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The Dialectic of Quality and Property

Prepared by the Leningrad Institute of Philosophy under the Direction of

M. Shirokov 1941

According to the metaphysic of properties, quality and property are simply identical with one another. A property is an independent quality, an independent force, aptitude, etc. And a thing is the external unity of these independent properties.

According to the mechanistic view a property is the relation of one thing to another, but it is an external relation, it does not flow out of the internal nature of the thing.

In actuality there are no independent isolated qualities. Quality exists in relation, and these relations flow out of the unique nature of each thing by an internal necessity. As a result of its contradictions a thing must exist in connection with others and its properties are nothing else than the manifestations of its quality in relation to other things.
Quality is a property above all and pre-eminently in the sense of how much it shows itself in external relation as an immanent definiteness.”Hegel, Science of Logic, vol. i, p. 54.
Plants that possess chlorophyl cannot exist without sunlight; their internal qualitative definiteness manifests itself in the property of absorbing solar rays. A river does not exist without banks; it possesses the property of changing their lines, it may wash them away, it may re-establish them elsewhere. Every chemical element pre-supposes the existence of other elements and its chemical properties are revealed in its different relations to different elements – to one set it is neutral, with others it unites in a violent reaction. Man is a social being and his quality, the “nature” he derives from the class he belongs to (in other words his character) is revealed in his actions, in his relations to other people and things.

There is no matter without movement, and forms of movement do not exist in isolation, every quality reveals itself in its activity, which is manifested in its relations. In defining the “object” with which the natural sciences concern themselves, Engels wrote:
“The object is a moving substance. Again it is possible to know the different forms and aspects of the substance itself through movement; only in movement are the properties of a body revealed; there can be nothing to say of a body, that is not found in movement. It follows that out of the forms of movement flow the properties of the moving bodies.” Dialectic of Nature.
As we see, Engels distinguishes between quality and property only as two sides of one and the same definite aspect of a process. Quality and property are indissolubly connected. However, the theory of primary and secondary qualities, the hieroglyphic theory and Kantian agnosticism, all separate these categories. In knowledge –say the agnostics – we are dealing not with the “thing in itself” but only with its relation to our perception. According to the theory of hieroglyphs the “thing in itself” is knowable only in the conditional symbols of our sensations. In Kant’s opinion, the “thing in itself” is absolutely unknowable, we know only the “thing for us,” only a phenomenon, which has nothing in common with the “thing in itself.” Further, as Hegel indicated, the Kantian “thing in itself” is an empty abstraction about which it is possible to say nothing, for this reason that by moving it from relations, from its “being for another,” we ourselves destroy the bridge to the knowledge of it. In his notes on the Hegelian dialectic, Lenin wrote on this issue as follows:
“The aphorism, that we do not know what exactly ‘things in themselves’ really are seems to be wisdom. But the ‘thing in itself’ is an abstraction from every definition (from every relation to another), i.e. it is nothing…. How very profound: the ‘thing in itself’ and its converse – ‘the thing for others.’… The ‘thing in itself’ as a generality is an empty, lifeless abstraction. In life, in movement, everything exists both in itself and for others, in relationship to something else, and so continually transforms itself from one state into another.”
However, the arguments for agnosticism are inexhaustible and it is possible to ask, whence do you get your knowledge of the internal definiteness of a thing? In experience only a thing’s external appearances are given to us, only its properties, and all our knowledge amounts to a description of particular properties known subjectively through the senses. We see light and we distinguish colour because we possess the organ of sight; we hear sounds because we possess the organ of hearing; we detect scents because we have an organ of smell; we discern a rough or a smooth surface because we have a sense of touch. The qualitative differences between sensations are created not by differences in the things in themselves, but by the differences of our organs of sense.

In answer to the agnostic we will admit that each particular sensation is quite one-sided and limited, but we will remind him that knowledge is by no means content with particular sensations, but is all the time correlating them and thus disclosing the unity of the properties of the objectively existing thing. And here it is easy to point out that the different organs of sense give us by no means absolutely different impressions. The organs of sense are connected, co-ordinated with each other, there is between them a known unity and up to a certain degree they amplify each other, since they themselves are the historic product of social practice in which society had to deal with a single, many-sided object – the world. For example:
Touch and sight amplify each other in such a way that you can often tell from seeing a thing what its tactile properties will be. And finally, just as always the one and the same ‘I’ receives and works over these different sense impressions, and gathers them into a unity, so these different impressions are conveyed from one and the same thing, and ‘appear’ as its general properties, in this way making possible our comprehension of it. Therefore the task of explaining these differences, these properties, which are attainable only by the different organs of sense, of establishing a connection between them is a scientific task….” Engels, Anti-Dühring.
But that does not satisfy the agnostic. In the first place, he says, we do not know whether all these properties belong to one thing, as you assert, or to different things, and secondly you do not go further than external properties, the external relations of the thing to the consciousness.

