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Materialism, Realism and the Reflection Theory

Materialism, Realism and the
Reflection Theory*

Sean Savers


The reflection theory is the traditional theory of
knowledge of Marxism. It is this theory which is put
forward by Engels and which is developed and defended
at length by Lenin in MateriaZism and EmpirioCriticism [1]. The basic principles of this theory
are simply stated and easily grasped. First of all,
the reflection theory, in its Marxist version, is a
variety of philosophical materialism. It is founded
upon the metaphysical view [2] that there is a material world which exists independently of our consciousness of it; whereas consciousness, on the other hand,
cannot exist independently of matter. On this basis,
the reflection theory of knowledge holds that the
material world is knowable by consciousness, because
consciousness reflects material reality; and that the
test of truth is practi~e.

These ideas have a great initial appeal. Indeed,
to many people – particularly to those unfamiliar
with philosophy – they will probably seem evident and
obvious. And yet the reflection theory has been
amongst the most controversial and disputed areas of
Marxist philosophy. Indeed, it has been a view very
widely held among philosophers, both inside and outside the Marxist tradition, that materialism in
general· and the reflection theory in particular, is a
false and untenable position, and one which has long
been discredited in. the history of philosophy. The
criticisms come from all sides and from writers who
otherwise disagree about the most fundamental issues.

Yet, when one examines this literature one cannot fail
to be struck by the fact that a few simple and ancient
idealist arguments, deriving from Berkeley and Kant,
are repeated with monotonous regularity and regarded
as decisive. My aim in this paper will be to show
that materialism in the theory of knowledge, in the
form of the reflection theory, can be developed 50 as
to meet these objections and provide a satisfactory

*A Note on Terminology
Since some of the key terms I use in this artiaZe
have on oaaasions given rise to misunderstandings,
an initial note of aZarifiaation may be helpful.

By ‘rea lism ” in wha t fo llows, I mean the view
that there is a material UJOrld whiah exists independently of our aonsaiousness of it and whiah aan be
known by aonsaiousness. Realism, as thus defined,
is a very widespread view and has been developed in
many different forms (empiriaist, rationalist, mater-


account of the material world and of our knowledge
of it.

At the outset, however, it must be acknowledged
that the reflection theory as found in the traditional Marxist accounts needs developing – it will not do
as it stands. In particular, there are inadequacies
in Lenin’s account of it in MateriaZism and EmpirioCriticism – inadequacies which Lenin himself came to
recognise and acknowledge as a result of his study of
Hegel [3]. In my account of the reflection theory,
I, too, shall draw substantially on Hegel’s philOsophy. For, as I shall try to show, his philosophy
provides the essential basis upon which”the reflection theory can be developed in a satisfactory and
fruitful way.


The reflection theory is no invention of Marxism.

It is one of the traditional approaches in epistemology and has had a long history. During the course
of this history, many different versions of the
theory have been put forward, embodying virtually all
the different main philosophical outlooks: there have
been empiricist and rationalist versions, idealist
and materialist ones. The first essential point to
see, however, is that the Marxist theory of reflection is a distinctive, dialectical materialist,
version, which does not merely repeat previous
accounts. Failure to appreciate this has been at
the basis of almost all the criticisms and objections
which are aimed at Engels’ and Lenin’s work. Lenin,
in particular, is regularly accused of naively and
ignorantly reproducing Locke’s theory of knowledge,
and thereby laying himself open to the arguments by
which Berkeley discredited and refuted it.

It is undeniable that Lenin’S theory of knowledge
shares features in common with Locke’s. Lenin’s
account of reflection, like Locke’s, is strongly

ialist, dualist). One form of realism is
materialism in the theory of knowledge. HOWever,
the term ‘materialism’ has been so muah abused in
reaent years that it often seems to signify no more
than ‘the theory I maintain (whatever that may be) ‘.

I stress, therefore, that here I am using the term
‘materiaZism’ in its striat and phiZosophiaal sense,
to mean the theory that oonsaiousness does not exist
inckpendent of matter and that all reality is material. In this sense, I argue, Lenin is a materialist,
and his theory of knOWledge is a materialist form of
realism. By aontrast, Loake’s realism and the reaent

‘saientifia realism’ of Bhaskar are duaZistia forms
of realism, since these philosophies both involve a
rejeation of phiZosophiaal materialism, and a dualistia distination and separation of oonsaiousness
from matter, appearanae from reality, eta.

In this artiale I try to show that suah dual.istic
forms of realism aannot aomprehend our knowledge of
the material world. I argue for a realism and try to indiaate how this aan be developed in
a dialeat1:cal fashion to avoid the inadequaaies and
pitfalls of meahaniaal material.ism in the theory of

empiricist in character, and suffers from the defects
and one-sidedness which are characteristic of this
tradition. I shall come on to these problems presently. However, it is equally undeniable that there are
fundamental and crucial differences between Lenin’s
philosophy and the classical empiricist version of
the reflection theory as found in Locke. Lenin is a
materialist, Locke a dualist and his realism takes a
dualist form. Lenin has an excellent sense of
dialectics, Locke’s account is purely mechanical.

