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Dialectical Perception

Dialectical Perception: A
Synthesis of Lenin and
Edmond Wright
Ernst Mach (1976, 122) has a story about a savage who
was surprised to discover the power of written symbols.

The savage was ordered to take a basket of fruit, say,
mangoes, from one colonist to another, a basket that,
as well as the fruit, contained a piece of paper with
marks upon it. On the way the savage helped himself to
three of the mangoes. On arrival he was frightened and
mortified to discover that, in some way that he did not
understand, the scrap of paper magically revealed that
he had eaten some of the fruit. It bore upon it, of
course, a statement of the actual number of mangoes in
the basket.

Take it that this was a savage belonging to a
tribe, of which there have been cases, that do not
count beyond ten, and that there were more than ten
mangoes in the basket, say, fourteen. Though at the
end of the journey the eyes of both savage and colonist
were able to respond to the light-waves distributions
coming from the basket, the colonist was able to divide
up that distribution in a way that contributed to his
own utility at the expense of the savage’s. The savage
could not perceive the actual number of things in the
basket although he could ~ the colours and shapes
perfectly well; he could not perform the colonist’s
brief assessing glance which took in the ‘fact’ that
there were only eleven mangoes there.

Another ironic oddity. Suppose that the savage
knew well which mangoes were superlative in flavour
and which were not, because of years of experience in
picking them, perhaps a matter of subtle comparison of
tint, shape, texture and degree of hardness. Like someone who tastes wine, he may have developed the discriminatory powers without being able to verbalize his
criteria. Suppose, too, that the colonists had not yet
got to this stage of discrimination. Those that the savage ate may have been worth more than all the eleven
remaining, yet the fine meted out to him in punishment
by his Masters might only. have been equivalent to that
of three mangoes of inferior quality. The Slave, in his
close sense-perceptible encounter with the Real, often
can outdo the Master, even when the Master’s words
seem to have classified the Real into objective nameable facts. Alexandr Bogdanov, Lenin’S rival, can remind us of something relevant here. The learned, the
experts, tend to fall, like all masters, into a rigidity of
system (Bogdanov, 1913, 207; see Jensen, 1978, 82):

all members of the new technical intelligentsia deal with a largely homogeneous body of
physical and psychical tools and materials.

Therefore, they have so much in common that
it is difficult for them to believe that variations in individual systems of experience could
be anything but inconsequential.

Enough has been said, by way of introduction, to
suggest that the identity of sensing and perceiving can-

not be assumed without argument. One can claim, to
take vision as an example, that it is possible to filter
out a layer of sensing from the process of perceiving,
that is the sorting out from the fields of re-cognitions
of things, persons and properties. The aim of this article is to show how some recent work on the philosophy
of perception (Maund, 1975; Aldrich, 1980; Wright,
1985a) can support such a division, which, though not
new, the first to recommend it perhaps being Sextus
Empiricus (1955, I, 15, 17, 197), is novel today since it
has been out of fashion for thirty years or more. It can
render a systematic ambiguity plain, one that has led
to a stubborn opposition of thesis and antithesis traceable through many a philosophical confrontation, but
particularly to that between V. I. Lenin and A. A. Bogdanov, one fraught with a peculiar historical significance. The argument for the existence of that systematic ambiguity thus claims to be a dialectical synthesis of
both views, for it should show that from on”e aspect
Lenin is right and Bogdanov wrong, and from another
Lenin is wrong and Bogdanov right. The theory of perception at the base of this argument is itself a dialectical one in the sense that it shows that intersubjective
agreements over what it is to constitute a thing or
person or prperty within our sensory fields necessarily
involves a dialectical, though not necessarily progressive, procedure.

Part I will identify the elements of the debate
between views such as Lenin’s on the one hand and
those like Bogdanov’s on the other, in order to sharpen
the dilemma by bringing out the inconsistencies io; both.

Part 11 will·develop the positive elements on each side
of the confrontation, and show how the new theory of
perception, New Representationalism, can effect a recondlia tion of the two, sixty years or more after the
protagonists had left it unresolved.

A beginning can be made with an inconsistency in Ernst
Mach’s view of perceiving. From the story at the opening it can be seen that he was fascinated with the idea
of individual SUbjective differences in agents’ views of
the world. Mach allowed that different men can have a


,differing sense access to the distributions of energy at
their sense-organs, differing not only in angle of perspective and physiological states (for one man man hear
higher frequencies than another, have finer colourdiscrimination than another, etc.), but in what they
choose to call ‘a’ thing. It is strange, then, that Mach
went on to claim as a positivist that reality is the sum
total of facts, of what is the case. There is a gap here
between theory and practice. The theory states a comfortable ideal that all experience can in principle be
codified, down to the last particle: the practice, with
which Mach seems fascinated in spite of himself, becomes involved with a succession of mismatches, somehow suggestive of things ‘humorous’, as he puts it
(Ptolemaic/Copernican, phlogiston/oxygen, Dalton/Mendeleev, etc.).

Mach argued that all identifications of objects
were no more than ‘functional relations’ that men established within the world of sensory experience; even
~he ego is in his view no more than one such functional
relation established by the relating activity of the
brain. Holding to this and wanting to maintain the concept of the unity of science, Mach took the next logical step, as he saw it, of concluding that no assumption
need be made of any reality outside experience. The
troublesome psychical aspect could thus be equated
with the physical; as a result, a satisfactory monism
was arrived at that escaped the problems of the old
materialisms and idealisms at one stroke. In this he was
~nfluenced by Richard Avenarius’s theory of ‘pure experience’, where he found the same rejection of an
external cause of perceptions, the Kantian ‘thing-ini~self’ (Avenarius, 1888).

