Dialectics of Nature or not?

Mia asked:

Hello, I am a student in middle school, and due to my unfortunate intellectual immaturity, I’m have trouble understanding dialectical materialism. I have two questions on the subject:

If you ever to look at, for example, Darwin’s theory of evolution, through a dialectical materialism thought process, how would your opinion on the subject change?

Why was dialectical materialism created? Did it support a certain political perspective?

Hope to hear from you soon.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

The term ‘Dialectical Materialism’ was first coined by Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov in his essay For the Sixtieth Anniversary of Hegel’s Death (1891). Developing upon the materialist inversion of GWF Hegel’s Idealist Dialectic, Dialectical Materialism (a term never used by Karl Marx) was proffered as providing an Ontology – an explanation of the processes of Nature. Applied to the history and movements of human society, Dialectical Materialism underpins Historical Materialism (or the ‘Materialist Conception of History as Marx called it).

Whereas for Hegel, the Dialectic was the movement of Reason/ God overcoming and incorporating its otherness in a cumulative, progressive teleology (see Encyclopedia Logic #79 for Hegel’s account of the Dialectic as the three moments of Understanding — Dialectic/ Negative Reason — Speculative/ Positive Reason), for Dialectical Materialism, nature actually and objectively changes Dialectically through contradictions and the overcoming of said contradictions. Marx himself never applied dialectics to nature but after his death, many Marxists did. To this day, such a move remains controversial.
Marx’s lifelong collaborator and friend Friedrich Engels composed an unfinished book Dialectics of Nature which was only published long after his death in the 1930’s. Here, he prescribed three ‘Laws’ of materialist dialectics which he extracted from Hegel.

1. Quantity into Quality. Where for example, an increase in temperature can cause a change in state (heated water boils and changes into steam)
2 Interpenetration of Opposites. Where the two sides of a contradiction mutually reinforce each other (e.g. the external and internal process of a plant seed both need and impede each other)
3. Negation of the Negation. Where what is impeding a process (the Negation) is itself negated (e.g. the seed is negated to become a root, the root is negated to become a flower, the flower is negated by the seeds it has produced. This is the site of Contradiction and it’s outcome although the above two ‘laws’ are involved in the dialectical process.

The so-called ‘three laws’ became sacrosanct and official philosophy in the Soviet Union, especially after Joseph Stalin published Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1938). An official if extremely crude Philosophy which gave intellectual support and legitimacy to the state which described itself as Marxist.

The veracity of Dialectical Materialism remains contentious among thinking Marxists. Western or Hegelian Marxists tend be be sceptical of any dialectics of Nature. Problems arise when, for instance, Scientific Laws which apply to Nature, are applied to Human beings. Natural Scientific Laws claim to account for phenomena which are mechanistic, blind, deterministic whereas, human beings are conscious, thinking beings capable of so-called free will: so can the former be applied to the latter?

Mia, if you haven’t already, you might want to read The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man by Engels. Engels employs Darwinian evolution to account for human development.

Karl Kautsky wrote quite a bit about Marxism and Darwinism in, for example Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History (Ch3. The Ethic of Darwinism). Finally, Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) who was a Paleontologist and Biologist, maintained that processes in Nature echoed the Laws of the Dialectic.

Transcendental wake-up call

Charles asked:

Why did Kant say Hume woke him up from his dogmatic slumber? How did he address the challenge Hume posed in respect of the problem of causality? In what sense does this response constitute a basis for Kant’s metaphysics?

Answer by Martin Jenkins


After his reading of David Hume, the problems raised by the latter’s Empiricism found a resonance in Kant.

Issues such as causality, necessary connection, personal identity were explored by Hume. In his ‘Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding’, Hume had concluded that Causality is not a definite, determinate event observed by the senses, it was the constant conjunction of two events enforced by custom and habit. The latter was found to be the basis of so called necessary connection. That a thrown stone may break glass, that the sun will rise tomorrow, that in the morning, the world will appear the same way it was on the previous night do not demonstrate any necessity. As such it is perfectly reasonable that what has always been in the past, may not be so in the future…

Regarding personal identity or the self, this too cannot be perceived. There are at most an association of ideas. Mustn’t there be some thing which associates the ideas, a ‘self’. Hume contends that the ‘self’ is itself, never encountered.

Transcendental Idealism

For Kant, the epistemological issues raised by Hume posed the question of the certainty of human knowledge. It seemed that Empiricism could not provide any certainty and left matters open to scepticism.

Kant’s response was to examine human experience and deduce that there were indeed, structures common to and which mediated human experience. As you mention, causality is one such structure. We do indeed perceive objects displaying succession in Time and in Space. The structures themselves are not experienced but are the very conditions of the possibility of human knowledge.

