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

But if wish-fulfilment thinking and the false pursuit of abstractions have led men to idealism, the inexorable demands of the real world have as often pulled them back to realism. Idealism has developed and flourished but so has science. And always with the growth of science we perceive a clearer apprehension of the philosophy of science known as materialism and the sworn foe of idealism. To-day we have learned to trust the scientist and to look to him to get us out of our difficulties. He has had a long struggle with ignorance and class interests, but he has triumphed over all of us.

His attitude is totally different from the idealist. He looks at the concrete world with all its imperfections, not at the ideal world. He looks forward to a richer and fuller life here on earth., not to the spiritual contemplation of absolute values in eternity. He believes it can be realised by man’s co-operative effort, utilizing the resources of the earth.
“Trust in science, and the idea that this world is the place of man’s destiny, tend to bring about a new attitude toward the question of what we are to believe. For the investigator first set his foot on the road of science when he refused to accept anything as true which could not be confirmed by experimental evidence. The mystic sought the divine vision through fasting and prayer; the philosopher stormed the citadel of reality by logic and reasoning. The scientist turned away from both ways; and was content to make toilsome progress by collecting evidence, sifting and comparing, weighing and measuring, limiting the field of enquiry, remaining in willing ignorance on everything beyond this field. And since he had to fight for his freedom to go beyond the other two methods—since often he had to make his way in conflict with them—on the whole he came to regard his method as necessarily antagonistic to the other two; though in truth I think a sound method has something of all three. His success confirmed him in his method; and thus, to-day, experimental evidence comes to be regarded as the most satisfactory kind of evidence that can be found for statements professing to give information about the nature of things.”
Modern science was founded in the seventeenth century by men who were not materialists but who had a materialistic conception of matter, without which, indeed, progress would have been impossible. They held that matter is that which occupies space. It will not move unless something pushes it, and if it is moving it will not stop unless something stops it. It is not alive or conscious.

The obvious effect of this view was to separate matter and mind and make mind a distinct substance, inhabiting the body during life, and withdrawing on the dissolution of the body.

This worked very well as far as matter was concerned, but it raised great difficulties about the relation of mind to matter. The result was that mind came to be regarded as a mere effect of matter and materialism became the popular philosophy.

These revolutionary ideas came not as the result of pure thought, but of the requirements of an economic and social situation. Science was the technical instrument of the rising town civilization of the Renaissance, with its growing commerce and its need for navigation, surveying, and military science. Manufacture was developing, comfort was growing, and men took more interest in civilization and less in the world to come. But the rising burgher class had a stiff fight with the feudal lords, who represented the dominant social force of the preceding period; and on the side of feudalism was the Church.

The new science comes in as the ally of the new class, and its rationalistic and materialistic philosophy as the opponent of the ecclesiastical authority which supported feudalism. If the wall is to fall the buttress must be undermined.

Thus, with many qualifications and exceptions and acknowledging much actual confusion of interests, it may be said that the struggle for a new philosophy accompanied and assisted the struggle of a new class for economic and political power.

There is no philosophy that is not part of a social system, and in the past that has always meant a social hierarchy. The mediæval social order, with its privileged classes, was bound up with the cosmogony of a fixed earth around which moved the sun. You cannot weaken the force of the ideas on which the social order depends with impunity. Every society hitherto has regarded man as a volcanic force to be kept in subjection. To dissolve the bonds of society is to invite a volcanic eruption. Hence any views which threaten to destroy an implicit trust in the philosophic framework of society are not only false but highly dangerous. Even the scientist, brought up in the climate of another system of thought, found it almost impossible to believe in a new theory of the universe and probably meant what he said when he defended himself from heresy by saying that his ideas were only speculations.

But the new was coming into existence by its own laws of growth and the older picture of the universe was not so much being argued down as dying out. The old feelings were becoming barren, the old actions unmeaning. New ideas alone seemed relevant and alive, the response to the old ideas flagged perceptibly. When this takes place on a large scale the knell of the older order is sounded. Society has to be made anew.

The new philosophy came first as a demand for freer thinking. Then as an insistence on the need for suspending judgment on a question until sufficient evidence has been collected. Bacon borrows a simile from Dante, “Let this be to thee ever as lead to thy feet, to make thee move slowly, like one that is weary, both to the yes and the no, that thou seest not.” Men must call a halt in their speculations and allow themselves to be rigidly limited by brute facts.

