[Marxism] Timpanaro "Considerations on Materialism"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Oct 20 14:46:49 MDT 2009

(Contact me privately if you want to read the entire article.)

New Left Review I/85, May-June 1974
Sebastiano Timpanaro
Considerations on Materialism

The Sophisms of Contemporary Epistemology

But what are we to understand by materialism? Moreover, how is 
materialism to escape from the accusation of itself being a 
metaphysic too, and one of the most naïve ones at that?

By materialism we understand above all acknowledgement of the 
priority of nature over ‘mind’, or if you like, of the physical 
level over the biological level, and of the biological level over 
the socio-economic and cultural level; both in the sense of 
chronological priority (the very long time which supervened before 
life appeared on earth, and between the origin of life and the 
origin of man), and in the sense of the conditioning which nature 
still exercises on man and will continue to exercise at least for 
the foreseeable future. Cognitively, therefore, the materialist 
maintains that experience cannot be reduced either to a production 
of reality by a subject (however such production is conceived) or 
to a reciprocal implication of subject and object. We cannot, in 
other words, deny or evade the element of passivity in experience: 
the external situation which we do not create but which imposes 
itself on us. Nor can we in any way reabsorb this external datum 
by making it a mere negative moment in the activity of the 
subject, or by making both the subject and the object mere 
moments, distinguishable only in abstraction, of a single 
effective reality constituted by experience.

This emphasis on the passive element in experience does not, it is 
true, pretend to be a theory of knowledge. The latter, 
incidentally, can be constructed only by experimental research on 
the physiology of the brain and the sense organs, and not by 
merely conceptual or philosophical exercises. But it is the 
preliminary condition for any theory of knowledge which is not 
content with verbalistic and illusory solutions.

This implies a polemical position towards a major part of modern 
philosophy, which has entangled and exhausted itself in the 
setting up of ‘epistemological traps’ to catch and tame the 
external datum, in order to make it something which exists solely 
as a function of the activity of the subject. It is important to 
realize that epistemology has undergone such an enormous (and 
sophistical) development in modern thought because it has not only 
corresponded to the need to understand how knowledge arises, but 
has been charged with the task of founding the absolute liberty of 
man, by eliminating everything which commonly seems to restrict 
that freedom. Whether this task has been executed in the direction 
of a romantic idealism of the absolute ego, or in that of a 
critical empiricism, whether the subject-object relation is 
conceived as relation of creation, or scission within an original 
unity, or reciprocal action or ‘transaction’, or any other 
variant, certainly implies a whole series of important differences 
in cultural formation and social ambience, and explains the fierce 
polemics of both past and present among the proponents of these 
various idealisms. It does not, however, alter their common 
character as illusions. It should be added that the attacks on 
epistemologism by pragmatists and actualists of the left also 
serve, indeed in exasperated form, the same purpose of 
‘annihilating external reality’ and founding human freedom, which 
generated epistemologism itself. They thus form a type of polemic 
which from our point of view can be situated within the general 
orientation that we hold must be rejected.

It will be said that if the idealism of the absolute ego is the 
expression of a culture strongly imbued with romantic and 
anti-scientific irrationalism, empirio-criticist and pragmatist 
positions arose precisely from reflections on science, and that it 
is therefore illegitimate to counterpose a materialism based on 
the sciences of a century ago, or even on naïve common sense, to 
these conceptions as ‘more scientific’.

But it is on this very point that mistakes are particularly easy 
to make. It is true that scientific knowledge is the only exact 
and rigorous form of knowledge. But if philosophy displaces all 
its attention from the results and objects of scientific research 
to the research as such, and if, omitting to consider man’s 
condition in the world as it is established by the results of 
scientific research, it confines itself to a methodology of the 
activity of the scientist, then it relapses into idealism, because 
it then suggests that there is only one reality—not nature, but 
man the investigator of nature and constructor of his own science. 
The results of scientific research teach us that man occupies a 
marginal position in the universe; that for a very long time life 
did not exist on earth, and that its origin depended on very 
special conditions; that human thought is conditioned by 
determinate anatomical and physiological structures, and is 
clouded or impeded by determinate pathological alterations of 
these; and so on. But let us consider these results as mere 
contents of our thought as it cogitates or of our activity as it 
experiments and modifies nature, let us emphasize that they do not 
exist outside our thought and our activity, and the trick is done: 
external reality has been conjured away, and not by an antiquated 
humanism hostile to science, but instead with all the blessings of 
science and of modernity!

The moment philosophy is reduced without residue to epistemology 
or methodology (in the more or less openly subjectivist sense 
mentioned above), it becomes simply narcissistic theorization of 
the activity of the scientist—who, producing phenomena in order to 
understand them, conceptually developing and systematizing the 
results of his experiments, deludes himself into thinking that he 
is the ‘legislator of nature’. It then becomes, not the 
systematization of everything that science has taught and is 
teaching us about man and the world, but the sectoral, corporative 
expression of a restricted category of man: scientists, whose 
situation and activity are improperly assumed to be paradigms of 
the human condition in general. Philosophy thereby loses not 
merely the imaginary ‘universality’ of the metaphysical tradition, 
but also that minimum of general or global outlook to which it can 
never by definition cease to aspire.

 From this viewpoint neither the vaunted ‘unification of the 
sciences’, nor even closer junctures between knowledge and action 
or the sciences of nature and the techniques of transforming 
nature, are sufficient to avoid the sectoralism just discussed, 
for it is a sectoralism a parte subiecti. A philosophy which is, 
even in the broadest and most comprehensive sense, a methodology 
of human action, always runs the risk of evading or 
underestimating that which is passivity and external conditioning 
in the human condition.

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