Science versus Idealism
In Defence of Philosophy against Positivism and Pragmatism

by Maurice Cornforth



[FOREWORD          5]



1. English Materialism in the 17th Century 15
2. Materialism and the Rise of Capitalism 29
3. From Materialism to Subjective Idealism:
    Berkeley 36
4. From Materialism to Subjective Idealism: Hume 45
5. The Agnostics, Kant and Mach 57
6. Critique of Subjective Idealism 74


7. Logical Analysis as a Philosophical Method 93
8. Logical Atomism 113
9. The Philosophy of Wittgenstein 132
10. Carnap and the Vienna Circle 160
11. A Programme for the Impoverishment of Thought 176
12. Positivism as a Philosophical Tendency 193


13. Dialectical Materialism 219
14. Materialism versus Idealism in Contemporary
      Philosophy 264
15. For and Against Metaphysics 281
16. Positivism in Sociology and Politics 300
           [Positivism and Sociology 316]
17. "Unified Science" 331
18. Pragmatism 372
           [7. An “Idealism of Action"—Philosophy of American Imperialism  413]
19. Features of a Reactionary Philosophy  424



THIS book, which was published in London in 1955, is a combination of two earlier books, Science versus Idealism (1946) and In Defence of Philosophy (1950). Very extensive changes were made in what I had written before. Besides a very large number of small alterations, many passages were completely rewritten, a good deal was deleted, and a good deal was added.

If after seven years I could change it again, I would have to add quite a lot about more recent developments of "logical positivism." I think the criticisms of its earlier varieties in this book remain quite correct, but the whole trend of this philosophy has been towards much less open subjectivism, and the emphasis on the logical study of language has been accentuated.

But the chief change I would make would be in the references to the social and political standpoint of Bertrand Russell.

At the end of the book (p. 444) it is stated that "many bourgeois philosophers" are facing a dilemma—either to tolerate and serve the forces of war, or else to help the fight for peace. Very greatly to his credit, there is no doubt as to which side Russell has taken. There is, of course, a contradiction between his present stand in favour of international understanding and the renunciation of nuclear weapons, and some of his earlier statements quoted in these pages. But I do not think this represents any change in the character of his philosophy, as I have described and criticised it in this book, or in his hostility to socialism. It represents rather his timely recognition of facts—of what another war would really mean, and therefore of the necessity of finding some way to prevent it. Having recognised facts, Russell has never been lacking in either courage or consistency in his personal actions.

London, June, 1962.



EVERYBODY has some kind of philosophy, even though they have never learned to discuss it. Everybody is influenced by philosophical views, even though they have not thought them out for themselves and cannot formulate them. For philosophy is nothing but our most general account of the nature of the world and of our place in it—our world outlook.

But the working out of philosophical views in an exact and systematic way has become a specialised job, undertaken by the trained members of various schools of philosophy. Nowadays it has even become a profession, so that we can speak of "professional philosophers." As a result, much of the discussions of these schools has become largely uninteresting and incomprehensible to everybody but the " professionals” and their coterie.

What is most of all needed, however, is that philosophy should cease to be so specialised—the preserve of the schools—and become the possession of the masses of the people.

This does not mean that it should be vulgarised and made easy. Spinoza, one of the greatest philosophers, said that "all excellent things are as difficult as they are rare." He was right in thinking that excellent philosophy is difficult, but it does not follow that it must also be rare.

What it does mean is that philosophy must serve the masses of the people by helping them to answer their own problems.

This is not the aim of the philosophers of the schools. They have tended to become more and more specialised, and more and more remote from the problems and interests of the people. For their part, they look on this as a virtue and think they are painstakingly unravelling the truth—an operation so intricate that only the most highly trained can attempt it. But in reality they are only obscuring and distorting the truth in a maze of conundrums of their own invention.

These conundrums and all the subtleties of the scholastics are not, as they themselves imagine, products of pure abstract thought. If they were, they could be of no possible interest [end of p. 9] except to other "pure thinkers." But the thinkers and their thoughts are in fact the products of the social order—in our case, of the capitalist social order. In this way the most metaphysical of their speculations have their roots firmly embedded in material reality. The philosophers of the schools are those who fundamentally accept the social order; they accept its outlook and its valuations and do not seriously challenge it or seek to change it. It is this which determines the character of their philosophical views, their basic theoretical assumptions and approach, their disputes and their problems.

There are a number of schools arguing with one another. But their whole argument fulfils a definite social function. In some cases the philosophical schools elaborate ideas which amount to a more or less direct defence of things as they are. Others know that there is something wrong, but inculcate a passive acceptance of social evils by teaching that they flow from the very nature of things and from the necessary imperfections of mankind. Others express the demand for a change, but sidetrack this into utopian schemes. All, in these various ways, are a force operating in men's minds to make them accept the capitalist order and defend it. And however remote from the common man the philosophical schools may be, their teachings nevertheless do not fail to influence him.

As capitalism has entered upon its last phase—monopoly, the phase of imperialism; and as all its contradictions have become intensified and it has entered upon a state of insoluble general crisis; so its philosophy has become more involved, more abstract, more specialised.

And at the same time one tendency above all has come to the top, and that is to retreat from any point of view which seeks through philosophy to understand the world and our place in it, but to say that the real world is unknowable, that it is the arena of mysterious forces which pass our comprehension. Far from trying to find out how we can advance human knowledge and human action, the philosophers set about explaining the necessary limitations of human knowledge and human action.

This is nothing but the ideological expression of the general crisis of capitalism. Capitalism has reached its limits of development. Within the limits of capitalism men are at [end of p. 10] the mercy of forces which they can neither understand nor control, and this is reflected in the specialised teachings of philosophers. The consequences of the limitations of the capitalist social order are represented by the philosophers as belonging to the very nature of the world and of the human mind.

