Form and Content -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

Form and Content

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There are many contradictions in things. For instance, the contradiction between form and content. Every gardener knows that a seed carefully planted in a pot will produce a plant. Initially, the pot protects the young plant and helps it to thrive. But at a certain stage, the roots become too big for the space allowed. The gardener must remove it from the pot, or it will die. Similarly, the human embryo is protected by the mother’s womb for nine months. At this point, a critical stage is reached in which, either the baby is separated from the mother’s body, or both will perish. These are examples of the contradiction between form and content which are readily understood. Another example would be the way in which the forces which accumulate beneath the earth’s crust eventually produce an earthquake.

Similar forces build up within society, which also has its "fault-lines." The action of these forces is no more visible than those that cause an earthquake. To the superficial observer, nothing is happening. Everything is "normal." The skilled observer, however, is able to detect the symptoms of subterranean activity in society, just as a competent geologist can read a seismograph. Trotsky once defined theory as "the superiority of foresight over astonishment." It is the fate of superficial and empirical thought to be constantly astonished, like the man who fell through the ice. It is the price one pays for confusing appearance with essence and form with content.

The essence of a thing is the sum total of its most fundamental properties. The task of dialectical analysis is to determine these. In each case it will be found that there is a potential contradiction between the present state and tendencies which are tending to dissolve it. In classical mechanics, the idea of a perfect equilibrium plays a central role. Things tend to return to equilibrium. That is, at least, in theory. In real life, a perfect equilibrium is a rarity. Whenever equilibrium is reached, it tends to be temporary and unstable. Development and change presupposes this. In the intensive ward of a hospital, "equilibrium" signifies death.

When referring to the properties of a thing, it is customary to use the verb "to have." (Fire has the property of burning; a human being has the properties of breathing, thinking, eating, etc.) This gives a wrong idea. A child has an ice-cream. A woman has a dog. The relationship here is accidental and external, since the child and the woman could equally well not have these things, and still be a child and a woman. A thing does not "have" properties. It is the sum-total of its properties. Take these away, and we are left with nothing, which is what Kant’s Thing-in-Itself really was. This is an extremely important idea, which is only now beginning to be understood by scientists. The whole cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts, because in entering into a dynamic relationship, the parts themselves become transformed, and give rise to an entirely new situation, governed by qualitatively different laws.

This phenomenon can be seen in society. Trotsky pointed out that the working class, without organisation, is only "raw material for exploitation." This fact is starkly revealed in periods like the present, when trade unions are eliminated or undermined in many workplaces. Historically, the movement of the workers to organise themselves brings about a complete transformation of the situation. Quantity becomes transformed into quality. Whereas individual workers are powerless, the class organised as a class has colossal power, at least potentially. Not a wheel turns, not a telephone rings, not a light bulb shines without the kind permission of the working class. In Hegelian language, the working class before it is organised, is only a class "in itself" (that is, an unrealised potential). Once it becomes organised and conscious of its power, it becomes a class "for itself." Of course, Hegel was far from drawing such explicitly revolutionary conclusions from his dialectical method. Being an idealist, his main concern was to present the dialectic as the process of development of the Spirit. Real relations are stood on their head, and the real world is presented in a mystified form. But the real content constantly finds its way through the dense fog of idealism, like shafts of sunlight through the clouds.

In essence, as Engels pointed out, everything is relative. Things are what they are thanks to their interrelations with other things. This also can be seen in society. Things which are commonly believed to be real entities are, in fact, the product of particular relationships, which have sunk so deeply into people’s consciousness that they acquire the force of prejudice. Such a thing is the institution of monarchy:

"Na•ve minds," Trotsky observed, "think that the office of kingship lodges in the king himself, in his ermine cloak and his crown, in his flesh and bones. As a matter of fact, the office of kingship is an interrelation between people. The king is king only because the interests and prejudices of millions of people are refracted through his person. When the flood of development sweeps away these interrelations, then the king appears to be only a washed-out man with a flabby lower lip. He who was once called Alfonso XIII could discourse upon this from fresh impressions.

"The leader by will of the people differs from the leader by will of God in that the former is compelled to clear the road for himself or, at any rate, to assist the conjuncture of events in discovering him. Nevertheless, the leader is always a relation between people, the individual supply to meet the collective demand. The controversy over Hitler’s personality becomes the sharper the more the secret of his success is sought in himself. In the meantime, another political figure would be difficult to find that is in the same measure the focus of anonymous historic forces. Not every exasperated petty bourgeois could have become Hitler, but a particle of Hitler is lodged in every exasperated petty bourgeois." (Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p. 399.)

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