Science versus Idealism
In Defence of Philosophy against Positivism and Pragmatism

by Maurice Cornforth

Chapter 19
Features of a Reactionary Philosophy


THERE are some—friends of Marxist materialism—who say that the kind of estimate made of the value of contemporary positivist philosophy in the foregoing pages is a good deal too negative. They want to insist on due credit being given to the positive features which, according to them, are embodied in this philosophy. For they think that, despite its idealist and metaphysical character, positivism has nevertheless made a powerful contribution to progressive thought and has contributed ideas which must always belong to the heritage of progressive thought.

I do not agree with these friends of Marxist materialism. That they are friends, I do not deny. But there are friends who give good advice and friends who give bad advice.

What are the positive, progressive feature of positivist philosophy supposed to be? Those who raise this question seem to have four main points in mind.

The first is that a very important contribution has been made to the science of formal logic and, arising from this, to the study of the foundations of mathematics; for modern developments of mathematics have been very intimately connected with the development of the technique of symbolic logic.

The second is that positivism has rendered great service to the development of philosophy by calling attention to the importance of a study of language and by opening up the systematic study of semantics, i.e., of the meaning function of language and of the linguistic aspects of science.

The third is that pragmatism has made an important contribution to philosophy by stressing the connection between theory and practice.

The fourth is that the positivist schools have fought for clear thinking and a scientific approach to problems by their [end of p. 424] insistence on the need for empirical definitions of terms and for an empirical and pragmatic test of all ideas.

Now as regards these points the following may immediately be stated.

It is undoubtedly the case that modern symbolic logic has made certain technical advances in comparison with traditional Aristotelian and scholastic formal logic; that we do need to study language as the vehicle and instrument of thinking; that we do need to stress the connection between theory and practice; and that we do need to develop a logical technique of clear statement, ensuring that what we say can be tested in experience and practice and refers to things whose existence can be verified.

But what it is most important to say is that progress in each of these respects demands a decisive break with the whole approach and methodology of positivism. This approach and methodology cannot claim the credit for contributing anything new and positive to philosophy in these respects. The positive contributions and services claimed for it are non‑existent. What it has contributed consists of new idealist confusions and metaphysical schemes, and its services consist in the placing of stumbling blocks and philosophical booby traps. This can be demonstrated in relation to each of the four claims which have been made for positivism.

So far as formal logic and the foundations of mathematics are concerned, the advances which have been made in modern times in mathematical logic have their basis in the development of the physical sciences and of mathematics itself, and in the need for creating more adequate and exact symbolic tools for expressing and dealing with the space forms and quantity relations of the real world. [a1]

These advances were not the handiwork of positivist philosophy but were rather made in spite of that philosophy than because of it. The contribution of positivism to the philosophy of mathematics has simply been to entangle it in a maze of metaphysics and to obscure and sever the connections of mathematics and mathematical logic with the material world. As Engels put it—and though he wrote this before the more recent developments of mathematical philosophy, what he wrote applies to them exactly: "The laws [425] abstracted from the real world become divorced from the real world and are set over against it as something independent." [b1] This has led to the speculations of the formalists, who have represented both logic and mathematics as mere formal systems.

As for the critical study of language, the connecting of theory with practice and the demand for clear thinking and a scientific approach to problems—it was not the positivists who introduced these things into philosophy. They are all part of the heritage of materialism.

In philosophising about language, the positivists have proceeded on the barren assumption that philosophy consists of nothing else than the "analysis of language." They have treated language in false abstraction, attempting to work out from first principles the system of its semantic and syntactical rules, regardless of its real function as social means of communication and expression of thoughts. They have separated language from thought, and thought from the real world of nature and society. Consequently, they fail to study language scientifically, that is, to study how it really develops and functions. Their sole contribution has been to work out idealist and metaphysical views about language. The "analysis of language" is presented as a method of criticism and of clarification. But, on the contrary, by reducing philosophy to “analysis of language," the positivists have found an effective method of avoiding the critical comparison of thought with the real processes in the world outside us, and of developing and clarifying ideas about the real world and the problems of human life in it.

When pragmatism claims to link theory with practice, it does so only in order to make out that ideas are nothing but “instrumentalities" and that truth is simply that which “works" or “pays." In fact it knows nothing of the real unity of theory and practice, because it denies the objectivity of the world in which practice operates and which theory reflects. Denying that theory must approximate to the objective material world, the arena of human action, the pragmatists deny to theory any rational and scientific basis, and reduce it to nothing but such “rules for action" as are [426] provisionally found expedient. And similarly, denying that practice can be guided by rational and scientific principles, they advocate practice based on pure expediency.

Lastly, in the absence of any adequate account either of language or of thought and knowledge, based on the study of their real existence and development, the demand for clarity and for a scientific approach to problems in all these positivist philosophies finds actual expression in a mass of pseudo‑scientific and scholastic terms and phrases.

The upshot of the contemporary "logical" and "scientific” philosophy has been to produce a new scholasticism, as barren and as anti‑scientific as the disputes of the schoolmen in the Middle Ages.

The essence of scholasticism was to dispute about certain questions according to certain rules; and neither the questions nor the rules had any bearing upon the advancement of our knowledge of nature and mankind. The same characterisation holds good of the disputes of the logical philosophers today regarding the method of "analysis," and the terms which "analysis" should employ. Endless disputes and discussions are engendered over theories which never had any scientific foundation.

The "elements," “aspects," "events," "objects," "atomic facts," “sense data," "sensory fields ,” “experience,” "worlds”; the "elementary propositions,” “protocols" and “rules"; the "logico‑analytic method," "principle of verification," "logical syntax," "methodical materialism," "physicalism," "principle of tolerance"; the "protocol language," "scientific languages," "symbolic languages," "physicalistic language," "syntactical rules," "rules of designation," "reduction basis of the language of science"—all these new philosophical terms and phrases, concerning the meaning and relative merits of which so much discussion has taken place over a period of forty years—they are all so much scholastic make‑believe, which bears no relationship to the real world, and to the real problems of life and knowledge. And in their essence they are all one, because their essence is to confuse and deny the objective content of scientific knowledge, by means of some ingenious analysis based on the a‑priori principles of a system of pure logic. [427]

It is not by appreciating and accepting the "achievements and "contributions" of logical positivism and pragmatism that progress will be made in logic, linguistics, the theory of knowledge or the philosophy of science, but only by sharply criticising and rejecting these "achievements" and "contributions."


Positivists in the Struggle Against Materialism

One feature of contemporary positivism is that it spreads the illusion that there is a "middle road" in philosophy—to fight against materialism while at the same time criticising idealism. This it believes is the road of scientific impartiality and objectivity in philosophy.

American pragmatism started off with a polemic against the "absolute" idealism current at the close of the 19th century, and so did the movement of logical analysis in Britain. Indeed, one of G. E. Moore's best known articles was called "The Refutation of Idealism," and in his earlier writings Russell was continually tilting against "Hegelianism.”

