Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy

Maurice Cornforth



The Dialectical Materialist Approach


THE fundamental disagreement between Marxism and the linguistic philosophy is not a disagreement between rival systems of philosophical statements—for neither the one nor the other is such a "system". In what, then, does the disagreement consist?

This disagreement does not preclude a measure of agreement on a number of important points. Both agree that knowledge about nature and society, about mankind and the world we inhabit, is to be won only by empirical means, with nothing known a priori and everything subject to the tests which scientific method exacts. Both agree in rejecting speculative philosophical theories of the sort which say, as Wittgenstein put it, "it must be like this". And for both there remains nothing of the old types of philosophical investigation which sought to determine "the nature of the world" in advance of the detailed discoveries of the empirical sciences. For both, therefore, the only part which remains of the inquiries philosophers traditionally made independently of the empirical sciences is that which falls within the domain of logic.

The first philosopher to announce this conclusion was Friedrich Engels, who wrote in the first chapter of Anti‑Dühring: "What still independently survives of all former philosophy is the science of thought and its laws—formal logic and dialectics. Everything else is merged in the positive science of nature and history." It is interesting to compare this statement with what Bertrand Russell was to say a quarter of a century later, in the Tarner Lectures of 1914: "Every philosophical problem, when it is subjected to the necessary analysis and purification, is either found to be not philosophical at all, or else to be . . . logical." By calling a problem "not philosophical at all" he meant that its answer depended on some empirical investigation. And from Russell's saying that logic is "the essence of philosophy" eventually ensued the conclusion drawn by linguistic philosophers that the independent province of philosophy is inquiry into "the logic of our language".

The special character of the linguistic philosophy lies in its specialisation. It continues to regard philosophy as a specialised discipline, that can be pursued independently of every other, with its own special questions and special ways of answering them. These special questions are "logical" ones, which means, among other things, that empirical methods of investigation and test are inappropriate to them—hence philosophy's independence of the empirical sciences. But they are so formulated as to exclude what Engels referred to by using the word "dialectics". Russell began by thinking of special philosophical questions as of the form "What exactly do we mean by so-and-so?" When linguistic philosophers had subjected such questions to "the necessary analysis and purification" they eventually emerged as questions about the actual uses of language.

Philosophy is accordingly pursued with no other aim than simply to settle these very special "logical-philosophical" questions. That is alleged, by some at least, to be a socially very rewarding pursuit. Thus (although he said later that the linguistic philosophers had overdone the specialisation of philosophy) Russell concluded his History of Western Philosophy (1946) by claiming: "The habit of careful veracity acquired in the practice of this philosophical method can be extended to the whole sphere of human activity, producing, wherever it exists, a lessening of fanaticism with an increasing capacity of sympathy and mutual understanding. In abandoning a part of its dogmatic pretensions, philosophy does not cease to suggest and inspire a way of life." But this alleged application of specialised logical-philosophical inquiry is entirely extrinsic to the aims of the inquiry itself. And in any case, as the record shows, the actual clarification of the moral and political problems of contemporary society by specialist philosophers has not been impressive.

For Marxism, on the other hand, the aim of philosophy—and for Marxism philosophy is a living activity and not a fossilised doctrine—is to deal with the problems coming up out of our contemporary social life which we, who by now have found out so much by the practice of empirical inquiry, have to face as a result of the advances of science and technology. The aim is to arrive at theoretical clarifications which are of practical value for human life—for formulating human purposes and ways and means of realising them. Such clarifications, of course, cannot be of the finalised or dogmatic variety: they can be arrived at only to be tested in practice as the starting point for further clarifications. For Marxism, in short, the aims of philosophy are out in the wide world, and not enclosed in the study or the lecture room.

