Is Marxist ontology possible?
Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №9 - 2017
Mareev Sergei, Modern Academy for Humanities, Moscow, Russia
Mareeva Elena, Moscow International Higher Business School MIRBIS (Institute), Russia
Ontology as a division of philosophy originated in pre-Kantian
philosophy and became the main part of Christian Wolff’s metaphysics. In
addition to ontology, Wolff's metaphysics included rational theology, which
studied God, and rational psychology, which studied the soul. But, as is known,
Immanuel Kant in his "Critique of Pure Reason" raised the question of
whether metaphysics is possible as a rigorous science, and answered it negatively:
no, it is impossible . Metaphysical questions and their possible solutions,
according to Kant, are beyond all possible experience. Speculation as a way of
solving these problems inevitably gets entangled in insoluble contradictions,
or "antinomies," as Kant calls them. In other words, our feelings
cannot penetrate beyond the surface of phenomena and comprehend the essence of
things. Then, philosophers rely on speculation,
which is able to develop concepts about the essence of the surrounding reality.
This is the way of developing of metaphysics, including ontology as a system of
abstract judgments about the essence of the world as a whole. But they turn out
to be hollow, as Kant describes them, that is, they are not filled with
any experience. Kant's conclusion is that it is empiricism that
limits our mind.
Even earlier, John Locke posed a similar question about natural
philosophy, and similarly, though presumably, answered it negatively. Natural
philosophy creates a general picture of nature based on the same kind of
speculation unlike experimental natural science, but it makes sense only when
natural sciences are unable to build an integral scientific picture of the
natural world. Natural philosophy is capable of borrowing knowledge from these
sciences, but only to reinforce them with its speculative constructs. Having in mind the natural philosophical systems
of his time, Locke evaluated them negatively because of the weakness of our
mind, limited by experience and description, which makes us suspect that the
philosophy of nature cannot be turned into a special science at all .
If Locke rejected natural philosophy because of the “weakness” of
our mind, Friedrich Engels put forward slightly different arguments against
natural philosophy. As soon as each
individual science finds its place in the universal connection of things and
knowledge about things, the special science of this universal connection
becomes superfluous. Natural philosophy is deprived of its subject. At the same
time, according to Engels, only the doctrine of thought and its laws - formal
logic and dialectics  - preserves its independent existence. Everything else
is in fact included into the positive study of nature and history.
Thus, according to Engels, the theoretical worldview in the
nineteenth century does not manifest itself in a particular "science of
sciences", but in those actual sciences that give us an objective picture
of the world. And any time, when it comes to the "end of philosophy,"
Engels asserts that "only the realm of pure thought" is preserved
only in “the doctrine of the laws of the process of thinking, in logic and
dialectics”. But is that philosophy?
So, Kant undermined the authority of metaphysics. Hegel, as Marx and
Engels believed, completely destroyed it. In
his work “Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy”
Friedrich Engels writes that philosophy ends with Hegel completely . Marxist
philosophy, following Kant and Hegel, excludes both metaphysics with ontology
as its part, and natural philosophy another historical form of speculative
knowledge. Metaphysics turns out to be groundless in its subject matter. But in
Soviet philosophy metaphysics was also criticized for a special method that,
since Hegel's time, was called “metaphysical”. The metaphysician, as described
by Engels in his “Anti-Duhring”, sees the world and things unchanged and
frozen, and explores them one after another and independently of one another.
At the same time, he thinks with direct opposites: either yes or no. For the
metaphysics, the thing exists or does not exist, the positive and the negative
qualities absolutely exclude each other. Hegel,
nevertheless, preserved natural philosophy in his philosophical system, which,
like metaphysics, filled the “white spots” in natural science with speculation.
It was, so to speak, an analogue of metaphysics based on dialectical method.
