Dialectics in Science: An Interview with Helena Sheehan

by Ben Campbell on December 15, 2012

While today’s left has frayed into many strands, there was a time when the left presented, or at least aspired to present, a coherent Weltanschauung. This was Marxism, founded on Karl Marx’s brilliant synthesis of materialism and the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel, which led him and his collaborator Friedrich Engels to an unprecedented coalescence of existing human knowledge.

Today’s crisis of capitalism has, unsurprisingly, led to a renewed interest in Marxism. Yet any “return to Marx” will not be found in an exegesis of ancient texts but in grounding Marx’s materialist dialectic in the present. Just as Marx critiqued 19th-century advances by incorporating them into his thought, so too must the most promising developments of the last century be synthesized into a radical understanding for the present. Unfortunately, today’s left has for too long been relegated to social and cultural studies, ceding the “hard” discourse in economics and science to a new generation of vulgar scientistic “quants”. The resulting left has too often neglected a dialectical critique, in favor of a dichotomous relation to science.

It was not always so. In an attempt to recover some of the lost spirit of the scientific left, I will be interviewing subjects at the interface of science and the left. I begin today with Helena Sheehan, Professor Emerita at Dublin City University. Her research interests include science studies and the history of Marxism, and she is the author of Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History (available on her website).

Ben Campbell: The advances of 19th-century science were inseparable from the rise of “materialist” philosophy. While Marx certainly belongs to this tradition, he was also strongly influenced by German idealism, specifically the dialectical system of G.W.F. Hegel. What did a “dialectical” materialism mean for Marx, and how did he see it as an advance over the materialism of his day?

Helena Sheehan: The materialist philosophy of the 19th century was tending in a positivist direction. It was inclined to stress induction and to get stuck in a play of particulars. Marxism pulled this in the direction of a more historicist and more holistic materialism. It was an approach that overcame myopia, one that looked to the whole and didn’t get lost in the parts.

BC: You’ve written, “It is no accident that Marxism made its entry onto the historical stage at the same historical moment as Darwinism.” What do you mean by this, and what do you see as the connection between these two monumental figures?

HS: The idea of evolution was an idea whose time had come. It was in the air. Historical conditions ripen and set the intellectual agenda. Great thinkers are those who are awake to the historical process, those who gather up what is struggling for expression. Marx and Darwin were both great thinkers in this sense, although others were also coming to the same conclusions. Marx and Engels were far bolder than Darwin, carrying forward the realization of a naturalistic and developmental process beyond the origin of biological species into the realm of socio-historical institutions and human thought.

BC: Engels also wrote extensively on science, particularly in his manuscript Dialectics of Nature, unfinished and unpublished during his lifetime. What is it about this document, and Engels more generally, that has been so controversial in the history of Marxism’s relation to science?

HS: There is a tension in Marxist philosophy between its roots in the history of philosophy and its commitment to empirical knowledge. For the best Marxist thinkers, certainly for Marx and Engels themselves, it has been a creative interaction. However, some of those pulling toward German idealist philosophy, particularly that of Kant and Hegel, have brought into Marxism a hostility to the natural sciences, influenced by the Methodenstreit, an antagonistic conceptualization of the humanities versus the sciences, which has played out in various forms over the decades.

The critique of positivism has been bloated to an anti-science stance. The tendency of some to counterpose a humanistic Marx to a positivist Engels is not supported by historical evidence, as I have demonstrated at some length in my book.

BC: It seems to me that this synthesis of dialectical philosophy with materialism has always been contentious. On one hand, as you say, there is the danger of reducing an anti-positivist stance to an anti-scientific stance. On the other hand, there is the threat of “the dialectic” being reduced to a mere rhetorical flourish for an otherwise bare scientism. Other writers, like John Bellamy Foster, have argued that Marxism after Marx and Engels split along these lines. Do you agree with this assessment? After Marx and Engels, what or who best demonstrated the potential of a “dialectical” science to transcend this divide?

HS: No, I don’t agree with it. There have always been those who synthesized these two streams. Most familiar to me is the 1930s British Marxism of Bernal, Haldane, Caudwell, and others, and post-war Eastern European Marxism. Regarding the latter, it suffered from the orthodoxy of parties in power, but it wasn’t all catechetical dogmatism. In the United States, Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin. This would still characterize my own position today.

BC: Yet despite the ability of some to transcend it, there does seem to have historically been much ambiguity concerning what a “materialist dialectic” would really entail. Some, like philosopher David Bakhurst, have traced some of this ambiguity back to the philosophical writings of Lenin. Bakhurst argues that while Lenin appeared at times to advocate a “radical Hegelian realism”, at other times his philosophy failed to transcend a rather vulgar materialism. How did any such ambiguities in Lenin’s own writings contribute to subsequent debates in Soviet science?

HS: Yes, I would agree with that. Lenin could be very philosophically and politically sophisticated, but I never thought his philosophical position quite gelled. Some of his texts on reflection theory were epistemologically crude. As to the effect on Soviet debates, these were beset by the tendency to deal with writings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin as sacred texts. This rigidified further after the Bolshevization of all academic discipline, when there had to be one and only one legitimate Marxist position on every question. A quote from Lenin stopped any further debate.

BC: Such talk about the rigidity of Soviet science inevitably leads to the specter of T.D. Lysenko. For readers who may not be familiar, could you briefly describe Lysenko’s work? How would you respond to those who use Lysenko as a cautionary tale about the danger posed by Marxism or dialectical thinking to biology?

HS: T.D. Lysenko (1898–1976) was a Ukrainian agronomist who came to prominence in the U.S.S.R. in 1927 when his experiments in winter planting of peas were sensationalized by Pravda. He became lionized as a scientist close to his peasant roots who could serve the needs of Soviet agriculture in the spirit of the first Five-Year Plan. He then advanced the technique of vernalization to a theory of the phasic development of plants and then to a whole alternative approach to biology. This was in the context of wider debates in international science about genetics and evolution, about heredity and environment, about inheritance of acquired characteristics. It was also in the context of the Bolshevization of academic disciplines and the search for a proletarian biology and the purges of academic institutions.

The issues were many and complex. There has been a tendency to flatten them all out into Lysenkoism as a cautionary tale against philosophical or political “interference” in science. However, I believe that philosophy and politics are relevant to the theory and practice of science. Lysenkoism is a cautionary tale in the perils and pitfalls of certain approaches to that.

BC: If we turn from the Soviet philosophy of science to that of the non-Marxist West, you see a greater reluctance to mix philosophy with the content of science. Instead, a lot of canonical  “philosophy of science” (e.g., Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend) has more to do with scientific method. What does Marxism, with its emphasis on contradiction, have to say about the scientific method? I wonder specifically about Lakatos’ background in Hegelian Marxism and whether there are affinities there.

HS: One big difference between these two traditions in philosophy of science is that Marxism pursued questions of worldview, exploring the philosophical implications of the empirical sciences, setting it apart from the narrow methodologism of the other tradition.

However, Marxism also addressed questions of scientific method. There is an elaborate literature dealing with epistemological questions from a Marxist point of view. There have been many debates, but the mainstream position would be critical realism. What is distinctive about Marxism in this sphere is how it cuts through the dualism of realism versus social constructivism. Marxism has made the strongest claims of any intellectual tradition before or since about the socio-historical character of science, yet always affirmed its cognitive achievements.

The fact that Lakatos had a background in Marxism made him inclined to take a wider view than his later colleagues, but I find that he left a lot to be desired in that respect. Nevertheless, contra Feyerabend, I think that the project of specifying demarcation criteria, so central to the neo-positivist project, is a crucially important task.

BC: Karl Popper famously invoked a “falsifiability” criterion as a means of solving the demarcation problem, which refers to the question of how to distinguish science from non-science (or if that is even possible). Popper’s solution has influenced many scientists but has been strongly critiqued in philosophical circles. How does a Marxist approach inform this demarcation problem?

HS: There is a need for criteria to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate claims to knowledge. The positivist and neo-positivist traditions contributed much to the formulation of such criteria. They did so, however, from a base that was too narrow, employing criteria that were too restricted, leaving out of the picture too much that was all too real, excluding historical, psychological, sociological, metaphysical dimensions as irrelevant. Marxism agrees with the emphasis on empirical evidence and logical coherence, but brings the broader context to bear. It synthesizes the best of other epistemological positions: logical empiricism, rationalism, social constructivism.

BC: Today, Marxism stands at its weakest historically, right as the global economic crash seems to have most vindicated it. Similarly, Marxism has almost no direct influence on 21st-century science, yet discoveries and perspectives seem increasingly “dialectical” (e.g., biological emphases on complex systems, emergence, and circular causality). What do you make of the situation at present? Would it be possible to develop a “dialectical” or even “Marxist” science without Marxism as a political force? Or will science always be fragmented and one-sided so long as there remains no significant political challenge to capital?

Helena Sheehan at SYRIZA solidarity rally

HS: Yes, Marxism is at a low ebb as far as overt influence is concerned, precisely at a time when its analysis is most relevant and even most vindicated.

I think that people can come to many of the same realizations and conclusions as Marxists without calling themselves Marxists. However, I don’t think there can be any fully meaningful analysis of science that does not analyze it in relation to the dominant mode of production. Such an analysis shows how the capitalist mode of production brings about intellectual fragmentation as well as economic exploitation and social disintegration.

I don’t think that left parties having any chance of taking power in the future will be Marxist parties in the old sense, although Marxism will likely be a force within them. I am thinking particularly of SYRIZA, with whom I’ve been intensively engaged lately. One of the leading thinkers in SYRIZA is Aristides Baltas, a Marxist and a philosopher of science.

Thank you, Helena.

Monument to the Unknown Prothesis, by Heinrich Hoerle (1930)

{ 98 comments… read them below or add one }

David Berger December 15, 2012 at 11:01 am

Why does she use “Bolshevization” when most people would use “Stalinization”?

Her treatment of Lysenkoism as a “cautionary tale” is worrisome. People were murdered for this.



Ben Campbell December 15, 2012 at 12:15 pm

Feel free to check out her book (linked above to PDF version) for a far more extensive discussion on both Lysenko and the early debates in Soviet science, including what ‘Bolshevization’ was. Or read the second chapter of David Bakhurst’s excellent book for an overview of the debates between ‘mechanists’, ‘Deborinites’, and ‘Bolshevizers’. To simplify, the ‘Bolshevizers’ led an attack on the Deborinites as deviating from Lenin, the party line, and ‘proletarian science.’ Bolshevization was an ostensible ‘return to Lenin’ for the purpose of furthering the party’s ideological hegemony, beginning in the early 1930s.


Steven December 15, 2012 at 7:02 pm

The Bolsheviks preceded Stalin, and the two did not always concur. As for calling it a “cautionary tale”, there is literally nothing worrisome about doing so.


David Berger December 16, 2012 at 12:54 pm

(1) Do you need to be taught history? Stalin was the negation of Bolsheivsm.

(2) To call a cautionary tale a situation where a pseudo-marxist ideology was used as the justification for murder, seems to me a little light, to say the least.


Ben Campbell December 16, 2012 at 2:29 pm

FWIW, I was the one who used the term “cautionary tale” in the question I posed.


Joe Vaughan December 16, 2012 at 1:28 pm

This is a very important discussion, if for no other reason than that a Marxism that does not inherit the mantle of the Enlightenment, which is essentially the mantle of science free to account for actual data, has no claim in the long run to call itself scientific.

This is the flip side of the coin whereby the bourgeois ideology of science invariably uses data and conclusion from one area of science more or less metaphorically to suppress or trivialize data about class warfare. One example of this might be found in the intellectual trajectory of the notorious Irwin eVore, who was a pioneer in field studies of primate behavior–part of a much broader tendency that gave us unquestionably valuable work in that field alone–while ultimately justifying the crudest fakery in the field of anthropology by figures like deVore himself.

There is always a tendency to judge scientific results not by their stubborn and intractable relationship to data, but rather by the satisfaction to be taken in the narratives that can be constructed at one remove from data.

Unfortunately, this leads not only to deVorism but also to Lysenko-ism which, whatever its mysterious “complexities,” remains as clear-cut an example of scientific fakery, demagoguery, and charlatanism on a state scale as can well be imagined–transcending in its sinister consequences even the loathsome fakery of the notorious Cyril Burt in Britain, who was knighted because of a body of deliberately faked research supporting the theory of the innate intellectual inferiority of what are now called “Chavs” to the ruling classes.

The fact is that when “the dialectic” is carried to the ridiculous extent of asserting, for example, that positive and negative electricity–or the appearance of apparently contradictory facts in the physical microcosm according to Heisenberg–prove that Nature is dialectical, then science is lost and all that remains is narrative, just as in the case of the shell-game carried out by ruling-class apologists under the name of anthropology.

In the long run, such thinking can only reinforce the power quests of demagogues, whether they call themselves Marxists or something else. We saw too much of this in the twentieth century to go on repeating it in the twenty-first.


Ben Campbell December 16, 2012 at 2:53 pm

You seem to be advocating a rather simplistic empiricism, as though can simply interpret “data” without an a priori conception of how the world is. But, as Alfred North Whitehead put it, the very act of induction implies metaphysical assumptions. This is why philosophy is inescapably relevant to science. Not to treat the guy as a saint (he made many errors), but Engels put it well:

“Natural scientists believe that they free themselves from philosophy by ignoring it or abusing it… they are no less in bondage to philosophy, but unfortunately to the worst philosophy, and those who abuse philosophy most are slaves precisely to the worst vulgarised relics of the worst philosophies… It is only a question whether they want to be dominated by a bad fashionable philosophy or by a form of theoretical thought which rests on acquaintance with the history of thought and its achievements.”

Of course it is true that nobody wants to return to the days when “the dialectic” was, as I put it above, a “mere rhetorical flourish” applied to any and every observation as philosophical hand-waving. Nevertheless, there is compelling evidence that Hegel, who in writing Science of Logic was attempting to develop a logic of life, was really onto something with the whole “dialectic” thing, and that our contemporary science has come to many of the same conclusions without even realizing it. This is what I hope to get at in subsequent interviews that I have lined up – stay tuned. I hope that you keep reading, with an open mind, while staying critical.


