Descartes Redux (was Re: Spiritualism and idealism)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Mon Jan 1 23:02:19 MST 2001

Lou wrote:

>These two terms have become woefully conflated in this discussion.
>Marxism, based on materialism, is required to struggle mercilessly
>against philosophical idealism. Bourgeois philosophy is idealist.
>Nearly all of the  major deviations arising within Marxism in the
>20th century involve some kind of idealism or another, from
>Bogdanov's "empiriocriticism" to James Burnham's pragmatism.
>But there really is no such thing as a "spiritualist" challenge to
>or within Marxism. For that matter, I am not even sure whether it
>makes sense to speak of such a phenomenon in terms of an "ism".
>Spiritual feelings, which are really at the root of all religions,
>tend to be very private or what some thinker (can't remember who)
>describes as what a man or a woman does when they are alone in a
>room. It is utterly pointless to "expose" such feelings.

What you write in the second paragraph, however, seems to me to be an
idealist definition of "spiritual"....To think that one can name
one's feelings "spiritual" & at the same time imagine that such
"spiritual" feelings are "private" is to fall for a Cartesian

*****   For example, a still very common idea, often attributed to
John Locke and openly embraced by Jerry Fodor in the nineteen
seventies, is that interpersonal spoken communication works by
speakers' translation of their internal mental vocabularies into
sounds followed by hearers' re-translation into their own internal
vocabularies.  Again, Descartes considered himself able to talk to
himself about his experiences while claiming to be justified in
saying that he does not know (or not until he has produced a
reassuring philosophical argument) anything at all about an external
world conceived as something independent of them.  And he and others
have thought: while I may make mistakes about the external world, I
can infallibly avoid error if I confine my judgments to my immediate
sensations.  (Compare The Principles of Philosophy, I, 9.)  Again,
many philosophers, including John Stuart Mill, have supposed there to
be a problem of other minds, according to which I may reasonably
doubt the legitimacy of applying, say, sensation-words to beings
other than myself.

In each of these examples, the implication is that the internal
vehicle of my musings could in principle be private: for these
problems and theories even to make sense, sharability must be
irrelevant to meaning and it must be at least conceivable that my
knowledge, even my understanding, is necessarily confined to my own
case.  This is especially clear with Descartes: for his sceptical
question to be raised without being immediately self-defeating, he
must hold it possible to identify his experiences inwardly -- where
'inwardly' means without relying on resources supplied by his
essential embodiment in a world whose existence is independent of his
own mind and accessible to others (e.g. such resources as the
concepts acquired in a normal upbringing).  The question which
accordingly looms large in the private language argument is: How is
this identification of one's experiences to be achieved?
<>   *****

Marx & Wittgenstein's answer to the question posed above is, "It
cannot be achieved 'inwardly,' for there is no such thing as a
'private' language."  The meaning of the word "spiritual" is in its
use (Wittgenstein) & shaped by a historically specific ensemble of
social relations (Marx).

A liberal argument that "spirituality" (or "sexuality" for that
matter) should be a "private affair" of each individual is in itself
historically bound -- clearly a product of centuries of struggles for
the separation of the Church & the State in many parts of the world.

Lou also wrote:

>When I read his autobiography shortly after joining the SWP, I felt
>tremendously inspired by his example. At no point did I ever feel the need to
>psychologically or politically repudiate those sections that read like this:
>>>We parked near the Great Mosque. We performed our ablutions and entered.
>Pilgrims seemed to be on top of each other, there were so many, lying,
>sitting, sleeping, praying, walking.
>Carrying my sandals, I followed the Mutawaf. Then I saw the Kaíba, a huge
>black stone house in the middle of the Great Mosque. It was being
>circumambulated by
>thousands upon thousands of praying pilgrims, both sexes, and every size,
>shape, color, and race in the world.

What is moving about Malcolm X's conversion to Islam & pilgrimage to
Mecca, after his break with the Nation of Islam, is his political
growth, his liberation from Elijah Muhammad's "strait jacket,"
manifest in his evident elation in "being circumambulated by
thousands upon thousands of praying pilgrims, both sexes, and every
size, shape, color, and race in the world," for now he felt that "We
were truly all the same (brothers) -- because their belief in the one
God had removed the 'white' from their minds, the 'white' from their
behavior, and the 'white' from their attitude."  Islam, at this
moment, represented a possibility of earthly realization of the world
without racism (which would be impossible in the prison house made of
white supremacy & simple inversion of it [the ideology of the Nation
of Islam]) for Malcolm X.  Had he lived longer & experienced the
complexity of intra-Muslim politics, however, he probably would have
had to revise his thoughts on Islam, without however forgetting the
feelings that he experienced among his fellow pilgrims.

"Say O you who are unbelievers, I worship not that which you
worship...".  A man of Malcolm X's caliber would have likely come to
feel that verses such as this were limiting as well.


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