Reflections on American Philosophy From Within
Roy Wood Sellars
INTERSECTING DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM
In the next three chapters, I shall concern myself with contemporary philosophical positions which combine an ideological ingredient with philosophical analysis. These are, respectively, dialectical materialism, neo‑Thomism and existentialism. I mean here by an ideological ingredient a parti pris, or emphasis, what has come to be called a commitment. Dialectical materialism was committed to socialism and communism. This was its center of gravity. Neo‑Thomism was dominated by the assumptions of Christian theism and sought in Aristotelianism its epistemology and its ontological categories. Religious existentialism, at least, sought to develop the subjective dimension of experience and bypass the objective world of science. Other forms of existentialism took their departure from Husserl or from Kant but concerned themselves with human Existenz and its place in the world.
I have been very much intrigued by a certain cultural discontinuity in philosophy. English and American thinkers stress empiricism, modern logic and, in some measure, science. Neo‑Thomists are convinced that Descartes led modern philosophy astray into sophisticated forms of subjectivism and want to return to their form of realism and their ontology of form and matter. The dialectical materialists stress science, it is true, but want to supplement it by appeal to dialectical principles. The role of these is sometimes obscure. Engels speaks of both objective dialectics and subjective dialectics, the latter being a reflection of the former. The minimum meaning is an emphasis on change through opposition and conflict. Much is made of a contrast with a static metaphysics. In an interesting passage Engels in his book, Dialectics of Nature, states that "it is the merit of Marx that, in contrast to the peevish, arrogant epigone, he was the first to have brought to the fore again the forgotten dialectical method." [(Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House), p. 65.] The stress here is on Marx's political economy. It almost seems as though Marx moved back from historical materialism in society to a dialectic of nature.
In this chapter I shall compare my own type of evolutionary materialism with dialectical materialism, as I understand it. The term, itself, was, I understand, first used by Plekhanov in 1891 in an essay on Hegel. It took on in Marxist circles. It served as a contrast to what was usually called vulgar, mechanical materialism. I can appreciate the need of an adjective to qualify materialism since this term had long been used in a hostile way. One spoke of a materialistic age or of ethical materialism. In the strict sense, one should speak of ontological materialism in contrast to idealism or dualism. The status of life, mind and values within the framework of ontological materialism is a problem to be worked out. In these days, one speaks of emergent, or evolutionary, materialism. But popular polemics ignores these finer points. It just does not like materialism.
The Development of Dialectical Materialism
I shall argue that there were two stages, at least, in the development of dialectical materialism. The first occurred when Marx and Engels turned Hegelian idealism downside up. For Hegel, the Idea is associated with a cosmic mind. Marx, on the contrary, regarded the Idea as nothing but the material world reflected by the human mind and translated into forms of thought. He was encouraged to take this stand by the writings of Feuerbach. There is, as I see it, no sharp development of epistemology involved. But the consequences are clear. The brain must be the organ of mind and we must somehow perceive material things. As against Feuerbach, Marx wanted to stress history and human activity. I shall say something about this in connection with Marx's famous Theses on Feuerbach.
The second stage comes with Lenin and his polemic against what he calls empirio-criticism. This was a form of positivism, associated with Mach and Avenarius, which was influencing many Marxists at the time. Out of this came the "reflection theory" of sense‑perception. Epistemology was now to the fore.
Those who have followed my own epistemological analysis can see that I stress the use of sensations in a referential act of perceiving directed at an external object. The weakness of the "reflection theory" is that it tends to make sensations epistemologically terminal and this comes near to Locke's representational realism. Of course, Lenin is convinced that things are primary, as common sense holds. But he does not quite succeed in so analyzing perceiving as to bring this out. But Lenin's book is quite a tour‑de-force and shows extended reading and reflection.
So much in the way of an introduction to this chapter. I shall now proceed to develop my own evolutionary materialism on the basis of my realistic epistemology. I shall first show how the common‑sense view of things arises and then explain the development of the scientific outlook with its atoms, electro‑magnetic fields, energies, giant molecules, replication of nucleic acids, evolution of living things, the brain‑mind, etc. In this ontological context, I shall try to do justice to the characteristics of human living. That is, I shall seek to give a setting for human thought, descriptive and evaluative. After this has been done, I shall make some comments on dialectical materialism. Taken in its historical setting, I do not think it shows up so badly as against idealism, pragmatism, logical positivism and ordinary language. I must leave it to the Marxists to tell us how they employ the term, dialectical. But I note that it is a term more frequently used on the continent than in English‑speaking countries. This, as the "ordinary language" people would say, is a matter of usage. I find that the existentialists speak of negation in a quite dialectical manner. But, of course, they are not materialists.