Joe Vaughan December 16, 2012 at 5:49 pm

The use of the very personal adjectives “simplistic” and “naive” is a perhaps playful but nonetheless unmistakable ad hominem swipe of the paw.

Of course I would be banned from this site if I made the obvious reply in kind, which is, how could you of all people possibly know?

Hey–just kidding around here.

All joking aside, I think it’s fairly clear that as Marxists conceive of their materialism, it is not and at root cannot be metaphysical. So, while generations of political liberals (for example, the late Samuel H. Beer of Harvard) have found comfort in the metaphysics of Bergson and Whitehead, it is difficult to imagine any Marxist doing so, or–what is actually quite a different matter–setting Hegel back on his “spiritual” head, having once set him running on materialistic feet.

You of course are free to do so if you wish, but the context ought to be clear.

Generally speaking, the finding of the dialectic in nature by Marxists is not regarded by them as an exercise in metaphysics, but as a deeper inquest into purely material reality–even when it results in absurdities like finding dialectic in positive and negative electricity, which is quite commonplace in ordinary Marxist thinking (talk about simplistic).

Now for empiricism. Why would I object to this word, even stripped of the gratuitous personal connotations?

Empiricism is the view that all concepts originate in experience, that all concepts are about or applicable to things that can be experienced, or that all rationally acceptable beliefs or propositions are justifiable or knowable only through experience.

This places the responsibility for framing and verifying or falsifying propositions about reality entirely on the experiencing individual and not infrequently leads to a kind of subjectivism that is at the opposite pole from anything that has been recognized as scientific method for the past two hundred years or so.

Empiricism, for example, rules out the possibility that individuals can arrive by mathematical means at theories that then are validated by experiment, without which scientific progress cannot be made. The framing of hypotheses mathematically, followed by experimental testing, the method of Einstein and Newton alike, is impossible to a genuine empiricist.

Needless to say, I advocate nothing of the kind.

You may have meant to accuse me of “positivism,” but that is an entirely different matter.

I suggest that you read Karl Popper’s surprisingly nuanced essay, “What is Dialectic” for a legitimately challenging introduction to the debate between philosophers of science and Hegelian materialists (http://www.vordenker.de/ggphilosophy/popper_what-is-dialectic.pdf).

I am not a “Popperian”–whatever that may mean–especially when it comes to his all-out assault on Hegel and Marx– but this is a legitimately challenging piece of writing and will clarify your thinking whether you reject it or not, if you accept its rational core.


Ben Campbell December 16, 2012 at 6:25 pm

You are “not a Popperian” “especially when it comes to his all-out assault on Hegel” and yet you condescendingly recommend that I go read Popper’s tendentious anti-Hegelian screed.

Your long rant has challenged nothing about what I said; instead you have taken a reference I made to Whitehead (which could have been a reference to dozens of others making the same point), and launched into a boring rant against “metaphysics”, as though it were possible to act in the world without metaphysical assumptions (priors) about the way the world is.

Your definition of empiricism is peculiar. I imagine much of our difference comes down to differing definitions of “empiricism” and “metaphysics”, but frankly I am not particularly interested in hashing out these differences with someone so overtly hostile who has thus far said nothing of interest.


Joe Vaughan December 17, 2012 at 4:37 pm

Nonsense. You clearly do not understand what I wrote and are indulging in an hominem attack that does not deserve a further reply from me.


Brian S. December 17, 2012 at 2:06 pm

I’m entering this discussion a bit before I’ve been able to assimilate all the material, but I thought I’d better do so before this cat fight got out of hand.
I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Popper – Falsificationism ended the hold of inductionism and opened up space for a much richer exploration of the relationship between theory and fact. I think you can see falsificationism as in some ways a sort of dialectical framework (especially for a materialist dialectic) , based on a dynamic tension between concept and data, with neither supressing the other.
At a brief look Joe’s Popper article (which I wasn’t previously familiar with), doesn’t look to me like a “screed”: many of his points seem quite apposite.
I have always been rather influenced by Althusser’s argument that you can’t take a complex philosophical system like that of Hegel and simply “invert” it – Hegel’s idealism is bound to permeate the whole “problematic” of the system. As Althusser rather pithily expresses it: “a man on his head is the same man when he is finally walking on his feet”.


Ben Campbell December 17, 2012 at 5:44 pm

The subsequent articles in this series will address many of these issues, including the relation of Karl Popper to Hegel. I don’t want to give the whole thing away, but I stand by my statement that “What is Dialectic?” is tendentious (whether or not one thinks ‘screed’ is appropriate), as Popper does not appear to have any interest in actually understanding Hegel, instead reducing all of Hegel’s thoughts to triads and tropes.

I agree there is a lot more to a materialist dialectic than a mere “inversion”. Again, the second (or third) interview in this series will really get into this.


Joe Vaughan December 17, 2012 at 6:59 pm

I think you and I have similar ambivalence about Popper. I can’t say anything about Althusser because I really don’t know Althusser’s work at all.

The reason why I turned to Popper was that in the piece I cited he accepts the Marxist claim to have rendered Hegel a materialist and discusses it as a materialist view. He also accepts that facts can be contradictory (Heisenberg?) without requiring the sequence of what he calls “the Hegelian triad.”

Popper allows some role even so to the dialectical method, despite his intemperate comments about Hegel. This also surprises me.

Is Popper’s account of the “Hegelian triad” the last word on the subject? I am quite sure it isn’t even the first word.

But the usefulness of any account that finds it “naive” to demand that science be accountable to facts strikes me as nil.

I’m going to look for reviews of Sheehan’s book. This interview gives no flavor of any really distinctive contribution from her, and that may very well be unfair to the author.


Ben Campbell December 17, 2012 at 7:45 pm

Your initial post came across as “naive empiricism” because of the implication that science should fit the facts, rather than the narrative, as if facts could be separated from narrative. They cannot. Nobody is suggesting “facts” are unimportant, but rather that the observation of “facts” is inseparable from “narrative”.


Joe Vaughan December 17, 2012 at 10:35 pm

Well, OK.

Maybe what still bothers me is the apodictic quality of your assertions, which do not strike me as self-evident by any means.

But the success or failure of your initiative is not going to be determined by one person alone, me for example–or Proyect, or Claiborne, or even Binh–but ultimately by the people themselves, who will either coalesce or not coalesce into the movement that is meant to be formng here.

I leave the rest of this discussion to them.


Joe Vaughan December 17, 2012 at 7:01 pm

Previous comment was addressed to Brian S. in case there is any confusion.


Arthur December 18, 2012 at 12:39 am

Seriously guys, less academic jargon and less academic infighting. I’m REALLY interested in philosophy and believe its essential for changing the world. I have downloaded Sheehan to take a look when I have time. But if her style was anything like the above comments it couldn’t be of much interest.

Checkout Mao’s “On Practice” for a much better style of philosophical writing:



Brian S. December 18, 2012 at 10:39 am

@Joe Vaughan: I would encourage you to take a look at Althusser – the key essays, On the Young Marx, and Contradiction and Overdetermination are available online http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/index.htm along with other writings. When I first read them I found him a breath of fresh air, but his perspective is controversial and he’s not to everyone’s taste.
@Arthur: I’m hoping to look seriously at Sheehan’s book over the next week or so. If you want to post back here with your reflections we could open up the discussion a bit.


Arthur December 18, 2012 at 11:55 pm

I’ve just got as far as p44 (chapter 1 pdf 11) of Sheehan. Its definately in the authentic tradition and worth reading and studying fully. Unfortunately I won’t have time to do that for a while but I can certainly recommend it to others and look forward to any discussion here. (Style is nothing like above “academic” comments).


Bill Kerr December 21, 2012 at 11:04 pm

Just a belated thankyou to Ben Campbell for posting the interview with Helena Sheehan and links to her book. I’m doing some other reading on the nature of science (eg. Theory and Reality: an introduction to the philosophy of science by Peter Godfrey-Smith as one overview and starting point). So far, I’ve only had a quick look at Helena’s book but hope to delve into it more deeply.


Ben Campbell December 22, 2012 at 12:57 am

You’re welcome, Bill, and there’s more where this came from. I’ve actually read that book of Peter Godfrey-Smith’s, and I must say, be careful. I suppose it is a “good overview and starting point”, but everything is filtered through his own perspective, which is a pretty vulgar realism, and very far from Marxism. To the extent that he wishes to incorporate a broader sociology, it is based on “agent-based modeling” akin to neoclassical economics. Also, Godfrey-Smith does not at all do justice to the great Imre Lakatos. Nor does he do justice to sociology of science, or for that matter Bayesian philosophy of science – in fact, he seemingly introduces most of his subject matter simply for the purpose of dismissing it, on the way to present his own philosophy of science (which is a fairly uninteresting amalgam).

After you have the overview of Western philosophy of science I would recommend going straight to the source and reading “For and Against Method”, featuring the writings of Lakatos and Feyerabend. It is a wonderful dialectic between two conflicting perspectives and great friends (naturally the Marxist point of view is much closer to Lakatos).


Bill Kerr December 22, 2012 at 3:01 am

Ben, thanks for the critique of Peter Godfrey-Smith. I thought his overview of logical positivism and logical empiricism was useful but definitely needed follow up on some of the original sources, which he does provide, such as Quine. ie. I agree with you in that that his summations were not sufficiently cogent for me to actually reject logical positivism, I was left feeling merely that he was vaguely correct but that it needed far more argument. But he gave me enough clues to find the more detailed arguments.

For anyone interested, the introduction to For and Against Method is available here: http://www.cresa.eu/pdf/LIBRI%20MOTTERLINI/Dialogue%20For&Against%20Method.pdf

Ch 3 of Helena’s book provides an interpretation of Lenin’s critique of Mach and the various arguments going on then and their historical context. Initially, I’ve printed that one off for a closer look. The marxists I know find Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio Criticism more difficult to understand than even Marx’s Capital. My impression is that Helena’s book might fill an important gap since I’m not aware of other contemporary Marxist interpretations of science. So far, I like her overall framing but haven’t got sufficiently into the detail yet. Let us know of other relevant references, thanks Ben (marxism-philosophy-science).


Arthur January 23, 2013 at 10:46 pm

Intended to comment on this after reading more (including Ch 3) of Sheehan but still haven’t got around to it.

Later comments below certainly confirm that Bill hasn’t understood Lenin’s “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism”.

But as one of the Marxists Bill knows I can testify that it is much easier to understand than Marx’s Capital despite unavoidable use of some technical philosophical jargon.

Understaning this section would help sort out a lot of confusion below. It just isn’t that hard:



Bill Kerr December 27, 2012 at 7:39 pm

On page 10 (introduction) Helena outlines 5 different types of errors in interpreting the history of Marxism (I’ve rephrased it a bit since I found her words initially not clear)

1) unproblematic straight line correctness

2) it would have been an unproblematic straight line except for the Stalin “cult of the personality” problem

3) Certain heretical critics (eg. Lukacs) provide a reinterpretation of Marxism which is then accepted uncritically

4) Selected Marxist texts are given forced “readings” and then other interpretations are dismissed as “historicist”. An Althusserian once said to the author, “There is no such thing as history; there are only books on shelves”, which left her speechless.

5) The whole of Marxism is dismissed as the “illusion of the epoch” (reference to a book by HB Acton)

On page 12, in contrast, she outlines her approach to the history of Marxism:

1) It’s essential to delve into the “difficult matters” and “the self inflicted tragedies of the communist movement” … she disagrees totally with “the premises underlying the tradition of sacrificing truth to ‘partisanship’, in the name of which so many crimes against science and against humanity have been committed”

2) Even without Stalin the history of Marxism would not be an unproblematic straight line

3) She disagrees with the tendency of those who draw a sharp line b/w “creative” Marxists – Marx, Lukacs, Korsch and Gramsci – on one side and “dogmatic” Marxists – Engels, Lenin, Stalin – on the other side. Good and bad philosophers can be found on both sides of this divide. She likes Gramsci and Caudwell.

4) She is an unrepentant historicist – we cannot separate human thought from the context of human thinking without thoroughly distorting what it is. She adds in a footnote that such interpretations are not in opposition to structural, logical or systematic explanations.

[ on page 16 she elaborates further on her historical perspective:
“Most philosophers today are utterly oblivious to the fact that philosophy or science is historical, except in the most trivial and superficial sense. Even when they do look at the history of philosophy or science they do so in such a thoroughly ahistorical and noncontextual way, that anybody could virtually have said anything at any time. In philosophy, the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Descarte, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Carnap and Quine are treated as discrete and interchangeable units, virtually independent of time and place …”]

5) Rather than an “illusion of the epoch” she believes that however problematic Marxism remains (quoting Sartre) the unsurpassed philosophy of our time because of such features as its comprehensiveness, coherence and orientation towards science.

My thoughts:
There may be more than 5 ways to misunderstand the history of marxism. I don’t know enough to say whether her judgments about Gramsci and Caudwell as “the good guys” are correct or whether she is even looking in the right places to find answers. However, I do very much like her general framing of how to approach the history of Marxism
– the need to look into the dark places , to assess negatives as well as positives
– those who make errors may also have redeeming features; those who are mainly correct have probably also made important mistakes; we need to avoid the tendency of making black and white evaluations; nevetheless, categories such as correct and incorrect, friend and enemy are still valid categories in history and politics
– there is something about marxism (not yet identified here) that makes it worth pursuing as a key method of thinking to to both understanding history and solving current world problems; to confuse errors, even very significant errors, with a fundamentally flawed philosophy would be an even bigger mistake


Brian S. January 23, 2013 at 2:09 pm

Only just started to look at her work – she certainly writes extremely well, but I don’t know about her judgements. She clearly doesn’t like Althusser, but I don’t think she undestands what he’s saying. For me, Althusser’s key point about “historicism” is the rejection of the “essential section” – ie the idea that all the different structures which comprise a society (economy, politics, culture, ideas) all unfold as some integrated whole, so you can cut a slice through them (“the essential section”) and extract an holistic historical moment: the “19th century world” etc. Rather, he suggests, different structures have their own dynamics and you need to understand them in their particular development before you can start to look for their interrelatonship with other structures. So this is a rejection of simple “economic determinism” – you can’t explain economic marginalism a la Bukharin simply as “the economic theory of the leisure class” – you need first to understand its development in the sphere of ideas, and then perhaps you can explore how ideological structures are shaped by the economy, power structures etc.
Maybe not explaning this clearly- although it made huge sense to me when I first encountered it.


