[Marxism] Materialism and the will. (Was: (no subject))

Rosa Lichtenstein rosa.lichtenstein at googlemail.com
Wed Oct 21 04:48:14 MDT 2009

Ok, here is my summary, but comrades should not expect a water-tight
solution to such a knotty problem in a few paragraphs. I am only
posting this because I was asked to do so.

To tell you the truth, I have so far only written on this topic
tangentially. I will however be publishing an essay specifically about
this in the next few years, where I will substantiate what I have to
say below far more fully.

This issue has always revolved around the use of terminology drawn
from traditional philosophy (such as "determined", "will", "free", and
the like), the use of which bears no relation to how these words are
employed in ordinary speech.

For example, "determine" and its cognates are typically used in
sentences like this "The rules determine what you can do in chess",
"The time of the next train can be determined from the timetable", or
"I am determined to go on the demonstration" and so on. Hence this
word is normally used in relation to what human beings can do, apply,
or can bring about.

As we will see, their use in traditional thought inverts this, making
nature the agent and human beings the patient. No wonder then that the
'solution' to this artificial problem (i.e., 'determinism' and 'free
will') has eluded us for over 2000 years.

To use an analogy, would we take seriously anyone who wondered when
the King and Queen in chess got married, and then wanted to know who
conducted the ceremony? Or, whether planning permission had been
sought for that castle over in the corner? Such empty questions, of
course, have no answer.

To be sure, this is more difficult to see in relation to the
traditional question at hand, but it is nonetheless the result of
similar confusions. So, it is my contention that this 'problem' has
only arisen because ideologically-motivated theorists (from centuries
ago) asked such empty questions, based on a misuse of language. [More
on this below.]

When the details are worked out, 'determinism', for instance, can only
be made to seem to work if nature is anthropomorphised, so that such
things as 'natural law' 'determine' the course of events -- both in
reality in general and in the central nervous system in particular --
thus 'controlling' what we do.

But, this is to take concepts that properly apply to what we do and
can decide, and then impose them on natural events, suggesting that
nature is controlled by a cosmic will of some sort. [Why this is so, I
will outline presently.]

So, it's natural to ask: Where is this law written, and who passed it?

Of course, the answer to these questions is "No one" and "Nowhere",
but then how can something that does not exist control anything?

It could be responded that natural law is just a summary of how things
have so far gone up to now. In that case, such 'laws' are descriptive
not prescriptive -- but it is the latter of these implications that
determinists need.

Now, the introduction of modal notions here (such as 'must', or
'necessary') cannot be justified from this descriptive nature of 'law'
without re-introducing the untoward anthropomorphic connotations
mentioned above.

So, if we say that A has always followed B, we cannot now say A must
follow B unless we attribute to B some form of control over A (and
recall A has not yet happened, so what B is supposed to be controlling
is somewhat obscure). And if we now try to say what we mean by
'control' (on lines such as 'could not be otherwise', or 'B made A
happen') we need to explain how B prevented, say, C happening instead,
and made sure that A, and only A took place.

The use of "obey" here would give the game away, since if this word is
used with connotations that go beyond mere description, then this will
imply that events like A understand the 'law' (like so many good
citizens), and always do the same when B beckons, right across the
entire universe --, and, indeed, that this 'law' must exist in some
form to make things obey it. Of course, if it doesn't mean this, then
what does it mean?

Now, I maintain that any attempt to fill in the details here will
introduce notions of will and intelligence into the operation of B on
A (and also on C) -- and that is why theorists have found they have
had to drag in anthropomorphic concepts here (such as 'determine',
'obey' 'law' and 'control') to fill this gap, failing to note that the
use of such words does indeed imply there is a will of some sort
operating in nature. [But, note the qualification I introduce here,
below. There were ideological reasons why these words were in fact

If this is denied then 'determine' (etc.) can only be working
descriptively, and we are back at square one.

Incidentally, the above problems are not to be avoided by the
introduction of biochemical, neurological, and/or physiological
objects and processes. The same questions apply here as elsewhere: how
can, for example, a certain chemical 'control' what happens next
unless it is intelligent in some way? Reducing this to physics is even
worse; how can 'the field' (or whatever) control the future? 'The
field' is a mathematical object and no more capable of controlling
anything than a Hermite polynomial is. Of course, and once more, to
argue otherwise would be to anthropomorphise such things -- which is
why I made the argument above abstract, since it covers all bases.

