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Defending Philosophy Once Again (Part 2)

Phil Sharpe

RON HEISLER seems to be outraged that anyone has the audacity to defend philosophy, and he repeats the claim that philosophy is obscurantist and elitist.1 His standpoint appears to be that philosophy is inherently in error about reality, but Marxist sociology is true and is the basis to substantiate the accuracy of claims about the nature of the world.

This approach is not new. It was vigorously defended by the French positivists such as Comte, and Gaston Bachelard is one of the most eminent 20th century defenders of this viewpoint. Ironically it was Bachelard who outlined the conception of the epistemological break, which became so influential in Althusserian circles. Hence we have arrived at an interesting paradox: the very Althusser so despised by Heisler is actually sympathetic to Heisler’s stance. Using the concept of the epistemological break, Althusser praised the scientific Marx, and rejected any philosophical impurities. Thus appreciative thanks from Althusser and Heisler for Bachelard! But Heisler wants to reject the intellectual origins of his stance – talk about biting the hand that feeds you!

But let us get serious. Heisler is defending the perspective of "modest" philosophy, the view that philosophy should bow down before science and accept the primacy of science, which is often called sociology in relation to social theory. This approach is defended by Marx, Kautsky, the early Lenin, Althusser, Analytical Marxism, and by many adherents of dialectical materialism. It is opposed by Dietzgen, the later Lenin, Adorno, Sartre, Ilyenkov and Bhaskar. They maintain that philosophy is integral to how we develop concepts for understanding reality, and about how we conceive the formation of knowledge. Possibly Engels, Lukács, Gramsci and Plekhanov are ambiguously in the vacillating centre on this question. This is because they recognise the importance of Marxism as a philosophical commentary about the divisions between materialism and idealism, but are also concerned to establish Marxism as primarily a science or praxis perspective. In other words, we have a real debate and tension within Marxist theory about the relationship of philosophy to science. The polemical words of Heisler will not resolve this dispute, but rather we can locate Heisler within the spectrum of this enduring and rich debate within Marxism.

One example of the complex relationship between philosophy and science is provided by the work of Sartre. His Critique of Dialectical Reason was concerned in historical materialist terms to establish a more profound and complex conception of the praxis of social reality.2 Sartre was anxious to show that praxis does not have a one-dimensional logic that results in the inevitable victory of communism. Hence he indicated the many ways in which the praxis of social activity can have unintended consequences, which are based upon the enduring ontological condition of material scarcity. In order to arrive at this enrichment of historical materialism Sartre philosophically reconstructs the concept of ontology, and shows that this concept is not about justifying an omnipotent being, or God. He also challenges the accommodation to positivism within many forms of Marxist philosophy, because this has provided a philosophical justification of teleological views of history. Thus it is because he has a profound knowledge of the history of philosophy, and its limitations, which enables Sartre to refine and develop historical materialism as a praxis perspective.

So, far from philosophy and science being unconnected and opposed rivals, it can be shown that the enrichment of one is the enrichment of the other. But (and this is a very important but) the relationship between philosophy and science is not that of equals. The relationship is unequal, because science is necessarily composed of particular theories about aspects of reality. The procedure by which we evaluate these theories is that of philosophical conceptualisation, and this is unavoidable whether Heisler likes it or not. Oizerman has shown in his history of philosophy that the attempt to defend science in a manner that avoids philosophical questions is an illusory quest. For scientific development continues to raise new questions about the relationship between being and consciousness; or constantly recreates the basic philosophical question about whether matter or consciousness is primary.3 Thus the development of the theory of relativity and Quantum mechanics has raised probing philosophical questions about whether the ontological status of matter is independent of the consciousness of the observer and interpreter of reality. Is the understanding that matter is expression of energy a challenge to materialism, or a conformation of idealism and various forms of positivism?4 These philosophical questions have continued to be enriched with the constant development of scientific theories about the world.

The advent of chaos theory raises important philosophical questions about the relationship between causality and contingency, and in uncritical positivist terms it seems that chaos theory upholds the postmodern view that chance is more ontologically plausible than objective and law governed process. The development of the Internet, and instant electronic communication, seems to vindicate the view that language is the most important aspect of social practice, and this is a challenge to the Marxist philosophical and historical conception of transforming praxis. For a type of consciousness is being privileged over the material content of praxis within social relations of production.

Whether we like it or not, the very progress in human knowledge about the world, as elaborated by science, continues to raise important philosophical questions and challenges for Marxism. In this context philosophy is structured within the very nature of reality, and is not an elitist irrelevance. But to dismiss the importance of philosophy is essentially to accept uncritically the philosophical consensus of the scientists about science, and this is the road to the acceptance of idealism, as Woods and Grant show in their analysis of the relationship of dialectical materialism to science.5 To show the materialist content of scientific advance is often to go against the prevailing consensus of the existing consciousness and ideology of the scientists. The very necessity of philosophy, and especially the need for dialectical materialism, and Bhaskar’s dialectical critical realism, is related to this discrepancy between the unreflective idealism and empiricism of the scientists and the materialist content of their theories and discoveries. (The alert reader will by now have noticed that there is an apparent contradiction between my adherence to materialism for explaining the relationship between nature and society, and my support for an idealist view of human history. This dualism may seem unsatisfactory, but is I believe ontologically sustainable.)