First, then, as to common‑sense realism. It is important to realize that immaterialism of the Berkeley type was a sophisticated product based on a reduction of perceiving to having sensations. Berkeley saw a weakness in Locke's representative realism, namely, the difficulty Locke had of passing from ideas to things. He was also motivated by Newtonian physics which emphasized a kind of matter which seemed to him abstract and divorced from perception. Berkeley's immaterialism led to positivism and phenomenalism. These have been very important moves in modern philosophy up to the present. In my own critical realism, I sought to return to what seemed to me a more adequate analysis of perceiving which stressed both the referential moment in perceiving and the informational use of sensations as leading to factual cognition of objects. There is, in perceiving, much recognition, learning and exploring.
The other line in modern thought which led to an idealistic version of immaterialism was the shift from Kant to Hegel. Kant had been an agnostic realist who regarded the sense‑manifold as caused by unknowable things‑in‑themselves. Fichte and, after him, Hegel had rejected such things ‑in ‑themselves and set up a Self as primary. Hegel postulated the Idea as supreme and worked out a new kind of logic which moved from abstract being through nothingness to becoming and thence up the dialectical ladder. This kind of idealism is called panlogism. It was not only Marx but also Kierkegaard who reacted against it. As we have noted, Marx turned back to a kind of materialistic naturalism without too much concern for epistemology. Here Feuerbach acted as a catalyst. As we have pointed out, Lenin had later to meet the objections of Machian positivism. He did so in terms of the "reflection theory" of sensation. I have tried to show that this approach is incomplete and does not do justice to the complex act of perceiving.
I want now to go back to the historical development of modern science. I shall endeavor to show that it was always realistic in intent but, as it became more complex, was immersed in epistemological problems and was often puzzled. I think it was unfortunate that philosophy tended to mislead it because of its own path. That is, philosophy was weighted in the direction of positivism and idealism.
To begin with, the Aristotelian outlook had dominated the later Middle Ages. This was a qualitative realism with a geocentric cosmology and teleological notions of causality. I need not go into details for they are so well known. The Achilles heel turned out to be the theory of motion. Aristotle had no idea of mass, inertia and momentum. With the introduction of these concepts and techniques for measurement, the whole idea of the physical world altered. This was added knowledge about the things we perceive.
The next stage was the revival of atomism. In the Ancient World, atomism had been largely speculative though there had been supporting indications in evaporation and the wearing away of stone and wood. It was probably in chemistry that new indications of atomism were found in combining proportions. Epistemologically I can see no difficulty in all this. Atoms are parts of things we can perceive and, presumably, if conditions for perceiving were achieved, could be perceived. These are now approximated. In these days of atom‑fission, there is little doubt of their reality. One must, of course, give up naive ideas of perceiving. The stress should be on factual knowledge‑about. Perceiving passes into tested ideas about. With new techniques there is much stress on what Eddington called pointer‑readings. But I see no good reasons to draw idealistic conclusions. Even the ultra‑microscopic develops within the framework of the macroscopic.
The Ups and Downs of Dialectical Materialism
This would seem to be the place for a few words on the ups and downs of ontological materialism. In his Introduction to Lange's famous book on the subject, Bertrand Russell remarks that materialism has had a curious history. "Arising almost at the beginning of Greek philosophy, it has persisted down to our own time, in spite of the fact that very few eminent philosophers have advocated it." He even speaks of the contempt poured on it by most professors of metaphysics. He, himself, takes his stand on what he calls neutral monism, a type of empiricism developed around William James and not too far from Machism. I think we should bear in mind what I have said about the immaterialistic and idealistic stances taken by philosophy. I do not think that materialism has been so much refuted as rejected out of hand. I am going to argue for a new deal. Certainly, it involves a realistic epistemology and, after that, it must face up to life and mind and values. It cannot be a reductive, dead‑level affair. But, if it can be carried through, it has much to be said in its favor. Certainly, it fits in more with modern science than does transcendental idealism.