Bill Kerr January 23, 2013 at 7:25 pm

Althusser’s key point about “historicism” is the rejection of the “essential section” – ie the idea that all the different structures which comprise a society (economy, politics, culture, ideas) all unfold as some integrated whole, so you can cut a slice through them (“the essential section”) and extract an holistic historical moment: the “19th century world” etc. Rather, he suggests, different structures have their own dynamics and you need to understand them in their particular development before you can start to look for their interrelatonship with other structures

I’ve never understood Althusser since trying to read him 40 years ago. However, what you say above makes some sense to me.

I’ll elaborate more on the aboriginal thread. The issue of cultural relativism, when I look at it more closely, makes more sense to me when linked to the economic base. Culture is seen as more important when linked to land rights and less important when linked to economic development in the real (capitalist) economy and education designed to empower aboriginals to participate in that development. But certainly the holistic situation of aboriginal people after welfare poisoned them had to be analysed because most outsiders believed that their situation had improved (they had more “rights” in the abstract).


jim sharp December 27, 2012 at 9:14 pm

helen seems to have Caudwell as one of “the good guys”???
i sez gude on her for giving this old wage-slave this e/link
to caudwells “Liberty. A study in bourgeois illusion”
coz its been my kiss-mas you beaut reading which speaks
to my life’s practice & shared experiences


Ben Campbell December 29, 2012 at 8:02 pm

I’m not sure I understand your dialectic correctly, but if you are expressing appreciation for Caudwell, I wholeheartedly agree. Both Sheehan and John Bellamy Foster emphasize Caudwell as carrying on the spirit of Marx’s materialist dialectic. I recommend picking up the full volume of Caudwell’s “Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture”. It is disappointing that works from 1938 aren’t in the public domain, but Monthly Review Press republishes it.


Bill Kerr December 30, 2012 at 8:22 pm

Some thoughts on the use of the term “dialectical materialism”. As in “the trouble with is that they don’t understand dialectics”. Apparently Marx and Engels did not argue like this.

There is an issue of the confidence engendered by grasping a coherent world view. Christopher Caudwell is quoted as saying:

I think my weakness has been the lack of an integrated Weltanschauung. I mean one that includes my emotional, scientific and artistic needs. They have been more than usually disintegrated in me, I think, a characteristic of my generation exacerbated by the fact that, as you know, I have strong rationalising as well as artistic tendencies …

From what I can gather dialectics is always correct after the event or new discovery but there are other possible dialectical interpretations that turn out to be incorrect before the event or new discovery. The classic case is Lysenko’s Lamarkism, which appeared before the event as more optimistic about transforming the future than Mendel’s genetics.

[incidentally, this scientific argument is not yet over – see the 2005 work by Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb: Evolution in Four Dimensions]

Scientific discoveries such as quantum physics can be and are interpreted in different ways. They can be cited as consistent with a dialectical world view. Nevertheless, they caused all sorts of confusion amongst marxists as demonstrated by the arguments b/w Plehanov, Axelrod and Lenin. Eastern philosophies love quantum physics too because it is meant to show that matter is nebulous, therefore everything is nebulous, goes in circles, we can’t prove anything etc.

So, all dialectics is good for is that it is consistent with the world view that we don’t live in a fixed or static universe. Everything changes, everything is fluid, meanings of concepts and interactions can and do change. So far the universe has shown us that static or fixed views will always be wrong. But dialectics has NO, that is ZERO predictive power as to what our understanding of issues will turn out to be. It can suggest to us what might be wrong but not what might be correct.

It appears that good thinkers use it as part of their thinking process (eg. Marx in writing Capital acknowledge a debt to Hegel’s Logic and the dialectics in Grundrisse, his rough notes, is obvious) but they don’t go on about “dialectical materialism” as the one true way. To do that would be a form of dogma. Marx is famous for hardly writing anything about his “method” (except for a small section in “Contribution to a Critique …” – rather he just did the much more difficult work of analysing capitalism and how it worked.

To actually understand issues you have to study them in detail. I don’t see how the confidence of Chrisopher Caudwell in attaining an “integrated Weltanschauung” signifies anything important. Such confidence it seems can just as easily lead to overestimation of ones arguments and so there is a trade off with the benefits of “feeling confident” and hence working more productively.


Brian S. January 23, 2013 at 2:36 pm

I think we need to clarify what the status of “dialectics” or “dialectical thinking” is. In some versions it gets reified as some sort of grand theory of the universe. But when you boil it down its a simple – but quite important – concept: that we can’t understand the world as a fixed entity, but only as something that is constantly in change (and perhaps development), and that process of change frequently involves contradictions – ie states which are not one thing or another, but both things in fruitful tension with each other. From that point of view its not a “philosophy” but at best a methodology; and probably more accurately a”stance”.


Bill Kerr January 23, 2013 at 6:48 pm

Brian S

we can’t understand the world as a fixed entity, but only as something that is constantly in change (and perhaps development)

*perhaps* development expresses the same uncertainty that I feel

I don’t have a practical problem with dialectics as a stance as you describe it. I can see that some thinkers remain open to contradictions and possible “left field” interpretations whilst others remain stuck (dogmatic) in some aspect of their thought developed at an earlier stage – which may have been “correct” or useful then but is now out of date.

This comes up all the time. One issue being debated here is that imperialism can sometimes play a positive role, including US Imperialism, previously analysed in the Vietnam war era as the number one enemy. Another such issue debated here is the attitude of some greens, who have legitimate concerns about some issues (global warming, endangered species, etc.), and in projecting that concern into a wider political context become anti development in general. I can think of other examples but these are hot issues on this site, so I’ll use those.

What I see in some cases is one set of dogmas or blinkers quickly replaced with a new set, eg. denial of global warming rather than keeping an open mind about it

I have made (foolish?) attempts in the past based on Mao’s “On Contradiction” to discover the “laws” or at least some themes of contradiction. I did try to compare the dialectics of Mao with that of Noel Pearson. Here were some of my formulations:
– Dialectics as the way in which things develop
– Importance of all sided, concrete analysis and the identification of the principal contradiction
– identity of opposites (Mao); pyramid and radical centre (Pearson)
– Unevenness, not in equilibrium

Engels outlined some laws of dialectics: quantity into quality; interpenetration of opposites; negation of the negation (Sheehan pp. 40-41). I recall some other MLs being somewhat critical about this. eg. Mao said there was only one principle, not three (I recall in Mao Unrehearsed but I’ve lost my copy). I think others criticised it as being too Hegelian in some sense, I can’t remember the details. The point I’m making is that once dialectics becomes prescriptive rather than general then argument breaks out.

Dialectics is always fitted to new discoveries after the event. eg. the “new physics” is said to illustrate dialectics but those who claimed to be marxists had very different interpretations of the new physics when it happened. All it leads to is that we say after the event that some marxists are better at dialectics than other marxists. Lenin was better than Mach, Plekhanov etc. When it hardens up to some discoveries are more dialectical than others (dogma overrides science) then tragedy occurs as in the Lamarck case.

Putnam makes the point that logic is not an an priori fundamental but merely the form of coherent thought. (Rethinking Mathematical Necessity, in Words and Life). I don’t fully understand him yet, his desire to bury ontology. It appears to me that he has thought deeply about these issues and has something useful to say.

I can’t seen how anyone can credibly claim dialectics as an a priori fundamental. To claim everything was fluid would be refuted by the empirical discovery of something that wasn’t fluid. I’m not expecting that to happen; rather dialectics to me has the status of a very leaky umbrella, a filter not a blinker. Induction is criticised as metaphysical for these reasons, ie. too much global posturing.

It does push me in the general direction of thinking that historical materialism is overblown. What good thinkers do is merely solve real problems in the present. I can appreciate the analysis of someone who digs deeply into current issues such as the Iraq war, the war in Syria, indigenous issues etc. Marx has a great analysis of the inner workings of capitalism. I can’t think of any good reason to weave all that together into an overarching deep historical narrative. For those who think they are marxists I would simply say what is it about marx that makes you a marxist. What aspects of that general world view are unique to marx? My hypothesis is that good marxists today are merely good pragmatic (and democratic of course) thinkers. All the stuff about “party building” etc. is posturing, which I used to indulge in myself.

The deep historical narrative provides confidence and people need confidence. But it can also lead to over confidence as documented by Sheehan in the later Stalin years. btw I do think mao did a good corrective of those errors even though it was not sufficient in the long run. I’m very interested in the Nepali maoists position on multi party democracy but haven’t looked at in in any depth.


Brian S. January 24, 2013 at 7:57 am

@ Bill Kerr re dialectics: A continuing issue in the Philosophy of science is whether its an epistomology or an ontology: in other words is it trying to define the conditions for obtaining valid knowledge of the world, or is it trying to formulate a concept of what the world is (or how it works). Earlier work (e.g. Kuhn – and I think the post Kuhnians) was clearly on the epistemogical side of the debate. Later work has started to explore the other side – Bhaskar who I mentioned to you seems to have passed from one side to the other and now insists his views are ontological.
I think the same issue arises both in the history of dialectics and current attempts to explore it. (Another way of putting it: is the dialectic constitutive of the world?) The version I have been suggesting – method, stance, etc. is dialectics as epistemology. The hegelian version of the dialectic is clearly ontological: the dialectical concepts like contradiction, negation, sublation, conceptualise how the world is constituted. Now that makes sense in Hegelian idealism, because the world is Spirit and could incorporate such processes. (There’s a good wiki discussion of Hegel’s concept of aufheben- sublation or “negation of the negation” – which makes a lot of this clearer than I can express it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aufheben
But what happens if you “turn Hegel on his feet” and try to transfer the dialectic from an idealist to a materialist (realist) context or object? Can we really see the real world (physical and historical) as being constituted by dialectical categories in the same way as the World of Spirit? Engels and the diamat tradition seem to think so: when Engels talks about seeds germinating to produce plants which in turn produce more seeds, as negation , synthesis etc. he not just using an analytic metaphor – he’s seeing the dialectic as constitutive of the natural world.
This is getting overlong – so I’ll wind up: The epistemogical version would downshift the dialectic to an analytic method. To me this is far more coherent – but you may not like the company it puts you in in – more with Kant than with Hegel; with Bogdanov rather than Lenin . But I abandon factionalism when I try to study philosophy .


Arthur January 24, 2013 at 11:52 am

Heraclitus already understood dialectics as ontology. “EVERYTHING flows”. Real rivers cannot be stepped into twice, not just our conceptions of them.

“Logic is the science not of ex-
ternal forms of thought, but of
the laws of development “of all
material, natural and spiritual
things”, i.e., of the development
of the entire concrete content of
the world and of its cognition, i.e.,
the sum-total, the conclusion of the
History of knowledge of the world. ”


Ilyenkov emphasizes the opposition between subjective idealist (“Kantian”) reduction to epistemology and the Marxist identification of logic, dialectics and theory of knowledge.



Brian S. January 24, 2013 at 2:05 pm

Thanks for this, Arthur. The Heraclitus example is a bit limited, because it seems to be a single concept (so could be read as a “stance”): but it does seem to illustrate the problem -nicely what is a “real river” – the physical reality is water flowing through a physical channel (and we could add as part of a wider natural system); but the concept “river” is already a mental construct: we never step into the same water twice; but we often cross the same river. ) And if we want to undersatand something about our river we will get more mileage out of developing further mental constructs, like “hydrological systems” than we will out of seeking the negation of the negation in its depths.
I’ve never really engaged with Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks because I’ve always found them too fragmentary – but welcome the stimulus to look again. Again this quote provides a nice illustration: seems to say that the world can be understood (or at least partially understood to a significant degree) by the application of some system of (dialectical) Logic without the need for any concrete studies: very Hegelian, but not I think very Leninist.
Thanks for the Ilyenkov. Looks very relevant. Will get back to you.


Arthur January 25, 2013 at 9:03 am

The idea that dialectics should have “predictive power” and one should be able to simply deduce conclusions from it is a transparently absurd caricature (both from opponents and pseudo-supporters).

Obviously Lenin was very far from suggesting anything could be understood by the application of dialectical logic without concrete analysis.

Speaking of rivers:

“A river and the drops in this river.
The position of every drop, its relation
to the others; its connection with the
others; the direction of its movement;
its speed; the line of the movement—
straight, curved, circular, etc.—upwards,
downwards. The sum of the movement.
Concepts, as registration of individual
aspects of the movement, of individ-
ual drops (=“things”), of individual
“streams,” etc. There you have à peu
près[approximately] the picture of the world according
to Hegel’s Logic,—of course minus God
and the Absolute. ”



Bill Kerr January 24, 2013 at 3:58 pm

chris arthur: (The New Dialectic and Marx’s Capital) claims that there is global over-reach in the transfer of dialectics from Hegel to Marx to Illyenkov to science (but that it does apply to the capitalist economy because capitalism is such a weird system). It is this tendency to over reach which I am questioning

When Marx acknowledged the influence of Hegel’s dialec-
tic on his Capital he failed to explain how an idealist logic could assist a mate-
rialist science. He left the impression that one could preserve a logic while
inverting its ontological presuppositions. But this introduces a dichotomy
between form and content which is itself undialectical. Conversely it encour-
ages the belief that the dialectical logic of Capital could be extracted and
applied in other sciences (see E. V. Ilyenkov for example).14 Here, in this book,
I show that there is indeed an affinity between Hegel’s ‘Idea’ and the struc-
tural relations of commodities, money and capital, but only because of cer-
tain very peculiar properties of a money economy

FN14: Ilyenkov notices that value is the objective universal form of all commodities,
infers (wrongly) such a conception ‘cannot be explained by the specificity of the
subject-matter of political economy’ and therefore tries to find analogies in other
sciences, with pretty absurd results e.g. biology is all about ‘proteins’: Ilyenkov,
E. V. 1982 The Dialectic of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s ‘Capital’ , p. 224.


