Principles of the Theory of Historical Process in Philosophy
by T.I Oizerman & A.S. Bogomolov

Reviewed by Ralph Dumain

This book is somewhat of a letdown. There is much valuable information in it, and some good ideas, but it is marred by the heavy schematism of the Marxist-Leninist style imposed upon Soviet writing with heavy quotationalism from Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Not all is polemics by any means, and there is a reasonable amount of sophistication regarding past philosophy; however it is important to know where the detailed level of critical examination reaches its limit. Thanks to Bogomolov, whose specialty is ancient philosophy, there is quite a bit of detail on the Greeks. The authors are attentive to the dynamics of competing philosophies with a fair amount of objectivity up to Hegel. This is not particularly surprising, as the Marxist historical approach is evolutionary, and hence each moment up to a certain point is allowed its dignity. However, as Hegel is held to be the culmination of pre-Marxist philosophy, and Marxism solves the problems Hegel could not, from this point forward the argument is general, schematic, and assumptive. The authors have some general criticisms of competing general trends, which for them include neopositivism (it seems roughly equivalent to what we call analytical philosophy), irrationalism, and neo-Thomism. They also admit of the present as they do for the past that the rational content of broadly dubious fundamental philosophical commitments should be respected and incorporated into a progressing body of knowledge, but they don't give details. Instead, they insist that Marxism-Leninism has successfully solved and integrated all the problems, including the relationship between philosophy and the special sciences.

Their systematic, historical materialist approach has its virtues. First, they are interested in the emergence of "philosophy" as a distinctive, recognizable entity out of general worldview, mythology and religion, with relationships to the state of scientific knowledge and general ideological needs of a given state of civilization. They name China, India, and Greece as the three major centers of emergence of philosophy proper. (They have little to say about the former two.) You can see from the contents more or less how they approach this question. Their historical analysis culminates in the section "The Moulding of Philosophy."

On the emergence, role, and fate of philosophy as a distinct systematic endeavor, the authors claim:

Philosophy is a system of convictions that forms a general theoretical outlook upon the world which comprehends, critically analyses, and generalises scientific knowledge, everyday practice, and historical experience, investigates the diversity of the forms of universality intrinsic in nature and society, and on that basis develops the principles of knowledge, evaluation, behaviour, and the practical activity in general with which people link their vital interests in different historical epochs.

The main concepts that our definition of philosophy was built up from have already been examined above. It remains for us in conclusion, simply to touch briefly on two moments not considered above. Philosophy is a system of definite convictions, and that distinguishes it from philosophic thought (reflection), which has its place in fragmentary form in any field of knowledge, artistic creation, or everyday life. Owing to this reflection the unity of philosophy with all forms of mental assimilation of the world, and the unsoundness of counterposing it to unphilosophic activity becomes obvious. Philosophy, of course, presupposes philosophic thought, but the latter also exists outside philosophy, and sometimes independently of it, which means that it is not just philosophers who think philosophically.

Philosophy must be regarded as a system not just because systematic exposition is characteristic of most philosophies. Some, on the contrary, are expounded fragmentarily, aphoristically, since their founders categorically rejected the concept of a philosophic system. Analysis of these doctrines nevertheless indicates that absence of the external signs of a system does no [sic] rule out the existence of premisses that agree with one another, and of philosophic deductions that also agree with them. The contradictions that are sometimes discovered in these feigned anti-systems are evidence in part of the inconsistency of their creators and partly of their attempts to overcome this inconsistency.

Dialectical materialism is the negation of traditional philosophic systems built up as closed systems of knowledge, once and for all completed, independent of the subsequent development of knowledge. The philosophic system created by Marxism is a developing system overcoming the limited character of each of the degrees of philosophic knowledge already attained. In that respect, consequently, the scientific, philosophic outlook on the world fully overcomes unsound counterposing of philosophy to scientific knowledge.