The structures or Transcendental Categories are a-priori inherent to the human intellect. They synthesise with intuitions gained through the senses to create synthetic a-priori judgements and consequently, knowledge. Accompanying this process is the Ego with its Synthetic Unity of Transcendental Apperception. Kant expounds how this happens in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781/7). The Transcendental Categories furnish apodeictic certainty thereby giving human understanding an indubitable grounding.; this contrary to the fortuitous nature of empirical contingency.

So, for human beings, neither a-posterior empiricism nor the pure, a-priori reasoning characteristic of Metaphysics can provide knowledge nor, what this knowledge precisely is. Transcendental Idealism can – according to Kant.

Starting and ending with Hegel

Luka asked:

What is or where is the best place to start with Hegel?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

I would start with Hegel’s ‘Lectures on the Philosophy of History’ — especially the Introduction. This gives a general overview of Hegel’s Philosophy as Human History being the progress of the consciousness of Freedom, culminating in Reason realising itself in the Rationally ordered state.

I also think that the three books constituting the ‘Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences’ (Logic, Nature and Geist (Mind)) are much easier (though by no means without problem) to understand than the larger works such as the ‘Science of Logic’, ‘Philosophy of Law’ and ‘The Phenomenology of Spirit’.

The first book of the Encyclopedia ‘Logic’ contains a shorter version of the ‘Science of Logic’.

In it, Hegel explains how the Mind of the Universe/ Nous/ God realises its thinking self from the immediacy of Being to a full, substantive understanding of itself and how it got there, in the Absolute Idea. Thus the foundational, epistemic and ontological certainty craved by Idealists, is arrived at. In ‘Encyclopedia Nature’, the Absolute Idea externalises itself in nature, making the processes of Nature intelligible. Finally, the externalised Absolute Idea, dialectically recovers itself in the ‘Encyclopedia Mind’. Here, Reason realises itself through human beings becoming conscious of themselves (in Geist or Thinking Thought/ Collective human consciousness) and in the construction of a Rational social order. The latter book can be described as a much briefer (and in my opinion, easier) account of themes contained in ‘The Phenomenology of Spirit’.

Hegel described his Absolute Idealism as a ‘circle of circles’, so that when the end is reached, (i.e. a reading and understanding of his Philosophy of course!), the mundane beginning presents itself — whether everyday Being-now rationally understood and operating or, as living by Laws expressing Freedom in the good society as constituted by and arrived at in Mind Absolute.

Good luck Luka.

Life is not a dream

Carla asks:

To what extent does Descartes dream argument threaten our knowledge of the external world?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

In the first Meditation of his Meditations on the First Philosophy, (1641), Descartes is seeking for a secure, indubitable foundation on which to base human knowledge. He begins by exploring what he perceives by means of his senses.

The senses have been and are deceptive so cannot be afforded uncritical accuracy. Yet surely they cannot be excluded from providing perception tout court? Descartes writes that he is aware of him sitting by a fire, attired in a dressing gown with a paper in his hand. To doubt the truth of this would be an act of madness — on a par with people who suffer from delusions and hallucinations.

Yet when sleeping, Descartes remarks that he dreams of equally improbable things — such as being seated by the fire ‘whilst all the time I was lying undressed in bed!’. So, he concludes that there are no certain marks distinguishing waking from sleeping. Surely the images experienced in dreams are copies and compositions of perceptions experienced when awake as they do display a certain regularity. More, such copies and compositions are based on the corporeal nature of objects in the world experienced when awake. Objects of a corporeal nature display extension, shape, quantity and magnitude and endure through time and in space. Disciplines which deal with such objects such as arithmetic, geometry employ content that is ‘certain and indubitable’.

“For whether I am awake or dreaming, 2 and 3 are 5, a square has no more than four sides; and it does not seem possible that truths so evident can ever be suspected of falsity.”

So there are certain truths which, whether sleeping or awake, are beyond doubt. These deal with a real, independently existing world that continues to exist when we are sleeping. Objects are real and sleeping with dreams is precisely that. Unfortunately, such ‘a priori’ truths can be doubted as, contends Descartes towards the end of Meditation One, a malevolent demon can be deceiving him into thinking they are correct.

The ‘Dream Argument’ begins Descartes dialectic of questioning what can be construed as providing Truth and certainty. In itself, I don’t think it threatens our knowledge of an external world. Firstly, the distinction between dreaming and not dreaming is employed which betrays an already existing epistemological understanding between the two. This distinction is pace G.E. Moore, part of our everyday, natural living. Secondly, the distinction between dreaming and waking can be upheld on the grounds that regularity and order are experienced when awake; whereas dreaming is qualitatively different. Thirdly, the questions can only be asked by means of Language. Language is arguably socially acquired and used. This presupposes the existence of other human beings existing in a social world. So the very use of language refutes the sceptical doubts Descartes is pondering.