The agnostic proceeds from the supposition that things in themselves are by their internal nature absolutely foreign to consciousness, and so in his opinion there is no bridge between the relations of a thing and its internal structure.

In this very supposition lies the basic vice of all agnostic doubts. As a matter of fact if things were absolutely foreign to us, no objective connection, no contact could be established between us and the objective world in general. As we explained above, relations between things are possible in general only because they possess in some or other relation an internal kinship. If things, as agnostics think, were absolutely external to man, we could not receive from them any sensations whatever.

In the world of reality we have sensations because both the things we know about and ourselves belong not to two quite different “substances,” but are parts of one and the same world, products and stages of one and the same process of material development. During the age-long history of the animal world and of the development of human society our sense organs were formed and perfected, our capacity for knowing the objective world was developed, and this direct unity of nature and man is realized every day and every hour in our practical action.
We can demonstrate the correctness of our conception of a given phenomenon by the fact that we ourselves evoke it, produce it from its conditions and make it serve our aims. This puts an end to the Kantian ‘thing in itself.’”Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach.
It is quite clear that we can evoke the phenomena of nature only in so far as we ourselves are included in its total system and only in so far as our action is a special form of material movement.

Primarily, labour is a process going on between man and nature, a process in which man, through his own activity, initiates, regulates, and controls the material reactions between himself and nature. He confronts nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate nature’s productions in a form suitable to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops the potentialities that slumber within him, and subjects these inner forces to his own control.”2 Capital, vol. i, chap. 5.

By our work we create new things with new properties. “Labour has been united with the article of work. It has been substantialized, the article has been subjected to the labour process” (Marx). When we perceive the external world passively the movement of a thing allows us to understand it through its properties which are reflected as sensations in our consciousness but whose objective basis we do not know. But in the process of production our action emerges as a form of movement which produces a new thing with new properties.
The labour has become incorporated with the subject matter of labour. Labour has been materialized, and the subject matter of labour has been elaborated. That which in the labourer appeared as movement, now appears in the product in a resting phase, as “being” instead of “becoming.” The worker has spun, and the product is his web.” Capital, vol. i, p. 173.
Thus in the process of material production and of class conflict, which aim at the changing of “natural” things and of social relations, there is disclosed an objective dialectic of quality and property.

In compounding a theory or scientific hypothesis we proceed from properties to the form of movement that lies at their base, but this is possible only because in practice – in industry, in experiment, in class struggle – we proceed by the reverse course; we create by our action determined forms of movement and arrive at new properties. The radical re-casting of things allows us to probe into the world from the inside, it opens up to us the contradictory movement that lies at the basis of things and thus creates a basis and criterion of knowledge. In our practice we ourselves make actual the development of matter, we ourselves create objective actuality.
Purposeful action is directed to this end – that, by abolishing determined aspects, features, phenomena of the external world, we may give to ourselves reality in the form of external actuality” (Lenin). Thus in practical action “the consciousness of man not only reflects the objective world, but also creates it” (Lenin).
In this creativeness we have such a close mutual penetration of man and the objective actuality that exists outside him, such an immediate unity of them, as radically refutes agnosticism and the superstition*that grows from it. By disclosing and developing the connection of man with the objective world, practice opens the way to a deeper knowledge of the nature of things, to an ever fuller disclosure of the internal definiteness of a thing in its properties, to an even more many-sided conversion of the “thing in itself” into the “thing for us.” An impassable and mysterious gulf between the “thing in itself” and our consciousness exists only in the imagination of Kantians and their successors.

* If subjective experience and states of consciousness are our only data in apprehending reality then “religious” experiences are as valid as any other and the whole world of occultism and superstition is put on a par with the world known to science. Hence this relativist agnosticism is declared to open the door to superstition.

Both superficial sense impressions and very accurate scientific conceptions are reflections of actual things, copies of them, although copies of a different degree of accuracy and depth.

