SAYERS VS NORMAN ON DIALECTICS - 2
rdumain at igc.apc.org
Mon Mar 13 02:09:08 MST 1995
DIALECTICS BOUT: SEAN SAYERS VS. RICHARD NORMAN -- ROUND 2
This is the second installment of my summary review of:
Norman, Richard; Sayers, Sean. HEGEL, MARX AND DIALECTIC: A
DEBATE. Sussex: The Harvester Press; New Jersey: Humanities
Battered and reeling from round one, Sayers comes charging into
the ring for round two, or, as the book would have it, essay four:
"Dualism, materialism, and dialectics". Sayers is hot to inflict
some punishment, but his vision is blurry, he staggers about the
ring, and he spends most of his time flailing away at empty space,
too dizzy and confused to keep track of his opponent. He's about
to go down, but he angrily puts up an aggressive fight. This is
the longest chapter of the book, and by far the worst.
Sayers sees Norman as an exemplar of analytical philosophy. There
are irreconcilable differences between analytical and dialectical
philosophy. Norman's distinction between conceptual and empirical
matters is a dualistic philosophy incompatible with Marxism. (p.
68) What a surprise. I thought I hated analytical philosophers
(I write nasty poems about Quine, the reactionary turd), but now
my hero Norman is being lowered to their level. Not a good sign.
Hegel and Engels recognize a distinction between the dialectics of
concepts and of the real world (p. 71), but Norman has a rigidly
dualistic view of their relation and has an atemporal, aprioristic
notion of the logic of concepts characteristic of analytical
Desperate to land a blow, Sayers makes a fantastic linkage of
Sayers and Althusser, who also enforces a rigid distinction
between science and philosophy (which has no history) (p. 82).
Sayers is punch-drunk now. Sayers charges that Hegel is wrongly
taken to task for his infamous formulation that the rational is
actual and the actual is rational (p. 83). This proposition
encapsulates everything that is most odious in Hegel, and sayers
is eager to defend him. But then Sayers is still quoting Chairman
Mao. Bad medicine.
Hegel has been badly understood. Hegel stresses the
contradictions between reason and actuality as well as their
identity. Incredibly, Sayers claims that the identity of reason
and reality is materialist, not idealist! Then he drags in
Colletti to slam him as a dualist for daring to claim that the
identity of thought and being is an idealist notion! (p. 85)
Sayers is only beating himself up here, while Norman is off
somewhere relaxing, sipping on a Coke.
And now, claiming a connection I cannot see, Sayers equates
Norman's view with Althusser's treatment of the inversion metaphor
(p. 86-87). For the first time in my life I find myself in
agreement with Althusser and admire his perspicacious criticism of
the inversion metaphor.
Sayers goes on to deny that either Hegel or Marx were
reductionists of an idealist or materialist variety, and that the
inversion of Hegel does not lead to reductionism. Sayers then
spends several pages on the relation between base and
superstructure, arguing for a subtle understanding of the
interaction of the different spheres of social existence without
collapsing them into one another and without keeping them separate
and unrelated. This is all very fine, but it is a distraction
from the subject of the debate.
Then there is the question of dialectics of nature. Norman is
brave for even acknowledging the validity of the very notion,
swimming against the tide of universal condemnation by the likes
of analytical philosophers, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Colletti, etc.,
who, if they even they admit the possibility of any respectable
notion of dialectic, restrict it exclusively to the subjective,
human realm. Sayers sees Norman ultimately being swallowed up by
this tide in refusing to see contradiction in nature and
acknowledging only the clash of opposing forces (p. 99).
Thinking to oppose a mechanistic approach to the natural world,
Sayers argues for negativity in things themselves. He treats the
question of more complex organization of matter beyond the laws of
physics and chemistry. There are several valid observations here,
but none of his objections apply to the real Norman.
Section III: the sphere of reason: Norman's treatment of human
behavior, ie. that contradiction is the occasion for a critical
view, is wrong, according to Hegel and dialectical materialism.
Contradiction is not a blemish. Norman is wrong to want to keep
opposites logically apart and non-contradictory. Sayers opposes
Norman's superficial paradoxes. Sayers insists on the
interpenetration, not the mere interdependence of opposites (p.
115). He denies non-contradiction as a necessary law of thought.
The scientific method in practice (cf. Kuhn) doesn't work like
In mathematics, in calculus, contradictions were consciously
accepted from the beginning. However, Sayers confutes his own
claim that logical contradictions are not a blemish by then
"Had this not been so, Weierstrass and others would not have
bothered to try to produce a more coherent formal theory of the
calculus." (p. 119)
Sayers further claims: Contradiction is not purely negative, but
the negative aspect necessitates change and development (p. 121).
Formal logic has limited validity: formal inconsistency is
invalid, but is indifferent to truth and considerations of content
Now comes the world of man, of activity and social institutions.
Norman posits a duality of the natural and human world, says
Sayers. In human affairs, Norman considers contradiction as a
manifestation of irrationality. The notion of human behavior as
normatively rational is Kantian, un-Hegelian and un-Marxist (p.
Again, Sayers goes off on a tangent, ascribing views to Norman
which he has not adopted. Sayers argues that being determines
consciousness and reason is a product of history and social
activity, not of sui generis reason. It would have been apt of
Sayers instead to prove, as can be easily done, that in human
affairs, in the sphere of ethics, for example, contradiction is
objective and irredeemable and not merely a defect of
Sayers properly trashes Althusser's history without a subject and
theoretical anti-humanism (p. 128-129), but this has nothing at
all in common with Norman. Then Sayers shoots himself in the foot
(p. 130-131) by claiming that Marxism does reject humanism (Maoist
asshole!) and a fixed human nature, but not by simply discarding
Sayers goes on to examine the Hegelian notion of the ontogenesis
of reason in individual human development (p. 132) and the Marxist
notion of development from the realm of necessity to the realm of
Norman's notion of dialectic as a normative critical concept is
accused of being purely Kantian (p. 135). Again, contradiction is
seen as a defect rather than part of the objective world. But no
abstract utopia free of contradiction is possible.
The spate of footnotes at chapter end remind us of Sayers' fatal
attraction to Chairman Mao, a sure sign of intellectual
bankruptcy. footnotes all on chairman Mao.
This chapter is a confused mixture of valid insights and mixed-up
and even harmful notions, and sayers rarely ever approaches a
critique based on Norman's real position. In my estimation,
Norman has made only a minor error in confining human
self-contradiction to a defect of the individual or of society, as
I indicated above, but Sayers' rants are all over the place. He
ends up shadow-boxing with himself alone.
For Norman is no opponent of dialectical materialism, as we shall
see in the final round, where Norman defends the rational core of
Engels' dialectics of nature, where he opposes both sloppy
formulations of nature-dialectic AND its dogmatic opponents. Here
Norman will deliver the fatal blow, but the contest is already
over: Sayers has virtually knocked his own self out.
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