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From the Metaphysic of Properties to the Metaphysic of Relations

The question whether this or that property belongs to a thing is not at all as simple as appears at the first glance. For most people iron is the type of a hard substance, but the polisher of precious stones says contemptuously of a bad material, “soft as iron.” Compared with wood, iron is hard, compared with a diamond it is soft.

There is no absolute hardness or absolute softness in itself. The hardness of a thing appears in relation to other things; and according to the things to which it is related are its properties thus or otherwise. A workman may for many years be regarded as ungifted, good for nothing, but if you set him to a job that suits him he may display great gifts in relation to it. Rain may be a blessing or a curse; it depends on the situation. The deserts that surround the valley of the Nile were at an early stage a help to the development of the productive forces of Egypt, since they acted as a protection from the onslaughts of wild nomads. But at a much later stage, when Egypt was ripe for trade relations with other lands, these same deserts became an obstacle to further economic growth.

All properties exist only in determined relations, all properties are relative – such is the conclusion to which we are led by our knowledge of mutual action.

The mediaeval alchemists studied separated properties selected at will from the general mutual action of things and therefore these properties could appear as something absolute and immutable. But once the circle of observations was widened and people began to compare a great number of properties, studying their changes as well as the changing of things themselves, science had to reject alchemistic metaphysics.

And then appeared a new question which the alchemist never foresaw: to which of the two (or many) mutually acting things does this or that property belong? The mediaeval scholars never doubted that glass possesses a peculiar cutting or wounding force. The English scientist, Boyle – representative of the new epoch ridiculed this view and showed that the point of the matter does not lie in the glass but in the mutual relationship of glass with the determined properties of that which it cuts. He proved that sudorific, soporific and other medicines do not in any way possess corresponding absolute forces or qualities but that their action must be explained by their mutual action with the organism. However, it is easy to cite mutual action. It is far more difficult to determine what part each side plays in mutual action and wherein lies the basic cause of the fact that this particular mutual action leads to that determined result.

All relations are two-sided. If A is related to B, then B, too, is related to A. Deserts at different periods influenced in different ways the development of Egypt. But wherein lies the root of this influence – in the different geographical properties of deserts or in the change of the properties of Egyptian economics?

Things that come into relation mutually display their properties one through the other, as if they are reflected in each other. The properties of the desert were reflected differently in the different stages of Egyptian history and conversely the properties of the stages of Egypt’s development were reflected in the different influence of the desert. Each side is defined through its relation to the other, each side has only a relative definiteness. To the discovery of this mutual or reflex relationship Marx and Engels, following Hegel, attributed a very great importance.

“Such relative definitions,” wrote Marx, “are, in general, something quite singular. For example, this man is a king only because other people are related to him as subjects. They however think, on the contrary, that they are subjects because he is king.”

Everyone who has looked at the first chapters of Capital knows that Marx in his exposition of all the basic questions of the theory of value proceeds from the reflex relations of exchanged commodities, of commodities and money, and of commodity-producers between each other. Marx showed up the commodity-fetish and proved that “the property” of possessing value, which is ascribed to an article as a thing, is, in fact, the expression of a definite social relation.

The discovery of the relativity of properties was the first step of bourgeois science at the beginning of the New Age, and it must be said a very significant step. The researches of Galileo, of Descartes, Boyle and other natural scientists and philosophers dispersed like smoke the doctrine of mysterious forces and qualities held by mediaeval physic-chemical science. The “soporific force” of opium became an object of universal jest, and Molière, in his brilliant comedies, brought its upholders on to the stage in the roles of clowns.

However, to point to the relativity of properties does not in itself explain very much. It sends us from one thing to another and from that back to the first, from geography to economics and from economics back to geography, and gives no single and complete explanation of any phenomenon or any process. It is impossible to exhaust the study of properties by the discovery of their relativity. A positive working-out of the question is needed. And bourgeois science tried to give such a positive doctrine in the theory of the so-called primary and secondary qualities.

First of all the founders of this theory selected a number of properties of things (colour, taste, smell, sound) which we receive directly as sensations, and explained them as existing only in relation to our sense organs, as subjective. Those are the so-styled secondary qualities. The rest – the so-styled primary qualities – were considered by them as belonging to the things themselves, as existing in objective actuality. Secondary properties appear as the relations of primary properties to our perception.

Does a tickling “force” really exist in a tickling hand? – Galileo used to ask. The hand touches our body, and this contact evokes in us a peculiar sensation, which is not at all like the hand or its movement. The movement of the hand, its making of contact, its motion along our body is a primary objective quality, the sensation of tickling is secondary, subjective.