It may he said that that means only that Marxism and linguistic philosophers are using the word "philosophy" to stand for different things. The only disagreement is that we each try to do something different but use the same word for it. Such an easy mode of reconciliation will not do, however. For the specialised linguistic philosophy has reached the conclusion that the wider aims of philosophy are formulated only as a result of misunderstanding the logic of our language. Under whatever name they may go, the aims proposed by Marxists for philosophy are said to be illusory ones. And of all the aims those generally called "philosophers" have ever set themselves, the only ones not based on misunderstandings are said to be the specialised ones of investigating the logic of our language. The disagreement is about philosophy and not merely about the use of the word "philosophy". Marxism is not concerned to challenge any particular analytic description of uses of language made by linguistic philosophers. On the contrary, many of these detailed analyses are very accurate. But the linguistic philosophy, with its therapy for theories, opposes Marxism by saying that the sort of philosophy on which Marxism relies, the formulation of the dialectical materialist approach to understanding the world and our place in it, cannot be done at all.

The specialised philosopher's philosophy has become played out. All that is left of it is an investigation of language, producing, as we have seen, some very useful points of logic incapsulated within a great deal of confusion. In specialising in logical questions philosophers forgot the truth of which Russell has reminded them: "A philosophy which is to have any value should be built upon a wide and firm foundation of knowledge that is not specifically philosophical . . . philosophy cannot be fruitful if divorced from empirical sciences." Because logical questions are the only ones conclusions about which do not rely on empirical techniques of investigation, it does not in the least follow that the questions of philosophy are exclusively logical, or that there are not questions of philosophy, distinct from the questions of particular empirical sciences, for which the findings of the sciences are relevant. As Engels so carefully put it, questions of logic (and dialectics) are the only ones surviving from philosophies which tried to decide "the nature of the world" independently of the sciences; but that is not to say that they are the only questions of philosophy.

The attitude of the specialist‑philosophy was typified in Wittgenstein's statement that the theory of evolution has no particular relevance to philosophy. "The Darwinian theory has no more to do with philosophy than has any other hypothesis of natural science" (Tractatus, 4.1122). But the philosophy for which the discovery of evolution and its mechanism has no particular relevance is, if not completely obscurantist, at least completely irrelevant to human welfare and human understanding.

Jean‑Paul Sartre has said that Marxism is "the contemporary philosophy". And that it is, in opposition to both the older philosophy and to the linguistic philosophy which claims to dispose of the older kind. But Marxism cannot be understood, criticised or practised unless one understands that as the contemporary philosophy it works on a new and contemporary conception of philosophy itself. For while there is historical continuity of philosophy, at the same time its questions, aims and relations with other branches of inquiry change, and change profoundly, in the course of historical development, under the influence of the development of technology and the sciences, and of social change.

For Marxism, philosophy is not a separate discipline, it is not a speciality with its own special subject matter or problems or premises. It is not distinguished from other kinds of inquiry by having for its subject matter some particular aspect of things, or by philosophers asking peculiar questions which do not interest other people, or by its making its own startling discoveries (such as that everything is different from what most people have generally believed, or that queer things exist which most people have never dreamed of). But that does not mean that Marxism is content to "leave everything as it is". Very much the contrary!

For Marxism, philosophy is that kind or branch of inquiry which is concerned with criticising, analysing, connecting and making consistent the fundamental concepts employed in different fields of inquiry (concepts of both method and object), with the aim of arriving at a well‑founded conception of the human condition and of human potentiality and purpose. Such a philosophy is quite indispensable in the contemporary world, because of the contemporary stage of development of the sciences and technology, and because of the contradictions set up in contemporary social relations and contemporary ideas of life and how to live it. It is indispensable as an element for creating solidarity and common purpose, and waging the struggle for human progress.

Marxists do not agree with confining philosophy to a technical procedure of what Wittgenstein called "the logical clarification of thoughts”, or, as he said later on, to describing "the actual use of language". Nor is it a specialised technique with which only specialists are concerned, but an activity which concerns everyone, and of which everyone may judge the results.

