The Search for an Alternative 9:
From the Perspective of Materialism

by Marvin Farber

The Bugbear of Materialism

The term "materialism" as used in the present context signifies due adherence to the findings of the sciences as well as the self‑sufficiency of nature. It also allows for the activities and complexity of human experience by way of a critical philosophy deriving from historical materialism, a philosophy that provides for the examination of its own procedures. Unlike the suggestion of respectability attaching to the term "naturalism" in many places, there is little approval accorded the designation "materialism" in the Western academic world. The spirit of compromise that entered into the evolutionary movement and lived on in pragmatism allowed for religious values and even for the hope of a possible escape from nature. In that respect, naturalism as it appeared historically could be softened, a thoroughgoing materialism never, the dangers being frequently due to narrowness and uncritical use of the established scientific knowledge of the time. But it is also pertinent to consider varieties of materialism as well as other types and tendencies in relation to the prevailing social system, and that is a continuing theme for historical materialism. The fact that Marx and Engels called themselves materialists has added to the reasons for opposition to materialism as a type of philosophy. [1]

To attempt to tar all types of materialism with the same brush would be to incur a serious scholarly error. That error is illustrated by Sartre's treatment of materialism in his essay "Materialism and Revolution," [2] where he speaks of "materialism and the myth of objectivity" in connection with his proposal that materialism be reexamined. Materialism is charged with "eliminating subjectivity" by reducing man and the world to a system of objects linked together by universal relations. Support is thus given to the designation "myth of objectivity" by injecting a mechanistic model into the world view of materialism, which many recent writers on materialism would not allow.

Sartre makes much of the rejection of metaphysics by dialectical materialism, but the whole play on the word "metaphysics" in which he engages is based upon a misrepresentation of the reasons for replacing a metaphysical by a dialectical view. To ask by what miracle the materialist would be able to reduce spirit to matter without recourse to metaphysics is a misleading question at best. If a spiritual substance is not assumed, it is pointless to ask about reducing it to matter. A materialist who is up to the intellectual level of his time depends upon the progress of the sciences, including the analysis made possible by historical materialism, for an explanation of what is called mind, basically meaning a complex form of behavior.

Accusing materialism of being a metaphysics disguised as positivism, Sartre contends that as a metaphysics it destroys itself, for by rejecting metaphysics it deprives its own statements of any foundation. Unwarranted assumptions are therewith injected into the materialist position, making the latter deny "being" in effect, which it certainly does not do, following which charge it develops that materialism has destroyed itself. Encouraged by his own enthusiasm, Sartre argues that materialism also destroys the positivism "under which it takes cover." It is evidently a tenuous and persistent monster which is the object of attack. It would be difficult to find a less tenable argument anywhere.

A curious feature of Sartre's argumentation is shown by his question whether the universe "in itself" supports and guarantees scientific rationalism. It seems to him that in order to compare the universe as it is to the scientific picture of the universe it would be necessary to assume the attitude of God toward man and the world. But the materialist, not being so shy, "leaves behind him science and subjectivity" and substituting himself for God, whom he denies, contemplates the universe. The fault lies with Sartre's statement of this point, involving as it does a false view of scientific verification—as though the verified scientific account of the world were an artificial picture to be compared with a reality "in itself." The possible suggestion that scientific explanation is a falsifying process cannot be overlooked. In any case, the point made by Sartre is metaphysical in the old sense, for he talks about a completed world and a complete science.

When the materialist (as represented by Engels) states that his view of the world signifies nature as it is, without anything foreign added, Sartre indignantly accuses him of the "trick" of denying subjectivity and then thinking he has put an end to it. The "conception of nature as it is," however, is indeed a fundamental goal of scientific knowledge. If the question‑begging character of such epithets as subjectivity is recognized, then Sartre's own "trick" is easily detected. It is an obsolete psychological ether that is extruded by materialism, as a matter of fact. This point may well have been missed by Sartre because of his failure to consider the method, evidence, and implications of scientific psychology.

The materialist is accused of a play on the word "objectivity," "which sometimes means the passive quality of the object beheld and at other times the absolute value of a beholder stripped of subjective weaknesses." Sartre's own play on words, however, is on the term "subjectivity," which he, in the "objectivating" style of a true subjectivist, projects into his opponents. To suit his convenience, he has "the" materialist undertake a journey "into a world of objects inhabited by human objects" and upon returning tell us what he has learned. It turns out to be Hegel (as mediated by Engels) who took the journey in his place, for the report reads: "Everything that is rational is real; everything that is real is rational." But Hegel cannot be converted to materialism, nor materialism to the indicated type of rationalism.

Sartre's readiness to contemplate destruction may be reminiscent of his early contact with phenomenology and its "world‑destruction." Thus he has materialistic rationalism pass into irrationalism and destroy itself, which is simply an unfounded charge. He asks whether a "captive reason, governed from without, and maneuvered by a series of blind causes," can still be called reason. Phrases such as "captive reason," "blind causes," and, as he adds, "raw products of circumstances" are further examples of the prominent use of pejorative expressions. They function as linguistic tools in the misrepresentation of the scientific method and the real nature of the human knower.

Reverting once more to the need to survey both the "inside" and the "outside" if one is to know whether our consciousness is a correct "reflection" of the world, Sartre insists that there must be internal and subjective criteria for judging the validity of the "reflection," that is, idealist criteria. It is Sartre, however, who adopts a metaphysical version of the "inside‑outside" distinction. As the objectivistic materialist views it, everything is existentially "outside" if his complete program is to be realized in the future, for if the "inside" is anything at all, it must have a locus in the objective world. From one perspective, the "inside" is an "outside," for as an experiencing "inside" it has a locus in the physical universe. An experiencing subject, say hearing Beethoven's Fourth Symphony at different times, is not likely to react in the same way on each occasion. Not only does the world change physically and socioculturally, there are also his own changes, including his subjective processes—bodily, affective, and cognitive—all of them parts of the world. From another perspective, important in its own way, it is the human subject that is always acting and reacting in experience. The subject can be viewed descriptively as it functions in experience—in relation to other subjects, the social system, the natural world, and also reflectively—taking account of all modes of experience and intellectual processes. But the experiencing being should not be regarded as an etherealized subject, with traditional trimmings and trappings designed to lift it above the natural-social world. In actual fact, however, it is always conditioned by that world; and most important for our understanding, it is a feudal‑conditioned, or a bourgeois‑conditioned, etc., subject—in short, a complex historical event. Furthermore, it is not correct to speak of subjective criteria in the context of scientific method and to refer to the test of consistency (or "conformity") as idealistic. That is not an appropriate name for taking account of past observations, with all the safeguards of scientific inquiry.