It was felt by both to be a
,_sc~..’]dal to claim that there were sense-impressions on

‘the one hand and an external cause on the other, when
whatever description was made of an object was inevitably couched in sensory terms such that if all descriptive terms were removed from the object nothing remained to be the ghostly ‘thing-in-itself’. A special
appeal for Mach was that experience could thus be
reduced to atomistic ‘elements’, not further analyzable,
on. a par with the atom ism of earlier materialistic
theory. His theory was thus more parsimonious than one
postulating an inconceivable flux or noumenon.

Alexandr Bogdanov was seeking a philosophical
position that could combine the social emphasis of
Marxism with a credible scientific monism. Something
of a Da Vinci in his successful versatility of interest
(politician, doctor, philosopher, economist, theorist of
art, novelist), he turned to Ostwald and Mach for his

,philosophy and tried to combine Machism and Marxism
in modified versions of both (Bogdanov, 1905, 1913).

The psychologist Hermann von Helmholtz (1866) had
argued that sense-impressions are a kind of sign or
symb01 occurring within the cortex as a result of the
complex transmission from the sense-organs of the distributions of energy to which they were adaptively
equipped to respond. The trouble with,that empiricist
version, for Bogdanov, was that it left the door open
to dualism, with the Kantian ‘thing-in-itself’, unnameable and inconceivable, as an impossible cause of those
signs and symbols. Bogdanov was attracted by Mach’s
determined forging-together of psychical ,and physical,
and also by his keeping a place for the development of
technique in handling experience, but he judged that
Mach had not said enough about how men act in concert upon experience through their labour in order to
produce an organization of nature. This stress upon the
social aspect of knowledge was what he regarded as a
corrective to Mach’s philosophy, the Marxist element
that could rescue it from idealism. In this he was
largely right, but he could not escape from the accusation of solipsism himself merely by asserting it. Ironically, it is perhaps because he did not take up Mach’s
own interest in the illusions played by the senseperceptjble, and because he also ignored Feuerbach’s
emphasis upon the sensory (F euerbach, 1966, 51, 59),
that he missed the way to defending himself from what
was to prove an attack which took on world-historical

His view of how men act in concert upon common
experience and use it to effect a greater adaptiveness
to nature can be best seen in his book The Philosophy
of Living Experience (Bogdanov, 1913). He considers
the mutual behaviour of two men engaged on a common
task. He assumes that there is in the reality of experience that which resists the attempts of men to transform it, and, interestingly, he points to Mach’s characterisation of the original ‘elements’ of exp-erience as
‘neutral’ before that effort of transformation. There
are three stages of a dialectic in this procedure. In the
first, the men agree on a plan as to how it is to be
tackled, but, nevertheless, because of their individual
perspectives of understanding, each will already have a
different understanding of what is to be done. The
second stage consists of their actual struggle with
what is in nature, the result being that their different
understandings will be tested out. Nature may, at this
stage, also produce effects neither of them had bargained for. At the third stage, the conflict of action
that results may be resolved either by one man’s understanding prevailing over that of the other, or there
may come a compromise at a new level of realisation
to which both of them can accede. He calls it: ‘an organizational process, proceeding by way of opposites, or
what comes to the same thing, by way of the struggle
of various tendencies’ (Bogdanov, 1913, 216-217). It
does not proceed, as in Engels’s classical dialectic, by
a resolution of contradictions, but by a process of confict and adjustment in the process of labour. Out of
such interactions is objectivity born, and it is guaranteed by its being true for everybody. In order to cover
himself against the attack upon the Machist that he
has reduced everything to mere subjective phenomena,
Bogdanov declares that the subjective element fails to
achieve the universality that can only be bestowed by
such cooperation in labour. He used to protest that he
was not a Machist, a claim borne out by this emphasis
on objectivity as something socially achieved, and this
clearly distinguishes him from Mach and links him to
Marx: ‘In general, the physical world is socially coordinated, socially-harmonized, in a word, sociallyorganized experience’ (Bogdanov, 1905, I, 83). Yet he
did not wish to deny the actuality of experience for
the individual:

The hobgoblin that smothers me in the night
has for me the character of objectivity, perhaps not a bit less than the stone against
which I bruise myself; but the utterances of
others take away this objectively.

The weakness of his argument, however remains
the same fundamentally as that of Mach and
Avenarius. If all reality is reduced to that ‘of experience, the stubborn conviction of a nature external to
us leads one back to the accusation of subjective idealism, as one of his contemporaries realised. Lyubov
Axelrod, a Russian philosopher, attacked Bogdanov in a
review of his Empiriomonism (Axelrod, 1906), accusing
him of Berkleian scepticism and thus falling into the
solipsistic trap together with his mentors. She argued
that for all his declarations of a commitment to materialism, the external reality is precisely what he had
banished, so that he was still fundamentally in a subjective idealist position. Yet one can see why Bogdanov
had thought that he had adequately dismissed this objection: in his scorn for the old materialist who merely
accepted mind as a passive recorder of copies from the
Real, he had stressed the part played by social activity
in the establishment of objectivity. What he did not see
was that he had to find a secure ontology, not only for
the social objectivity of things, but also for the objectivity of selves, particularly other selves in cooperation
with which this objectivity was achieved.

