Engels contra Holism

"All-embracing being is one." If tautology, the simple repetition in the predicate of what is already expressed in the subject—if that makes an axiom, then we have here one of the purest water. Herr Dühring tells us in the subject that being embraces everything, and in the predicate he intrepidly declares that in that case there is nothing outside it. What colossal "system-creating thought"!

This is indeed system-creating! Within the space of the next six lines Herr Dühring has transformed the oneness of being, by means of our unified thought, into its unit. As the essence of all thought consists in bringing things together into a unity, so being, as soon as it is conceived, is conceived as unified, and the idea of the world as indivisible; and because conceived being, the idea of the world, is unified, therefore real being, the real world, is also an indivisible unity.

How do we get from the oneness of being to its unity? By the very fact of conceiving it. In so far as we spread our unified thought around being like a frame, its oneness becomes a unity in thought, a thought-unity; for the essence of all thought consists in bringing together the elements of consciousness into a unity.

This last statement is simply untrue. In the first place, thought consists just as much in the taking apart of objects of consciousness into their elements as in the putting together of related elements into a unity. Without analysis, no synthesis. Secondly, without making blunders thought can bring together into a unity only those elements of consciousness in which or in whose real prototypes this unity already existed before. If I include a shoe-brush in the unity mammals, this does not help it to get mammary glands. The unity of being, or rather, the question whether its conception as a unity is justified, is therefore precisely what was to be proved; and when Herr Dühring assures us that he conceives being as a unity and not as twofold, he tells us nothing more than his own unauthoritative opinion.

When we speak of being, and purely of being, unity can only consist in that all the objects to which we are referring—are, exist. They are comprised in the unity of this being, and in no other unity, and the general dictum that they all are not only cannot give them any additional qualities, whether common or not, but provisionally excludes all such qualities from consideration. For as soon as we depart even a millimetre from the simple basic fact that being is common to all these things, the differences between these things begin to emerge—and whether these differences consist in the circumstance that some are white and others black, that some are animate and others inanimate, that some may be of this world and others of the world beyond, cannot be decided by us from the fact that mere existence is in equal manner ascribed to them all.

The unity of the world does not consist in its being, although its being is a precondition of its unity, as it must certainly first be before it can be one. Being, indeed, is always an open question beyond the point where our sphere of observation ends. The real unity of the world consists in its materiality, and this is proved not by a few juggled phrases, but by a long and wearisome development of philosophy and natural science.

SOURCE: Frederick Engels. Anti-Dühring. Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science (1878). Translated by Emile Burns. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1947. Part I: Philosophy, IV. World Schematism, excerpts.

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