The materialist is said to be dogmatic in holding that the universe produces thought and in passing at once into idealist skepticism. It would be better to state that thought, or the thinking activity, evolves as human beings develop, and that would not be dogmatic. Not to recognize the implications of established knowledge concerning the development of thought may simply amount to ignorance or prejudice. For the rest, dogmatism may be revealed in hurling unfounded charges of dogmatism.

Sartre hastens to the conclusion that "all that remains is ruins." [3] The general summation of his case is theatrical; it consists of a series of unfounded and misleading assertions. Only the last sentence may be allowed to stand, for it can be answered without serious critical objections or reservations. Sartre cannot be a materialist, because that would mean meeting the requirements of a critical, science‑oriented philosophy, for which one must be abreast of the scientific achievements of his time and have a clear grasp of the problems, issues, and methods of philosophy as they are rooted in historical experience and validly established knowledge. Finally, it is the aim of a complete philosopher to participate in his way in realizing the truth about human beings and their potentialities in relation to the problems of the present social system, and that requires a thoroughgoing critical analysis of human experience, practices, and institutions, giving due weight to socioeconomic conditions and motivation. This dimension of inquiry not only constitutes a rapidly developing specialty, but also, on the basis of its premises concerning the natural world and the real place of man in it, provides an all‑inclusive framework for all experience, knowledge, and action.

On Lenin as a Materialist

As the most influential Marxist since Marx and Engels and as an important continuator of materialism, Lenin merits the careful attention of all serious philosophical readers. In Lenin's words, "Marxism is materialism," [4] a philosophy going further than the materialism of the Encyclopedists of the eighteenth century and the materialism of Feuerbach by virtue of the application of materialistic philosophy to the field of history and the social sciences. Again, [5] materialism has carried the analysis of society to the very origin of the social ideas of man, "and its conclusion that the course of ideas depends on the course of things is the only deduction compatible with scientific psychology." The difficulty sociologists had previously found in distinguishing the important from the unimportant social phenomena is declared to be the root of subjectivism in sociology. An "absolutely certain criterion for such a distinction" is provided by materialism, "by singling out the 'relations of production' as the structure of society, and by making it possible to apply to these relations that general scientific criterion of repetition whose applicability to sociology the subjectivists denied." The science of the subjectivists "was at best only a description of social phenomena, a collection of raw material." On the other hand,

the analysis of material social relations (i.e., such as take shape without passing through man's consciousness, when exchanging products men enter into relations of production without even realizing that social relations of production are involved in the act) make it at once possible to observe repetition and order and to generalize the systems of the various countries so as to arrive at the single fundamental concept: the "formation of society." It was this generalization that alone made it possible to proceed from the description of social phenomena (and their evaluation from the standpoint of an ideal) to their strictly scientific analysis, which, let us say by way of example, selects "what" distinguishes one capitalist country from another and investigates "what" is common to all of them.

This is an important statement concerning the method of Marxism and its distinction from the method of description as employed by subjectivistic sociologists. Such description is clearly not enough for the purposes of scientific inquiry. On the other hand, an ideally complete discipline would encompass everything, including the very laws which are discerned as the principles of unity of the facts. But this ideal is not in question. In actual practice we make use of hypotheses as aids in the determination of causes and the establishment of laws. The subjectivistic methodologist has an initial bias in favor of the priority of mind or conscious experience. In systematic philosophy he asks how objective, independent existence is possible; and in social philosophy, the evidence for a community, society, and other people is to be established. Structures are determined with no bearing upon actual social relations. The materialist as an objective methodologist begins with the world as an independently existing domain and with a form of society that is antecedent to any individual, and is in fact the most recent stage of social development, whose long history records many other forms of society. Neither the world nor human society depends on human conscious experience or on any individual, who is in most cases even unaware of the most elementary structures and laws of existence. Why should one engage in subjectivistic investigation at all, one may ask, if the real analysis of the materialist is admittedly true to the basic facts concerning mankind? The answer depends upon its fruitfulness. But a definition and assimilation of such procedures must be effected within the framework of the sciences and objective existence, resulting in a far greater realm for reflective analysis. The genetic method of the materialist and his determination of origins deals with things in natural time, meaning by that the temporal character of events which are recorded in terms of days and years. That time is not dependent upon man or human experience, for they are themselves temporal events, and it is a fact that there were temporal events before man existed, events characterized by change and "passingness."

From the point of view of the subjectivist, a great deal is assumed by the materialist. The thoroughgoing subjectivist really makes two claims: (1) In order to analyze everything—the world of existence, time, human society, and thought—it is necessary to question everything, and that requires a universal suspension of belief and even of knowledge in order to "begin at the beginning." (2) Only a subjectivistic procedure that limits the inquiry initially to the experiences of an individual knowing being, along with the intended or meant objects, can make the desired universal analysis possible. Although the materialist may appear to agree with (1) because he must carry the process of questioning to all regions of experience and knowledge if a universal philosophy is to be achieved, it must be recognized that the questioning turns out to be different in most important respects from that of subjectivism. The premises, aims, methodology, and selection of facts—indeed, the very conceptions of existence, man, mind, and history—are radically different for the two opposing philosophies. Accordingly the materialist will deny (2), because of its dogmas, untenable arguments, and limitations, but he may allow it in a greatly modified form (2'), as a transformed, specialized, auxiliary procedure, preferably without use of the tradition‑laden term "subjective"—for the purposes of reflective analysis in a materialistic setting.

