Dialectics and historical reality

Dialectics is not some sort of thought-trick or rhetorical sleight-of-hand, let alone the so-called “epistemological magic-key to revolutionary tactics or theory.” Of course, I don’t doubt that more than a handful of people (ab)use dialectics in this way. But this is true of practically every discourse, some more than others. There’s literally almost no end to jargon and the obfuscatory use of concepts. But where a feeble mind like Eugen Dühring dismissed Marx as someone “deeply bitten with the Hegelian pestilence,” seeing his dialectics as mere “verbal jugglery,” closer inspection would have revealed an actual content to what Marx was saying. More attention still would have disclosed a rationale as well behind his way of saying it.

Honestly, I’m not even sure something like epistemology is useful to politics, since arguably we’re only able to know the world insofar as we’re able to change it. Joseph Dietzgen, Theodor Adorno, and Alfred Sohn-Rethel critiqued epistemology along precisely these lines. Marx’s own Theses on Feuerbach (1845) set out to articulate this peculiar epistemological quandary and the conditions for its historical supersession. Turning prior materialist philosophies on their head, Marx wrote:

I. The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism — that of Feuerbach included — is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism — which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.

II. The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice.

This provides the basis for Marxism’s dialectical methodology. “Truth” is not a matter of passive consumption, whether intuited sensuously or conceptualized contemplatively. Rather, objective truth can only be attained only through humanity’s active participation in its own self-transformation.  Continue reading

Contra Comte

In Aspects of Sociology, a primer in social theory released by the Institute for Social Research (often referred to as the Frankfurt School), Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer explain the bastard etymology of the term “sociology” and its origin in the positive philosophy of Auguste Comte:

The word “sociology” — science of society — is a malformation, half Latin, half Greek. The arbitrariness and artificiality of the term point to the recent character of the discipline. It cannot be found as a separate discipline within the traditional edifice of science. The term itself was originated by Auguste Comte, who is generally regarded as the founder of sociology. His main sociological work, Cours de philosophie positive, appeared in 1830-1842.The word “positive” puts precisely that stress which sociology, as a science in the specific sense, has borne ever since. It is a child of positivism, which has made it its aim to free knowledge from religious belief and metaphysical speculation. By keeping rigorously to the facts, it was hoped that on the model of the natural sciences, mathematical on the one hand, empirical on the other, objectivity could be attained. According to Comte, the doctrine of society had lagged far behind this ideal. He sought to raise it to a scientific level. Sociology was to fulfill and to realize what philosophy had striven for from its earliest origins. (Aspects of Sociology, pg. 1)

Somewhere I remember hearing the quip that the term “sociology” was such an ugly combination that only a Frenchman could have concocted it. Not sure who was supposed to have said it, or if it factually took place, but there seems to be a ring of truth to the assertion. Anyway, Adorno points out in his lecture course Introduction to Sociology that “Marx had a violent aversion to the word ‘sociology,’ an aversion that may have been connected to his very justified distaste for Auguste Comte, on whom he pronounced the most annihilating judgment” (Introduction to Sociology, pg. 143). Continue reading