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From Naïve Dialectic to the Metaphysic of Properties

Prepared by the Leningrad Institute of Philosophy under the Direction of
M. Shirokov 1941

Primitive man did not construct scientific theories. His knowledge was built up from a variety of concrete observations and by practical rules of living which grew out of these observations. These rules were connected together by a system of mythological representations replete with images but lacking precise and logical sequence. The connection of natural phenomena with his own primitive practice was explained by myths and legends in which thunder-storms, the rain, the sun and so forth were identified with the actions of mysterious beings. Only at a certain point in social development does knowledge become scientific and man rise to the construction of a logical, connected picture of the objective world. For this transition there was necessary a definite level of development of the productive forces at which a separation of mental work from physical was possible. From that time science has emerged as a special aspect of social action, from that time man began to theorize and to build up a picture of the objective world in logically connected ideas.

And the first thing that confronted science was the mutual action of the infinite multitude of phenomena, their ceaseless interweaving and change, their ceaseless emergence and disappearance. Knowledge, before it turns to the study of concrete details, accepts reality as a sequence of changes arid interactions. In spite of the entire naïvety and superficiality of this initial view the first steps of science were at the same time the first steps of conscious dialectic. “All flows, nothing is at rest nor ever remains the same “–thus one of the greatest dialecticians in history, the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, used to characterize the ever-changing face of nature. As the Greeks used to say of him, “He likens things to a flowing river and says that it is impossible to enter twice into the same stream.”

In these, the first steps of knowledge, freed from direct connection with myth and religion, we find the primitive beginnings of materialistic dialectic. Lenin in his philosophical notes cites a very characteristic excerpt from Heraclitus:

“This order of things, the same for all, was not made by any god or any man, but was and is and will be for ever, a living fire, kindled by measure and quenched by measure.”

Lenin, when he worked out the basic law of dialectic made direct use of the figurative expressions and clear formulations of Heraclitus.

Heraclitus was the most characteristic but not the sole representative of that period of knowledge, fresh in its primitive naïvety, when the world, not yet analysed on scientific lines, was being apprehended in its general flow and change. “All the ancient Greek philosophers were born dialecticians” (Engels). However, the general picture of development which they gave in their theories suffered from a fundamental defect. Their familiarity with particulars, with separate phenomena, was very slight and inaccurate. They paid “more attention to movement in general, to transitions and series, than to the particular thing that moves, is in transition and in series” (Engels).

These philosophers variously attributed the origin of things to fire, to water or to air; they did not show in any particular case how matter changed its form, but spoke of these changes only in order to characterize the whole world as in an eternal process of change. In confirmation of their general theories they brought forward from time to time most illuminating examples. But they were never more than examples and did not reflect a deep systematic study of objects but only approximate and superficial representations, referring to that which is immediately visible to the eyes. Heraclitus said, for instance, that “the parts of the creation are divided into two halves, each one opposed to the other; the earth into mountains and plains, water into fresh and salt water… similarly, the atmosphere (climate) into winter and summer and also into spring and autumn…” How far removed is this poetic and superficial “concretization” of dialectic from the results of modern physics, chemistry and geology! It is obvious that the Greeks by confining themselves to a merely superficial knowledge of phenomena could have no notion of their fundamental laws of development.

However, all these positive and negative aspects of the first stage of scientific knowledge fully corresponded to that social practice on the basis of which Greek science was developing.

