Modern Science and Its Philosophy

Philipp Frank


logical empiricism and the philosophy of the Soviet Union

WHEN I speak of philosophy in the Soviet Union, I mean only the system that is officially taught in all schools as philosophy —“dialectical materialism,” abbreviated to diamat.  Of course, in the writings of physicists, mathematicians, and biologists one can find many remarks associated with the logic of science. These are mostly only echoes of the views predominant in European and American science. Besides the official diamat, no other consistent conception of science has developed in the U.S.S.R. If one wishes to discuss the features that are characteristic of the intellectual life of Soviet Russia, one must speak only about diamat, concerning which there are prevalent in European science very unclear and often greatly distorted views.

At first sight, it appears that diamat is extremely hostile to the various forms of logical empiricism. This attitude is shown especially by the following examples:

Empiricism is styled in a stereotyped way "crawling empiricism," because it can never rise to the formation of a scientific system. The various forms of neopositivism and logical empiricism are all branded with the label "Machism," and, as such, are sharply condemned. It was perhaps an ominous event for the history of philosophy in the U.S.S.R. that Lenin set forth his philosophic views in a book directed against the Russian followers of Mach and Avenarius—the book Materialism and Empiriocriticism. [1] In 1935 the twenty‑fifth anniversary of the appearance of this book was celebrated by all philosophical societies and journals of the U.S.S.R. Because in it the doctrines of diamat were elucidated by being contrasted with the conceptions of Mach, the opinion was established in the official philosophy of the U.S.S.R. that Machism was a movement especially hostile to diamat, and hence to be attacked vigorously. In reality, Lenin took issue with Machism because it is in many respects related to diamat, and he considered it especially suitable for him to bring out his own teachings very sharply by means of a polemic against it.

Because in the teachings of Mach everything is built on the perceptions as elements, Lenin saw in them a degenerate form of the subjective idealism of Berkeley, who had denied the reality of the world of experiences and thus had made room for the acceptance of a supernatural world. On the other hand, because of the connection of Machism with the enlightenment philosophy of the eighteenth century, its predilection for contact with the physical sciences and its aversion to the introduction of any anthropomorphic factors or "psychic" tendencies into science, Machism was reproached with having a "mechanistic narrowness" which rendered it particularly incapable of encompassing social and historical events.

If we ask what is the attitude of diamat toward the movements which have arisen from the synthesis of Mach's positivism and Russell's logic, we need only open the latest textbook of diamat in the U.S.S.R. for information. [2] There we find it asserted, in effect, that the newest Machists want to deepen Machism by the use of symbolistic methods. They regard science as a game with empty symbols and thus make it incapable of embracing the colorful fullness of the real multiform world. Idealism, mechanism, and logicism are only three ways of leading people to a fictitious supersensual world and of restraining them from occupation with the practical questions of the real world. These three doctrines therefore, like religion, are opium for the people, putting them into a narcotic sleep which shows them a faded picture of the real world. Philosophers who teach idealism, mechanism, and logicism are in the service of the bourgeoisie, just like the clergy, and make their disciples unfit to work for the social reorganization of the world.

While one gets from these statements the impression of a fundamental antipathy, yet scientific and sociologic considerations indicate that this attitude of diamat is rather of a polemical and tactical nature, and that it must also contain many elements which are closely related to the ideas that we represent.

Logical empiricism developed primarily in the struggle against the idealistic metaphysics of the school philosophy, which with its odd mixture of faded theology and obsolete science has fulfilled a very definite social function. The main struggle of diamat is also against this metaphysics and this function. In a German textbook of diamat we find "metaphysics" described as "an examination of the pseudo‑real surface, without penetrating into the essential." Since this description is in fair agreement with logical empiricism, we must expect to encounter still other similarities.

The main points of a scientific doctrine related to logical empiricism which we find in diamat are perhaps the following: (1) Science should be "materialistic," but not "mechanistic"; (2) the criterion for the truth of a proposition should be only its confirmation in actual life, the doctrine of "concrete truth”; (3) the propositions of science are to be understood not only from their logical connection with the propositions of the previous stages of science, but also from the causal connection of scientific pursuits with other social processes. The investigation of this causal connection is carried on by a special factual science, the sociology of science.

Here we wish to consider only the first two of these points.

