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by Igor Naletov

The nihilistic attitude towards philosophy and towards broad theoretical concepts in the period of the inception of positivism is closely connected with (though cannot be fully excused by) the stormy growth of empirical sciences in the late 18th and the early 19th centuries. The universal enthusiasm about their remarkable successes created an illusion that all mankind’s problems without exception could and ought to be solved exclusively by the methods of natural sciences which not only provided the exhaustive explanation of phenomena, but also predicted the existence of unknown phenomena and thus opened the way for new discoveries. Of special interest to us, however, is the connection between this philosophical nihilism and the boom of empirical investigations. This question is the more topical as in our time, too, the extensive development of empirical methods of investigation in one or another scientific field brings about a very similar phenomenon—a certain estrangement, if not downright victimisation of philosophy.

As is commonly known, empirical investigations usually aim at studying individual, sensually perceptible objects and phenomena of reality. Besides, the sphere of empirical investigation includes inductive generalisations and even the formulation of empirical laws. Most researchers associate theoretical knowledge with a higher level of abstraction, with the explanation of empirical laws, revelation of their links with other laws and existing theories, i.e. with their theoretical substantiation, as well as with the discovery of new laws which do not always lend themselves to empirical interpretation.

The very nature of empirical knowledge, like that of applied knowledge in general, accounts for the fact that the scientist engaged in concrete empirical investigations is seldom forced by the specific problems he studies to concern himself with philosophical generalisations. At any rate, the logic of his research does not lead him to philosophical concepts of universal significance.

It does not mean, however, that a natural scientist does not concern himself with philosophical problems and is in general far removed from philosophy. Even in a purely empirical investigation a scientist cannot make a step without adhering, for instance, to the principle of objectivity. His task consists in excluding the effect of the subjective factor, i.e. the influence of his own manipulations, particularly of his personal perception and his individual experience from the conditions of his experiment or observation. Every experimentalist knows only too well the difficulties involved in the fulfilment of this task, as well as the severity of the requirement for the “purity of the experiment”. Not every scientist, however, is fully aware of the fact that this requirement does not stem from the nature of his specific investigation but is of general methodological significance, i.e. that it is a philosophical principle. Similarly, a scientist cannot disregard the principle of causality or determinism from the viewpoint of methodology. The experimentalist’s work largely consists in a search for the causes of the event or phenomenon under observation, or in defining its possible effects. Here, too, the patterns of his thinking and experimental activities are predetermined methodologically so that he proceeds from events to their causes, then to their consequences, conditions, etc, In such standard situations a scientist relies on the available philosophical knowledge and seldom questions its validity. Moreover, not infrequently he is not even aware of the philosophical basis which provides, as it were, the methodological framework for his research. The problems he is concerned with cannot be qualified either as purely philosophical or as specifically scientific. The solution of his problems calls for bridging the gap between philosophical and specialised knowledge so as to permit philosophical ideas to fertilise his practical work and give it a new meaning and new dimensions. Such problems can be called philosophico-methodological since they are philosophically oriented and their solution is guided by general philosophical principles. Yet they are not regarded as philosophical, since their emergence does not cast doubt on the content of philosophical categories, nor does it question the role of philosophical laws. It is not surprising therefore that a scientist may delude himself into thinking that he is completely free of any philosophical propositions or principles.

It should be noted that empirical investigations in one or another specific field are not likely to add much to the arguments for or against some philosophical trend, even if the facts the scientist deals with are quite extraordinary. Numerous evidences regarding flying saucers and the abundance of documentary reports about catastrophes in the area of the Bermuda triangle give rather impressive data and stir up imagination. On the basis of such information a layman may come to most fantastic conclusions. Generally speaking, the thinking of a man in the street is apt to overcome very easily the compatibility barriers which often make a tremendous problem for a serious scientist.

A layman’s imagination can easily carry him from the rumours of flying saucers to a very plausible image of a visitor from outer space described sometimes in great detail (down to the number of fingers on his hand) and further to fantastic pictures of the arrival of reasonable beings on the Earth. Then he may plunge into speculations on the nature of reason, on the origin of the solar system, etc. Strange as it may seem, what is easily accessible to the layman’s fanciful imagination proves to be beyond the power of thinking of a scientist who cannot resort either to Pegasus’ wings or to Hermes’ sandals but has to follow his thorny path with a heavy tread of an experimentalist. His every step must be thought out and well measured. To be sure, science has also learned to build “castles in the air” now called orbital stations... Yet how very careful and arduous its every step forward, how modest its achievements in comparison with the ages of hard work and relentless struggle against the unknown and therefore terrifying forces of nature—and how very different the sober and restrained approach of true scientists from the unfounded conceit of dilettantes relishing man’s would-be power over nature! Alas, the position of an empirically-minded natural scientist differs but little from the thinking of a dilettante venturing to expound his views on the philosophical doctrines he knows only by hearsay... He is doomed to vacillate from the extreme exaggeration of the significance of his own achievements and the derogation of the role of theory, particularly philosophy, to the concoction of astounding theories and “original” philosophical doctrines...