Indeed as slave-owners they were little interested in the development of the technique of production, material labour being the despised lot of slaves. As organizers of political power, navigators, colonizers, merchants – the Greeks did not need a detailed study of individual things. And as consumers they could confine their attention to outward appearance. The need for a profound analysis of the essential nature of things, which does arise for the craftsman, did not confront the enterprising merchant. And the political action of the Greeks amounted to a struggle between different groups of free peoples, and had no bearing on the slave-owning basis of the economic order. At the same time both for their political action and their great colonizing ventures, they needed a comprehensive and connected world-outlook in which the general outlines of an ever-changing and diverse universe might be reflected. This world-outlook was supplied by the Greek philosophy of that period. But the further development of production and of class struggle ever more and more revealed the deficiencies of such an outlook; the study of individual things became an ever more pressing problem. Within Greek philosophy itself there began the transition to the investigatory stage of knowledge – to the stage that dissects a whole into its parts, that discriminates individual things from their universal connections – to the stage that is, in essence, analytic.

Very often it is possible accurately to grasp a situation as a whole in a first rapid impression. Foreign workers arriving in the U.S.S.R., even in a first cursory inspection, can apprehend the general character of socialist construction. It may even be that in certain directions they can form a better estimate than we ourselves as to how far we have travelled from capitalism. However, to obtain a real and fruitful understanding of the working of our institutions the foreigner must penetrate into the details, must understand the special task of each separate institution and learn the special difficulties of each part of our socialist construction.

A correct grasp of the whole serves as a guiding principle in the examination of the details. The first synthetic stage of knowledge prepares one for the study of the parts, gives a general orientation for a further analytical investigation. Every good manager knows that for the direction of this or other undertaking there must be a clear general understanding of the situation. But if he does not go beyond that, does not learn the technique of the business by entering into its every detail, he is but another “tinkling cymbal.”

That is just how the matter stands in all practical affairs and in all questions of knowledge. We must never rest content with achieved results, nor stagnate on what is but too familiar, nor turn what are but separate stages into a whole system; we, must press forward and strive for an ever deeper penetration into actuality and thereby be in a position to change it more rapidly and completely.

At the stage of knowledge we are discussing this deepening process was obtained chiefly by separating individual things from their general connection and by studying the peculiarities of each. For this there is necessary an. accumulation of a great quantity of experimental data and observations concerning physical phenomena. There is necessary an inventory of animals, plants and minerals and then their classification – i.e. a comparison and division of phenomena into classes and a description of their properties. This task was first attempted in the later or Alexandrian period of Greek science, it was continued in the Middle Ages and considerably developed in the Renaissance.

The basic problem of knowledge in this phase consisted in diverting the attention from general connection and change in order to consider everything as isolated and at rest and thus to establish its specific, unalterable properties which distinguish it from other things, i.e. to study its quality. But what one says about an isolated and immobile thing amounts to a description of its different aspects and properties. The qualitative uniqueness of a thing is given in a comprehensive account of its properties. The thing as something that possesses determined properties – that is what the “object” comes to be in this period of science.

Certain groups of properties are found in a number of different things and characterize them each and all in a fundamental way. The same things differ in other, less essential properties. On the basis of these more general properties a system of classification is created and this in turn assists us in our analysis of the characteristics of individual things.

Let us take for example one of the most important branches of knowledge in the Middle Ages – alchemy (mediaeval chemistry). The alchemists turned their attention to the three basic properties (as they thought) of bodies: metallic glitter, combustibility and. durability. Every substance possesses, in greater or less degree, these properties, therefore they characterized each substance by the determined degree of these properties. In their ignorance of how to disclose the laws according to which things change, the alchemists regarded these properties as independent elements out of whose combination the different bodies were formed. The pure embodiment of metallic glitter, they said, was mercury, of combustibility was sulphur, of chemical durability was salt.

Each property thus became an independent quality, a thing in itself, a substance, a force. The alchemists also considered that change itself was a kind of force and due to a special agent which they called the philosopher’s stone, the stone of the wise men. For many centuries the exertions of the alchemists were directed to the search for this philosopher’s stone, which, incidentally, was to be the means of turning base metal into gold.