Amongst the British positivists a favourite target of attack was the idealist school associated with T. E. Green, F. H. Bradley and Bernard Bosanquet. These philosophers all considered that the task of philosophy was to reveal the nature of what they called "the Absolute"—the ultimate reality, which depended on nothing else for its existence and was one and indivisible. They all agreed that the "Absolute" was in some sense spiritual. The spiritual Absolute alone was real, they claimed, while the material world was "unreal," a "mere" appearance. Material things had no existence apart from the Absolute Spirit; and the whole of our experience and activity, in which we seem to be living an independent life in a material world, was but a fragment of the total spiritual being of the Absolute.

The positivists maintained that this "absolute" idealist philosophy was entirely baseless, a mass of confusion propped up by fallacious arguments. They rejected the entire philosophical programme of trying to deduce the nature of the Absolute. They rejected the hole idea that " ultimate reality " was one and indivisible, and maintained that there [428] was no such thing as "ultimate" reality but only numerous real objects. And in opposition to the idea that we ourselves are "unreal" and live in an "unreal" world, they maintained that philosophy should undertake a careful analytic investigation of the real properties and relations of things discoverable in experience. For this reason, the positivist critics of "absolute" idealism represented themselves as "realists," contrasting "realism" to idealism.

But having "refuted" idealism, the positivist critics proceeded to reinstate it in another form. The method of analysis adopted by Moore, Russell and their school, and equally the pragmatic method adopted in America, was on the one hand a method of debunking propositions about the "Absolute." On the other hand, it was a method of reinterpreting all propositions about the material world in terms of subjective experience. Thus criticising "absolute" idealism, it also ruled out materialism, and rejected the real material world as scornfully as it rejected the imaginary spiritual Absolute. Positivists and pragmatists alike thought they had left behind them the whole philosophical controversy between materialism and idealism. They thought that both materialism and idealism were disposed of by the pragmatic or analytic methods. But in fact they had only attacked one particular brand of idealism and, under cover of this attack, had adopted with new phraseology another brand of idealism, namely, subjective idealism.

The positivists were no doubt right in saying that the systems of absolute idealism were so much muddled make‑believe. But yet their criticism was a subjective idealist and formalistic criticism. They did not criticise the conception of the Absolute because it was an idealist conception. They criticised it because it refused to allow that the elements of subjective experience were absolute. They did not criticise the conception of the unreality of the material world because it denied the existence of the material world. They criticised it because it refused to allow that knowledge should stop short at the superficial appearances and external relations of things given in perception. In other words, far from criticising the idealism of absolute idealism they criticised those elements in it which had some kinship with materialism. Criticising what [429] Russell called "the classical philosophy," they directed their attack against just those elements in it which could lead forward from idealism to scientific or dialectical materialism. Turning from the progressive path, they retired into the ancient swamp of subjective idealism.

Positivism has played an important part in the ideological struggle of idealism against materialism in modern times. The systems of absolute idealism which were current in the latter part of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, pale ghosts of the once virile Hegelian system, had become in fact poor soldiers in the war against materialism. They had little appeal to intellectuals impressed by the advances of science and technology, and their influence over the outlook of the masses had always been very slight. The positivist philosophy, with its specious appeal to science and demand for clarity and impartial, analytic investigation, was a far more effective force. It combated materialism in the name of science and clear thinking, under the flag of "the refutation of idealism" and the rejection of metaphysics and dogmatism.

Far from superceding, as was its intention, the basic philosophical controversy between idealism and materialism, positivism was in fact a strong partisan of idealism. It propagated idealism under the guise of being neither idealist nor materialist, while under cover of what purported to be a clear‑headed, critical, pragmatic attitude, it sought to prevent materialist conclusions being drawn about nature and society. It reverted to the standpoint of subjective idealism, but developed this standpoint in a new style, with new formulations. This new style idealism, this idealism up‑to‑date, was idealism adapted to the new conditions and requirements of the stage into which capitalist society had entered, the stage of imperialism.

The Positivist World Outlook

The whole contemporary positivist philosophy arose and developed in the epoch of monopoly capitalism, or imperialism. It is the most widespread and influential philosophy of that epoch. What is the connection between the positivist ideas and the social‑economic conditions of monopoly capitalism?

On the face of things, the connection is far from obvious. [430]

Why should the replacement of capitalist free competition by monopoly, the merging of bank and industrial capital, the export of capital and the division of the world amongst imperialist powers cause philosophers to undertake the logical analysis of language? How is such an economic structure reflected in philosophical theories about the mode of verification of propositions? These are the sorts of questions positivists may well ask, when they are told by Marxists that their philosophy is a product of monopoly capitalism and serves to help maintain and protect the system which produced it.

The connection between an economic basis and the ideas which gain currency as a superstructure on that basis is seldom obvious or direct. As Marx and Engels showed long ago, the basic economic structure influences the development of philosophy through the intermediary of a whole complex of social and political conditions. The philosophers argue about, alter and adapt the previously existing ideas received from their predecessors in ways determined by those social and political conditions.

This applies to the development of the positivist philosophy on the basis of the economic structure of monopoly capitalism. The positivist philosophers reacted against certain ideas which they found in currency, and took over certain other ideas, especially the old ideas of subjective idealism which had originated in the 17th century. They reformulated the latter, used them in new ways, gave them a new look, under the influence of the social and political conditions of the monopoly epoch and meeting the demands placed on philosophy by the existence of those conditions. This did not happen because the philosophers had decided amongst themselves to express ideas appropriate to the given conditions. It did not happen because they decided to defend the existing economic system and system of class rule. It happened because they tacitly accepted the existing conditions, did not see beyond them, and so in their ideas could not but be subject to their influence and serve the system to which they corresponded.

If one looks for what lies behind all the analysis of language and argument about the meaning of words which positivist philosophy engages in; if one ignores. the tricks of the trade and examines what is actually being sold in books of positivist [431] philosophy; then one discovers a general world view in positivist philosophy which is constant throughout all its many variations. This world view distinguishes it from most other and older brands of idealism, and determines its special way of fighting against materialism. And in this general world view is manifested the determining influence which the conditions and requirements of capitalism in its monopoly stage have exercised in shaping this philosophy.

The older idealism, which positivism attacked, considered that a progressive process of evolution was a fundamental feature of the world, and saw human life, society and history, as a directed process tending towards some end, informed by a purpose. It considered that human thought, human reason, was capable of penetrating to the inner truth of things and obtaining knowledge of the real world and its laws. And it considered that the world was an organic whole, in which the different parts were necessarily connected.

Positivism attacked it on all these points of its world view. The positivists accused the older idealists of entertaining an illusory world view, whereas positivism, disposing of such illusions, had no world view at all and considered such a thing out of date. Nevertheless to reject one world view is to adopt another, even if it is a largely negative one. The positivist world view is quite definite. It denies that there is a progressive evolution in the world or any direction or purpose in society and history. It denies that we can obtain knowledge of the essence of things and confines all possible knowledge to particular facts and correlations of facts. And it denies that necessary processes and necessary connections exist, seeing the world as simply a collection of atomic facts and events, in which all relations are external and everything happens by accident.