By the same token, his Machist emphasis on the
hypothetical nature of object-identification laid hirP
open to another misinterpretation. He sensed the power
of the model in science, of the need to operate with
tentative metaphors or ‘substitutes’, as he called them,
in order to elicit further utility-serving ‘organisations’

from the Real •• E~en at the level of the operations of
human societies he recognised the presence of mutual
hypotheses, which enabled human interactions to proceed with a presumed economic advantage. With his
fertile mind pursuing such themes, it was easy for him
to neglect the Achilles’ heel of his perception theory,
and not to anticipate that such talk of hypothesis in
engagements with the objective would only intensify
the mockery of those who considered his philosophy an
idealist illusion.

This is what Lenin, with a keen eye for the weakness of an opponent, having learned from Axelrod’s and
also Plekhanov’s criticisms (Plekhanov, 1973), seized
upon in order to discredit him as a true marxist and
materialist. His very title marks up the contrast he
wishes to make, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism
(Lenin, 1976), which is as much as to say that the two
are distinct. Lenin was determined to regain the control over the Bolsheviks that he had lost to Bogdanov
(largely over the issue of whether the SocialDemocratic representatives were going to remain in the
Duma; Bogdanov was for their being withdrawn), and
the effort and energy he put into this scathing attack
on Bogdanov and the other Machist-Marxists is a measure of the critical importance it had for him. It would
be difficult to find another ostensibly philosophical
book which has been produced with such a particular
political purpose. Unique though it may be in this regard, one can still say, this is nevertheless an old song,
worthy comrade! For Lenin did not do what a philosopher should do, which is to consider the attacks upon
his own position in order to defend himself the better.

He concentrated his argument on revealing the latent
idealism of Bogdanov’s case without meeting the accusation of passivity in the old-materialist case of which
Bogdanov had made so much. And Lenin certainly did
reveal the latent idealism in Bogdanov’s case. Listen,
Ml’ Machist!

Lenin wants to know how Bogdanov can explain
the existence of a world before man. Avenarius had
triecl to justify the possibility of such experience, by

the dubious assertion that to conceive of such a time
one always had to imagine an observer of it, so that
one can sustain its reality through the ‘potentiality’ of
this I imagined perceiving. However, Bogdanov, following
Mach, preferred to point out that the hypothesis of
such a time can only be sustained through the interpretation of actual experiences, namely, of fossil records
and so on. Neither of these defences is successful.

Lenin mocks at the claim that a supposed ‘indissolubility’ of the co-ordination in experience of self and environment can be based on a foundation where one of
the terms, the ‘self’ in this case, is presumed to be
‘potential’. (H. B. Acton (1955, 34) correctly pointed
out a parallel in applying the argument to Mill’s definition of matter as ‘permanent possibilities of sensation’.

There is no logical requirement that such a criterion be
part of the definition of matter, no more than the possibility that some men can jump seven feet high is part
of a necessary definition of man.) The question is
whether matter can exist without observers, and the
fundamental intuition of the ordinary’ man is that it
can. As regards Bogdanov’s second point about knowledge of such times always being based upon actual
experience (examination of fossil records, etc.), the
case is that it may be true that our access to knowledge is through sensory experience, but it does not
follow that it is ontologically reducible to sensory

One can see how Bogdanov’s laudable scientific
adherence to the principle of parsimony led him to
reject what he considered to be unverifiable ‘thingsin-themselves’, and to forget, in his conviction that
knowledge was socially constituted, that the existence
of the other minds upon which that constitution is
based is. an irrepressible problem for anyone who postulates phenomenal experience as the ontological base.

Thel question of how the pure experiential ‘elements’

came to be shared across different individuals .is not
openly addressed by either Mach or Bog”danov; – so
Lenin’s attack, bludgeoning in philosophical style,
nevertheless has powerful philosophical point. He notes
how the Machist bases his objectivity on social agreement and yet claims that experience is the basis of
reality. The inconsistency is patent: on the one hand,
persons are taken as a given beyond experience; on the
other, it is asserted that nothing is given beyond experience. Where Bogdanov declares: ‘The’ objective
character of the physical world consists in the fact
that it exists, not for me personally, but for everybody’

(Bogdanov, 1905, I, 25), Lenin can counter: ‘That is not
true! It exists independently of everybody!’ (Lenin,
1976, 137). He would agree with Plekhanov’s dismissal
of Bogdanov’s ‘social objectivity’: ‘Must a person who
has bruised his leg on a stone wait for some stranger’s
utterance to be convinced of the objectivity of the
stone?’ (Plekhanov, 1973, 81). This is like the commonsense reaction of Samuel Johnson, who, when asked
how he would refute Berkeley, said, kicking a stone, ‘I
refute him thus!’ Solipsism therefore remains the intractable weakness of Bogdanov’s case. If he wants to
reject the Solipsist label, it is not enough for him to
assert, what is undeniably true, that it is the social
dimension of man’s encounters with nature that establish objectivity, if he has no principled account of how
the objectivity of selves, and in particular, other
selves, comes to be acknowledged. This is certainly
bound up with the problem of how sensory experience
comes to be regarded as shared.

But Lenin is not without his own inconsistencies.

He is determined to uphold the existence of things external to man: ‘the fundamental premise of materialism
is the recognition of the external world, of the existence of things outside and independent of our mind’

(1976, 86). Perception for Lenin is a process in which
these external things produce a ‘reflection’ of them-


selves in the brain, in the character of a photograph.

There is a direct correspondence between external
things and their images in sensation. Sensations, within
our brain, are produced by their action on our senseorgans. He rejects Helmholtz’s opinion that sensations
are signs or symbols of external things, an opinion
which had been seconded by Plekhanov (1961, 514-515).