In his criticism of subjectivistic sociology, Lenin observes that the subjectivists separate social evolution from the evolution of natural history because man sets himself conscious aims and is guided by definite ideals. [6] Their opposition to materialism was sufficient to promote an alternative with implications for social practice. That is most clearly seen in examples of extreme philosophical subjectivism, for to restrict oneself to the order of ideas signifies abandoning the consideration of real causes. Ideas concerning the family, property, slavery, justice, etc., must be considered in the context of historical society, which also means within in the frame of objectively independent existence.

The direction of Lenin's thought is emphatically shown by his penetrating criticism of the "Narodnik": [7] "But you, while you talk of 'living individuals,' as a matter of fact take as your starting point not the 'living individual,' with the 'thoughts and feelings' that are actually created by his conditions of life, by the given system of relations of production, but a marionette, and stuff its head with your own 'thoughts and feelings.' Naturally, such a pursuit only leads to pious dreams; life holds aloof from you, and you from life." This point should be considered in connection with the phenomenological reduction, which is bound to be historically conditioned in its particular content. Because of its restricted interest in invariant structures, a phenomenological reduction to subjective processes carried through in 1913 would not yield different findings than if it were carried through in 1933 or in 1975. It would surely be barren in important respects so far as reality is concerned, for reality is historical and always changing.

Lenin asserts that "the theory of the class struggle is the first to . . . elevate sociology to the level of a science," by "laying down the methods by which the individual can be reduced to the social." This was achieved by the materialist definition of the concept "group." According to Marx's theory, each system of production relations is a separate social organism. The subjectivists' argument about a society in general is judged to be supported by meaningless arguments that do not go beyond petty‑bourgeois utopias, because the possibility of generalizing the most varied social systems into special forms of social organisms was not ascertained. That line of thought has been replaced by an investigation of definite forms of structure of society. It is a naive, mechanical view of history that is held by the subjectivists, with their "meaningless thesis that history is made by living individuals" and their refusal to examine "what social conditions determined their actions, and how greatly subjectivism was replaced by the view that the social process is a process of natural history—without which view . . . there could be no social science." Just as the reduction of "individuality" to general laws was accomplished for the physical realm long ago, it was firmly established for the social realm by Marx's theory in the last century. Lenin speaks of the dogmatic error of trying to embrace progress in general instead of studying the concrete progress of some concrete social formation. For the Marxist, ideals are formulated not as a demand of science but as a "demand of such and such a class, provoked by such and such social relations" which must be objectively investigated and "achievable in such and such a way." If ideals are not based on facts in this way, they will remain as merely "pious wishes." Agreeing with the justice of Sombart's remark that "in Marxism itself there is not a grain of ethics from beginning to end," Lenin adds that "theoretically, it subordinates 'the ethical standpoint' to the 'principle of causality'; practically, it reduces it to the class struggle." In general, his conception of the scope of materialism is as thoroughgoing as his critical treatment of opposing points of view is unsparing.

The critique of subjectivism, for which Lenin's Materialism and Empirio‑Criticism is especially noteworthy, is also pertinent for recent trends in philosophy. He writes:

If you deny that objective reality is given to us through sensation, you have already surrendered your weapons to fideism, for you have embraced agnosticism or subjectivism. . . . If the perceived world is the only objective reality, then the door is closed on any other "reality" or quasi‑reality. . . . If the world is matter in motion it can and must be infinitely studied in its infinitely complicated and detailed manifestations and ramifications of this motion, of the motion of this matter; but beyond it, beyond the "physical," beyond the external world, with which everyone is familiar, there can be nothing. [8]

It should again be noted that for a strict methodologist making use of an epoché (a methodological suspension of judgments and beliefs) as a provisional, ancillary procedure to aid in clarifying the nature and grounds of experience and knowledge, there is no denial of objective reality. But for an idealistic investigator the procedure in effect amounts to avoidance if not a denial of the most important social problems—and that is demonstrably the case.

In his appraisal of Haeckel, [9] Lenin states that he (Haeckel)

showed that there is a base which becomes wider and firmer and beneath whose weight all efforts of the thousand and one little schools of idealism, positivism, realism, empirio-criticism and other confusionism are smashed. This base is naturo‑historical materialism. The conviction of the "naive realists" (rather of all humanity) that our sensations are images of the objectively real external world is a conviction growing more and more established among the mass of scientists. . . . The evolutionary advance of science, regardless of vacillations and hesitations, regardless of the unconscious nature of the scientists' materialism, notwithstanding yesterday's fad of "physiological idealism" or today's fad of "physical idealism," completely brushes aside all puppet systems and contrivances, and makes way again for the "metaphysics" of naturo‑historical materialism.

Lenin observes, however, that Haeckel "ridicules all idealistic philosophers, especially all contrivances of 'special' schools from the point of view of science, without admitting the possibility of any other theory of knowledge besides that of naturo‑historical materialism. He ridicules the philosophers from the standpoint of a materialist, without being aware that he himself holds the viewpoint of a materialist!" In connection with Franz Mehring's judgment of the merits and shortcomings of Haeckel's work, Lenin pointed out that Haeckel was unable to tackle social problems because of the limitations of naturo‑historical materialism. As he expressed it, the latter must be expanded and modified before it can develop into historical materialism and serve in the struggle for the liberation of mankind.