The alchemists were unsuccessful, yet their failures were extremely fruitful for the development of science. In their researches an enormous mass of experimental material was obtained and also an exact knowledge of the real properties of many different chemical compounds. But the further the accumulation of such practical material went, the more clearly were the limitations of this stage of science revealed. In every department of nature investigation kept revealing more and more new properties, and every one of them was regarded as a thing in itself, a special aptitude or faculty. With such a method there was no difficulty in “explaining” any phenomenon – smoke flies upward, because it possesses the tendency to fly upward; glass cuts because it possesses a cutting force; opium sends to sleep because it possesses a soporific force; a tree has an aptitude for growing, etc., etc…. Genuine thought was submerged in an immense number of mysterious forces, properties, aptitudes and substances, of which things were supposed to consist and these explained exactly nothing! The “explanation” simply repeated that which had to be explained, with the mere futile addition of such words as “force,” “substance,” or what not.

The science of the feudal period “inflated” this method of considering phenomena and their properties into a complete world-outlook, and thus created a thoroughly logical and ossified system of physics (anti-dialectic). The whole world, so thought the mediaeval metaphysicians, consists of a great number of absolutely independent forces and substances. Nothing new emerges and there is no development, since all changes amount to a simple external uniting and disuniting of unchangeable, independent forces. Change itself was to them an independent substance and was understood now in the likeness of a spiritual force, a god or a devil, now in the likeness of the philosopher’s stone, etc. In contradistinction to dialectic, which regards the world as a system of flowing processes, connected internally together by the general course of development, mediaeval science saw only a mechanistic accumulation of independent unalterable things. While dialectic discloses the contradictory character of every phenomenon, of every process, mediaeval science based its thinking on the principle of empty formal identity – combustibility is a hot substance, metallic glitter is metallic glitter, i.e. mercury, etc. Every property in itself is identical, non-contradictory and unalterable, just like a solid substance. It is not surprising that this age is renowned for its elaborate and profitless scholasticism, its logic chopping and endless deductions and the chaos of words that resulted.

The metaphysical limitations of mediaeval science were wholly the result of the limitations of feudal social practice. The parcelling-out and separateness of the feudal estates and towns, the low level of the technique of agriculture and of trade, the ossification of all social relations – that was the material basis that converted the characteristic features of one of the stages of social knowledge into a finished metaphysical system. It is true the mediaeval trader (and in part also the feudal landowner) was more interested than the Greek slave-owner in the development of material production, but with the stagnant character of production the problems of technique were not those of creating new things but of combining and recombining the things they had and improving their traditional skill in handling materials provided practically ready-made by nature.

The class interests of the feudalists and masters of workshops, who were seeking in their world-outlook to perpetuate feudal limitations, turned this method into an ossified system.

But on the soil of feudalism and, at first, by feudal methods, there was already being prepared and developed the capitalist means of production. The development of merchant capital broke up the solidity of the feudal order and drove the alchemists on in the pursuit after gold. In these attempts – often fraudulent – was expressed the powerlessness of feudal culture to resolve the real productive problems that confronted men at the end of the Middle Ages.

However, it is not only under the conditions of feudalism that we meet with this curious metaphysical practice of creating “substances” and forces to explain phenomena.

This metaphysic of properties has shown a special liveliness in bourgeois thought. It has found one characteristic expression in the so-called theory of factors.

To the question why France in Napoleon’s time carried on wars of conquest, the upholder of the theory of factors will answer that in France at that time such a factor as the idea of glory and conquest had begun to dominate, an idea which Napoleon was active in disseminating. Again, why in capitalist countries is there a “surplus” of population which cannot find employment? Because the workers are multiplying too quickly, owing to the biological “factor” of the growth of the population. Why have innumerable wars broken out between the Turks and Bulgarians? Because the factor of national antagonism was at work.

Of course in the stout volumes of learned investigators the matter looks much more complicated than as given in these examples. But if from the mass of material and pedantic exposition we pick out the essential method of stating and solving these problems we shall see that it amounts to nothing else than the “soporific force of opium” and the “cutting force of glass.”

