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BEFORE CONSCIOUSNESS

Bogdanov was attacked savagely by the man usually regarded as the pioneer of Marxist philosophy in the Russian Empire, Georgi Plekhanov, in his little book Materialismus Militans [4], arguing that there is a real material world, that it exists independently of the human mind, that it is reflected more or less accurately in the human mind and that it has its own order which can be understood by the human mind. This was a continuation of a long struggle on Plekhanov's part against various attempts to combine Marxism with the other philosophical tendencies of the time, in particular 'neo-Kantianism'. Plekhanov was aligned with the 'Menshevik' wing of the Russian Social Democratic movement and for Lenin it was embarrassing that so many of the philosophical innovators should have been attracted to Bolshevism. The result was Materialism and Empirio-Criticism [5], actually Lenin's longest book, the fruit of a year's concentrated study and destined, of course, to become virtually the Bible for philosophy in the Soviet Union. It was probably directed as much against Plekhanov as against Bogdanov and his friends, as Lenin needed to wrest the leadership in philosophical matters out of Plekhanov's Menshevik hands. It is a more interesting and impressive book than Plekhanov's largely because although, like Plekhanov, he indulges in intemperate abuse of his enemies, he does give substantial extracts from their writings. Written from a clearly defined point of view and with an obvious political polemical intent, it still gives a useful and wide-ranging account of the intellectual atmosphere of the time. One of the first writers on the Bogdanov-Lenin controversy, Karl Ballestrem, describes it as 'a philosophical catastrophe'. [6] I cannot agree. I think it is a powerful defence of the capacity of the human mind through its sensations to reach objective truths about the world assumed to be external to our consciousness of it, a powerful defense of the way in which most of us experience and interact with the world ('naive realism' as it is known to the philosophers). I think he does detect many of the weaknesses and inconsistencies of the various attempts of the time to construct a half way house between pure Idealism and pure Materialism. As myself a pure Idealist I exult in it and feel it deserves more attention than I am giving it here.


[4] G.V.Plekhanov: Materialismus Militans, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1973. The book was originally published as three separate articles in 1908 and 1910.
[5] V.I.Lenin: Materialism and Empirio-criticism - critical reflections on a reactionary philosophy, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1970. The book, written in 1908, was first published in 1909.
[6] Karl G.Ballestrem: 'Lenin and Bogdanov', Studies in Soviet Thought, Vol 9, No 4 (1969), pp.283-310. 'Philosophical catastrophe' on p.283. Of course he is not just thinking of the book's own merits but of its subsequent use in Soviet philosophy.


Both Plekhanov and Lenin attach great importance to the existence of the world prior to the appearance of human beings capable of experiencing it, capable of sensation. Lenin recognises that this does not pose a problem for a consistent idealist such as Hegel: 'Hegel's absolute idealism is reconcilable with the existence of earth, nature and the physical universe without man, since nature is regarded as the "other being" of the absolute idea' (p.60). But it does represent a problem for Bogdanov, who claims to be a materialist but who has still declared that experience or sensation  is the stuff of reality. Bogdanov said in reply:

'When G. Plekhanov convinces us that ‘our planet’ existed earlier than humanity, he of course has in mind the earth, its specific position in the solar system, its subordination to the laws of inertia, gravity, etc. But what does it mean if one says that the earth is, and always has been, subordinated, let us say, to the law of gravity? According to this law, the attraction of bodies is proportional to their masses and inversely proportional to the distance between them. It is clear that the action of this law presupposes the measurement of mass and distance using, moreover, long-standing, exact measures which were worked out by consensus among people. This presupposes the algebraic operations of multiplication, raising to the square, division, which are carried out, clearly, by people. Throw out the ‘social practice’ of measurement – the establishment of units of measures, calculations, etc. – and nothing remains of the law of gravity. So if it is said that the law of gravity operated before there were human beings, then this is not the same as saying that it is independent of human beings.

'What we have here is simply conditional transference of our activity beyond its historical bounds. If humanity existed millions of years ago, and if it had utilised the same methods of measurement and calculation as we do, then it would have been able to comprehend astronomical phenomena with the help of such a law.