Warmth is not a peculiar quality but a movement of particles in space, their simple motion, which is reflected in our consciousness as a secondary quality, as the sensation of warmth.

Primary qualities are quite few. They are the spatial form and position of bodies, movement, the contact of bodies and therefore solidity. All other differences of phenomena, colour, sound, scent, taste, relate to secondary qualities. These properties are subjective and in no measure reflect processes that are found in objective actuality.

Everything in nature is made up of non-qualitative, colourless, soundless matter and every difference between phenomena may be ascribed to the mechanics of identical particles of matter and to their combinations and movements in space.

In their conflict with the metaphysics of properties the most progressive tendencies of bourgeois science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries took up the position of mechanistic materialism. In comparison with the mediaeval world-outlook this was a big step forward. Instead of occupying itself with a piling up of mysterious forces and isolated, utterly inexplicable properties knowledge turned to the study of movement (although in its simple form, namely the study of mechanistic movement). Instead of “explaining” the lifting of water in a pump by saying that “nature abhors a vacuum,” they began to investigate the real mechanical processes of the movements of liquids, and as a result Torricelli discovered atmospheric pressure. They ceased to attribute to an organism vegetable, motive, nutrimental and all sorts of other forces and aptitudes but directed their attention to the study of mechanical movements in the life-activity of an organism even though these were, at first, only the most elementary motions in the body, and again as a result Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood.

The new point of view proved very fruitful and was the basis of a large number of valuable discoveries. René Descartes, one of the founders of mechanistic philosophy and the greatest of French philosophers of the seventeenth century, was right when he wrote about his methodological principles:

“by them I perceived it to be possible to arrive at knowledge highly useful in life; and in room of the speculative philosophy usually taught in the schools, to discover a practical, by means of which, knowing the force and action of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us, as distinctly as we know the various crafts of our artisans, we might also apply them in the same way to all the uses to which they are adapted, and thus render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature.”*

* Descartes, Discourse on Method, p. 49 (Everyman).

In these words of Descartes, besides his deliberate and severe contrasting of the method of “practical philosophy” with the “speculative and scholastic philosophy” of the Middle Ages, there is reflected also the connection of the new forms of thinking with modern productive practice of the industrial type (although Descartes was doubtless unaware of this connection). The fruitfulness of mechanistic natural science came from its close connection with this productive practice.

The industrial production of that time was pre-eminently the direct action of the workman’s tool. People were interested not in the changes of the substance, but in those mechanical devices by which change was evoked. All the “machines” of that period were basically simple combinations of the same lever, block, windlass, inclined plane and screw which had been known from ancient times. And so the natural science of that period was preoccupied with the investigation of the movement of bodies (and of systems of bodies) under the influence of forces applied to them, with the conditions of the equilibrium of bodies, the movement of liquids, etc.

Chemical properties of matter were “explained” mechanically, vital phenomena were “explained” by analogy with the actions of mechanical automata. For instance, the following explanation of the difference in the tastes of nitre and nitric acid (which was then called “spirit of nitre”) appeared “clear and evident” to Spinoza:

“Particles of nitre, if laid on the tongue, lie on it in consequence of their quiet condition with their flat sides down and by this means the pores of the tongue are closed – which is the cause of the sensation of cold. But if these particles are lain on the tongue in a state of excitation and movement [Spinoza here has in mind “spirit of nitre,” which, in his opinion, is made up of the same particles as nitre but is found “in a state of excitation and movement”] then they will fall on it with their sharp edges, will pierce into its pores just as a needle if it falls on the tongue will evoke different sensations, this difference depending on whether the contact is made with the sharp or the long surface.”

The passion for automatic explanations at the ruling courts of the seventeenth century was a similar reflection of the view, general in “enlightened” circles, that the properties of every whole, including living organisms, must find their explanation in the mechanical relations of its parts.

The roots of bourgeois thought in this age are to be found in the mechanical connections which underlay the manufacturing and productive processes and appeared to be fundamental. Thus mechanism became the model for all knowledge and in the philosophy of the time we have the “reproduction in thought” of the objective connections of things.

Whence the relative historic value of the mechanistic method but also its one-sidedness and its limitations. Valuable though the mechanical discoveries of Galileo, Torricelli and others were, yet their tendency to ascribe all the diverse phenomena of nature and society to mechanical relations prevented them from giving a correct solution of the problem of properties.

This new one-sidedness became a universal principle and so, inevitably, a new form of metaphysical theory. The whole world appeared as divided into two independent parts, the mechanical properties of matter, and the subjective qualities of experience. The mutability and diversity of qualities were regarded by the mechanists as secondary properties, i.e. as subjective appearance, as empty illusion.