A thing has an infinite number of properties. In each property is reflected some one aspect of the object. We shall never exhaust all the aspects, but even in the simplest impressions, ocular, aural and so on, we are given not hieroglyphs of the thing, not subjective, secondary properties, but a reflection of it from some determined aspect. On the basis of practice we shall know ever more and more properties, ever more and more aspects, and by disclosing their internal unity, shall know ever more deeply the qualitative definiteness of the processes.

We know the quality of a thing through its properties. The diversity of properties, the diversity of aspects, in which the thing is connected directly or indirectly with all other things, is inexhaustible, infinite. Being in connection with everything, each particular thing is in essence just as infinite in its many-sidedness as the world as a whole. The apt expression of this thought by Dietzgen the German philosopher and worker was cited by Lenin with approval. It runs:
“We may know nature and its parts only relatively; because every part, although it is only a relative part of nature, has nevertheless the nature of an absolute, the nature of a natural whole – which is, as such, inexhaustible by knowledge.” Lenin, vol. xiii, p. 106.
What properties are more essential than others? Subjectivists say there is no objective distinction. In their opinion out of the multitude of particular properties we select arbitrarily those which are more interesting and important to us and pay no attention to the rest. Only one who completely disregarded actual material practice could state the question thus. To an empty “contemplator” of nature, to one whose approach to things is superficial, a mere consideration of supply and demand, the objectivity of properties is of no importance at all. A bourgeois on holiday in the country admires the bright colours of a poisonous plant, and does not bother about its more essential, harmful properties. But for the deep practical knowledge required in order to change things the most “interesting” properties are those which are objectively the most essential. “The introduction of practice into the determining of an object,” of which Lenin spoke, will lead not to an arbitrary selection of properties but quite on the contrary demands the objective criteria of their essentiality or non-essentiality.

In order to transform a tree by work into paper, or to build a house from it, or to cut sleepers, or to get products by treating it chemically, it is not enough for us to know the colour of its bark or to listen to the poetical murmur of its leaves – we must know what are objectively the most essential properties of wood, etc., etc.

By what objective criteria can we tell whether properties are essential? As we have seen, every quality exists not as something discrete but only in relation to other qualities. The internal contradictions of the quality are the source of its various properties and make it possible for them to reveal themselves. Particular things are not independent – for their own existence they need other things. The connection of things consists in their difference; their unity is realized through oppositeness and conflict. The closer their connection, and at the same time the more acute their opposition, so much the more essential and characteristic are their mutual relations, so much the more are their essential properties revealed in these relations.

It is the nature of capitalists to exploit. This characteristic is expressed in their relation to natural resources, in the limitations of their interest in art, and even in their emphasized tendency to distinguish themselves by a modish costume – in all these things. But the most essential of them is their relation to the workers.

In all the habits of a beast of prey are disclosed its qualitative definiteness, but the most essential properties of a cat are manifested in the catching of mice.

An acid has many properties, but the most essential is its ability to combine with an alkali or a metal and form a salt. In a word the most essential qualities are those which a thing manifests in relation to “its other,” to its opposite. Things that have little in common are for the most part “indifferent” to each other. No one examines a mechanic by playing chess with him. Just as little will be revealed by testing him on an automatic machine. A mechanic will show his essential properties in relation to “his own other,” to the machine which it is his job to work, especially if he is confronted with a difficult repair job in connection with it. The most characteristic properties of a chemical element are revealed in relation with those elements which belong to the same family – a metal to a metalloid and the converse.

Chemistry at the beginning of the sixteenth century abandoned the alchemistic consideration of isolated properties and began to study properties in relation to one another. Attention was drawn at this time to the utilization of chemical preparations as medicines; this is the period of what is called iatro-chemistry during which the relation of chemical substance and their properties to the human organism was examined. This was mainly fruitful in increasing the knowledge of compounds but the more essential properties of chemical substances were revealed only after chemistry had begun to compare the chemical elements themselves with each other, to study their mutual “kinship.”

As we have explained, the more essential properties of a thing are manifested in its relationship to the opposite thing of the same family, to the opposite particular of the same “general,” to the opposite aspect of the same wider whole.

This proposition leads us to yet another quite important conclusion. Let us first ask in what are the essential features of the general itself manifested? We know that the general exists only in the particulars and through the particulars, that the whole exists only in the unity of its opposing aspects. But if this is so then clearly the specific definiteness of the whole is manifested in the relation of the opposing aspects and parts. Its essential properties are reflected in the unity of the essential properties of its opposing aspects. We begin our knowledge from relatively external, less essential properties and from them we proceed to disclose the internal relations of the thing, in which are expressed its most essential properties.

