A Workshop Discussion
Washington DC
12 February 1978

Karl Marx On Science and Nature

Science as Social Process . . .

Robert S. Cohen (Boston University)

The aims of an organization of this sort [Dialectics Workshop] are primarily to bring out the relevance of Marx to the present time, to the science of today. I am talking here not on my view of what Marx means for today but on what I think he meant for his time. The relevance of this for science and philosophy today is for you to develop . . .

Marx and Science

The principal contribution of Marx was to emphasize the social character of science. Although he acknowledged the cognitive successes of the sciences, he nevertheless comprehended them as social phenomena, part of the general social and economic processes of their times (that would be his hypothesis): and if at times they were isolated from social forces, then they were to be understood as a product of social conflicts and pressures which allowed for such isolation. Even the pure scientists, responding solely to inner motivations (perhaps curiosity) would be in a social situation which produced that kind of curiosity, that kind of isolation.

To be social meant further. to respond to socially produced motivations and purposes, and to do so with socially stimulated modes of inquiry and of explanation, and with criteria of success or failure which themselves changed from century to century . . . The sciences were not in any full sense promoted by pleasurable motivations for, in the development of the sciences, Marx saw a central, perhaps the essential, contribution to the grim and practical task of mastering nature.     * * *

On the deliberately conscious linkup of science with industry, and the social implication, Marx says (Capital, v. 1): “The implements of labour, in the form of machinery, necessitate the substitution of natural forces for human force, and the conscious application of science, instead of rule of thumb" (p 382) . . . and "Intelligence in production expands in one direction because it vanishes in many others. What is lost by the detail labourers, is concentrated in the capital that employs them . . . modern industry makes science a productive force and presses it into the service of capital" (p 355).     * * *

You may remember this passage from The Communist Manifesto: "The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet. and the scientist into wage labourers."

On the distinction between science and cooperative labour, there is an interesting passage from vol. 3 of Capital: "Universal labour is scientific labour, such as discoveries and inventions. This labour is conditioned on the cooperation of living fellow beings and on the labours of those who have gone before. Cooperative labour; on the other hand, is a direct co‑operation of living individuals.     * * *

Marx early recognized that, like prejudices and religious beliefs, so also ideas have social function and determinants, not least of them scientific ideas, even those of the most confirmed and objectively established sort. He was an admirer of Charles Darwin whose work he saw as a penetrating insight and proof indeed of the historical character of biological nature. But he also noted with amusement that Darwin's hypothesis saw nature through a social image. He wrote to LaSalle, at a time when he was still friendly with LaSalle, “Darwin's book is very important and serves me as a natural scientific basis for the class struggle in history. One has to put up with the crude English method of development, of course. Despite all deficiencies, not only is the death blow dealt here for the first time to 'teleology' in the natural sciences but its rational meaning is empirically explained (Selected Correspondence, p. 151). Note that you don't throw out teleology, you explain it.

Then, in a letter to Engels, he says: “It is remarkable how Darwin recognizes. among the beasts and the plants, his English society with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, 'inventions’, and the Malthusian 'struggle for existence.' It is Hobbes' war of all against all, and one is reminded of Hegel's Phenomenology where civil society is described as a 'spiritual animal kingdom,' while in Darwin the animal kingdom figures as civil society" (Ibid. pp 156‑7).

Marx also saw Darwin's work as suggestive for human history, and for the instrumental role of the human body and of technology and science. Here is another of those simply marvelous footnotes in Capital: "Darwin has interested us in the history of Nature's Technology, i. e., in the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which organs serve as instruments of production for sustaining life in the plants and animals. Does not the history of the productive organs of man, of organs that are the material basis of a social organization, deserve equal attention? And would not such a history be easier to compile since, as Vico says, human history differs from natural history in this, that we have made the former but not the latter."

