Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy

Maurice Cornforth

Empiricism and Logic

In Search of the Right Analysis


Moore's opposition to utilitarianism coincided with the general discredit which had overtaken that kind of moral and political outlook. By the turn of the century, when Principia Ethica was written, it had come to smell very musty. Theoretically it was cracking up, under the strain of the disagreements and oppositions encountered in trying to base actions on a calculus of pleasures. J. S. Mill had in fact already dealt it a death blow when he began to support stringent labour legislation and even a measure of socialism on the grounds that human happiness demanded it, and when, in his Utilitarianism, he introduced the idea of a qualitative distinction between pleasures according to which the lower pleasures should he sacrificed to the higher; by introducing such considerations he upset the so-called calculus completely. At the same time the working class, the majority of the nation, had won the right to organise, won the franchise, and so come (as it used to be expressed, though the idea is now taken for granted) "within the pale of the constitution". They could no longer be regarded as servants, whose good was to be decided for them by their masters, or be written off as "the poor". They had won the right to negotiate the regulation of hours, wages and conditions, and to assert their point of view generally. The calculated benevolence of the utilitarian calculus was not what working people were looking for—and this philosophy could not disguise its association with the point of view of the individual capitalist master. Behind concern for "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" workers sensed sordid calculations of commercial gain, to which culture, welfare, happiness and everything else were sacrificed.

The scientific socialist outlook which developed with the working-class movement was from the start opposed to utilitarianism. Indeed, Marx reserved for it some of his most scathing remarks and footnotes in Capital. But from early in the nineteenth century a reaction against utilitarian ideas also set in amongst liberal-minded intellectuals. The more radical ones took up Jacobin theories of the rights of man and human perfectibility. But others began to look to German idealism for their inspiration.

The idealist philosophy developed after Kant by Fichte, Schelling, Hegel and others, was a peculiarly German product, arising from conditions very unlike those obtaining in Britain. It was not understood in Britain. Nevertheless, the news got around that in Germany spiritual ideals had been preached opposed to the sordid material calculations which had become associated with British empiricism, and so a very amorphous philosophy was concocted, which claimed to base itself "on Kant and Hegel", although it had none of the rigour and realism of Hegel's dialectic. The world of sense was said to be only an "appearance", a manifestation of the eternal, necessary and changeless spiritual unity on which was bestowed the name "The Absolute".

This kind of philosophy originally represented a liberal, humanist and romantic protest, not against capitalism itself, but against its grossest effects on men's lives and minds. Essentially, it was quietist, escapist, and ineffective. That is why other romantics, like Shelley and his circle, had no use for it. Indeed, Shelley's friend T. L. Peacock, in his novel Melincourt, satirised Coleridge (one of the first to try to translate German idealism into English) under the name of "Moley Mystic Esquire", representing him as living in a house called Cimmerian Lodge in the middle of a swamp, perpetually surrounded by a thick fog through which he sought to guide visitors with the aid of a "synthetic torch". Mr. Mystic's philosophy proclaimed that reality is not what it seems, and called for no struggle to change it. It was anti-socialist. And in a very profound sense, it was anti-science. "Transcendental" science was solemnly invoked; but ''merely empirical" science, though admittedly useful for limited practical ends, was no guide to understanding reality. It was merely concerned with sensible appearances, irrelevant to the understanding of spirit, and quite beside the point in comparison with knowledge of The Absolute.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century this second-hand idealist philosophy became far more assertive in Britain, was systematised by professionals like Bernard Bosanquet, T. H. Green and F. H. Bradley, and gained rapidly in influence. This was due, no doubt, to the growing discredit of utilitarian ideas; but more positively, it was due to changing social conditions, which were leading to a new emphasis being put on the unity of the nation and the role of the state. A number of factors contributed to this result. The growth of the working-class movement itself led to the idea that all citizens were entitled to their share of education, and to a say in the common affairs of the nation, which were the common interest of all—but they must be educated to a proper sense of "spiritual values", and of their own personal subordination to higher things; the loss of Britain's position as "workshop of the world", with economic difficulty at home and formidable competition abroad, led to the assertion of a common interest in Britain's claims in face of other nations, and in imperialist foreign and colonial policy; and in these conditions the role assigned to the state began to change—it was no longer required to interfere as little as possible in affairs, but its powers and functions as general manager of the nation's business began to be enlarged. Responding to such circumstances, English absolute idealism made another borrowing from Hegel, and began to preach social responsibility and authoritarianism. It was above all Bosanquet who translated into English the Hegelian doctrine that the State is the manifestation in human life of the Moral Idea, that the individual exists only through the State and receives everything he needs through the State, that his good lies in obeying the State, and that the State is itself a spiritual entity, a spiritual unity more real than the fragmentary individual selves of its citizens. All this was put forward with a great show of moral fervour, of class reconciliation, and of contempt for mere science and empirical calculation.

