Dialectics of Nature

Hugh Rodwell m-14970 at mailbox.swipnet.se
Fri Sep 6 16:41:51 MDT 1996

Russell P posts a mean message, but nonetheless misses the point of Marx's

>Hugh mentions the _Grundrisse_ and the use of the metabolic
>metaphor. In _Capital_ Marx uses many phantasmagorical
>metaphors. Derrida aside, this does not mean that he is talking
>literally of spooks, any more than the romantic metaphor of
>metabolism entails a dialectic of nature. Thus Hugh's argument does
>not follow.

If we take the whole argument about fetishism seriously (the process of
commodity and particularly capitalist production turning things on their
heads so that products become agents, take on life and a will, and agents
become lifeless automata, or zombies at best, eg congealed value in the
means of production etc appears to generate value and living value in the
form of labour appears to consume value) then the lifeless appears to take
on life. This is as good a definition of the supernatural as we need, and
provides a perfectly good reason for Marx to compare capital with a
vampire. We can leave earlier modes of production aside here -- the reasons
for fetishism there are less rooted in the processes of production and
distribution, more in the preconditions of production and the weakness of
humanity in relation to nature in general.

And it makes no difference whether the metaphor of metabolism is Romantic
or not. Anyone reading the introductory pages of the Grundrisse in relation
to production and consumption in general cannot fail to see the
universality of the metabolism process -- assimilation of external
material, transformation of it in extracting use, ejection of used-up
internal material, production equalling consumption and both together
equalling reproduction, some things being destroyed in the process and
recomposed into something new, other things being maintained and
revitalized -- for organisms in their interaction with the organic and
inorganic world around them. Now obviously metabolism is restricted to
organic matter, inorganic things aren't into life processes so they don't
interact metabolically. I think that our relationship to the things we
produce and consume is purposive and aimed at transforming the products
into a good for our organism that is worn away by use and then discarded as
waste --  metabolism! Our will to consume and our ability to produce for
consumption bend the objects of our productive processes to our will and
bring them within the sphere of our metabolism.

>Further problems arise when Hugh lets his mother's cat of of its bag.
>In human relationships with all such four legged beasts some sort of
>dialectic takes place, and this is also true of the rats and
>cockroaches he mentions. Put simply our relationship with the natural
>world is dialectical and this is no more so than when it comes to
>domesticated animals or those that owe their existence to human
>activity, such as sewer rats. Thus there is no dividing line between
>the social and the natural: nature for us is never raw, but always
>cooked, so to speak.

Well, Russ, you're halfway there ...

>But does it follow that dialectical processes take place in the natural
>world independently of any human activity?

Hm, have a look at Materialism and Empirio-Criticism for some uproarious
examples of subjective idealists trying to introject human activity into
say stellar processes in order to justify their dialectical character.

>(We can futher split this down to biological and chemical activity. On
>the question of the former, are those supporters of a dialectics in
>nature arguing that, for example a dialectic is present in evolution? Or
>put more crudely, that there were dialectical processes in the age of
>the dinosaur?

Yup. Not that the rocks or the dinosaurs were aware of the fact that they
were perfect examples of dialectical development. In other words, there was
no reflective, self-aware consciousness there to observe what was happening
as it happened. Happen nonetheless it did.

>In relation to the non-organic world, are they arguing that dialectics
>can be found for instance, in those chemical processes that exist
>beyond human intervention, or even cognition?)

Beyond intervention, definitely Yup.

Beyond cognition? If you're a Kantian, Yup. If you're a Marxist -- there
ain't no such animal as beyond cognition, except in a provisional sense.
Let's put it this way: Beyond cognition, Kantians project their nightmares:
colourless green ideas sleep furiously. Beyond cognition, Marxists see more
cognition, and the more we know now, the better equipped we are to deduce
(or at least make head or tail of) what's still to come.

There are things we don't know yet. Getting to know them may affect the way
we think about the things we do know. Some things (trivial in the general
scheme of things) will be affected a lot, other things (fundamental to the
general scheme of things) will be affected less. But, as was the case with
relativity, some of the things that appeared to be little affected, can
actually be affected a lot in extreme conditions -- the behaviour of matter
seemed to be little affected, but then black holes turned up. Quantum
mechanics revealed a lot about the sloppy way things were known previously.
The things it revealed that were unknown, explained phenomena much better
than the explanations that had previously been used. The dynamic was to
bring these things into an expanding realm of cognition using human tools
of cognition. They weren't beyond cognition as such, only beyond a certain
current state of cognition.

Things like Goedel's theorem that delimit our methods and tools of
cognition sharpen our awareness of what's going on, they bring limits of
knowledge into sensible dialogue with bodies of knowledge. The provable is
not the same as the knowable.

        Regnet aer helt adekvat och vi vet
        att vinden blaaser exakt.

        Adequate falls the rain, and we know
        that the wind as it blows is exact.

>At the risk of repetition, the question that I am trying to draw out is
>this: in the absence of the human are there still dialectics?

In the absence of dialectics, are there still humans?

If you define dialectics as peculiar to thought, obviously you make it a
human phenomena by definition. However, if you define thought as part of
being, as part of nature, it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that what
applies to part of nature applies to all of it, mutatis mutandis. The trick
is to find the right level of generalization.

>Hugh it would appear says yes, that it is a 'fundamental principle of
>nature'.  Now this does indeed strike me as metaphysics.

But then, you'd consider the laws of gravity and motion as metaphysics too,
as soon as someone pointed out general principles present in them all and
in other such laws, wouldn't you?

>Now if there are such fundementals, please could Hugh, or some
>other purveyor of the dialectic as divine principle, point some out?

Where's this sudden *divinity* come from? Explain yourself! Neither Marx
nor Engels nor Lenin nor Trotsky purvey the dialectic as divine principle.
And if I was doing it, they'd haul me over the coals for it. I don't want
to be bawled out by them, so I do my best to keep in line...

Now Hegel, on the other hand, was a conscious purveyor of the dialectic as
divine principle, so you could do worse than look through his Phenomenology
of the Spirit, and then his Logic. Then you could look at Marx's
demystifications of Hegel, such as his Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of
Right. Then you could look at his application of dialectical method
(thought) to the scientific investigation (interaction of thought and
being) of the dialectics of the processes of capitalist production and
distribution (being).

Then you could reread Anti-Duehring and Dialectics of Nature with a better
appreciation of what's going on. Particularly the bits about motion.

One of my favourite conundrums is the absolute need for matter to be in two
places at the same time if motion is to occur at all. If it's only in one
place at a time, how come it ever gets set in motion? If it's always
somewhere else, the same applies. Now dialectical thought cracked this  bit
of dialectical being way before empirical science got there.

While you're reading -- check out Lucretius's De rerum natura (On the
Nature of the Universe) and then Marx's PhD dissertation on Democritus and

>With regards Bhaskar, the problem here is avoiding a side debate
>about totality!

Well, Hegel's pretty good on discreteness and continuity.

To sum up. I think a lot of the problem is reifying thought as something
intrinsically separate from nature, and extending this to characterize all
human activity as separate from nature. This confusion is abetted by an
ambiguity in the use of the term dialectics both to refer to certain kinds
of philosophical thought and to certain very general laws of development
and interaction in nature that have been brought to light by such thinking.

And that's enough for this posting.



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