The chief evil accruing from the specialisation of philosophy, which culminates with the linguistic philosophy, is that it makes the conception of the human condition and of human purpose at once everyone's business and no one's business. And so it turns thinking on the subject into something alien to and divorced from scientific method and the qualities of scientific rigour and precision. This is then the field for do‑gooders and crafty theologians, for impractical idealists and scheming politicians. Philosophy leaves it all to them.

There is need for a clean break, not with any particular line of theorising—for there is no theory left to break with—but with the whole idea of the specialisation of philosophy. There is need to reinstate the old aim of constructing "a world outlook"; but not as a speculation and not as a dogma, not as a theory that “it must be like this", and not only for the sake of satisfying the desire of a few individuals for understanding, but as a social methodology for so understanding human life as to be able to give it a value and purpose for each and for all.


The central achievement of Marx was to apply scientific method to the understanding of man and society. The foundation of the Marxist view of humanity and human relations and purposes lies simply in applying scientific method.

Science, or employment of scientific method, is self‑supporting, self-justificatory, autonomous. It does not need any independent philosophical foundation, by reference to any collection of first principles or axioms carrying a supposedly more authoritative assurance with them than belongs to science itself. For the practice of science—that is to say, its whole development as an organised social activity for finding out about what concerns us—is its own justification. When something has been investigated in a scientific way, then superstitions about it, or merely superficial descriptions, are thereby demonstrated to be superstitions or superficialities. As to how well founded a scientific discovery or conclusion may be, the appeal is to the investigation itself and its applications, and not to any general philosophy, or any collection of general principles, supposedly known independently of and prior to the investigation, by reference to which the investigation itself is to be judged. To be sure, it is always possible to criticise an investigation, or particular steps in it, as being in some way unscientific or not up to standard; and in point of fact, most investigations have to be subjected to such criticism, as a result of which faults are found and fresh investigation is begun. But the standards of criticism are themselves developed in the course of scientific investigation. They may be formulated as principles of scientific method (though no such formulation is ever complete or final); but they are not arrived at independently of the practice of the sciences or introduced into scientific practice from outside.

This, incidentally, is why it is often and notoriously quite difficult to "refute" anyone who maintains such propositions as that the earth is flat, or that species have not evolved, or that social ideas and institutions do not reflect class struggles. For it is very easy to assert such propositions and to quote a lot of familiar experience to support them. But the demonstration that they are erroneous depends on a great deal of painstaking work done by a great many people. Hence even the rudiments of a scientific outlook are the product only of a very long process of social endeavour, and its possession by individuals is the product only of good education.

The growth of the sciences and technology in modem times has discredited the idea that philosophy should tell about the nature of the universe and man's place and purposes in it independently of the investigations of the sciences. For it replaces such speculations by verifiable hypotheses, and compels us to think out our purposes in relation to our real powers and needs.

When the modern development of science and technology began, the feudal philosophy, which at once came under attack, was concerned primarily with tracing and making manifest the design of God, and teaching men to live according to that design. Everything was to be settled on authority competent to reveal the grand design—direct revelation, or the doctrines of earlier philosophers and fathers, or the kind of scholastic logic which laid down that "it must be like this". The eventual culmination and reductio ad absurdum of this outlook came when the theologians declined to look through Galileo's telescope, on the grounds that if it showed anything contrary to what theology and philosophy had decided must be the case, then it was the telescope that was at fault and not theology or philosophy.

Bacon proclaimed as a general principle what Galileo acted on, namely, that we can know how things are only by the invention of research techniques to find it out empirically, and not by concluding as to how they are from how they must be. Bacon himself still thought this implied that we should find out bit by bit how God had designed the world to be. But the final implication was that we should not think of the world as created or designed at all.