It strikes me that its chief competitor these days is some form of panpsychism. For that reason, I shall later examine Whitehead's construction. Of course, Leibnitz began this strategy. It was in this way that he moved away from materialism to his theism and his preestablished harmony. Had he given as much effort to a reconstruction of materialism it would, I think, have been better. But I am inclined to believe from my own experience that this could come only slowly and as a consequence of advances in science, such as the theory of evolution and a greater stress on patterns and relations.
One should, of course, begin with Democritus. He was of Ionian stock and naturalistic in his outlook. In the broad sense, he was a physicist, concerned with physis or nature. He seems to have followed Leucippus; in breaking down the monism of Parmenides into a pluralism of atoms and the void. In this way he could account for change. The atoms were conceived abstractly and as simply as possible. To‑day, as we all know, we have much tested knowledge of their constitution and the way they connect up with one another. Some elements are, apparently, cooked up in the stars.
Democritus laid stress on what he called the fire‑atoms which made up the soul. He seems to have thought there were ordered movements in these atoms and connected these with reason. The moral goal should be serenity and mastery of desires. Epicurus took over from here.
It is not at all surprising to find that Plato and Aristotle appealed to a soul of quite another type. Socrates had given the lead when he stressed reason and purpose as the fulcrum of action. But how do these get leverage on the body? This turned out to be a blind alley. As I see it, we are only beginning to understand the higher cerebral processes involved in thinking and decision. I shall speak of levels of causality and defend an identity view with double knowledge of the brain‑mind, knowledge from outside (neurological knowledge) and knowledge from the inside (introspective knowledge). We think of ourselves to‑day as working out of Cartesian dualism. The Aristotelian approach, as we shall see in the next chapter, has quite a different texture whose foundations were destroyed by the new physics. Purpose and teleology are now regarded as local achievements having complex conditions.
I pass to Lucretius. There is much in his poem that deserves study. I wish merely to call attention to his recognition that sensations would seem to go with combinations of atoms rather than being the qualities of individual atoms by themselves. This is the basic question of novelty, of how the sentient arises from the non‑sentient. A principle of integration seems to be at work. Can wholes have properties which parts by themselves do not have? As we shall see, panpsychism stresses the primacy of sentiency. I would not go that far but I certainly would not accept the Cartesian tradition of inertness and alienness. Activity and being go together, so far as our evidence reaches. Is feeling a quality dimly emergent with life activities? Does an appeal to potentialities carry us farther? These are interesting questions. Nerve cells seem to be resonators and repeaters. And they seem to act in patterns. We are far from the older type of atomism. Chemical compounds share some of their electrons in a new pattern. And in the formation of giant molecules there are even codes.
But I must be brief. And so I turn to Hobbes. We find him stressing motion and using a vocabulary tending to identify internal motions in the organism with sensations and images. Endeavor was one of his key terms. There was ambiguity here since many of the terms he used had both physical and mental overtones. He was aware of the importance of sensations but did not isolate them from bodily operations in the way that Locke later did. At his time, philosophy and science were hardly distinguishable. One can say that Hobbes's philosophy was immersed in his physics.
And yet there was one emphasis in Hobbes which should not be neglected, and that was the stress on words and speech. Man differs from the animals in his use of words as conventional signs. Here categories appear which are not to be found in physics, such as decision and use. In speech, words are joined together by the decisions of men to stand for a train of conceptions of things which are objects of thought. He puts stress on definition and the correct use of words. Speech is essential to reasoning. Words are a wise man's counters. Here there was a recognition of meaning and purpose. But, as a mechanist, Hobbes also wanted a causal explanation of signs. In some measure, he could do this for animals. But human discourse had a different setting. This remained a challenge to his type of materialism. If modern behaviorism is a type of materialism, as Russell suggests, it at least acknowledges complicated types of conditioning. Words act as symbols, that is, as substitutes for perceived things; and a whole new area of activity opens up. It would seem that language involves a new level of cerebral activities. And these go with group cooperation. I am not surprised that recent philosophy has laid so much stress on language and what it involves. I would only argue that it should be supplemented by a basic realism.
I turn next to Locke. Like Descartes, he favored dualism in ontology. Ideas are the objects of the understanding. And Locke could not see how they could be integrated with cerebral activity. The farthest he goes is to suggest that God could have given matter the power to think, a suggestion often referred to by materialists. But the emphasis in Locke was toward a kind of transparent empiricism. Ideas are given and we seem unable to transcend them. While we tend to believe in an external material world, it is difficult to see how knowledge of it can be attained. This is the barrier set to representative realism, as it is called.