This he viewed as a dangerous concession to the subjective idealist, for it immediately opens a gap between
the thing and this ‘sign’. An image, in his opinion, implies the objective reality of what it images whereas a
sign. implies a discontinuity, a divorce of idea from
reality. What we see is the object, not some surrogate
for it: ‘sensations are images of objects, of the external world’ (1976: 140). They are not the ‘stable complexes of sensory elements’ of the Machist, the reason
being, as Enge1s had earlier explained, that we can
put to an infallible test the correctness or
otherwise of our sense-perceptions. If these
perceptions have been wrong, then our estimate of the use to which an object can be
turned must also have been wrong, and our
attempt must fail. But if we succeed in accomplishing our aim, if we find that the object does agree with our idea of it, and does
answer the purpose we intended it for, then
‘that is positive proof that our perceptions of
it· and its qualities, so far, agree with reality
outside ourselves.

(Engels, 1951, 11, 93)
What Lenin and Engels have not seen is that to allow
the notion of false or inadequate images to enter their
scheme disrupts the Reflection Theory of perception. It
is plain that there cannot be ‘copies’ or ‘photographs’

of external things which are somehow false. Lenin
attaches the idea of verification to the ‘differentiation
of true and false images’ (1976, 119), but if images are
‘mirror-:reflections’ of things produced by a causal interaction of light-waves and sense-organs the application of a truth and a falsity that can be decided in
praxis seems to be impossible. Furthermore, if Lenin
holds to this concept of verification, he has to allow
that the appearance of things comes away from an uncertain reality beyond, which is what the detested
Avenarius argued for, a ‘What’ that could be distinguished from a variable ‘That’. It is not the case merely, as Avenarius realized, that we can mistake Smith
for Jones if he is sitting far enough away down the
tramcar (one entity mistaken for another entity), but
we can take two things for one, or one and a half for
one. Among a crowd of starlings sitting silhouetted in a
bare tree, how easy to take half an old nest, a projection on a branch and a twig below as ‘one’ of the starlings if the outline happens to correspond. If Lenin protests, ‘But that is a photograph!’, then one can answer
that it was not a photograph of given things. The
‘things’ are not given at all, even though what is given
is the distribution and character of the light-waves, as
registered in sensation in the brain. Lenin was well
aware of sensation being caused by light-waves and
considered himself more scientific than Mach in holding
to a belief in their external existence, but his error
was to conflate the registration of that energydistribution in sensation with a copying of ‘things’.

If it is allowable in Lenin’s theory for the observer to adjust the boundaries of things according to
the deliverances of praxis, which entaHs that it is always possible for thing-selections to prove to be nonutility-serving, or, better, maladaptive, then thingselection is an activity of mind and not a given in experience. Lenin and Engels would therefore have to
concede that the registration of energy-distributions
cannot be equated with thing-recognition. It is also the
case that, as their reflection theory is at present
defined, their utility-criterion for verification will not

stand up, for it is open to the Machist to ask just how
it is that one judges whether we have ‘succeeded in
accomplishing our aim’, and, since the answer is that
the result could in principle be reduced to either an
increase of pain or an increase of pleasure, both of
which are unmistakably sensations, their criterion could
be said to’ be just as phenomenal as any in Machist
theory. So Engels’ Alizarin argument (Engels, 1958,
371), on which Lenin placed such reliance (as proving a
‘fact’ about the external of which man had been ignorant but which is now securely confirmed) collapses
when the basis for verification, as defined in the
theory, is revealed.


Thesis and antithesis have both been shown to be
flawed. Lenin is right in accusing Bogdanov of not having escape the Solipsist Objection: the Other Minds
problem vitiates his attempt to base objectivity on
social interaction. Bogdanov is right to accuse Lenin of
espousing a passive approach to perception: to conceive
of sensations as passive images of things leads to a
dilemma when elsewhere in the argument there are
claims for praxis as a testing-out of perceptual hypotheses about things. But there is no doubt that it is
social interaction that establishes what is to be regarded as an object or a person. Equally there is no doubt
that men do communicate and co-operate on the
assumption of an external nature distinct from their
own perceivings of it. What synthesis can resolve the

Lenin and Bogdanov were talking past each other.

If each, as good philosophers, had turned his mind to

what his opponent regarded as the key refutation of his
own position, a move towards an agreement might have
been reached. New Representationalism can thread its
way through the maze of this argument and show where
each contestant was making positive contributions to
the theory of perception and, further, to the theory of

It can accept, with Lenin, a form of Reflection
Theory, saying that indeed the metaphor of photographing the external is applicable, but only according to
certain limited criteria. To confine the case to vision,
the eye itself can be looked upon as a camera, a TVcamera, as long as we confine the analogy to the
following respects: that there is a focussing lens and a
light-wave-sensitive matrix upon which light-waves are
distributed; that (and this is a similarity to a camera
not brought out before) there are no colours at the
retina and no re.cognising of objects. Cameras, like
eyes, are mere causal mechanisms, and do not register
or produce colours: they do both register light-wave
distributions and intensities, but these are not coloured, nor are they the objects from which they were
reflected. Another similarity to a TV-camera is that

electrical impulses are derived from the matrix and
channelled down conducting connectors to a registration-region (take the TV-system to be a closed-circuit
one). In both systems, processing of those impulses can
take place in order to produce alterations of them
before reaching the registration-region. In the TV set
circuits allow the enhancement of what will ultimately
be contrast-effects, but which, before registration, are
merely specific alteration of certain voltages from
parts of the matrix in the camera. Similarly, in the
brain edge-enhancement circuits automatically perform
upon the nerve-impulses changes of potential which will
make the boundaries of certain regions sharper than
they were at reception at the retina. All this takes
place before registration and is thus not a handling of
colours and shapes but of the uncoloured impulses only.

