Image: Photograph of Wilhelm Dilthey
1. The “resistance” of the world to humanity’s conscious attempts to transform it
In 1890, the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey authored a remarkable essay on “The Origin of Our Belief in the Reality of the External World and Its Justification.” Against some of the prevailing interpretations of his day, Dilthey argued that the reality of the external world was neither an immediately given fact of consciousness nor the product of unconscious inferences linking cause to effect. On the contrary, he asserted that the reality of the world outside of the self comes to be known to individual subjects only by encountering resistance [Widerstand] to the will. Recognition of the external world’s reality thus arises from “[the] consciousness of voluntary motion [entering] into a relation with the experience of resistance [Widerstandserfahrung]; in this way a…distinction develops between the life of the self and something other that is independent of it.”
Resistance in this model stands as the original ground on which all subsequent differentiation takes place. Here the “I” is first separated off from a “not-I” that opposes it. But unlike the Fichtean philosophy from which these terms are derived, “I” and “not-I” for Dilthey are not distinguished (at least initially) by an act of cognition. This cleavage is first realized, rather, through an act of volition. In other words, the intuition of a world that exists apart from the ego does not come about through the self-positing activity of the subject in making itself an object of contemplation or thought, as in Fichte. It manifests itself through an act of the will, in the subject’s efforts to subjugate the whole of reality unto itself — thereby satisfying its every appetite. The “pushback” it experiences in trying to enforce its will then prompts an awareness that something exists outside the self. Thus does consciousness enter into existence, circumscribed within a world that is not of its making. It learns the limits to its own subjective agency by encountering resistance to its sovereign will.
For Dilthey, then, this experience not only formed the basis for understanding the world as an independent and objective entity — i.e., as something separate from the self. It was also to an equal extent the source of the ego’s self-understanding as an autonomous and subjective entity. Dilthey went on to explain that “the difference between a ‘self’ and an ‘other’ is first experienced in impulse and resistance…,the first germ of the ego and the world and of the distinction between them.” This initial moment of separation is then necessary to lend legitimacy and significance to the network of distinctions educed from it. “The entire meaning of the words ‘self’ and ‘other,’ ‘ego’ and ‘world,’” explained Dilthey, “and the differentiation of the self from the external world is contained in the experiences of our will and of the feelings connected with it…The core of this distinction is…the relationship of impulse and restraint of intention, of will and resistance.”
Out of this original, unbroken externality opposed to the self, subtler gradations can arise. This primary unity of all existence admits of a higher degree of refinement, as an array of discrete objects appear before it. The world now presents itself as a singular spatiotemporal field in which manifold phenomena can occur and objects can take shape. “Resistance” thus replaces “representation” as the second term in Schopenhauer’s principium individuationis, alongside the will. As Dilthey pointed out on several different occasions, Schopenhauer — despite his repeated protests to the contrary — built upon Fichte’s earlier doctrine that the world stands counterposed to the self as a kind of simple substance. By fixating the will onto specific objects of desire, a multiplicity of ends is generated. Instrumental logic develops through the discovery of means adequate to the task of overcoming the resistance met in the world, seeking to secure one’s desired ends.
Framed slightly otherwise, there is something of the conventional English saying that “facts are stubborn things” in Dilthey’s notion of resistance as the ground for the reality of the world. Reality is initially graspable as a collection of facta bruta, as simply “the way things are” apart from volitional intentionality or rational agency (distinct from “how we’d like things to be”). “The experience of the perceptual object is connected by reflection to a lived experience deriving from the volitional attitude toward this object, namely, the experience of resistance, inability to alter it, pressure of the external world,” Dilthey wrote in separate tract. “For that which is perceived with the character of givenness resists; it cannot be altered; it exerts a pressure upon the subject.” In other words, the world is real and objective in that it does not empirically seem to conform to human interests. Its rhythms and regularities can be comprehended, of course, but this can happen only after its existence has first been accepted as a “matter-of-fact.” This then forms the bedrock of all further experiences: “All of us live, as it were, under the sum total of all experiences of resistance and pressure produced by objects that interact according to laws. In this tension between impulse and resistance we possess the fully reality of our self and of objects.”