By this time, philosophy had become differentiated from science. Each went on its own path and intersected only now and then when some thinker, or group of thinkers, sought to integrate them. I have in mind a man like La Mettrie or Cabanis, both medical men, or the group in Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century, consisting of Vogt, Moleschott, and Buchner. From the point of view of technical philosophy, these men were essentially amateurs. As a matter of fact, they were rather careless in their expressions. Philosophy was entrenched behind Hume, Kant and Hegel. It saw many difficulties in epistemology, the mind‑body problem, and the foundations of morality. In some measure, too, there was a background of dislike of what was regarded as reductive simplicities. Much had to happen before a new orientation was possible. As I look back on this situation, I would suggest that the theory of evolution played an important role. So did the rise of the social sciences which helped to knit man's life to biology while recognizing novelties. So did the increase of secularism. All this, I think, affected philosophy and made possible new lines of thought. Something of this came out in my study of developments in American philosophy from idealism, through pragmatism, to realism.
I should, in this connection, like to refer to the divergent paths taken by Huxley and Tyndall, both distinguished scientists of the nineteenth century in England. It seems that Tyndall had read Lange's History of Materialism and was inclined to speculate along materialistic lines as in his famous Belfast Address. Huxley, on the other hand, was much influenced by Hume's positivism and in the controversies of the times took an agnostic position. I think their differences were rather typical of the period. There were leads but no clear‑cut principles.
I note that Lenin refers to James Ward. I remember playing a good game of chess with him in 1922 when he was eighty. I was in Cambridge at his invitation. He had written a book, called Naturalism and Agnosticism, which analyzed the situation indicated above and took the path of panpsychism. There was no subject without an object and no object without a subject. Sentiency was the only sample of reality we had to go on. We shall find much the same perspective in Whitehead.
Now Ralph Barton Perry and I had been working in epistemology and both of us were skeptical of these dicta of Ward's. Perry was in favor of externality and independence and this led him to a combination of behaviorism and presentationalism. Such was the new realism. To put sensations in the brain was, in his opinion, a halfway house to Locke's representationalism. Dewey had much the same fear of such a location and moved to his form of behaviorism. If the mind focussed on sensations in the brain, this would give it a subjective slant which it would be difficult to correct. Better to locate sensations as discriminations in behavioral experience. Dewey exercised much ingenuity in defending this perspective. I, on the other hand, thought of another possibility. Suppose perceiving was a directional act guided by sensations and involving a from‑and‑to circuit, then sensations would be put to use in this referential context and give rise to informational facts about the thing we are responding to. Sensations would not, then, be terminal objects of a subjectively focussed mind but sources of information about external objects. Thus cognition would emerge. In this way, man could achieve knowledge about his world, as he apparently did in the sciences.
The outcome of this approach was the development of an evolutionary type of materialism which stressed levels of organization and of operative activity in nature. This type of materialism was non‑reductive and recognized the emergence of novelty. There were, of course, critical points for it to handle. The first was the nature of life. The second was the integration of thinking with the functioning of the brain. I can speak of these only cursorily here.
When I began my thinking about the origin and nature of life, the choice was between vitalism and mechanism. Vitalism was dualistic in import and had no clear theories as to the nature of the life‑force. Somehow, it was supposed to be directive. Driesch and Bergson were the outstanding representatives of the vitalistic move. It was, in part, a protest against the almost equal vagueness of the mechanists. How much has happened of late? We hear now of giant molecules, of the helix organization of D.N.A. and the role of R.N.A. in synthesizing proteins. The cell is a sort of chemical factory. And there is both speculation and experimentation concerning a chemical evolution preceding the biological one.
In a quite factual way we can now speak of living matter in terms of organization. The precision of coded processes is extraordinary. We are far from the fire atoms of Democritus or the atomic motions of Hobbes. And yet we can see a continuity of outlook.