In neither case has any real colour yet appeared in the
system. A final similarity, resisted up to now by those
who are against inner representations, is that the impulses from both eye and T-V camera end at a registration-region in which the automatically processed and
enhanced impulses activate a matrix and produce a simulacrum of’ the light-wave distribution that was originally picked up. But it is here that the metaphor ends.

The reason is that in the brain the nerve-impulses
produce a coloured matrix, the impulses in the
cathode-ray-tube do not. TV-screens, being outside
brains and part of external matter, are not coloured.

No, molecules are coloured, nor are the light-waves
which are reflected from their surfaces. Colour is an
experience created by a complex of neurons in the
cortex of the occipital region ot the brain.

Since no molecules are externally coloured, no
molecules are externally coloured in the brain either.

Colour is not a property of surfaces at all, either in
the brain or out of it. It is certainly a property of
colour-creating complexes in the brain, but, since it is
emphatically not a property of any surface, it is ridiculous to conceive of a ‘visible’ screen in the brain and
another set of eyes to look at it. This gives rise to an
absurd regress. But notice the reason for the absurdity
– not, as old anti-Sense-Datum philosophers used to
believe, because the colours of real things outside were
repeated on a coloured screen inside so that another
pair of eyes was required – but it is absurd because
real colour is not a property of what is external to the
body at all. Real colour cannot in fact be looked at
with eyes. Eyes do not look at real colour: they only
pick up uncoloured light-waves. So there could not be
another set of eyes inside the head, for there are no
un-coloured light-waves there for eyes to pick up.

What is in the back of the head is a neural experience,
not uncoloured light-waves, and obviously this cannot
be looked at, only experienced. Just as the taste of
vinegar, as Josef Dietzgen (1928, 88) said is not in the
vinegar, so the red of tomatoes is ‘not in the tomatoes:

both vinegary taste and red colour are neural experiences. Just as we do not need an extra mouth and
tongue in the brain to experience a vinegary taste, we
do not need an extra eye inside it to experience red

Philosophers will realise that this approach puts a
new cast on the old Vicious Regress Objection much
favoured by anti-representationalists. There is no need
for any ‘homunculi’ to be observers all over again in
the cortex. Once the idea is grasped that colours and
tastes and so on are not properties of matter external
to the cortex, it ceases to be strange that they are
cortical activities and not direct properties of portions
of matter outside the body.

The brain clearly has the capacity to make molar
selections from this colour-field. There is a selectormechanism, again in itself basically non-intentional,
which is induced to unify patterns as cognised recurrences by the operation of the pleasure/pain system. To

Itake pain: damage-detecting sensors produce a pain
experience in the cortex which triggers immediate sorting activity in the colour-field by the selectormechanism such that this sorting will be placed in
memory-store with its power to command the sensation
of fear on its reappearance, and thus desire to retreat.

Intention takes its origin from such memory-storage,
though the possibility always remains open of revising
the particular sorting that has been made (see further
Wright, 1985b).

So far the theory bears a close resemblance to
that of Helmholtz, but it makes a significant divergence from it. He spoke of the sensory registration as a
‘sign’ or a ‘symbol’, but this was a most confusing
metaphor drawn from the field of human communication, and Lenin can be forgiven for rearing at it. The
cortical registration can only roughly be called a sign,
and that in the sense of being a ‘natural sign’ according to H. P. Grice’s notion of natural meaning (Grice,
1967, 39). Just as spots are a ‘sign’ of measles, and the
movement of a snooker-ball is a ‘sign’ that the cue has
just hit it, so red in the cortex is a ‘sign’ that certain
light-waves have arrived at the retina and that certain
processing has taken place upon them. In short – and to
leave this most distracting metaphor behind – it is no
more than the effect of a number of causes. Unlike a
symbol, which can be changed in meaning, red is an
automatic response of the visual cortex to neural input
(neural input, of course, can come not only from the
optic nerve, but from memory and/or imagination cortical sources, as in the case of mental imagery, dream,
hallucination, etc.). So sensing is not a sign or symbol
but a non-intentional causal result of certain types of
neural excitation, frequently (during most of the day)
produced by sense-organs and the accompanying processors, and at night in states of rest (during mentalimaging, hypnagogic visions, dreams, etc.) produced by
input from within the brain itself. It can be artificially
produced by electric probe (phosphenes) and by concussion (‘seeing stars’); it can also result from defects in
the neural system (migraine patterns, tinnitus, phantom

This is the way in which Lenin can be taken to be
asserting something correct about the sensing system.

