Chapter Two "The Theory of Knowledge of Empirio-Criticism and of Dialectical Materialism II
Section One "The 'Thing-In-Itself', or V. Chernov Refutes Frederick Engels"
Lenin will be reacting to Chernov's article "Marxism and Transcendental Philosophy" from a 1907 collection of articles. Victor Chernov (1873-1952) was a founder of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, the Minister of Agriculture in the Provisional Government (1917), and an émigré in 1920. He later fought in the French Resistance and died in New York City.
Lenin has chosen Chernov to attack because, unlike the "Marxist" Machists who attack materialism in the guise of defending (!) Engels against Plekhanov, Chernov takes Engels head-on which makes him "a more principled [i.e., honest] literary antagonist than our comrades in party and opponents in philosophy."
Chernov, like many contemporary Marxians, seeks to divide Engels' thought from that of Marx calling his thinking "naive dogmatic materialism." Chernov is especially upset with Engels' argument against the Kantian "thing-in-itself."
For non philosophers, Kant's "thing-in itself" is roughly this: the world as experienced by us is filtered through our perceptual apparatus and mental structure so we experience a world of phenomena that appears to us in space and time (which are parts of our mental structure ) and we can never directly experience things-in-themselves (which do not, or may not, exist in “space and time” as we experience space and time) which give rise to the phenomenal world we experience.
The question is this-- can we know the "real" world (the "noumenal" world) or can we only know the "phenomenal" world? Kant thought his philosophy was a good reply to that of Hume who held that we only know our ideas and can't prove anything about where they come from. To get out of this scepticism Kant postulated a real noumenal world that was the basis of the law abiding phenomenal world our mental faculties revealed to us.
In his book "Ludwig Feuerbach, etc.," Engels said that the way to refute Kant with respect to our ability to know the real world as it is in-itself, not just for-us, is by practice: "The most telling refutation of this as of all other philosophical crotchets is practice, namely, experiment and industry. If we are able to prove the correctness of our conceptions of a natural process by making it ourselves, bringing it into being out of its conditions and making it serve our own purposes into the bargain, then there is an end to the Kantian incomprehensible [ungraspable] 'thing-in-itself.'"
Chernov becomes very upset with Engels over this and makes fun of his so-called "refutation" of the thing-in-itself. Of course,Kantians also accept the results of modern scientific practice so practically speaking a Kantian and a Materialist will be saying the same thing with just different words. The Materialist will appeal to a metaphysical principle of science called Occam's Razor (after William of Occam a 14th century Scholastic) which says "All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best " or "Don't multiply entities needlessly." In this case, why have two worlds (noumenal and phenomenal) in Kantianism when one will do the job in Materialism?
Lenin accuses Chernov of not understanding Engels' criticism. Engels' is not just criticizing Kant, but also Hume as well. What Hume and Kant have in common "is that they both in principle fence off the 'appearance' from that which appears, the perception from that which is perceived, the thing-for-us from the 'thing-in-itself'."
As we make new discoveries in science about the properties of the world, what was formerly unknown becomes known-- i.e., the unknown thing-in-self becomes known! In other words, Lenin says, when "we accept the point of view that human knowledge develops from ignorance" we will, as Engels indicated, find innumerable examples of the "transformation of 'things-in-themselves' into 'things-for-us.'" The classic example given by Engels is the discovery that alizarin, a coloring agent derived from plants, can also be produced from coal tar.
Lenin draws three conclusions from all this: 1) things exist outside of our consciousness; 2) there is no difference between noumena and phenomena, "only between what is known and what is not yet known"; 3) we have to use dialectics "to determine how knowledge emerges from ignorance.” [How, and if, dialectics is fundamentally different from scientific method is not a question we will go into here.]
So much for the critique of Engels' treatment of the "thing-in-itself." The next question has to do with whether there was a big difference between the views of Marx and those of Engels. The dispute centers on the interpretation of Marx's Second Thesis on Feuerbach: "The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory, but is a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the 'this-sidedness' [Diesseitigkeit] of his thinking. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question."
Chernov is using Plekhanov's translation into Russian which renders the passage with Diesseitigkeit as: prove thinking "does not stop at this side of phenomena" instead of the literal "prove the this-sidedness of thinking" [talk about Scholastic arguments!]. Plekhanov is accused of covering up a difference between Marx and Engels by making it look like, in the words of Chernov, "Marx, like Engels, asserted the knowability of things-in-themselves and the 'other-sidedness' of thinking."
This is a bogus argument, according to Lenin. Chernov should consult Marx himself if he has a problem with Plekhanov (who was only paraphrasing anyway.) Lenin claims that Chernov must be totally ignorant about materialism if he doesn't understand that all materialists consider the thing-in-itself as knowable and there is no difference between Marx, Engels, and Plekhanov. Lenin then cites some long paragraphs form a bourgeois author (A. Levy, La philosophie de Feuerbach et son influence sur la litterature allemande, Paris, 1904)-- which we need not go over-- to show that even people who don't claim to be socialists have no problem understanding Marx's materialism!