The unity of philosophic and special scientific inquiry, which could not be broken down by the centuries' old counterposing of philosophy to nonphilosophic inquiry, is convincingly demonstrated in the fact that philosophy constantly comprehends and tackles the most general epistemological problems of scientific quest. Philosophy performs a special ideological function that neither the individual, specific sciences nor the aggregate of concrete, scientific knowledge in general takes on, or can take on. [pp. 75-76]

The authors also insist that philosophy does progress, that is not merely an idiosyncratic grab-bag of irresolvable contradictory positions, a collection of independent conceptual systems engaged in atemporal eternal conversation or mutually isolated as incommensurable works of art, and they purport to analyze how this progress, however complex, takes place.

They also show more than usual sophistication for Marxist-Leninists on the fundamental struggle in philosophy between idealism and materialism. They do not condemn idealism as unequivocally reactionary, and in given historical periods it is even deemed more progressive than its contrary. However, a more in-depth analysis of these dynamics—certainly over the past century and a half—is needed.

They do, however, abjure the reduction of analysis of the dynamics of philosophical systems to the "basic philosophical question", i.e. the struggle between materialism and idealism:

Some of those involved in the discussion of the subject-matter of philosophy suggest that the basic philosophic question is becoming the sole subject-matter of philosophy as it 'hives off' sciences of nature and society, so limiting its problematic. That point of view has been expressed by Kopnin (with certain reservations, it is true):

The basic question of philosophy has always been the subject of philosophy, but it has appeared in different forms in different historical periods, and occupied a different place in philosophy. When philosophy was a system of views about the world and of concepts about the phenomena and patterns of its motion, and there was not yet differentiation of scientific knowledge, the basic question really was only one of the problems it was concerned with.

We cannot agree with that opinion because it is not supported (in our view) by a historical philosophic inquiry that demonstrates that philosophies that are demarcated from the sciences of nature and society have nothing in common, i.e. do not have the same object of inquiry. It is sufficient, for example, to compare the positivism of Comte and his followers and Feuerbach's philosophical anthropology, or any other doctrine taken at random (Hartmann's 'new ontology', the philosophy of linguistic analysis, personalism, etc.), to be convinced that each of them has its own specific range of matters, and its own special theme (which does not, incidentally, of course, exclude their common problems; they, however, are in the background, i.e. do not characterise them in a specific way). Only an abstract notion of the subject-matter of philosophy, a notion that in fact ignores the problematic that distinguishes one doctrine from another, can be satisfied by a statement that they have a common object of inquiry and that they differ from one another only in their different answers to one and the same question.

The problematic of dialectical materialism differs essentially from that of modem idealist philosophy, from which it is also obvious that it is quite unjustified to reduce the subject-matter of philosophy to one basic question, or even several major ones. It is also important to stress that dialectical materialism is concerned with investigating problems posed by non-Marxist doctrines. There are problems and themes that are common to various (even opposing) philosophies, just as there are essentially different, sometimes even incompatible, philosophic themes and problems. One can therefore establish only a relative, common element in the object of inquiry, mainly within the context of the same trend or current, or (in other words) a common interest in one and the same objects. This heterogeneity of the subject-matter of philosophy is not simply due to its having undergone certain changes historically. In each period there has not only been a different understanding of this subject-matter in the various, opposing doctrines, but also an actual difference in the real object of inquiry. We are far from wanting to exaggerate these differences; to underestimate them, however, means to, veil the fundamental divergences, oppositions, and contradictions within philosophy. [pp. 84-85]

Philosophy, unlike other scientific fields, is perpetually engaged in struggles over its own definition and relationship to the special sciences:

Many scientists consider definition of the subject of their science to be a secondary, even inessential matter. A science's development does not, of course, depend on whether there is a generally accepted definition of its subject, but, to how far its development raises a need to inquire into its theoretical foundations, a definition of its subject becomes one of the conditions for its further fruitful development. Philosophy is constantly inquiring into its own premisses and foundations, and its own position in the system of scientific knowledge. It is therefore specially necessary to comprehend the subject of its inquiry.

