Chapter One Section Four: "Did Nature Exist Prior to Man?"
This seems to be a big problem for Empirio-criticism. Lenin will look at the views of Avenarius and his two followers R. Willy and J. Petzoldt (1862-1929) and see how this question is dealt with by two of the Russian "Marxist" Machists, V. Bazarov (1874-1939) and N. Valentinov (1880-1964).
Avenarius, as we know, has a two term co-ordination; Man-Nature, (with Man as the central term) to explain how we gain knowledge of the contents of the world. Since natural science clearly states that the earth existed before humans it would seem impossible to take the world's contents to be "complexes of sensations." Avenarius therefore introduces the notion of the "potential" into his philosophy.
When there are no actual humans there are "potential" humans to sense the complexes of sensations by which reality presents itself. Avenarius talks about embryonic humans-- they are not fully human but also not equal to zero. So also, before any actual humans there are "integral parts of the environment" that have the capacity to become human, etc. So we have a saving co-ordination of Potential(Man)-Nature. On the face of it this is a completely preposterous solution.
"No man at all educated or sound-minded," Lenin says, "doubts that the earth existed at a time when there could not have been any life on it, any sensation or any 'central term', and consequently the whole theory of Mach and Avenarius, from which it follows that the earth is a complex of sensations ('bodies are complexes of sensations') or 'complexes of elements in which the psychical and physical are identical', or a 'counter-term of which the central term can never be equal to zero', is philosophical obscurantism, the carrying of subjective idealism to absurdity."
Petzoldt, Lenin remarks, realized that Avenarius' position was ridiculous and decided to improve upon it. It is true that we can think about areas without or before there were human beings, he says, but "The epistemologically important question, however," Petzoldt writes, "is not whether we can think of such a region at all, but whether we are entitled to think of it as existing, or as having existed, independently of any individual mind."
We shall see that Petzoldt's attempt to improve on Avenarius is not any better than the original. Avenarius puts too much weight on the human self, whether actual or potential according to Petzoldt, whereas, "The only thing," he says, "the theory of knowledge should demand of any conceptions of that which is remote in space or time is that it be conceivable and can be uniquely determined; all the rest is a matter for the special sciences."
The expression "uniquely determined" is just Petzoldt's way of saying "the law of causality" according to Lenin. Petzoldt knows that natural science maintains the existence of the earth before humans and he also knows that Avenarius' lack "of the objective factor" in his philosophy puts it at odds with science and this has forced him "to resort to causality (unique determination). The earth existed, for its existence prior to man is causally connected with the present existence of the earth."
Petzoldt's "solution" actually wipes out the "complexes of sensations" hypothesis regarding the nature of the external world and he "only entangled himself still more, for only one solution is possible, viz., the recognition that the external world reflected by our mind exists independently of our mind."
Our old friend, the hapless R. Willy, is the next to try and save the "complexes of sensations." What could be experiencing the earth before there were humans? Well, he says, "we must simply regard the animal kingdom --- be it the most insignificant worm --- as primitive fellow-men if we regard animal life only in connection with general experience." So now a primitive worm is the stand in for human consciousness in the "principle co-ordination." Besides being a ludicrous theory it fails to solve the main issue because the earth existed before there were any primitive worms as well. The empirio-criticists should, I think, just have appealed to Berkeley because his concept of God would have solved their problems.
Willy came up with his worm argument in 1896, but he eventually abandoned it and returned to the fray in 1905 with a new solution to the problem. Forget about the so-called millions of years before man came into existence. Time too is a product of the complexes of sensations. This means, he goes on to say, "that things outside men are only impressions, bits of fantasy fabricated by men with the help of a few fragments we find around us ['fragments' of what?]. And why not? Need the philosopher fear the stream of life?"
Well, the answer to that is NO! I hope my fellow philosophers will all agree to that! But we cannot follow Willy to his carpe diem conclusion! "And so I say to myself: abandon all erudite system-making and grasp the moment [seize the day] the moment you are living in, the moment which alone brings happiness." Lenin is unimpressed. Rather than be forced by their own logic into a materialist acceptance of the objectivity of the world, the empirio-criticists scurry off into a solipsistic world of their own making. So much for them.
Lenin now wants to see how the home grown "Marxist"- Machists in Russia handle this problem. He will first discuss A. Bazarov, real name V.A. Rudnev, 1874-1939. Bazarov joined the party in 1896, was a Bolshevik from 1904 to 1907 and was a Menshevik from 1917 until 1919. After 1921 he was employed by the Soviet government as a planner. His demise in 1939 raised my suspicions, but he seems to have died naturally from what I could gather from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia.
Lenin is criticizing Bazarov's book Studies 'in' the Philosophy of Marxism. One of the main objections Lenin has to this book is that it treats Plekhanov (1856-1918, The Father of Russian Marxism) as the only representative of Materialism and ignores Marx and Engels! The work that Bazarov attacks is Plekhanov's Notes to Engels 'Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy' (1892).
In that work Plekhanov has a passage in which he asks the Idealists what was the world like in the period before there were humans, a period such as the Mesozoic era. Plekhanov is addressing himself to Kantians but his remarks are just as, if not more, applicable to Empirio-monism (the Russian version of Machism) as represented by Bogdanov and Bazarov.
In that remote period Plekhanov asks if it was the ichthyosauruses and the archaeopteryxes who were responsible for contemplating the world order? Idealism cannot answer this question hence it must be rejected as contrary to modern science.
This burns up Bazarov and he jumps all over Plekhanov saying that even he, Plekhanov, cannot know what "things-in-themselves" are like. We only know how they act on our senses and he quotes Plekhanov: "Apart from this action [on the senses] they possess no aspect." Therefore whatever Plekhanov had to say about ichthyosauruses and archaeopteryxes in attacking the Kantians applies equally to him.
Well, if Plekhanov burned up Bazarov, Bazarov has succeeded in burning up Lenin who proceeds to jump on him in turn. Lenin asks Bazarov if he is just taking cheap shots at Plekhanov ( having "a fencing bout " with him ) or is he actually trying to explain materialism. If he thought Plekhanov was wrong he should have explained the correct materialist position, but perhaps Bazarov is himself ignorant of the correct materialist teaching. "If Bazarov," Lenin says, "does not know that the fundamental premise of materialism is the recognition of the external world, of the existence of things outside and independent of our mind, this is a truly striking case of crass ignorance."
Well, Bazarov may be confused. Lenin is correct to say the existence of the external world "independent of our mind" is fundamental to materialism— but it is also compatible with objective idealism, as Lenin had earlier remarked himself when referring to Hegel back in Section 3: "Hegel's absolute idealism is reconcilable with the existence of the earth, nature, and the physical universe without man, since nature is regarded as the 'other being' of the absolute idea."
Unfortunately, Lenin makes a big mistake when he says here that Berkeley "rebuked the materialists for their recognition of 'objects in themselves' existing independently of our mind and reflected by our mind." Berkeley did rebuke materialists but not for believing that things exist independently from the human mind. The external world has an independent existence from human beings as the idea of God-- analogous to Hegel's other being of the Absolute Idea. Berkeley is thus an absolute (or objective) idealist. Except for the mislabeling of Berkeley, Lenin's argument is essentially correct.
Bazarov's fulminations against Plekhanov are off target. As for Valentinov, who supports Bazarov, we can ignore this gentleman as Lenin, in a brief paragraph, shows that his position is "an incoherent jumble of words."
Next Up: Chapter One Section FIVE: “DOES MAN THINK WITH THE HELP OF THE BRAIN?”
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.