SAYERS VS NORMAN ON DIALECTICS - 3
rdumain at igc.apc.org
Mon Mar 13 02:12:22 MST 1995
DIALECTICS BOUT: SEAN SAYERS VS. RICHARD NORMAN -- ROUND 3
This is the third and final installment of my summary review of:
Norman, Richard; Sayers, Sean. HEGEL, MARX AND DIALECTIC: A
DEBATE. Sussex: The Harvester Press; New Jersey: Humanities
Finally, we come to essay five: "Dialectical concepts and their
application to nature" by Richard Norman. Norman begins by
acknowledging that Sayers represents the orthodox diamat position,
which is now unfashionable and has been supplanted by a new
orthodoxy -- the denial of the validity of the very concept of a
dialectics of nature. Norman announces he aims to defend a
version of the dialectics of nature and a tenable core of Engels'
philosophy. Norman promises to offer a more satisfactory account
of the positive connection between the conceptual and
Norman then analyzes the problematic features of Engels'
_Dialectics of Nature_ and his use of Hegel's categories, which
are not taken from the _Philosophy of Nature_ but from the
_Logic_. Engels criticizes the Procrustean conformation of
empirical facts to an a priori system instead of the deduction of
the laws of dialectics from the history of nature and human
society (p. 149). Norman does not believe that Engels really
reverses Hegel's procedure, so he critiques Engels's use of
examples from the natural sciences, arguing that Engels' appeals
to scientific examples do not in themselves vindicate dialectical
interpretations, for Engels really "appeals to Hegelian arguments
in order to interpret the scientific results dialectically" (p.
151). This does not make Engels, or Norman, for that matter,
dualists through their inherent recognition of a distinction
between conceptual and empirical enquiry (p. 151-152). This is a
general feature of the relation between dialectical philosophy and
science, in fact between most philosophy of science and science.
Norman argues that Engels tries to establish a non-mechanistic,
non-reductionist, and non-dualist materialism.
The connection of the conceptual and empirical-temporal dialectic
is to be established by seeing them united in the general
dialectical world-picture. There are empirical facts of nature,
eg. biological evolution, or the levels of organization of matter,
out of which all kinds of bad philosophical conclusions can be
drawn, but Engels' general world-picture, a monist but
non-reductionist view of motion, matter, its forms and
transformations, and his treatment of the categories of quality,
quantity, identity, and difference, guide us toward a proper
interpretation of the empirical facts (p. 157). Norman backs up
Engels 100% and opposes the dualism of the idealist Marxists who
accept a mechanical materialist picture of nature while reserving
dialectics for the mind and end up making a mystery of both and of
their relation to one another (p. 158)!
This is the tenable core of Engels' dialectic of nature and it is
Norman insists that dialectical concepts have not only users but
applications. Norman is especially keen on the interpenetration
of opposites and the quality-quantity relation. For Norman,
contradiction means the unity of opposed concepts, and means
essentially the interpenetration of opposites. Contradiction is a
relation between _concepts_, but the concepts have empirical
applications (p. 160).
"And in saying that the term 'contradiction' describes the
relation between concepts applicable to natural processes, we are
_not_ thereby committed to saying that the term also describes a
relation between natural processes themselves." (p. 161)
Engels is often guilty of this confusion of nature and concepts.
Even more so Norman criticizes Engels' spurious examples of
negation in nature (grain-barley, etc.) (p. 162). However, there
are processes of organic life which subsume yet transcend
lower-order physical and chemical processes which are authentic
applications of the notion 'negation of the negation' (p. 162).
But this is not to say that natural processes negate one another.
This is the defensible core in Engels: we need concepts of
contradiction and negation "to describe the relations between
_dialectical concepts applicable to nature_."
Norman then defends the notion of dialectics from the charge of
idealism, by showing that Hegel, though idealist and aprioristic,
is not irredeemably so much so that his ideas cannot be altered
and used productively in a materialist form ... as Engels does,
and Lenin. Norman then blasts Colletti! (p. 164-165)
Norman admits distinctions between nature and human agency, but he
refuses, in opposition to Lukacs, Kojeve, Schmidt, and Gunn, to
confine dialectics to the relation between subject and object (p.
166-167). On the contrary, one needs to comprehend dialectics
more broadly in order to understand what is dialectical about the
Furthermore, the philosophical importance of praxis (I use this
term, not Norman) is also acknowledged in Engels (p. 168).
There are key reasons for defending a dialectic of nature. A
non-reductionist, non-mechanistic, non-dualist philosophy is
needed to deal with the polarities within Marxist socialist theory
between determinism and voluntarism, between science and humanism,
and between the obliteration of qualitative distinctions (of which
Sayers is ultimately guilty) and dualism (p. 169). It is also
important for philosophy as an academic discipline, which itself
wavers between the extremes of mechanical materialism and
In a footnote (p. 173), Norman mentions that he has treated the
relation between conceptual and temporal dialectic only as
pertains to dialectics of nature. The connection between the two
in Marx's economic theory requires a separate analysis.
Sayers was already reeling from his own shadow-boxing. But in
defending a cleaned-up, de-confused version of dialectical
materialism, Norman has vaporized him!
This book, though it deals -- because it deals! -- with the most
elementary philosophical notions of Marxism, is an exemplar of the
issues surrounding writing introductory texts in Marxist
philosophy. It is in essence two textbooks cut and pasted into
one, for comparison. In one book we are shown how to do an
intelligent exposition of dialectical logic (Norman) and how NOT
to (Sayers), the latter regrettably having been standard practice
for too long.
Additionally, this elementary-level book simply and
straightforwardly (without impenetrable jargon a la Bhaskar)
presents some basic issues, thanks to Norman, in a way that can
guide the most advanced and sophisticated investigations into
unraveling the mysteries of the relationships between the Hegelian
dialectic and the dialectical conceptions of Marx and of Engels.
--- Ralph Dumain, 13 March 1995
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