Examining Dilthey’s words more closely, it becomes apparent that “resistance” is in his view a property of the world, maintaining itself in its present state of existence over and against the will of humanity. Here “resistance” is the obstinacy of the world to our conscious attempts to transform it. Dilthey’s contention that reality only becomes intelligible through the frustration of the will bears an obvious relation to the “reality principle” Freud would develop ten years later in his Interpretation of Dreams, and then yet again in his account of the transition beyond the pleasure principle. As with Dilthey, the experience of resistance in restraining the will (i.e., through the non-satisfaction of desire) plays a crucial role in the formation of the ego. “In so far as [life-experience] tames the id’s impulses, it replaces the pleasure principle…by the ‘reality principle,’ which, though it pursues the same final aims, takes into account the conditions imposed by the real external world,” held Freud. But several further consequences resulted from this insight. Freud also perspicaciously observed how this “reality principle” relates to humanity’s desire to change the world. “Later, the ego learns that there is yet another way of securing satisfaction besides…adaption to the external…it is also possible to intervene in the external world by changing it, and to establish in it intentionally the conditions which make satisfaction possible.”
However obscurely, I would like to propose that Dilthey’s notion of resistance — representing the implacability of the world against human action — reflected the nascent consciousness of Second International Marxism, which took shape in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Imbued with a feeling of unprecedented agency in light of the rapid growth of the international socialist workers’ movement against capitalism, the problem of resistance primarily confronted it as the question of how to prevail against the stubborn conservatism of the world. To be fair, Dilthey himself had made overtures in this direction when it came to the interpretation of world history — covering many of the same celebrated dates dealt with in Marxist literature. “[Glancing at] the greatest events of history, the rise of Christianity, the Reformation, the French Revolution, the national wars of liberation, we can apprehend it as the formation of a total force, which, moving in a single direction, overthrows all resistance,” Dilthey asserted elsewhere. “We will always find two kinds of forces cooperating. Some are tensions that consist of the feeling of urgent, unfulfilled needs, of longings of all kinds prompted by them, of an increase of frictions and struggles, and also of the consciousness of an insufficiency in the forces that can defend the status quo.” A comparable view prevailed among the Marxists of the Second International: resistance was a property of the old social order to be overcome.
Already in the passage from Freud cited above lurks a certain danger, however. The Darwinian language of “adaptation” and “evolution,” borrowed from the natural sciences, was all too often ham-fistedly transposed into the realm of the social sciences. Even in Dilthey’s own investigations of the human world, these categories were imported uncritically and casually misapplied. “[N]ature has enabled each living creature to adapt to its life conditions,” he wrote in that same essay on the reality of the external world. As a result of this view toward the adaptability of the social world to serve the needs of humanity, an evolutionary or incrementalist approach to social change emerges. Konrad Schmidt, an advocate of Bernstein’s program of reformism during the Second International, laid out this approach in his now-infamous 1898 article on “Final Goal and Movement”:
As unionism increases its influence over the regulation of production itself, the basic nature of capitalist property must necessarily change. By limiting his rights, this process tends to reduce the owner of capital more and more to the role of administrator, and it does this by confining the practices whereby he exploits the worker within increasingly narrow limits, thus progressively forcing capital to serve society, i.e. the rising working class. And the tendency of this…[is] to take the direction and administration of his business away from the capitalist, whose resistance is already weakened by his property’s depreciating value to himself that is, to the transition from social control of production to genuine socialization of the means of production?
Though Bernstein himself did not begin making widespread use of the Darwinian vocabulary until the opening years of the twentieth century, the conceptual underpinnings of his argument regarding capitalism’s ability to “adapt” or “evolve” were implicit from the start. Later he would spell out these connections explicitly, referring to Marxism as a “social theory based on the evolutionary principle.” “What Darwin discovered regarding the emergence of new forms and types of plants and animals,” Bernstein asserted, “Marx developed in the historical evolution of human society.” Marx’s deep personal admiration for Darwin notwithstanding, however, Bernstein’s characterization clearly distorted the dialectical and revolutionary foundations of his theory.
Rosa Luxemburg relentlessly criticized this revision to Marx’s revolutionary teachings. In her view, the very idea that capital could be progressively “adapted” to serve the interests of society was preposterous. The gradual “adaptation of capital” — which Bernstein argued would happen through cartels, credit, and trade unionism — would for Luxemburg only mean “the attenuation of the antagonism between capital and labor.” Such stratagems, she contended, would merely “suppress the contradictions of capitalism and consequently save the system from ruin, enabling capitalism to maintain itself.” Vladimir Lenin, likewise combating Bernsteinian tendencies in Russian Social-Democracy, observed that the reformists had by 1899 become enamored of “the idea that the working class, following ‘the line of least resistance,’ should confine itself to the economic struggle, while the ‘liberal opposition elements’ fight, with the ‘participation’ of the Marxists, for ‘legal reforms.’” Following Luxemburg’s thoughts on the matter, he argued that taking what appears to be “line of least resistance” might turn out be an illusory endeavor. Such half-measures would only scratch the surface of the problem, perhaps altering the legal and political superstructure while leaving the socioeconomic base — capital — more or less intact.