Section Two: "'Transcendance’, or V. Bazarof ‘revises’ Engels
Back to Bazarov! Having taken care of Chernov, Lenin now turns to a distortion of Engels by Bazarov. In "On Historical Materialism" (the introduction to Socialism: Utopian and Scientific) Engels criticizes Agnosticism (i.e., views such as Hume, Mill, Huxley, etc.). According to Lenin, the main point of the Agnostic "is that he does not go beyond sensations, that he stops on this side of phenomena, refusing to see anything 'certain' beyond this boundary of sensations." We have ideas and impressions but we don't know where they ultimately come from. The materialist takes the extra step (based on practice) and infers a real world of things of which our sensations are the reflections.
It is the whole Hume line that Engels takes on, not just this or that representative, for, as Lenin notes, "professional philosophers are very prone to call original systems the petty variations one or another of them makes in terminology or argument."
So how does "practice" refute the Hume agnostic (skeptic about things other than impressions and ideas: maybe there is something external causing the impression, maybe not-- who knows?) "If these perceptions have been wrong," Engels writes, "then our estimate of the use to which an object can be turned must also be wrong, and our attempt must fail." Therefore, images in the mind correspond to external things: "Verification of these images," Lenin says, " differentiation between true and false images, is given by practice."
Now let’s see how Bazarov goes about revising Engels! In the first place, Bazarov thinks that Engels is refuting Kant’s idealism in the passages under consideration, when it is Hume that is his target. This is because Bazarov doesn't know the difference between the two philosophies and confuses Kantianism with idealism in general. So, one more time: idealism holds that things equal our sensations, Kant says we only know our sensations but there is an unknowable thing-in-itself behind them, Hume is neutral-- he doesn't know where the sensations come from, and materialists (and objective Idealists such as Hegel) think the mind reflects (or at least acknowledges) an objective external reality.
Bazarov also says that Engels' argument refutes not only Kant, but also the materialist Plekhanov ( whom Bazarov calls an "idealist"! )-- this is because he wants to sneak in a Machist solution and doesn't want to take Engels head on. Bazarov says Plekhanov agrees that our sensations are subjective and that therefore that he holds the real world is beyond everything that is immediately given and so this makes him a Kantian idealist! This is nonsense because for Kant the beyond is an unknown thing-in-itself while for Engels and Plekhanov the beyond is a world of material ( i.e., independent) objects that are knowable by sensation by means of practice. Bazarov's critique is "nothing but wretched mystification" based on confusion and ignorance. Lenin also thinks Bazarov's use of the word "subjective" is loaded. Engels' speaks of human senses as reflecting the external world.
Lenin says Bazarov is "juggling" with quotes from Engels to try to lay the foundations for a Machist interpretation of Marxism. But you cannot be a Marxist without accepting the real existence of external objects without the mind "which by acting on our sense-organs evoke sensations." [Note that Marxists are not the only ones who hold this view but Marxists are a subset of the set of all those who hold this view.] Lenin also says "one can be a materialist and still differ on what constitutes the criterion of the correctness of the images presented by our senses." This is an important observation and should be noted. But what cannot be denied is that Bazarov is wrong to say that sense perception is "the reality existing outside us" sense perception, Lenin stresses, "is not the reality existing outside us, it is only the image of that reality."
At the end of this section Lenin deals with Bazarov's contention that Engels, unlike Plekhanov, does not have anything to say about what exists beyond the boundaries of sense perception. As Bazarov puts it, Engels "nowhere manifests a desire to perform that 'transcendence', that stepping beyond the boundaries of the perceptually given world."
This is where Bazarov tips his hand, using the word "transcendence", a technical term in Kantianism, to discuss Engels views. It is a transcendence, Kant says, to move from the perceptually given to the thing-in-itself, a move based on faith not knowledge. Hume, representing the agnostics, does not allow this move at all. Bazarov has taken a partial quote from Anti-Duhring and misrepresented it as if Engels had no opinion about the 'thing-in-itself."
Here is the full quote from Engels: "The unity of the world does not consist in its being, although its being is a precondition of its unity, as it certainly must first be, before it can be one. Being, indeed, is always an open question beyond the point of where our sphere of observation ends. The real unity of the world consists in its materiality, and this is proved not by a few juggled phrases, but by a long and wearisome development of philosophy and natural science."
It is obvious that by "where our sphere of observation ends" Engels is not, as Bazarov would have it, speaking about the boundary between perception and the Kantian "thing-in itself." He is talking about what we can say about the existence of things on the other side of the moon, or as Lenin puts it , "of men on Mars": things which are, so far, beyond the range of our knowledge. [But no longer so due to the growth of scientific knowledge since the time of Engels and Lenin.]
So much for Bazarov and his attempts to turn Engels into a crypto-Machist!
Next Up: we will go over the next two sections, 3 & 4, of Chapter Two.
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.