Marx consistently treated science under the general heading of labor and he understood scientific conceptions to be joined with the material basis of human existence, with practical life, and with social relations among men and women. The previous footnote continues: "Technology discloses man's mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations and of the mental conceptions that flow from them." An extraordinary claim! If one really understood the history of technology and the science that goes with it, that would be the basis for understanding the mode of formation of social relations and the mental conceptions, the ideologies of the times! That's in Capital, so it's the fully mature Marx. "The weak points," he goes on, "in the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism that excludes history and its process, these weak points are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own specialty." I think that's no longer true. Today the liberal as well as the radical spokesmen go well beyond . . . but this was something quite appropriate for his time.

Marx and Nature

He saw very well, as I'm sure you know, that capital "first creates bourgeois society and [with it] the universal appropriation of nature", the key point of bourgeois society, universal in the sense defined before, that nature takes an instrumental role in human history, nature becomes an instrument for humanity. That's from the Grundrisse, the huge preparatory notes for Capital. "For the first time," he continues, "nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility, ceases to be recognized for itself. The theoretical discovery of any autonomous law of nature appears merely as a ruse, a trick, so as to subjugate nature to human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production."

Now such an attitude towards technology and science, I think, obviously leads to what Marx considers to be the correct notion of freedom. the now familiar theme of Marx, in which we reverse the domination of human beings, either by the "blind" forces of nature or by the blind forces of society, and turn them upside down.

It is technology that is fundamental because technology is the mediation between man and nature. He says (Capital, vol. 3): "the realization of freedom consists in socialized man, tile associated producers, rationally regulating their material interchange with nature and bringing it [nature] under their common control instead of allowing it to rule them as a blind force." Now that must lead beyond craft technology to science with the impressive modification of human life which is made possible by the cognitive achievements of science when and if, in Marxist terms, nature is appropriated. Marx says (in The Grundrisse), "it is neither the direct human labour he himself performs nor the time which he works, but rather the appropriation of his own [scientific] productive power, his understanding ofnature and his mastery over it by virtue of his presence as a social body, it is, in a word, the development of the social individual [as scientist] which appears as the great foundationstone of production and of wealth."

Now to understand what he meant by the phrase "the social individual" is to understand what he meant by the whole of the Marxist theory of society and I can't pursue that here . . .

Marx and Method

Unfortunately even today 100 years later, research into what Marx meant by the scientific method, the methods of thought and investigation, as shown in his works and as expounded by him, has brought no general agreement anywhere in the world. There are, however. several explicit texts by Marx on the scientific method [see Bibliographic Notes, this issue] . . . and then there are other things to be understood, if you're clever enough, from everything else that Marx wrote.

Engels often praised Marx's method, even above Marx's achievements. In a letter of 1895 to Sombart, a soon‑to‑be reactionary German economist, Engels wrote: "Marx's whole manner of conceiving things is not a doctrine, but a method. It offers no dogmas, but rather points of reference for further research. and the method of that research . . ."     * * *

Discussing the dialectical method in Capital (Vol. I Afterword) Marx said: "Of course. the method of presentation must differ in form from that of inquiry. The latter has to appropriate the material [the empirical data] in detail, to analyze its different forms of development, to trace out their inner connection. Only after this work is done, can the actual movement be adequately described. If this is done successfully, if the life of the subject matter is ideally reflected as in a mirror, then it may appear as if we had before us a mere a priori construction. So Marx distinguishes the method of inquiry from the method of exposition.

By the way, exposition is not just the method of teaching or pedagogy, it is the actual second stage of scientific work. Inquiry is factually realistic, beginning with initially uninterpreted data that are subjected to analysis in stages of complexity which demand insightful abstraction, simplification and, of course, some subtlety. The factual data are the concrete entities or the wholes, not the individual partial things, the whole factual data. And the results of analysis are abstract principles analyzed into theoretically formulated "parts", i. e., selected out, hypothetically guided by theories that have been based upon and more or less tested in previous investigations. So inquiry is a complicated stage of empirical research, and of inductive as well as hypothetical analysis.

Then comes presentation which gives the results their necessary development—or some notion of development anyway—which aims to be a conceptual return from abstraction back to the concrete reality, and brings the component parts or qualities of any subject matter together in what we would call their organic relatedness and interrelatedness and into their evolutionary or historical movements. This return will be mediated by expository as well as theoretical demands so as to clarify the separate qualities and the various relations among them, including their relations with their environment.

