Gerry Healy



Scientific Cognition and the External World

By G. Healy

News Line 26 June 1982

   During the next few weeks the subject of Scientific Cognition will be discussed and explained at our College of Marxist Education in Derbyshire. This article on Scientific Cognition and the External World, together with last weeks article on The Danger of Subjective Idealism will be under discussion in the items of the syllabus already published. Students are asked to enrol immediately for these very important courses – fill in the form below

   The role of external reflection in the process of cognition is often surrounded by unnecessary confusion. The main problem has its origin in the individual who mistakenly believes that he or she is the source of the reflection in general, when in reality its source is in the external world. What follows appears to be a reflective relation between the individual and the external world although, in fact. It is the other way round. External reflection has its source in the world existing independently of the individual.

   The external world, which is described by the concept of universality, manifests itself through the category of external reflection in the physical concept of the sensation of an individual. It is the content of the external world in self-relation to the individual which is the source of external reflection and ‘which stirs in scientific cognition.’ (P. 87, Vol. 38, Collected Works)

   ‘At the same time’, wrote Lenin, ‘it is this very reflection of the content which itself initially posits and produces its determination.’ (Ibid. My emphasis – GH) Lenin insisted that to understand this movement of ‘scientific cognition’ is ‘the essential thing’.

The Role of the Senses in Cognition.

   The direction of the movement of ‘scientific cognition’ referred to here is from the ‘low’ to the ‘high’. These are various forms of reflection and various forms of motion. The origin of the connection of the forms of motion are also the origins of the forms of reflection. Whilst these contain the lower, they cannot be reduced to its level.

   The relevant sense organs are attracted to the excitation whose source is in the external world, or, as Lenin explains: ‘For every scientist who has not been led astray by professorial philosophy, as well as for ever materialist, sensation is indeed the direct connection between consciousness and the external world; it is the transformation of the energy of external excitation into the fact of consciousness.’ (P. 51, Vol. 14, Collected Works)

   This ‘external excitation’ provides. In effect, a correct orientation between the combination of senses involved and the external world. Whilst it can only be reflected approximately an incompletely, these reflections are  nevertheless objectively accurate. The dialectical nature of external reflection contains both the positive and the negative moments through which, as we have seen, the content of the external ‘stirs’ as the ‘object of cognition.

   Both the object of cognition and the activity of the subject of cognition are two aspects of the functioning of a dialectical human being. As the object of cognition, it is both the content and material mode of existence of the source of external reflection, which either in an active or passive way, acts upon and influences the sense organs concerned.

   In must be understood that the external source of reflection is itself an active agent in the cognition process. In turn the activity of the subject of cognition reacts in a sensuous and dialectical way to this subject/object relationship. Whilst sensations reflect only the external image of things, dialectical logic, with its abstract concepts, penetrates to the very essence of things and discovers the necessary connections between phenomena.

‘Essentialities’ of Cognition

   The movement of consciousness and thought cannot and must not be separated from the movement of the external world of nature. It rests, as Lenin explained, on the ‘nature of pure essentialities’. (P. 88, Vol. 38, Collected Works)

   Idealist philosophers seek to create a dualist separation between though and nature as if thought existed independently of nature. They argue as if thought and logic have their own forms of activity, implying that forms of thought have their sources in some non-material, supernatural world.

   ‘And concerning forms of thought’, wrote ‘ … it cannot be said that they serve us, for they permeate “all our ideas”, but they are “the Universal as such”.’ (P. 91, Vol. 38). He comments as follows:

   ‘Objectivism: the categories of thought are not an auxiliary tool of man, but an expression of laws both of nature and of man – compare further the antithesis  … We cannot “get beyond the nature of things”’, he stressed, when referring to the ‘antithesis’ of ‘subjective thinking’ and the ‘objective concept of the very essence of things’. (Ibid.)


   Thoughts are a product of matter and can only exist in material nature, which is their source. ‘Logic’, wrote Lenin, ‘is the science, not of external forms of thought, but of the laws of development “of all material, natural and spiritual things”, ie. of the development of the entire concrete content of the world and of its cognition , ie., the sum total, the conclusion of the history of knowledge of the world.’ (P. 92, vol. 38)

   Since to content of external reflection is that of the inorganic external world, it manifests itself at first only in an indeterminate way. Later, in the process of cognition, this indeterminatedness is transformed into determinatedness. For example, it implicitly contains Reason, which, as Lenin explains, ‘is negative and dialectical because it dissolves into nothing.’ (P. 87, Vol.38)

   Later, through negation of negation, it becomes ‘reason which understands’, (negative nature of semblance), in a positive combination with ‘understanding which reasons’, (positive nature of semblance).

   The concept of semblance therefore, constitutes the unity of the logical through its negative nature and the historical which in incorporated into positive semblance.

   Dialectical logic develops in accordance with the necessity which is generated from its content of the external world. The forms of images which it perceives from the real world have as their content also the real world.

   ‘Our sensations, our consciousness, is only an image of the external world’, writes Lenin. (P.69, Vol. 14, Collected Works). ‘For method is the consciousness of the form taken by the inner spontaneous movement of its content.’ (P. 96, Vol.38). Lenin referred to such a process evolving in the following objective way:

   ‘1. Necessary connection, the objective connections of all aspects, forces, tendencies etc., of   

        the given sphere of phenomena;

   2. The “immanent emergence of distinctions” – the inner objective logic of evolution and of the

        struggle of differences, polarity.’ (P. 97, Vol. 38)

      Physical sensation occurs where there is only one sense organ involved, whereas living perception is a synthesis from many sense organs. We establish the necessary connections between them because the universal laws of the motion of the external world and human thought are identical.

   The ‘immanent emergence of distinctions’ are best understood through the motion of the external world in time and space. Everything is changing, and no one moment of time can be the same as the previous one. Therefore, as the constant changes build up and establish a synthesis with the knowledge we already have, distinctions will appear, and must appear, as the structural levels of matter due to these changes become more numerous.

   There are various forms of reflection which have their external sources in either passive or active conditions in the external world. They differ not only in a gradual way as a slow build-up of properties is taking place quantitatively – they also, at a certain point, become transformed qualitatively. The law of quantity into quality and vice versa in forms of thought reflects the content of the movement of the external world.  

   ‘Knowledge’, wrote Lenin, ‘is the reflection of nature by man. But this is not a simple, not an immediate, not as complete reflection, but the process of a series of abstractions, the formation and development of concepts, laws, etc., and these concepts, laws etc., (thought, science  - “the logical idea”) embrace conditionally, approximately, the universal law-governed character of eternally moving and developing nature.

   ‘Here there are actually, objectively, three members: 1) nature; 2) human cognition = the human brain (as the highest product of this same nature, and 3) the form of reflection of nature in human cognition, and this form consists precisely of concepts, laws, categories etc. Man cannot comprehend  = reflect = mirror nature as a whole, in its completeness, its “immediate totality”, he can only eternally come closer to this, creating abstractions, concepts, laws, a scientific picture of the world, etc. etc.’ (P.182, Vol. 38)