While irreconcilably opposed, mutually exclusive philosophic systems exist, there can be no generally accepted definition of the subject-matter of philosophy—either descriptive or normative. That does not, however, imply that it is impossible to define the concept of philosophy (although it, too, as is seen from the foregoing, presents considerable difficulties). It would be an error to identify definition of the concept of philosophy with definition of its subject-matter. The latter is conceivable only as a dialectical surmounting, a positive rejection of an unlimited variety of possible objects of inquiry. As for the former, it has, on the contrary, to show this diversity (including the diversity of doctrines), since it characterises the more than 2,000-year evolution of philosophy. From that angle the definition of the concept of philosophy formulated in the previous section can be supplemented by the following explanatory one:

philosophy is inquiry into the fundamental diversity of the universal whole of reality independent of humanity, and of reality transformed by man and human activity, and of their mutual relation, unity, and basis from a standpoint of historically determined interests and sense of values.

The diversity of philosophic doctrines convincingly demonstrates that the subject-matter of philosophy is not amenable to rigid delimitation. Each doctrine limits its investigative tasks to a context set by the historical situation, the situation in science, and the character of the clashes in philosophy of its time. The line between philosophy and the special sciences, which excluded problems from philosophy that had become their subject by no means signified that philosophy rejected examination of the general problems that were divided among the sciences and so converted into special problems tackled by special methods. These general questions do not always drop out of philosophy; some of them retain their significance in that field. The psyche, for example, became the subject of a special science, psychology, but the problem of the psychic (consciousness, the unconscious) still engages philosophy. It is occupied with this problem now, of course, on the basis of the data of psychology, neurophysiology, and other sciences, and singles out its specifically philosophic, in particular epistemological content. [pp. 86-87]

All these schematic statements are welcome, but, as I have suggested, they are not put into practice in analyzing the past century and a half of philosophical development following Marx's appearance on the scene.

Chapter 4 is provides a valuable outline of the development of the history of philosophy within philosophy from the ancient Greeks to Hegel. The climax of this chapter is an evaluation of Hegel's theory of the history of philosophy, with an analysis of the contradictions within it [esp. pp. 228-234, 237-239].

Chapter 5 is the authors' analytical foundation for understanding the history of philosophy as an historical process. I summarized my reactions in the first paragraph. This chapter includes criticism of the various arguments as to the non-progressive nature of philosophy [see, e.g., views of Dilthey et al, pp. 264-267].

The bulk of their argument that interests me can be found in the final section of this chapter, "Continuity and Progress in the Development of Philosophies." Here they sketch out some very interesting themes: evolution of the opposition between materialism and idealism within doctrines [pp. 281-283]; negation vs. continuity (tradition) in philosophical succession [pp. 287-292], the path of progress through the succession of philosophical problematics [pp. 300-304], the historical variability of progressive or reactionary tendencies of philosophical tendencies and schools (e.g., circumstances in which idealism was more progressive than materialism) [306-310].

Here again, after Marx, the tenor changes. Bourgeois philosophy is seen to decline in the 19th and 20th century, as neither neopositivism nor existentialism nor Neo-Thomism adequately addresses the needs of the present [314-317].

The historical opposition of philosophy to non-philosophy is linked to class antagonisms [p. 319]. Marxism dialectically negates philosophy in the traditional sense of the word, assimilates its positive content, and overcomes opposition to non-philosophic theory (including science) and practice [321]. The overcoming of this opposition is analyzed in greater detail later in the chapter [332-335].

Some of this material is worth quoting (note the page references), and is relevant to the conclusions I draw below.

Evaluating this, I would say that the triumph of Marxism is announced summarily with inadequate concrete development to show precisely how it achieves what it does in interaction with competing trends and the knowledge of the day. The very nature of Soviet bureaucracy is of course at the root of this schematism, itself representing suppressed antagonistic social relations and imposing them via ideological schematization, blocking needed further concretization.

Because of my recent interest in the peculiarities of the history of schools of thought (intellectual traditions) and their (non-)interaction with one another, I see room for improvement here. I see three key areas to further development:

(1) Struggle of idealism and materialism, or the underlying logic of fundamental tensions within philosophies (or schools) rather than between them. While the authors hint at a non-simplistic approach, they do not develop it sharply enough. The inner logic of tensions within a system is also a key to the extraction of its rational content and the overcoming of its obstructive ideological content. (Idiosyncratic as I am in these matters, I have always regarded Nietzsche as an amalgam of materialistic and idealistic tendencies, for example.)