This world view of positivism is a product of the imperialist epoch, of the epoch of monopoly capitalism. The positivists may think that everything is accidental, but their own ideas prove the contrary. For these ideas are organically connected with the development of capitalism into monopoly capitalism. A philosophy which talks of a direction in human history, organic connections, knowledge and reason, though always edifying, is little suited to the requirements of imperialism. [432]

William James, with characteristic forthrightness, called such a philosophy "tender minded," whereas what was required, according to him, was a "tough minded" philosophy. [c1] Capitalist progress ceases with imperialism. Technical progress continues, but people no longer see it, as they did at an earlier stage, as leading eventually to human betterment; rather are they brought face to face with the fact that it leads to more severe crises and more devastating wars. Hence the idea of progress ceases to have any basis in capitalist reality. Those who want to see progress and a direction of development have to look beyond capitalism towards socialism. The old ideas of purpose, and of knowledge penetrating to the inner truth of things, which the older capitalist ideology made wide use of, cease to carry conviction in new conditions, unless one is prepared to work for the elimination of capitalism itself. The new "tough minded" school sees neither progress nor purpose in anything, confines knowledge to facts as they turn up, sees the world and life as a series of happenings without reason, which we must respond to and control as best we can in the light of experience and on lines of expediency. Such are the ideas born of imperialism, the last, moribund stage of capitalism. And these are the ideas expressed in the world view of positivist philosophy.

The very conditions of life of the intellectuals, those who do the official philosophising in capitalist society, urge and compel them on the track of such ideas, so long as they remain unwilling to revolt against the system. Intellectuals become for the most part salaried employees, compelled to become narrow specialists of one sort or another. They tend more and more to consider things piecemeal and not to seek a wider view of the hidden internal connections of things. They are concerned less and less with serving any grand purpose, but rather with performing particular functions and finding out how particular jobs are to be done, with no prospect of any noble end being served by so doing. All this makes them "tough minded," in James' sense. And they conceal from themselves the squalid limitations of their real position by a scornful attitude towards the former style of philosophising and a fervour for the minute analysis of particular problems. [433]

The epoch of imperialism is the last stage of capitalism. From monopoly and the division of the world among the great powers, capitalism can go no further. And with the first imperialist war, 1914‑18, and the socialist revolution in Russia, capitalism entered upon its final state of general crisis, the phase of its prolonged death throes. The incidence of the general crisis (which has now been going on for forty years) confirmed and reinforced the world view of positivism—the denial of purpose and direction, the denial of rational knowledge, the denial of necessary order and connection in things. And so the tendency of philosophers to adopt such a negative world view was reinforced.

Positivists in the Struggle Against Socialism

The epoch of imperialism is the epoch of the socialist revolution. This fact profoundly affects imperialist ideology, and, especially since the turning point of 1917, hatred and fear of socialism has been a major factor in shaping it. Imperialist ideology is fundamentally defensive, since the ideologists are preoccupied with warding off the danger of socialism and attacking it in all its manifestations. In this the positivist philosophy plays an important part.

What I have called the positivist world outlook can be further assessed from this angle. It is characterised by the denial of progressive direction in history, by the denial of knowledge and by the denial of necessity. But the victory of socialism demonstrates precisely the existence of a progressive direction in history, and it can only be won and consolidated with the aid of revolutionary theory expressing profound knowledge of objective necessity, on the basis of which people achieve the conscious, purposive direction of the historical process. The struggle for socialism and the victory of socialism demand recognition of precisely what is not recognised but is denied by the positivist world outlook. Dialectical materialism grasps in a scientific way, and verifies in revolutionary practice, the purposiveness, knowledge and necessity which the older idealism expressed in an obscurantist and reactionary way. But the positivist philosophy, unlike the older idealism, does not oppose to the materialist conception of purpose, knowledge and necessity an idealist conception, but denies purpose, knowledge [434] and necessity altogether. This is how, in the form of an attack on the older idealism, it really fights materialism. This has become the most effective way of fighting materialism and, by that fight, fighting against socialist ideas, attacking them at their very roots.

For the most part positivist philosophy has engaged in this battle under cover of an assumed neutrality. But after the Second World War, when two camps were formed in the world—the camp of socialism and peace, and the camp of imperialism and preparation for a third world war—some positivist philosophers abandoned any pretence of detachment from world politics and came out as open propagandists of the imperialist camp. An ideological crusade against communism was being whipped up, in fact not a crusade against communism but against the whole movement of peoples to win freedom and self‑determination, to cast off the fetters of imperialism and frustrate the imperialist drive for world domination. And these philosophers placed themselves in the forefront.

The general lines of their attack were well mapped out in a two‑volume work by K. R. Popper published at the end of the war, The Open Society and its Enemies. In this book the philosopher jumped in well ahead of the politicians demanding the break‑up of war‑time friendship with the Soviet Union. According to Popper, dialectical materialism is a system of philosophical dogmatism, the most dogmatic of all dogmatic systems. Believers in such dogmatism, he says, try to impose their own rigid ideas on the whole of society. They seek to introduce a "totalitarian" regime by violent revolution and then to maintain it by force. Against what he regards as the dogmas of doctrinaire Marxism he counterposes the "scientific" outlook of positivism, and against "totalitarian" communism the "individual freedom" of the "western democracies." Regarding history as without direction, and society as moving and changing without objective laws, he counterposes to the materialist conception of the application of science to the guidance of human affairs what he calls "social engineering," which means making small "experimental" reforms while preserving the basic structure of imperialism. He calls socialism a "closed" society and capitalism an "open" [435] society, and concludes that no sacrifice would be too great to keep society "open."

In this way contemporary positivism embraced the contemporary imperialist conception of the struggle to the death of  "western democracy" versus "communist dictatorship."

The greatest zeal of all in this struggle has been shown by Bertrand Russell, though as the years have passed he has been forced to change his tune in certain respects. His pronouncements have been numerous, but a few quotations must suffice.

In 1948, writing in a periodical now happily defunct, he applied the method of logical analysis to the question of "the outlook for mankind." [d1] There existed, he said, an irreconcilable conflict between two great powers, America and Russia. The only practical alternatives were "American world empire" or "Communist world empire." The prospect was war, in which "utter ruin will overtake the whole territory from Calais to Vladivostok." But the only hope for mankind was that the Americans would win this war, and the best thing to do was to prepare for it with all speed. What we could look forward to was that "a White Terror will replace the Red Terror" and "a single military government will be established over the whole world." But as a result of this, "mankind may enter upon a period of unexampled peace and prosperity."