As far as sensing goes (and that includes all prephenomenal processing), man is entirely passive. It is an
automatic process, but, to keep to vision, it does not
produce images of external energy-distributions, for
those external distributions are not coloured. It does
produce a field of cortical colour that has at most
times of daily activity a principled relation of distribu-

tion (taking account of adaptive ‘distortions’ in the
Gibsonian neural processing) to the distribution of the
uncoloured light-waves that arrive at the eye. If Edwin
Land is right (Land, 1977), the cortical colour-distribution does not even correspond directly to the type of
light-wave arriving at a particular ‘pixel’ of the
matrix, . but is a product of a complex correctioncalculation across the whole field, automatically performed in order to retain steady reflectance-values of
particular areas (for example, a ‘black’ area will continue to produce black in the cortex even when the
intensity of the light-wave flux coming from it is higher than that of a ‘white’ paper; this is another ‘distortion’ produced by tne neural circuits that proved adaptive in evolution). This distribution-relation, in no way
direct, is what is Lenin’s ‘photograph’ of the external,
but Lenin would have been wrong in thinking that the
internal red matched an external red, for there is no
external red, just as there is no external vinegary taste
inside bottles of vinegar or scent from a rose or feelings of warmth from a fire. There have to be eyes,
tongues, noses, hands and a cortex for these to occur.

With the Vicious Regress Objection adequately
countered, the Solipsist Objection is the next concern.


Even if the account of cortical sensation be allowed to
be correct, one can ask how it is that .the existence of
this uncoloured, untasting, unsmelling, etc. external
matter can be ontologically presupposed, when, according to the argument, the only access to it is through
those cortical registrations. The parsimony that Mach
and Bogdanov insisted upon would seem to regard it as
unscientific to make the hypothesis of ‘things-inthemselves’. From Lenin’s point of view the separation
of appearance from reality leads directly to idealism
and solipsism, unless, as in Berkeley’s argument, one
makes appeal to a god to guarantee the sharing of subjective facts. The empiriocritics endeavoured to hold to
Esse est percipi, the bond between subject and object,
as the guarantee of reality, but Lenin was quite right
to believe that his ‘World-before-Man’ argument put
that seriously into question, though he was unable to
produce an argument that dealt with their positive
claim that objects are bound to subjects. When Nicolai
Valentinov tried to explain this to Lenin, he was met
with cries of ‘Grotesque! Idiotic claptrap! Obscurantism! Idealistic rubbish! Pathetic drive!!’ (Valentinov,
1968, 215).

The confrontation can be resolved. The key misunderstanding can be shown as present in Avenarius
himself, where it reveals itself as an inconsistency. He
wishes to insist, as Valentinov explained, that subject
and object are bound together, that they are two sides
of the same process (Carstanjan, 1897, 470), but he
elsewhere asserts, as was seen above, that the ‘What’

can be distinguished from the variable ‘That’; another
way of putting it is his saying that ‘it makes no difference to experience whether it is true or not’ (Bush,
1905, 20). Mach was to take up the same theme: ‘the
senses represent things neither wrongly nor correctly’

(Mach, 1959, 10), influenced as he was by the fact that
illusions can occur in the sense fields. What neither
Avenarius nor Mach realized was, as the starling
example shows, that object-selections can move about
freely on the field of sensation, selecting ‘things from
it according to the outcome of experiment. If the field
of sensory registration can be scientifically described
without reference to the object-selections that are
being made from it, then Avenarius and Lenin have an
error in common.

Consider the analogy of the TV screen again. An
electronics engineer could give a digi tal account of the
states of the phosphor cells on the back of the screen
without any reference to any object-recognition being
performed by anybody looking at the screen. This is the
‘field-determinate’ description (see Aldrich for the distinction of the ‘field of the representing device’ and
the ‘field of what is shown in it’; Aldrich, 1980). For
example, a digital field-determinate description could
be given of a screen that showed a fuzzy white area.

Now whether that fuzzy area was a clear picture of a
cloud of steam or a blurred picture of a snowball or a
patch of interference can only be decided by checks on
the context in which that sensed area appeared. If a
boiling kettle had just been shown on the screen, then
the ‘thing’ a cloud of steam would be immediately
recognised; if it was a play in which a short-sighted
man had just lost his glasses and we were being given
an impression of how the world looked to him, then the
‘thing’ could be a blurred snowball. The ‘objectdeterminate’ level is thus logically distinct from the
field-determinate one. It is clear that the distribution
of the regions and shades of a field can be given a
description in a scientifically punctiform manner with·
out reference to any things or persons that may be
selected from it. Therefore, in principle, the colour
matrix in the visual cortex could in the future be given
a punctiform description by the neurophysiologist in
field-determinate form. It is part of the contention of
the present theory that neurophysiologists should be

able to account for the way in which the cortex produces the colour-experience. They should be able to
compare the field-state in the visual cortex with the
distribution of uncoloured light-waves into the eyes and
consider the degree of dependence of the one upon the
other. Lenin’s ‘photograph’ can be said to be there in
the cortex all right, but, though it is in colour itself, it
is not a ‘photograph’ of external coloured things but of
uncoloured light-wave energy-distributions.