So, for Marx, the truth will be the whole in its changes. And these changes in turn will be related by historical processes. This is the Marxian dialectic of contending and negating "forces" within history . . . negative meaning changing, denying or destroying what was . . .

Irving Adler (North Bennington, Vermont)

Fifty years ago many people rejected as absurd the idea that Marx and Engels had created a science of society. They argued that there couldn't be any such thing as a science of society or a science of history because (a) controlled experiments are not possible and (b) the student of society is part of the phenomenon he is studying: hence, objectivity in the study of society was presumed to be impossible. This argument was the basis of a supposed absolute distinction between the study of nature. which could be scientific, and the study of social institutions, which could not.

This distinction has been eroded by what is happening in the natural sciences themselves. First, all the sciences are now historical sciences. In the nineteenth century, geology and biology had already become historical sciences, studying processes and evolution. Since then, physics applied to astronomy, has become an historical science, studying the origins and evolution of stars and. galaxies and the forms of matter they contain. Chemistry, too, has become an historical science, studying prebiotic chemical evolution and the origin of life. Secondly, it isn't only in the social sciences that the spectator is part of the act; the spectator is now part of the spectacle in physics as well. Relativity theory teaches us that measures of length and duration depend on the speed of the observer, and quantum theory tells us that the more accurately we determine the position of an electron, the less accurately we can determine its momentum and vice versa, because every act of observation is an act of interference with the thing observed.

The erosion of this presumed distinction between the study of nature and the study of society has two important implications. The first is that the scientific study of society is no less possible than the scientific study of nature. The second is that dialectical materialism, developed initially in the social sciences for the study of complex dynamical processes undergoing evolution, is also the appropriate method for the study of processes and evolution in the natural sciences.     * * *

In what way is dialectical materialism of use to the scientist? To answer this question, it is important to note first the characterization of dialectical materialism by Engels that has been called to our attention by Professor Cohen. Engels said in 1895 in a letter to Sombart, "Marx's whole manner of conceiving things is not a doctrine, but a method. It offers no finished dogmas, but rather points of reference for further research and the method of that research.” . . . Awareness of the principles of dialectical materialism is a kind of insurance against dogmatism. Each of the principles is a generalization from past experience in the sciences. But it never takes the form of telling us what we must find in a particular area of study. It tells us only what we may find. Then, this reminder of what is possible, becomes the point of reference, as Engels says, for some research. . . .

Each of the principles of dialectical materialism is a danger signal, a red flag, if you will, warning of the existence of some common booby traps for unwary investigators. Among them are: 1) the metaphysical fallacy, trying to characterize an object by some abstract, absolute essence rather than by studying its internal and external relationships, its history and its dynamics: 2) the supernatural or external cause fallacy, failure to recognize that some motion can be understood as self motion resulting from internal conflict, 3) the mechanistic fallacy, failure to recognize that qualitative differences do exist; 4) the reductionist fallacy, ignoring the fact that in a complex structure or process the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; 5) the eclectic fallacy, failing to recognize that qualitatively distinct factors may be related; 6) the extrapolation fallacy, extrapolating a law beyond the time and context for which it has been established, thus unjustifiably converting what is particular and temporary into what is allegedly general and eternal.

Recent experience in biology provides a good example of the usefulness of dialectical materialism as insurance against dogmatism. After Pasteur's experiments settled a 200‑year dispute about spontaneous generation, his principle that life comes only from life and Virchow's principle that cells come only from cells were elevated into a dogma assumed to be valid for all times and circumstances.

Adherence to this dogma was an obstacle that stood in the way of initiating any meaningful study of the origin of life. The scientific study of the origin of life began when Oparin, Bernal and Haldane, consciously using one of the principles of dialectical materialism, challenged this dogma, pointing out that a law that applies for the period after the origin of life need not be valid for the period before the origin of life.

Now another dogma has arisen, to take the place of this old one. This is the dogma asserted as late as 1971 by Jacques Monod that the transfer of information between nucleic acids and protein can only go in one direction, from DNA to RNA to protein. The dogma has already been shaken by the demonstration that in some cases information goes from RNA to DNA but the faith of the dogmatists has not been shaken. Adherents of dialectical materialism would keep an open mind on this question. The fact that the transfer of information goes only in the direction from nucleic acid to protein in living cells does not preclude the possibility that it may have gone the other way at some stage in prebiotic chemical evolution.