Lenin's language is unfortunate when he states [10] that the Machians took "sensation" not as an image of the external world but as a special "element." The term "image" involves unnecessary difficulties. Something—an event in the natural world—is out there, and it acts as a stimulus to our sense organs. The sensation that results is conditioned from without and within (i.e., by the body itself). It is also interpreted, and assimilated to one's general experience; and there are social influences bearing upon the mode of interpretation. Thus Lenin's thesis may be safeguarded without suggesting a kind of "picture" theory which he does not intend, to judge by other statements. His objection to the Machian "element" is well put: It is "a sensation in general, which belongs to no one, psychology in general, spirit in general, volition in general"—and he adds that "to relapse into pitfalls like these is inevitable for those who do not recognize the materialist theory that the human mind reflects the objectively real world." One may note therewith that the terms "reflection" and "image" may allow for degrees of approximation in our experience of reality and for degrees of correctness, the ideal limit being strict or adequate correspondence. Even when Lenin uses the term "resemble," he cannot literally mean that a law is a picture of an actuality, or a copy of it; he must mean correspondence, with correct correspondence meaning that the law in question can be confirmed as true.

Lenin's excellent summary, in his "Conclusion," shows that he has sustained his argument throughout the book. The numerous repetitions of his central thesis concerning the basic nature of the issue of materialism and idealism, and what he regards as the perfidy of the Machians and others in serving the cause of idealism, add to rather than detract from the effectiveness of the book. At no time does the presentation of the material lose sight of this central theme. The strong polemical language used is not at all shocking or surprising to the reader of the writings of Marx and Engels, for they had been just as severe in controversy. Lenin's sweeping denunciation of professional philosophers will be judged by many to go too far, but it must be borne in mind that he was not discussing those specialists in the field of philosophy who make a lifework of interpreting important philosophers of the past, or again, the formal logicians, who are usually as far removed from the controversies of social life as are the pure mathematicians. Even so, he would expect such specialists to take a stand on the basic issue of materialism and idealism; he would refuse them the safe and convenient luxury of "neutrality." Anyone presuming to have a philosophy cannot avoid committing himself on the issue involved, which leads to the heart of social problems, and in Lenin's view the failure to do so means supporting the "reactionary" interests of idealism. Is that always the case, without exception? It is easy for Lenin to show how philosophers who have started out with the ideal of "neutrality" have ended up by serving the status quo via the party of idealism. What could one say about a philosopher who defends the ideal of a descriptive program in philosophy? Either his description is carefully circumscribed by a limited subjective procedure, in which case it cannot have access to the whole of philosophical thought, or it is more broadly conceived, is served by all kinds of description, "pure" and "natural," and is added to by theory, in which case it is unavoidable that a stand be taken on the issue of materialism and idealism. In the former case, one does not have a complete philosophy; it is at best an auxiliary discipline, a specialty. A complete philosophy cannot be purely descriptive and cannot be restricted to an "immanent" realm. It must comprise the findings of sound reflective analysis as well as the integration of the scientific knowledge of the time in relation to the needs of mankind "in its struggle for liberation." Interpreted concretely: it must unequivocally and explicitly commit itself with respect to all the traditional issues of philosophy that are still effective in any sense, and also consider the individual and social questions of its own time, insofar as they require a thoroughly critical approach and judgment.

Nowhere is Lenin more cogent in his argument than in the discussion of the partisan character of philosophy. There are—and have long been—those "lofty" spirits that pride themselves on being "above" the sordid, mistaken issues of history. They do not deal positively with the existing world, and eternalism, subjectivity, or the realm of essence provide a secure retreat under what appear to be the normal conditions of a changing and precarious social order. It is an ironical fact that specialized scholars who turned from natural facts to a timeless, ideal realm of essence were cruelly prodded out of their refuge by the Nazis. Among others, this applies to Husserl, whose later publications could not have been known to Lenin. Had Husserl lived much longer than 1938, he might well have ended his life in the gas chambers of a concentration camp. In accordance with his philosophical commitments, Husserl could only have professed political neutrality at all costs. Yet he was not really neutral. At one time in his later period he expressed longing for a return to the monarchy in Germany, when things were "better" as he put it; and the Social Democrats as well as the Communists in the Second Reich were completely alien to him, with Marxism stigmatized as dogmatic from his point of view. He did not challenge the class arrangement of the time, by which the worker was to get a "fair" wage but was to be contented with his place in society. In his actual social and political opinions he was certainly not neutral. Neither was he neutral in his philosophical thinking, for he did his utmost to instate idealism as a general philosophy, straining his arguments beyond the point allowed by sound logic and established scientific knowledge. In so doing he went beyond the strictly descriptive realm of phenomenology, and he endeavored to do more thoroughly—he would say "radically"—what Schuppe and others had tried to do in setting up an immanence philosophy (one of Lenin's targets). It would not be possible to defend Husserl against criticism such as Lenin might well have directed against him if Lenin had been alive and philosophically active a generation later.

One could only "rise above" materialism and idealism if both of them were wrong. But if the basic thesis of the objective nondependence of existence upon experience, knowing, or any supernatural cause is correct, materialism cannot be brushed aside. It must simply be brought up‑to‑date at all times because of the growth and change in our knowledge of social and natural existence.

Lenin's contempt for "middle parties" is understandable and justified, as directed against neutrality concerning the practical issues on which philosophers must take a stand. Realism is included among the scorned standpoints. In affirming the thesis of objective independence, realism goes along with materialism. What are the reasons for setting it up as a separate point of view, amounting to an alternative to materialism? The reasons appear soon enough when the total output and biographies of various exponents of realism are examined. Lenin shows no patience with the subtle arguments of realists and does not go into the points at issue between different types of realism. It would be a serious mistake to condemn all such scholars unqualifiedly, for technical, specialized philosophy is not necessarily bad philosophy, even though it does not reach far enough. In its best examples it may contribute in a valuable way to the cause of the scientific philosophy which Lenin, like Dietzgen, undertakes to defend. Thus, the later realistic critiques of idealism may effectively add to Lenin's case. The question as to why the new realists or the critical realists did not endorse materialism cannot be answered simply for all representatives. In general, most academic philosophers in the Western world who acknowledge materialism do so in a selective, specialized sense. Individual philosophers among the realists may be consciously or unconsciously desirous of avoiding a socially difficult stigma. In some cases, the simple continuation of a master's teaching is sufficient explanation of their alignment. But the significant lines are clearly indicated by Lenin. There is constant religious pressure against philosophers who express views that are wholly in accord with materialism. This holds all the more for Marxist materialism, against which the dominant cultural forces of our social system are directed.