The notion that whatever is, is made what it is according to a preconceived or pre‑existing plan, is one that dies hard. It has certainly long outlived ancient and feudal philosophy and theology. For a long time the notion persisted that the world does and must answer to a design—that it consists of things of such and such kinds moving together and related to one another in such and such ways. The very word "law", as used to denote the invariable rules obeyed by things in interaction, brings in the idea of the enactments of a lawgiver. While mechanics, including "celestial mechanics", was still the premier and model science, this notion continued to be impressed on the sciences. And what Marxists have called "mechanistic" (or better, "metaphysical") materialism consists simply of a generalised formulation of this same notion. It was a plan of creation, the blueprint of the world design—and though Laplace told Napoleon that in his reproduction of the blueprint God was an unnecessary hypothesis, the Emperor, along with more humble and rational people, still found it hard to believe that there should be such a well designed and well regulated creation without any creator.

The advance of the sciences themselves has broken through the conception of design—which no longer survives within the theory of the sciences, but only within philosophy, and popular metaphysics and theology, separated from the sciences. It has become evident in field after field of inquiry that things are not created as they are, but come to be and change in ever varying inter‑relationship. There is no master pattern of creation, but the patterns we observe have themselves to be accounted for out of the processes of becoming. The problem of tracing the design of the world, or of finding out the nature of the universe as a whole, or of specifying the essential patterns and forms of things to which particular things must conform, is found to be unanswerable because it rests on a misunderstanding.

The price that has to be paid now for adopting a scientific approach is to exchange revelations about the totality of things, or the nature or design of the universe, for verifiable information about particular things or aspects of the whole. What concerns us is to understand our own conditions of existence, capacities and needs, and other things in relation to them; and it is this that we can do by the methods of the sciences. And such is the approach adopted by Marxism. The core of Marxism is a scientifically based view of man.

A comprehensive theory about man, which is at the same time a way of directing social practice, as Marxism is, is sure to present a dual nature according to how you look at it and how you take it. As what we do changes our circumstances, and so makes us think things out afresh, the guiding theory grows and, like any living thing, changes while remaining recognisably the same. On the other hand, it presents at any time a body of doctrines and policies. You can look at it and take it, therefore, either as a living and growing unity of theory and practice, or as a fixed system of doctrines and policies. Critics of Marxism nearly always look at it in the latter way, and, unfortunately, this is also how some Marxists themselves take it. But a system of dogma cannot be sustained; only a living unity of theory and practice is viable. The view of man which living Marxism works out does not rest on some great and final generalisation about the universe, arrived at by a philosophical argument independent of scientific method, but is itself a case of scientific generalisation.


No such generalisation can lay claim to that finality and infallibility which it has been hoped would attach to non‑scientific or extrascientific generalisations about the universe as a whole. Of course, the appeal to an infallible person or committee or book or doctrine, whose word will settle any disputed or doubtful question once and for all, is totally foreign to science. The idea that somehow or other we must find an infallible source of truth, because if we have not got certainty and finality we are left in uncertainty, expresses an antithesis which belongs only to pre‑scientific ways of thinking. No scientifically based generalisation can be certain and final, because  neither the people who made it nor the methods they used are infallible, and because it is subject to test, and so long as it is used the test continues. But that does not mean that it lacks foundation or cannot be relied on for practical purposes. On the contrary, it is supposed final certainties that lack foundation and cannot be relied on.

In the introduction to his History of Western Philosophy Russell wrote: "To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it." And that is true enough, for what it comes to is to teach how to judge of the things that concern us, and to frame our purposes, in the light of scientific appraisal. For example, no engineer building a bridge or a dam claims "certainty" for the scientific principles he applies, but he is not "paralysed by hesitation". He manages to design and build the thing, and the principles applied serve also for the detection and correction of mistakes as the work goes along.

However, before the sentence quoted Russell had written: "Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we become insensitive to many things of very great importance. Theology, on the other hand, induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe." But these statements are very questionable.

The words "little" and "importance" are, as Russell should not need reminding, relative terms. However much we can know, there remains, no doubt, much we cannot know. In other words, relative to what we cannot know what we can know "is little". It does not follow, however, that what we cannot know includes "many things of very great importance". Importance for what? For example, we cannot know anything about galaxies so far away that no signals from them reach us—not even whether or not there are any such galaxies. But are such things "of very great importance" to us? On the other hand, relative to what it is important to know for the sake of human life and happiness, what we can know is not "little" but much. In effect, Russell says that science cannot tell us much of importance about ourselves, for the guidance of our lives—which is simply not true. It is not by forgetting how much we cannot know that "we become insensitive to many things of very great importance", but rather by forgetting how much we can know.