If the principal function of dialectical materialism is to serve as an antidote for dogmatism, any formulation of its principles as a set of rules that nature must obey is a misrepresentation of these principles. In this category is the assertion on purely philosophical grounds that "space and time are boundless and infinite" made in the book "The Fundamentals of Marxist‑Leninist Philosophy" published in the U.S.S.R. in 1974. In relativistic cosmology, the answer to the question "is space finite or infinite?" will be obtained only by measuring the relevant parameters, and not by making some arbitrary presupposition.

I would add only one more point at this time. Dialectical materialism, like any other theoretical construct, cannot be assumed to be perfect for all time. It should be reexamined constantly, to be corrected and refined in the light of experience. It is now over 100 years since its principles were first formulated in the work of Marx and Engels. More precise formulations of its principles that are based on the great advances of the sciences in the last 100 years should now be possible.

Garland E. Allen (Biology Dept., Washington University)

[Dialectical materialism] is, of course, more than a method, but as a method it has an enormous amount of applicability in everything we do and I would like to urge that when we think about learning this method, we think about its application, too—what it can be used for—that we not think about it only in terms of its application to the natural sciences although that may be the main concern we here more or less directly share. I think it is obvious that a bench natural scientist who is asking questions and trying to come to answers can profit from using the method we call dialectical materialism. In my own work in the history of science, that method has raised questions of a different sort than I would otherwise have raised . . .

I think the only way to develop the method is to apply it and see its inner connection in a number of different realms. That means extra‑academically as well as academically. I think it can help us, for example, understand and criticize phenomena such as the rise of sociobiology theory . . . in fact, if one applies the dialectical method to the content of that so‑called theory, one sees that there are many questions it has left unanswered and many methods which it has not even looked at . . .

I'm not sure that I agree with Bob Cohen that Marx's statement is applicable more to his day than ours—namely, the statement that the idealistic nature of much of science is evident when scientists step out of their own specialty and begin to make comments on other things. I certainly see an enormous amount of that today among my colleagues. I see it in sociobiology where the basic method is to invent genetic components which then are elaborated into enormous explanations of why they might exist. As Marx and Engels both pointed out, science deals not with what might be conceived to exist but with trying to understand what in fact does exist.

I think also that developing our dialectical method involves putting these things into practice, both in criticizing things like sociobiological theory and in terms of our own activism in contemporary social fields. By that I mean that we learn more about the method. to apply even in our intellectual endeavor, by being on the streets, by means of protest, by standing up . . . talking about sociobiology . . . doing what we have to do in our contemporary lives. That's another field of the interaction between theory and practice in dialectical materialism which I think is absolutely essential . . .

I don't mean to sound mechanical about it but I think there's no such thing as theoretical Marxism . . . I tell "theoretical Marxists" [sociologists] that I think it's a contradiction in terms. Perhaps the analogy with theoretical physics works on people's minds but I don't think there is such a tiling as theoretical physics really. Ultimately, things must be tested in some way. The division of labor between those who theorize and those who test is a mistake in any realm of human activity, especially in dialectical materialism. It is a method that has to be practiced in every realm because it is basically one which sees interconnections, whether in day‑to‑day political experience, classroom teaching, lab bench science, or the study of the history of nature.

I want to close with this notion: the theory of dialectical materialism is powerful and rich because it is first and foremost a method which grows, is not static or unchanging, but a method which teaches certain kinds of questions to ask and certain ways of trying to answer them.


David Schwartzman (Howard University). Some writers have maintained there is a contradiction between Engels' formulation of dialectical materialism and Marx's thinking on the subject. Dr. Cohen, what are your views on this?

Cohen. I think there are differences but not contradictions and not conflicts . . . Engels treated questions that Marx did not treat and which Marx would not have treated. Engels was more concerned, on behalf of both of' them, with his studies of contemporary natural science.