This field-determinate representation in the cortex is described as ‘nonepistemic’ in the current philosophy of perception. This does not mean that as a field
it cannot be described, only that it can exist such that
it is possible to perform either a variety of epistemic
sortings ‘upon it (i.e. of object-, person- or propertyidentifications) or none at all. The newly born child,
the autistic agent, the sufferers from visual agnosia all
sense without perceiving. The normal agent usually
experiences the field as divided up into recognisable
objects; one says ‘usually’, because there are many
occasions when the field, even for the normal agent, is
only sensed and not so divided up into perceptions. For
example, if you open and close your eyes alternately,
from the object-selection point of view there may
appear to be no change in what you see, but from the
sensed point of view, the field-determinate one, the
whole field has changed very slightly at every point, as
a field-determinate account would readily show, the
reason being that each eye is seeing from a different
perspective. Everyone can experience sensing without
any external cause whatever: go into an absolutely
lightless room and you will have the sensed experience
Blackness, caused wholly privately within your cortex
(for there are no light-waves into the eye). The absence of excitation at the retina means that at the
cortex and nowhere else appears the experience Blackness. Both Locke (Essay, 11, viii, 2) and Lord Brain
(1951, 10, 15) were aware that Blackness was a positive experience in its own right. A newly born child
could not even name it as ‘blackness’. A simple way of
temporarily inducing acoustic agnosia in oneself is to
repeat a word rapidly over and over again without
stopping: the effect is that after a while the word
loses all its meaning and ceases to sound like a word at
all. So experience, open to being described at pointstate level by the neurophysiologist, remains real-inits-own-right regardless of what the subject mayor
may not be taking portions of it to be, just as the
phosphor glowings on the back of a TV screen are
real-in-their-own-right regardless of what they are
taken to be. The glowings are real whether they are
showing a live broadcast, a video-film, a cartoon or
interference; similarly, the sensory fields remain real
whether they are showing, to take vision as an
example, open-eye views, dreams, mental imagery, hypnagogic imagery, after-images, migraine patterns, or
hallucinations (objectified or non-objectified).

The 50lipsist Objection can now be dealt with. In
the first place, sensing can exist in a body without
there being any self in existence to wonder whether
the whole of experience is but a dream, as Descartes
originally asked (Meditations, I). A self is but one of
the selections that the selector-mechanism begins to
make at birth. In the second place, conviction of the
existence of an external cause of the inner perception
is confirmed when a correction about an objectselection is received from another human being. The
key advantage over animals possessed by human beings
is that they can by symbolic means suggest new
ob ject-selections to each other. Even advanced animals
can only transfer newly learned selections to each
other by their behaviour in the presence of the cause.

When one human agent is able to produce a gestaltswitch of selection in another, such that the latter
concedes an alteration of what is perceived (not a

wood, but a wood with a camouflaged tank in it), then
a number of features of the intersubjective situation
have to be noticed:

(1) If, say, a portion of the nonepistemic visual
field not feared before, can now be picked out as fearful, the one corrected will have experienced a gestaltshock in which his own self-image will have been corrected at the behest of an external agent; his intentional perspective now partakes of a novel element
never before cognized although admittedly sensed;
(2) The existence of a private sensed field as having a reality of its own outside former thing-selections
has thus to be admitted, that is, a caused nonintentional element not so far included in perceptions
by or of the self though already experienced and thus
existent in the brain;
(3) The fact that the other who applied the correction must have a private sensed field of his own;
the Other Minds questions receives here a credible
account within the theory;
(4) (Most notably for the Lenin/Bogdanov issue)
the existence of a common material cause of both
agents’ private fields external to both, in the form of a
flux, a materia prima or ‘absolute process’ (to use the
term favoured by Wilfred Sellars, 1981), to which
science can give the current description as energy;
and/or mass-distributions in space-time;
(5) If the correction is accepted and proves itself
in praxis, then a new workable object-hypothesis can
be held which should be adaptive to both until new circumstances bring about some other challenge to its viability. Here E. von Glasersfeld’s view that evolution
produces adaptation by fit to present external circumstances and not by a logically perfect match to all possible circumstances can be appropriately included
(Glasersfeld, 1985);
(6) The acceptance of a correction’ provides a
confirmation to the one who corrects, for another’s
agreement in praxis cannot but strengthen his conviction.

(7) Acceptance of the reality of the sensed field
as real-in-itself produces a novel conclusion not before
asserted in philosophy: that the sensing is itself a part
of materia prima. Not only can we be sure that external material prima exists as the global cause of all our
sensings, but we can be sure that our cortical fieldas-experienced is part of materia prima, that is, it is
ontologically real-in-itself whether epistemic selections
are being made or not. The Solipsism Objection can
thus not even be put, since it depends on the notion of
a given observing self, and, by this argument the self is
just as much of a problematic perception out of the
real sensings as any other. To sum up this section in
Kantian terms, not only is the noumenal proved to be
real, but the phenomenal is proved to be part of the
noumenal (Wright, 1985a). All this is independent of
whatever epistemic selections are at that moment being
made – or not made – by the body concerned.

The key feature is that sensation is nonepistemic,
caused by energy-distributions, and not by external
things. Lenin was wrong to say that things existed
before man: he would not have been wrong to say that
a materia prima, currently best described as energy and
mass, existed before man. Bogdanov was wrong in not
admitting materia prima as external cause of sensation,
but was right in claiming that by examining geological
evidence we can extrapolate and use thing-terminology
of states of matter that existed before man. He was
also right to say that reality is ‘cut up, trimmed and
tacked together’ by man (Bogdanov, 1905, I, 35), but he
should also have seen that one man can ‘re-tack’ one
thing into two or ‘trim’ one into half. Though the sensory fields responsive to external distributions are real
enough, objects are sortings out of it performed
thr.ough the labour-process he himself described. Of his

two men at work he should have realised that correction of thing-boundaries can prove the existence of a
Real from which men together mutually sort out portions by means of their private fields (which thus cannot perfectly superimpose). This is actually implicit in
his taking up Avenarius’s idea of the elements being
‘neutral’ as regards truth and falsity before the
labour-transformation has taken place. One can conclude by re-phrasing the outcome in an old way: there
are no ‘things-in-themselves’ (Bogdanov and Mach were
right, and Lenin was wrong), but there is one ‘thingin-itself’, which we cannot strictly call a ‘thing’, but
which does exist apart from our perceiving of it, namely, the materia prima (Bogdanov and Mach were wrong,
and Lenin was right).