It is difficult to imagine how any open‑minded student or scholar could read Lenin's forthright and sincere Materialism and Empirio‑Criticism [11] without experiencing a gain in mental health. Complete, uncompromising honesty characterizes it throughout. Such books are all too rare. Lenin has helped to secure the very important place in the history of philosophy which Marx and Engels merit, and he has himself made a valuable and lasting contribution to the living literature of philosophy. His book deserves the careful attention of all serious readers of philosophical literature. Its severe polemical character should not prevent the reader from recognizing its merit. That philosophical issues matter so much, and that they are judged to be of such deciding importance as to call forth the full force of Lenin's critical powers, should attract rather than repel the reader. It is evident that he saw clearly the connection between knowledge and action and that he understood the historical reasons for party alignments in the field of philosophy. In a world now abounding in subtle and devious intellectual alternatives, impeding clear understanding and concerted action toward solving the world's major problems, Lenin's thought remains an important direction‑giving force. Philosophically, it represents a substantial contribution toward the realization of a truly objective program of reflective analysis for which there are really no unclarified or unjustified prior commitments. From the historical-materialistic perspective of this type of analysis, the subjectively based types of philosophy can be viewed in their actual role and historical setting.

On the Current Role of Materialism

Pure phenomenology purports to be a descriptive philosophy of experience of a unique kind, satisfying exacting standards for rigor, methodological radicalism, and structural analysis. It has been seen how this attempt eventuates in a universal philosophy with its own peculiar presuppositions and some historically familiar speculative dogmas, thus departing from its announced radicalism.

A materialistic philosophy of experience undertakes to combine description with the knowledge established with evidence by the sciences and general experience. That growing fund of knowledge has direct bearing upon the understanding of the cognitive enterprise. It is essential for protophilosophical purposes, in providing awareness of the unavoidable premises of philosophical thought, which must also at all times take account of the growth and changes of scientific knowledge. The social, natural, and philosophical sciences are relevant. There must also be an awareness of the findings of general experience and of nascent sciences. All of these sources of knowledge have consequences for philosophy, sufficient to be direction‑giving for sound inquiry and to aid in warding off effete modes of thought. A materialistic program that neglects to consider seriously the actual nature of society and its history is unable to achieve a complete critical examination of its own point of view and method, and it characteristically removes itself from the burning concerns of mankind. The designations "general experience" and "nascent sciences" are intended to indicate places for much relevant knowledge. But more than that: there is an indispensable place for the lessons learned from historical materialism, embracing the whole of human experience, with implications bearing upon all forms of knowledge.

Since the organized and vested prejudices of the social system are poised against a mode of analysis whose radicalism goes far beyond the subjectively based methodical radicalism of pure phenomenology, it is all the more necessary to emphasize the significance of the perspective of materialism. In brief, the epoché of pure phenomenology is limited and abstractive, whereas the range of questioning materialistic philosophy is capable of being complete and really probing to the full evidences in experience bearing on the solution of human problems. The cherished "self‑understanding" of the philosopher is incapable of realization in truth if the knowledge made possible by sociohistorical analysis is neglected, as frequently occurs. The vaunted cogito is an abstraction, with no real effects or accomplishments, but it is instituted by actual thinking beings in a more or less definite social setting. Only in that sense can it be said to be a function of an organic being and of the society to which it is indebted for activating and carrying through the processes of experience from which it is abstracted.

The cogito is a variable, and its indebtedness to the objective material world is such that a knowledge of that world is required for the explanation of reflective experience. The cogito of the seventeenth century is clearly not the same as the cogito of the nineteenth or twentieth century. Although there are structural similarities, there are additional structures due to the historical development of society and the changes in experience and knowledge in the two periods. Thus, in addition to the advances in science and industry, there is an entire dimension of modes of deception to be noted in the more recent period, in contradistinction to the relatively simpler form of society in the earlier period. Deception, whether conscious or at least partially unconscious, has developed enormously. It should be borne in mind that the cogito must always have a sociohistorical home and must be located spatially and temporally. If the Greek cogito of the fourth century B.C. were in question, the modes of deception would be still simpler and more obvious, for in addition to the use of force, an economy based upon slave labor is unashamed in its self‑justification (the views of Plato and Aristotle may be recalled in this connection). In the feudal period the defense of the existing class structure depended upon force, indoctrination, and otherworldly hopes. With the increasing secularization of education in the modern period, the modes of deception were added to by supporters and glorifiers of the new economic order. So long as freedom and equality did not apply concretely to all members of society, and so long as there was frustration for an entire class of human beings, the formulation of seemingly noble ideals amounted to a mode of deception. Increasing in subtlety and complexity in the modern period, one sees how hollow the slogans employed by revolutionary movements may turn out to be. Thus the slogan of liberty, equality, and fraternity was useful for enlisting more general support in the French Revolution, a slogan mistakenly construed as applying to all social classes. The twentieth century abounds in cases of the use of unfounded slogans and moral claims as modes of concealing ruthless competitive practices leading to wars. The atmosphere for World War I was prepared and sustained not only by economic and military measures but also by all possible cultural means, resulting in one of the bloodiest conflicts of history. [12] �The thinking was now increasingly carried on by trained secular personnel, including writers, teachers, and political leaders, to a large extent replacing the clergy, who were so active in molding minds in the feudal period. The church itself came to be a great secular power by the end of the Middle Ages. Its functions for the defense of the status quo were increasingly taken over by others in the modern period in a long process of criticism and underlying economic change. The cogito of Descartes and his reflections on method signified a declaration of emancipation from the authoritarianism restricting and interfering with scientific progress toward the understanding and control of the natural world. At the same time, his dualism effected a compromise with ecclesiastical authoritarianism, for the realm of the mind as he conceived it was validated by his concessions to theology, while leaving the realm of matter to scientific investigation. It is desirable to see the actual role played by Descartes, to save many neophytes and mature thinkers from the unprofitable task of destroying a dualistic arrangement without considering its historical significance. Descartes was anything but a Columbus who discovered a new world without realizing the nature of his discovery, as observed by Husserl, who paid tribute to Descartes while not hesitating to purify him of all commitments to the realm of matter.

