Materialism and Empirio-Criticism -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

Materialism and Empirio-Criticism

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Mach’s basic argument—echoing the ideas of Berkeley—was that "I interpret the world through my senses." A materialist would add to this "the world exists independently of my senses." Failure to accept this elementary truth immediately lands us in all kinds of absurdities—for example, we would have to admit that the world did not exist before there were people present to observe it. More correctly, it did not exist before I was present to observe it, since all I know is my own senses, and therefore I cannot be certain that anyone else exists. In fact, it would follow from this madness that if I close my eyes, the world disappears! Sounds crazy? So it is. Yet not only philosophers, but some very respectable scientists have adopted views which are quite close to these. Let us recall that Mach himself was a physicist.

Mach’s arguments were completely answered by Lenin in his book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, where Lenin explains that: "Matter is a philosophical category denoting the objective reality which is given to man by his sensation, and which is copied, photographed and reflected by our sensations, while existing independently of them." (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 14, p. 130.) Marx and Engels had already clarified this point: " Indeed, being is always an open question beyond the point where our sphere of observation ends. The real unity of the world consists in its materiality, and this is proved not by a few juggling phrases, but by a long and laborious development of philosophy and natural science." (Engels, Anti-Dühring, p. 54, our emphasis.) As a matter of fact, it was already dealt with by Hegel, who pointed out that "In the language of common life we mean by objective what exists outside of us and reaches us from without by means of sensation." (Hegel, Logic, p. 67.)

The fundamental error of Mach, which is derived from Hume and Kant, was to regard the senses as a kind of barrier separating the individual (the subject) from the material world (the object). In reality, the senses themselves cannot exist without a nervous system, a brain, a body, food, and therefore a physical environment. To present the senses as if they were something independent and separate from the body, i.e. matter organised in a certain way is idealist nonsense of the worst kind. It has nothing in common with science, and everything in common with religion and spiritualism.

Thought is nothing but matter that thinks. It is the product of matter organised in a certain way. Thus, man is part of nature, but a very special part, characterised by the capacity to reflect and comprehend the rest of nature. One of the most striking contradictions of subjective idealism is this: if the physical world only exists if it is perceived, how could it have existed before the existence of the human race, or life itself? Although they twist and turn, the logical positivists, right up to the present, are unable to provide a satisfactory answer to this elementary question.

"That is what comes of accepting ‘consciousness,’ ‘thought,’ quite naturalistically as something given, something opposed to being, to nature, from the outset. If this were so, it must seem most odd that consciousness and nature, thinking and being, the laws of thought and the laws of nature, should so closely correspond. But if we then ask what thought and consciousness are and whence they come, we find that they are products of the human brain and that man himself is a product of nature, who has developed in and along with his environment; whence it is self-evident that the products of the human brain, which in the last analysis are also products of nature, do not contradict the rest of nature’s interconnections but correspond to them." (Engels, Anti-Dühring, p. 44.)

And Lenin, dealing with the same subject, writes:

"For every scientist who has not been led astray by professorial philosophy, as well as for every materialist, sensation is indeed the direct connection between consciousness and the external world; it is the transformation of the energy of external excitation into the fact of consciousness. This transformation has been, and is, observed by each of us a million times on every hand. The sophism of idealist philosophy consists in the fact that it regards sensation as being not the connection between consciousness and the external world, but a fence, a wall, separating consciousness from the external world—not an image of the external phenomenon corresponding to the sensation, but as the ‘sole entity.’" (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 14, p. 51).

The question of the reality or non-reality of the world outside us is, in fact, not a philosophical but a practical question. It is not solved in the study, but through the entire experience of the human race in its struggle to dominate and transform the real conditions of its existence, and, in so doing, to transform itself also. This was very well expressed by Marx in the second of his Theses on Feuerbach:

"The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is purely a scholastic question." (MECW, Vol. 5, p. 3.)

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