The complex connection between philosophy and science can be specifically outlined in relation to Bogdanov’s much disputed and controversial theory about reality, which connected human praxis to collective social experience. This theoretical conception was related to the latest advances in science. Lenin contested this theory, because to him it was related to a subjective idealist epistemology that upheld individual sensation as the primary basis of knowledge formation.6 Even if we think this is a harsh conclusion, and I do think it is harsh, Bogdanov is not necessarily out of the woods if we think that his possible concessions to subjective idealism undermine the collective aspects of his ontology. What makes this issue even more complicated is that Bogdanov is easily able to show that he does not defend a subjective idealist epistemology, because his ontology is based upon the primary collective nature of human thought and consciousness. (Unfortunately, this defence cut no ice with Lenin, who still got Bogdanov expelled from the Bolsheviks for various "deviations".)

The crucial question at issue is whether Bogdanov was over-reliant upon the positivist and subjective idealist epistemology of Ernst Mach, the distinguished scientist. Bogdanov repudiates this claim, and instead contends that his ontology and epistemology is based upon Marx’s Theses On Feuerbach. He wants to reject any sense of contemplative materialism within Marxism, as apparently defended by Plekhanov, because this leads to the Kantian separation of the thing-in-itself from the thing-for-us. Thus we could agree with Lenin that Bogdanov denies the independent primacy of the material world, but disagree with his claim that Bogdanov is a Machist. In contrast, we could possibly argue that Lenin is also in agreement with the contemplative materialism of Plekhanov.

The very complexity of this philosophical dispute shows that philosophy is very controversial, and Marx does not supply all the answers, a point well shown by Bogdanov’s convincing critique of the unreflective orthodoxy of Plekhanov. Personally, I critically support Plekhanov, despite important epistemological problems such as his lack of an alternative to Bogdanov, because he still upholds materialism against the pragmatic activism of Bogdanov! But, without Bogdanov’s innovative thinking about Marxist philosophy, it is possible that the later unorthodox advances beyond the limits of existing dialectical materialism would not have occurred as early as the 1920s. In other words, error can contain truth and truth contain error, and both philosophical advance and regression are possible, as Lenin understood by 1916, when he rejected his previous adherence to dogmatic materialism.

Hence we can make no sense of the claims and counterclaims in this famous dispute of 1907-10 unless we have some rudimentary knowledge of the history of philosophy. But, given that some Marxists seem to pride themselves in their lack of knowledge about philosophy, it seems that they are generally susceptible to uncritically supporting Lenin against Bogdanov, and so denouncing the latter’s "idealist" deviation. But, the more we know about philosophy, the less arrogant we become, because the more we realise that instant answers are untenable, and that instead we need to constant reflect upon our existing ideas. In our present context, the irony and tragedy of this particular polemic is that Heisler is no ignoramus, he knows something about philosophy, and yet he continues to insist that we should do our best to disguise this knowledge!

In specific terms, Heisler makes a number of important points. Firstly, in relation to the question of philosophy and ideology. The material and social content of philosophy as ideology has already been discussed in relation to the postmodern condition, and does not require further elaboration. But it is appropriate to also add that if philosophy has tendencies towards the justification of alienation within society this does not mean that we should dismiss philosophy. On the contrary, philosophy can also have a profoundly progressive role to play in outlining and opposing the reactionary role of many philosophical trends. For example, Bhaskar’s book Plato Etc shows how "irrealist" philosophy upholds and defends existing oppression and exploitation.7 Bhaskar is effectively arguing that without a philosophical critique of the various irrealist trends, the resulting reliance upon the spontaneity of a scientific consciousness is not sufficient to challenge the ideological domination of this irrealist trend. Indeed, social science, such as Marxist science, would not recognise this irrealism, and dismiss it as an irrelevant question. Consequently, it has to be discussed and established as to whether Marxism has not assumed the arrogance of a science that is no longer capable of reflecting upon its own limitations, a point which has been most magnificently made in the work of Adorno.

Secondly, Heisler is lyrical about the merits of sociology, and contrasts the achievements of sociology in comparison with the insignificance of philosophy. But where has he been in recent times? The rise and rise of postmodernism shows how a "modest" philosophical trend has established increasing "imperialist" domination over sociology. This point has been acknowledged in a recent introduction to sociological theory.8 Sociology is increasingly unable to uphold and sustain its analytical independence, because it has shown itself historically to be susceptible to accommodation to the latest philosophical trend, whether that be the form of empiricism, Marxism, or postmodernism. However, can we save sociology from itself? It requires independent philosophical justification, such as Bhaskar provided in his book The Possibility of Naturalism.9 Sociology is not impervious to the influence of important philosophical trends, and instead has become a site of struggle between these divergent philosophical ideas. Hence if sociology is to retain an oppositional, conceptual, and scientific status it must develop a philosophical standpoint that upholds and develops materialism and realism, and non-dogmatically rejects postmodernism.10 This task may seem to be an artificial one to Heisler, because to him sociology can generate its own independent theoretical credentials without philosophical support, but this view can only be sustained though ignoring what has actually been happening within sociology – or is it now postmodern media studies?