It is evident that in this "analysis" the philosopher was simply reproducing the opinions and wishes of the most reactionary sections of British monopoly capitalism. Nevertheless, like the monopolists, he soon began to think again, in face of the mounting strength and success of the peace forces in the world. By 1954 he had reached the conclusion that even if America won a third world war, "Russia and China together are too vast to be held down by force for any length of time. . . . For such reasons, I do not think a great war ending in conquest by either side is likely to bring about any lasting improvement . . . we must look ultimately to agreement between East and West, and not merely to a supremacy of armed force." [d2] This reconsideration of his former uncompromising standpoint is certainly to be welcomed. But yet it only confirms the fact that, in politics, his "analytic [436] method" is simply a method of serving up in scientific‑philosophical dress whatever are the views of his masters from time to time. For it reflects the 1954 caution of British imperialism in relation to the drive for an early aggressive war against China and the Soviet Union.

As to future policies, imperialism has today no very clear or convincing answer to the problems it faces, nor has imperialist philosophy.

In his book, The Impact of Science on Society, Russell arrived at a conclusion about the conditions required to ensure a stable world order, which he repeated verbatim in his subsequent book on Human Society. They are, according to him, four in number. (1) There must be a world government “possessing a monopoly of armed force." (2) There must be “a general diffusion of prosperity," so that no section of people has occasion to envy any other. (3) There must be "a low birth rate." (4) There must be provision "for individual initiative" and every citizen must have as much say in government as is "compatible with maintaining the necessary political and economic framework." Here Russell has ended by summing up what may be called the day‑dreams of imperialism—a monopoly of armed force dominating the whole world, and everyone is happy and contented; the lower classes and colonial peoples obligingly stop breeding, and they display initiative and responsibility in the service of the "necessary political and economic framework."

Russell's philosophical excursions into world politics illustrate not only that his philosophy is an echo of the policies and views of the monopoly capitalists, but also the complete bankruptcy of those policies and views.

Positivist Method as a Method of Deception

Now the practical point of positivism's analytic or "logical” method begins to appear. The positivists for the most part employ this method as a purely theoretical instrument and, with some of them, it is carried on as a kind of intellectual parlour game—the game of analysing propositions and invent­ing systems of the logic of language. Most of them are unaware that their method serves any practical social purpose whatever.  [437]

But yet it is by means of this very method that they abolish any materialist understanding of the world.

The positivist method was devised by an adaptation of the theories put forward at an earlier stage of capitalist development, by Berkeley and others, to forestall materialist conclusions being drawn from the advance of the sciences. In the stage of the final crisis of capitalism, in the epoch of monopoly capitalism, these earlier ideas have been developed in new and ingenious ways—whether by the analysis of propositions, by the discussion of the logic of language and its semantic rules, or by the pragmatic reduction of ideas to "instrumentalities"—to make a frontal attack on the materialist understanding of the real motion and interconnection in the world and the struggle to change the world in the light of that understanding, and in place of it to put forward the conception of no direction, no necessity and no knowledge.

The whole result of the method is to discredit and forestall materialist understanding and socialist conclusions. The tendency of the method is to replace such understanding and such conclusions by ever more abstract discussions about meanings and formal rules for using words. As the general crisis of capitalism has got worse, so has this abstractness of philosophical discussion got worse too. In the name of scientific discussion it heads off the scientific discussion of real problems.

The causal order of dependence in social development is in this case, as in ideological development in general, the opposite of the logical order of the philosophical exposition of ideas. In logical order, the anti‑materialist conclusions of positivism follow from its method. Hence anyone who considers merely the products of men's brains and not the social processes by which such products came to be produced and to be arranged in a logical order, will think that the anti‑materialist conclusions are put forward because the method was adopted. To such a one, ideas appear to be products of pure thought and not of any social process going on independent of thought. But in the order of dependence in social development, as opposed to the order of dependence in abstract thought, the method was adopted because it was a method to produce anti‑materialist conclusions. [438]

The examination of positivist philosophy as a social trend, as an ideology, shows, then, that there does exist a very real connection between the coming into being of monopoly capitalism and the positivist method of philosophical analysis. It was in fact precisely the advent of monopoly capitalism and the peculiar conditions arising from it which set the philosophers off on this method. And by using this method they have rendered good service in the ideological struggle to preserve capitalism and to ward off socialism.

Contradictions in Imperialist Philosophy

Positivism is a trend of imperialist ideology. But it is not the only trend. And the examination of its special features and the specific role it plays in the service of imperialism must include the examination of its contradiction to other trends and the practical conclusions which follow from this contradiction.

Although it is a product of monopoly capitalism, positivism does not present itself as a philosophy which is primarily concerned with upholding either established institutions or traditionally accepted ideas. On the contrary, much of the positivist philosophising assumes an "advanced "or "critical" tone.

In Britain, for example, Bertrand Russell has made repeated attacks on Bishops and Conservative politicians, whom he has accused of being narrow‑minded. In the First World War he was a pacifist, and not only lost his job at Cambridge University but suffered imprisonment for his opposition to the slaughter. He supported the Indian National Congress. Like many other left liberals, he welcomed the Russian Revolution in 1917, though he turned against it later. Then he turned his attention to marriage and "free love"; for this he was subsequently forbidden to teach in any American university, since the American pragmatists refused to combine theory with practice in this matter.

As for the pragmatists, their critical attitude was expressed in the demand that everything must be submitted to the pragmatic test. Nothing was sacred and nothing, from the idea of God to the institutions of society, was to be valued or preserved except in so far as it "worked."

In general, positivist philosophy, in its social tendency, is [439] associated with criticism of traditional ideas, institutions, habits and policies, rather than with their conservation. This advanced and critical tendency remains, however, like the whole general world outlook of positivism, rooted in the conditions of imperialism and is a product of those conditions. Indeed, imperialism engenders and needs advanced and critical ideas no less than conservative and dogmatic ones. One can have no understanding of imperialist ideology as a whole unless one grasps the fact that such advanced and critical thinking is a part of it.

It is, indeed, a feature of imperialism that a big part is played both in framing its ideas and carrying out its policies by people who start off from a position of criticising accepted ideas and institutions and demanding various social reforms. But because they do not question and in fact accept the dominance of the capitalist monopolies, they at the same time pursuade themselves that imperialist colonial policy is the spreading of civilisation and progress, and that the increasing power of the monopolies and the subjection of the state and of everything else to their influence represents a new and more rational social order. Imperialism has recruited some of its ablest servants from amongst those who think in this way, and they have contributed much to the current of imperialist ideology. Such advanced ideas are always being opposed by contrary conservative ideas, and are always kept going by opposing conservatism. But they are far from obnoxious to the ruling monopolies. Imperialism would never have kept its hold and managed to carry out its anti‑popular policies without them.

How does this come about? It comes about because the maintenance of the system of imperialism entails not only suppressing people and holding them down but also conciliating them and gaining their support. Hence one part of imperialist ideology is particularly concerned with suppression and holding down, while another part is particularly concerned with conciliation and gaining support. One is the "for God and country" and "superior races must govern inferior races" part, while the other is the "let's all work together" and "help the economically backward peoples" part. Positivist philosophy is chiefly associated with the latter. [440]

In general, various concessions and reforms can be granted and are granted by the ruling monopolies, to keep people quiet and win their support; they have the means to grant them from the tribute drawn from colonial exploitation, and it pays to grant them. In so far as such concessions are stopped or withdrawn, that is not a sign of the strength of the system but rather of its weakness and decay. This is the fundamental reason why an ideology which favours piecemeal and partial reforms arises of necessity from the conditions of monopoly capitalism, conforms to the system and serves it.