There is yet one corollary to the Solipsist Objection which was used above against Engels and Lenin.

If the praxis which sustains new thing-selections from
the Real must ultimately be checked by experiences of
pleasure and pain, which are themselves sensations,
how is it that conviction of the externality of matter
can depend on something as subjective as colour? even more so, for everyone admits to the SUbjectivity
of pleasure and pain.

First, by this argument, the mutual correction
process establishes that all subjective experiences,
either of the self or of others, are real-in-themselves
regardless of what they are caused by and, more
importantly, for this escapes all the accusations that
depend upon the veridical/illusory object distinction,
regardless of what the agent is currently perceiving in
those fields. If this real-in-itself character of, say, a
smell, can be acceded to, so too can the real-in-itself
character of a pleasure – Who, except a neurophysiologist in his analysis, could abstract the pleasure of the
scent of a rose from the sensory aspect of the scent as
such? We can certainly abstract the knowledge of its
being that of a rose, for the nose may be that of someone who has never smelled flowers in his life (an
Eskimo hermit?), but we cannot abstract the real-in ..

itself quality from either the sensed smell or the

Secondly, there are principled explanations possible of those cases in which the pleasure/pain module
is not operating properly in harness with the selectormechanism. Paul M. Churchland (1979, 144) has suggested the possible case of a creature born with its
pleasure/pain spectrum reversed, so that it would
rapidly pursue its own starvation and destruction. An
interesting implication here that one can tease out is
that such a creature would be able to make objectselections, albeit conducive to its own damage and
death; one can ask the objectivists in epistemology
whether these object-selections would constitute knowledge. In the present theory actual knowledge is bound
to satisfactions in praxis (even logicians talk of conclusions ‘satisfying’ constraints). Psychologists, too,
know of the ‘psychological solipsist’ (Oliver, 1970,
30-32), the schizophrenic in a state of complete withdrawal from the world, who could, as an empirical possibility, be in a state of total hallucination, which may
or may not be objectified. In the severely autistic case,
it is even possible for a body to exist without a self at
all. However, within a theory that can take the self to
be an epistemic selection of a unique kind from the
cortical fields by the selector-mechanism, guided by
symbolic interaction from other selves during maturation, such empirical possibilities can be given a place
within theory without overthrowing it since the mutual
correction process can be applied to such contingencies
as to any others.

What was positive and valuable about Bogdanov’s
contribution was not only his stress upon the dialectic
that issues between men as they labour in nature, a
dialectic that establishes, maintains, adjusts and some15

times rejects object-sortings from the Real, but also,
something that he had learned from Mach, that ~­
thesis was intimately involved in all such mutual identifications. One can pick out the almost unnoticed phrase
‘I take to be’ in the following as proof of the presence
of that hypothesis, but then an inconsistency follows:

The objective character of the physical world
Gonsists in the fact that it exists, not only
for me personally, but for everybody, and has
for everybody a particular significance which
I take to be the same as that which it has for
myself. The objectivity of a physical sequence
consists in its uncertainty. The ‘subjective’

element in experience, on the other hand, is
that which has no universality, having meaning for only one or more individuals (my

(Bogdanov, 1905, I, 23)
If the New Representationalist’s argument is correct,
the Real is distinct from objectivity. Objects are problematic sortings that men make together from the Real,
and those sortings can be altered. Mutual correction
proves together (1) the reality of the ground from
which objects are sorted; and (2) the endless adjustability of the spatio-temporal boundaries and criterial
qualities of cognisable entities. Reality is not hypothesised, for the experience of correction guarantees
the existence not only of the external as a materia
prima-in-jtself but of the existence of one’s own phenomenal field as a reality-in-itself and of the phenomenal fields of others. What is hypothesised is the superimposition-in-practicaI=-action of private objectsortings. Men ‘take it to be’ that they have sorted

The inconsistency in the quotation comes from
what Bogdanov ignores here, which he should not have
done given his Two-Man explanation, namely, that
sometimes one man can make a better object-sorting
than his partner, even a majority of his fellows. Though
there cannot be a private language, there can obviously
be private understandings of a public language that are
wiser than that of the received opinion (Wright, 1985a,
87). Therefore, it is often the case that a private
object-selection from the private sense-field can be of
public value when communicated to others. So it is not
the case that a private object-selection is no candidate
for ‘universality’; Bogdanov shuld have remembered
what he said about those Hegelian Masters of the
‘technical intelligentsia’ who too easily consider indi-

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vidual perspectives as ‘inconsequential’ (1913, 207).

Although the Real as a base for our object-sortings is
no hypothesis, every object-sorting J! a hypothesis.

Such inferences are of course largely automatic and
unconscious, until such time as another person forces a
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the object for them out of the Real. It is ~ postulation that men reach the coinciding of their intentional
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Not only are all object-sortings in the everyday
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by this convenient fiction of logical convergence of the
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‘Scientific Image’. With Mach we can accept that,
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micro-objects in materia prima, those are convenient
fictions too and must be endlessly adjustabfe, but none
of this upsets our conviction of the reality of materia
prima as a fundamental continuum, whatever metaphor
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wisely sceptical about the success of our current objectifications, we can always equally remain convinced
of the existence and the materiality of the Real. Here
Lenin’s advocacy of the reality of the material base
and Bogdanov’s understanding of the social nature of
knowledge can reach a lasting synthesis. Perhaps, despite Gogol’s pessimism, Ivan Ivanovitch and Ivan Nikoforitch can finally shake hands.

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