It is the brain to which we now turn. This is an organ of guided behavior. The chemical precision of the cell becomes subordinate to the reception of informative messages and learned responses to them. The passage from the sensory to the motor equipment is basic. Neurological knowledge is increasing. But there remain age‑old questions of the location and role of what we call consciousness or awareness. The sophisticated materialist, it seems to me, must take an identity view and locate consciousness as involved in cerebral operations. Here each individual participates in these operations. My own view is that signals require the compresence of awareness as does recognition of pattern. As I see it, this kind of activity is causal but consists of a guided kind of causality. I have argued that cognition emerges in the use of information contained in sensations. Cognition thus has a natural base. With this as a start, thinking proceeds. I see no reason to be dualistic about it. Much of it involves the use of verbal symbols. Here learning and conditioning operate. One reason for puzzling is that scientific thought is dominated by a perspective of a descriptive and impersonal texture and it is difficult for it to assimilate the kind of knowledge introspection adds. Yet I think this must be done. What we have are educated brains, brains able to take account of cues and symbols. And this taking account of seems to me to involve the kind of togetherness exhibited by awareness. But I assume that such awareness has its cerebral conditions. Out of this arises recognition of means and ends and of goals in sight. Though the brain is the organ of thought, language develops with no reference to it but to the self as a center of control. The symbol here is the personal pronoun "I." I see no linguistic difficulties in this situation.
It must be acknowledged that factual knowledge about our world is a great achievement but it is a mediated one through information received. It is not an affair of direct intuition. As we examine this knowledge it turns out to be knowledge about structure and processes made as detailed as possible and quantitative. The chemist can synthesize substances and find that they perform in the same way as substances found in nature. Already, in the nineteenth century, Engels made much of this accomplishment as a proof of realism. It has gone much farther in our own day; and I marvel at what is being done.
But it is still the case that human knowledge does not reach the kind of presentational awareness of matter and energy that naive realism encourages people to dream of. This does not mean, however, that material things are the unknowable things ‑in ‑themselves that the Kantian tradition postulated. Nor does it mean that they are phenomenal merely.
Panpsychism as an Alternative
I turn now to consider briefly the move, called panpsychism, taken as an alternative to ontological materialism. It is quite an old story. As I have already pointed out, we find it in Leibnitz and later in Clifford, Paulsen, C. A. Strong, Durant Drake, C. S. Peirce and A. N. Whitehead.
The argument is, essentially, that the sentiency we experience in consciousness is the sole sample of reality we have and that, apart from it, reality becomes vacuous.
I pointed out that Peirce rejects materialism because he identifies it with mechanical necessity whereas he is a defender of chance and choice. Evolutionary materialism stresses novelty and levels of causality. At the human level, choice in the light of consequences seems to me undeniable and to fit in with the very role of mind as furthering adjustment. Qualifications must, of course, be added to do justice to conditions and the impulsive power of drives. I cannot go as far as Sartre and make freedom an absolute. I shall discuss this in the later chapter devoted to existentialism. Here I am only concerned with Peirce's objection to materialism on the grounds that it implies rigid necessitarianism. I think that objection is dated.
But the epistemological basis of Peirce's panpsychism comes from his Kantianism. That is, he identifies reality with what is logically constructed and sets this over against any incognizable cause. It is, however, a little unclear as to what he means by objective validity.
I pass now to the sort of panpsychism which is defined by Strong and Drake. The first stage of this rested on a kind of agnosticism to be supplemented by the assumption of a mind‑stuff. The final stage was more novel. Subjective sentiency, under biological conditions, gave rise to a consciousness of essences, such as roundness. These essences did not have a mental status like sentiency. Their role was to mediate knowledge. Drake, here, had an outlook like Santayana. In science, essences mediated knowledge of structure and relations but never attained a vision of matter itself. Why not, then, take sentiency as a sample of the stuff of reality? It would be an instance of mind‑stuff.
Now I do think there is a background of bodily feeling and sensed attitude in perceiving. But I hold that perceiving, as such, makes use of sensations as informative signals and cues in terms of which cognitive facts about the perceived object can be deciphered. In this context, recognition and concepts are developed; and we pass to symbols and descriptive references. In short, I see no good reason to postulate essences. As nearly as I remember, they were set up to avoid the framework of representative realism. Essences were at once before the mind and in the object. I put in their place the directed use of sensory cues and concepts founded on them, holding that sensations are not terminal objects of a primary knowledge but, rather factors having a disclosing function. In this way, I move between presentationalism and representationalism.
From Drake, one can move to Whitehead, though Drake is far nearer the naturalistic outlook of materialism than is Whitehead. In many ways, Whitehead is nearer to the idealism of F. H. Bradley. He is more Platonic than Bradley.