Bill Kerr January 30, 2013 at 7:39 pm

Thanks for comments about ontology and epistemology. I had to reread them a few times and do some further research since the whole issue of what these terms mean and how the overlap was not clear to me. btw not sure whether you saw my christopher arthur references to Ilyenkov here

I thought the part you explained well was how dialectics fits without problems into Hegel’s Spirit world (is ontology) but that it does not fit so easily when you turn Hegel on his head (materialist interpretation) because dialectics is not a material thing but an idea – and the definitions of that idea vary.

This perspective fits with Chris Arthurs viewpoint I think.

(I can put forward Putnam’s view on these questions if you want. Not sure whether you are interested there since you are so unimpressed by his critique of Kuhn – just posted then as I was writing this – it might be better if I try to reply there first)


jim sharp December 30, 2012 at 8:48 pm

thanks ben campbell
i’ve been an avid reader of monthly review
for over 50 years but somehow i misssed
“Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture”
but thank to you i’ve ordered it & again thanks
for bringing helena sheehan to our notice her essay
Has the red flag fallen ?
touched my class embers therefore
i penned this NYE haiku?

new years eve &
the bread line workers
journeying still


Bill Kerr January 2, 2013 at 7:25 pm

Lysenko Affair analysis:

I’ve always had difficulty understanding the varying histories or recommendations about the history of the USSR. “Stalin good”; “Stalin bad, Trotsky good”; Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”; George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”; “a Stalin led USSR defeated the Nazis”; “Stalin 70/30”; “Read more recent post archive opening histories”; “History is written by the winners” etc. Call me naive. You might think you understand it but I never have.

The author’s or recommender’s POV (Stalinist, Trotskyist, anti-marxists, liberals, humanists) always seem to overwhelm the complexity of the data. For many years I have put these questions into the too hard basket and remained a “doubtist”.

So, what appeals to me about a scientific history is that the data and hence the interpretation is relatively harder. Science has clearly progressed a lot in the past 150 years (going back to Marx and Engels) whereas “progress” in economics and politics, it could be argued, is more like heading off in tangents or going around in circles. Progress in science can’t be denied (even though the philosophy of science remains a difficult area) whereas progress in economic and politics is debatable eg. standard of living has gone up but the gap b/w rich and poor has widened.

Helena Sheehan has been strongly influenced by marxism and also remains open minded to different interpretations. As argued above I think her general framing of how to assess the history of marxism and the philosophy of science is a good one.

I’d strongly recommend Chapter 4, The October Revolution: Marxism in Power (the book is here). [So far I’ve read Chapters 1 (Engels) and 3 (Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio Criticism) as well,which are also good]. In Chapter 4 she traces the evolution of the various currents that eventually led to Soviet State support for Lysenko’s phoney science. Briefly, Lysenko promoted Lamarkism and opposed Genetics. After 1935 in the USSR ideological demogoguery progressively replaced useful, scientific, vigorous debate – at great and tragic cost.

It does make for grim reading in parts. It has helped me assess a part of history I’ve always felt uncertain about. It reveals the sorts of arguments and thinking behind them, used by both sides of the science debate, before the crude politics of power took over. I plan to delve into the style of discussion more: arguments that sound good at the time but turn out to be wrong (not finished yet). My motivation is an interest in what it means to have a scientific understanding of the world in a broad sense – and how that sometimes or often becomes derailed.


Bill Kerr January 15, 2013 at 8:23 pm

I bought the book referenced on p. 237 of Sheehan’s history –> Alex Weissberg’s Conspiracy of Silence (1952). I haven’t read it yet. Weissberg was a Polish Austrian physicist working in the USSR out of a commitment to socialist reconstruction (234). The book has a preface by Arthur Koestler (who of course is an interesting and controversial character in his own right). I read Koestler’s Darkness at Noon many years ago but didn’t realise at that time that it was based on Weissberg’s first hand account of arrest for plotting to assassinate Stalin and 3 year imprisonment. I was interested in the brief extract on p. 237 of Sheehan as to how confessions were extracted.

Koestler organised Nobel Prize winning scientists to intervene on Weissberg’s account, including Joliot-Curie who was a communist sympathiser. Einstein also intervened. Weissberg was expelled from the USSR and handed over to the Gestapo as part of the Germany-USSR non aggression pact.

More information here:
for example:

He remained in the GPU ( State Political Directorate) jail for three years, three times confessing under hardship and three times recanting what he had confessed. He would probably have disappeared in an administrative execution, if it weren’t for his Austrian nationality (that he had retained) and for the activity of his wife that (helped by Koestler) had letters written to Stalin by eminent physicists (including Einstein and Joliot-Curie) advocating his case.

In 1939, after the beginning of WW2, as a consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, all the german prisoners in the U.S.S.R. were handed to the Gestapo. Weissberg, as a Communist Jew, did not have an easy life, managed to escape, was in the Warsaw Ghetto and then joined the Polish Resistance, where he managed to survive through the war.
from http://www.arthurkoestler.com/abt_cro.htm

I also had a quick look at Grover Furr’s pro Stalin site http://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/ and did an advanced search for key figures in the Lysenko affair.
lysenko site:http://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/
vavilov site:http://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/
prezent site:http://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/

All of these searches came up with ZERO hits so it appears to me that Grover Furr has passed over this embarrassing moment in Stalin’s record, which is odd, for someone claiming to present a post archive opening comprehensive account of the Stalin years.


Bill Kerr January 22, 2013 at 5:27 pm

I mentioned philosopher Hilary Putnam on the aboriginal thread. A lot of his work can be downloaded from http://en.bookfi.org/s/?q=Hilary+Putnam&t=0

Some of his early formative work is quite technical and difficult. You need to know both maths and philosophy. Some of his latter work makes a lot of assumptions based on his early work. I’d suggest Reason, Truth and History (1981) as a good starting point. Not too hard and it does provide a great overview. This was written before he swung into support for pragmatism, which is more a feature of his later writings. Putnam is fairly famous for continually revising his views.

It’s relevant to the general topic of “dialectical materialism” because he does develop his own version.

eg. dialectics: “the mind and the world jointly make up the mind and the world” (p. xi of above reference)

He wouldn’t use materialism as an identifying label because its meaning is not clear enough for his purposes. He would be concerned that materialism would be identified with physicalism and (bad) reductionism. Truth, reference and justification are emergent, non reducible properties … Putnam’s dualism or pluralism is not one of minds and bodies, but of physical properties and intentional properties. This is from one of his other more recent essays: Three Kinds of Scientific Realism, In Words and Life, which is also available for download from the above link.

So, Daniel Dennett would also be relevant for his work on intentionality

I also found reading Quine’s Two Dogmas of Empiricism essential for understand holism, which I had previously thought was just a buzz word.

This is off topic perhaps but I would be interested in further discussion of Putnam’s philosophy with anyone who is interested.

He does critique marxism but you have to look hard to find that; it is not strident. Briefly, he sees marxism as an example of scientism, that “scientific socialism” promises too much because science itself is a limited, although valuable and successful, enterprise compared to the whole of human endeavour.


Brian S. January 23, 2013 at 6:23 am

Hi Bill – just to let you know that I’m intending to respond to your post, but tied up at the moment. Hope to get back later today. Brian.


Brian S. January 23, 2013 at 1:47 pm

Hi Bill – I am quite interested in this stuff, but out of touch. I did some philosophy of science as an undergrad longer ago than I care to remember: great fan of Thomas Kuhn, but don’t remember much more. I have also did an online course on Metaphysics a couple of years ago – it left me with an ambivalent feeling towards modern philosophy: some of it seems to me just going around in circles; other bits both exciting and a useful tool for clear thinking. I also come to this a bit (as I mentioned on a previous thread) through Louis Althusser’s critique of the Hegelian element in Marxist thought: this effectively splits off historical materialism from philosopy, and assigns the latter a more limited role which, it seems to me, has some affinity with currents in modern philosophy.
I don’t know if you are familiar with the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy http://www.iep.utm.edu/r/
A great resource: long, meaty, and dense reviews of key topics – but a bit arbitrary in its choice of themes – no entry on Putnam (although lots of references) or even for the Philosophy of Science!
The philosopher who has proably done the most work on the interface bewteen modern philosophy and Marxism is the Oxford philosopher Roy Bhaskar – founder of the school of “critical realism”, which has had a big impact in the UK, especially in the philosophy of social sciences. I kind of get the general idea (and am persuaded ) but haven’t really worked through the details. Good intro here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Bhaskar
Anyway, always open to a serious and systematic discussion on philosophy (although I’ll need a structure to keep at it). What do you suggest?


Bill Kerr January 24, 2013 at 7:58 pm

Andy Blunden has a critique of Bhaskar here: http://home.mira.net/~andy/works/bhaskar.htm

Brian, you might be interested in Andy’s work in general: http://home.mira.net/~andy/works/ (he’s one of the curators of the marxist archive). His current focus is Vygotsky but he has covered a lot of ground over the years and publishes a lot.

I just had a quick look at the two articles he wrote about epistemology in the 1998 section of his site (he has it organised by year). The first one is an historical account of evolving epistemologies which he links to changes in underlying social relations. The second one (Liberation epistemology) is far more controversial.

I’m not keeping up myself and hesitate to post links to material I haven’t studied properly myself but the Bhaskar article seemed particularly relevant.


Bill Kerr January 23, 2013 at 10:33 pm

I have thoughts about Kuhn and metaphysics, which I can write up. I can’t promise anything on Althusser.

Thanks for the links. I wasn’t aware of Bhaskar but he seems “strange” on a quick look. I’ve been using the plato stanford philosophy site for background information. http://plato.stanford.edu/

All I can suggest is keep posting on this thread until Ben starts the other philosophy threads he promised. Two people discussing philosophy is a 100% improvement on one, excuse my mechanical arithmetic.


Arthur January 23, 2013 at 11:13 pm

Its characteristic of the pseudo-left (and of bourgeois ideology generally) to avoid the concrete analysis of concrete conditions (materialism) and impose rigid dogmatic schemas instead of analysing development through the struggle of opposing aspects.

The current eclipse of Marxism results in all sorts of stuff being mistaken for Marxism. That is not a good reason to abandon it.

Best summaries I know of are Mao’s “On Practice” (link above) and “On Contradiction” (nearby).

I don’t see how any of the critiques above apply.

For a longer (but more flawed) version I recommend the Leningrad textbook on philosophy (from the anti-mechanist and anti-deborin school):


Also Tommy Jackson’s book conveys some of the spirit but unfortunately not yet available online.


Brian S. January 24, 2013 at 7:12 am

Hi Bill – I’m going to post a response to one of your posts above. But I think the idea of a new thread would be good. If you have something that you can write up – doesn’t matter too much exactly what its on (Kuhn would suit me) or how long (just needs to be long enough to introduce a thread – why don’t you send it to admin to kick start the process. Althusser was a fan of Mao (seemed to see him as a non-Hegelian) so there could be some possibilities there.


Brian S. January 24, 2013 at 7:16 am

@Bill KerrPS: also some good material for on the plato site – thanks for the tip


Bill Kerr January 26, 2013 at 8:57 pm

hi Brian,
Hilary Putnam has a critique of Kuhn in Reason, Truth and History, pp. 113-119. The section is titled Anarchism is self refuting.

I’ll give a brief summary:
He’s saying that Kuhn (when extreme) and Feyerabend argue that scientists in different times lived in different paradigms of rationality, that the way Galileo cf. Newton cf. Einstein viewed the world were incommensurable. Incommensurable not only for theoretical language but also for observational language.

So concepts such as temperature or electron have meanings so different across time that they cannot be translated –> “members of other cultures, including 17th C scientists, would be conceptualised by us only as animals producing responses to stimuli (including noises that curiously resemble English or Italian)”

Putnam’s response is that interpretative charity does work, that across time, culture and space we are “able to interpret one another’s beliefs, desires and utterances, to that it all makes some kind of sense”

In contrast, Kuhn argues that science only “progresses” instrumentally, that we improve performance in areas but this does not reflect any underlying reality

Another example is our understanding of the word “grass”. Even if speakers across time know that grass is a plant the conception of grass today involves photosynthesis and the conception of a plant 200 years ago did not. Without interpretative charity no statement about grass today could correlate with statements about grass 200 years ago.
(end of brief summary)

It’s been ages since I’ve read Kuhn but I’d trust that Putnam is representing his views accurately. Of course, Kuhn did change his views after his Structure of Scientific Revolutions was criticised so I’m not so sure how valid Putnam’s critique is for the later Kuhn but I had a sense that Putnam was covering that as well.