It is the empiricist style of scientific thinking and investigation, the empiricist standard of scientific progress that lies at the root of metaphysical ideas and speculative propositions which fill in the gaps between individual isolated facts torn out of the context and viewed outside and independent of their links and relationships. It is narrow empiricism in science that often takes a disdainful and intransigent stand against consistent materialist approach to reality and tends to replace serious scientific investigation by pretentious, extravagant ideas without bothering to trace them to the corresponding historical or historical-scientific anticedents in the age-old history of science and philosophy. This unwillingness to study philosophical traditions and historical links accounts, above all, for uncritical attitude toward general theoretical and philosophical ideas which are unavoidable in any scientific investigation.

Every researcher seeks to transgress the bounds of his immediate investigation and take a broader view of the problem he is concerned with. Yet such transgressions need not necessarily testify to the expansion of his scientific horizons and broadening of his interests—they may also result from scientific adventurism which goes hand in hand with the condemnation of “primitive materialism”, “theoretical dogmatism”, etc. This militant empiricism which has always chafed under the so-called harshness of dialectics and complained about the pedestrian style of Marx’s thinking and the intransigence of Leninist materialism proves to be capable of getting on quite well with those theories and philosophical concepts which suit it in one way or another in a given situation, gratify its weaknesses. This attitude is usually expressed in overall hostility to any methodology, in anarchical opposition to any world outlook and results from the absence of a solid theoretical foundation.

The uncritical attitude to the philosophical environment leads to a paradoxical situation: on the one hand, ostensible independence, the absence of any philosophical commitments and freedom to choose any philosophical concept that is suitable from the practical, utilitarian viewpoint and justifies all sorts of wild digressions into the history of science or depth of the Universe; on the other hand, actual bondage to current philosophical tastes and intellectual fashion. The illusion of freedom from philosophical systems turns out to be overall dependence on obsolete philosophical theories. The champions of the “freedom of intellect” find themselves in the position of those natural scientists who were so aptly ridiculed by Engels: “Natural scientists believe that they free themselves from philosophy by ignoring it or abusing it. They cannot, however, make any headway without thought, and for thought they need thought determinations. But they take these categories unreflectingly from the common consciousness of so-called educated persons, which is dominated by the relics of long obsolete philosophies, or from the little bit of philosophy compulsorily listened to at the University (which is not only fragmentary, but also a medley of views of people belonging to the most varied and usually the worst schools), or from uncritical and unsystematic reading of philosophical writings of all kinds. Hence they are no less in bondage to philosophy, but unfortunately in most cases to the worst philosophy, and those who abuse philosophy most are slaves to precisely the worst vulgarised relics of the worst philosophies.” [1]

Among such slaves found itself not only positivism, but also other philosophical schools which undertook to express the empiricist’s curtailed world view and carried to excess all the demerits (and merits, for that matter) of empirical investigation. The empiricist’s stand is in fact hypocritical in that his abuse of philosophy and “metaphysics” often serves as a smokescreen for his own philosophical system intended to espouse his views.

It would be wrong to think that the tendency to exaggerate the role of sensory experience characteristic of earlier empirical science will die away by itself in the age of the maturity of science with its high level of abstractions and complex mathematical formalisation of whole branches. The empirical investigation of individual objects and phenomena will always remain an important task of science however attractive and promising theoretical research may be. It is essential, therefore, that alongside the encouragement of young scientists in fundamental investigations due attention be paid to experimental work and that appropriate incentives be constantly sought to improve and stimulate it. Sometimes an individual fact discovered by mere chance may lead to the emergence of a new scientific trend or to the reappraisal of current scientific theories.

On the other hand, as long as scientific investigations in certain fields are based on empirical data, there exists a nutrient medium for empiricism as a philosophical trend.

