[Marxism] Marxism and the social sciences

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Tue Aug 17 11:07:44 MDT 2004

In my opinion, Roy Baskhar's realism is different from Marx's, because Roy
Bashkar still attempts to bridge philosophically a Kantian chasm between
noumena and phenomena with a transcendental leap of faith, to sustain the
idea that there is an external world which contains more than we can
perceive empirically. Thus, his epistemological process is still
substantially metaphysical. I will try to explain what I mean here.

In his theses on Feuerbach, Marx considered that the chief defect of
mechanical materialism "is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is
conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as
sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively".

Human beings exist in the world, are part of the world, are related to it
whether they like it or not, and therefore a dualism which sets people
against the world is for Marx erroneous. He had himself transcended the
Cartesian model of the mind long before modern science confirmed that view.

More specifically, Marx commented explicitly that "The question whether
objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of
theory, but is a practical question. A human must prove the truth - i.e. the
reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking, in practice. The
dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from
practice is a purely scholastic question."

Writing an email is, of course, also a practice, but what it can "prove" is
of course rather limited. There are proofs and proofs.

But anyhow, what this means is the "philosophical problem of realism" simply
DOES NOT EXIST for Marx. Instead, what is of importance for Marx is the
relationship between the knower and the object of knowledge, as mediated by
practical human activity. All deformed thinking has its source in the nature
of this relationship, and how it is mediated.

If the problem of realism nevertheless arises, that is because, as Carrol
commented, most relationships in the real world cannot be directly observed,
and must be "thought" - their existence can be inferred only from their
observable effects. The dispute between realism and empiricism then concerns
the epistemic and ontological significance of sense-data. For empiricism,
sense-data are the "bedrock" foundation for scientific theory, and for the
postulation of scientific laws (cf. Hempel). Observing is believing.

This however assumes a distinction between theory and data in which data
(the facts of experience) are not themselves theory-laden, and contain no
interpretation at all ("pure sense data"), and restricts the formation of
theory (generalisation) narrowly to what the observed evidence permits. This
implies strictures on what we can scientifically know.

For realism, however, sense-data have a different epistemic status: they are
theory-laden and necessarily limited, never perfect, so that reality and our
consciousness of it, always extends beyond what we can scientifically
observe. Hence, a different relationship exists between scientific theory
and data; we always operate with more theory than the data warrants, and the
function of data is to discipline theorising, and provide evidence for
causal relationships which themselves may not be directly observable.
Conversely, a critical inquiry is necessary into how the "facts of
experience" are themselves formed.

The dialectical resolution of the dualism of theory and data consists, for
Marx, in discovering the vantage point from which this dualism can be
resolved. But that is not a philosophical problem, but a
practical-scientific problem. The dialectic cannot be captured through pure
thought, it must be discovered through experience.

If Marx was alive today, he would, I think, in the same way say, that the
problem of rhetoric about "the existence or non-existence of social classes"
is not a philosophical or gnostic problem, but a problem of practical
empirical verification in which the relation of the knower and the object of
knowledge is important.

It is quite easy, statistically or otherwise, for a theorist to superimpose
class categories on reality and ostensibly "discover" class antagonisms that
way. But it is quite another thing to understand class relations as a
specific, living totality - this requires an effort of thought, which
studies the empirical evidence, in order to discover the important
relationships, and arrange it in a way that it can be causally understood.
It also involves adopting a vantage point from which they can be understood.

For this purpose however, the issue of whether or not there exists an
external, mind-independent reality which can be known or is unknowable is
irrelevant. Whether we can know it or not, is not primarily a theoretical
question, but only a practical question, and the real problem is that of
method, i.e. it consist in how we actually go about the investigation.

The big problem created by the Marxist "critics of empiricism" is that they
go overboard in their criticism, and suggest that empirical evidence can be
safely disregarded, because theory has already revealed an essential reality
which goes beyond the facts. But while this may masquerade as "realism", it
may also quite well be an idealist phantasmagora, because the "deep thought"
claiming to reveal the essence of phenomena did not happen to involve any
study of the stubborn facts of experience whatsoever.

And if that is the case, the empiricists, however eclectic, normally win
hands down, simply because paying better attention to the facts of
experience (good observation) yields vastly more effective knowledge than a
ton of speculative theoretical ostentation ("scientific philosophy") which,
while claiming to be "realist", doesn't investigate or experience reality in
any shape or form. Logic might be powerful in short-circuiting attempts to
re-invent the wheel. But observation might also short-circuit endless
reasoning processes which really go nowhere.