Moreover, many of the old habits, ways of conducting affairs and ways of thinking of the individual competitive capitalist appear out‑of‑date and useless to the monopolies and those associated with them. Here once again criticism of old ways arises, and critical and advanced ideas find favour.

But what is characteristic of the advanced and critical ideas of imperialism—as distinct from the revolutionary, or really advanced and really critical ideas of socialism—is. that they never attack the basis of monopoly profits, just as the new methods, reforms and so on of imperialist rule are aimed at conserving that rule and the system it protects.

The critical and advanced tone of positivism is the expression in philosophy of these social tendencies born of monopoly capitalism. That is its secret, the secret of its origin and of its success.

In this aspect, the growth of the positivist type of ideology is fed from two sources. One of its sources lies in the illusions of the petty bourgeoisie, especially the relatively new stratum of professional workers, and of sections of the working class, concerning the advances which can be made on the basis of preserving the capitalist system. The system is accepted, and being accepted is also defended; and on that basis the idea is to make it work for the best. In so far as it springs from this source, positivism in philosophy is closely related to opportunism in the labour movement. And this relationship shows itself in the fact that so far as opportunism acquires a philosophical outlook it borrows it above all from positivism, while, for their part, some positivist philosophers are associated, some closely and others more loosely, with the labour movement. The other source lies in the ruling monopolies' policy of [441] winning support by limited concessions and fair words and wrapping up their actions in deceptive slogans.

Capitalism has always had a double ideology, and this duplicity has only become more marked in the epoch of monopoly capitalism. Capitalism has an advanced and critical ideology, and a retrograde, obscurantist ideology. Both serve capitalism, just as in practice capitalism has always used two methods of rule, the method of persuasion and the method of force. Both are equally capitalist. Force and obscurantism are apt to fail without persuasion and advanced ideas, but persuasion and advanced ideas are also apt to fail, or to lead too far, unless behind them stand force and obscurantism. That is why it always happens that persuasion leads people into a trap in which they are defenceless against force, and why the advanced ideas lead people into a trap in which they find themselves assisting the obscurantists.

In the theoretical field, positivist philosophy is precisely such a trap for would‑be advanced thinkers. Where does it lead those who follow it? Into a wilderness. Bankrupt in relation to social programme, it is equally bankrupt in relation to philosophical theory. The logical‑analytic method, the pragmatic method, the method of the logical analysis of language, and the rest, all claim to be methods of what Wittgenstein called "philosophical investigation" as distinct from philosophical speculation, and to furnish clear and definite answers to clear and definite problems. But they have yet to answer any problem whatsoever. And the more abstract the philosophical investigations have grown, the less conclusive have they become. This is still fondly believed to be a mark of the scientific character of positivist philosophy. But genuine science, distinguished by the give and take of discussion and readiness to revise conclusions, is also distinguished by steadily advancing to more reliable and comprehensive knowledge of its subject. Positivism, intending to be scientific and to clarify and use scientific conclusions, assumes as its basic standpoint that science cannot furnish knowledge of the real objective world. That is why it can never reach any scientific conclusions, and why, intending to employ science to fight obscurantism, it actually furnishes arguments against science to the obscurantists themselves. [442]

In times of exceptional crisis and danger, however, capitalism usually tends to discard reforms and advanced ideas, and to rely on naked force and obscurantism. This is what happens when it turns to fascism. In such periods the partnership between the two parts of its ideology is disrupted, and a struggle breaks out.

"The accession to power of fascism must not be conceived in so simplified and smooth a form, as though some committee or other of finance capital decided on a certain date to set up a fascist dictatorship. In reality, fascism usually comes to power in the course of a struggle, at some times severe, against the old bourgeois parties." [e1]

Similarly there is no ideological committee of monopoly capital which directs the activities of all bourgeois philosophers. At certain times and on certain issues, when capitalism is turning more and more openly to fascism and violence, the believers in advanced ideas and reform come under fire, and must return the fire, or keep quiet, or change sides.

Thus, for example, when Hitler fascism menaced the world, the schools of logical positivism were persecuted, and many positivists were ranged in the anti‑fascist camp. At the same time it was possible, because of the imperialist nature of positivist philosophy and its service to obscurantism, for fascism itself to borrow elements of its ideology from positivist sources, and for members of some of the positivist schools (particularly the so‑called phenomenologists in Germany) to become official fascist philosophers. [e2] Similarly in the United States of America today, pragmatism, which is positivism in its most reactionary and imperialist form, can be used as the philosophy of American fascism, while at the same time many pragmatists, retaining liberal views, move into the anti‑fascist camp.

Such ideological trends as positivism, therefore, from their very nature play an ambiguous role in practice. Because positivism is a disguised form of idealism and directs its arguments against materialism, it helps the very obscurantists and reactionaries it usually claims to oppose. Because the [443] positivist world outlook is based on the acceptance of imperialism, it serves imperialism. But not all positivist thinkers are reactionaries. Some, indeed, do place themselves in the forefront of reaction. But just because the philosophy leans towards the "critical" and "advanced" trend of ideology, others in times of stress may place themselves in opposition to reaction and be drawn into the struggle against it.

This is the dilemma beginning to face many bourgeois philosophers at the present time. Either they go right over to serve the warmongers and fascists, or else they help—either a little or much, wholeheartedly or with reservations—the forces of democracy and peace.


A peculiarity of positivism, in its contrast to other forms of bourgeois idealism, is its claim to be scientific, to be above all the modern philosophy of science. The truth about its claim to be scientific is that it has succeeded in expressing a general attitude towards science corresponding to the tendencies of modern monopoly capitalism.

Positivism makes much of science, praises it and calls for its development. This corresponds to the fact that imperialism has need of science. The "scientific" philosophy of imperialism gives voice to imperialism's need for the cultivation of science. But it calls for the cultivation of just that science which imperialism needs.

Monopoly capitalism, the last and highest stage in the development of capitalism, depends on advanced science and technology. But it seeks to use science for amassing profits, for intensifying the exploitation of labour, for getting the better of trade rivals, for finding effective means of influencing public opinion, and for war.

By denying that science is a means of gaining knowledge of the objective world and man's place in it, positivist philosophy combats the materialist outlook in science, with its critical and revolutionary implications, stultifies science as a weapon for the enlightenment of the masses, and conceals the ways in which science can be applied for the true aims of human welfare. This is absolutely in accordance with what is required by its real masters, the imperialist bourgeoisie. And by maintaining [444] that science serves simply to formulate and predict the results of certain technical operations, positivist philosophy uncritically accepts and thereby justifies the present position of science in the capitalist world, where it is more and more dominated by the great trusts and the war machine. This it does in the name of scientific method and of the freedom of science.

