Review of:
David-Hillel Ruben, Marxism and Materialism: A Study in Marxist Theory of Knowledge

by Ralph Dumain

In re:

Ruben, David-Hillel. Marxism and Materialism: A Study in Marxist Theory of Knowledge, new and rev. ed. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press; Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1979.

I    Kant
II   Between Kant and Marx
III  Marx and Materialism
IV  Towards a Marxist Theory of Knowledge
V   Materialism and Reflection Theory: More Towards a Marxist Theory of Knowledge
VI  Lenin and his Critics


David-Hillel Ruben’s Marxism and Materialism: A Study in Marxist Theory of Knowledge is another hoary volume that belongs to the 1970s.  Ruben is not terribly sympathetic to the philosophical positions of Lukács, Korsch, and co., or to his colleague Roy Bhaskar's transcendental arguments, either. Ruben ties praxis to materialism rather than using the former to ambush the latter. Again, this is old. It is, however, one way of settling accounts with old philosophy, though it doesn't touch the primary political, social, and economic issues of import. Ruben begins with Kant and ends with the qualified support of Lenin and the general advocacy of a reflection theory of knowledge. Again, here we have general philosophical positions, with a notable absence of glorification of "Western Marxism" which became all the rage for Ruben’s generation. There are two audiences mixed into this book: the audience for analytical philosophy and the audience for Marxist philosophy. For me this is another installment in a protracted goodbye to the 20th century. 

Written 4 January 2008


Here is another specimen of the sort of material that taxed people in the 1970s.  I was really into this stuff in the early '80s.  But I was still young.  I've surpassed this by now, but for some reason I decided to read this book, I think because there was some reference to it I wanted to follow up.

Given that "Western Marxism" was all the rage back then, I can see why this question might have been of concern to Ruben.  Yet, I see his subtitle as misleading, for the theory of knowledge in question is not a full Marxist theory of knowledge, but only that part of it historically concerned with general ontological and epistemological issues, rather than an epistemology directed towards the analysis of society and political economy.  But this book is also combined with an extensive treatment of the issues raised by Kant.

Ruben begins with Kant, opposing Hume, positing two sources of knowledge: in the external world, and that supplied by the structure of cognition. (13) Ruben has a peculiar classification of philosophies, distinguishing idealism from realism along two axes (22): the independence of the external world from thought, and the nature of that external world. According to Ruben, Hegel, in opposition to Berkeley, denies the independence of sensation from thought, and is thus an idealist while Berkeley is a realist albeit phenomenalist.  Huh?  Kant (noumena vs. phenomena) is seen to be epistemologically inconsistent. (23) In his protracted analysis of Kant, Ruben denies that Kant is a conceptual idealist as is sometimes thought. (31)

Ruben finds Findlay misguided in attempting to interpret Hegel's teleology non-theistically (49-50). Copleston likewise. (51) Richard Norman similarly errs in interpreting Hegel's idealism non-theistically. (54) Key to this discussion (with quote from horse's mouth) is Hegel's rejection of the correspondence theory of truth. (56) Feuerbach vehemently asserts the independence of being from thought, and thus implicitly endorses a correspondence theory of truth (57, 59). Here there is an embryonic "reflective" rather than "interpretive" theory of knowledge.

The most interesting part of chapter 3 is excerpted on another web page. Note the treatment of the Theses on Feuerbach. (e.g. 78)  Note remarks on Ludovico Geymonat.

Roy Bhaskar comes in for a lot of criticism in various places, e.g. in Chapter 4. In this chapter, Ruben explicates criteria for an adequate theory of knowledge. Among them, it must be consistent with science, making philosophy an essentially a posteriori enterprise. (102) It must also be adequate to the real cognitive situation in which people find themselves. Also, knowledge is irreducibly social. Descartes, malgre lui, was dependent on sociality. (110) A fourth principle is that praxis is central to Marxism.  Yet Marxism is not pragmatism. (113) See the second excerpt on my web page for more. Following this excerpt is a detailed analysis of Hegel's notion of causality. Reciprocal causality is by itself not an adequate notion, for causality is asymmetrical, and nature takes precedence over praxis (pp. 122-123). Ruben rejects Bertell Ollman's theory of internal relations. He then addresses the issues of essence-appearance and unobservables-observables, again criticizes Bhaskar, and addresses Hilary Putnam's realism. (See esp. 135-8)


V   Materialism and Reflection Theory: More Towards a Marxist Theory of Knowledge

