[Marxism] What is wrong with positivism?

Haines Brown brownh at hartford-hwp.com
Fri Aug 3 11:49:47 MDT 2007

> Haines Brown wrote:
> you're doing yeoman work making sense of these terms for me.
> a "what does this mean" question:
> > or it can mean ontological monism
> "ontological monism" == ???
> Les

Again, you ask a question of an amateur ;-(. You have received several
short answers to your original question that are good.

The phrase "ontological monism" falls within a branch of the
philosophy of science which is named modal logic. This refers to the
kinds of existence that things might have, such as existence itself,
possibility, process, potency and necessity. This list can be extended
almost indefinitely. 

Bourgeois ideology long held to a Cartesian dualism, which assumed
that there were two modes in which things could exist: as ideas (the
realm of freedom) and as matter (the realm of determinism). Unlike
philosophers, however, scientists have long been materialists, at
least since the early 20th century. Feuerbach, Marx and Engels
attacked Hegelian idealism, and Lenin eventually targeted the views of
Ernst Mach. Although the history of the debate is long and
complicated, it is safe to say that today virtually all philosophers
of science deny the objective existence of ideas: everything emerges
from matter. This is what is implied by "monism".

I wish I could extend this point to society at large, but I
can't. Historians, sad to say, still often see ideas as having causal
potency, rather than as constraints on causal potency. Also, religious
people apparently still hold to the objective existence of spirit. So
it seems that a discredited Cartesian dualism manages to survive among
those who do not follow the development of science.

Nowadays it is conventional in scientific circles to see reality in
terms of "emergent" levels, in which each level represents a
constraint on a more general level that gives rise to distinctive
properties and behaviors that characterize that level and which cannot
be reduced to the properties of the more general level (I don't
entirely agree with this way of putting it, and would prefer to
characterize levels in terms of entropy rather than observables. There
is also the related debate over how to define "system"). Emergent
properties are actualizations of real potencies that are present at
the more general level. That is, matter is foundational and in
principle has unlimited potency (for example, the Big Bang), and all 
levels emerge from matter, although they can't be reduced to its more
general levels.

Marxists are fond of the term materialism, and I suspect there is
nothing wrong with that except that its meaning is controversial and
can end by muddying the waters. I suspect that since the ontological
battle has long been won, there is no reason the term materialism
needs to be used. But that is only my own bias, and many Marxists
would not be inclined to agree.

If I may, I'd like to inject a correction to my initial message. I
made a comment about cultural anthropology that on second thought I

Haines Brown

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