These differences are crucial. Because of its dualism, Locke’s theory is vulnerable to Berkeley’s
criticisms; whereas Lenin’s dialectical and materialist understanding of reflection provides the basis
for a response to Berkeley.

At the basis of Locke’s epistemology and metaphysics is his theory of ideas. This is Locke’s
account of experience, the central term of empiricist
philosophy. According to his theory, the immediate
objects of consciousness and knowledge are ideas:

‘The mind, in all its thoughts and reasonings,
hath no other immediate object but its own
ideas, which it alone does or can contemplate’

[4 ]

According to Locke, ideas are purely subjective,
private, mental entities, distinct from the objective, material world, which exists independently of
consciousness. Locke’s philosophy thus involves a
~harp metaphysical dualism between ideas and things,
between the mental and the material realms. Dualism
is also a feature of his theory of knowledge, which
involves a rigid distinction between subjective
appearances and the objective reality of things. In
his account of knowledge, Locke begins by rejecting
the theory of innate ideas and enunciating the
empiricist principle that all our ideas and knowledge
derive from experience. Through experience, however,
I am directly presented with ideas and not things. I
am immediately aware only of the subjective appearances which things present to me, not of their objective reality; I am aware of them as phenomena not as
they are in-themselves. Locke thus rejects the
philosophy of ‘direct realism’, the view that we have
a direct and immediate awareness of objective reality.

In its place he develops a version of the reflection
theory of knowledge.

According to Locke, objects and forces in the
external world act upon the senses; a stimulus is
transmitted through the nervous system, eventually
giving rise to ideas in consciousness. A physical
process gives rise to a mental one, and the connection
between them is causal and contingent [5]. We can
have knowledge of the world because our ideas reflect
or, in Locke’s language, ‘resemble’ the objects which
give rise to them [6]. Ideas of sensation are thus,
for Locke, mental entities, which have the character
of subjective appearances, reflecting and resembling
the material objects independent of consciousness
which give rise to them. In this way, Locke’s philosophy involves both a metaphysical dualism of mind
and matter and also an epistemological dualism between
subjective appearances and objective reality.

Berkeley’s response to Locke is both simple and
devastating. He starts from the same basic assumption
as Locke, embodied in the theory of ideas, that ideas
and not things are the immediate objects of consciousness. Berkeley then proceeds to show that this
assumption is incompatible with Locke’s realism and
with the reflection theory. If we are immediately
aware only of our ~deas, we can never have any basis
for saying anything about the objective world, independent of them. Experience provides us no access to
the world as it is in-itself – it informs us only of
how the world appears to us.

‘As for our senses, by them we have the knowledge

onty of our sensations, ideas, or those things
that are immediately perceived by sense, call
them what you will: but they do not inform us
that things exist without the mind, or unperceived,
like those which are perceived. This the
materialists [i.e. Locke] themselves acknowledge.’


Nor can we form any rational inferences about the
material world independent of consciousness on the
basis of experience, since, according to Locke, there
is no necessary connection between it and our
experience. As Berkeley says,
‘I do not see what reason can induce us to
believe the existence of bodies without the
mind, since the very patrons of matter themselves
do not pretend there is any necessary connection
between them and our ideas.’ [8]
And so, Berkeley concludes, Locke’s realism and the
reflection theory of knowledge are untenable. We
must reject the idea of a material world independent
of consciousness. Things are mere ‘collections of
ideas’, constructions of appearances.

How can Berkeley’s arguments be refuted? How can
such idealism be rejected? Here we come to the parting of the ways between Locke’s dualism and the
dialectical materialist reflection theory of Lenin.

For Berkeley’s arguments really are valid and effective against Locke’s dualist form of realism, which
has no philosophical response to them. The theory of
ideas, the view that we are immediately aware of
ideas and not of objects in-themselves, creates an
absolute and unbridgeable gulf between our experience
and material reality. The realist view that we can
have knowledge of the worl d of things independent of
consciousness and the reflection theory are indeed
incompatible with the dualistic separation of the
subjective from the objective. Realism cannot be
defended on the basis of such dualism. Berkeley is
right about this. Berkeley’s respons~ is then to
reject the reflection theory and the very idea of a
material reality independent of consciousness, and
opt instead for a purely subjective idealism. The
lesson that the materialist should take from
Berkeley, by contrast, is that a materialist theory
of knowledge can be developed only if the dualistic
presuppositions of the theory of ideas are abandoned.