More or less successful attempts to get beyond the theory of factors have been made from time to time by bourgeois science but they have never completely succeeded. Latterly, in the epoch of the downfall of capitalism, we see a certain revival of the metaphysics of isolated properties both in social sciences and along the whole line of bourgeois ideology.

And it is perfectly clear why. When classes and parties oppose a radical change of social relations and to this end seek after a system of fixed social relations, simple, permanent and ready-made, their ideological weapon is the metaphysic of independent properties.

The ideology of reformism, that strong support of modern capitalism, gives not a few clear examples of the utter degradation of bourgeois thought, of its return to the methods of the Middle Ages.

Kautsky, for instance, asserts that in the epoch of imperialism there is at work in industrial capitalist countries a “tendency” for conquest. So as to avoid war this tendency must be opposed by such a factor as a “tendency” to peace, a propaganda for peaceful organization of the economic order.

Take away from iron its properties of combustibility, add in the right proportion metallic glitter and chemical durability and you will get gold, said the mediaeval alchemists. Karl Kautsky in the same manner proposes to “combine” the positive properties of the epoch of imperialism (concentration of production) with a positive property of the pre-imperialist epoch (peaceful economic policy). He compounds a mischievous and empty Utopia, in which this metaphysic of independent forces can only distract the working masses from a real understanding of the nature of the capitalism that oppresses them.

Lenin, criticizing the petty-bourgeois dreams of the liberals about the eternal preservations of small-scale production, wrote:

“And indeed, how simple it is. All you have to do is to take the good things from wherever you can find them – and there you are. From mediaeval society ‘take’ the means of production as the property of the workers, from the new (i.e. capitalist) form of society ‘take’ one good thing from here and another from there. This philosopher (Mikhailovsky) looks on social relations purely metaphysically, as on a simple, mechanical aggregate of these or those institutions, a simple mechanical linking up of these or those phenomena. He selects one of these phenomena – the ownership of the land by the land-holder in mediaeval society – and thinks that he can transplant it just as he finds it into our quite different form of society like transferring a brick from one building to another.”

But when the peasant does not own his land you have as an essential element in the social structure the exploiting landlord. Every special feature of a given form of society is inseparably connected with the whole of which it is a part. These eclectic sociologists never see the intimate connection of social phenomena.

We find the same metaphysic of independent properties in many pages of the history of Trotskyism. Trotsky was always coming out with daring plans for combining various desirable things. At the time of the trade-union discussions he proposed to transfer the military method of handling men, which played a great part in warfare, to the work of the unions in industry.* By keeping politics and economics apart Trotsky again and again shows that he is under the influence of this same methodological error and is thinking in terms of separate “factors.” In Russia, says Trotsky, the political factor is strong enough for the construction of socialism but the economic factor is not, therefore the construction of socialism in Russia is impossible.

* Militarization of Labour. At the end of the civil war Trotsky urged that the armies instead of being demobilized should occupy the industrial front. He therefore advocated compulsory labour service, making use of the apparatus of the War Department, and demanding from the workers the same discipline and executive thoroughness which had been required in the army. He felt that this form of organization was necessary if a single economic plan were to be attempted and without such a plan socialism would certainly prove impossible. The leaders of the Third Army instead of demobilizing their men transferred them to labour work and a good deal of clearing up and reconstruction was carried through. It was soon made clear, however, that flesh and blood could not stand the indefinite continuance of the unwearying effort possible in war time. The policy was abandoned and Russia adopted the New Economic Policy.

In all the examples we have given, we see the same features as were analysed above:

(1) A superficial view that is content with a statement of separate properties as they stare one in the face.

(2) A way of regarding properties as if they were separated from each other.

(3) An immutability, an identity of the properties in different things, which things are considered as different external combinations of those properties.

The basic formal-logical principle of the metaphysics of independent properties is that a property is absolutely identical with itself.
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