Dialectical Materialism

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Sat Jul 26 17:47:21 MDT 2003


As far as I know, the term dialectical materialism was invented by Karl
Kautsky, who was interested in getting Marxism down to an easily understood
doctrine that workers could understand, even if their education was at a low
level and they were under religious influence, i.e. Kautsky felt the need to
popularise and project a world view, a systematic ideology, a catechism, for
the German social democracy and the Second Intenational.

Because Kautsky was friends with Engels, I think that Engels might have used
the term on an occasion. However I cannot trace any locus, and doubt that
there is any. What Engels does do, is talk about the "materialist dialectic"
(e.g. Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy) but this
is not a reference to a systematic philosophical doctrine about how the
world out there is really structured ontologically, or a system of logic,
but rather the suggestion is that we can discover dialectical relationships
in living reality, through inquiry, i.e. prove that reality indeed has these
dialectical properties, by understanding things as complex developing
processes occurring in an historical context, which exhibit dialectical

When Marx talks about "developing a science to the point where it can be
dialectically represented", he means just that, first you have to do the
scientific work, then you discover the dialectical relationships in the
subjectmatter, and then you are able to present your findings in a
dialectical way. Engels's intention was to do something similar for natural
science, but of course there is a big difference between classical political
economy and natural science. After Ricardo, classical political economy made
no further substantive theoretical advances, except in Marx's own work. The
connection between labour, economic value and price was mostly abandoned and
later denied. Engels knew very well that natural science continued to
develop, and that views about the structure of physical reality were still
changing, in a way quite different from an historically informed
specification of the basic institutional structure of capitalism. Which is
probably why he never published on the subject of natural science, beyond
claims that one could discover dialectical characteristics in physical
reality, if one was prepared to look for them. But that is quite a different
thing from a metaphysical doctrine which seeks to assimilate scientific
findings into one system.

My own contribution to the debate about dialectics, was just to say that
"formal-logical operations" and formal inferential processes generally
assume categorisations, and that categorisation processes (the processes by
which we obtain categories, conceptual distinctions) might be construed as
dialectical processes at some level, which in good part evade formal-logical
inferential processes and rather arise out of practical-experiential human
activity and conceptual metaphors, generated by the brain through the
combination of language, symbolisms, metaphysical notions, and human
practical experience within society. This idea was, to my knowledge, first
elaborated explicitly and systematically, in a popularised way, by Paul
Lafargue, in an essay with the remarkable title "The Origin of Abstract
Ideas" (reprinted in The Evolution of Property from Savagery to Civilisation
& Social and Philosophical Studies, New Park Pubns, 1975). Behind a
conceptual distinction, we may be able to discover a social practice or
etymology which gives rise to it, but not a formal proof of its validity.

I found e.g. that in designing statistical classication procedures for the
purpose of data aggregation and presentation, I was forced to make "leaps in
logic" and move between different levels of analysis, in a way which could
not be captured in any formal logical terms, because they creatively
combined logical with non-logical operations, i.e. logical inferences with
experiential considerations, theory, and utility considerations. I might
draw a non-arbitrary, reasoned conceptual distinction for practical
purposes, without however there being any formal proof for its validity.

If indeed thought, and reality as a whole, could be logically formalised
totally (a phantasm), then we would have solved the classical dichotomy of
empiricism and rationalism, expressed best by Immanuel Kant, and we could
just infer the way reality really is from a deductive process starting at an
appropriate point. No empirical investigation would be necessary, we would
just reason ourselves into new knowledge from an initial premiss. But this
is not the case, because there is an ontological discrepancy between
external reality, our sensory experience of external reality, and the mental
"filters" we use to categorise it, impute signification, and place it in a
comprehensible frame of reference, within which logical reasoning can take


More information about the Marxism mailing list