But it was Descartes who laid down the philosophical foundations of the new science and the new society. He did this in three ways. Firstly by his new method of thinking, secondly by the mechanistic science which it justified and encouraged, thirdly by the philosophical dualism of mind and matter, of faith and reason which. this mechanistic materialism itself rendered necessary.

The new method of thought came as a protest against the uncritical assumptions of mediævalism and the huge deductive systems based upon them. This mass of knowledge seemed to the new men pretentious and unsubstantiated. While Bacon and the experimentalists turned from dogmas to experimental facts, Descartes was asking himself whether the instrument of reason if honestly and thoroughly used would not provide a method of separating the chaff of baseless conjecture from the residuum of certain truth. In mathematics pure reason gives satisfactory and indubitable results. What happens if you put the mind to work in a completely rigorous manner firstly on spiritual and philosophical questions and secondly on material questions? Descartes thought that the result was the indubitable proof of the distinction between mind and matter, of the reality of the soul and the certainty of the existence of God. On the other hand he came to the conclusion that shapes and motions were all that existed in the world apart from souls. Motion is the only change we can clearly understand, and therefore all other changes and indeed the whole variety and complexity of the concrete world can and must be reduced to matter in motion. Only when you reduce phenomena to physical and mathematical terms do they become rational. Therefore this is the ultimate scientific truth.

If this mechanistic materialism leaves no place for spirit and religion these are safeguarded because they rest on other but equally indubitable foundations. In the same way he was careful to say that his system of universal doubt was not intended to be applied to religion, where matters were believed on grounds of faith and not reason; nor did he allow himself to criticize society. His aim was to show what was provable and what was unprovable, as far as pure reason was concerned, and to set free the scientific intellect to master the universe.
“As soon as I had acquired some general notions respecting physics, and beginning to make trial of them in various particular difficulties, had observed how far they can carry us, and how much they differ from the principles that have been employed up to the present time, I believed that I could not keep them concealed without sinning grievously against the law by which we are bound to promote, as far as in us lies, the general good of mankind. For 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. And this is a result to be desired, not only in order to the invention of an infinity of arts, by which we might be enabled to enjoy without any trouble the fruits of the earth, and all its comforts, but also and especially for the preservation of health, which is without doubt, of all the blessings of this life, the first and fundamental one; for the mind is so intimately dependent upon the condition and relation of the organs of the body, that if any means can ever be found to render men wiser and more ingenious than hitherto, I believe that it is in medicine they must be sought for.”
In this practical scientific end we see the motive of the new philosophy and what differentiates it from all those idealisms which, as we saw in the last section, make it their aim rather to change the minds of men to conform to what eternally is and must be rather than to change nature in the interests of man.

But although Descartes won for men a new vision of the universe by persuading them to accept only perfectly clear ideas, making a clean sweep of all that had hitherto passed for knowledge, these clear ideas have proved so full of obscurity that philosophers have been arguing about them ever since. It is, perhaps, for this reason that Descartes has been called the father of modern philosophy!

The rigid separation of mind and matter chopped the universe in two with a hatchet and led to what is known as dualism, the existence side by side of two worlds, the physical and the mental, which are incapable of influencing one another. This is an untenable position and two solutions were offered. The first was to hold to the physical and drop the mental altogether. This was the solution of the French materialists. The second was to hold to the mental and drop the physical. This was Berkeley’s solution and from it Idealism developed. The only attempt to do justice to both sides is to be found in Spinoza who claimed that mind and matter were two aspects of a higher reality.

The French materialists represented the purely scientific conclusions of the new philosophy and laid the foundations of the successful scientific work of the following century. Owing to the growing tension between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy we find the scientific movement taking a strongly anti-religious line and deliberately seeking to undermine the supernaturalist sanctions of privilege. Hence science, rationalism, and the new economic forces worked hand in hand.