As for theology, does it induce "a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance"? We are not ignorant of the properties of God as we are ignorant of the properties of objects we are not able to investigate (such as the inhabitants of planets in remote galaxies). What is wrong with theology is not that it claims knowledge where in fact there is ignorance, but that it sets up illusions and calls them knowledge. Russell deplores dogma about God, ultimate reality, the nature of the universe, the totality of things, and so on, on the grounds that it "generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe". To think you know all about everything is certainly, as Russell. suggests, deplorable—but not so much because it is impertinent to the universe as because it is a ridiculous illusion of a kind that leads to reckless behaviour.

The objective of the Marxist view of man and formulation of human purposes is to work out something we can continue to live by. And of course, what is ascertainable for such working out is never complete and is never finally certified. There is always work in progress, never work completed. And because human life goes on, and is so varied and variable, the very idea of a complete and rounded off doctrine which would impose a final pattern on to human activities, relations and purposes, is not only in practice an absurdity but a very injurious one at that. It is of the nature of scientifically based ideas to be always under review and revision. So the Marxist world outlook does, indeed, "teach how to live without certainty". And at the same time it teaches how to live "without being paralysed by hesitation". It does not teach that "what we can know is little", or consider it "impertinent insolence towards the universe" to claim that we can get to know about whatever is "of very great importance" to us, or when generalisations are pretty well established propose to revise them without good reason. It gets rid of illusions of knowledge and power to increase real knowledge and power—control of natural forces and of our own social use of them.


Marxism completes the revolution of philosophy which was begun under the stress of modern science and technology. The advancement of the sciences was facilitated by capitalism and by ideas adapted to capitalist conditions, but its product is communism and communist ideas.

One should say "Marxism" and not "Marxist philosophy”, because the latter is a part of Marxism and there is no separable theory of Marxist philosophy. A separable philosophical theory would no more function as Marxist philosophy than a separable head would function as a head. A separable head is only a dummy head, and the same goes for a separable philosophy. Professional academic philosophers, including the linguistic ones, find the absence of any separable Marxist philosophy both puzzling and obnoxious. One can, indeed, write a book expounding Marxist philosophy, but not without bringing into it topics which are not academically recognised parts of "philosophy".

The linguistic philosophers were right in saying that philosophy disappears as a separate theory. But that does not mean that philosophy disappears, but that it finds its place in the organism of integrated and developing materialist theory of man and his place and purpose in the universe. As for the linguistic philosophers, they know that the old philosophy which claimed to operate separately from the sciences has disappeared, but yet they try to keep a separated philosophy going as a very restricted, very specialised discipline. The result is an amazing phenomenon, like the grin of the Cheshire Cat.

Marx called his philosophy "dialectical materialism". This expression does not, however, stand for any set theory of the nature and layout of the universe. And in that respect it is, in its proper use, a quite different kind of expression from, say, "neutral monism" or "logical atomism". The neutral monism of Mach and the logical atomism of Russell were theories about the ultimate elements and structure of the universe. The expression "dialectical materialism", on the other hand, does not stand for any such metaphysical theory, but is descriptive of the approach that is made to forming theories and views about particular matters of interest. The proper use of the expression is, therefore, adjectival rather than substantive. Dialectical materialism is not a philosophical theory about everything, as distinct from scientific theories about particular things or aspects of things. One's theories and views about things are "dialectical materialist", and "dialectical materialism" is not an additional theory.

To make dialectical materialism out to be another theory, distinguished from others by its comprehensiveness, is a "category mistake" of much the same sort as that which makes out that one wears a pair of gloves as well as a glove on each hand. Marxism does not propose a number of theories each about a particular topic, plus dialectical materialism, but all its theory is dialectical materialist. Dialectical materialism is "fundamental" in Marxism in the sense of being the methodology or approach which characterises and unifies all Marxist theory.