As nearly as I can make out, Whitehead identifies perceiving with the presentational rise of percepta. These consist of "eternal objects," or essences, actively apprehended in an affective form of feeling. These percepta are passed on from one concrescent occasion to another because they have a kind of objective immortality. Ultimately, we are led on to God as their source.
It should be clear that I stress the causal rise of percepta as events and point to their function as disclosing external things. Whitehead seems to think that his concrescent monadism is the only alternative to phenomenalistic positivism. Whitehead is not a realist in my sense but rather a reformed subjectivist. I do not deny his ingenuity but regard much of it as ill placed. His notion of materialism as involving a vacuous actuality is foreshadowed in Bradley who could not see how we could get beyond appearances. It is, then, a question of either . . . or. Either something like experiencing or nothing. But I do not think that knowing is identifiable with experiencing. It presupposes something to be known, something which exists in its own right. What we gain are facts about it. I cannot see that this situation makes the object vacuous. It is only so if we set up a subjective standard. As the reader already knows, I regard sensations and thoughts as intrinsic to brain‑states and sustained by them. Thus, I am not astonished by this level of brain activity in which it reaches awareness and self‑direction in the complexities of life. The tradition of dualism seems to me rather absurd since it really acknowledges this isomorphism of process. Our double‑knowledge of the brain, participative and external, involves linguistic problems which are only gradually being ironed out. And it is not uncommon to hear it said that the brain thinks. Yet it must also be recognized that we are, as selves, thinking with, and in, the brain.
At long last, I come now to the dialectical materialism which my own materialism intersects. It had a considerably different history. This was largely apart from academic auspices. Even Lange, as Engels rather bitterly remarks, ignored it.
As I have already indicated, there were two stages in its development, that of Marx and Engels and that of Lenin. The first expressed a swing away from the abstract constructions of Hegel under the influence of Feuerbach. I shall go into this in some detail. The second represents the struggle with Machian positivism, something analogous to what has occurred in these days in the debate over logical positivism. Here I shall endeavor to supplement Lenin's move. Let it be understood that I am not here taking up the complications of historical materialism. These I have considered in an unpublished manuscript on political and social philosophy. Here I am concerned primarily with epistemology and ontology.
But, before I go into these matters, I want to say a few words about the term, dialectic.
There is a minimum meaning to this and a maximum meaning. I prefer the minimum meaning. This lies between logic and concern for the texture of thinking and the texture of nature. Engels speak of subjective dialectics and objective dialectics. The latter builds on the difference between an outlook which stresses fixed things and repetition in nature and an outlook which emphasizes process and novelty. The former concerns itself with the role of conflict and negation in our thinking. I have the impression that the Marxists, to‑day at least, do not want to confuse formal logic and dialectics. They are concerned to reject what they regard as a bias in the direction of harmony and oversimplification. There are terminological difficulties here. For instance, the term, contradiction, is used in an extended way for opposing tendencies. I note that Lenin stresses the point that the world is the seat of dynamic interconnections.
Now, as I have reflected on this terminology, I sought to translate some of it into terms more native to my own traditions. There would seem to be no need for dispute about formal, deductive logic. Nor should there be disagreement about the nature of scientific method. This should be taken as apolitical. There was some backsliding here since the Soviets wanted to stress the environment rather than heredity. And, for a time, Lysenko got the ear of Stalin. That was unfortunate. But I think that Marxists now recognize the validity of scientific method. The area of dialectics would seem to be that of the texture of thinking, on the one hand, and of the categorial texture of nature, on the other. Surely, we can all agree that it is a restless universe.
I have the impression that, while Marx plunged ever more deeply into economics and sociology, Engels followed the growth of the sciences and sought to work out certain principles which Fitted into his materialistic revision of Hegel. He regarded these as empirical generalizations. He held that quantity changed into quality. I note that Soviet philosophers feel it to be their duty to study the conditions of any such change in detail. I had always stressed the importance of organization and noted the role of energy in building up organization. This comes out clearly these days in the chemistry of giant molecules, so essential to life. I could see some point in his principle of the unity of opposites as in magnetism. But I found it harder to locate in facts his negation of negation. Though Engels attacked the NaturphiIosophie of his time, I could not but feel that he had a touch of it. That would be quite understandable; and since dialectical materialism puts much stress on time and history, it should recognize the limitations of historical periods. After all, Marx and Engels regarded themselves as revolutionaries who recognized no fixed stopping point for change. I know, of course, that there is a problem here for their social theory. What succeeds the achievement of a classless society? Well, problems would still arise.