There is yet another paradoxical aspect of the evolution of positivism. The dominance of empirical methods in natural science and the universal enthusiasm about its achievements had come to an end or at least considerably subsided by the mid-19th century. At the turn of the 20th century the prestige of empiricism was completely undermined by the rapid development of physics, chemistry, biology and psychology. Yet it is precisely this period that reanimated the influence of positivist philosophy.

The development of theoretical natural science and elaboration of fundamental theories did not change the attitude of positivism to general philosophical problems. Logical positivism that came to the foreground in that period with renewed determination to eliminate “metaphysics” from science was nurtured by the hopes that all theoretical propositions could be reduced to empirical knowledge. This stand was well illustrated by Russell’s attitude to the principle of causality in scientific cognition. Characterising this principle as purely metaphysical, as a relic of the pre-scientific stage of knowledge, he pointed out that theoretically developed sciences had already got rid of all remnants of causality. Alongside the principle of causality, positivism threw overboard all other philosophical principles and laws, first and foremost those of dialectics and materialism, on the grounds that the categories of quality, matter, necessity, essence and the like are alien to theoretical knowledge.

Modern philosophers of science in their works devoted to the concept of law and to the principle of determinism in fact identify law with universal assertions on the grounds that the language of science does not express any necessity except the logical one. Necessity itself is identified with universality which, in their opinion, is all that is demanded of scientific statements, theoretical generalisations and even the most advanced modern theories. Similar is their attitude to the categories of contradiction, essence and practically all other main categories and laws of dialectics.

Such oversimplified understanding of the structure of scientific knowledge revealing itself in present-day positivist literature is a natural consequence of the main premises of the philosophy of science limiting the philosophy and methodology of science exclusively to the logic and language of scientific cognition. Regarding the available knowledge as reality itself embodied in language, the positivists cannot but overlook the infrastructure of science, i.e. its abstractions, premises and assumptions.

True, the latest variants of positivist philosophy, e.g. critical rationalism and other “postpositivist” trends, go as far as recognising the methodological, instrumental role of some principles of dialectics, such as causality and determinism. Yet they also stop short of recognising the theoretical significance of philosophical categories and laws pointing out that they do not reveal themselves openly either in theoretical or in empirical knowledge.

The view that philosophical substratum does not lie on the surface of scientific theories and empirical investigations is on the whole not objectionable. The question, however, consists in whether the principles and laws of dialectics are indeed devoid of any scientific significance and play no part in theoretical investigations.

To answer this question, it is necessary first of all to take into account some specific features of theoretical knowledge. Understandably, the formulation of philosophical propositions and principles goes beyond the limits of a special scientific investigation. Philosophical principles seldom come to the forefront in a scientific system and their cognitive value is seldom conspicuous. As long as any philosophical principle or, for that matter, any theoretical premise in general serves the purposes of scientific investigation the scientist is not confronted with the task of its further elaboration or improvement. And it is quite natural. His immediate aim is to solve a specific problem within a more or less narrow field of his interests. He achieves this aim directly, using the means of his particular science— physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, etc. Philosophical principles for the scientist are something like air which he does not think of as long as his breathing is not difficult.

What is more, this approach is evidently suggested by the very object under investigation since it appears to be the most promising and likely to yield the best results. As a matter of fact, the object of investigation often proves, so to speak, more dialectical and more materialistic than the theoretical views of the investigator himself, particularly if his philosophical baggage consists of meagre positivist abstractions.

In any case, the scientist does not pose any philosophical problems in his field of investigations as long as the concepts he relies upon in his practical work perform the function of the foundation of science. The theoretical significance of philosophical principles and laws would, perhaps, never come to light if they always remained but implicit. Yet sooner or later the time comes when philosophical concepts do reveal themselves to celebrate their victory and claim universal recognition. Unlike experimental data and theoretical principles which lie at the root of specific theories, philosophical principles and laws should be regarded as their premises since it is impossible to deduce from them any particular scientific doctrine. At the same time, no scientific theory is conceivable without the corresponding philosophical basis. Hence, philosophical premises are essential, but not sufficient conditions for theoretical and empirical cognition.

As distinct from theoretical concepts which serve as a basis for a nascent theory so that it is largely deducible from them, philosophical concepts constituting its foundation cannot be used for deducing one or another variant of this theory. As a matter of fact, there may be several ways of solving a problem which would meet the requirements of materialism and dialectics, i.e. scientific philosophy, under given conditions.