'If we completely abstract ourselves from humanity and its methods of labour and cognition, then there would be no physical experience, no world of regular phenomena. There would remain only the elemental spontaneity of the universe, which would know no laws, since it could not measure, calculate, or communicate. In order to understand it and to master it, we are obliged once again to introduce humanity, which would exert its efforts to struggle with that spontaneity, to know it, change it, and organise it. Then, once again, we would obtain physical experience, with its objective – i.e. socially worked-out and socially useful – regularity.' (pp.218-9)

Interestingly, much the same idea is expressed by Heidegger in Being and Time [7] (Dasein being Heidegger's term for human reality):

''There is truth only insofar as Dasein is and as long as it is. Beings are discovered only when Dasein is and only as long as Dasein is are they disclosed. Newton's laws, the law of contradiction, and any truth whatsoever, are true only so long as Dasein is. Before there was any Dasein, there was no truth; nor will there be any after Dasein is no more ... Before Newton's laws were discovered, they were not "true". From this it does not follow that they were false ... The laws became true through Newton, through them beings in themselves became accessible for Dasein ... That there are "eternal truths" will not be adequately proven until it is successfully demonstrated that Dasein has been and will be for all eternity. As long as this proof is lacking, the statement remains a fanciful assertion which does not gain legitimacy by being generally "believed" by philosophers ...' (p.217/227)


[7] Martin Heidegger: Being and Time, translated by Joan Stambaugh, Albany (State University of New York Press) 2010. Originally published in 1927. The two page references refer to the English translation and the standard German edition.


But we are left wondering why Bogdanov (and Mach) were so anxious to dissociate themselves from Kant's 'thing in itself' which, one would have thought, is the only possible option for anyone who believes in the existence of matter distinct from its existence in consciousness (or Consciousness). The 'thing in itself' is surely the only means by which the existence of matter can be defended against the powerful idealist arguments of George Berkeley. [8] And again one wonders why Bogdanov and Mach should be so anxious to distance themselves from Berkeley. Their understanding of the object, the perceived body, as a 'complex of sensations' is, as Lenin joyfully proves, pure Berkeley. The thing in itself saves them (should they wish to be saved) from Idealism, which presupposes that consciousness is something other than the consciousness of individuals. It may be noted that the founder of the school of psycho-physics, Gustav Fechner, could be called an idealist, taking idealism as a form of epiphenomenalism in which matter is an epiphenomenon of consciousness, the reverse of the definition I gave earlier of materialism. The only book of his that, to my knowledge, has been translated into English is an early, non-scientific text called The Little Book of life after death [9], published with an introduction by the American philosopher William James whom we shall encounter again shortly. According to James: 'God, for Fechner, is the totalised consciousness of the whole universe, of which the Earth's consciousness forms an element, just as in turn my human consciousness and yours form elements of the whole earth's consciousness.' (p.xvii) Although this could be called 'panpsychism' we will see shortly that it is very different from the panpsychism that has recently come to attention through the work of Galen Strawson.

[8] The dominant philosophical movement of the time was 'Neo-Kantian' and both writers were perhaps anxious to distance themselves from it. David Rowley tells us that Bogdanov initially developed his Empiriomonism in arguments with Nikolai Berdyaev (subsequently to be known as a leading Christian philosopher) when they were both exiles in Vologda at the turn of the century. Berdyaev, according to Rowley, was trying to develop a moral justification for revolutionary activity on the basis of Kant's idea of Justice as an a priori moral category. Bogdanov was attempting to develop an empirical theory of knowledge that excluded a priori categories. Following this account, then, Empiriomonism began as a reaction against Kant. David Rowley: 'Bogdanov and Lenin - epistemology and revolution', Studies in East European Thought, Vol 46, No 1 (March 1996), pp.1-19.

[9] Gustav Theodor Fechner: The Little Book of Life after Death, Boston (Little, Brown and Company) 1904. Originally published in German in 1836.

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