The real world, since it exists in itself in its own primary properties, is from their standpoint ever the same and unchangeable. Elements of matter are identical and unchangeable. All their relations are attributed to external combinations in space and to simple mechanical contact.

In the real world there is no development, there is only movement in one and the same circle. There is no self-movement of matter but only a mechanical displacement of it under the influence of external impact. The metaphysic of absolutely unchangeable properties gives place to a metaphysic of absolute, quality-less particles and their mutual relations.

And what about properties? How does mechanism solve this problem?

If all particles of matter are identical, then a difference of things according to properties is possible only as a result of a different relation between the particles. Things are differentiated according to their external form in space, by the different disposition of their particles in relation to each other. Things are differentiated according to the mechanical movement of their particles, i.e. once again according to the external relations between the particles. The primary, actually objective, properties of liquidity and of solidity are determined only by the greater or lesser connectedness of their particles in their relative movements.

All things are distinguished only by their external mechanical construction. Everything consists of elements and their relations, say the mechanists, elements are without qualities, are merely carriers of relations. Relations emerge as the properties of different things.

As we see, mechanistic materialism “resolves” the problem extremely simply. After showing that a property is relative it goes on to declare that a property amounts to a relation, and finally attributes all the differences of things to external mechanistic relations.

Secondary qualitatively different properties are also only relations, that to say they are the relations of quality-less things to our sense organs. Determined movements of particles, taken in relation to our consciousness, give a sensation of warmth; other slighter movements a sensation of light or a variety of colours. An animal is a machine and only a machine, but the relation of this machine to our perception gives an impression of a living organism, etc., etc.

And so by distinguishing two kinds of relations – firstly the relation of particles of matter among themselves and secondly the relation of their combinations to the organs of sense – mechanists divided all phenomena into primary and secondary qualities. From the point of view of mechanism the task of knowledge consists in this – to expose the fallacious appearance of secondary qualities and to attribute all the phenomena of nature to primary mechanical relations.

The French materialists of the eighteenth century applied the mechanistic method widely and were ever indicating the countless number of causes external to each other that conditioned social development. For example, the introduction of a new law is determined by a multitude of facts amongst which an important rate is played by the action of the legislator, and this action depends on his disposition; which in its turn may be decided by the weather, and Paris weather has changed because a simoom was blowing in Africa and so on – endlessly.

We have taken one chain of facts, but in every social process there is an infinite number of them and they all mutually interact. Do you try, using this method, to find out in what direction the social structure of a given country is changing. The French materialists used to argue as to what was the determining factor in the mutual action of geographical environment and social development. They disputed whether the opinions of people were determined by facts, by the social structure, or, conversely, whether social structure depends on human opinions. And what emerged from their discussions was the discovery that one could draw from the mechanistic view-point an endless number of proofs both for and against any resolution of these questions.

The mechanistic doctrine of properties as relations of separate particles leads to an absolute relativism on the basis of which it is impossible to say anything definite on the properties of anything, since these properties are its relations with an infinite number of other things. “A crazy atom”* which has flown into the head of a lawgiver can change the course of world history – so said the materialists of the eighteenth century. The atom itself does not possess this “property,” the property emerges from the relation of the atom to countless other particles, and who will say beforehand whether this “property” will emerge or not? Mechanists themselves not venturing to do so come to this conclusion – it is impossible to know anything definite about concrete things except the abstract truth that they are subordinate to the general laws of mechanics.
* “Crazy Atom.” The introduction of any factor or element into a situation which leads to an unpredictable result.

And pure relativism and agnosticism, as we know, are the main support of subjectivism. Mechanistic materialism, because of its metaphysical limitations, leads directly to subjective idealism. And the distance between the two is by no means so very great. The mechanists themselves show this transition to idealism in their own doctrine of the subjectivity of “secondary” qualities. Indeed by the assertion that qualitative differences of things and qualitatively different properties exist only in our consciousness, the mechanists create a gulf between objective actuality and our representation of it.

We must turn away, they say, from the illusory appearance of sensations, we must thrust it away with the help of abstract reasoning just as we pull back a curtain when we want to know what is hidden behind it – and then only shall we make contact with the actual, objective world of pure mechanics, the world of the soundless, invisible movement of quality-less particles.