So much, then, for dialectic. It is, of course, an old term for dialogue and debate. And it once meant the same as logic. It is much more used on the Continent than in England and the United States. I find examples of it among the existentialists, especially the use of negation. And Hegel is there still much alive. Merleau‑Ponty's book on Adventure de la Dialectique is worth reading, in this connection.
I turn now to consider the role played by Feuerbach in the rise of dialectical materialism. Engels is very explicit about it and Marx indicates where he goes beyond Feuerbach. Feuerbach returns to sensible particulars, to ceci as against universals. That is, he moves in the direction of empiricism. He believes that perceiving "permits us to enter into communication with the exterior of things" but stresses sensations and feelings as enabling us to enter into the interior of human beings, into what he calls spirit. This leads him to stress love and the union of the "I" and the "thou." It is all rather vague, analytically speaking, but the direction of his thought is evident.
At this point, he takes up Hegel's stress on alienation and applies it to religion. Man sets up God and another world as a projection of his own conflicts. This is the base of his anthropological humanism. I must confess that I find this move sounder than that of Kierkegaard, who sets the eternal over against the temporal. But Kierkegaard was more dramatic in exposition than Feuerbach. I have long learned to discount fashions in these matters. One reason, I suppose, was that I had reached a pretty definite framework. One is constantly beset by what I call journalistic philosophy. Logical positivism, or therapeutic positivism, or Kierkegaard, or Nietzsche are taken up and extolled. I think the trained philosopher must keep his eye on basic problems, such as perceiving, the mind‑body situation, evolution, the nature of value‑judgments. And he must see these in the light of growing knowledge. I was, fortunately, pretty well trained in biology, psychology, history and sociology and so had perspective. I could hardly think of going back to Hume or Kant or Hegel but did, indeed, attempt to understand them in relation to their times.
But, to return to Feuerbach, from humanism he passed to a kind of physiological materialism. The maxim, a man is what he eats, expressed this, just as Cabanis had earlier remarked that the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile. But such dicta were more expressions of frustration than advances. It is only in our days that some notion of the mode of working of the brain is arising. And I do think a better epistemology helps. I would emphasize the double‑knowledge approach.
Marx and Engels were now ready to turn Hegelianism upside down and to deny the identity of thought and being. That is, in essentials, they had become realists. But their chief interest was in society and history. It had to be an historically orientated materialism. The old materialism accepted ready‑made things and repetition. The stress should be on process and development. I take this to be the minimum meaning they assigned to the term, dialectic. But it is up to the Marxists to explain their usage.
Let us look at Marx's Theses on Feuerbach (1845). In the first thesis, Marx criticizes Feuerbach's neglect of human activity. That is, he thinks he pays too much attention to external things. He does not stress sufficiently praxis and revolution. In the second thesis, Marx connects objective truth with practice. This is often regarded as a pragmatic touch. I would myself accept the importance of the general connection of technology with pure science but would also emphasize the testing of hypotheses in science itself. In the third thesis, Marx stresses the point that the educator must himself be educated, that is, that the environment is not enough.
In the fourth thesis, Marx points out that the recognition of human alienation in religion is not enough. One must seek to better man's lot and thus remove the causes of alienation; Feuerbach is too passive. In the fifth, Marx recognizes Feuerbach's turn toward empiricism and away from Hegel's panlogism. But I am not clear as to what Marx means by practical sensory activities. It probably connects up with his emphasis on praxis. I would emphasize perceiving and its link with conduct and the rise of science and technology. In the sixth thesis, Marx rightly objects to Feuerbach's neglect of social history and his concentration on an abstraction called humanity. And in the next thesis he turns to what we would call social psychology to explain religious feeling. People do not understand why they think and feel as they do. In the ninth thesis, Marx suggests that past materialism has had the setting of the single individual in bourgeois society. And, in the tenth, indicates his desire to enlarge its scope to human society in the large. I think this is being done by the social sciences, although the life of the individual must likewise be cleared up in terms of biology and psychology. In the eleventh thesis, we have the famous demand to change the world. Theory should lead to action. It was on this that Marx concentrated.