Speaking, for instance, of the philosophical foundation of classical physics, we can single out at least four philosophical ideas deeply rooted in all the theories of 19th-century natural scientists. They are: (1) the idea of materiality of the world, the identity of matter and substance, impenetrability of matter, etc.; (2) the idea of the absoluteness of space and time regarded as receptacles of matter and as having properties not connected with one another’ and independent of the movement of material bodies; (3) the idea of absolute determinateness of all changes and events in nature owing to universal interaction governed by the dynamic laws of mechanics and expressed in the concept of Laplatian determinism; (4) the idea of the independence of the object from the subject of investigation, i.e. the concept of the objectivity of knowledge.

Since these ideas were linked with the theoretical foundation of contemporary science, they assumed even more concrete forms. For instance, materiality was identified with several material properties such as constant mass, atomic structure, impenetrability, etc.; space was assumed to be filled up with hypothetical material medium called ether (hence the corpuscular and wave theories of light); interaction was believed to spread instantaneously (hence the idea of remote action); matter and motion were regarded to be indestructible (hence the law of conservation of energy).

The existing philosophical premises allowed of several alternative solutions to theoretical problems making equally plausible the corpuscular and the wave theories, the theory of ether and the theory denying the existence of any mechanical elastic medium, Laplatian determinism and statistical physics, etc. Metaphysical materialism with its one-sided mechanistic conceptions of motion and matter brought natural science to a crisis which was not confined to just one or several fields but affected the very foundation of science—its instinctively materialistic world view. “Radium, the great revolutionary”, according to Henri Poincare, cast doubt on the law of conservation of energy and, consequently, on the idea of the indestructibility of matter. The electron shook the concepts of the indivisibility of atoms and the immutability of the mass of a body thus undermining the idea of materiality. Albert Michelson’s experiments (1881) called in question the existence of ether and absolute space in which the velocity of light should have been higher in the direction of the movement of the source of light, but proved to be variable and independent of the speed of the source of light. In 1901, Pyotr Lebedev’s experiments revealed the pressure of light. The discovery of X-rays in 1895 followed by the discovery of the electron as the atom’s main component (in 1897) and of radioactivity refuted the idea of the indivisibility of atoms. Other philosophical foundations of classical physics were undermined too: the concept of the immutability of nature’s primary substances and attributes, of the universality and absolute identity of the operation of mechanical laws both on the infinite and infinitesimal scales.

It became obvious that the philosophical doctrines inherited from the mechanistic materialism of the 17th-18th centuries could not provide a reliable theoretical foundation for the solution of the pressing problems of physics and natural science in general. “The essence of the crisis in modern physics”, wrote Lenin, “consists in the break-down of the old laws and basic principles, in the rejection of an objective reality existing outside the mind, that is, in the replacement of materialism by idealism and agnosticism. ‘Matter has disappeared’—one may thus express the fundamental and characteristic difficulty in relation to many particular questions which has created this crisis.” [2]

Turning to the philosophical premises of 19th-century physics, the physicists unfamiliar with dialectics could not but identify metaphysical materialism with materialism in general. We need not enlarge on this subject, as it has received extensive coverage in relevant Marxist literature and is not, in fact, directly connected with the main point we want to make here, namely, that the philosophical premises of science have no independent significance as long as they do not come in a more or less sharp conflict with the results of scientific investigations and the latest theoretical views.

However, an impending crisis in science causes scientists to start revising its theoretical and experimental principles.

Yet a crisis may sometimes go deeper and involve also the philosophical foundation of science if it fails to meet the latest requirements. Hence, crises in the development of science can only be avoided if scientists are fully aware of the philosophical principles which underlie the fundamental theories in their fields of investigation. Of special importance here is not only a profound theoretical background of scientific personnel and a thorough knowledge of the history of science, but also sufficient philosophical culture and good acquaintance with the historical sources of philosophical problems. Most serious attitude to the philosophical foundation of a given science is extremely important.

It is no secret that the philosophical principles of modern physics were formulated in a general form by Marx and Engels way back in the middle of the 19th century. The definition of matter as a philosophical category denoting the objective reality which exists independently of consciousness provided the necessary guideline for scientific investigations in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. Progress in physics could only be attained if the electron was regarded not as a purely theoretical construct, not as an object with “free will”, but as a component part of the atom with a complex structure of its own. The dialectical solution of the problem of the relationship between necessity and chance constituting a single whole laid or was to lay the foundation for the probability approach to the interpretation of quantum-mechanical processes, for the correct understanding of probability and the relationship between indeterminacies, i.e. the discoveries made in the first half of the 20th century. The concept of the unity of space, time and motion advanced by Marx and Engels also gave a clue to the special and general theories of relativity.

