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 [1]. 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 [2].

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 [3] - 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 [4]. 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 law.

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 [5]. 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 [6]. Engels believed that due to these and other discoveries natural science itself can give a coherent picture of nature that demonstrates the qualitative indestructibility of motion.

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 Marxist sense.

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 [7]. 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 evolutionism.

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 [8].

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.


1. Kant, I. Kritika Chistogo Razuma [Critique of 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.: ROSSPEN. 1997.

8. Ilyenkov E.V. Dialekticheskaya Logika. Ocherki Istorii I Teorii [Dialectical Logic. Essays on History and Theory]. М.: Politizdat 1974.

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №9 - 2017

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