Pace Vico’s claim that it is easier to know what we've made (society and history) than what we've not (nature), our grasp and control of our own activity has recalcitrant aspects as well. (147) While Colletti stresses the duality of knowing and being, he's got it wrong. (148-50) Colletti's idealist epistemology is inconsistent with materialism and Marx is not a Kantian as Colletti thinks. Colletti, entranced with the theory-dependence of observation, goes too far, and overlooks the element of correspondence. Pace Timpanaro, one does not have to accept a notion of "passivity" in order to embrace a materialist reflection theory. (151) Colletti has misinterpreted the methodological section of the general introduction to the Grundrisse. (152-3)  Godelier also has it wrong. (154) Methodological individualism may be wrong, but the individual cannot be ignored. There is a difference between social structure and social knowledge, for knowledge is individual. There is a linkage between reflection theory, sociality, and the individual. (155-7) Rorty is an idealist. (160) Milton Fisk isn't buying the linguistic turn. Fisk links historical materialism, praxis, and correspondence. (161)


VI  Lenin and his Critics

This topic has been done to death, but remember that this was still the '70s.  Ruben rejects the notion that Lenin's later philosophical writings (on Hegel) contradict Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (MAEC).  Ruben is not buying the common disdain for MAEC (168-9). What is usually considered a weakness, Ruben considers the greatest strength of Lenin's book: "the intimate connection between materialism and a reflection theory of knowledge." (171) This has its origin in Engels and involves a rejection of Kantianism. Bogdanov is a subjectivist. (175) There is, however, a key weakness in Lenin, the conflation of a correspondence theory of knowledge with a correspondence theory of perception. (176) Ruben explicates the reasons for Lenin's conflation. (180-2) Lenin is wrong in his attack on Helmholtz and Plekhanov's theory of sensation. (183)

There is a discussion of unobservables, and realism is not equated to "scientific realism". (187) Philosophical materialism is distinct from, yet connected to science. (189-90) Lenin is wrong in arguing that subjective idealism is inevitably theistic (or fideistic). (191) Lenin is on to the duplicity of counterfactual reasoning (re logical viz. physical possibilities) in the attempts to circumvent solipsism. (192)

Finally, Ruben demolishes Pannekoek's (Lenin as Philosopher) argument that Lenin is simply an apostle of a bourgeois materialism that mirrors the Enlightenment's project of emancipation from fedualism, owing to the backwardness of Russian society. (193-7) But Pannekoek admits that the western bourgeoisie has become reactionary and anti-materialist. Clearly, both anti-materialism and a militant materialist response could well be a recurrent phenomenon, not limited to one type of situation. Pace Pannekoek, the idealism that Lenin attacks was a pan-European problem and not a specifically Russian one. The Russian importation of these ideas was a low-rent version of the originals and didn't contribute anything innovative.

Note references to Van Fraassen (197), Wilfrid Sellars (198).


There are some further questions that could have been addressed, though beyond the stated scope of the book.  Were there militant materialist counterparts to Plekhanov and Lenin in Western Europe, and if not, why did it fall to the Russian Marxists to combat positivist-idealist trends?  What is the relationship of empirio-criticism to social theory, and how was that criticized by Lenin? Social theory and the appropriate epistemology and methodology for it are pretty much missing from Ruben's book, which means that Ruben deals only with a limited aspect of Marxist epistemology, as it impacts overall world-view issues. Is Lenin's understanding of Marxist theory of knowledge as a unified approach complete and applicable both to nature and society, and tenable as such?

Lenin's responsibility for Soviet Marxism aside, why did the later Soviet philosophers contribute only (via diamat) to the critique of western positivism and irrationalism but nothing else?  How do we account for the Soviets' canonical interpretation of Lenin, viz. (1) the meaning of MAEC, and (2) their condemnations of "revisionism" (including of the Frankfurt School, all of Western Marxism and anti-Stalinism)?

Ruben, as I've noted before, purposely limits himself to some key questions, and in the case of Lenin, to his reflection theory in MAEC. It's true that much squabbling in the 20th century was over these specific points, and Ruben makes a useful contribution to the squabble. Yet ultimately the century-long split within Marxist philosophy yields meager results.  Like so much of philosophy, it amounts to criticizing the elaborate illusions of other philosophers.

In the Postscript, Ruben replies to critics.  There is a lengthy criticism of Bhaskar. Transcendental arguments are rejected as illegitimate. (207) Other questions are addressed, such as the dubiousness of demarcating the a priori from the a posteriori, and the problem of induction.  Reference is made to J. L. Mackie and Michael Slote. (209- 211) Ruben criticizes Popper's epistemology without a knowing subject. (214) He is doubtful concerning the knowledge that purportedly belongs to Popper's Third World. Ruben clarifies his criticism of Lukács (215) and of his view of the relation between natural and social properties according to Marx (216). There's a comment on Hegel and intellectual intuition. Finally, Ruben slams Shlomo Avinieri, praises Pierre Naville, and references an article by Robert S. Cohen on Bogdanov.

As I have never accepted the accepted divisions within Marxist philosophy and theory, I have no problem digesting this point of view generally.  But now all this is old, and it is time to reconsider one's priorities for the 21st century.

Written 21 January 2008
All text edited 6 January 2010

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