(1) First of all, we must be quite clear as to what diamat means by the word "materialism." What we generally understand by this word as used in popular and even in scientific writings is the conception of all natural phenomena, including human evolution, as analogous to a machine. This view would be called by diamat "mechanistic materialism" or "mechanism," and is very strongly opposed. If we look up the definition of the word "materialism" in the official textbooks of diamat, we find, roughly, the following: "By 'materialism' is meant the conception that science speaks of a world that is completely independent of any arbitrariness, a world that is neither the creation of a world spirit, as the objective idealism of Hegel holds, nor the creation of the individual consciousness, as the subjective idealism of Berkeley assumes.”

From this form of the definition of materialism, which simply establishes the objective character of scientific principles, we shall not be able to draw any very specific conclusions of the materialistic conception. If, however, we observe how this definition is applied in practice, we find that all scientific propositions are to contain only terms that occur in statements about observable facts. The description of a process is of use to science only if all of the observable aspects of the process are embraced. In particular, the part played by the so‑called psychic processes is not to be emphasized one‑sidedly; that would lead to "idealism." If, to take an example given by a textbook on diamat, it is asserted that the great power station on the Dnieper, the Dnieprostroy, is the product of the engineering plans, the matter is being described idealistically and one‑sidedly. The materialist will say: "Besides the plans of the engineers, a decisive part is also played by the new social organization introduced by the communist revolution, the new conditions of the workers, etc." Everything in the world that is describable through intersubjective expressions is called "matter" by diamat.

This is not to say that matter actually has the properties which Newtonian mechanics or even the newer physics attributes to matter. Such an opinion would be "mechanical materialism." According to diamat, every investigation of the world that makes use of intersubjective expressions is an investigation of matter. The properties of matter reveal themselves to us only in the course of the development of science. They will never be completely known to us as long as there are new laws to be discovered.

This conception comes very close to the viewpoint that science is based on an intersubjective language, which Neurath and Carnap have designated more precisely as the physicalistic language. Just as, for physicalism, the biologic or psychologic propositions are "physical in the broadest sense," so for diamat the propositions about the development of life and even about human history are propositions about matter. However, just as physicalism does not claim that psychology can be reduced to actual physics, so diamat does not say that the social development of mankind can be reduced to those laws of matter that have been discovered by physics. According to diamat, sociology itself discloses new laws of matter.

Diamat seeks, however, to set up quite general laws for matter, laws which are to hold for physics as well as for biology and sociology. For this purpose it takes the three laws which Hegel formulated for the processes of thought, and from which he also made laws for living and inanimate nature because he believed that the whole world is the product of thought. Marx and Engels turned Hegel's teachings upside down and began by setting up his three dialectical laws of thought as the laws for matter. In this way they founded diamat, "dialectical materialism." The three laws are "the unity of opposites, the transition from quantity to quality, and the negation of the negation." We see that they still wear their idealistic eggshells. Their application to reality is often very much forced, and from their consequences there results what L. Rougier [3] once called “Soviet mysticism.” With these three laws of dialectics, originating in idealism, diamat often strays from the path of establishing the properties of matter through the methods of exact research. Today a determined struggle is being carried on within diamat against the “trivialization” of dialectics.

Such rather indefinite principles can often serve to order to some extent the empirical material in fields that are still only slightly developed, like sociology. If, however, they are applied to sciences where we possess better ordering principles, they at once reveal their imperfections.

Because of these dialectical laws, diamat bears within itself the germ of idealism. Even in the U.S.S.R. it must perpetually struggle against "idealistic deviations," which in recent years have received the name "menshevizing idealism" after the political party of the Mensheviks. Diamat wages continually a "war of two fronts" against idealism and mechanism without being able to mark out unequivocally the boundaries separating it from these two deviations.

If it carried on this war of two fronts consistently, it would have to discard the idealistic eggshell of Hegelianism, the exaggerated opinion of the significance of the three dialectical laws. On the other hand it would have to avoid the description of matter as something existing objectively—which is also, in the last analysis, an idealistic conception —and instead would speak of intersubjective propositions. Then it would approach more and more closely the conception represented by logical empiricism, especially by the Vienna Circle. For these groups carry on the same two‑front war, against the idealistic school philosophy and against the belief that Newtonian mechanics in its original form is a basis of all science.

Though, therefore, in our opinion, the dialectical laws do not have the importance for a modem conception of science ascribed to them by diamat, we must nevertheless admit that something in what it calls "dialectical thinking" is quite in line with our ideas.

This "dialectical thinking" is characterized by Lenin in his remarks on Hegel's works simply as thinking which has the necessary elasticity not to stick to a definite scheme, but which builds itself a new scheme corresponding to the given stage of development of science. This kind of dialectical thinking is demanded also by logical empiricism.