Now, as we have seen in his Dialectics of Nature, Engels read voraciously in the science of his time. But I cannot see that he devoted as much energy to developments in philosophy. He did not like the positivism of Duhring; and expressed himself in no uncertain terms. But as I, myself, look back on nineteenth‑century philosophy I find it rather stagnant. In Germany, it tended to end up in neo‑Kantianism. In England, as we have seen, in a mixture of positivism and idealism. I am inclined to think that it needed developments in the sciences to stimulate it. And this impact, I believe, came most sharply in the United States of my generation.
Lenin and Epistemology
I turn next to Lenin and his foray into philosophy. He had his motivations in the vacillations of many Marxists. It was the period of revisionism in Germany and of the impact of Mach and Avenarius along positivistic lines. Now I was in Germany about the same time. I recall that a young Oxford philosopher, just leaving Heidelberg, in 1909, advised me to read Avenarius, which I did. Those who have taken the trouble to read my first book, Critical Realism, will remember that I devoted space to Mach, Avenarius and Pearson. They did not satisfy my realistic dispositions. I did not believe that things could be identified with sensations. Sensations might well be sources of information but science stressed techniques of measurement of bodies. I did not read Lenin's book until the twenties. But I was prepared to sympathize with his protests. I felt, however, that he had not quite got the answer to the mechanism of perceiving. He wrote in terms of the reflection theory. But this left open the question of which comes first, in epistemology, the reflections or the external things. As I read Lenin, he starts from things and moves to sensations as reflecting them. But, as his critics argue, he does not explain how he gets to things in the first place. They insist that he makes sensations cognitively prior and that this lands him in something like Locke's representationalism. To quote Passmore, "Berkeley's criticism has to be answered that, if matter is not itself a sensation but only that which gives rise to sensation, we can have no evidence that there is such a thing. Berkeley, Engels admits, is hard to beat by mere argumentation." [Passmore, A Hundred Years of Philosophy, p. 45.] My reorientation is basic here.
But if we take perceiving to be an operation which does not terminate on sensations but uses them in its deciphering of the things to which it is responding, we have another situation. We move between presentationalism and representationalism. Sensations become factors used in referential perceiving. In this setting we start from the act of perceiving things and afterwards shift our attention to sensations. That is, we first use our sensations as informational about objects and afterwards recognize sensations and the role they play. We conclude that we could not just intuit things and so start from them in that way. And so we realize the disclosing role sensations play. I speak of this as the from‑to‑circuit. It is in this fashion that I answer Berkeley.
I conclude, accordingly, that Lenin was nearer right than the positivists. The epistemological road to materialism is open. But materialism itself, needs clarification. It can no longer be reductive but must recognize levels in nature and do justice to what is unique in man, his ability to use language both descriptively and valuatively. Attention thus focusses on the brain as an organ of both thought and action. It is at least one of the merits of ontological materialism that it indicates a perspective in line with science. Much needs to be done both factually and in the way of thought‑habits. I, myself, welcome this intersection of the secular philosophy of the West with what is often called diamat. It is to be hoped that differences of approach and of terminology can, as the saying is, be ironed out. It was with some such idea in mind that I helped to edit a cooperative volume entitled Philosophy for the Future: The Quest of Modem Materialism. We asked Soviet philosophers to make their contribution but they did not see their way to do so. And then the cold war intervened. It was our belief that pragmatic naturalism was in the right direction but a little too vague on fundamentals. Did Messrs Dewey and Hook really believe in the existential status of matter or was it a working concept in what they called Experience?
In the next chapter I shall examine neo‑Thomism and its affiliations. Here we have what is sometimes called formal materialism. Quite rightly, the opening emphasis is on epistemology. Here lines are laid down which I would challenge but which I respect. An ontology ensues whose texture is Aristotelian and which is sometimes called hylomorphism. It will be my purpose to bring out, as sharply as possible, differences in both epistemology and ontology. The reader can then make his choice.
SOURCE: Sellars, Roy Wood. Reflections on American Philosophy From Within. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969. ix, 202 pp. Chapter 8Intersecting Dialectical Materialism, pp. 101-117.
includes the following & more:
on American Philosophy From Within: Foreword & Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The Nature of the Project
Some Reflections of Roy Wood Sellars
"Epilogue on Berkeley" by Roy Wood Sellars
Principles of Emergent Realism: Philosophical Essays by Roy Wood Sellars
"The New Materialism" by Roy Wood Sellars
Philosophy for the Future: The Quest of Modern Materialism: Foreword & Contents
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