Brian S. January 28, 2013 at 4:00 pm

Hi Bill – I lost you for a while but managed to track this post down with Google. I’ve read the short Putnam critique and renewed my acquaintance with Kuhn – well worth it: my opinion of the book hasn’t diminhsed a jot over 40+ years. Frankly I’m not impressed by the Putnam argument. (Its clear Putnam has a thing about Kuhn). This essay is not focused on Kuhn – but he uses Kuhn as a strawman to target one of his bugbears – relativism. His first highly dubious move is to lump in Kuhn and Feyerabend: they are related thinkers (presumably Putnam is also a “related thinker to Kuhn” to Kuhn since he says he agrees with the main concepts of Kuhn’s work – paradigm, normal science, scientific revolution) , but Feyerabend was far wilder and went much further than Kuhn over these issues, so its inappropriate to treat them as if they had a single set of views.Yet Putnam merrily shuttles between K. And F. as if they were one mind.
Putnam accuses Kuhn of “extreme relativism” – presumably because his alleged relativism applies to both observational and theoretical knowledge. But I’m not even sure that Kuhn can be considered any kind of “relativist” at all – you have to ask “relative” to what – the answer is to the paradigm that a specific group of scientists is working in. But Kuhn’s epistemogical universe is not one in which a large number of scientists are floating at the same time all pursuing different paradigms, the scientific conclusions of which are deemed to be specific to the paradigm and incapable of rational comparative evaluation. That sort of situation can exist – but only when a scientific field is in crisis: when an existing paradigm is breaking down and a new dominant paradigm has yet to be established. Once this happens we are back into “normal science” and there is knowledge creation that is not really “relative” to anything (or, its relative to its paradigm but since that has secured a dominant position there’s no one outside the paradigm to seriously challenge it.
(Actually Kuhn’s position here is decidedly” anti-relativist: “Einstein’s theory can be accepted only with the recognition that Newton’s was wrong . From the viewpoint of this essay these two theories are fundamentally incompatible in the sense illustrated by the relation of Copernican to Ptolemaic astronomy.”)
The same is true with the issue of “incommensurabilty ” which Putnam concentrates his fire on. Again this doesn’t arise in a situation of “normal science” – why would a scientific worker be concerned to understand the conclusions of an outdated paradigm that had already been displaced by a more effective approach to scientific knowledge in their field? This is only an issue for Historians of Science, and since Kuhn is preeminently an historian of science it seems absurd to accuse him of using a scheme that would make such history impossible.
Kuhn barely uses the concept of incommensurabilty in the first version of SSR – it only features later in a postcript where he responds to critics, some of whom claim that he hasn’t dealt adequately with the transition from one paradigm to the next. So he devotes some time to that – a situation in which there will be two competing paradigms. Here he suggests there will be a problem of incommensurability – the two (or more) sides won’t be able to talk to each other because their different paradigms mean they will be looking at and seeing different things (both observationally and interpretively. Its in that sense that Kuhn talks about them operating “in different worlds.” Kuhn has various solutions to this problem – one of which is “translation” but he lays equal stress on “persuasion”.
“Translation allows the participants in a xommunication breakdown to to experience vicariously something of the merits and defects of each others points of view. (SSR: Postscript)
I think the problem here is partly that Kuhn is not a philosopher but an historian of science whose work has philosophical implications, which he has developed; and that Kuhn has a very holistic concept of the nature of knowledge and knowledge production. (hence his use of Gestalt examples) which Putnam does not share.
You might say that Putnam and Kuhn are working in differenct paradigms.


Bill Kerr January 28, 2013 at 5:52 pm

Putnam has a more detailed analysis of Kuhn in Realism with a Human Face (1990), essay 8. The Craving for Objectivity, pp. 121-131 available here http://www.scribd.com/doc/8296337/Realism-with-a-Human-Face-1990-Hilary-Putnam, which is written after the other analysis (1981) that I summarised and which you have read.

He does discuss Kuhn’s modifications of his initial theory in far more detail here. Due to other commitments I haven’t got time to summarise it today except to quote this bit:

Even if I cannot make full sense of Kuhn’s current position, I think that I have said enough to indicate the general nature of the development. This might be summed up in three stages. Stage 1: There is a doctrine of radical incommensurability, that is, impossibility of interpretation. Stage 2: The doctrine is softened. We can, it turns out, say something about theories which are incommensurable with our own, and we can use some notions (justification, rationality) across paradigm changes. Stage 3: Something which is thought to be better than interpretation is embraced and propounded, namely, the structural description of theories.

So, yes, Putnam’s paradigm is interpretative charity; Kuhn’s paradigm is structural descriptions. I’ll attempt to get back to it when I have more time. I don’t think I fully understand the implications at this stage.


Brian S. January 29, 2013 at 7:43 am

Thanks Bill: I’ll try to take a look at this. (Although I don’t currently subsscribe to Scribd, so can’t access the full text: maybe can locate it elsewhere.) Most of my comments were based on Kuhn’s original position (ie 1962 SSR) with some inclusion of his views in the 1969 Postscript: but the latter, as far as “incommensurability” is concerned , was far more an elaboration and defence of his original view than a modification. I think my previous post has made the case that Kuhn has NEVER held a concept of “incommensurability” that involved “impossibility of interpretation”. Quite the opposite. And indeed, as Kuhn more or less says at one point, how could an historian of science hold such a view?
Part of the problem, I think – but need to explore further – is that Putnam seems to treat Kuhn as if he is propounding a general epistemology or theory of cognition. But Kuhn’s project is quite different (there are a couple of minor hints in SSR that a “paradigm” approach could be applied to everyday cognition, but they are not developed and don’t form part of his work) – its more focused, and much richer. And potentially more dialectical – for Kuhn science is a practice (praxis) and his notion of the development of science comes close to viewing a paradigm shift as an aufhebung.
Anway we should probably try and shift this dicussion from a defence (or not) of Kuhn towards an exploration of the issues. For that I need to do a bit more reading.
How would you conceptualise the issue or issues that are involved here, or that interest you most?


Brian S. January 29, 2013 at 9:28 am

PS: Don’t know if you’ve seen this interview with Putnam by Brian Magee: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cG3sfrK5B4E
“Today when we look up into space we have a different experience than someone with a mediaeval world view”
Doesn’t ” a different experience” imply incommensurability? The only difference I see here is that Putnam presents the issue as one of passive perception; whereas Kuhn looks at the implication for active investigation – he notes that not only was post-Copernican perception of the heavens different, but it produced a very different investigative programme, which led to the discovery of hundreds of new celestial bodies in a short space of time (“a new world”)


Bill Kerr January 30, 2013 at 8:30 am

hi Brian,

> Although I don’t currently subsscribe to Scribd, so can’t access the full text: maybe can locate it elsewhere

try http://en.bookfi.org/book/751035 or failing that I can send it to you if you write to billkerr (at) gmail (dot) com

> I think my previous post has made the case that Kuhn has NEVER held a concept of “incommensurability” that involved “impossibility of interpretation”

I read another account of Kuhn today by Peter Godfrey-Smith, Ch 5 and 6 of Theory and Reality and he sees it as a problem in Kuhn’s work as well. The authors I am reading say that Kuhn started off saying that the paradigm is the measure but then he progressively softened his position.

eg. Putnam says, “Kuhn still maintains that we cannot interpret the term phlogiston in the language that present day scientists use” (p. 127) Realism with a Human Face

Godfrey Smith quotes Kuhn as saying this:

At the very least, as a result of discovering oxygen, Lavoisier saw nature differently. And in the absence of some recourse to that hypothetical fixed nature that he “saw differently,” the principle of economy will urge us to say that after discovering oxygen Lavoisier worked in a different world. (1996, 118)

I read this as saying that the world itself changed not just the way Lavoisier’s experienced it. Godfrey Smith says Ch 10 is the problem in Kuhn’s Structure … .

That would be my reply as well to the quote Putnam video you linked to (thanks for that one)

Godfrey Smith identifies some other problems with Kuhn’s work when compared to Popper and Lakatos. The criticism is that Kuhn is too obsessed with structure or paradigm. With normal science there is meant to be no questioning of the structure. He compares this with Popper who says that at least some scientists maintain a permanent openness (p.78).

Translating this to the political arena couldn’t we say that there is always a minority who are thinking about revolutionary possibilities even in times when capitalism seems stable? Wouldn’t there be a similar minority in science communities?

> for Kuhn science is a practice (praxis) and his notion of the development of science comes close to viewing a paradigm shift as an aufhebung

I read Koestler’s science books such as The Sleepwalkers and The Act of Creation before Kuhn, so could never quite work out what the excitement about Kuhn was about. I mean political and scientific revolutions were happening long before Kuhn wrote. I was aware that science had a revolutionary aspect to it even if that was never covered in science courses at Uni. But clearly you have got something out of it that I missed.

> How would you conceptualise the issue or issues that are involved here, or that interest you most?

The issues raised by Putnam are broader. I pasted a section from his Reason, Truth and History here. It’s abstract and theoretical in that extract but for me has significant implications as an over arching way of viewing and living in the world, incorporating aspects which marxism doesn’t touch significantly. I’m still thinking about these issues and have a way to go.

I’m happy to keep talking about Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos etc. because I see that as necessary preliminary to getting to where Putnam is at and assessing whether he is on the right track – so your comments challenging his interpretations are very relevant to the whole enterprise, as I see it.


Brian S. January 30, 2013 at 7:19 pm

Hi Bill- thanks for the link : seems to have worked fine. I agree with you that the discussion of Kuhn, Popper et al. is as good a way as any of approaching the issues that are at stake here. So let’s continue in that vein.
From what you’ve quoted it does seem that Kuhn moved to “soften” his position, but I haven’t seen his arguments (as I said I don’t regard the 1969 Postscript as a softening) and I’m not sure that his movements in response to criticism are always necessary or even positive.
(Let me get something off my chest here: the more I read of Putnam the more I dislike him. In the course of a 5 page discussion of Kuhn he doesn’t provide a single quotation from him or a single reference – rather reminds me of Lenin. And most of his criticisms are based on misrepresentations.
For example he attributes to Kuhn “The idea that paradigm shifts are just things that happen” But that is nonsense – the main part of Kuhn’s work involves showing how paradigm shifts emerge through developments in a “normal science”- an accumulation of results that don’t fit in with the prevailing scheme, followed by a reformulated approach, followed by a period of crisis and debate in which alternative paradigms compete, and closing with the broad adoption of the new paradigm with in the relvant scientific community. And he sketches that out in both general terms and a series of case studies, (that’s where the stuff about phlogiston etc comes in).
To quote Putnam a bit more extensively:
“Kuhn still maintains that we cannot interpret the term phlogiston in the language that present-day scientists use; but what this in fact means is that we must use a highly indirect mode of interpretation, which involves describing the entire phlogiston theory, its set of intended pplications, and its set of admissible models in order to say what phlogiston means.”
I’m not sure what the first part of the first sentence means – and I don’t see Kuhn saying that (at least in so many words) . The second part seems to contradict Putnam’s ‘s main argument: ie he appears to admit that Kuhn does believe you can translate the language of one paradigm into that of another, but by a “highly indirect mode” (I don’t know what’s “indirect” about it). But isn’t that right?
Let’s assume we have a recently qualified chemist who has never hear of the phlogiston theory before (or for a closer example in a “thought experiment” – imagine a modern chemist transported back to the 18th century) . He may ask someone “what’s this phlogiston you keep talking about”; someone can then give him an ordinary language definition like “its an element present in some materials that is released in the process of combustion” But as a modern scientist that’s not going to mean very much – so he’s going to want to know how this substance was identified, how it relates to the process of combustion, what experiments has it led to, etc. In other words he’s going to need “the entire phlogiston theory, etc” before he can really understand what the 18th century chemists were talking about.


Bill Kerr January 30, 2013 at 8:02 pm

I’ll have a closer look at Putnam’s comments about Kuhn, thanks for the critique of Putnam.

[amusing aside: I gather that Putnam and Kuhn are friends btw from this statement in the Preface to Reason, Truth and History: “Thomas Kuhn and Ruth Anna Putnam have studied drafts of this book and given me able criticism and wise advice” (p. xii) Makes me laugh when you say that Putnam unceremoniously trashes Kuhn in unreasonable fashion. But of course does not refute your argument, so you may have the last laugh]

The other book I was reading that I mentioned Peter Godfrey Smith’s Theory and Reality can be downloaded from http://en.bookfi.org/book/1200166 (hope that works)

He has 2 chapters on Kuhn (5 and 6) and chapter 4 is about Popper with chapter 5 about Lakatos and others. His treatment of Kuhn is sympathetic but he argues that Kuhn is internally inconsistent. He also mentions criticisms of Kuhn from the perspective of Popper and Lakatos. I’m still reading.


Brian S. January 31, 2013 at 10:23 am

Thanks again, Bill: I’ll take a look. I also find inconsistencies in Kuhn’s work: for example his claim about different paradigms generating “different worlds” is substantiated by arguments that appear to be almost entirely epistemological, with nothing to back up this deeper ontological claim.

Brian S. January 31, 2013 at 10:27 am

You’re right – I find this very amusing. In an earlier draft of my post (which I cut down) I had said: “If anyone had misrepresented me the way Putnam misrepresesnts Kuhn I’d have punched his lights out next time our paths crossed.” But perhaps philosophers are more used to this kind of cut and thrust.

Bill Kerr January 31, 2013 at 5:51 am

Brian, you wrote:

Putnam accuses Kuhn of “extreme relativism” – presumably because his alleged relativism applies to both observational and theoretical knowledge. But I’m not even sure that Kuhn can be considered any kind of “relativist” at all – you have to ask “relative” to what – the answer is to the paradigm that a specific group of scientists is working in. But Kuhn’s epistemogical universe is not one in which a large number of scientists are floating at the same time all pursuing different paradigms, the scientific conclusions of which are deemed to be specific to the paradigm and incapable of rational comparative evaluation. That sort of situation can exist – but only when a scientific field is in crisis: when an existing paradigm is breaking down and a new dominant paradigm has yet to be established. Once this happens we are back into “normal science” and there is knowledge creation that is not really “relative” to anything (or, its relative to its paradigm but since that has secured a dominant position there’s no one outside the paradigm to seriously challenge it.

(Actually Kuhn’s position here is decidedly” anti-relativist: “Einstein’s theory can be accepted only with the recognition that Newton’s was wrong . From the viewpoint of this essay these two theories are fundamentally incompatible in the sense illustrated by the relation of Copernican to Ptolemaic astronomy.”)

I think that is relativist, given that relativism is a point of view based on the current dominant paradigm. Putnam’s critique of Kuhn is that the paradigm becomes the measure. You might argue that this is good relativism because it came about by revolutionary overthrow of the previous paradigm but I can’t see how you can argue that it is not relativism.

What are the alternatives? You could say that we hold the absolute or even the best approach, which is dialectical and historical materialism. For me that is too vague on the one hand and when efforts are made to spell it out then people don’t agree on any formula or lasting principles or laws for dialectics. It is either vague, general and correct because its risk free (eg. everything flows) or when it tries to firm up into something definite becomes controversial and not agreed upon, because it’s too much like Hegel and therefore suspect / idealist.

Briefly, Putnam’s alternative is to call a moratorium on ontology and epistemology because efforts to say what they are have failed:

the time has come for a moratorium on the kind of ontological speculation that seeks to describe the Furniture of the Universe and to tell us what is Really There and what is Only a Human Projection, and for a moratorium on the kind of epistemological speculation that seeks to tell us the One Method by which all our beliefs can be appraised.
Realism with a Human Face, p. 118

Brian, I also looked up the plato stanford site for an account of Kuhn. Although this is a bit contradictory in some ways to what Putnam says this bit might help solve the puzzle you have expressed about Kuhn and incommensurability (that you see nothing significant in Structure … that denies charitable interpretation across time) – just quoting one sentence here from a detailed account:

Although Kuhn asserted a semantic incommensurability thesis in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions he did not there articulate or argue for the thesis in detail. This he attempted in subsequent work, with the result that the nature of the thesis changed over time. The heart of the incommensurability thesis after The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is the idea that certain kinds of translation are impossible.