Solipsistic Egoism?

Aleksander asked:

Can Max Stirner be considered a defender of “metaphysical solipsism” and “immaterialism”? Is there some relation between Stirner’s philosophy and George Berkeley’s philosophy? Is there some philosopher in history who defended “metaphysical solipsism”?

Answer By Martin Jenkins

To the first and second question — I don’t think so. To my knowledge, Stirner never writes that the world is immaterial or, advocates a variant of solipsism. He is understood as advocating a form of Egoism although this orthodox conclusion could be due to the translation of Eigen to ‘Ego’ when Stirner wanted to convey a wholly new philosophy.

His text might give the impression of solipsism as he does emphasise and write in ‘the first person’ — citing ‘I’, the Ego, me. The impression is misleading.

When Stirner writes about ‘Spooks’, he not saying the world is a ‘Spook’ and therefore immaterial, this is his description of Philosophies such as Christianity, Humanism, Communism which haunt the minds of people, which are wrongly posited as primary from which predicates or definitions of what is is to be human are derived. In this respect, he is following his contemporary Ludwig Feuerbach.

In criticising German Idealism and Hegel in particular, Ludwig Feuerbach observed that it practices the inversion of Subject and Object. Namely, instead of Thought being the predicate or object of the Human subject, the human becomes a predicate or object of Thought, where Thought is taken to be God, Reason, the Concept, Geist and so on.

Stirner continues this approach to Christianity etc, only what follows the inversion is not any universal human nature but only the ‘creative nothing’, a ‘Unique’. The ‘Unique’ is not a solipsist as s/he can associate with others for common aims in a ‘Union of Egos’. So ipso facto, solipsism is ruled out.


Any relation between George Berkeley and immaterialism? Berkeley’s philosophy can be described as a variant of Idealism. Stirner’s philosophy is regarded by some as the furthest development of Hegel’s Absolute Idealism. Indeed, in the early 1840’s Stirner frequented meetings of Young/Left Hegelians held at the Tippels Hostelry in Berlin, along with, amongst others, Frederick Engels.

Hegel’s held that historically and politically, Reason would dialectically supersede (Aufgehoben) its previous instantiations which had become unreason. Instrumental in achieving this was the Geist or collective consciousness of a people. That is, the Geist of a people would achieve self–consciousness of the unreason in society and act so as to reform it as instructed by Reason.

Not only does Stirner provide an account of History in the first part of The Ego and Its Ownness echoing Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, but arguably, the collective Geist is transformed in the Ego of individuals; any vestige of Idealism is replaced by materialism and right becomes essentially, material might. So even here, Idealism has been negated by materialism.

So Aleksander, I don’t think there is any relation between Stirner and Solipsism, Berkeley and Immaterialism.

The ways of Aquinas

Carolin asked:

Hi, I wonder what the steps for Aquinas’ Causal Argument for the Existence of God are. Thank you.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

In his ‘Summa Theologiae’, Aquinas posits his proofs for the existence of the Christian God as the ‘Five Ways’.

The first argument is the argument from Motion. It can be observed that things in the world are in motion. A thing in motion does not cause itself to move or be sui generis (this prevails only if one remains within the categories of Aristotelian metaphysics where a thing cannot be both actus and potentia at the same moment) but is caused to motion by some other thing. Whilst the potential for motion lies within the thing B, its actual motion must arise from some prior existing thing A actually in motion, which actualises the potential inherent in B.

This leads to an infinite regress in which there is no first mover. If there is no first mover then ‘there would not be a first mover and consequently, any other mover’. To avoid this argument from absurdity, there must be a First mover which is itself, not moved by anything. This first mover is God.

However, why does Aquinas, in this argument, find it objectionable that motion is infinite? Could he be accused assuming the truth of that which has yet to be proved, (Peticio Principi) as it is equally possible that motion has always existed?

The Second Argument is that from Efficient Cause. Again, the senses perceive a series of Efficient causes (i.e. A causes B, B causes C and so on) in the world. A thing cannot cause itself into existence (causa sui), it would have to exist before it exists so as to cause its own existence — which is impossible. So things, as effects, are caused into existence by a prior existing efficient cause. So there is a series of Efficient causes in the world. However, an infinite regress of efficient causes is impossible because a regress rules out a first cause and without a first cause, there would not be a subsequent effect and so, nothing would exist – which is absurd. So there cannot be an infinite regress and there must be a First cause of the series of efficient causes and this, is God.