Science is both frustrated and perverted as a result of its subjection to the interests of monopoly capital. Briefly, some of the results most obvious on the surface are the following:

There is an accentuation of the unevenness and lack of balance in the development of the sciences, which has always been characteristic of bourgeois science—some branches of science developing in a one‑sided way while others lag behind. Science is called upon to answer just those particular problems in which the capitalist monopolies are interested, which is by no means the same as answering the problems which are bound up with the future development of science and with the interests of the people.

There results a frustration of fundamental research in fields that are important for the all‑round development of science and for the ends of general human welfare, and a diversion of research into less useful fields or into directions that are harmful or anti‑social. Emphasis is placed on this or that particular research desired by the monopolies for their own private gain, or for war preparations.

There results a narrow specialisation of scientists—the training of people who are supposed to be experts in some narrow field but whose outlook is completely unscientific outside that field, whatever it may be inside it.

There results the failure to relate the findings of one science with those of another, and in consequence the frustration of the building of a unified scientific picture of the world which could serve as a weapon in the struggle for enlightenment and progress. There are propagated in the name of science all kinds of idealist and obscurantist views.

There results the use of science against the people and not to serve the interests of the people—in other words, the use of science for the ends of more efficient capitalist exploitation and war. [445]

And there results the failure to use science to enlighten the people, to give them a new world outlook in the light of which men can understand the world which environs them and how to master the forces of nature so as to serve the ends of human well‑being.

Positivist philosophy is bound up with all these negative features of contemporary bourgeois science. Its view that the whole task of science is to base on particular observations predictions of the results of certain technical operations corresponds with a position where science is simply a technical aid for the making of maximum profits. It helps to cover up the actual position of science, namely, that it is being shamefully perverted, militarised and regimented. It diverts attention away from the examination of the real social functions of science and of the conditions necessary to direct science into the service of man and his needs.

It may be added that for years bourgeois science has found itself in a state of chronic theoretical crisis, affecting not only the physical but also the biological sciences—a crisis of fundamental conceptions. This arises from the fact that the very discoveries of science, the deepening of knowledge of the laws of motion of matter, have proved incompatible with the metaphysical ways of thinking and mechanist categories which were the theoretical armoury of science at an earlier stage of its development.

Engels long ago realised that this could only mean that "natural science has now advanced so far that it can no longer escape the dialectical synthesis”  and must "rid itself . . . of its own limited mode of thought, which was its inheritance from British empiricism." [f1]

However, to a very considerable extent bourgeois science continues to "escape the dialectical synthesis" and refuses to "rid itself of its inheritance from British empiricism." It pays for this by plunging deeper into its theoretical crisis with every new discovery that is made. On the theoretical side there occurs an obstinate hanging on to the methods of metaphysics and mechanism; and the ineffectiveness and breakdown of these methods is the occasion for a spate of idealist speculations.

By teaching the unknowability of the real world and that the [446] most science can do is to correlate observations and propound theories of pragmatic value, positivist philosophy joins hands with idealist theorising within the special sciences themselves. Its conception of methodology—of the statement of "laws," expressed in terms of a minimum number of "entities" and of external relations between those entities—arose from and carries on the traditional metaphysical mechanism of the past; while its view that these "laws" simply correlate observations, and do not reflect the laws of motion and interconnection of the real external world, combines this metaphysical mechanism with idealist views of knowledge and of the known world.

Imperialism needs the services of its scientists, and it also needs the services of its priests. By its very limitation of the field of scientific knowledge—which it derives in a direct line from the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley—positivism so interprets the discoveries of science that they cannot conflict with or overset the essential teachings of religion.

But it does a great deal more than this. Various forms of religious obscurantism continue today to influence millions of people. But there are millions more over whom its influence is lapsing. Positivist philosophy not only disarms science in the fight against obscurantism, but it makes science itself preach obscurantism. The scientist becomes not only no opponent of the priest, but his auxiliary—and his substitute. In the name of science and scientific philosophy theories are put forward which essentially distort and mystify our conceptions of the world and of human relationships and activities.

This is exemplified in the physical sciences, where the standpoint is adopted, not merely in philosophical writings about physics, but in text­books and treatises of physics itself, that the task of physics is merely to elaborate a mathematical formalism which will help calculate the results of experiments, and where this standpoint is combined with theories of the immateriality of matter and of the finite universe. It is equally exemplified in the biological sciences, which continue to be haunted by the metaphysical conception of the gene, and where the causes of heredity and its variability, and the causes of evolution, are assigned to chance or (which is the same thing) written off as unknowable, because the dialectical interconnection of organism and environment is neglected. [447] The discoveries of the sciences and the tools of scientific research themselves provide the means for finding the way out of the impasse of idealism and metaphysics in which the theories of the sciences have become entangled. That these means are not used is due to the fact that this idealism and metaphysics is inherent in the very methods of thought of bourgeois science, from which it can only escape by turning to the methods of dialectical materialism, that is, by ceasing to be bourgeois science, breaking with bourgeois ideology.

The positivist philosophy of science is closely connected with this penetration of scientific theory by metaphysical and idealist conceptions. Teaching the limitations of science and the unknowability of the objective world, it bids science be content with any ad hoc hypotheses, with any theory which with reasonable neatness correlates the observations, and not to expect to be able to discover the real causes of phenomena and the real laws of motion and interconnection of the objective world. The more we know, the less we know; the more we find out about the world, the more mysterious we find it to be; the more we investigate causes, the more we find ourselves to be impotently struggling at the mercy of chance and of blind forces we cannot understand or control—this is the message of this philosophy, and the message which is being put over by the reactionary exponents of bourgeois science.

All the live and progressive forces of the world of science are seeking to combat such pessimistic and obscurantist conclusions, just as they are seeking to combat the frustration and perversion of science by its subjection to the will of the capitalist monopolies and their drive to war. One of the conditions for success in this fight, one of the conditions for ensuring, indeed, the very future of science, is to break with the positivist philosophy of science.


At the stage when capitalism was still a progressive force, the bourgeois philosophers, and above all the Cartesians and after them the French Encyclopaedists, boldly asserted the possibility of the indefinite advancement of scientific knowledge of the [448] objective world of nature and society. They believed in the power of human reason. They thought we could gain increasing and deeper understanding of the forces that environ us and of the conditions of our own lives, thus learning how to manage human affairs rationally and how to extend man's dominion over nature.

This rationalist, humanist spirit of classical bourgeois philosophy has since been inherited and carried forward by Marxism, which expresses the striving of the progressive class of today, the working class, for the goal of communism. But it has disappeared from bourgeois philosophy. In its place is to be found everywhere the assertion of the limitations of human knowledge, the limitations of science, the impotence of reasoned thought and the risk and uncertainty that attends every form of human endeavour.

This pervading scepticism is but the natural and inevitable concomitant of an economic system in full decay. Capitalist economy is in a state of general crisis, rent with insoluble contradictions, staggering from crisis to crisis, unable to satisfy the demands of the people. It is because within the limits of capitalism men are at the mercy of blind forces which they cannot understand or control and can find no path of progress, that capitalist philosophy has ceased to assert the power of the human mind to understand objective reality. That assertion now carries with it the realisation of the decadence of capitalism and the need to put an end to it.