It stands to reason that the implementation of these philosophical concepts required of natural scientists conscious assimilation and further development of the philosophical ideas of Marx and Engels providing a theoretical basis for dialectical interpretation of concrete physical, biological, chemical and other data. Of great importance for the accomplishment of this task was close cooperation between philosophers and natural scientists. However, conditions at that time were not yet ripe for such cooperation.

Even this short historical survey shows that philosophical knowledge is not doomed to remain forever behind the scenes. Sooner or later it is bound to come to the forefront of scientific progress.

An essential distinction of fundamental theoretical investigations from empirical cognition consists in that theory is capable of setting and solving a number of philosophical, tasks on its own. This feature, naturally, is largely accountable for the difference in the attitude of scientists representing the two tendencies in the development of science to the significance and value of philosophical problems and to philosophy in general. The task of fundamental investigations consists in explaining the established laws, revealing the links between them, predicting and foreseeing new facts and new trends in the development of science. Theoretical laws and concepts .therefore express necessity and are of a general nature. Theory no less than empirical sciences rests on a philosophical basis in the form of adopted and tested philosophical doctrines and principles, instrumental methodologically in the formulation and explanation of new laws and relationships.

Hence, theoretical investigations also involve problems which we call philosophico-methodological and which are mainly connected with the use of the available philosophical propositions, principles and laws in the solution of methodological problems and in the fulfilment of concrete theoretical tasks. To be sure, the philosophico-methodological approach to the problems dealt with in a theoretical investigation is essentially different from the approach to the same problems in an empirical investigation aimed at revealing and explaining individual facts of scientific importance. For instance, the problem of the objectivity of knowledge viewed from the philosophico-methodological angle at the theoretical level of cognition may boil down to deciding on whether the theoretical analysis of a quantummechanical ensemble should be carried out with the help of a certain apparatus or whether a basically new means of investigation should be sought in order to make the process under observation independent of the observer. Of course, the effect of an apparatus on the micro-object is an objective phenomenon, but the nature of the apparatus and the form of its influence cannot but tell, in one way or another, on the subjective perception of the processes in interest. It would be wrong, therefore, to deny the fact that object-subject problems do arise in such investigations. Moreover, it can be asserted that no effective solution has been found to this problem so far. The problem of causality regarded from the philosophico-methodological viewpoint at the level of theoretical cognition may consist, for instance, in the theoretical explanation of discovered laws, in the logical deduction of a certain proposition from several premises, in the forecasting scientific and technological progress, etc. Here, too, the content of the principle of causality, the meaning of the categories are not subject to any special analysis.

Hence, the problems which we call philosophico-methodological have to be solved both by a theorist and an empirical scientist. Just like in the case of empirical investigations, they are not regarded as philosophical problems mainly due to the fact that the solutions sought are expected to help in the fulfilment of a specific scientific task rather than in the formulation of a philosophical conclusion. The solution of the specific problem in question is subordinated to the- principal aim—the solution of a definite puzzle, a special theoretical problem.

Similarly to empirical knowledge, theoretical knowledge also has its limits. A theorist takes over where the empiricist leaves off. He formulates empirical laws, explains them, links to other laws having the same degree of universality or to even more general laws, gives them a theoretical substantiation. Scientific conclusions have different degrees of universality expressing the necessary links and relationships at different levels of generalisation. Some theories, e.g. the lever theory, differ but little from empirical generalisations as they describe the properties of concrete objects and phenomena. Other theories, such as the general systems theory, the set theory, the games theory, the modern cosmological theories, and others come very close to philosophical concepts and conclusions.

As is known, a scientific principle can only be refuted by another one if they represent similar or at least comparable degrees of generalisation. Consequently, critical attitude to existing philosophical concepts, as well as real interest in the development of philosophical knowledge which is indicative of the growing understanding of its role and significance in modern science can only appear at the theoretical level of scientific cognition. It does not mean, of course, that the responsibility for developing philosophical knowledge rests exclusively with the natural scientists. The point is that the revision of philosophical principles, however partial, calls for their reassessment and creative development, since the problem is not confined to the concrete expression or application of current philosophical laws. It is laws themselves, their content, that become the object of scrutiny. The problems which arise in such situations can be called theoretico-philosophical or world-view problems.