Natural philosophy of Schelling is known to refer to a number of
consecutive natural forms: mechanism - chemism - organism, and according to
Schelling we can get to the island of the spirit only with “a jump”. It is
known that naturalists were astonished with the image of nature in the natural
philosophy of the “early” Schelling. But already in the second half of the
nineteenth century, Engels insists that the whole picture of the world, its
generalized image, should not be given not by a particular natural philosophy
as the “science of sciences”, but by a system of positive sciences united by
immanent transitions. Sciences themselves, rather than natural philosophy,
should demonstrate how mechanics turns into physics, physics into chemistry,
chemistry into biology, and biology into sociology, i.e. into the science about
society and a man. These transitions must be
carried over not by the transfer of laws, say, biology to sociology, but by
their dialectical removal (Aufheben), which assumes simultaneously the rejection
of the laws of biology, instinct and reflex, and their replacement by a moral
The transition of one science to another was adequately realized in
science with the discovery of the law of conservation and transformation of
energy. Energy is transformed from
mechanical into physical, then into the chemical, biological and, finally, into
social. The classification of the basic forms
of the motion of matter, which Engels describes in his “Dialectics of Nature”,
is connected with transition. According to Engels, modern natural science had
to borrow from philosophy the statement about indestructibility of motion;
natural science cannot exist now without this proposition . But the indestructibility
of motion must be understood not only in quantitative, but also in a qualitative
sense. And this understanding in the XIX century is not given by philosophy.
Now we do not have a natural philosophical system created by a philosopher. In
this connection, Engels points to three great natural sciencediscoveries of the mid-19th century: the law of conservation and transformation of energy,
the discovery of the cell as the main unit of life and C. Darwin's theory of
the origin of species . Engels believed
that due to these and other discoveries natural science itself can give a
coherent picture of nature that demonstrates the qualitative indestructibility
So, since the XIX century people of science were already quite
consciously against metaphysical and natural philosophical ideas, which in fact
prevented a real understanding of nature. The liberation of science from
natural philosophy is a great progress. In what way could philosophy be useful
now to science, which, according to Engels, under new conditions preserved only
the doctrine of the laws of thought itself, that is, logic and dialectics? The
history of Soviet philosophy demonstrates two opposite answers to this
question, which was expressed in the opposition of dialectical logic of E.V.
Ilyenkov and the so-called Soviet “diamat” (dialectic materialism). In both
cases, it was a question of materialistic dialectics and its development in a
Everything began with the understanding of the dialectic philosophy
of Marxism by the prominent theoretician A.M. Deborin. In his understanding of
dialectics, Deborin was a head taller than his opponents in the discussions of
the 1920s and 1930s. Deborin, we should give him a credit, tried to turn
philosophers who clustered around his magazine “Under the Banner of Marxism” to
the “society of materialistic friends of Hegelian dialectics”, but they still
understood dialectics “not according to Hegel”. Deborin remained a student of
G.V. Plekhanov and his dialectics shared all the weaknesses and shortcomings of
Plekhanov’s dialectics, which was understood not as logic and the theory of
knowledge, but rather as “ontology”, for which Lenin criticized Plekhanov in
his “Philosophical Notebooks”. And what is the way metaphysics and ontology of
dialectics inevitably become transcendent, abstract, etc., that is, it
completely changes its nature. Metaphysics
again rises above other sciences, differing from them not so much in its
special subject as in its special status. The official criticism of the metaphysical
method of thinking is combined with it in practice.
The heirs of the Plekhanian and-Deborinian understanding of
dialectics were the “diamat” activists of the times of the Soviet stagnation.
And the metaphysical character of understanding dialectics was manifested in
them in a brighter form, compared to the Deborin’s school.
In understanding of dialectics as a logic and theory of knowledge,
they constantly imagined the specter of idealism. They understood materialism
as a kind of materialistic metaphysics in the manner of the French of the 18th
century, i.e. as a “Systems of Nature” of Holbach, “Systems of the World” of Laplace and so on. In general, the so-called “Soviet diamat”, although it was rooted mainly
in the Stalin era, in its historical genealogy, even terminology, comes from
the Plekhanov’s branch of Marxism, and not from Leninism. And therefore, it is
not by chance that in the years of undivided dominance of “diamat” in Soviet
“philosophy, Lenin's understanding of dialectics in “Philosophical Notebooks”
was shyly concealed . But Lenin was presented in philosophy as a “diamat”
supporter, and at the center of this understanding was “Lenin's definition of
matter”, although this is by no means the main thing in Leninism.
As a result, in “diamat” dialectic evolved, on the one hand, into a
banality such as “everything develops”, and, on the other, into eerie
scholasticism around the “system of categories of materialistic dialectics”.
And in both cases, “diamat” claimed to “help” natural sciences in creating a
comprehensive scientific picture of the world. At
the same time, the proposed “general theory of development” was, rather,
evolutionary than revolutionary, which later merged with modern global
But when E.V. Ilyenkov spoke out against dialectics, understood as
the “general theory of development”, he was accused of being “against science”.