(2) Pecularities of the development of intellectual traditions, their trajectories, and (non- or partial) interaction one with another, and the implications for the difficult integration of knowledge. I have covered this at length in my ongoing reviews of various schools over the past several months—American philosophy (Roy Wood Sellars, Dewey, Soviet historiography of American philosophy), the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse), etc. I have yet to write up my comparative analysis of Dewey's Reconstruction in Philosophy and Marcuse's Reason and Revolution, but my analysis of the underlying dynamics of these works and the intellectual traditions from which they emerged will be very instructive.

(3) Idiosyncratic, individual philosophies or underground traditions beyond the radar screen of the recognized systematic stream of philosophy / philosophical history. Also, the re-incorporation of mythopoeic elements under conditions of modernity. This is way beyond the authors' purview, but here I submit William Blake as the paradigmatic example of the idiosyncratic, underground, substantively mythopoeic philosopher, self-educated, standing outside of official society and official philosophy and opposed to the whole established tradition of western philosophy. E.P. Thompson is a rare, perspicacious example of someone who questioned basic assumptions about intellectual traditions, trying to prove that Blake can be partially explained on the basis of a different reservoir of intellectual sources from the educated class. However, the issue goes beyond Thompson, because one must explain how one accomplishes something radically new and modern from a traditional and seemingly conservative set of materials. Some dictionaries and encyclopedias of philosophy have included Blake, though he is not normally counted among the ranks of philosophers. However, as I recall, all one gets are bare statements of some basic ideas without any hint of the underlying dynamics that might motivate them. The real basis of Blake' s opposition to empiricism and his much-misunderstood anti-scientific remarks constitute a prime example. But, as critics seem to limit themselves to analyzing myth and symbolism without delving into an underlying logic beneath myth and symbolism, I think they are missing the radical, historical significance of some of Blake's positions. The first conspicuous example that comes to mind is Blake's counterposition of the Christian forgiveness of sins to the moral virtues great and small enumerated by the Greeks. I don't think anyone sufficiently appreciates how radical this is, though Christianity is used as an ideological base. And I think this is because people see the Christian doctrine and don't think about what it might mean other than what it obviously does. But it is a radical negation of the entire moral/ethical economy of all of human societies from primitive man through contemporaneous class society. Kant looked to the starry heavens above and the moral law within. Blake, knowing nothing of Kant, opposed both, and spat on the entire tradition of western philosophy. Good for him! Still, the position of Blake in the universe of knowledge presents a profound question that has yet to be definitively addressed, but which adds a new dimension to the understanding of traditions, accumulated knowledge, systematic thought, idiosyncratic use of information, uneven development, the division of labor and intellectual work.

In sum, one can gain an overall perspective from this book that is helpful for understanding the historical dynamic of philosophical systems, a perspective one is unlikely to find in the philosophical literature of capitalist countries. The authors' schematism, though, limits analyzing with sufficient specificity developments over the past 150 years, including developments within Marxism (which is a much wider field of inquiry than the Soviet version). Removing the constraints mandated by Soviet Marxism-Leninism would help in developing the authors' substantive achievement into new territory.


"The goal of Stalinism is to make yourself anonymous."
  — R. Dumain to Jim Murray, 28 June 2003

Written 23-24 October 2003, revised 2 November 2003

Principles of the Theory of Historical Process in Philosophy
by T.I Oizerman & A.S. Bogomolov

2003 Reading Review

Problems of the History of Philosophy (Extracts) by Theodore Oizerman

Problems of the History of Philosophy by Theodore Oizerman, review by Ralph Dumain

Dialectical Materialism and the History of Philosophy (Extracts) by Theodore Oizerman

The Main Trends in Philosophy (Contents) by T. I. Oizerman

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Philosophy of History of Philosophy & Historiography of Philosophy: Selected Bibliography


Problems of the History of Philosophy by Theodore Oizerman
(entire book online)

The Problem of the Scientific Philosophical World-Outlook by T. I. Oizerman

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