Hence it is not a premise from which the rest of Marxism follows by formal deduction. It is not a theory, known somehow a priori, which says that the universe "must be like this".

Nor is it a very general generalisation drawn inductively from observation. It does not say anything like: "All things so far examined are material, therefore everything is material”, or "All mental processes so far examined are products of material processes, therefore everything mental is a product of material processes”, or "'All things so far examined contain internal contradictions and are subject to change, therefore everything contains internal contradictions and is subject to change'', or "All quantitative changes so far examined have led to qualitative changes, therefore all quantitative changes lead to qualitative changes". It does not formulate super‑scientific inductive generalisations, which apply not to particular spheres of being but to being in general.

All these misunderstandings are mere vulgarisations, of a sort that can well, as linguistic philosophers would say, be described as violating the proper uses of language. They derive from the very ancient dogma put forward by Aristotle, that while particular sciences deal with particular departments of being, metaphysics, the supreme science, deals with "being as being". To formulate principles of dialectical materialism is to formulate principles of approach or methodology for making theory, taking into account the relation of human thinking to human existence.

The materialism of this approach consists in its being confined to describing and explaining observable things in verifiable ways (as Engels put it, explaining what happens in the material world from the material world itself), and deriving ideas and purposes from how things are found to be and not, on the contrary, concluding as to how things are from ideas and purposes to which they are supposedly made to conform. And its dialectical character is inseparable from its materialism. Rather than putting forward hard and fast classifications and definitions to which it is supposed everything must necessarily correspond, it takes into account the actual changeability, variability and interconnectedness of things, and regards all classifications, formulas, generalisations and descriptions as provisional, and as relative only to some particular phase or state, or to some particular level of abstraction arrived at in description and explanation.

For the opposite kinds of approach Marxists have customarily reserved the words "idealism" and "metaphysics".

Scientific theory is materialist and dialectical. Or in so far as the theory propounded in any particular branch of science does not bear this character, that is only because that branch has remained at a primitive classificatory and descriptive level, or because of the obtrusion into it of idealist and metaphysical notions surviving from past philosophy. It is no part of the function of dialectical materialism to instruct scientists to make up theory in some way foreign to the sciences. It cannot lay down from first principles the kinds of techniques scientists shall use in their investigations, or the conclusions to which the use of those techniques will lead. On the contrary, its function in relation to particular sciences is to assist in purging their theory of extra‑scientific philosophical preconceptions.

For philosophy, the dialectical materialist approach entails that philosophers should not try to arrive at conclusions as to how things are independently of the investigations and findings of the sciences, or to formulate general theories about the nature of the universe going beyond (as such theories are bound to go beyond) what has been scientifically ascertained.

As applied to the conception of man, of the human condition and human purposes, it entails that we should base our conception of what people are, what they depend on and how they live, on trying to find out as much as we can about human relations and how they are constituted and change; and that we should frame our ideas as to how to live and how to conduct our relations, what to do about our conflicts, perplexities and troubles, and what purposes to pursue, on what we have been able to find out about our circumstances, our needs and our possibilities of changing our circumstances in accordance with our needs.

As applied to the conception of the whole environment of man and of man's place in it, it entails that this should become a generalisation from the findings of the separate sciences. The unity of the sciences consists in their all contributing information about man and his environment; and as Engels wrote in the first chapter of Anti‑Dühring, "As soon as each separate science is required to get clarity as to its position in the great totality of things and of our knowledge of things, a special science dealing with this totality is superfluous." Thus the information available already enables us to formulate, as a basis to go on, provisional general conceptions of the cosmic environment and its evolution, of the origin of life on earth and the evolution of its forms up to man and human society, and of the development of chemical processes and relations out of physical ones, of biological processes and relations out of chemical ones, and of human activities and relations out of the processes of biological evolution. This is a conception of man in his environment, derived from the human practice of searching, changing, understanding and mastering the material conditions of human life, and reapplicable in that practice.