The sense data derived from an object – mechanism teaches – by no means reflect it, they only correspond to it. As a hieroglyph is a sign and bears very little resemblance to the object it denotes, so also our sense data only correspond to a determined object, are only its hieroglyph. We see a red-faced man, we see a pale-faced man. But really each is only a determined combination of quality-less particles. But evidently the motion of the particles of the one is somehow distinct from the motion of the particles of the other, and so to each of these people there corresponds a different “hieroglyph” in the likeness of our sensations. The separating of properties into primary and secondary is inevitably connected with the theory of hieroglyphs, with the theory of the symbolic denotation of objective actuality by subjective, deceptive representations.

But can we stop here? Why must we admit that the conception of so-called primary properties, of the movement and the spatial forms of bodies, reflects objective actuality exactly as it really exists? Our knowledge of these properties comes only through sensations. If we regard sense impressions as hieroglyphs, we must acknowledge the conceptions of mechanics not as exact copies, but only as signs of an unknown objective actuality.

Plekhanov, who defended the hieroglyphic theory, following certain bourgeois scientists, came sometimes in the turns and twists of his thinking to the theory that even space and time are hieroglyphs of unknown aspects of an unknown objective world.

So we see the attribution of properties to external relations leads to absolute relativism and subjectivism.

“What is truth?” the sages and prophets of bourgeois individualism ask with haughty scepticism, reflecting the “satisfaction” of the bourgeois soul with what exists at the moment and its dread of everything new and revolutionary. With a sceptical criticism of knowledge and a disbelief in objective truth they seek to defend their bourgeois objective actuality – capitalism – from every authentic revolutionary criticism. In this epoch of the domination of the capitalist forms of society bourgeois philosophy snatches at all the weak reactionary features of mechanism, at relativism, subjectivism, at abstract metaphysics, and inflates these features into a complete subjective-idealistic world-outlook. Everything is relative, only the unalterable particles of matter that move in space are absolute – so say the mechanists.

Subjective idealism by denying the objective existence of matter itself, even of the ultimate particles of the mechanists, and by denying also the reality of space, drives the relativity of mechanistic materialism to its furthest limits.

The primary mechanistic qualities are objective. The secondary qualities are subjective; they exist only in our consciousness, only as our sensation. That is what mechanism asserts.

Subjective idealism by setting out from this very subjectivity of secondary qualities and reducing primary ones to them, in turn reduces mechanism into pure subjectivism – there exist only our sensations, all things including their so-called primary qualities are sensation-complexes combined together by the mind.

The upholders of mechanism by attributing all properties to external relations are powerless to disclose the real basis of the complex interweaving of mutual-acting things. Subjective idealists, by deepening and further developing the metaphysic of the merely external connectedness of phenomena, turn the vice of mechanism into an idealistic virtue; they assert that phenomena have no objective basis and therefore any complex can have any explanation; there are no right or wrong theories – the choice of this or that explanation depends wholly on the subjective point of view, on “mental convenience.” Any explanations are good for those whom they please, and there is no truth outside arbitrary human opinions.

Between mechanistic materialism and subjective idealism there is a big difference. The one admits the existence of matter, the other denies it. The one connects things by real mechanical relations, the other acknowledges things and connections only as “facts of consciousness.” But relativism and false metaphysics make up the general features of both philosophical tendencies.

That is a fact. According to both schools properties do not flow out of the internal nature of things, they amount to external relations; the one and the same metaphysic of elements sundered from each other and of purely external connections leads both these schools (and also others) to absolute relativism, and deflects them from the struggle for a unitary, eternally developing objective truth. A close kinship between mechanism and subjective idealism is undeniable; between the two there exists a deep mutual bond.

The mechanists, by laying claim to absolute objective truth and in the name of that truth proving the deceptiveness of those qualities perceived by the senses, do themselves proceed to extreme subjectivism.

Thus the mechanists have turned the relativity of properties into an “absolute” and in contrast with the metaphysic of feudalism have identified properties with the external relations of quality-less particles to each other (primary qualities) and to our sense organs (secondary qualities). Thus they have opened the way to the blind alley of relativism and subjective-idealistic religiosity.

The further development of social practice, now within the framework of capitalism, set knowledge a new task. It was necessary to overcome the limitations of mechanism so as to open the way to the study of the qualitatively unique forms of movement in nature and society. The development of physics, chemistry, biology and the social sciences demanded a new methodological system. The problems which mechanism set but did not resolve had to be resolved on new lines. In severe pain, science began to bring to birth the dialectic method.

But only in the ideology of the proletariat, only in the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin did knowledge emerge on to the wide road of the conscious and logical working out of dialectical materialism. Only on this new level did the problem of quality and property which had been set but not resolved by the metaphysical systems of the past receive its actual solution.
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