Real Materialism Versus Marxian Materialism
by Philip Pilkington
I am currently rereading Paul Feyerabend’s excellent book Against Method. It’s a very good book and I find myself in agreement with an awful lot that is in it. I have noted, however, that the argument suffers in some places because of the author’s lack of concern about rigour.
In fact this is a constant problem in the book and it stems from the manner in which the author thinks. Feyerabend insists that empiricism as commonly understood is wrong. In a watered-down version of empiricism we must test theories against facts and if the facts refute them then we must throw away the theory. In plain empiricism then, the facts come first.
For Feyerabend, however, science often proceeds by making bold assertions that are only really proved after the fact. He thinks that the main process involved in scientific discovery is what we might refer to as ‘play’ — that is, the play of ideas, concepts and theories against themselves until a new constellation of thought emerges. I very much so agree with this approach but as I said it does lead to the risk that one might lose rigour. It also opens the way for people to somewhat arbitrarily push theories that are incoherent in the hope that they will someday be supported by some mixture of empirical relevance and consensus.
Feyerabend articulates in the third chapter what might be called the ‘paradox of dogmatic empiricism’. He makes the case that theories often generate their own facts — or, to put that differently, that certain new facts cannot be discovered without changing one’s theoretical apparatus. As I have written on this blog before I entirely agree with this assessment.
But such a view leads to the conclusion that it is perceptions that are primary. What I mean by that is something like “truth is in the eye of the beholder”. It is only by looking at something in a particular way that the relevant facts can be illuminated. That seems to imply either one of two things: (i) that there exists no real ‘material’ or ‘external’ world at all and that to be is to be perceived, this is the radical idealist position or (ii) that the ‘material’ or ‘external’ world is dependent on some ‘spiritual’ or ‘internal’ world, this is the dualist or rationalist position.
To be absolutely clear in what I am saying, Feyerabend’s argument implies that our theoretical preconceptions are like spotlights illuminating certain parts of our reality. But this must mean that they have a primacy — either they are all that really exists (radical idealism) or they are primary in relation to some external, material world (dualism/rationalism).
Later in the book, however, in chapter 12 Feyerabend appears to try to use his argument to justify a materialist position which he himself seems to hold. But if such a materialist position is indeed true then how on earth can our perceptions — that is, the theoretical ‘filters’ that we apply — matter at all? Surely, if all that IS is immediately given to us in the form of material reality and our consciousness is simply an outcome of material interactions — i.e. it does not play an active role in the world — then Feyerabend’s idea that theories have primacy over facts is wrong.
The reason for this confusion, I think, is because ‘materialism’ means two different things today. The first meaning — which is the correct meaning — is the materialism of the mechanists. I think here of the likes of Richard Dawkins, the biological determinists and the neuropsychologists. In times past we might have also referred to their cousins, the eugenicists and the phrenologists. This is true materialism as it holds that consciousness is wholly the product of physical forces that operate outside of our control. This is the materialism that George Berkeley was arguing against in the 18th century when he first proposed radical idealism.
The second meaning is what might be referred to as ‘Marxian materialism’. This, I think, is what Feyerabend has in mind in chapter 12. The problem is that Marxian materialism is not really materialism at all. It is a hodge podge of half-understood idealism and assertions about the nature of society. In actual materialism consciousness is subordinate to external physical forces — i.e. we live in a determinate universe. But in Marxian materialism consciousness — class consciousness — is THE activist force in history and can be shaped by the revolutionary vanguard.
One can find this in all the Marxian literature, from Lukacs to Althusser. The concern is always with ‘ideology’, ‘class consciousness’ and so forth. But a true materialist would laugh at this. “Consciousness,” they would say,
“is simply a product of genetic traits, it does not play an active role in history. We are all just machines subject to physical laws. It really doesn’t matter much what we think. This is, after all, just an outcome of the movements of atoms and so forth.”
In Marxian materialism, on the other hand, consciousness is assumed to play an activist role. “Men make their own history…” Marx writes at one point. But if this is true then Men cannot be wholly subject to a material reality outside of themselves. The Marxian will then typically respond “ah, you have misread your Marx…” (a typical refrain) “…his was a dialectical materialism, it took account of the interaction between consciousness and material reality in the form of the dialectic.” Well in that case it is not materialism at all. Indeed, it would be more accurately classified as “dialectical dualism” as it reconises two substances that are dialectically intertwined — that is, Consciousness/Spirit and Matter.
These mistakes plague philosophy today and they arise, as I have insisted before, because people do not understand the debate between George Berkeley and the materialists/dualists. Since that time idealism has become synonymous with the abstractionism of Hegel, when it was an anti-abstractionist philosophy in Berkeley, and materialism has become an empty signifier meaning anything and everything.
Thus it is that self-proclaimed materialists organise conferences on consciousness and socially constructed realities while not seeing that in actual materialism, to paraphrase Thatcher, there is no society because there are no emergent properties. There are only atoms and genes swirling around in a pre-determined vortex over which Man has no control.