Materialism and Empirio-criticism [Part 4 ]

April 13, 2013 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Chapter One Section Two “The Discovery of the World Elements”

What are the “world elements” that Mach has supposedly discovered? In his “Mechanics” (1883) he wrote, “All natural science can only picture and represent complexes of those ELEMENTS which we ordinarily call SENSATIONS.”

Lenin says Mach is confused, because in “The Analysis of Sensations” he says, “A colour is a physical object when we consider its dependence, for instance, upon the source of illumination (other colours, temperatures, spaces and so forth). When we, however, consider its DEPENDENCE upon the RETINA … it is a PSYCHOLOGICAL object, a SENSATION.”

Here it seems physical and psychological objects are dissimilar. Lenin calls Mach’s view an “incoherent jumble.” It seems that Mach wants it both ways, but by having two sorts of objects, physical and a sensation, Mach has slipped into MATERIALISM despite his claim that there are only sensations and their complexes.

This is the viewpoint of natural science and materialism: “matter acting upon our sense-organs produces sensation.” The empirio-crticists seem either unaware of their problem here, or are just confused. Lenin quotes one of the most important followers of Mach and Avenarius, Joseph Petzoldt [ Ludwig Wittgenstein’s teacher ] who wrote that “In the statement that ‘sensations are the elements of the world’ one must guard against taking the term ‘sensation’ as denoting something only subjective and therefore ethereal, transforming the ordinary picture of the world into an illusion.”

This is really muddled and Lenin says he can’t help “harping” about it. He tells the empirio-criticists that they must give up their world elements and “simply say that colour is the result of the action of a physical object on the retina, which is the same as saying that sensation is a result of the action of matter on our sense organs.”

Lenin points out that in fact, as Mach and Avenarius grew older they began to modify their beliefs and materialist elements, as it were, forced themselves upon them. Here is the strong Machian position from “Analysis of Sensations”– ” It is not bodies that produce sensations, but complexes of elements (complexes of sensations) that make up bodies.”

But this view is somewhat modified. Avenarius, according to his disciple Rudolf Willy, ended up also accepting some form of “naive realism”– i.e., the stance of regular people that there are real existing things outside our minds. And his biographer, Oskar Ewald, conceded that he ended with a contradictory system with “idealist” and “realist” positions. [NOTE: Academic philosophy generally prefers the word “realist”. Lenin uses “materialist” in deference to Marx and Engels and because he thinks it is more honest.]

Back to Bogdanov Bashing: Bogdanov says he is not a Machian. He only took one thing from Mach. Yes, but what he took, Lenin says “is the BASIC ERROR of Machism.” And what is this basic error, the source of Bogdanov’s “philosophical misadventures”? It is that “the external world, matter” is thought to be “identical with sensations.”

Not only does he assert this, but he reproduces the equivocations and confusions of Avenarius et al when he writes in “Empirio-monism” that “insofar as the data of experience appear IN DEPENDENCE UPON THE STATE OF A PARTICULAR NERVOUS SYSTEM, they form the PSYCHICAL WORLD of that particular person; insofar as the data of experience are taken OUTSIDE OF SUCH A DEPENDENCE, we have before us the PHYSICAL WORLD.”

I would like to insert here a note on the use of the term “metaphysics.” In the period under discussion this was a term of abuse. Marxists referred to two groups as “metaphysicians”– the idealists and the mechanical [i.e., non-dialectical] materialists. Dialectical Materialism (Diamat) was a “science.” On the other hand idealists and agnostics (those neutral on the realism antirealism issue) called all the materialists “metaphysicians” for, as Lenin puts it, “it seems to them that to recognise the existence of an external world independent of the human mind is to transcend the bounds of experience.” Lenin will deal with this later in his book,

For the present I think the main point of this section was to show that “What appeared to Bogdanov to be truth is, as a matter of fact, confusion, a wavering between materialism and idealism.” This is due to the fact that “the amendment made by Mach and Avenarius to their original idealism amounts to making partial concessions to materialism.”

Coming up next: Section Three of Chapter One: “The Principal Co-ordination and ‘Naive Realism.'”


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This post was written by Thomas Riggins

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