During the eighteenth century the capitalistic mode of production in Europe was being strengthened and growing. In France capitalism required the dissolution of feudal relations in the countryside and political guarantees for the commercial-industrial towns. The old feudal order hindered trade, giving the peasantry over to the exploitation of landlords and officials and thus depriving it of its power to buy town manufactures. The contradictions between the new class of bourgeoisie, together with the semi-skilled proletariat dependent upon it, and the peasantry, together with their masters, the ruling feudal classes—aristocrats and clericals—reached a state of considerable tension. The oncoming storm of revolution was felt already in the air. In the course of the decades preceding the Great French Revolution the bourgeoisie produced a number of philosophers and publicists who with unusual talent and force came forward as champions of the bourgeoisie in the realm of theory. In contrast to the leading thinkers of the English bourgeoisie who after a victorious revolution had managed to conclude a union with the feudalists and were therefore inclined even in philosophy to compromises, to agreement with religion; in contrast also to the German bourgeoisie, who were feeble and cowardly and therefore vague and indefinite in their ideology; the philosophers of the French bourgeoisie were daring thinkers and fought against religion and idealistic philosophy tearing neither authority nor God. The most logical of the French philosophers of that time in their struggle with religion arrived at materialistic conclusions and produced remarkable examples of materialistic philosophy. Their severe logic, their fearless thinking, their political acumen in the struggle against feudalism and, in particular, against the Church, the talent and often artistry of their exposition, made these philosophers popular, not only in France, but also even beyond its boundaries.

These French materialists took their stand on the achievements of the science of their day. Science in the eighteenth century had attained remarkable successes. Mechanics, the science of moving bodies, had especially developed. New fields had been opened in the mathematics of that time (analytic geometry, the differential and integral calculus) and these provided an instrument for studying the movements of bodies in space. Great strides had been made too in physics, in which mathematics and mechanics provided the basic instruments necessary for studying the properties of liquids, gases, and light. Medicine, too, had its successes. Many physicians at this period discarded the old medicine, which was full of superstition and prejudices, and tried to explain all the processes in the human organism not by postulating a “soul” to control the bodily functions, but by relying on the sciences of mechanics and mathematics. For some time the telescope (1609) had been known and in use, and also the microscope (1590), which in an extraordinary manner widened the field of natural phenomena and made them immediately accessible to the observer. A number of astronomical discoveries were made which reinforced the heliocentric point of view, which regarded the earth not as the centre of the universe, but only as one of the planets that circle round the sun. The laws of falling bodies were discovered, and the laws of planetary motion; Newton formulated his general law of gravity.

All these discoveries required a unity of method and a unity of world-outlook which might well be in opposition to the world-outlook of religion. The most logical materialistic formulation of such a world-outlook at that time was the work of the French materialists Holbach and Helvétius. The fundamental proposition which united them was this, that nature is material, was created by no one and exists for ever. The view of the Church that matter is fixed, passive and can only move itself and change with the help of spirit was opposed. They asserted that matter was created by no one and is always in motion. No matter without movement and no movement without matter. They rejected any interference of a god with nature, since a god appeared quite superfluous and nature could be explained without him. In nature stern causal law is the ruler, one phenomenon of necessity follows another.
“The universe is the vast unity of everything that is, everywhere it shows us only matter in movement,” says Holbach (1723-1789), “This is all that there is and it displays only an infinite and continuous chain of causes and actions; some of these causes we know, since they immediately strike our senses; others we do not know since they act on us only by means of consequences, quite remote from first causes.”
This mechanistic world-outlook also determined the attitude of the French philosophers to the question of the origin of consciousness and the role of thought. The Church taught that the consciousness of man is a fragment of the divine spirit, of soul, that thanks to the soul man is able to think, and by just this is distinguished from the animals. But the materialists denied the self-sufficiency of the soul and held that man is just such a material body as all other animals and inorganic bodies. Man, of course, is distinguished from inorganic bodies, but this distinction, in the opinion of the French materialists, amounts to this, that man is merely a more complex and delicate mechanism than other bodies. Thus La Mettrie (1709-1751) even called his principal work: Man the Machine. He wrote:
“All the functions, which I have ascribed to this machine, naturally proceed from the organisation of its several parts no more and no less than the movements of a clock or other automaton proceed from the disposition of its screws and wheels, so that it is quite unnecessary to suppose in this machine, i.e.man, any kind of soul, any special cause of movement and life, other than its blood and the forces within it that are stimulated by warmth.”
Diderot, who enters into a deeper examination of the reactions of soul and body, expresses the same thought as La Mettrie.
“We are instruments dowered with feeling and memory. Do you really think that a chaffinch or a nightingale and a human musician are essentially different? Do you see this egg? What sort is this egg? Before it was fertilized it was an insensible, non-living mass. How does this mass change into another organization, with sensation and life? By means of heat. What does this heat produce? Motion. What is the gradual action of this motion? At first there is a moving point, a little thread, which dilates and knits itself together, then flesh is formed, a beak, wings, eyes, claws appear; the yellowish matter separates itself and produces the inward parts of the bird—it is an animal. The animal moves this way and that, cheeps! I hear its cry through the shell. It covers itself with down, it sees. The weight of its swaying head ceaselessly knocks its beak against the wall of its prison, now the wall breaks, the bird crawls out to freedom, walks, flutters, falls down, runs, approaches nearer, has regrets, suffers, loves, yearns, and rejoices; it has all your feelings, all your actions. Between you and the animals the difference is only in organization.”
However, although they rejected soul as the source of consciousness and acknowledged that man is only a material body, a machine, yet all the same the French materialists had to explain the origin of our consciousness. This question interested them, and the answer they gave was materialistic, but at the same time, mechanistic. For all the philosophers of the eighteenth century, as also for their predecessors, human consciousness did not develop but was given together with man and all that was needed was to define the unalterable mechanism by means of which thoughts arose and were united into chains of reasoning. Materialists and idealists wrangled and fought among themselves over the question whether thought is a product of matter or matter is the offspring of spirit and proceeds from it. But the idea that consciousness is a process, that it develops, that it does not amount to a mechanical union of diverse thoughts and feelings, was known by neither side.