Thirdly, Heisler argues that Bhaskar is indifferent to the political role of the working class, and that no mention of this role is made in the Dialectic. Formally, his point seems to be uncontestable. But this is to miss the central point of Dialectic. For the exploited and oppressed cannot sustain an emancipatory praxis unless they become capable of philosophical reflection about their condition within society. Thus, the question of developing revolutionary subjectivity is connected to facilitating an understanding of our ontological condition, and establishing what is objectively necessary to transform the situation of alienation into the possibility of realising the "free development of each is the condition for the free development of all".11 It is difficult for Marxism to enhance this possibility in a reflective manner, because it does not critically analyse why its conception of theory and practice has important problems, such as the lack of an ethical aspect to the struggle to replace capitalism. This lack has facilitated the rise of Stalinism. So we are not talking about Bhaskar’s Dialectical Critical Realism as an opponent of Marxism; rather, what is being envisaged is the necessity of improved philosophical justification for the ultimate goal of Marxism, the establishment of a classless communist society. This means that the very critical role of Dialectical Critical Realism in relation to Marxism is far more useful and important for the aim of the emancipation of the proletariat than if it acted as a tame and subservient part of Marxist theory.

Fourthly, Heisler maintains that Bhaskar upholds an atomistic conception of the individual. This criticism says more about another important lack within Marxism, the lack of a theory of the individual. Plekhanov’s essay still remains the most substantial analysis of the role of the individual within history.12 Marxism has not been able to critically analyse the problem of the leadership of the world historical individual – the situation in which the charismatic individual seems to omnipotently express the class interests of the proletariat. Stalin was able to exploit the lack of reflection on this question, and to gain support as a substitute for Lenin as the latest personification of the aims of the proletariat. So you would think, given these historical problems, that Heisler would welcome comments from Bhaskar about the role of the individual. Not a bit of it. Instead Heisler expresses the theoretical and practical inconsistency of Marxism on this question, which is to repress the role of the individual in theory, and to glorify the role of the individual in practice. This is why he has a conception of the infallible Marx, etc.

In contrast, Bhaskar wants to challenge the inconsistent accommodation to the ideology of individualism by Marxism, but he does not do this in terms which suppress the role of individuals. On the contrary, he wants to show that we need to aspire to develop strong individuals in order to establish the classless society. We need to develop individuals with a sound sense of their own autonomy and self-reliance, and on this basis it is possible to establish the critical faculties necessary for collective and mutually supporting praxis. The ethics of cooperation, solidarity and trust, require that we develop ourselves as independently minded and reflective individuals, who are able to arrive at decisions without the means of an alienating and externally imposed authority. This point is made most systematically in From East to West.13 In this work Bhaskar shows that we all need to challenge the veil of ignorance of existing capitalism, and in order to achieve this level of enlightenment we need to develop both individually and collectively. But Marxism is almost embarrassed about any discussion of the role of the individual, and so tries to dismiss theoretical reflection about this question. Bhaskar’s analysis can only encourage clarification and further elaboration about this important, but neglected theoretical and practical task.

In conclusion, it can be said that both Mike Rooke and Ron Heisler have raised important questions about Bhaskar’s philosophy, and its relation to Marxism. Hopefully this discussion can continue, and encourage new polemic.


1. Ron Heisler, "To Bury A Binfull of Bhaskarites", What Next? No.20, 2001.

2. Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, Verso, London, 1991 pp.1-76

3. T.I. Oizerman, The Main Trends in Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1988, pp.258-262.

4. Ted Grant and Alan Woods, Reason In Revolt, WellRed Publications, London, 1995, pp.141-74.

5. Grant and Woods, pp.377-92.

6. E.V. Ilyenkov, Leninist Dialectics and the Metaphysics of Positivism, New Park, London, 1982, pp.18-55; Beryl Williams, Lenin, Pearson Education, Edinburgh, 2000, pp.47-50.

7. Roy Bhaskar, Plato Etc, Verso, London, 1995, pp.223-238.

8. Gary Browning, Abigail Halcli and Frank Webster, eds, Understanding Contemporary Society, Sage, London, 2000, pp.1-21.

9. Roy Bhaskar, The Possibility of Naturalism (second edition), Harvester Wheatsheaf, Hemel Hempstead, 1989, pp.37-71.

10. Derek Layder, Understanding Social Theory, Sage, London, 1994, pp.94-113.

11. Roy Bhaskar, Dialectic, London, Verso, 1993, pp.377-385.

12. Georgi Plekhanov, "On the Question of the Individual’s Role in History", in Selected Philosophical Works, Vol.2, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, pp.283-315; Alex Callinicos, Making History, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1987, pp.79-82.

13. Roy Bhaskar, From East to West, 2000, pp.148-52.