From your own account (about the later post script section) Kuhn saw the criticism as valid even if you don’t from your reading and I don’t see your position there as all that credible. It’s unlikely that you understand Kuhn better than Kuhn does.


Brian S. January 31, 2013 at 10:20 am

Hi Bill –
To start with the question of Kuhn’s “anti-relativism”, a claim that you argue I don’t establish: sure, Kuhn thinks that scientific knowledge is “relative” to the paradigm in which it is generated (and so does Putnam); but when we label a perspective relativist (for example in our previous discussion of “cultural relativism”) what we usually mean is a perspective that sees different sets of values or knowledge as bound by their conceptual frameworks, and with no means of choosing between them. So in looking at science a relativist position would see different schools based on different conceptual schemes generating different and often conflicting accounts of the world, and assign them all equal cognitive value. The quotation I provided illustrates that Kuhn is not a relativist in that sense.: indeed that he is quite firmly anti- that kind of perspective.
I don’t claim to understand Kuhn better than Kuhn – only better than some of his critics. What I said about the Postscript was that it ,”as far as “incommensurability” is concerned , was far more an elaboration and defence of his original view than a modification.” That may not be true of later revisitations he made to his work.
I had intended to check out the Stanford Encyclopaedia on Kuhn, but your reference prompted me to do it sooner, and it is certainly helpful. I think its a very good article (although some parts enter too deeply into the world of modern philosophy for me to fully keep up). But for purposes of our discussion I’m happy to stipulate it as an fair and accurate summary of Kuhn’s work (or that part of it I am familiar with.)
For the most part, it seems to provide an account very similar to the one I have been arguing here. For example, the quote you provide from s. 4.4 seems to be saying that Kuhn only moved to a radical incommensurability position in his later work.My comments were based on his classical work (SSR and Postscript), and if he has moved beyond that I’m under no obligation to follow him.
A couple more quotes from this article:
“His most obvious achievement was to have been a major force in bringing about the final demise of logical positivism.” (That was what I – and my generation of radical social scientists – saw first and foremost in his work – although we also found the epistemological implications of his work stimulating.)
“Kuhn stressed that incommensurability did not mean non-comparability … Even so, it is clear that at the very least Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis would make theory comparison rather more difficult than had commonly been supposed, and in some cases impossible.”
“both his supporters and his detractors took his work to be more revolutionary (anti-rationalist, relativist) than it really was.”
The article’s concluding s.6.4 points us in the direction of neo-Kantianism – which could be a link back to debates within Marxism. But I’m happy to linger a while with Putnam: I’ll take a wider look at his Realism with a Human Face over the next day or two (and I’ve ordered the collection of Kuhn’s post-SSR essays).


Bill Kerr January 31, 2013 at 6:16 pm


A couple more quotes from this article:
“His most obvious achievement was to have been a major force in bringing about the final demise of logical positivism.” (That was what I – and my generation of radical social scientists – saw first and foremost in his work – although we also found the epistemological implications of his work stimulating.)

In response to your remark here I’ll provide a personal contextual explanation of why Putnam appeals to me. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about in the past few weeks and I’ve reached the point where I can begin to articulate it a bit more clearly. Skip it if such personal-political reflections don’t interest you.

The above explains to me why you Brian found Kuhn appealing. Arthur Koestler and Noam Chomky’s critique of behaviourism played the same role for me. But in the last decade or so I’ve come to realise that Koester and Chomsky threw out the baby with the bathwater. This cycle of bouncing from a form of materialism (logical positivism) to a form of idealism (Koestler’s ghost in the machine or Chomsky’s mentalese and perhaps Kuhn’s emphasis on Structure) – a game that has been going on in one form or another for 2000+ years is one of the core issues that interests me about Putnam, because he does go into that aspect deeply and at great length IMO … and he concludes that doing more work on ontology and epistemology is a waste of time. You might say that he retreats from the “grandiosity” of a world view to one of practical problem solving. My argument is that this is what good thinkers end up doing. Solving real problems rather than building perfect systems and that we need to examine marxism from that perspective.

I’ve only recently became aware of the importance of Quine in the demise of empiricism. Quine has helped me understand that holism in a different way. See his “two dogmas of empiricism” http://www.ditext.com/quine/quine.html This was written in 1951 so precedes Kuhn’s Structure … (1962) by a decade. Parts of Quine are hard to read technical philosophy (still trying to understand) but other parts are powerful and poetic, eg. “… our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body”.

You criticised Putnam for his peremptory dismissal of Kuhn and I could see some justification in your points, eg. that he does not quote Kuhn etc. If you read the early Putnam carefully (and this drifts into his later work too) you will see that he discusses and critique’s Quine at great length. My guess is that inside philosophy circles Quine was regarded as “the master” and when Kuhn came along later his views were not regarded as particularly deep, although they had far more public appeal. Your critical comments about Putnam are not wrong but I was trying to think about why a meticulous scholar like Putnam would do that. It seems to me that it was just accepted inside philosophy circles – and this included Kuhn himself – that the work of Kuhn needed more work, that Putnam could just assume that and not have to prove it. See his remark: “Kuhn’s SSR enthralled vast numbers of readers, and appalled most philosophers” (Reason, Truth and History, p. 113)

wrt the death of logical positivism and / or logical empiricism: when younger I rejected these and Skinner’s behaviourism because of the dehumanising implications – how could we have free will or creativity if we were just stimulus – response machines. I was keen to explore alternative theories and discovered the computing / AI based constructionism of Papert and Minsky which kept me happy for years.

However, through experience of teaching disadvantaged students I came to realise that behaviourism was important. Then I read some Daniel Dennett (Why the Law of Effect will not go away) and he pointed out that the basic idea of stimulus – response was not something that was going to go away, it was one of the important building blocks for our understanding of cognition. In turn this led me to the idea that there was no unified learning theory. And this in turn is leading me to question whether there is a unified philosophical viewpoint, such as marxism. ie. marx and mao it seems to me is very good for some things (provide your own list) but doesn’t throw much light on other things (provide your own list). Putnam’s critique is that scientism and monism is dangerous – ie. having success in some areas and then projecting the belief that this is one world view that can be successful in all areas. Why is it dangerous? Because it leads to an over inflation of belief in what you can achieve, that your world view is capable of conquering all. wrt marxist movements this comes unstuck in my experience most spectacularly in building the Leninist party – which has historically provided short term benefits including in the USSR, PRC – but which sooner or later has always degenerated into a bizarre horror story. Mao and the gang of 4 provided a pretty good explanation of this but still couldn’t prevent it happening.

Back to the real world. What got me reading philosophy again was that a teaching method that does work with disadvantaged, indigenous kids (Direct Instruction) is pretty much logical empiricist in its approach. Logical empiricism is not dead. So, I’m studying philosophy because my world view does not fit very well with my actual practice – wrt what works. Putnam makes the point that the smarter logical empiricists (Carnap, Reichenbach) were far more sophisticated than many current thinkers – that cruder forms of scientism continually makes comebacks. I found the quote I was looking for: “I am convinced that the history of philosophy is not only a history of gaining insights – and I do think philosophers gain insights – but also a history of neglecting, and even actively suppressing previously gained insights” (p. vi of Word and Life)

I could expand on the above (and probably will do so on my personal blog) but hopefully that is enough to provide a coherent rationale for the direction of my thinking.


Brian S. February 1, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Hi Bill – My copy of Kuhn’s “The Road since Structure” (his essays from 1970-1993 related to SSR) arrived this morning . They include a long, partly autobiographical interview he gave to some people who are close to his views in Greece in 1993 (3 years before his death). It occupied me throughout the morning. I must thank you for motivating me to return to Kuhn: reading this interview has done a lot to revitalise my original enthusiasm for his work, and also raised some new questions. Most of what I’ve read so far bears out the interpretations I’ve been making here, but also clarified a few things. The concept “incommensurability” (which is apparently taken from Geometry) was hit on by Kuhn and Feyerabend at essentially the same moment. That may provide some justification for Putnam’s amalgam on this issue – but not much: K. makes clear that his relationship with Feyerabend was difficult, and that they disagreed more than they agreed on important issues.
His relationship with Putnam, as you suggest, is complex: he refers to him as “Hilary” and suggests that he is someone who frequently revises his views, which has sometimes placed him in oppostion to K. and some timesin agreement. He cites Putnam’s adoption of “internal realism” (?something that might be useful to explore) as a moment of their convergence.
(By the way did you know that Putnam was a member of Progressive Labor in the US in the 60s?)
I can relate to what you say about the distance between theoretical beliefs and pragmatic responses to circumstances. My wife throughout her career has worked in various ways with disturbed adolescents (mostly in a social work role); her intellectual formation as far as psychology is concerned has been in the analytic tradition (but she’s not a psychoanalyst): so from that perspective she’s highly critical of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) , which has become the dominant response to these situations. But she says sometime she has to accept that CBT is the only way to deal quickly with a young person in distress and prevent them doing something irreversible (self-harm, criminal acts).
I’m just starting to read Quine (K. says he was a formative influence – but as someone he formed his views against). Included K’s essays is one which is largely devoted to a critique of Putnam’s “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’ ” So we could pursue this discussion by looking at a specific engagement between them, if you thought that useful.


Bill Kerr February 1, 2013 at 5:56 pm

hi Brian,

The maths origin of incommensurability was mentioned at the stanford plato summary of Kuhn:

The term ‘incommensurable’ derives from a mathematical use, according to which the side and diagonal of a square are incommensurable in virtue of there being no unit that can be used to measure both exactly

> He cites Putnam’s adoption of “internal realism” (?something that might be useful to explore) as a moment of their convergence.

Putnam calls it internalism (not Internal realism) and it is central to his philosophy – although his later work tends to promote pragmatism more but from what I can see he regards them as similar approaches. In the following quote he declines the pragmatism label because of its historical baggage (must be one of the things he changed his mind about). Also he identifies his approach with non-realism which is why I contradicted you quoting Kuhn linking of internalism to realism above. His earlier work is “realist” but I think he came to see that as part of the Gods eye view, I’m not clear about this transition in terminology but I can make some sense of it. ie. to be a realist implies that when we see a table there is a copy of a table in our minds, a one to one correspondence of material objects with mental objects; to be an internalist (anti realist) means that there is an internal representation of a table in our minds. The internalist position is consistent with my understanding of studies of perception, that we don’t see the world as such but rather reconstruct it (and are often blind to seeing things that our minds don’t expect to see – such as a gorilla walking across a basketball court)

Quoting Putnam:

The perspective I shall defend has no unambiguous name. It
is a late arrival in the history of philosophy, and even today it
keeps being confused with other points of view of a quite differ-
ent sort. I shall refer to it as the internalist perspective, because
it is characteristic of this view to hold that what objects does the
world consist off is a question that it only makes sense to ask
within a theory or description. Many ‘internalist’ philosophers,
though not all, hold further that there is more than one ‘true’
theory or description of the world. ‘Truth’, in an internalist
view, is some sort of (idealized) rational acceptability – some
sort of ideal coherence of our beliefs with each other and with
our experiences as those experiences are themselves represented
in our belief system – and not correspondence with mind-inde-
pendent or discourse-independent ‘states of affairs’. There is no
God’s Eye point of view that we can know or usefully imagine;
there are only the various points of view of actual persons
reflecting various interests and purposes that their descriptions
and theories subserve. (‘Coherence theory of truth’; ‘Non-real-
ism’; ‘Verificationism’; ‘Pluralism’; ‘Pragmatism’; are all terms
that have been applied to the internalist perspective; but every
one of these terms has connotations that are unacceptable
because of their other historic applications.)
– Reason, Truth and History, Ch 3 Two Philosophical Perspectives, p. 49

I think there’s an implicit critique here of any ontological certainty be it Plato’s Forms or Hegel’s history (Putnam calls this inflationary metaphysics) or reductionist materialism (Democritus, there is nothing but atoms or void) or reductionist idealism (Berkeley, there is nothing but spirit and their ideas) or nominalism (properties are just names) – Putnam calls these deflationary metaphysics. This come from another of his books –> Ethics without Ontology http://en.bookfi.org/book/1029322

Read Chapter 3 of Reason, Truth and History for more detail about Putnam’s internalism and the way he contrasts it with metaphysical realism or the God’s eye point of view.

> (By the way did you know that Putnam was a member of Progressive Labor in the US in the 60s?)

I was aware of that but came to Putnam through another pathway, his close connection with Martha Nussbaum (for her study of the Greek writings about Desire – The Therapy of Desire) and Amartya Sen (for his links with Noel Pearson). But Putnam’s rejection of Marxism Leninism is quite interesting, ( ‘I
finally abandoned my Marxist-Leninist views when I realized-this was in 1972-that I would rather be governed by Nixon than by my own “comrades.” ‘) although there is some throwing out of the baby with the bathwater here as well. This is covered in his essay 12 How not to solve ethical problems in Realism with a Human Face. I see that one as an important essay from an ethical / emotional perspective but not one that drills down deeply philosophically. He draws a sharp contrast b/w the goals of marxist groups and their internal behaviour which corresponds in many ways (but not all) with my own experiences (and my own behaviour was not always good). For me the important thing is how Putnam goes onto resolve these practical / philosophical issues –> which is expressed by his collapse of the Fact / Value dichotomy, ie. that scientism and monism have important limits, that the concept of scientific socialism has limits.

> But she says sometime she has to accept that CBT is the only way to deal quickly with a young person in distress and prevent them doing something irreversible (self-harm, criminal acts).

As I see the need for rigorously field tested more or less bullet proof methods to teach kids to read and write (without that representing all of educational philosophy) and am appalled by the reflexive contempt in which most of the education establishment holds these behaviourist methods in because they don’t fit with their generalised humanistic outlooks. An analogous thing happened here at North Star on the indigenous thread, with people promoting an in general humanistic cultural relativism without having a clue about the facts on the ground – and with firm blinkers in place which prevent them from even reading material that documents the facts on the ground.