The correct reasons for insisting on realism are basically the principle
that correlation does not entail causation, and that people who are
constantly working with ideas, in separation from a broader reality to which
those ideas refer, can easily fall into the illusion that those ideas have
an independent reality and power which they do not truly have.

In the case of Hegel, this illusion is driven to an extreme, such that the
pure Idea evolves itself out of itself, encompasses the world through
manifold distinctions, in order to realise itself absolutely, through
successive mediations and syntheses of contradictions in ideas. The result
of that is objective idealism in which every empirical manifestation is but
the expression of an idea, the nectar of the Gods.

In truth, realism as a philosophical stance only provides a necessary
relativisation of the relationship between ideas and reality. But, contrary
to Bashkar, realism DOES NOT RESOLVE THE PROBLEM OF METHOD, and even realism
can place a priori strictures on what we can know, insofar as it also
invents limits on what we can verify or test out in practice, in order to
rationalise "the limits of what we can do".

In that case, the real gnostic problem consists in ascertaining the validity
of these claimed limits. But Marx would consistently argue that there is no
theoretical solution to this problem, because those limits can in principle
always be extended by new forms of practice.

In that sense, Marx comes very close to pragmatism, although he doesn't
downgrade the status of theory in the way pragmatism does, but pursues the
ideal of a praxis which "unites theory and practical experience". Pragmatism
can easily turn into a narrowminded philistinism, insofar as any idea not
directly related to practice is dismissed as invalid, whereas praxiology
concentrates precisely on the way the relationship of theory and practice is
mediated or bridged, and how theory and practice could be united for maximum

Mostly, the epistemic problems in the world these days, are either that
people think they can know less or do know less, than is really the case, or
that they do know more or can know more, than is really the case. And this
can throw everything into doubt and uncertainty, of a kind which is

Some say, you don't need social science at all, other say you can only know
about society through social science. And this is obviously of political
significance, because often knowledge is power, and lack of knowledge can
mean exclusion from power.

Knowledge can provide access to resources, which lack of knowledge
prohibits. If you can convince people that they know little, and that you
know a lot, than this obviously helps to vest your power. Persuasion and
seduction then become an important factor, insofar as one must convince
others of what one knows, and what they don't know. People involved in
marketing turn this into a fine art.

Postmodernist thought suggests, however, that there is ultimately no way
that this process of knowing can be relativised, and therefore that all
knowledges are equally valid. This may be progressive, insofar as it creates
openings for "unheard other voices" but ultimately collapses into a total
relativism which puts into question our ability to know anything.

For Marx at least, there is an however an objective arbiter, and that
arbiter is practice itself, "correctly understood" as he says, not just
individual practice, but the practice of the masses, and practical
experience eventually overcomes all distortions created by the mooting of
ideas in isolation from the reality to which they refer.

In other words, the ultimate relativisation available to human beings occurs
through practical experience itself, not necessarily a superficial,
narrowly-conceived practice, but a practice enriched and informed by
theoretical insight.

That is not to say that practical experience cannot introduce ideational
distortions as well, that's of course also possible. That is why praxiology
emphasises historical (temporal) and dialectical (relational) thinking, in
order to relativise and contextualise practical experiences.

Lenin remarked once (paraphrase) that in politics, what matters is not being
correct, what matters is being correct at the correct time; those who were
correct too early can always say "I told you so" later, while those who were
correct only "after the fact" were not able to influence events when they
really happened.

If we are able to learn efficiently and shake off debilitating ideas, then
the "fount of wisdom" maybe within ourselves, as active subjects making our
history and influencing the course of history generally, despite all
ideologies which proclaim how little we can be, do, or know.

However, a Marxian praxis rejects the idea that there is any philosophical
masterkey to the "fount of all wisdom", and suggests that the most we could
hope for is to learn to be at the correct place at the correct time, armed
with thoughts and actions appropriate to the situation.

In Marx's own words, "there is no royal road to science" and if you want to
reach the summit you have to do the climb... and to do that climb, you might
have to say, "do what you need to do, and for the rest let people talk as
they will". Because otherwise you would be distracted from your purpose, and
endless distraction never accomplished anything much.


More information about the Marxism mailing list