All this means that there has taken place and is taking place a process of the real degeneration of philosophy. Philosophy has become highly specialised, remote from the people, abstract and barren, a doctrine not of the advancement of knowledge but of the limitations of knowledge, not a force for human emancipation but an apology for the existing social order.

It is against this type of philosophy that this book is written. Against the philosophies of capitalism it defends the philosophy of the struggle for socialism—Marxism, dialectical materialism.

Because of the existing state of "professional" philosophy, many people are asking what is the use of philosophy anyway, and are deciding they have no use for it. But this merely means that they themselves uncritically accept all sorts of odds and ends of philosophical doctrines, including those of the very philosophers they pretend to despise, which operate in their minds without their thinking about it. For everyone is influenced by philosophy, and if they take no interest in it, that merely means that they are influenced by whatever secondhand scraps of it come their way through the schools, the press, the church, the radio and the cinema. To have no use for philosophy means uncritically to accept and to use capitalist philosophy.

Men do need an orientation. And because of the bankruptcy of contemporary "professional" philosophy there are some who are now calling for the revival of all sorts of outworn creeds from the past—such as the philosophy of Plato, or such as "Christian" philosophy, whatever that is conceived to be.

Their desire to escape from the barrenness of the contemporary schools, and to produce a philosophy which will give some conscious orientation to the common man, may be praiseworthy. Nevertheless, by digging for this in the archives of the past they are in effect passing over the achievements of several centuries of human progress, and, in particular, [end of p. 11] the achievements of modern science. The net result is that they produce an orientation which is the very opposite of a scientific outlook, and leaves men the prey to all sorts of superstitions. It is only another facet of capitalist philosophy. Conscious of the failure of capitalism's professional philosophers, these people turn back and seek for inspiration in the philosophy of the middle ages or of ancient slave society.

The philosophy of the present and the future must build on the foundations of the past. But it must build on them. It must advance our understanding of the world and of human society on the basis of the discoveries of science and of the experience of the struggle for progress. Only in this way can philosophy meet the needs of the people. And it is just this which Marxism has achieved. In Marxism, philosophy meets the needs of the people by helping them so to understand the nature of the world and of man's place in it as to be able to change the world and to transform human society—to advance man's dominion over nature and to emancipate mankind from oppression and superstition.

Marxism, which bases its orientation on the struggle to end capitalism and to advance to communism, sets itself against the barren abstractions of the schools of capitalist philosophy and against those who are seeking to revive dead theories from the past. It unlocks the door of philosophy for the people, and makes alive for them the heritage of the past, by continuing the tradition of philosophical thought which seeks to achieve a rational comprehension of the material world and of history. It is only by striving to change the world that we can understand it, and by striving to improve the condition of man that we can understand human nature.

Marxist philosophy thus stands on the highroad of the development of philosophy, which can only advance as it serves the cause of human emancipation. It is the successor of all that was best in the philosophy of the past, in contrast to some of the present day philosophical schools of capitalism.

In this book I have not attempted to examine in detail all the schools of contemporary philosophy. In particular, I have not discussed the more progressive ones. I have concentrated on one alone, the school of positivism.

Positivism claims to be a scientific philosophy. But it [end of p. 12] employs its own principles for interpreting science. And these principles lead to the negative conclusion that we can never know anything of the law‑governed processes of the objective world.

If we are scientific, say the positivists, we can formulate ideas which serve to correlate the sense‑data which we receive when we observe things; or, as the particular variety known as pragmatists have it, ideas which are found to work, in the sense that we find it pays us to believe them and act on them. But our ideas do not and cannot reflect objective material reality, which exists independent of our thinking of it and experiencing it.

The positivists have elaborated various theories about the nature of thinking, knowledge, truth, scientific method and language corresponding to this doctrine. The positivist outlook has penetrated deeply into modern philosophy of science in particular, and it includes those philosophical trends and theories known as logical analysis, logical positivism and pragmatism. These are the theories which are examined in this book.

In trying to get to grips with them it is important not to take them at their face value. They did not appear suddenly out of the blue, as their authors sometimes seem to think, as the long‑sought solution of all the problems of philosophy. They have an historical background and are only descendants of earlier trends of philosophy. And so I have approached them historically, to find out where they came from and whither they are leading.

Today positivism has concentrated within itself all the most negative features of bourgeois philosophy—the doctrine of the limitations of knowledge and the unknowability of the real world—and has carried to the furthest pitch the narrow specialisation of philosophy, scholastic phrasemongering and barren abstraction. Yet the positivist theories pass themselves off as the very last word of scientific enlightenment.

Just because of their concern with science, positivist ideas are embraced by many people today who are seeking a progressive path and coming into the fight against reaction. But these very ideas play a major part in heading people off from a genuine understanding of science, and from finding [end of p. 13] the way to use that understanding to help solve the pressing problems of mankind. Just because of its scientific appearance, positivism is especially influential in sowing confusion in the minds of those moving into opposition to capitalism. That is why the polemic against positivism has been and still is a most important polemic of Marxism in the field of philosophy.


SOURCE: Cornforth, Maurice [Campbell]. Science versus Idealism: In Defence of Philosophy against Positivism and Pragmatism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1975. Reprint of the 1962 ed. published by International Publishers, New York. 463 pp. Original edition 1955. Based on Science versus Idealism (1946) and In Defence of Philosophy (1950). Library of Congress catalog card number 72-6924. ISBN 0-8371-6501-6. Foreword (p. 5), Contents (p. 7), Introduction (pp. 9-14.)

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