Happy to keep discussing Kuhn, Quine and Putnam. “The Meaning of Meaning” essay is one of his earlier ones. It can be found in his Philosphical Papers, vol 2, http://en.bookfi.org/book/1146804 I just had a look at it then, it’s probably important to his foundations, as you suggest. I can’t possibly keep up with it all but it would be useful to keep up with things you are following since that is more stimulating than trying to work it all out myself.


Arthur February 1, 2013 at 10:46 pm

I’m having difficulty following this discussion. Largely because I have not read the works referred to, but also because of lack of explicit explanation of connection with issues we face in the real world.

But the quote from Putnam on “internalism”.strikes me as a very harmful subjective idealist view of the world that Lenin answered adequately in “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism” (which people find incomprehensible because they find materialism incomprehensible).

“‘Truth’, in an internalist
view, is some sort of (idealized) rational acceptability – some
sort of ideal coherence of our beliefs with each other and with
our experiences as those experiences are themselves represented
in our belief system – and not correspondence with mind-inde-
pendent or discourse-independent ‘states of affairs’.”

As Lenin pointed out this opens the way to all sorts of religious “coherence” of beliefs and totally contradicts scientific knowledges about “states of affairs” that are known to have existed long before there were any minds to have beliefs or experiences about them. For example the planet earth is known to be more than a billion years old while human minds did not exist more than a million years ago. This is not a “God’s eye view”.

The consequence of this outlook is that one tries to resolve problems in ones head instead of bringing one’s belief into correspondence with the actual state of affairs through feedback from the results of acting in the world as understood by one’s beliefs and analysing the discrepancy between ones beliefs and the actual state of the world as discovered through practice.

Bill Kerr February 3, 2013 at 9:38 am

Brian wrote:

To start with the question of Kuhn’s “anti-relativism”, a claim that you argue I don’t establish: sure, Kuhn thinks that scientific knowledge is “relative” to the paradigm in which it is generated (and so does Putnam); but when we label a perspective relativist (for example in our previous discussion of “cultural relativism”) what we usually mean is a perspective that sees different sets of values or knowledge as bound by their conceptual frameworks, and with no means of choosing between them. So in looking at science a relativist position would see different schools based on different conceptual schemes generating different and often conflicting accounts of the world, and assign them all equal cognitive value. The quotation I provided illustrates that Kuhn is not a relativist in that sense.: indeed that he is quite firmly anti- that kind of perspective.

I see what you mean and Putnam agrees with you here:

The whole purpose of relativism, its very defining characteristic,
is, however, to deny the existence of any intelligible notion of
objective ‘fit’. Thus the relativist cannot understand talk about
truth in terms of objective justification-conditions.
– Reason, Truth and History, p. 123

The whole section which contains that quote, pp. 119-126, which comes after his Kuhn critique, is a good one for understanding the distinction Putnam makes b/w metaphysical realism (Gods eye view), relativism(one paradigm is as good as the next one) and internal realism (the best we can do).

When he uses the term non-realist to describe internal realism what he means is non-(metaphysical)-realist. But he seems to drop that terminology in his later works.


anitah January 24, 2013 at 3:21 pm

From what I have read the Helena Sheehan book is interesting historically but is simplistic philosophically I thought. Dialectics is about understanding that things turn into their opposites. It is also about seeing for instance that you can’t understand deviance unless you define normality, so deviance and normality are two sides of the same coin. Not opposites, but interconnected. These concepts were obviously important in establishing whether or not revolutionaries needed to develop a new language for instance, or whether Socialism and Communism can develop from bourgeois culture for example.

IMV Althusser is a dead end due to the confusion introduced when ideology is used as both a positive and negative concept. I adopt the Jorge Larrain approach that Marxists ought to stick with the negative usage as a concept that ideology is that which masks the contradictions. In this conception it is the task of Marxists to expose that which masks the contradictions and stops people from seeing their class oppression etc.. In this thinking the idea of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work is ideology as it masks the unequal social relations embodied in wage slavery.
Xeno is the Greek Philosopher Lenin was interested in. I really recommend the link Arthur put forward about this subject.


Arthur January 25, 2013 at 8:45 am

I’ve still only read the chapter on Enges which I liked because it refuted the usual attempts to counterpose Marx to Engels.

PS I’m guessing your reference to Xeno is usually called Zeno (of Elea) credited with first arguing dialectically eg with Zeno’s paradoxes.


anitah January 25, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Oops. Yes Xeno with a Z. Thanks for correcting that Arthur.


jim sharp January 24, 2013 at 6:43 pm

thanks for reminding me about what the old pre-’68 comrades
used to do when i were still working in the oz meat industry
’65 to’85 coz whenever the gob heads of capital gobbed off
their ‘a fair days pay for a fair days pay work’ shit-a-gandism
quick smart they’d go around all the depts & stick on the
notice boards as well as on back of shit house doors
engels materialist take on this particular aspect
of the class vis-a-vis class struggle
Articles by Engels in the Labour Standard 1881
A Fair Day’s Wages for a Fair Day’s Work


Bill Kerr January 26, 2013 at 7:37 pm

I’m still studying Hilary Putnam and related works and don’t expect to reach any firm conclusions for some time. Some of Putnam’s essays are quite difficult. There is an interesting and (for me) hard to define tension between Putnam’s philosophy and the marxist philosophy of ascending from the abstract to the concrete (link to a 2006 blog about that).

Here is a very rough summary:
– the copy theory of truth is not valid (the idea that our minds and hence our words represent some sort of mirror copy of the real world is not valid)
– Subjective or relativist views are not valid (eg. post modernist and / or Kuhnian views that what we regard as “truth” depends on the perspective of the observer)
– We approach the truth through being rational
– Rationality includes both facts and values (eg. beauty is rational and that is factual)
– let the Hegelian metaphor be: the mind and the world jointly make up the mind and the world
– it’s important to break down the socially ingrained fact / value dichotomy
– the “scientific idea” of One True Theory does not hold up

Reason, Truth and History by Hilary Putnam (the link is to a full copy available from Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive)


In the present work, the aim which I have in mind is to break the strangle hold which a number of dichotomies appear to have on the thinking of both philosophers and laymen. Chief among these is the dichotomy between objective and subjective views of truth and reason. The phenomenon I am thinking of is this: once such a dichotomy as the dichotomy between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ has become accepted, accepted not as a mere pair of categories but as a characterization of types of views and styles of thought, thinkers begin to view the terms of the dichotomy almost as ideological labels. Many, perhaps most, philosophers hold some version of the ‘copy’ theory of truth today, the conception according to which a statement is true just in case it ‘corresponds to the (mind independent) facts’; and the philosophers in this faction see the only alternative as the denial of the objectivity of truth and a capitulation to the idea that all schemes of thought and all points of view are hopelessly subjective. Inevitably a bold minority (Kuhn, in some of his moods at least; Feyerabend, and such distinguished continental philosophers as Foucault) range themselves under the opposite label. They agree that the alternative to a naive copy conception of truth is to see systems of thought, ideologies, even (in the case of Kuhn and Feyerabend) scientific theories, as subjective, and they proceed to put forward a relativist and subjective view with vigor.

That philosophical dispute assumes somewhat the character of ideological dispute is not, of itself, necessarily bad: new ideas, even in the most exact sciences, are frequently both espoused and attacked with partisan vigor. Even in politics, polarization and ideological fervor are sometimes necessary to bring moral seriousness to an issue. But in time, both in philosophy and politics, new ideas become old ideas; what was once challenging, becomes predictable and boring; and what once served to focus attention where it should be focussed, later keeps discussion from considering new alternatives. This has now happened in the debate between the correspondence views of truth and subjectivist views. In the first three chapters of this book I shall try to explain a conception of truth which unites objective and subjective components. This view, in spirit at least, goes back to ideas of Immanuel Kant; and it holds that we can reject a naive ‘copy’ conception of truth without having to hold that it’s all a matter of the Zeitgeist, or a matter of ‘gestalt switches’, or all a matter of ideology.

The view which I shall defend holds, to put it very roughly, that there is an extremely close connection between the notions of truth and rationality; that, to put it even more crudely, the only criterion for what is a fact is what it is rational to accept. (I mean this quite literally and across the board; thus if it can be rational to accept that a picture is beautiful, then it can be a fact that the picture is beautiful.) There can be value facts on this conception. But the relation between rational acceptability and truth is a relation between two distinct notions. A statement can be rationally acceptable at a time but not true; and this realist intuition will be preserved in my account.

I do not believe, however, that rationality is defined by a set of unchanging ‘canons’ or ‘principles’; methodological principles are connected with our view of the world, including our view of ourselves as part of the world, and change with time. Thus I agree with the subjectivist philosophers that there is no fixed, ahistorical organon which defines what it is to be rational; but I don’t conclude from the fact that our conceptions of reason evolve in history, that reason itself can be (or evolve into) anything, nor do I end up in some fancy mixture of cultural relativism and ‘structuralism’ like the French philosophers. The dichotomy: either ahistorical unchanging canons of rationality or cultural relativism is a dichotomy that I regard as outdated.

Another feature of the view is that rationality is not restricted to laboratory science, nor different in a fundamental way in laboratory science and outside of it. The conception that it is seems to me a hangover from positivism; from the idea that the scientific world is in some way constructed out of ‘sense data’ and the idea that terms in the laboratory sciences are ‘operationally defined’. I shall not devote much space to criticizing operationalist and positivist views of science; these have been thoroughly criticized in the last twenty-odd years. But the empiricist idea that ‘sense data’ constitute some sort of objective ‘ground floor’ for at least a part of our knowledge will be reexamined in the light of what we have to say about truth and rationality (in Chapter 3).

In short, I shall advance a view in which the mind does not simply ‘copy’ a world which admits of description by One True Theory. But my view is not a view in which the mind makes up the world, either (or makes it up subject to constraints imposed by ‘methodological canons’ and mind-independent ‘sense-data’). If one must use metaphorical language, then let the metaphor be this: the mind and the world jointly make up the mind and the world. (Or, to make the metaphor even more Hegelian, the Universe makes up the Universe – with minds – collectively – playing a special role in the making up.)

A final feature of my account of rationality is this: I shall try to show that our notion of rationality is, at bottom, just one part of our conception of human flourishing, our idea of the good. Truth is deeply dependent on what have been recently called ‘values’ (Chapter 6). And what we said above about rationality and history also applies to value and history; there is no given, ahistorical, set of ‘moral principles’ which define once and for all what human flourishing consists in; but that doesn’t mean that it’s all merely cultural and relative. Since the current state in the theory of truth – the current dichotomy between copy theories of truth and subjective accounts of truth – is at least partly responsible, in my view, for the notorious ‘fact/value’ dichotomy, it is only by going to a very deep level and correcting our accounts of truth and rationality themselves that we can get beyond the fact/value dichotomy. (A dichotomy which, as it is conventionally understood, virtually commits one to some sort of relativism.) The current views of truth are alienated views; they cause one to lose one part or another of one’s self and the world, to see the world as simply consisting of elementary particles swerving in the void (the ‘physicalist’ view, which sees the scientific description as converging to the One True Theory), or to see the world as simply consisting of ‘actual and possible sense-data’ (the older empiricist view), or to deny that there is a world at all, as opposed to a bunch of stories that we make up for various (mainly unconscious) reasons. And my purpose in this work is to sketch the leading ideas of a non- alienated view.


Bill Kerr February 2, 2013 at 4:47 am

Arthur February 1, 2013 at 10:46 pm (the comment thread expired so am responding here):

I’m having difficulty following this discussion. Largely because I have not read the works referred to, but also because of lack of explicit explanation of connection with issues we face in the real world.

But the quote from Putnam on “internalism”.strikes me as a very harmful subjective idealist view of the world that Lenin answered adequately in “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism” (which people find incomprehensible because they find materialism incomprehensible).

“‘Truth’, in an internalist
view, is some sort of (idealized) rational acceptability – some
sort of ideal coherence of our beliefs with each other and with
our experiences as those experiences are themselves represented
in our belief system – and not correspondence with mind-inde-
pendent or discourse-independent ‘states of affairs’.”

As Lenin pointed out this opens the way to all sorts of religious “coherence” of beliefs and totally contradicts scientific knowledges about “states of affairs” that are known to have existed long before there were any minds to have beliefs or experiences about them. For example the planet earth is known to be more than a billion years old while human minds did not exist more than a million years ago. This is not a “God’s eye view”.

The consequence of this outlook is that one tries to resolve problems in ones head instead of bringing one’s belief into correspondence with the actual state of affairs through feedback from the results of acting in the world as understood by one’s beliefs and analysing the discrepancy between ones beliefs and the actual state of the world as discovered through practice.

This may have caused some misunderstanding so initially I should point out that Putnam does consistently use the phrase internal realism, eg. in the title of essay 2 Realism with a Human Face (1990) which was written after the quote from Reason, Truth and History (1981). So I was wrong to contradict Brian here. In essay 1, pp. 26-9 he argues in favour of realism with a small r and rejects Realism with a big R as over reaching. The following quote from the end of essay 2 also provides his sense of use: “Recognizing such facts as these is part of what might be called “rejecting ‘realism’ in the name of the realistic spirit.” (p. 42)

Putnam does reply to the possible misunderstanding of his position outlined by arthur (aka solipsism) at length in the Preface and Part one of “Realism with a Human Face” http://en.bookfi.org/book/751035

The preface and essays #1, 2 and 7 are very relevant. The brief answer is that we need to recognise that there are better and worse texts. To think that the earth didn’t exist before human minds is a very bad text. “Recognising that this is so is the essential price of admission to the community of sanity” (114)

In essay 1 he uses quantum mechanics and then paradoxical statements in language to argue that there must be a cut b/w observer and the system, so that a Gods eye view is impossible and the efforts to provide one have ended in futility, eg. the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics.