Each quality is dissected, each contains in itself a whole order of subordinate qualitative differences. Therefore each quality contains in itself a number of internal relations. It is precisely in these that the internal contradictions of quality emerge most fully and clearly and therefore in these that the most essential properties are expressed.

As long as the investigation of society proceeded along the line of its relatively external connections the knowledge of social phenomena was quite precarious and superficial. It was necessary to define the specific sphere of social phenomena, to learn to compare the different processes that lie in one and the same whole. But this could only be done by discovering the opposing sides of society, by expressing what were its specific features in a unity of opposing poles. Without this the bourgeois scientists had to be content with description of the most superficial aspects of social life. Some of them held the essential property of social man to be his desire to imitate, others – the sex urge, a third group – the desire to accumulate, etc. Whole sociological treatises are written on all kinds of less important social phenomena, exalting them to a position of essential importance. The actual path to the understanding of social properties is revealed by approaching society as a whole, by distinguishing its opposing aspects, its opposing qualities. And as our knowledge of this unity of opposites becomes deeper, science is the more able to discover essential properties. Marx disclosed the internal contradictions in the development of the means of production, showed the inner connection of opposing classes and on this basis developed a study of the properties of society and social phenomena as no one had been able to do before him.

And so, the mechanists notwithstanding, it is impossible to ascribe properties to the external relations of things. Properties express specific definiteness, and the most essential, most characteristic properties of bodies are those which are manifested in the internal relations of the connected whole. Imperialism is a unitary system; its most essential properties are manifested in the contradictory connection of monopoly and competition. Thus in the infinite relations of a thing to other things and in the relations of its own aspects is manifested the whole diversity of its properties and in these its quality finds full expression.

Quality is necessarily manifested in properties, it can only develop itself through the unfolding of properties. “A being that exists in itself” necessarily becomes a “being that exists for another.” Thus the aggregate of properties of a given thing appears by no means as something stagnant and immutable. In the development of a thing as a unitary whole its particular aspects are inevitably changed, but not in such a way that the thing should change its qualitative definiteness. “Although a thing exists only in so far as it possesses properties, yet its existence is not inseparably connected with the existence of those or other determined properties, and it can lose certain of them, without ceasing to be that which it is” (Hegel). Not every change of a trait of character changes the quality of man as a whole. But the development of this whole cannot take place except through a change of particular properties.

The unity of quality and properties, as we saw above in many examples, is a contradictory and fluid unity. It is realized not in an unchanged, quiescent relationship, but in ceaseless contradictory development. And to understand this unity the thing must be regarded not in its particular states, but in the whole line of its changes. What is this line of development, whither does this changing of the “being as it exists in itself” to the “being as it exists for another” lead? The mechanists hold that the development of the connections of a thing with other things is the expression of its dependence on all external circumstances. The more the relations of things are developed, the less of stability and definiteness is there in the change of each of them. The French materialists grew confused in the complex network of relations and everything seemed to them to be the sport of countless external causes. They sought the causes of change in everything in the world except in the entity that was itself changing. The collapse of the English revolution, some of them tried to explain, could not follow from its own development but from gravel that formed in Cromwell’s bladder and caused his sickness and death. But this citation of gravel is purely arbitrary – it is impossible to discover all the “gravels,” all the “crazy atoms.”* And if every event is to be found in absolute dependence on external causes, it is impossible to know anything at all about its course.

* “Crazy Atoms.” See Note, Section III Chapter II

We by no means ascribe movement to external causes, nor properties to external relations. We proceed from the self-movement of a thing and therefore our understanding of a being that exists for another is directly opposite to the mechanist’s understanding. A thing is by no means the passive sport of external impacts. In its self-movement a thing possesses its own activity and manifests it through its properties.

Let us recall the examples which we gave at the beginning of the chapter – they exactly illustrate this active role of properties.

