MARX & ENGELS & DIALECTICS OF NATURE

Ralph Dumain rdumain at igc.apc.org
Fri Aug 4 21:12:14 MDT 1995


Here is another argument from Sidney Hook, which pops up with
slight variations over and over in the debates on dialectic in the
literature:

"... the attempt to apply the dialectic to nature must be ruled
out as incompatible with a naturalistic starting point.  Marx
himself never speaks of a _Natur-Dialektik_, although he was quite
aware that gradual quantitative changes in the fundamental units
of physics and chemistry result in qualitative changes.  Engels,
however, ... openly extends the dialectic to natural phenomena.
His definition of dialectic, however, indicates that he is unaware
of the _distinctive_ character of the dialectic as opposed to the
physical concept of "change" and the biological concept of
"development."  "Dialectic," he writes, "is nothing more than the
science of universal laws of motion and evolution in nature, human
society, and thought."  Practically all of knowledge, therefore,
falls within its scope...  Only an idealist can adhere to the
distinctive connotation of dialectic expounded above and still
believe that nature, independent of man, is an illustration of it.
Galileo's laws of motion and the life history of an insect have
nothing to do with dialectic except on the assumption that all
nature is spirit."

In: Hook, Sidney.  FROM HEGEL TO MARX: STUDIES IN THE INTELLECTUAL
DEVELOPMENT OF KARL MARX.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan
Press, 1962; p. 75.

Pardon me for omitting the previous pages which characterize
Hegel's and Marx's treatment of dialectic.  Nonetheless, I see
holes in this familiar argument that trouble me.

1.  It is often argued that Hegel's dialectic is spiritualistic
and teleological, and therefore, it can't be used as is without
incorporating those qualities.  But why cannot one extract certain
elements, such as the relation between qualitative and
quantitative change, and reconstruct them so as to eliminate said
idealistic traits?  OK, this is something different than just
turning the method "upside-down", but why can't it be done?  The
dialectic may no longer be Hegel's as such, but why can't the feat
be accomplished?  I don't get it.

2.  Marx insists that all categories are historical and apply to a
specific range of phenomena.  Fair enough.  Now is this
contradicted by Engels' assertion of universal laws of motion
applicable to nature, society, and thought?  I think that would
depend on how one would link those universal laws to phenomena in
each of these domains and how one would link each of the domains
to the others.  Engels may well have vulgarized the dialectic
method and made many blunders in finding examples in nature, but I
do not believe that he was engaged in a leveling process blending
the categories of nature, society, and thought into one
indiscriminate mash throughout the course of time.  His aim in
fact was to do just the opposite, to restore precisely those
qualitative distinctions in the world-picture that were paved over
by mechanical materialism and Haeckel's monism.

3.  Hook emphasizes (p. 76), as many others have, that Marx was
concerned with class society and revolution and that leaps in
natural processes are not needed as ontological props for
revolution.  Fair enough, but why should Marxists not be concerned
with the extension of rational methods into broader areas of
world-view as they have always done, especially to oppose
dangerous trends of mystification in general which they ultimately
find to constitute a political threat in particular?

I apologize for bringing up these tired old philosophical issues,
but people are still exercised by them and I would like to see
them definitively laid to rest so we can get on with the good
stuff.


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