The very nature of these problems makes it impossible for the natural scientists to tackle them on their own, though their solution may predetermine the results of investigations in the specific fields they are concerned with. The professional philosophers, for their part, need profound theoretical knowledge in highly specialised fields of positive science in order to undertake this task. They must have a clear understanding of the conflicting theoretical views in the given branch, know its history and traditions. History knows many examples when the natural scientists set themselves the task of solving philosophico-theoretical problems arising in their fields in order to help overcome the crisis. Among prominent natural scientists who made invaluable contribution to the theory and philosophy of science are such famous names as Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Vladimir Bekhterev, Ivan Pavlov, Nikolai Vavilov, Ernst Bauer, Vladimir Fock, Dmitri Blokhintsev, and others.

In this context utterly absurd appear to be the repealed attempts of the positivists to lay the blame for unsolved philosophico-theoretical problems and deadlocks in science on none other than philosophy, Marxist philosophy in the first place. Positivism has always been trying to make Marxist philosophy the scapegoat for the difficulties encountered in the process of scientific cognition. Be it the comprehension of the philosophical problems of the theory of relativity or the painful process of consolidation of the quantum theory, the guilt for the protracted debates and controversies was invariably laid at the door of materialist dialectics and the Marxist philosophers who were allegedly opposed to the adoption of new ideas in physics. The development of genetics, too, purports to have been hampered by ill-intentioned dialectics which, according to the positivist “historians” of science did not serve as a guide for scientific thought but acted as a brake on its progress.

The history of science shows that theoretico-philosophical problems emerge as an expression of contradictions between the available theoretical basis of science and its philosophical foundation. Philosophical arguments are only resorted to when a theoretical problem cannot be solved by purely theoretical means and when it becomes necessary, on the one hand, to analyse its scientific roots and, on the other, to formulate its essence in philosophical terms and to indicate the possible ways for its solution. This, in turn, calls for a sufficiently high philosophical culture. The history of science knows a great many examples when the natural scientists proved incapable of solving important philosophical problems only because they allowed themselves to be enslaved by obsolete or basically false philosophical doctrines. On the other hand, cases are on record when even prominent philosophers adhering to an advanced philosophical teaching were unable to understand the significance of pressing theoretico-philosophical problems as they lacked sufficient scientific background or specific knowledge in the particular field of science.

Neither physics, biology, nor any other special science can be blamed for the inability of individual scientists to provide correct answers to topical problems of world-view significance. Physics cannot be held responsible for the inability of such scientists as Mach and Poincaré to interpret materialistically the results of their own scientific investigations. Similarly, it is not the fault of Marxist philosophy that some of its ill-starred representatives abused and denounced cybernetics as a bourgeois pseudo-science because they were unable to distinguish between its real scientific content and the misrepresentation of its discoveries in Western philosophical literature.

Hence, neither side alone can be held responsible for inability to understand and overcome one or another crisis in the theoretico-philosophical field: the fault lies both with natural scientists and philosophers. Once physicists misjudge a certain discovery, their error is seized upon by philosophers and becomes a source of groundless philosophical illusions and absolutisations leading, as a rule, to idealism and priestcraft. Should a slip be made by philosophers, their delusion will immediately tell on the relations between the rival schools in the corresponding field of positive science. Any controversy over methodological or philosophico-theoretical problems is equally sensitive to both philosophical and specifically scientific arguments.

Of course, it always takes scientists some time to realise that they are faced with a theoretico-philosophical problem. If any symptom of an impending crisis in science becomes evident, philosophical concepts and principles are always the last to be called in question. A wrong prediction or explanation in some specific field of science leads first of all to the revision of theoretical principles and corresponding scientific theories. Such a revision takes several years of scrupulous and wearisome work even in our age of the scientific and technological revolution. The turn of the philosophical concepts constituting the foundation of a given theory comes only after scientists complete a most exacting test of the empirical basis and axiomatic premises of the theory in question. There are many hot areas in modern science where philosophical concepts and ideas are tested for strength by new scientific discoveries. As in Engels’s time, nature remains the touchstone of dialectics and gives ever new evidence that it is governed by the laws of dialectics, and not metaphysics.