Far from extruding real history, the cogito is itself a changing product of a changing historical process. It is also true that active thinking beings reacting to problems of the existing social system are effective agents in causing changes, some of them epoch‑making or revolutionary. Ideas and inventions are prime contributing causes of progress in the greater satisfaction of human needs. Scientists and philosophers are to be found among the apologists for vested interests, but also among those challenging them. Thus the cogito is not to be viewed as a self‑contained, finished product, somehow available to human beings who are its passive recipients. There are masses of frustrated and exploited people, quiescent and acquiescent much of the time, just as there are members of the privileged classes who are primarily concerned with preserving the prevalent social order.

To ignore this sociohistorical perspective, with its value for understanding real history and the diversified role of thought in actual fact, is to operate with a baseless and ultimately a sterile cogito.

Let us now look concretely at the transformation of the epohe and the cogito in a materialistic setting. For present purposes, it is pertinent to have in mind the twentieth century, with World War I and the increased development of imperialism, a great depression in the 1930s eventuating in World War II and the "boom and bust" periods following it, restricted wars, a current economic depression in a large part of the world, and international tensions conspicuously caused by the conflict between socialistic or communistic and capitalistic countries. A set of brief formulations will enable us to summarize pointedly the nature of the broader, more radical, and far more relevant methodological approach indicated throughout the present volume.

1. Husserl presented his conception of "the principle of all principles" in his Ideas, [13] to the effect that "seeing in general as primordial dater [sic] consciousness of any kind whatsoever is the ultimate source of justification for all rational statements." The principle of all principles in societies with class exploitation is: Do not abolish the prevailing class structure. It may be recalled that in the recent past the poor have been commended by scholars and representatives of religious interests to the beneficent care of the rich, with the thought that the poor were entitled to live in "frugal comfort." [14] Most philosophers dealing with human values either satisfy their demands for social justice and happiness without considering the question of their realization, or they embark on a subtly contrived alternative to any fundamental disturbance of the existing class structure. The time is more than ripe for a frank recognition of the facts and for all that can be contributed in all fields of activity toward the social transformation that is the necessary condition for human equality and happiness.

2. The seemingly profound critique of objectivity and objective knowledge in the name of subjectivism has nothing to offer apart from an abstract domain of idealized entities which can only be added to by further idealized entities, in what appear to be acute analyses but are really a barren substitute for the problems of human life. In the beginning—and later—were events; man is a late emergent in the evolutionary process, and philosophical thinkers a relatively recent sociohistorical product. That indicates the locus of the diverse lines of thought projected by such thinkers, who unavoidably operate on the basis of their social systems.

3. The search for an alternative to the true explanation and equalitarian solution of social problems is ubiquitous in a society characterized by class distinctions and predominantly motivated by a desire for profit. In an industrial system, one person, or one class, can amass more of the wealth of society by appropriation of the fruits of labor of other persons or another class. That is to consider profit in its role in the basic industrial process, and without specifying the varieties of successful gambling, theft, fraud, the use of force, or diverse advantages derived from scarcity, whether of materials or talent and skill. For the true explanation of the nature of social relations, the understanding of the origin of profit in surplus value (on which no light can be shed by a subjective method of origin‑analysis going back to rudimentary experiences!), the nature and role of money and capital, and the relations of capital and labor is a first condition to be met. The actual role of scholars, scientists, teachers, writers, the press, and other vehicles of communication must also be understood, for it has direct bearing upon the alignments and commitments of most philosophers, whether they are fully aware of it or not.

4. There is normally a diversity of possible approaches and theories to be considered in scientific thought and general experience, in numerous areas of inquiry. In the case of social problems it is especially important to ascertain whether alternatives are prompted by special interests. That type of motivation has its far‑flung effects in social and philosophical thought, which can be shown by a study of representative cases and an abundant literature—among others, emphatically brought to widespread attention by Lenin's critique of examples of science‑philosophical reasoning. The evolutionists, including "Social Darwinists" (whom the present writer prefers to call "pseudo‑evolutionists") and numerous writers discussing the problem of capital and labor in America, for example, offer outspoken evidence of the influence of private interests upon purportedly objective thought. Of particular interest is the social significance of the various types of Marxist revisionism, which can be seen to be responses to motives of at least partial status quo preservation, frequently with political manifestations.

5. The descriptive‑analytical interest in structures in experience has its justification as a stage in inquiry, but it must be subordinated to a more general methodology if the conditions as well as nature of experience are to be recognized in their full extension and complexity. Distinctions noted in phenomenological analysis deal with rudimentary and ideal phases of experience, and that is also true of much language‑philosophical analysis, with distinctions based upon the nature of experience and language. In such cases it is always pertinent to remind oneself that it is human experience and human language that are in question, so that they are not to be understood as detached finalities. Their nature and function can be fully understood only by viewing them in the light of their evolutionary and sociohistorical development and in a materialistic setting. The complete study of the actual uses of language comprises all phases of experience, with special attention devoted to its uses in the forms of reasoning, persuasion, and deception occurring historically and in contemporary society. Structural findings can be increased without limit therewith, and their potential usefulness toward the satisfactory solution of human problems enhanced. The gap between abstract analysis and concrete reality is bridged by focusing attention upon relational events of current practical importance, especially events that condition human well‑being and survival. Actual modes of reasoning, persuasion, and deception are connecting links between social realities and abstract structures, and the list of analyzed structures can be added to greatly by attention to existing human practices and problems. "Regressive" analyses, proceeding on the ground of the natural‑social world from examples of language and argument employed to mold minds and influence conduct, may be carried through in cooperation with abstractive "progressive" analyses, beginning with the nature of experience, language, and logic. Both types of analysis supplement and add to one another, with new developments in experience and the world motivating further inquiry concerning relations and structures.