In essay 2 the reason for his pluralism and abandoning Realism with a big R (although not with a little r) are outlined – briefly that there are equivalent descriptions for some phenomena, pp. 39-42

From my perspective Putnam’s internalism is reasonably consistent or at least not inconsistent with the marxist theory of knowledge of ascending to the concrete through a theory / practice spiral which happens to occur in the observers mind in response to various inputs from the world. However, I am taken by the way Quine expresses a holistic position in Two Dogmas as a body of knowledge with a more or less hard centre containing such truths as the world existed before the human mind but with quite fluid edges which are far more open to revision – and with cross linkages b/w concepts when new revolutionary ideas arise being capable of penetrating more deeply into the overall body of knowledge.

It’s also consistent with Marvin Minsky’s materialism (“the brain is a meat machine”) as expressed in his Society of Mind and The Emotion Machine, that intelligence is progressively *constructed* from many non intelligent agents, ie humans construct their intelligence (Minsky) just as they construct an internal realism (Putnam). This was the inspiration of a learning theory developed by Seymour Papert which led into a further inspiration for the one laptop per child project.


Brian S. February 2, 2013 at 3:29 pm

Hi Bill- Bill – “Internal realism” has been described (by a critic of Putnam ) as “accepting both a scientific realist ontology and an internalist theory of truth (of which there ar several variants. So it combines a realist ontology with a non-realist epistemology. (The world exists independently of those who are observing/studying it; but their observations/studies are fundamentally shaped by their conceptual apparatuses. (As Kuhn suggested, Putnam subsequently moved on to something else). This it seems to me is basically Kuhn’s view as I understand it – so I can see why Kuhn could say of Putnam “Now he is talking my language”. I don’t see why philosophers keep inventing complex neo-logisms for every new idea they have: this position seems to me to be to be just Kantian dualism – and Putnam says as much in various places. (It is the view I tend to lean to; and of course the position Lenin is polemicizing against in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: I just wish Lenin had taken the time to at least outline the views he was poliemicising against. Without that its difficult to assess his arguements. (which is why Putnam reminds me of him.)
I agree with you that “rationality” is a/the central category for Putnam – but it leaves us the question of what exactly rationality consists (which I assume Putnam tries to address) and whether it can be detached from specific conceptual schmes sufficiently to stand as an arbiter of the knowledge producing process. e.g:
‘Truth’, in an internalist view, is some sort of (idealized) rational acceptability – some sort of ideal coherence of our beliefs with each other and with our experiences as those experiences are themselves represented
in our belief system – and not correspondence with mind-independent or discourse-independent ‘states of affairs’.
I’m not sure how rational acceptability” in this scheme manages to avoid being “discourse dependent”; and if it doesn’t then we seem to end up with a “coherence theory of truth”, which Putnam seems to reject. Kuhn doesn’t manage to completely solve this problem – but he sees truth being “negotiated” between competing paradigms in a scinetific community (an idea I like because it suggests the social nature of knowledge generation, rather than the emphasis on individual cognition that Putnam (and most mainstream modern philosophers) make.


Brian S. February 2, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Hi Arthur -“As Lenin pointed out this opens the way to all sorts of religious “coherence” of beliefsThis is not a “God’s eye view”.
Putnam does say “rational acceptability “– and “ideal coherence” – so coherence alone is not enough to demonstrate truth. That of course created its own problems: seem my comments below)
” and totally contradicts scientific knowledges about “states of affairs” that are known to have existed long before there were any minds to have beliefs or experiences about them. “For example the planet earth is known to be more than a billion years old while human minds did not exist more than a million years ago. ” Lenin’s problem was that he took Kant and the neo-Kantians for subjective idealists (which they were not):so all the stuff about Bishop Berkeley was irrelvant. His mistake was to confuse ontology with epistemology. Neither they nor their modern equivalents would deny that the world (or whatver) EXISTED before there were eyes to see it or minds to contemplate it. But the question is – how do we acquire knowledge of it, and once we have what exactly is it that we know about? So the earth existed X billion years ago. 10,000 years ago, six weeks ago. But to gain knowledge of any of those material entities (Earth at time T) we have to use in varying degrees, apparatuses of investigation, concepts, theories, investigative procedures, implements etc. And they interpose themselve between us and our object. And as a consequence there are often controversies and competing therories and interpretations about the nature of the world that underlies our knowledge.

“The consequence of this outlook is that one tries to resolve problems in ones head instead of bringing one’s belief into correspondence with the actual state of affairs through feedback from the results of acting in the world as understood by one’s beliefs and analysing the discrepancy between ones beliefs and the actual state of the world as discovered through practice.” The second part of that is not a bad approximation of the starting point for developing a scientific approach to knowledge generation: but it also begs a lot of questions (what sort of “practice”?). But who is being argued against? Mach, after all, was one of the leading experimental scientists (and theorists) of his time.


Arthur February 3, 2013 at 3:27 am

Bill, I still can’t follow this discussion and your response does not motivate me to read Putnam and Kuhn. I tried to pick out some paragraphs I could easily get to grips with, which you said were “critical”. So far as I can make, out your respons is that I should read a whole lot of other stuff because those paragraphs are a mis-statement of what was (at some point) Putnam’s position. This is too slippery.

Solipism is consistent (and hence irrefutable) subjective idealism. Certainly most Kantians are not solipists (indeed not at all consistent) but the paras I quoted were unmistakeably both Kantian and subjective idealist.

Even the most vulgar materialists don’t seriously maintain that there are shrunken instances of objects outside people’s heads inside their heads and only solipists maintain there is nothing outside people’s minds.

But the erection of an unbridgeable gap between (unknowable) “states of affairs” and our beliefs about them is precisely what characterizes Kantian subjective idealism.

Certainly Mach was an experimental scientist (of some renown). But in his ventures into philosophy he was a subjective idealist and that is what Lenin was responding to (or Bogdanov and Lunacharsky’s version). In doing so Lenin essentially refuted the “Copenhagen” philosophical interpretation of quantum mechanics a couple of decades before it was adopted, while celebrating the “crisis in physics” as further confirmation of materialist dialectics. I haven’t read the material Bill mentioned on quantum mechanics from Putnam but its pretty well known that obscurantist philosophical speculations claiming to be based on quantum mechanics (going back to Mach and the Copenhagen interpretation) don’t actually have much to do with modern physics as understood by physicists, even when they aren’t pure imposture (of the sort exposed by Sokal).


Brian S. February 3, 2013 at 6:45 am

@Arthur: I sympathise with your response. Modern philosophy strikes me as some important insights and valuable debates buried in a pile of overblown trivia: and it can take lot of effort to get through one to the other. It helps if you find someone who you have an affinity (but not necessarily total agreement) with: as I have with Kuhn and Bill may have with Putnam: they provide a starting point and a thread to follow. I hope to put up some notes on one Putnam-Kuhn debate shortly. I think you might find Kuhn easier to engage with, as he was not really a professional philosopher, but an historian, and ofteen presents his arguments in a more concrete manner . His classic work Structure of Scientific Revolutions is available here: http://turkpsikiyatri.org/arsiv/kuhn-ssr-2nded.pdf Although, as you can see from the exchanges between Bill and I, there were subsequently some adjustments to his position, his perspective is most definitively statedt here. There are several ways to work though it – but I would recommend (and to Bill too) starting with his discussion of Aristotle, Galileo and the pendulum on pp. 118-25. Kuhn’s whole approach – and the Kantian perspective) is neatly summarised in the phrase: “Until that scholastic paradigm was invented, there were no pendulums, but only swinging stones, for the scientist to see.” (p.120) If you can relate to this discussion (even if you disagree) then worth persisting further. If not, then perhaps he’s not the guy for you.
On the question of the Kantian perspective: one of the useful things the modern philoophers have taught us is that effective communication requires agreement on meaning. So it maybe that you are using the category “subjective idealism” in some sense that could extend to the Kantians; but in the way the term is usually used that just doesn’t work. For subjective idealists the world is simply the collection of images that are inside individual minds – so the WORLD is mind: an ontological statement. But the Kantians hold no such thing: for them the World exists quite independently of the minds that may be concerned with it; but, as I said above knowledge of that world is filtered through (or even constructed by) processes that can be regarded as essentially mental (observations, concepts etc.) That is an epistemological statement. There are various ways of interpreting Lenin’s failure to make this distinction, to clarify that we would need to do a symptomatic reading of Lenin (ie one that uncovered his meanings and logic): but no clear discussion of the philosophical issues can take place unless we do make it.


Arthur February 3, 2013 at 8:29 am

Brian, thanks for Kuhn link. I’ve added it to my (looong) “to read” list.

Hmmm, I see that Wikipedia (and Britannica) agree with your usage of “subjective idealism” as corresponding to solipism and Berkely. However this usage basically amounts to Kant’s denial that his philosphy was subjective idealist and reduces adherents of subjective idealism to a “rarity” (as wikipedia says).

I was following Lenin’s usage of the term, which goes back to Hegel’s:

The Difference Between Fichte’s and Schelling’s System of Philosophy (1801), in which he distinguishes Fichte’s “subjective” idealism from Schelling’s “objective” or “absolute” idealism.


Lenin also points out that in fact the other subjective idealists are merely inconsistent in distinguishing themselves from solipists. In that sense I suppose he is also agreeing with your usage since he denounces the Mach et all as essentially being disguised solipists and documents the fact that this conclusion is agreed by many other observers:


Anyway, I think an excellent summary of the central issue is provided here:

” All knowledge comes from experience, from sensation, from perception. That is true. But the question arises, does objective reality “belong to perception,” i.e., is it the source of perception? If you answer yes, you are a materialist. If you answer no, you are inconsistent and will inevitably arrive at subjectivism, or agnosticism, irrespective of whether you deny the knowability of the thing-in-itself, or the objectivity of time, space and causality (with Kant), or whether you do not even permit the thought of a thing-in-itself (with Hume). The inconsistency of your empiricism, of your philosophy of experience, will in that case lie in the fact that you deny the objective content of experience, the objective truth of experimental knowledge.

Those who hold to the line of Kant or Hume (Mach and Avenarius are among the latter, in so far as they are not pure Berkeleians) call us, the materialists, “metaphysicians” because we recognise objective reality which is given us in experience, because we recognise an objective source of our sensations independent of man. We materialists follow Engels in calling the Kantians and Humeans agnostics, because they deny objective reality as the source of our sensations. Agnostic is a Greek word: a in Greek means “no,” gnosis “knowledge.” The agnostic says: I do not know if there is an objective reality which is reflected, imaged by our sensations; I declare there is no way of knowing this (see the words of Engels above quoted setting forth the position of the agnostic). Hence the denial of objective truth by the agnostic, and the tolerance—the philistine, cowardly tolerance—of the dogmas regarding sprites, hobgoblins, Catholic saints, and the like. Mach and Avenarius, pretentiously resorting to a “new” terminology, a supposedly “new” point of view, repeat, in fact, although in a confused and muddled way, the reply of the agnostic: on the one hand, bodies are complexes of sensations (pure subjectivism, pure Berkeleianism); on the other hand, if we re-christen our sensations “elements,” we may think of them ”



Brian S. February 3, 2013 at 3:36 pm

@Arthur. Great: something I can read without having to stare at a screen. For that reason alone happy to discuss.
One problem is the fact that the arguments of the empirio-critics are not easy to get hold of (especisallly the Russians against whom Lenin was polemicising (and you’ll find out little about them from Lenin). Something of Mach’s has recently appeared on the Marxist Internet Archive (but looks philosophicaly thin) http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/mach.htm
My initial reaction to the Lenin passage: I think the employment of the term “agnostic” by Lenin is confused and confusing (but perhaps gives a insight into his reasoning): most neo-Kantians (if that’s what the empirio-critics are) don’t say that they “don’t know” whether there is a world external to the mind (if that was the case they would have anything to discuss) , they say that we can’t access that world except through the use of mental constructs, so our knowledge has an inherent limitations. The philosophical implications of that are potentially complex, and different thinkers have explored/developed that idea in different ways. (Much of Lenin’s polemic in this passage is just silly: what on earth have “hobgoblins” go to do with anything?). I guess I’ll need to refer back to Engels to clarify the origins of this idea.


Bill Kerr February 3, 2013 at 5:56 pm


So far as I can make, out your response is that I should read a whole lot of other stuff because those paragraphs are a mis-statement of what was (at some point) Putnam’s position. This is too slippery.

I don’t think the initial paragraphs were a mis statement of Putnam’s position. He makes it clear in his 1990 book (Realism with a Human Face) that his position in his 1981 book (Reason, Truth and History) hasn’t changed:

The essays that James Conant has selected for this volume represent
a central part of the thinking I have been doing since I drew my now
well-known (some would say “notorious”) distinction between two
kinds of realism (“metaphysical” and “internal”) in a presidential
address to the American Philosophical Association in 1976. Although
they do not in any sense represent a giving up of the position I called
“internal realism,” I have chosen to emphasize a somewhat different
aspect of that position than the one I emphasized in Reason, Truth,
and History.

The additional reading I suggested was more a further explanation of that position. I don’t see any alternative but to do the reading. Of course I have more reading to do as well (Lenin, Kant, Mach and Putnam’s interpretation of Kant etc.)


Bill Kerr February 3, 2013 at 8:48 am


I remember that Putnam referred to some earlier more positive analysis he had done of Kuhn, so I had a look and found it.

#16 The ‘Corroboration’ of Theories in ‘Mathematics, Matter and Method’. Philosophical Papers, Vol. 1 (1975)
available: http://en.bookfi.org/book/1172664

The Kuhn material starts in section 9, there is a lot about Popper in the earlier sections. I haven’t read it yet but thought you would be interested.


Brian S. February 3, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Thanks Bill – I’ll check it out. Sounds interesting, although I’m a bit at sea when dealing with mathematics. There’s a nice exchange between Kuhn and Popper at the LSE symposium on his work in 1965, referred to in the interview I’ve mentioned to you. I’ll try to track it down.


Arthur February 5, 2013 at 8:55 am

Sorry, I won’t have time to contribute further on this thread (which is getting pretty convoluted anyway).

Just wanted to mention that anyone interested in “Dialectics in Science” should be very interested in a free online course that has just started from the Santa Fe Institute introducing Complexity (which is pretty much the study of dialectics in science).

Bill should especially find it interesting as they are using NetLogo and Brian was asking earlier about online courses…



Brian S. February 5, 2013 at 9:16 am

Thanks Arthur – I’ll check it out.


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