The intensive development of modern science characterised by the ever increasing complexity of its structure and growing sophistication of its theoretical framework expands further the sphere of man’s knowledge. Scientific investigations extend to ever new fields, new objects, phenomena and properties of the material world. This statement may seem quite trivial, yet it is not always realised that the expansion of scientific horizons is a transgression not only of the bounds of available knowledge, but also of the bounds of the current theories and adopted paradigms. This latter circumstance is of special significance since the current view tending towards some kind of pantheorism maintains that practically all new facts discovered by modern science do not go outside the framework of commonly professed theories, at least the fundamental ones, such as the theory of relativity, the quantum theory, the theory of the atomic structure of matter, and the Darwin theory.

True, so far as the modern means of scientific investigation are concerned, there are no grounds to question the validity of at least one of the above fundamental theories both in the macro- and microworlds. Nonetheless, it is rather a weak argument in favour of pantheorism. First of all, science has already received certain empirical data and theoretical conclusions which are not quite compatible with current theories, even with such a comprehensive one as the general theory of relativity. The explanation of these facts calls for a special scientific investigation. It is quite likely that a more thorough analysis will bring these facts in full conformity with the theory in question. Yet a possibility cannot be excluded altogether that it will have to be modified, generalised or even replaced by a basically new theory.

Besides, it is never to be forgotten that all current theories, however broad they may be, cannot claim to account for all the properties and aspects of the objective world. In other words, science can still reveal vast areas, explored but partially or unexplored at all, even in those fields where one or another fundamental theory appears to be indisputable. Take, for instance, the complex ecological processes or meteorological phenomena we are still trying to find a clue to and sometimes get the badly needed answers when they are already useless. The earth’s bowels, too, are full of mysteries, not to speak of our nearest neighbours, the Moon and Mars, which are to be explored in the near future— here we have no proven theoretical concepts whatsoever to rely upon.

One can hardly expect to get the right perspective of the relationship between philosophy and science if he ignores the present trends of scientific development, however inconspicuous and insignificant they may seem. One should take into account the fact that the relations between philosophy and some natural sciences or their departments concerned with these latest trends tend to become ever more direct and unmediated.

The point is that, in the absence of a developed theory providing a direct and specific explanation of a given phenomenon and predicting its consequences, the functions of such a theory largely pass to general philosophical concepts and principles. To be sure, an essential role in the development of specific scientific theories giving an exhaustive and concrete interpretation of facts belongs also to theoretical or general scientific categories and principles. Yet philosophy plays an independent theoretical part, too, and advances problems which may be called philosophico-theoretical.

What are, for instance, those basic scientific principles which constitute now the theoretical core of ecological knowledge, the embryo of the future special theory? They are nothing but a set of philosophical categories concretised to meet specific conditions.

In geography, these basic categories represent the concepts of structure, dynamics, development and others. Thus, the landscape axiom is formulated as follows: “In each point of the earth’s surface individual elements, components and factors of geographic substance are interconnected within a system of diverse and law-regulated orderly ties.” The chorological axiom postulating spatial interdependence reads thus: “All geographical phenomena are related to some geographical places which are identified by their location and particularly by the connection of this location with neighbouring places and areas.” Here is the distinguishing feature of geographical objects: “In geographic reality there are no objects which do not possess such geographical properties as location and spatial ties.”

As one can see, all these initial theoretical propositions are essentially concretised basic methodological and world-view principles. Alongside the world view and methodological functions dialectico-materialist philosophy performs an important theoretical role.

Such an understanding of the functions of philosophical knowledge may at first seem to be a revival of the concept of natural philosophy discarded by Marxism way back in the 19th century. Yet the emphasis on the theoretical significance of philosophy has nothing in common with old natural philosophy if only for the fact that materialist dialectics providing the initial theoretical basis for natural science does not by any means claim to substitute philosophical principles and speculative hypotheses for the subsequent detailed investigation of the object and for the specific laws governing its functioning and development. The absolutisation of philosophical knowledge, the speculativeness characterristic of the natural philosophy of the 17th and 18th centuries are ruled out by dialectical materialist methodology itself. Marxist-Leninist philosophy points the way for science to a more profound knowledge of the world, stressing the need to pass from general philosophical principles to concrete objects, and proves the necessity of discovering ever new aspects and empirical laws of reality. According to dialectical materialism, philosophy should not keep aloof from this process letting science stew in its own juice and expecting it to ripen all by itself, evolve true philosophical principles or provide yet another proof of dialectics.

“Bad” natural philosophy cannot spring from the methodology of dialectical materialism. It flourishes where the theoretical progress of science is made contingent on pseudo-philosophical generalisations and ontological interpretations of physical, chemical, biological and other specific data. Such generalisations and interpretations claiming the role of philosophical categories actually tend to replace true philosophical knowledge by speculative, natural-philosophical concepts.