Finally, there remains for philosophy the independent task of investigating and formulating the constitutive guiding principles of human thought itself, which must be observed in assembling information in communicable form and drawing from it conclusions, evaluations and purposes as a basis for deciding what to believe and what to do.

Evidently, what Engels called "the science of thought and its laws" differs from what are generally called empirical inquiries—those of the special sciences—in as much as it deals with different questions. The logical character of an inquiry is always definable by that of its questions; and differences of questions likewise dictate differences in the methods or procedures appropriate for answering them. The special or empirical sciences deal with questions of the structure, conditions of existence, interconnections and laws of operation of observed events (physical, chemical, biological, social, and so on), and their answers inform our practice in relation to these phenomena. On the other hand, the "science of thought and its laws, formal logic and dialectics" deals with questions of how to formulate consistent, concrete, informative statements. "The ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected in the human mind and translated into forms of thought", wrote Marx in the Afterword to the second, edition of Capital. The "science of thought and its laws" is concerned with questions of how to make such "reflection" and "translation" faithful, correct or informative, as distinct from distorting, illusory or uninformative. Its conclusions, therefore, do not state "matters of fact" comparable with statements of the special sciences.

Dialectics provides no definite factual information, any more than formal logic or mathematics. To learn, for instance, that quantitative changes give rise to qualitative changes (a recognised "law of dialectics") provides no definite information whatever of the sort which can guide practice in any particular context—in contrast, for example, to the laws formulated in chemistry about how the addition of particular atoms in molecular structures gives rise to qualitative chemical changes. And consequently such a "law of dialectics" is not to be established or disestablished by controlled observation and experiment in the way an "empirical law" is. It is, of course, abstracted from observed facts, and exemplified or illustrated in them; but it is not established experimentally. Experiments are required to ascertain just which quantitative changes produce which qualitative changes—but not to establish that these changes are connected, and that a concrete account of phenomena must always connect them.

In this sense, then, the "science of thought and its laws" is, as Engels stated, "independent" of special empirical sciences. But at the same time it is not independent of empirical sciences, if such independence is taken to mean that it could as well be worked out if there were no empirical sciences and without any reference to the conclusions of empirical sciences.

The investigation of the laws of thought has as an important part of its subject matter the actual procedures and work of empirical sciences. We could not first work out a priori how to think, and only afterwards apply the conclusions by thinking like that in the sciences. On the contrary, the practice of the sciences must have been established before we can investigate the principles. Otherwise there would be nothing to investigate. And then the principles can be further applied and developed in the practice. Furthermore, thinking is something people do. It is a performance depending on the human brain functioning as what Pavlov called "the organ of the most complex relations between the animal and its environment" and on the social use of language. An investigation of the laws of thought has, therefore, to start from a conception of people who think, and of what they are doing when they think, and of their use of language; and this conception is properly derived from accumulated findings of empirical sciences and not made up in advance. Otherwise, instead of investigation of the laws of thought there can only be word‑spinning about something purely imaginary—thought in the abstract, separated from people using language—as was done, for example, in Hegel's Science of Logic.


Dialectical materialist philosophy is in its whole procedure essentially circular.

At the start of The German Ideology Marx and Engels stated: "The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live . . . These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way." Starting from "real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live" leads to conclusions about the principles according to which they must think, so as best "to comprehend the real world" and "sacrifice every idealist fancy which cannot be brought into harmony with the facts conceived in their own and not in a fantastic connection". Thinking in that way leads to developing the dialectical materialist conception of man in his environment, of the human condition and human purposes. And this in turn leads round again to a vindication of the starting point, the demonstration that "the premises from which we begin" are indeed "not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises . . ." and that there is nothing else either to start with or to finish with or to think about on the way.