Even if we ourselves act on a thing, and as a consequence it takes on the appearance of a passive object of our action – even, in this case, those properties which it manifests are the expression of its own activity, its own qualitative uniqueness. In turning a piece of metal on a lathe we come up against the hardness of metal; in the chemical working of this or that material we evoke the appearance of its chemical properties. An agriculturist who despises the activity of the properties of the plants he is cultivating or the animals he is breeding will never get the results he desires. The difficulties of production and particular failures of our action on things demonstrate better than all arguments that in the development of properties, in their “being as it exists for another,” things actively express their quality. The essential thing is that it is possible to evoke in the object such a change as flows out of its own nature. And if we do not apply our action to it externally or metaphysically, we shall make it “in being as it exists for us” express those properties that we need. Thus in solving the problem of properties, as in all other things, we must proceed from the self-movement of matter. And every self-movement arises on a basis of contradictions – “being as it exists for another” is one of its manifestations. Through connection with other things a thing asserts its own independence; by acting on another, it develops its own definiteness; in its relationship to another a thing at the same time relates itself to itself and changes itself.

In disclosing the dialectic of the development of social man, Marx wrote:
“By acting on the external world and changing it, he changes at the same time his own nature. He develops potentialities that slumber within him and subjects these inner forces to his own control.” Capital, vol. i, chap. 5.
It is easy to note that in the proposition quoted, Marx gives a concrete picture of the contradictory development of a quality through its relations to something else. Faculties, lying dormant within man, i.e. that are found in a state of being in themselves, are developed through action on nature – through being for another – and become the proper active force of man. The developed qualitative definiteness of man, as reflected in his own consciousness, is in this way turned into his “being for himself.”

The way of developing a quality lies through its many-sided connections. Here is that line of development in which quality and property emerge in their indissoluble unity.

The proletariat, until it developed its struggle against the bourgeoisie, appeared as a class in itself. It existed in the likeness of a disordered mass of workers, its qualitative definiteness as of a united, complete class with its individual properties and tasks was not yet developed, not yet unfolded. At this stage of development of the proletariat, the workers are under the thumb of the bourgeoisie in the latter’s conflict with feudalism. The way of consolidating, of rallying the proletariat, of welding it into a special class goes on through organization of the struggle against the exploiting classes.

In this relation to its “other,” which is before all things its antagonist, the proletariat develops its properties. In this process it at first reveals superficial and non-essential properties, by expressing its protest in an elementary fashion and without any organization, by coming forward with particular economic demands of slight importance. But the further it unfolds its “being as it exists for another,” that is to say, the more its opposition to the capitalists becomes intensified, the more deeply and widely does it manifest its essential properties, the properties of the leading revolutionary class. And when it produces its advance guard, its revolutionary party, which fosters within the proletariat a knowledge of its historical tasks and leads it on to the struggle against the capitalist system as a whole, then the proletariat emerges as an independent force of historic development, conscious of its independence – it becomes a class “for itself.”

We repeat, through active “being as it exists for another” lies the way of contradictory development of every quality, the full unfolding of a given quality is the extreme intensification of its internal contradictions.

As we explained, every particular, qualitatively specific thing possesses internal contradictions. From one aspect it has the nature of a whole, includes in itself the general, from the other aspect it is limited in its uniqueness. In virtue of this contradiction it is connected with other things, is related with them. However, its “being as it exists for others,” its connection with them, does not resolve its internal contradictions. On the contrary, through relation to another its quality is unfolded and thus and more fully are revealed its limitations, its finiteness. The more developed the capitalist means of production becomes, the more apparent are the signs of its end. The more an organism develops the closer is its limit, the boundary of its life – its death. From the view-point of a mechanist this limit is placed outside the quality of the thing as an external force, but actually the limit to every quality is found within it. Without a limit there is no quality, no definiteness, no distinction between one thing and another. But every end is the beginning of something new, the limit of one quality appears as the beginning of another.

The proletariat in its struggle against capitalism is turned into a class for itself, but by doing so it strives to pass beyond the bounds of capitalism, it seeks the abolition of classes and consequently points the way to its own extinction as a special class. In the full unfolding of the qualitative definiteness of the proletariat is included its self-negation. And such is the dialectic of every quality, of everything finite. In his review of Hegelian logic Lenin defined the dialectic of the finite in the following terms: “The finite is... something regarded from the view-point of its immanent limit – from the view-point of its contradiction with itself, which contradiction pushes and carries it (this something) further than its bounds....”

Thus for itself the “being” of a thing is its transition to another. Every quality, having developed all its possibilities, finds its limit, and gives rise to something new.
So this dialectical philosophy dissolves all conceptions of final, absolute truth, and of a final absolute state of humanity corresponding to it. For it nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away, of endless ascendancy from the lower to the higher.” Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach, p. 22.
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