[Marxism] O, Dialectics!

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu May 12 08:21:23 MDT 2005

>The point about Lenin and the ether was aimed at the naive scientific 
>realism that underpinned his diamat - as you have Materialism and 
>Empiriocritism to hand, you'll know what I mean.  To say that it shows how 
>'science behaved dialectically' demands explanation more than it explains.
>Are you saying that the concept of the ether was interpenetrated by its 
>opposite, or that quantity changed into quality?  Thomas Kuhn, whatever 
>else was wrong with him, provided a far better model for understanding the 
>'paradigm-shifts' that occur within science than diamat (albeit you could 
>argue that his institutional analysis was itself dialectical)...

I would urge Leninology and others to check Helena Sheehan's website, where 
excerpts from her "Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical 
History" can be found: http://www.comms.dcu.ie/sheehanh/mxphsc.htm. This 
book sheds light on the creative intersection between science and Marxist 
philosophy in the USSR, including--most interestingly--the 1930s.

Here's something from her discussion of Christopher Caudwell, who was a 
casualty of the Spanish Civil War and whose "Notes on a Dying Culture" is 
must reading:

The new categories required could not be formed within the bounds of 
physics alone, however. No real solution was possible unless the most basic 
and fundamental categories common to all domains were to be radically 
refashioned. What physics needed was a new philosophy.

Einstein and Planck were the last physicists adhering to the old 
metaphysics of physics, whereas Jeans and Eddington represented the most 
extreme swing in the opposite direction, the most extreme tendency for 
physical theory to fly away from physical experiment. Einstein stood out as 
a larger figure than the rest in his aspiration to an all embracing 
philosophy. Although he did manage to bring together a wide domain of 
physics, he was still unable to encompass the whole complexity of modern 
physics. Nor was anyone else able.

With the breakdown of traditional categories and no new ones to take their 
place, physicists were becoming inclined to call God back in again to 
sanction the physicists belief in unity, to assure him of a worthwhile end 
to his labours. But it was a God from the other side. Unlike Newton's God 
who was Matter, this God was Mind, a mind remarkably like that of the 
physicist's own. All such introjections of the physicist's mind behind 
phenomena to take the place of a deleted matter represented a certain 
falling off and disorientation as compared with earlier physicists' more 
robust viewpoint.

The state of physics amid all the confusion was disturbing, not only to the 
physicists, but to the general public as well. Taking up the various 
problems perplexing to the popular consciousness in relation to physics, 
Caudwell first examined the problem of the relation of physics to 
perception. The world of physics seemed to be deviating further and further 
from the world of perception. The world of relativity physics seemed to be 
taking physics further and further from reality as directly experienced. In 
answer to the question of whether the world of physics could be restored to 
the world of experience, his answer was yes, that it must, for physics was 
built up and validated from the results of perception, even relativity 
physics. The discrepancy between Newton and Einstein was settled after all 
on the basis of the Michelson-Morley experiment. The perceived world, 
Caudwell insisted, was primary and gave status to only certain of the 
various self-consistent possible worlds.

An even stickier question in physics was that surrounding the status of 
concepts of causality and determinism that had become particularly 
problematic with the development of quantum physics and had brought many 
physicists to deny causality and to assert a radical indeterminism in 
nature. Responding particularly to the conclusions being drawn by Jeans and 
Eddington from Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty, to the effect that 
causality and determinism were no longer principles of physics and that it 
was therefore possible to guarantee the freedom of the human will, Caudwell 
analysed the issue on a number of levels.

Basically his argument was that the fundamental bourgeois illusion, in its 
false notion of the nature of freedom, had penetrated even into physics. 
The bourgeois understanding of causality was equivalent to predeterminism, 
the only sort of determinism that bourgeois could understand. It was the 
bourgeois nightmare. It was the dread of a class that did not want to be 
tied to nature by any relation except that of private property, a relation 
entered into by the individual by virtue of his own free will. Freedom, for 
the bourgeois, seemed to lie in arbitrary subjectivity, with all causality 
concealed, hidden in the shadow of the free market.

Those, such as Jeans and Eddington, who seized upon Heisenberg's principle 
to launch a full-scale attack on determinism in physics, picturing the 
movements of the particles as indeterminate and the particles themselves as 
unknowable, supposed that this at last secured the menaced free will of the 
bourgeois. By this bizarre stratagem, they thought they had freed man from 
the determinism of nature by eliminating the determinism of nature 
altogether. Even nature was now seen to exhibit bourgeois free will.

On one level, Caudwell analysed the way this played itself out within the 
realm of physical theory, tracing it back to the subject-object dichotomy 
and the separation of the basis of freedom from the basis of necessity in 
the 17th century. He seemed to have very definite ideas about how the 
resolution of his dichotomy provided the way out of the anarchy engulfing 
physical theory. His argument at this level was not fully developed, 
however, as it came only in the draft notes for the chapters of The Crisis 
in Physics, which were left in a very rough state, far from ready for 
publication, when he went off to Spain.

Roughly, he seemed to be indicating that the apparent antinomies of 
physical theory between quantum and wave, discontinuity and continuity, 
freedom and determinism, accident and necessity, would find their 
resolution when thought ceased to move back and forth between mutually 
exclusive polar opposites. It was necessary to see freedom within the 
framework of determinism. Otherwise, each was abstracted from the other, 
distorted and scarred. Determinism and necessity became crystalline and 
incapable of evolution. Freedom and accident floated about without roots. 
It was the universal interweaving of domains and not the concept of strict 
determinism as such that made it possible to speak of the universal reign 
of law. Part of Caudwell's argument seemed to rest on a distinction between 
causality as an active subject-object relationship and predeterminism as a 
passive one.*

*Determinism, as it emerged at the end of The Crisis in Physics is the more 
general category. Within it, he distinguished between causality and 
probabilistic determinism on the one hand and strict Laplacean 
predeterminism on the other.

For Caudwell, then, the crisis in physics was not due to the mystical and 
contradictory nature of the phenomena discovered, but to the attempt of the 
bourgeois to keep the world of physics closed and to preserve his own 
freedom outside it, to keep himself at all costs immune from causality.



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