Again, it is equally possible that there was no first cause and that what exists has always existed. Pace Spinoza…

The Third Argument is based on Possibility and Necessity. Things both exist and cease to exist, are generated and destroyed. If every thing was like this, then not existing is possible. If everything is such that not existing is possible for it, then at some time there was nothing in existence. But if nothing existed in the past, there would be nothing presently in existence for, from nothing comes nothing (ex nihilo nihil fit). Yet this is false, as we are here answering this question. Thus it is not true that all things exist possibly. There must be beings which necessarily exist. Some beings exist necessarily because they were caused to exist by other beings. But the problem of infinite regress applies here as it does in the Second Argument. So, there must be a being which exists by necessity and is not caused to exist by anything else. This being is God.

The fallacy committed here is in the drawing of the conclusion that nothing exists follows on from the fact that contingent beings exist. For whist some beings might not exist at any given time, others do exist. Possible existence does not give rise to the impossibility of existence — an erroneous position which then invites the need for a necessary being — God.

The Forth Argument is based on the degrees of reality or eminence found in existing things. That is, things display different quantitative levels in relation to an optimum. There are varying levels of existence, goodness and perfection in living things. God as the maximum epitome of existence, goodness and perfection is the cause of such things.

This line of argument is found in Aristotle’s ‘Metaphysics’. It argues that the cause of an effect must have sufficient perfection and reality to cause such effects and that the cause is present in those effects in a sliding scale of greater or lesser degree in relation to the cause itself.

The Final and Fifth Argument is a nascent Argument from Design/Teleology as a proof for the existence of God. Again, like all of the arguments in the Five Ways, it has its origin in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Non-thinking things can be observed to act in a purposive, directed way which, is always for the best outcome. It is not by chance that they act like this. If not by chance, it is because there is an intelligent being which directs non-thinking beings toward their ends (telos). The intelligent being is God.

God’s ‘Watermark’

Baseer asked:

How does Descartes use the Watermark argument to prove the existence of the external world?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

The Watermark or ‘mark of the craftsman’ argument is employed by Descartes as one of his arguments or proofs for the existence of God, not directly to prove the existence of an external world per se. The existence of a good, benevolent God would guarantee the continuous and independent existence of a world beyond the senses.

Its import is that what is in the effects of an act, must be in the cause of that act. An argument which can find its origin in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. The influence of this approach can be found in later Cosmological proofs and Arguments from Design for the existence of a creator God.

Anyway, to the 3rd Meditation and we find Descartes, after establishing that he is an existing because thinking thing, is searching for anything else which can be discerned by ‘clear and distinct’ apprehension.

He has images of things and a world that exists beyond him. He has no control over such images and, he has been taught by nature that such a world exists — its common sense, so to speak. Yet the ‘teachings of nature’ have previously misled him so, they are not indubitable. Again, it is possible that such images are undistinguishable from dreams. So, no conclusive, indubitable conclusions about the existence of a world existing independently of him.

What of ‘Objective Ideas’ as so concluded by his Judgement about ‘the Wax’ (see the Second Meditation). These must have as much reality in their effects as in their causes, as from where else would such reality in the effects arise from? The cause powers the effects, for out of nothing comes nothing (ex nihilo nihil fit) so an effect must draw its reality from an existing or, prior existing cause. The examples of the stone and of heat follow.

In light of this, Descartes then considers considers the idea of God. God is infinite. Only what is infinite cause can create infinite effects. The creation of the infinite cannot proceed from what is less perfect, from which contains less reality — it cannot emerge from anything finite. This is clear and distinct reasoning.

Arguing that he has not obtained the idea of God by means of his sense-organs, nor is it a fiction or product of his mind, Descartes concludes that the idea is innate.

“Certainly I ought not to find it strange that God, in creating me, has placed this in me, to be as it were, the mark of the craftsman imprinted on his work.”

A thinking Descartes could not produce the reality of the idea of God, (finite, imperfect cannot produce the infinite, perfect) so this God must exist and must have put the idea of himself in Descartes along with, the ‘natural light’ of ‘clear and distinct’ thinking which evidences the Idea and nature of God. For God has made him in his image and similitude.

Examination by the reasoning Mind upon the nature of God, upon his perfect, ultimate nature -which is free from defects — further concludes:

“And from all this it is sufficiently evident that He cannot be a deceiver, it being manifest by the natural light that all fraud and deception proceed from defect.”

God cannot deceive. He has created the real, existing world of object that Descartes has questioned. Additionally, God has imbued Descartes and human beings generally with the faculty of reason (clear and distinct ideas) by which the truth of things can be concluded. Finally, God has created the order of Nature — including the human body. What Nature teaches can be taken to be created by God and be discerned by thinking beings as Natural Laws.

Baseer, I hope this helps.