Contemporary positivism is one of the aspects, and an important one, of the resulting general intellectual disintegration.

This disintegration is expressed in many ways. It is expressed, for example, in the openly anti‑scientific philosophy of the existentialists. It is expressed in those theological outpourings now coming increasingly into vogue, which teach that man is essentially wicked and that our only hope is complete submission to the will of God, as expressed by the instructions of whatever church the particular theologian happens to belong to. It is expressed by those popularisers of science who explain that the more science discovers, the more does it discover that the universe is essentially mysterious and unknowable.

For their part, the positivists are distinguished by preaching the renunciation of reason and science in the name of reason [449] and science. All their leading doctrines amount to this—for example, that philosophy is reduced to the analysis of language, that logic is a formalistic play with symbols, that science is a language for writing down the results of operations, that truth does not reflect the objective world but consists of assertions that are found to work.

Nowhere is the fundamental negativity, scepticism and hopelessness of contemporary positivist philosophy better expressed than in the recent writings of Bertrand Russell.

Thus on the second page of the Introduction to his History of Western Philosophy Russell announces: "Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little. . . . 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." [g1]

What is above all important, Russell several times insists, is to renounce, along with inflated philosophical pretentions to knowledge of the objective world, the sense of the collective power of human communities," the intoxication of power, which . . . I am persuaded . . . is the greatest danger of our time," [g2] and which he finds exemplified in pragmatism. Russell cannot distinguish between an illusion of power and the real power of human communities, founded on knowledge and a rational form of social organisation. For him "the collective power of human communities" must always remain a vain illusion.

At the very end he is led to "confess frankly that the human intellect is unable to find conclusive answers to many questions of profound importance to mankind." [g3] The best that can be done, according to Russell, is contained in the very limited kinds of results achieved by the method of "logical analysis." And this is the hope of the world, of "the rationalistic reconquest of men's minds." [g4] For "the habit of careful veracity acquired in the practice of this philosophical method can be extended to the whole sphere of human activity, producing, [450] wherever it exists, a lessening of fanaticism with an increased capacity of sympathy and mutual understanding." [h1]

What the "habit of careful veracity" which Russell has acquired amounts to in practice may be judged by his various excursions into political "analysis." His doubtless sincere efforts to produce "a lessening of fanaticism" are frustrated by his habit of taking on trust whatever the most fanatical reactionaries tell him. Indeed, his "philosophical method" seems to have rendered him incapable in practice of checking his facts or distinguishing fact from fiction. [h2]

The intellectual disintegration is accompanied by a moral disintegration. just as bourgeois philosophy has become unable to offer any rational account of the world, so it finds itself unable to offer any rational standards of conduct. The bourgeoisie have in practice renounced all moral standards; they know no law but that of power politics and self‑interest. And this moral disintegration, too, is vividly expressed in contemporary positivism.

With the logical positivist "analysis of language" became associated the view that moral and ethical statements of all kinds are strictly meaningless. They are unverifiable, have no sort of scientific basis and are susceptible to no sort of scientific test or criticism. Thus they are to be regarded as emotive noises, expressing personal or group moral sentiments and preferences; or perhaps as "imperatives," i.e., not grounded statements but injunctions, intended to influence other people's behaviour in ways desired by a given individual or group. "A value statement," says Carnap, "is nothing else than a command in a misleading grammatical form . . . it does not assert anything and can neither be proved nor disproved." [h3] [451]

This position was forcibly expressed by Professor H. Dingle, in a lecture on Science and Ethics before the British Social Hygiene Council. The professor's contribution to the cause of social hygiene was to declare his agreement with the logical positivists that ethical questions "stand right outside the scope of scientific investigation." There was, he said, "an insurmountable barrier" between science and ethics. For while science is based "on reason and experience," ethics "so far at least has not in general found any basis at all."

"At bottom," said Professor Dingle, "all systems of ethics and all exhortations to a particular kind of conduct must rest on a dogma which it is useless because impossible to justify." And he concluded: "The fact that morality cannot be based on experience or reason leaves open the question what its basis may be. We are still faced with the problem—How shall I choose? And I have no solution to offer. We do not without reluctance accept a conclusion which leaves the most fundamentally important thing in our lives a matter of caprice, and I do not offer it as a gospel but simply as an inescapable fact." [i1]

It is because Dingle and the logical positivists lack any scientific conception of society and its laws, and express the point of view of a class whose whole basis of existence must be condemned at the bar of reason because it has ceased to possess any historical justification, that they cannot see how science, reason or experience has any relevance to questions of conduct, of what to do, of what ends are worth striving for or what moral qualities of the individual are worth cultivating.

Professor A. J. Ayer, who shares the positivist view about “the analysis of moral judgments," has carefully explained that "the theory is essentially on the level of analysis; it is an attempt to show what people are doing when they make moral judgments; it is not a set of suggestions as to what moral judgments they are to make." Hence "moral philosophy" is "neutral as regards conduct." This, says Ayer, "is one reason why many people find moral philosophy an unsatisfying subject. For they mistakenly look to the moral philosopher for guidance.” [i2]

Clearly, here is a philosophy which explicitly denies the [452] possibility of any rational or scientifically grounded human morality. It explicitly separates moral questions from any relationship with reason or science—a separation already carried out in practice in capitalist society. [j1]

The burden of the pragmatists' attitude to morality is the same. But whereas the logical positivist "analysis of value judgments" gives expression to feelings of bewilderment and moral frustration—"I have no solution to offer"—­pragmatism is made of sterner stuff. The tone was set by William James' book with the provocative title The Will to Believe. According to James, our beliefs cannot be based on scientific knowledge of objective reality, but the important thing is to have the will to assert those moral convictions which are found to " pay." If they work, then they are " true."

Pragmatism does not accept the view that "value judgments" are "meaningless." It sees all ideas as means to action, which become true in proportion as they yield "fruits" and "payments." It accordingly sees valuation "as one of the functions of our ideas. And our valuations," too, are justified simply in proportion as we make them work.

This view, like all positivism, denies the very possibility of an objective and rational basis for human morality. But while it denies any rational foundation for moral beliefs, it inculcates "the will to believe"—in effect, a blind affirmation of whatever one thinks will help fulfil what James called " our general obligation to do what pays."

I do not think that the moralising of the pragmatists can conceal the reality which lies behind their view of morality. The capitalist world is suffering complete moral collapse, a [end of p. 453] prelude to its final disappearance from the stage of history. But as part of its fight for survival goes the desperate affirmation of its so‑called "values"—­the "values" of "free enterprise" and of the scramble for maximum profits, decked up today as the "values of western civilisation." And these "values" are used as a rallying cry in the fight against socialism.

Capitalist society has long since ceased to have any historical justification, and its slogans have no rational or scientific basis. This is why the more "tough minded" among bourgeois ideologists have given up any pretence of seeking such a basis for their "valuations," which are simply asserted, and the louder the better, as requiring no justification.

