are eternally changing places, so that what is effect here and now will be cause there and then, and vice versa”.’ (p.156 Vol.14).

   ‘In Ludwig Feuerbach,’ writes Lenin, ‘also, we read that “the general laws of motion – both of the external world and of human thought - are two sets of laws which are identical in substance but differ in their expression insofar as the human mind can apply them consciously, while in nature and also up to now for the most part in human history, these laws assert themselves unconsciously in the form of external necessity n the midst of an endless series of seeming accidents”.’ (p.156 VoI.14). Lenin continues: ‘The really important epistemological question that divides the philosophical trends is not the degree of precision attained by our descriptions of causal connections, or whether these descriptions can be expressed in exact mathematical formulas, but whether the source of our knowledge of these connections is objective natural law or properties of our mind .. : (p.159 Vo1.14 - our emphasis).

   In relation to causality, Bogdanov agreed with modern positivism, )because, as Lenin explains: he ‘either did not know, or would not admit, that this modern positivism is agnosticism and that it denies the objective necessity of nature which existed prior to, and apart from, all “knowledge” and all human beings.’ (p.168 VoI.14). Bogdanov insisted that causality was not an objective connection between phenomena cognised by man. He claimed that causality was only a means of connecting psychical (thought) phenomena of self-created images into an equally self-created continuity. In this subjective relation, causality was only a form of co-ordinatlng experience negated from the self-created images of the individual. ‘To sum up’, said Lenin, ‘our Machists, blindly believing the “recent” reactionary professors, repeat the mistakes of Kantian and Humean agnosticism on the question of causality and fail to notice that these doctrines are in absolute contradiction to Marxism, i.e. materialism, and that they themselves are rolling down an inclined plane towards idealism.’ (p.169 Vol.141.)


Economy of Thought and the Material

                                                       Unity of the World

   Both Mach and Avenarius made every effort to advocate their subjective idealist approach behind what they termed the principle of “Economy of Thought”  Lenin replied to them as follows: … ‘if the principle of the economy of thought is really made  “the basis of the theory of knowledge”, it can lead to nothing but subjective idealism. That it is more “economical” to “think” that only I and my sensations exist is unquestionable, provided we want to introduce such an absurd conception into epistemology.’ (p. 170 Vol. 1 4) .  ‘Only by denying objective reality, ie., by denying  the
foundations of Marxism, can one seriously speak of economy of thought in the theory of knowledge.’

   If we
reject the process of cognising objective reality given to us in sensation, how is it possible to negate the ‘economy of thought’ if not from subjective thought itself? Sensations reflecting the infinite motion of the external world  do not allow for any ‘economy’. Therefore, the self-created images of thought provide only a subjective impression of what is contained in sensation  To which Engels firmly replied on page 60 of Anti-Duhring, stressing: ‘The real unity of the world consists in its r ‘Anti-Duhring’, stressing: ‘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.’

   Lenin comments on this:

   ‘Engels showed’, using Duhring as an example, that any philosophy that claims to be consistent can deduce the unity of the world either from thought – in which case it is helpless against spiritualism and fideism, (Anti-Duhring’, page.30), and its arguments inevitably become mere phrase-juggling – or from the objective reality which exists outside us, which in the theory of knowledge has long gone under the name of matter, and which is studied by natural science.’ (p.173 VoI.14).

Space and Time

    The recognition of objective reality which is matter in motion independently of the mind ‘must also inevitably recognise the objective reality of time and space, in contrast above all to Kantianism’ (p.175 Vo1.14) … ‘which regards objective reality as forms of human understanding’. Lenin starts with the materialist Feuerbach, who says “Space and time … are not mere forms of phenomena but essential conditions … of being” … There is nothing in the world, but matter in motion, and matter in motion cannot move otherwise than in space and time. Human conceptions of space and time are relative, but these relative conceptions go to compound absolute truth. These relative conceptions, in their development, move towards absolute truth and approach nearer and nearer to it. The mutability of human conceptions of space and time no more refutes the objective reality of space and time than the mutability of scientific knowledge of the structure and forms of motion refutes the objective reality of the external world. (p.175 VoI.14).

   Engels criticises Duhring who denied the objectivity of ‘space’ and time by claiming they were
only concepts created by man and since man created them he was justified in going beyond their bounds. But to go beyond the bounds of real space and time, that is, to assert something beyond space and time, is to implicitly recognise the existence of a ‘god’ as the creator of the world. Duhring did, in fact, slide in this direction, by cognising ‘final causes’ and ‘initial impulses’.

   As Lenin explains it: Duhring ‘had deprived himself of the objective criterion which prevents one going beyond the bounds of time and space. Time and space were only concepts, man, who created them, is justified I
going beyond their bounds, and bourgeois professors are justified in receiving salaries from reactionary governments, for defending the legitimacy of going beyond these bounds, for directly or indirectly defending medieval “nonsense”.’ (p.177 VoI.14).

   This was essentially the reactionary position of Mach and Kant. ‘According to Mach, it is not man with his sensations that exists in space and time, but space and time that exist in man, and that they depend upon man and are generated by man.’ (p.177 VoI.14).  For Mach and Kant, space and time were products of social consciousness. This denied the material objectivity of space and time, and rejected materialism. Mach’s follower, Bogdanov, defined space and time as a form of the social co-ordination of the experiences of different people. Another follower of Mach, V. Bazarov, declared Engels’ conception of space and time to be obsolete.  (p. 184 Vol. 1 4).

To be continued by a further three parts