Either way, the real takeaway from this controversy is that the concept of “resistance” factored into these arguments as a property belonging to the given social world. More specifically, it was seen as something pertaining to those class interests that still clung to the outmoded bourgeois order. The primary question facing these authors was how this resistance could be most easily overcome. Little wonder, then, that Lenin would write in late December 1917, not even two months after seizing power, a fittingly-titled address on the “Fear of the Collapse of the Old and the Fight for the New” in which he identified the Bolsheviks’ most immediate task moving forward as “the suppression of capitalist resistance, and, consequently, by systematic application of coercion to an entire class (the bourgeoisie) and its accomplices.” This was, as he put it, the sole purpose of the dictatorship of the proletariat working through the medium of the state: to “break the resistance” of the capitalist class.
The revisionist debate that raged within Second International Marxism sets into relief a point that will be central in the discussion of the next principal mode of “resistance.” This regards the diremption of subject and object, the modern philosophical problematic par excellence. Just as in Dilthey’s treatment of the issue, using cognate terms like “self” and “world,” the crux of the matter lies in determining the relative (in)dependence of empirical reality vis-à-vis a self-conscious agent. At this point, however, a difference crops up concerning the order of reality in question. Whereas for Dilthey the exact character of the external world was less important, and remained underspecified as that which is resistant in general, here it is important to draw a line separating the reality of the natural world from the reality of the historical world.
In the case of the former, the world of “nature,” the reality in question is the homeostatic whole of all that physically exists. Immutable energies and mechanical laws — which can be quantified, verified, and observed through repeated experiments under controlled conditions — constitute the world of nature. Nature provides the raw material out of which the historical world is eventually formed. In the case of the latter, the world of “history,” the reality in question is the dynamic totality of all that has ever been shaped by human labor (along with the ideologies attached to it). Mutable forces and dialectical antagonisms — which defy any established norms, rigid formulae, and crude schematizations — regulate the world of history. History contrives for itself a “second nature” in society by transforming the natural world from which it arose.
Two principal figures of thought are relevant to the investigation of this “second nature”: Marx’s description of commodity fetishism in Capital and Lukács’ refinement of this notion in his excursus on the phenomenon of reification in History and Class Consciousness. In both cases, the present is pressed into the service of the past, which presents itself as timeless necessity. Entranced by the spell of the commodity-form — under its fetishistic aspect — the past cannot be comprehended as such. Fluid and historical relationships are frozen to the point where they confront society as solid and natural. This constitutes a reversal of the process capital first set into motion, whereby “all that is solid melts into air,” which Marx and Engels so famously laid out in the Manifesto. Proletarian consciousness, as Lukács argued at this early point, “is divided within itself…in a world where the reified relations of capitalism have the appearance of a natural environment.” With the advent of nearly universal commodity production, Marx contended, “the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race.”
Once it has fully come into its own, capitalism creates the conditions for what the younger Marx previously analyzed under the rubric of “alienation” in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and his collaboration with Engels on The German Ideology in 1846. Leaving aside the disputes about the ostensibly humanist residues these works contain, the underlying continuity between this analysis and themes from his later writings should at least be noted in passing. To begin with, there is “[t]he relation of the worker to the product of labor as an alien object exercising power over him,” which Marx contends “is at the same time the relation to the sensuous external world, to the objects of nature, as an alien world inimically opposed to him.” The paradox here is that humanity has in no small degree already substantially and irreversibly reshaped the world; the main issue at stake is that humanity has yet to do so consciously. Consequently, “man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him.” Because the “sensuous external world” to which referred Marx in these passages was society — the product of generations of human activity, an historical artifact and not the immediately given world of prehistoric nature — its “brute facts” and “laws of motion” are different from those discussed above. Lukács wrote:
[T]he ossifying quality of reified thought…is exemplified even more clearly in the facts than in the ‘laws’ that would order them. In the latter it is still possible to detect a trace of human activity, even though it often appears in a reified and false subjectivity. But in the ‘facts’ we find the crystallization of capitalist development into an impenetrable thing alienated from man…This alienation converts it into a foundation of reality that is perfectly self-evident…When confronted by the rigidity of these ‘facts’ every movement seems like a movement impinging on them.
It is this world, wherein “the laws of humanity’s own social action…[stand] face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him,” as Engels put it, that now demands our attention.