It's most unfortunate that Engels' notes [in Dialectics of Nature] were taken as though they were his considered results. He was writing about historical processes in nature. It's not at all clear that specifically dialectical relationships were found by him in nature. Historical transitions were found but, if one keeps to the word dialectic as referring more or less to self‑changing, inner-generated transitions, one can't find that in nature. If you define dialectic in the form that it takes place in human history, you don't find it . . .

Engels raises this question a bit in Anti‑Duhring, then time and again in Dialectics of Nature. He gives examples, pedagogical or provocative but, at any rate, unanalyzed examples . . . and says that this is a future research problem . . . These are not considered or fully worked out things.

I think Lenin picked it up very well in that very brief, also incomplete, business where he says that what we need is a bunch of scientists who understand Hegel and will still be scientists. Then maybe someday we'll have a material equation of dialectic . . . Lenin wrote that without knowing of Engels' work [on the dialectics of nature] but it fits very well. I think it's a very incomplete, open research problem as to what would be an adequate meaning for an autonomous nature having a dialectic.

I think that, for Marx hirnself, it was of no interest. He really thought of nature in its relation with mankind and, since nature is transformed by mankind. there was quite obviously to him a dialectic of that nature. Whether there was a dialectic in nature itself, independently, he didn't get to that. I think he would have if he hadn't died so early, because he shared with his friend Engels this very Eddingtonian type of interest in how nature gives rise to its own contradictions.

In that sense, one can say with some neoMarxists that, on one side Engels is more scientific because he talks more about autonomous nature, and Marx is more man‑centered in dealing with nature. You can push this contrast but I don't believe in it myself. I think Engels was more Marxist than that . . .

Stephen Jay Gould (Harvard University). I've always read Dialectics of Nature as just a series of notes, undigested examples. I've never understood whether he just put them down as reminders to work out later . . . The problem of quantity into quality is where Marxist theory intersects my own work on the nature of rapid change in geology . . . if someone found my notes for [an unpublished] article, it would be a silly series of lists.

Cohen. Besides, there were no xeroxes then, and people had to write down all kinds of quotations.

Gould. On the other hand, if you look at some of the more finished products, such as The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, there Engels is willing to make particular historical deductions from Marxist theory. There's one thing that's not appreciated about that essay: Engels didn't just make up right from theory the notion that the hand represents labor and labor is the ground for society, therefore the hand must have evolved before the brain. He writes as though he had deduced it from that principle but, in fact, he cribbed it from Haeckel who had been arguing that upright posture came first. Nonetheless, in that essay Engels was willing to make a historical hypothesis and justify it on the basis of philosophy.

Lester Talkington (Science and Nature). It seems to me that as soon as historical processes enter the picture, dialectics come in too, whether in nature independent of man or in purely social processes. Probably the biggest source of difficulty arises from the lack of clarity on this in Dialectics of Nature.

Cohen. I think there's a lack of clarity in understanding Marx on this. If he were Hegelian, it would appear that the word dialectical would mean something with the word history. If it means tile same thing as the word historical, we'd just have a synonym. But it it means something additional to historical . . . In Hegelian usage, at least, it would seem to be talking, about internally generated changes, changes which come from internal forces and internal relations. Internal to what? Well, whatever the entity is that you're looking at, society or whatever.

And there could be dispute over whether dialectical changes, dialectically formulated history of change in the stars and galaxies, are of that sort. Or would all the forces of change be external to the entities involved? Well, that's an astronomical or cosmological problem, not one that Marx or Engels was competent to deal with or were interested in enough to deal with it. Engels speculates that there could be some such thing but he didn't pursue it. He was already in the last years of his life and editing Marx's manuscripts instead. He had consciously made that choice.

Hegel had done very little on this . . . His only serious work [in this area], on chemistry, was published only two years ago. So the Hegelian notion of natural processes is an open research problem for which no doubt Marx and Lenin and others would have been glad to give research grants. They didn't have a finished doctrine at all.

Talkington. For example, take plate tectonics and the motions generated within the earth that give rise to change, to historical processes, having nothing to do with man or man's understanding. Would you consider those possibly dialectical processes of nature?