(2) The second point essential for the understanding of diamat is the "doctrine of concrete truth." According to this doctrine, the truth of a proposition can never be judged by its abstract formulation, but only by examining the practical conclusions that can be drawn from it. Whether the idealists or the materialists are right can be judged only by seeing what consequences the two doctrines have for practical life. This conception is related to American pragmatism. The textbooks of diamat try to distinguish it from pragmatism by saying that pragmatism always means a "bourgeois," that is, an individualistic practice, a test in the life of the individual—in "business life," as they often add derisively. Diamat understands by test, above all, the test of a principle in social life—in revolutionary practice, as they put it.

From this doctrine of "concrete truth" one can understand the much-discussed attitude of diamat toward religion. By religion is never to be understood an abstract system of principles of faith. A thing of that sort cannot be tested for truth. By "religion" is always meant a concrete institution, as, for instance, the institution of the church. This can be investigated to determine whether it has socially desirable influences or the opposite. Definitions of religion like "a feeling of oneness with the universe," "devotion to a higher duty towards humanity," are rejected by diamat. One textbook remarks scornfully that European philosophers, on the basis of such definitions, call even communism itself a religion. By religion should be understood a concrete organization which seeks to propagate the belief in a supernatural being among men and thus to deter them from the struggle against their oppressors. From this point of view one must judge the struggle against idealistic philosophy and against Machism and logicism. To this "doctrine of concrete truth" Lenin attributed a great importance for the practical political struggle. One must never hold fast to abstract formulas such as: for the defense of the fatherland or against the defense of the fatherland, for parliamentarianism or against it. One must rather examine in every individual case the practical consequences arising from such a demand and see whether they are favorable to the goal pursued—hence, for Lenin, to the rise of the working class to power.

Lenin, however, applied this doctrine not only to political but also to scientific principles. He insisted that propositions such as "Matter is infinitely divisible," or "Matter is composed of indivisible atoms," are never to be labeled as true or false; they are to be judged by their practical consequences, which can also change in the course of the development of science.

The doctrine of concrete truth, if it is formulated conceptually, and wherever it is applied exactly, is nothing else than the view that the truth of a proposition can only be judged if the methods of testing it are given. If somebody states a proposition and fails to state the conditions, observable in practice, under which he would be ready to accept it as true, then it is a proposition that is not scientifically applicable—it is meaningless for science. With the doctrine of concrete truth, diamat is therefore defending a standpoint which is very closely related to that of positivism and pragmatism.

The conception held by many representatives of diamat, that logistics is only a formalistic game which avoids having to do with reality, is perhaps correct in the case of many metaphysically inclined logicians. It is certainly not correct for the Vienna Circle, which uses logistics only as an aid to a radical empiricism and positivism.

In any case, the doctrine of concrete truth will some day be applied in the U.S.S.R. also to the teachings of science. Then it will be said: In our time it is no longer appropriate to embrace the new empirical and positivistic groups with the idealistic school philosophy in one concept, "the bourgeois conception of science." The patterns that Lenin set up for a concrete situation of struggle should not be regarded as general patterns, suitable for the representation of scientific development. It will then turn out that there are very fundamental ties between diamat and logical empiricism.

An analysis of the present situation leads to the conclusion that to designate the logical empiricism of today, or logistic neopositivism, as "idealistic" or "mechanistic" Machism would be the same sort of abstractly schematic conception as if one were to label diamat "Hegelian idealism" because of the historical connection with Hegel, and for that reason to reject it.

The creative scientific work, particularly in chemistry, physics, and biology, that enjoys favorable conditions for development in the U.S.S.R. and is in a state of rapid growth, still has very little practical effect on diamat. In this situation lies the danger for diamat, which may develop in isolation from science like the European school philosophy, which also claims to give direction to science but succeeds only in becoming more and more estranged from science, and consequently languishes.

If, in the U.S.S.R., diamat will strive to cooperate with concrete science, those tendencies in it that point toward logical empiricism will be strengthened. it will be obvious that the two‑front war against idealism and mechanism can really be carried on consistently only from the standpoint of critical positivism; otherwise one will surely slide again into metaphysics to the left or to the right.


1  English translation by David Kvitko (London, 1927). [—> main text]

2  M. Mitin, Dialekticheskii Materializm (Moscow, 1934). [—> main text]

3  L. Rougier, Les Mystiques politiques contemporaines (Paris, 1935). [—> main text]

SOURCE: Frank, Philipp. Modern Science and Its Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1949. Reprint: New York: George Braziller, 1955. Chapter 11, Logical Empiricism and the Philosophy of the Soviet Union, pp. 198-206.

Modern Science and Its Philosophy: Contents

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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