This also explains why theorists (and particularly scientists who try
to popularise their work) find they have to use 'scare quotes' and
metaphor everywhere in this area.

As I noted earlier, this whole way of looking at 'the will' inverts
things. *We* are denied a will (except formally) and nature is granted
one. As many might now be able to see, this is yet another aspect of
the alienating nature of traditional thought, where words are
fetishised and we are dehumanised.

And this should not surprise us since such questions were originally
posed theologically (and thus ideologically), where theorists were
quite happy to alienate to 'god' such control over nature and our
supposedly 'free' actions'. Hence, we too find that we have to
appropriate such distorted terminology if we follow traditional
patterns of thought in this area.

No wonder Marx argued:

"The philosophers have only to dissolve their language into the
ordinary language, from which it is abstracted, in order to recognise
it, as the distorted language of the actual world, and to realise that
neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own,
that they are only manifestations of actual life." [Marx and Engels
(1970), p.118.]


"The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas,
i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at
the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the
means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same
time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally
speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production
are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal
expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant
material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships
which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its
dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among
other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore,
as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an
epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence
among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and
regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age:
thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. For instance, in
an age and in a country where royal power, aristocracy, and
bourgeoisie are contending for mastery and where, therefore, mastery
is shared, the doctrine of the separation of powers proves to be the
dominant idea and is expressed as an 'eternal law.'" [Ibid.,

These concepts "rule" us too if we are suitably uncritical.

Many of these ideas are not original to me (but the Marxist
application of them is). They first appeared, as far as I am aware, in
Bertrand Russell's essay:

Russell, B. (1917a), 'On The Notion Of A Cause', in Russell (1917b), pp.132-51.

--------, (1917d), Mysticism And Logic (George, Allen and Unwin).

These ideas can be found explicitly stated in the following (but not
from a Marxist angle):

Gallop, D. (1962), 'On Being Determined', Mind 71, pp.181-96.

I have also followed this analysis of 'law':

Swartz, N. (1985), The Concept Of A Physical Law (Cambridge University Press).

--------, (2006), 'Laws Of Nature', Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

A PDF of the former can be downloaded here:


The latter is found here:


Influential Wittgensteinian criticisms of modern scientistic
philosophies of 'mind' can be found here:

Bennett, M., and Hacker, P. (2003), Philosophical Foundations Of
Neuroscience (Blackwell).

--------, (2008), History Of Cognitive Neuroscience (Blackwell).

Those who think an appeal to ordinary language is inappropriate here
should re-read what Marx said above, consult the first half of
following, and then think again:

Button, G., Coulter, J., Lee, J., and Sharrock, W. (1995), Computers,
Minds And Conduct (Polity Press).

The bottom line is that Marxists have been too quick to appropriate
concepts and forms-of-thought from traditional (alienated
ruling-class) philosophy without subjecting them to close enough
scrutiny. Unfortunately, this means that while our politics seems
radical enough, our theory (both here and in relation to dialectics,
for example) is thoroughly traditional -- and, if I may say so,
disconcertingly conservative.

I explain why I say this in the first few sections of the following:


Finally, I'd try to get this material published in Marxist journals,
etc., but I am generally treated as a pariah, and face emotive and
irrational hostility wherever I try to present such ideas.

Seems "ruling ideas rule" comrades who are editors, too.


On Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 2:07 AM, Michael Smith <mjs at smithbowen.net> wrote:
> On Wed, 21 Oct 2009 02:24:19 +0200
> David Picón Álvarez <david at miradoiro.com> wrote:
>> A bit like computer programmers don't talk about
>> solid state physics and NAND gates when they think about buffer overflows or
>> class inheritance or whatever. But these things are grounded in them, they
>> take place by virtue of, and fully determined by, those underlying physical
>> laws.
> Really? Perl and LISP seem pretty different to me. "Fully determined" is a
> mighty strong claim. "Constrained", perhaps. A programming language that
> you can't implement in silicon would be pretty useless as long as we have
> to depend on silicon, but then -- who's to say what's not implementable in
> silicon? I don't believe we've exhausted its possibilities even yet.
> --
> Michael Smith
> mjs at smithbowen.net
> http://stopmebeforeivoteagain.org
> http://fakesprogress.blogspot.com
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