6. The dominant group in a social system with class distinctions is in a strong position to impress its will and policies upon all others. The intellectual atmosphere is saturated by the widespread use of linguistic and logical devices calculated to preserve the existing social order. Some examples of arguments employed by large corporations are pertinent.

In the case of spokesmen for leading corporations in the field of energy production, it is not difficult to account for their commitments and patterns of behavior. Their presuppositions are supplied by the development of large‑scale industry and capitalism. They never lose sight of the actual and potential profitability of their operations, and they are at all times concerned with warding off obstacles to that profitability. The bare structural bones uncovered by an ego�analysis or by the analysis of �I‑thou" relations at best yield a very narrow and threadbare portrayal of the nature of man and human relations, not enough to begin to be of practical interest or to have a relevant bearing on human problems. The understanding of greed in general requires studies of greed in particular, based upon actual occurrences.

The utterances emanating from the offices of well‑known corporations are representative. Thus profits are defended by the chief officer of the Standard Oil Company of Indiana, who argues that "the notion of vast accumulations of profits waiting somewhere to be tapped is a dangerous fiction which conceals the fact that one of our most pressing needs is for greater profitability—to help finance the economic expansion on which higher productivity, higher employment, and higher tax revenues all depend." [15] The standpoint involved, with its implicit premises and conclusion, can be understood objectively when viewed "in the third person" rather than "in the first person," so far as a self‑interested, profit‑seeking class is concerned. That also applies to scholars sharing and safeguarding the same premises for their reasoning, which means the status quo, but also to philosophers purporting to question everything "in the first person" without considering the sociohistorical framework. How far the defense of a subjective orientation has gone is shown by the attack on the "objectivity" of scientific knowledge. Such an attack would also sweep away any exposures of the difficulties and corrupting influences obstructing the achievement of objectively true knowledge of human practices in a social system committed to class exploitation, which would itself be an outstanding theme of objective knowledge. Thus a subjective attack on objectivity can signify an avoidance of the understanding of social relations, despite all of its favored abstract analyses and structural findings. There is always a safe place for such a philosophical approach in a social system committed to the preservation of its inequalities and special privileges. That a corporation spokesman not only opts for profits but even for ever greater profits is understandable, and no alert reader will be likely to miss the premises of his reasoning, calling for more jobs and employed workers—as though a blessing were being conferred on the propertyless workers by the altruistic profitseekers. That the workers in question are the real "origins" of further profits can be seen objectively "in the third person" by those who engage in objective, materialistic questioning requiring that one probe into the nature of social relations as they really are, with due regard to their historical origins.

Further illustrations can be readily cited. The general pattern of reasoning is always the same, with some variations in modes of concealment or distraction; and they are usually expressed in moral defenses of privileges defended by means of laws which are actually promoted by dominant private interests. The close relationship between the state and corporate interests may be illustrated by the remarks of Senator William Proxmire in an address to Congress:

We should appreciate the fact that profits are what drive this great economy. They provide the incentive for investment that is essential for acquiring the capital that in turn provides the technology that enables our country to grow more productive and efficient and support a higher standard of living. . . . If profits are too low, our economy cannot engender the capital essential for good jobs and an abundance of what we need for the good life. [16]

It is clear therewith that no fundamentally different type of socioeconomic organization would be likely to be envisaged or tolerated. With the main interests of the large corporations safeguarded through legal enactments, the corporate spokesmen, objecting to efforts toward "greater governmental intervention" by way of "higher taxes and other forms of profit control," declare that it reduces "the industry's capability." [17] They are concerned with restricting the amount of governmental "interference" in what they appeal to as "free enterprise," a eulogistic designation purportedly referring to the profit system with maximal freedom of competition. The warning against the danger of a "retreat from economic freedom" was sounded by another corporate spokesman, [18] who complained that "today, despite the demonstrated merits of the free enterprise system, government intervention is being substituted with accelerating frequency for the free choice of individuals in the marketplace" and referred to "the proliferation of government regulation," warning against "radical proposals" with respect to further regulation of industry in America." [19] The motive of achieving greater freedom of operations led the Continental Oil Co. to argue [20] that "one of the basic liberties for which the colonies fought was the freedom of enterprise—the freedom to develop without the economic constraints imposed by England" and that "in the two hundred years of America's growth, freedom of enterprise has been tightly interwoven with our other basic freedoms," resulting in "an unparalleled living standard" for our people. The existing economic system is therewith declared to be the most effective and efficient system ever devised. This note is also sounded by a spokesman for a large utility, [21] who referred to "excessively harsh and unwarranted environmental standards."

Critical readers with the requisite knowledge and logical equipment will not fail to examine such declarations and to recognize them as assumptive and unwarranted. Thus, the "free choice of individuals in the marketplace" has long been exposed as a misleading claim, for people with nothing to sell but their capacity to work do not have a free choice if they wish to maintain themselves and their families, under socioeconomic conditions beyond their present control, whereas employers as a class are in a position to secure the desired labor force on terms suitable for their goal of profitability. The term "radical" in "radical proposals" may be understood in that context as a condemnatory epithet, with the tacit assumption that it is injurious to our society to make the changes involved. If the talk of "an unparalleled living standard" for our people suggests that all the people share equally in its achievement, that is demonstrably false in fact. Furthermore, it is not enough to speak of "our basic freedoms� without taking account of all the relevant facts that bear upon the unequal realization of those "freedoms." How little regard profit-seekers can have for the basic values of human life is shown by the protest against the "excessive" imposition of environmental standards. It is understandable that they are unwilling to think in terms of a radically different form of society, committed in fact to the maximum fulfillment of the needs and desires of all mankind. Once again it may be asked whether the subjective program of questioning everything even touches upon such realities. The answer is clearly in the negative. The broader phenomenological literature, basic concepts referring to human beings and social relations, remain largely on an abstract level, along with the idealities involved in structural analysis. Philosophical inquiry must be brought down to earth (meaning the natural‑social world) and should never lose sight of that world if it is to make a worthy contribution to thought and action for the purposes of attaining a better world.


