Max Horkheimer on Materialism vs Positivism & Metaphysics

In maintaining this doctrine of the necessary limitation of knowledge to appearances or rather in degrading the known world to a mere outward show, positivism makes peace, in principle, with every kind of superstition. It takes the seriousness out of theory since the latter must prove itself in practice. If non-positivist metaphysics must exaggerate its own knowledge (since by its nature it must claim autonomy for itself), positivism, on the contrary, reduces all possible knowledge to a collection of external data. In addition, it usually overlooks the contradiction between its own metaphysical description of known reality as appearance and externality, on the one hand, and its ostensible power of prevision, on the other (the latter already containing the undialectical separation of subject and object). "Not to know the true but only the appearance of the temporal and accidental, only what is empty—this emptiness has become widespread in philosophy and is still being broadcast in our time, and even boasts of itself." [48]

This objection of Hegel to the Enlightenment can today be directed primarily against positivism, which of course originated in the Enlightenment. Hegel himself, despite the sound of his words here, did not separate truth and knowledge from the temporal; on the contrary—and this is the secret of his depth of thought—he made knowledge of the temporal as temporal the content of philosophy. His idealism consists in the belief "that to call a thing finite or limited proves by implication the very presence of the infinite and unlimited, and that our knowledge of a limit can only be when the unlimited is on this side in consciousness.'" [49]

Yet, despite his hostility to it, Hegel is closer to the genuine Enlightenment than positivism is, because he admits nothing to be in principle inaccessible to human knowledge and subject to surmise alone. Positivism, on the other hand, is very conscious of its tolerance in this respect; it even wanted its very name to be interpreted expressly as opposition to the "negative," that is to any denial of such surmise. Sound philosophy, says Comte, leaves aside necessarily insoluble problems but in so doing it remains more impartial and more tolerant than its opponents. It investigates the factors that conditioned the duration and decline of former systems of belief

without ever engaging in any absolute rejection.... In this way it renders scrupulous justice not only to various monotheistic systems besides the one which is dying among us today, but also to polytheistic or even fetishistic beliefs, while always relating them to the corresponding phase of the basic evolutionary process.[50]

An historical understanding of these beliefs signifies here simultaneously the recognition of a correlative area of reality which is in principle inaccessible to knowledge and not assumed into the historical dialectic.

Materialism, too, seeks an historical comprehension of all spiritual phenomena. But its insight that there can be no infinite knowledge does not lead to impartiality in the face of a claim by any finite knowledge to be infinite. Thought is recognized to be limited, but no areas are set aside to which thought is not to be applied. This opinion of the positivists is itself in fact a contradiction. That we do not know everything does not mean at all that what we do know is the nonessential and what we do not know, the essential. These faulty judgments, by which positivism has knowingly made its peace with superstition and declared war on materialism, allow us to see that Bergson's depreciation of theoretical thinking and the rise of modem intuitionist metaphysics are a result of positivist philosophy.

Positivism is really much closer to a metaphysics of intuition than to materialism, although it wrongly tries to couple the two. Since the turn of the century positivism has seemed, in comparison with the reigning metaphysics, not to be "concrete" enough, that is, really, not spiritualist enough. But in fact positivism and metaphysics are simply two different phases of one philosophy which downgrades natural knowledge and hypostatizes abstract conceptual structures. Bergson, like vitalism generally, bases his metaphysics of la durée on the doctrine of an immediate datum which is verified by intuition; the only distinction from positivism is that for Bergson this datum is not made up of discrete and detached elements but consists of the intuitively known vital flow of life itself. The metaphysics of the elements, the interpretation of reality as a sum-total of originally isolated data, the dogma of the unchangeableness of the natural laws, the belief in the possibility of a definitive system are an the special metaphysical theses of positivism. It has in common with intuitionism the subjectivist claim that immediate primary data, unaffected by any theory, are true reality, as well as the use of "only" by which both philosophies try to limit any theory of rational prevision (a theory which, we must admit, they wrongly interpret along mechanistic lines).