This kind of idealist philosophy played upon its opposition to utilitarian calculations. Significantly, Moore's Principia Ethica, opposing utilitarianism, opposed equally this idealist philosophy with its "metaphysical ethics". Moore theoretically demolished utilitarian ethics to such effect that it never again became theoretically respectable. He proclaimed that ethical considerations differed from matter-of-fact calculations of gain or loss. But at the same time, he exposed the theoretical hollowness of the high-sounding claims of absolute idealism. The logical-analytic philosophy, adopting what was essentially a positivist outlook, freed that outlook from its former damaging association with utilitarianism, and then set out to reinstate positivism by the demolition of absolute idealism.

Both Russell and Moore worked out their ideas in continuous polemic against what then passed in Britain for Hegelian idealism. The so-called Hegelians had made out that the part has no existence save within the whole, and that objects exist only as parts, unreal in themselves, of the higher spiritual unity within which they are presented as objects of perception. Moore called one of his most important early papers "The Refutation of Idealism", and in it used the techniques of formal logic to demonstrate that the idealists' arguments had no validity. When Russell proclaimed his opposition to "the classical tradition", which sought by a priori arguments to prove that the world is different from what it seems, he was not, in fact, opposing any tradition which could justifiably rank as "classical", but only the foggy verbiage of the contemporary British absolute idealists.

These idealists had developed a special line of argument (only very remotely related to the Hegelian dialectic from which it was supposedly derived) to prove that material objects are unreal, that motion is unreal, that time is unreal, that we ourselves are unreal, and that only The Absolute is real, by finding "contradictions" in propositions stating facts about individuals or motion or the passage of time. Hence their contempt for mere facts, which they declared to be mere contradictory appearances: appearance was proved to be mere appearance by its contradictoriness. The "classical" statement of these arguments was in F. H. Bradley's Appearance and Reality; and their final parade, leading to their being finally shot down, was staged in Cambridge by J. M. E. McTaggart, who denied the reality of time on the grounds of its involving a logical contradiction. Logical-analytic philosophers had no real difficulty in showing that all these alleged contradictions were the products merely of imprecise statement and of ignorance of logical and mathematical techniques. As the fog of verbal confusions was dispersed, the doctrine of The Absolute perished—for as T. L. Peacock had remarked years before, it could live only in an environment of fog. And with it went the doctrine of the State as a higher spiritual being.

The great and wordy battle which logical-analytic philosophers fought with absolute idealists, and in which they won a famous victory, was of decisive importance for the development of ideas in modern Britain. It meant that the anti-empirical, anti-scientific, semi-mystical, authoritarian way of thinking which was growing up in the new conditions, out of the discrediting of positivist-utilitarian ideas, was halted, and was supplanted by new forms of positivist ideas. These emerged as the dominant, most pervasive ideology in Britain in the period of monopoly capitalism. Thenceforward the alternative to hard-faced nineteenth-century individualism and laissez faire no longer presented a choice between revolutionary socialism and a foggy idealism, which belittled the interests of individuals and despised science and technological progress. Instead, science was still to be regarded as the source of positive knowledge; the dogmas of laissez faire economics were to be corrected by more objective social studies, combining factual surveys with mathematical calculations; and the values of the good life were to be freed from subordination to both social utility and supernatural authority.

SOURCE: Cornforth, Maurice. Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy. 2nd ed. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1967 (orig. 1965). Part I, chapter 5, section 5, pp. 106-110. See also the complete book offsite.

Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy: Contents

Science and Evaluation by Maurice Cornforth

Logical Empiricism by Maurice Cornforth

Maurice Cornforth (1909-1980) Study Guide

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

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