This is the situation of which positivism and pragmatism in particular is the philosophical expression. It is a philosophy which is powerless to oppose, and so in practice can only accept, the cannibal morality of the imperialists, who are trying to make it work by imposing it upon the whole world.


The main conclusions about contemporary positivist philosophy which emerge from this entire discussion may now be summed up as follows:

(I) Contemporary positivist philosophy is a continuation of the subjective idealism established two hundred years ago by Berkeley. The various theories of logical analysis, logical positivism and pragmatism, with all their variations, are in essentials only a repetition of old subjectivist theories, merely refurbished and disguised with new terminology and new phrases and catchwords.

(2) The positivist schools are characterised by their fundamental hostility to materialism. For materialism, the objective material world exists and is knowable. Knowledge arises from men's efforts to control and reshape for their own purposes the things about them, and their own social relations; and the test and proof of the objective truth of ideas lies in the resulting ability to understand and control natural and social forces. Through practice, human thought and human reason develop and prove themselves capable of penetrating to and grasping the essence of objective reality. But positivism denies the possibility of such knowledge. [end of p. 454]

(3) The positivist philosophical outlook is a product of imperialism, the last stage of capitalism, and reflects the intellectual and moral disintegration of capitalist society. Denying the scope and power of human knowledge and human action, it affirms the limitations of science, the relativity of truth, the impotence of reason, the mysteriousness and incomprehensibility of the universe, the illusoriness of social progress.

(4) Representing itself, in line with the prestige of science in contemporary society, as a scientific philosophy, positivism so interprets scientific methods and scientific discoveries as to stultify science as a weapon of enlightenment and progress and leave it virtually powerless to oppose current anti‑scientific myths and dogmas. But more than that. Claiming to show how the sciences can be unified and utilised for practical purposes, it produces a philosophy of science which reflects only the frustration and perversion of science under monopoly capitalism.

(5) Positivist philosophy must therefore be judged as in essence and outcome hostile to science and hostile to human progress.

Many intellectuals who have embraced the positivist doctrines in one form or another, or are influenced by them, think that they can reject the whole basic philosophical controversy between materialism and idealism and keep themselves clear of the social controversy which it reflects. That this is an illusion is increasingly shown by some of the leading positivist philosophers themselves, who are openly associated with the fight against progress and socialism, and by the use of positivist arguments by some of the most extreme obscurantists and reactionaries as a means of discrediting scientific arguments and backing up their own point of view.

Those who are attracted to positivism because of its apparent concern for science and clear thinking cannot in the end escape from the necessity of breaking with positivism, if they want to practice science and clear thinking.

The liberation of humanity from poverty, oppression and superstition is the great task of the present age, leading to the realisation of all the achievements of which free and organised humanity is capable. The task of philosophy cannot be separated from this task. Those philosophers whose outlook [end of p. 455] is to accept the existing state of affairs, or who separate their philosophical ideas from the struggle for progress, may con­tinue to busy themselves with "logical analysis." Their outlook reflects only the conditions of the final crisis of capitalism, and the advance of science and life will leave them behind. The progress of philosophy, as understanding of the world and men's place in it, has always been based on and has served the pursuit of human happiness. Today it is repre­sented by dialectical materialism. As for dialectical material­ism, it sets no limits to the advance of our knowledge and of our power to live well and plan our lives with the object of securing the best for everyone, making use of the resources of nature to satisfy all the requirements of man. It alone consistently represents the future of philosophy, because it alone is consistently based on and serves the struggle for the future of mankind.


a1  Engels: Anti‑Duhring, Part I, ch. 3. [—> main text]

b1  Engels: Anti‑Duhring, Part I, ch. 3. [—> main text]

c1  W. James, Pragmatism, ch. 1. [—> main text]

d1  Russell: The Outlook for Mankind, Horizon, April, 1948. [—> main text]

d2  Russell: Human Society in Ethics and Politics (1954), p. 224. [—> main text]

e1  G. Dimitrov: The Fascist Offensive. [—> main text]

e2  The phenomenologist Heidegger became a leading Nazi philosopher. From this position he directed the persecution of his former teacher, Husserl, who was a Jew. [—> main text]

f1  Engels: Anti‑Duhring, Preface. [—> main text]

g1  Russell: History of Western Philosophy, p. 11. [—> main text]

g2  Ibid., pp. 855‑6. [—> main text]

g3  Ibid., p. 864 [—> main text]

g4  Ibid., p. 818. [—> main text]

h1  Russell: History of Western Philosophy, p. 864. [—> main text]

h2  Here are some examples of "careful veracity" from Russell's latest (1954) book, Human Society in Ethics and Politics:—"Millions of Russian peasants" have been “exterminated" by the Soviets; there are "vast camps of forced labour" in the Soviet Union; and "the last few years have seen the extension of the same system to China " (p. 156). In the socialist countries, "power is more completely concentrated in the hands of a small minority than it is anywhere else” (p. 185). The "Communist rulers" have been seeking “world domination” (p. 211). Stalin "inflicted torture" on "millions" (p. 221). The Soviet Government acts on the assumption that "hate is the moving force in human affairs" (p. 229). Malenkov is busy preparing " the extermination of mankind " (p. 239). [—> main text]

h3  Carnap: Philosophy and Logical Syntax, p. 24. The same ideas are expressed by A. J. Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic. [—> main text]

i1  Nature, Vol. 158, No. 4006, August 10, 1946. [—> main text]

i2  A. J. Ayer, Philosophical Essays, London, 1954, pp. 245‑6. [—> main text]

j1  Russell has made a belated attempt in his Human Society in Ethics and Politics to establish a "scientific" system of practical morality by reviving the utilitarianism of the early 19th century. "Right conduct", he asserts, is "that conduct which will probably produce the greatest balance of satisfaction over dissatisfaction." His difficulty is to decide in what consists "the greatest balance of satisfaction," and then to discover what conduct will probably produce it. If, indeed, by "the greatest balance of satisfaction" Russell had meant what Stalin meant by "the maximum satisfaction of the ever‑growing material and cultural needs of the whole of society," he might have been led to some practical conclusions as to how to achieve it. The failure of his book is mainly due to his inability to base his moral philosophy on any scientific theory of man and society. He sees man as a collection of irrational impulses, and invariably refers to society as "the herd". Since the positivists' conception of man and society is devoid of the least element of science, it is no wonder that they never approach any scientific conception of morals. [—> main text]

SOURCE: Cornforth, Maurice [Campbell]. Science versus Idealism: In Defence of Philosophy against Positivism and Pragmatism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1975. Reprint of the 1962 ed. published by International Publishers, New York. 463 pp. Original edition 1955. Based on Science versus Idealism (1946) and In Defence of Philosophy (1950). Chapter 19: Features of a Reactionary Philosophy, pp. 424-456. Footnotes have been converted into endnotes and renumbered for ease of reference.

Science versus Idealism: Contents, Introduction, Foreword 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

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 16 June 2006

Site ©1999-2021 Ralph Dumain