In their opposition to materialism, therefore, positivism and intuitionism are at one. In fact, if the defenselessness of these philosophies before any and all supernaturalist tendencies may be said to find especially obvious expression in their helplessness in the face of spiritism and occultism, then Bergson even takes precedence over Comte. A philosophy with metaphysical content fills the transcendental regions with its own speculations. Therefore, as Comte says reproachfully, it "has never been able to be anything but critical" [51] towards prevailing doctrines of the afterlife. Bergson must begin, consequently, by expressly assuring us that
the transcendence of consciousness is "so probable that the burden of proof falls on him who denies it, not on him who affirms it" and that philosophy leads us "little by little to a state of mind which is practically equivalent to certitude." [52] Comte, on the other hand, having equated reality with subjective data and mere appearances, is antecedently and in principle rendered helpless before all claims to have experienced the suprasensible.

At the present time it is hardly possible to distinguish between the more positivist and the more intuitionist forms of a philosophy that is marked by such subjection to the occult. According to Hans Driesch it is clear that his teaching "not only is not opposed to the 'occult' but even paves the way for it." [53] Bergson does not hesitate to assure us in his most recent book

that if, for example, the reality of "telepathic phenomena" is called in doubt after the mutual corroboration of thousands of statements which have been collected on the subject, it is human evidence in general that must, in the eyes of science, be declared to be null and void: what, then, is to become of history?

and he does not think it impossible "that a gleam from this unknown world reaches us, visible to our bodily eyes." [54] In fact, Bergson seriously conjectures that such messages from the other world could bring about a total transformation of mankind. The neglect of the theoretical in favor of the bare immediate datum thus wholly robs philosophy of its illuminative effect. "Whenever sensation with its alleged independence is taken as the criterion of reality, the distinction between nature and ghosts can become blurred." [55]

The disciples of Comte, especially the empirico-criticists and the logical positivists, have so refined their terminology that the distinction between simple appearances, with which science deals, and the essential is no longer to be found. But the depreciation of theory makes itself felt nonetheless in very varying ways, as when Wittgenstein declares, in his otherwise first-rate Tractatus logico-philosophicus:

We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course there are then no questions left, and this is itself the answer . . . There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical." [56]

Neither does materialism, as we explained above, believe that the problems of life are solvable in a purely theoretical way, but it also regards it as unthinkable that "after a long period of doubt ... the sense of life" [57] could become clear in any other way. If hypostatized in such a way, there is no "mystical" and no "sense of life."

Materialism has in common with positivism that it acknowledges as real only what is given in sense experience, and it has done so since its beginnings. "What we contemplate in mind has its whole origin in sense perception," says Epicurus. [58] "If you fight against all sensations, you will have no standard by which to judge even those of them which you say are false." [59] Throughout its history materialism has held to this theory of knowledge, which serves it as a critical weapon against dogmatic concepts. On the other hand, materialism does not absolutize sensation.

The requirement that every existent manifest itself through the senses does not mean that the senses do not change in the historical process or that they are to be regarded as fixed cornerstones of the world. If the evidence of sense experience is part of the grounds for existential judgments, such experiences are far from identical with the constant elements of the world. Theory is always more than sensibility alone and cannot be totally reduced to sensations. In fact, according to the most recent developments in psychology, far from being the elementary building blocks of the world or even of psychic life, sensations are derivatives arising only through a complicated process of abstraction involving the destruction of formations which the psyche had shaped. [60] Even apart from these two considerations, we must say that eternity cannot be predicated of our sensibility. Like the relation of "subject" to "data," it is conditioned and changeable. Even in the same period of time individual subjects have contradictory perceptions, and the differences are not to be resolved simply by appeal to a majority but only with the help of theory. Sense experiences are indeed the basis of knowledge, and we are at every point referred back to them, but the origin and conditions of knowledge are not identically the origin and conditions of the world.


SOURCE: Horkheimer, Max. "Materialism and Metaphysics", translated by Matthew J. O'Connell, in: Critical Theory: Selected Essays (New York: The Seabury Press, 1972), pp. 38-43. Note: footnotes are not included here.


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