The French materialists saw the origin of knowledge in the action of nature on our senses. Until nature acts on us we have no sensations and no consciousness. We are born, said the French materialists, repeating the pronouncement of the English philosopher Locke, with a mind that is like a clean slate. Consciousness arises in a man in the process of living, as a result of the impressions received by his organs of sense. The more impressions his sense organs receive, the more rich, the more diverse his consciousness becomes.

Sensations are those simplest elements of consciousness out of whose union and combination representations are formed. In the further working out of representations, complex ideas, ideas of relations and finally general ideas are formed. We see, therefore, that in their enquiries into the origin and nature of consciousness the French materialists retained their mechanistic ideas.

The essence of human conduct in the opinion of the French materialists is comprised in this, that it seeks for satisfaction and avoids unsatisfaction. Happiness, therefore, consists of prolonged and durable pleasure. Thus every man is an egoist. The aggregate of egoists constitutes society.

In society, the egoism of one man is limited by the egoism of other people. Consequently, in society, man must strive not only for his own happiness, but also for the happiness of others. To attain general happiness, good social institutions are necessary.

Therefore, in order that people may acquire happiness it is necessary to replace bad institutions by good ones. Here the philosophy of the French materialists outgrows its moral teaching and becomes a political programme, a demand to change the feudal structure of society. This demand was that element in their philosophy which particularly attracted the attention of the bourgeoisie and inspired all the progressive people of that epoch. In their social views the French materialists appeared as bold fighters against feudal relations both in town and country. They showed special hatred to the Church as the bulwark of feudalism. Their teaching became a theory of revolution. The French bourgeois sought to realize their ideas in revolution.

Yet personally the French materialists were not revolutionaries. They did not teach a revolutionary, violent overthrow of authority. They made no call to insurrection. To the question how to change social institutions they answered: It is necessary to change the morals and habits of people, to assist the enlightenment of the masses, since the political structure depends on this. But to the question how to change the environment, they had no helpful answer, which reveals the inadequacy and shallowness of their thinking and its speculative character. They rested their hopes of changing feudalism not on the masses but on enlightened, absolute monarchs from whom they expected reforms. The helplessness of metaphysical materialism to resolve problems of social development was in this fashion made absolutely plain. It was this which led to the belief that an enlightened law-giver was necessary in order to change the social structure. As if a king in relation to social institutions acts like a mechanic in relation to a machine the separate parts of which one can rearrange by external action.

The immense encouragement which this philosophy gave both to the growth of science and the growth of religious rationalism must not blind us to its grave defects. It failed signally to explain how any real change can come about. If all the variety of life is to be reduced to the mathematical arrangements and rearrangements of atoms, all actual differences are really denied. This is what Plekhanov called “the transformation of a phenomenon into a fossilized thing by abstracting it from all the inner processes of life.”

The only way to explain phenomena is to study things in their development, in their arising and dying away, letting the object freely and spontaneously expound its own characteristics.

But French materialism was incapable of this dialectical treatment of nature.

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