This circularity of a train of thought which leads back again to where it started (but with a much fuller conception of the starting point adumbrated in the process) does not, however, exemplify the logical fallacy known as "arguing in a circle"—"circularity" or petitio principii. A fallaciously circular argument is one which proceeds by formal deduction from premises to a conclusion which is already assumed in the premises. It assumes a conclusion in order to prove it. The dialectical materialist argument, on the other hand, is not a case of formal deduction and makes no claim to prove anything by formal deduction. Its circularity is a demonstration of consistency and completeness. Such circularity is required of a comprehensive philosophy of life.

The objection has been made against Marxism that it is a closed system. And of course it is closed, in the sense that it excludes: it excludes and is meant to exclude "every idealist fancy". But does this make it what Dr Popper has called "a reinforced dogmatism"? According to Dr Popper, a reinforced dogmatism is a system so designed as to be made "secure against any sort of criticism or attack", "a dogmatism which is elastic enough, by using its dialectical method, to evade any attack" (What is Dialectic? first published in Mind, 1940, and republished in Conjectures and Refutations, 1963). His objection against such dogmatism is that it is incapable of any sort of test; for, as he very properly says, a theory can only be tested in so far as circumstances are conceivable which would falsify it.

Marxism has so far proved irrefutable—and that, according to Dr Popper, quite conclusively refutes it. Here he confuses doing well in tests with being untestable. He is like an examiner who disqualifies the candidate on the grounds that he has done so well he must have cheated.

It should be noted, in the first place, that, as Marx and Engels said, "the premises with which we begin . . . can be verified in a purely empirical way". And indeed, "real individuals, their activity, and the material conditions under which they live" are empirically established about as well as anything can be.

As for the general Marxist theory about man and society, it is, as I remarked earlier, far from being in principle or a priori unfalsifiable. On the contrary, as with other well founded scientific theories, particular extensions of it do in fact quite often become falsified—but not in such a way as to necessitate completely scrapping the whole theory and starting again, but in such a way as to lead to its correction in detail, amplification and development. As with other well founded and fundamental scientific generalisations, the falsification of the fundamental Marxist generalisations about man and society would be surprising though still not inconceivable.

If there were perpetual motion machines, and the people using them had social relations, institutions and culture functionally unrelated to their way of getting a livelihood, then that would falsify both the laws of thermodynamics and the laws of social development formulated by Marx. That the example is so far‑fetched simply shows how well founded and mutually consistent are Marxism and thermodynamics.

But in the second place, it is absurd to demand that the general principles which Marxism applies in making theories should be subject to empirical test in the same way that the resulting theories are. Not even Dr Popper rejects a scientific approach on the grounds that its methodological principles are unfalsifiable. The idealist and metaphysical types of approach to making theories are, indeed, refuted on the grounds that the theories they make are in principle unverifiable. But on the same showing, the dialectical materialist approach is upheld because it rules out every unfalsifiable theory or "idealist fancy". Marxism as a whole is not unfalsifiable; and all it need plead guilty to is that its basic approach has led to the formulation of theories about man and society so well founded as not to be falsified. And these theories themselves lead to the conclusion that that basic approach is the right one to make. What is wrong with that? Where is the reinforced dogmatism? The strength of the theory supports the approach made in making the theory.

We can be as sure as we can ever be sure of anything that we are on the track of the right ideas, when we can formulate laws of thought which lead to thinking about ourselves and our conditions of life in a way that is continually verified and works out in practice, and when those conclusions about ourselves show why those must be the laws of our thought. Marxism is no reinforced dogmatism, but stands or falls by that kind of test. Marxists say it stands, and busy themselves with developing it as a going concern. Let those who say it falls find the evidence and arguments, which they have not found yet, to knock it over.

SOURCE: Cornforth, Maurice. Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy. 2nd ed. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1967 (orig. 1965). Part III, chapter 1, The Dialectical Materialist Approach, pp. 267-284. See also the complete book offsite.

Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy: Contents

Science and Evaluation by Maurice Cornforth

Logical Empiricism by Maurice Cornforth

Maurice Cornforth (1909-1980) Study Guide

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

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