Cohen. I don't know what the word dialectical would add to just calling them processes. Perhaps it depends on how it is formulated.

Talkington. Wouldn't it possibly give a scientist some understanding to know dialectics in investigating such a phenomenon?

Cohen. I agree entirely with Gar Allen on the helpfulness [of dialectical materialism] in pinning down tile questions to raise. In that sense, yes.

Ullica Segerstrale (Harvard University). Does the word dialectic have any meaning aside from the question of how a human being looks at something'?

Garland Allen. Is it meaningful to ask whether there is a really objective dialectical process independent of people's interpretation of it? There’s almost no way to answer that question.

Cohen. But there's a very strong hint in Marx and in Hegel on this: that there’s an obiective dialectic, not a subjective epistemological way of dealing with it but an objective dialectic in human history. The invisible hand is just a useful way of referring to the fact that objective processes exist independently . . . There's an objective dialectic, yes.

Schwartzman. I think there has been work since Engels on the question of dialectics in nature . . . But it is, indeed. a project which is not. developed so much as, say, historical materialism. . . . Marx anticipated a lot of systems ideas. Some of the metatheories in systems theory, aspects of cybernetics and so forth could really be the raw materials for a materialistic dialectics, for developing dialectical materialism as the most generalized theory of science—not simply being reduced to metaphors and to the old three laws, which really need a lot of work. It's no longer adequate to use these laws and say that this contributes to a methodological approach, warning us about certain things. We need to develop it as a formal science . . . I don't think it's correct to reduce dialectics simply to something evolving through internal processes. We've come beyond that in terms of looking at things as systems and their environments. But certainly a star is an entity in itself and undergoes certain internal processes. So does any other object that natural scientists study.

Cohen. Well, the entire part‑whole process can be looked at through the use of systems theory . . . In the general methodology of science in the last 25 years, certainly in the Soviet Union and among Marxists elsewhere, it's exactly as you're saying.


The following references seem to be the only explicit statements by Karl Marx on his own methodology.

Marx, Karl 1844 The Holy Family: Section 2.

Marx was still fairly young.

________ 1857 The Grundrisse: Section 3 of General Introduction.

A fairly long, passage on the method of political economy.

________ 1858 A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: The Preface.

Partly duplicates the statement in The Grundrisse.

________ 1873 Capital, Volume I. Second edition: The Afterword or preface.

Devoted in part to rnethodology.

________  1879‑80 Werke, Bd 19: Notes on Adolph Wagner

This unpublished critique of an obscurantist textbook on political economy includes what is probably the last writing by Marx on method.

Boston University

On the Alienation of Science

In sixth‑century Ionia man faced Nature in the confident hope that by his unaided powers he would be able to wrest from her her secrets; and in his bold enterprise he came to feel himself engaged upon an ethical as well as a scientific task. Conscience acquired a new scope as man realized that his progress in knowledge meant submitting his mind to the acceptance of external fact, of external law; and that the understanding of this law gave him power to help or harm his fellows. Philanthropia, love of his fellows, became his inspiration as much as theoria, disinterested curiosity.

But the obstacles to the growth of this new knowledge and to the exercise of this new power proved greater, and other, than had been anticipated. Not only did Nature prove more complex than man had supposed, but political obstacles also intervened. If democracy dimly and fitfully perceived that its fate was linked with science, oligarchy had no manner of doubt that ignorance was its shield . . .

Aristotle saved his scientific soul by a breach with Platonism where Platonism had lost touch with Nature, but he retained from Platonism the view that truth is the preserve of the elite, and that social order must be based on acknowledged superstition.

—— Benjamin Farrington, Science and Politics in the Ancient World. Barnes & Noble Inc. (a Division of Harper & Row), New York 1968, pp. 229‑30.

SOURCE: Cohen, Robert S. "Karl Marx On Science and Nature" [excerpts, with discussion], Science & Nature,  no. 1 (1978), pp. 3-14; Bibliographic Notes, p. 59.

Science and Nature, Table of Contents, issues #1-10 (1978-1989)

Robert S. Cohen's Introduction to
The Social and Economic Roots of Newton's 'Principia' by Boris Hessen

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