Reading Lenin: Materialism and Empirio-criticism [ Part 3 ]

March 26, 2013 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Chapter One “The Theory of Knowledge of Empirio-Criticism and of Dialectical Materialism I” Section One “Sensation and Complexes of Sensations”

Lenin begins by stating the basic idea of the theory of knowledge (epistemology) of the two betes noirs of empirio-criticism, Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius. This is, that what we experience when we experience “the external world” is what goes on in our own brain– id est, the “elements” making up the “external world” are actually INTERNAL complexes of sensations.

Lenin says, “Mach explicitly states… that things or bodies are complexes of sensations, and that he quite clearly sets up his own philosophical point of view against the opposite theory which holds that sensations are “symbols” of things (it would be more accurate to say images or reflections of things). The latter theory is PHILOSOPHICAL MATERIALISM.”

Lenin bases his view on that of Engel’s in his work “Anti-Duhring.” Engels uses the term Gedanken-Abbilder which Lenin translates as “mental images” or “mental pictures.” Engels believes that really existing external things produce “thought-images” in the human brain. I like the German word used for the English “brainwave” (der Gedankenblitz).

So the question, as I see it, is what is the relation of our Gedankenblitzen to the real world when we experience what we take to be an external world. Are they the reflections of external reality, or is external reality simply deduced and constructed out of the Gedankenblitzen? Lenin says, “Anybody who reads ‘Anti-Duhring’ and ‘Ludwig Feuerbach’ with the slightest care will find scores of instances when Engels speaks of things and their reflections in the human brain, in our consciousness, thought, etc. Engels does not say that sensations or ideas are ‘symbols’ of things, for consistent materialism must here use ‘image’, picture, or reflection instead of ‘symbol’, as we shall show in detail in the proper place.” Well, we shall see. At this point it would appear I could be a “consistent” materialist as long as I held that my Gedankenblitzen symbols were produced by actually existing external objects independent of the human brain. We will reconsider this when we get to the “proper place.”

Lenin says that Mach goes on to explain that we have experiences of certain complexes of sensation that are so intense and consistent that we have become “habituated” (Mach must have gotten this term from Hume) to ascribe the origin of these experiences to an external reality. For Mach, any particular Gedankenblitz is no proof of an actually existing external world. We are not justified in going beyond the reality of our own sensations.

Remember Diderot and his piano from last week? Lenin says that he represents “the real views of materialists.” Which “views do not consist in deriving sensations from the movement of matter or in reducing sensations to the movement of matter, but in recognising sensation as one of the properties of matter in motion. On this question Engels shared the standpoint of Diderot.” This is not clear to me. If sensation is a property of “matter in motion” have we not reduced sensations to the “movement of matter”? Perhaps this will become clearer later.

Lenin now switches his attention from Mach to Richard Avenarius (1843-1896). His works appear to be out of print in English at any rate (if they were ever translated). [Trivia: his mother was Cacile Wagner, Richard Wagner’s little sister.] Lenin quickly establishes Avenarius’ idealist credentials with a quote from his Prolegomena zu einer Kritik der reinen Erfahrung: [Prolegomena to a Critique of Pure Experience] “We have recognised that the existing [thing] is substance endowed with sensation; substance falls away, sensation remains; we must then regard the existing as sensation, at the basis of which there is nothing which does not possess sensation.” This is animism! The reason “substance” falls away is that we don’t need it to explain the world. All we know is what we experience– i.e., sensation. Avenarius coined the term “empirio-criticism” to describe his philosophy and his thought was the major influence on Mach.

Bogdanov (1873-1928) makes his first appearance in this section. A. A. Bogdanov was the nom de guerre of A.A. Malinovski. who at one time was the the #2 Bolshevik after Lenin and a leader of the discredited Proletkul’t movement after the revolution. He was an MD who founded the first blood transfusion and research institute in Russia. It is now called The Bogdanov Institute. He lost a power struggle with Lenin (the book we are studying was written to discredit him in the eyes of Bolsheviks) and turned to research. He used his institute to do blood experiments trying to halt aging and reverse the aging process. In fact, when Lenin died his brain was given to Bogdanov to study as well as his body to see if it could be reanimated. It couldn’t. Bogdanov accidentally killed himself while doing a blood transfer experiment on himself. There is an interesting article about him on Wikipedia and in Volume 3 of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. He was a very interesting character who deserves to be better known.

Under the influence of Wilhelm Ostwald (a psychologist) as well as Mach and Avenarius, Bogdanov tried to update Marxist materialism by blending it with the thought of the empirio-crititicists. The result was his book “Empirio-monism” which is the object of Lenin’s ire. It is however only mentioned in passing in this section. In fact Lenin even likes the quote from Empirio-monism that he reproduces here because the Machist Bogdanov (“from forgetfulness”) formulates his new position using words that actually describe a materialist outlook, which is that sensation is “the direct connection between consciousness and the external world.”

This gives Lenin the opportunity to set forth what he thinks is the major fallacy of Idealism. “The sophism of idealist philosophy,” he says, “consists in the fact that it regards sensation as being not the connection between consciousness and the external world, but a fence, a wall, separating consciousness from the external world– not an image of the external phenomenon corresponding to the sensation, but as the ‘sole entity.'”

This is I think the MAIN POINT of this section.

Lenin ends this section with some remarks on three other Machians whose Idealism he is going to deal with: the English philosopher Karl Pearson [1857-1936, better known as the founder of mathematical statistics], and the physicists Pierre Duhem [1861-1916] and Henri Poincaré [1854-1912].


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This post was written by Thomas Riggins

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