But Ilyenkov started with this and ended with it: his own subject of philosophy
is thinking. He led this line to the very
end: the main thing is to develop a thinking ability, and this ability
like a man himself can be developed. He is always the product of his own
activity. If this is not so, then philosophy is not needed: who can think, he
thinks, and who cannot, no philosophy can help. The subject of philosophy is
thinking, and therefore it makes sense, above all, as logic and the theory of
knowledge after it loses its meaning as an ontology and natural philosophy. And
in this capacity, in fact, there remains the need for a real study of
philosophy, even for naturalists. But logic
is not narrowly understood here as Aristotelian formal logic or the theory of
knowledge of the New Age. It is dialectical logic, which studies the universal
objective forms of thinking. In this sense, philosophy turns out to be equal
among other sciences. Possessing a special methodological content, it does not
rise above them, as it was with the “general theory of development” in the
official Soviet version of Marxism-Leninism .
The most fruitful approach to any theoretical problem according to
Ilyenkov is a historical approach. In other words, every phenomenon must be
analyzed, first of all, at the point of its historical origin. And although
this approach was also supported by “diamat” activists, none of them bothered
to pinpoint the conditions under which dialectics historically arose. Here, as
in many other things, the vulgar concept of partisanship was fatal: Plato is an
idealist, and therefore he cannot do anything good. Approximately the same
attitude was to Hegel.
Philosophy lives only in its own history, this is in fact the only
way of its existence, since all the subsequent here exists only through its
predecessor. Prior events are not discarded by the succeeding, but are carried
out within them it. We must go through the steps of development of the
universal spirit. And there is no other way than this ascent. In other words,
there must be at least a minimal history of the human thought development for
dialectics to become possible. Therefore, in the history of ancient philosophy
proper dialectics appears only in Plato. Idealism was a necessary prerequisite
and form of the manifestation of dialectics. Plato, the “prince of dialectics”,
understood dialectics as the ability, as the “art” to rise to the true being
from that “deceitful” being that directly appears to our senses.
Ilyenkov, in fact, is the first to describe the ascent from the
abstract to the concrete in his book “Dialectics of the Abstract and the
Concrete in Marx's Capital” (1960). And this is understandable, given that the
classical dialectics, coming from Plato, is an ascent. On the contrary, the
“diamat” supporters who studied dialectics neither according to Plato nor
according to Hegel, did not understand the idea of ascent, or attempt to
interpret it in a formal or empirical sense.
Soviet academics of philosophy shyly concealed the central idea of
Engels about the relation of philosophy and science. And they strongly
criticized Ilyenkov for the same idea. The
return of ontology to Marxism began already in G.V. Plekhanov’s and A.M.
Deborin’s works and continued in the Soviet “diamat”. Now, especially in the
education system, we openly returned to the pre-Kantian metaphysics and ontology.
In its content, this is, as a rule, “dialectical materialism”, and in its form
this is knowledge derived from the idealist ontology of Christian Wolff. This
return of ontology to our philosophy has its own social causes, which need to
be discussed separately.
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Practical Reason] / A collection of works in six volumes. М.: Mysl. 1964. V.3.
2. Locke, J. Opyt o Chelovecheskom Razumenii [Of
the Conduct of the Understanding] / A collection of works in three volumes.
М.: Mysl, 1985. V.2.
3. Engels, F. Antiduring [Anti-Dühring] / Karl Marx and
Friedrich Engels. A Collection of Works. 2nd Ed. Gospolitizdat,
1961. V. 20.
4. Engels, F. Ludvik Feierbakh i Konets
Klassicheskoi Nemetskoi Filosofii [Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of the
Classical German Philosophy] / A Collection of Works. 2nd Ed.
Gospolitizdat, 1961. V. 21.
5. Engels, F. Dialektika Prirody [Dialectics of
Nature] / Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. A Collection of Works. 2nd Ed. Gospolitizdat, 1961. V. 20.
6. Lenin V.I. Filosofskiye Tetradi [Philosophical
Notebooks] / Full collection of works. 5th ed.. М.: Politizdat, 1969. V. 29.
7. Ilyenkov E.V. Dialektika Abstraktnogo i
Konkretnogo v Nauchno-teoretiches-kom Myshlenii [Dialectics of the Abstract
and Concrete in Scientific Theoretical Thinking]. М.:
8. Ilyenkov E.V. Dialekticheskaya Logika. Ocherki
Istorii I Teorii [Dialectical Logic. Essays on History and Theory]. М.:
Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №9 - 2017