[Marxism] Timpanaro "Considerations on Materialism"

Thomas Bias biastg at embarqmail.com
Tue Oct 20 14:54:01 MDT 2009

Is it just me? I graduated college, and I can't make head nor tail of  
this. I'm reminded of Bill Cosby's comment about his Philosophy major  
girlfriend at Temple University: "She used to walk around asking,  
'Why is there air?' Any PhysEd major knows why there's air. There's  
air to blow up volleyballs with. Air to blow up basketballs with.  
Call me dumb!"


On Oct 20, 2009, at 4:46 PM, Louis Proyect wrote:

> (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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