It would be a mistake to presume that the appearance of natural-philosophical concepts can be effectively prevented in our time by the spontaneous development of science and by Marxist criticism. That is not so. When propounding the Marxist-Leninist understanding of philosophy, it is necessary to analyse not only the positivist views, but also the natural philosophical concepts, e.g. within the framework of so-called scientific realism, even if they spring up from a seemingly materialistic soil. This circumstance deserves special attention, since the present crisis of positivist philosophy tends to stimulate the “revival of metaphysics” as one of the alternatives to the positivist methodological programme. It is precisely this alternative offered by Western specialists in the methodology of science that leads to the reanimation of natural philosophy in its modern form. Numerous publications by American and British authors confirm it with utmost clarity.

It has already been pointed out in philosophical literature that the mere process of the generalisation of scientific data resulting in the creation of universal theories and concepts does not yet produce any “increment in philosophical knowledge”. In point of fact, such an “increment” gives grounds for various speculative, scholastic concepts and hypotheses.

This approach is untenable for several reasons. First, the conclusions based on the simple generalisation of concrete scientific data cannot but be trivial as they do not solve any real philosophical or special scientific problems. In fact, any generalisation can only be regarded as scientifically valid if it ensues from the solution of a real philosophical problem. Hence, to qualify as philosophical categories or principles, any notions and generalisations should be interpreted in the light of the basic principles of dialectical materialism, tested for relevance and consistence with other philosophical categories and laws.

Second, such conclusions are scientifically barren as they do not lead to any new problems.

Third, such conclusions tend to distort the philosophical picture of reality, and this is perhaps the most serious defect of the method under consideration. Not a single notion can gain circulation and be used in a philosophical context, in debates or discussions, unless it is assessed from the viewpoint of the main question of philosophy. Why is it so important? First and foremost, because philosophical analysis is based, at least in relation to the world view and methodology, on the already existing concepts and theories which, understandably, possess both the objective content and subjective elements. One should clearly understand the dialectics of these two aspects of scientific knowledge and distinguish one from the other in order to avoid errors in manipulating the new notion and trying to solve philosophical problems.

Suppose, we discuss the cause-effect problem in the light of the feedback concept. Its solution can only be obtained if we present the above categories as abstractions. For a physicist, biologist, a specialist in cybernetics or, for that matter, in any other field of natural science this problem simply does not exist. Specialists do not deal with the categories of “causality” and “feedback”, but with objective processes themselves. In this context the above categories are not regarded as abstractions with corresponding approximations, assumptions, etc. In objective reality feedback links are inseparable from causal links. Besides, analysing the processes of control in terms of feedback relations, a scientist practically does not resort to the concept of causality. It means that these concepts have quite definite epistemological limits which also determine the sphere of their application. Hence, the applicability of one or another concept—and we are speaking here about scientific concepts of a very general nature—depends not only on the specific field of objective reality, but also on the epistemological bounds. The transgression of such bounds, as well as the use of theoretical categories in an alien field renders them nonsensical.

The solution of one or another question from the philosophical angle requires special attention to the epistemological bounds of notions and concepts. In this respect the philosophical approach making a sharp distinction between the objective and subjective aspects of scientific facts and ideas is essentially different from the approach of the natural scientists, just like philosophy in general is different from the knowledge accumulated in physics, biology, chemistry and other particular sciences.

Of course, the basic question of philosophy is not the only “filter” for scientific generalisations which are to qualify as truly philosophical categories of world-view significance. No less important in this respect are the fundamental laws and categories of materialistic dialectics.

It should never be forgotten that the transition from the special knowledge obtained within the framework of some positive science to the philosophical level of thinking, like the process of scientific cognition in general, has very little in common with a linear and unidimensional process of successive generalisations, something in the nature of epigenesis. This transition is a qualitative change, a swing to a different level of universality and, accordingly, to a different level of comprehension of the necessary links and relations of the objective world.


[1]  Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1974, pp. 209–10. [—> main text]

[2]  V. I. Lenin, “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism”, op. cit., p. 258. [—> main text]

Contents of
Alternatives to

SOURCE: Naletov, Igor [Naletov, I. Z. (Igor´ Zinov´evich)]; translated from the Russian by Vladimir Stankevich. Alternatives to Positivism. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1984. 470 pp.

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