1.  Philosophy for the Future: The Quest of Modern Materialism, a cooperative volume by R. W. Sellars, V J. McGill, and M. Farber (New York: Macmillan Co., 1949), presents a clear statement of the nature of materialism as a critical science‑oriented point of view, with a hopeful attitude toward human values and progress. To be sure, every science‑oriented philosophy is dated to some extent and is unavoidably selective, emphasizing physical, organic, or sociocultural facts and problems, in keeping with the theme for inquiry or the special competence of the writers. The scope of a materialistic philosophy has already been indicated in the present volume, with the thesis that all sound descriptive findings in the analysis of experience may be incorporated within its domain and in its terms, as natural and sociocultural events. Structures in experience and cognitive devices must be manifested as natural‑social events if they are to be regarded as real. [—> main text]

2.  Published in the July‑August 1947 issue of Politics, trans. R. Manheim; also included in J.‑P. Sartre, Literary and Philosophical Essays, trans. A. Michelson (London: Rider & Co., 1955), pp. 185ff. [—> main text]

3.  The conclusion in full is as follows: Materialism . . . "lays down the inalienable rights of reason with one hand and takes them away with the other. It destroys positivism with a dogmatic rationalism. It destroys both of them with the metaphysical affirmation that man is a material object, and it destroys this affirmation by the radical negation of all metaphysics. It sets science against metaphysics and, unknowingly, a metaphysics against science. All that remains is ruins. Therefore, can I be a materialist?" [—> main text]

4.  V. I. Lenin, "The Attitude of the Workers' Party Towards Religion," in Selected Works, vol. 11, The Theoretical Principles of Marxism (New York: International Publishers), pp. 663‑674. He adds that Marxism, as materialism, explains the source of faith and religion among the masses materialistically and that "the roots of religion in modern capitalist countries are mainly social." The deepest root, he asserts, is the social oppression of the workers and their apparently complete helplessness in face of the blind forces of capitalism so that "no educational book can eradicate religion from the minds of the masses, who are crushed by the blinding toil of capitalism, until the masses themselves learn to fight this root of religion, the rule of capital in all its forms." [—> main text]

5.  In "What the 'Friends of the People' Are," ibid. pp. 413‑609. [—> main text]

6.  Ibid., p. 446. [—> main text]

7.  Ibid., pp. 623ff. [—> main text]

8.  Collected Works of V. I. Lenin, vol. 13, trans. David Kvitko with Sidney Hook (New York: International Publishers, 1927), p. 298. [—> main text]

9.  Ibid., pp. 304ff. [—> main text]

10.  Ibid., pp. 299ff. [—> main text]

11.  Lenin, Materialism and Empirio‑Criticism (New York: International Publishers, 1927). [—> main text]

12.  See also Karl Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, trans. Daniel DeLeon (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1914), pp. 22f., on the use of the slogan "Property, Family, Religion, Order." [—> main text]

13.  E. Husserl, Ideas, trans. B. Gibson (New York: Macmillan Co., 1931). See secs. 19 and 24. [—> main text]

14.  A retiring White House press secretary who served under Presidents Nixon and Ford, when participating in the television program "Face the Nation" on August 10, 1975, told of Mr. Ford's feeling of "compassion" for the unemployed, assuring listeners that he would do all that could be done to help them—obviously meaning within the present socioeconomic structure and without disturbing the present economic relations. [—> main text]

15.  John E. Swearingen, in Span (an Amoco publication) 9, no. 4 (1971). The same writer also states that "the public vastly overestimates the size of corporate profits." But he is no doubt right in adding that people "display little conception of how they are actually used," for that would require detailed knowledge of the huge salaries of officers and other expenditures of the corporation. As for the percent of profit a manufacturer makes on a dollar of sales, "the median guess is five times the actual amount, which averages about 5 percent after taxes." Besides raising the question of the nature of the balance sheet used, the reader will be sure to add: after noting the salaries and fringe benefits of what is called management, and the cost of contributing in various ways toward the future interests of the corporation and toward the perpetuation of the profit system. [—> main text]

16.  Quoted in "Management's View: Petroleum Industry Profits," The Orange Disc (Gulf Companies, Pittsburgh, Pa.) 21 no. 10 (March‑April 1975): 30f. Arthur Okun, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, expresses a similar view in testimony before the Subcommittee on Multinational Corporations of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recommending "a public policy that permits—even promotes—profitability," adding that "domestic capability should be one of the most profitable areas in which to invest capital, develop technology, and commit human talent for the decade ahead." The Orange Disc draws the desired conclusion that "there is a chain reaction from profits through capital expenditures which in turn provide more jobs and a higher standard of living. Without profits, the reaction stops." [—> main text]

17.  As stated in the "Report of Exxon Corporation's Annual Meeting" in Exxon News, June 1975, p. 3. [—> main text]

18.  Published in the Texaco, Inc., "Report of the 1975 Annual Meeting," May 1975. [—> main text]

19.  According to the Mobil Oil Co., Congress "has taken punitive action against the oil industry and in the process has militated against the creation of new domestic jobs in that industry." [—> main text]

20.  In a special bicentennial issue of Time magazine, 1975. [—> main text]

21.  American Electric Power Co., Report on the Annual Meeting, June 1975. [—> main text]

SOURCE: Farber, Marvin. The Search for an Alternative: Philosophical Perspectives of Subjectivism and Marxism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984. Chapter 9: From the Perspective of Materialism, pp. 216-238, + notes, pp. 247-249.

American Philosophy Study Guide

Includes the following & more:
The Search for an Alternative 1
The Search for an Alternative 8: The Historical Outcome of Subjectivism
The Issue of Naturalism vs. Subjectivism

Naturalism and Subjectivism: Contents
Philosophy for the Future: The Quest of Modern Materialism: Foreword & Contents

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