Although he is all too rarely given credit for it,
Lenin is very clear about this. In criticising idealism and dualism in the theory of knowledge, he makes
the vital point that there is no gulf between the
subjective and the objective. Yet these philosophies,
which both rest upon the theory of ideas, have the
effect of ‘fencing off’ appearances from things-inthemselves, and making the material world into an
unknowable ‘beyond’ to consciousness.

‘For every scientist who has not been led astray
by professorial philosophy, as well as for every
materialist, sensation is … the direct connection between consciousness and the external
world: it is the transformation of the energy of
external excitation into a state of consciousness.

This transformation has been, and is, observed
by each of us a million times on every hand.

The sophism of idealist philosophy consists in
the fact that it regards sensation as being, not
the connection between consciousness and the
external world – not an image of the external
phenomenon corresponding to the sensation, but
as the “sole entity”.’ [9]
Hegel makes a very similar criticism of subjective
idealism when he observes that it portrays consciousness as ‘hemmed in by an impervious circle of purely
subjective conceptions’ [10]. Sensations, appearances, ideas are regarded as purely subjective
entities, which cut us off from any possible contact

with things-in-themselves. Lenin, by contrast,
insists that sensation is the contact and the connection of consciousness with the external world. Sensation, for Lenin (and indeed for Hegel), is the subjective form of appearance of the thing-in-itself, the
form in which the thing-in-itself is immediately
manifested to consciousness. The thing-in-itself is
transfoPmed in the process of sensation into the
thing-for-us, into appearance. There is no barrier,
no impassable gulf, between the object and the subject
here. On the contrary, there is rather a constant
process of transition and of transfo~ation of the
one into the other.

‘In practice each one of us has observed time
without number the simple and palpable transformation of the “thing-in-itself” into phenomenon,
into the “thing-for-us”. It is precisely this
transformation that is cognition.’ [11]
A materialist theory of knowledge must reject any
dualistic, absolute and metaphysical distinction
between appearance and reality, between the thing-forus and the thing-in-itself. Lenin is absolutely
clear about this: ‘There is definitely no difference
in principle between the phenomenon and the thing-initself, and there can be no such difference’ [12].

As I have pointed out already, dualism can take
bot~ a metaphysical (ontological) and an epistemological form. In Locke these two aspects are confused and run together through his identification of
ideas (a metaphysical concept) and appearances (an
epistemological notion). The same tendency is
apparent in Lenin, who is also inclined to identify
sensations “Jith appearances. This is an aspect of
his empiricism. However, materialism must reject
dualism in both these forms, and Lenin is well aware
of this. Lenin thus insists not only that appearances must not be regarded as absolutely distinct
from things-in-themselves; he equally makes the
point that sensations must not be regarded as merely
mental entities. Sensations, for Lenin, are not mere
‘ideas’, mere states of consciousness, they are also
physical in nature. ‘We think with the help of our
brains’, he says, and ‘Consciousness is an internal
state of matter’ [13].

Lenin is an uncompromising materialist, both in
his epistemology and in his metaphysics. In this
respect his reflection theory has nothing in common
with Locke’s, and the charge that Lenin is simply
repeating Locke, common as it is, is without foundation. But this point is not well understood, even by
some of Lenin’s would-be friends. David Ruben, for
example, claims to be defending Lenin’s views in his
recent’ book called M::trxism and Materialism. Despite
the title, it soon becomes clear that Ruben would
prefer the term ‘realism’ for the point of view he
is defending, and it also becomes clear that he
rejects, as ‘reductive’, the sort of materialism
that Engels and Lenin defend.

‘Marxist materialism, or realism, asserts the
existence of something other than the mind and
its contents, whereas reductive materialism
claims that everything, including the mind and
its contents, can be reduced to matter, or the
physical’ [14].

Here, as throughout the book, Ruben runs together
realism and materialism. However, it is important
to be clear that there are different forms of realism, some of them quite distinct from materialism,
properly so-called. Specifically, Ruben’s realism
is not materialist in character – it is a form of
dualism very similar to Locke’s. Like Locke, Ruben
believes in the existence of ‘something’ – presumably
a material world – independent of consciousness. But
materialism, as I have stressed, is a stronger philosophy than this: it goes on to insist that there is

no consciousness independent of matter. All reality
is material; there is nothing in the world but matter
in motion. Consciousness is matter organised and
acting at its most complex and developed level. This
is philosophical materialism; and it is quite explicitly rejected by Ruben. Moreover, in his epistemology Ruben also rejects materialism. Here, too, he
is a dualist realist; and his attempt to portray
Lenin’s philosophy in these terms inevitably leads to
a distortion of it. For, like Locke, Ruben insists
that appearances are independent of things-in-themselves. The relation between appearance and reality
is an external and contingent one.

‘The relationship between a belief or a thought
and the objects or real states of affairs which
the beliefs are about is a contingent relationship’ [15].

This is pure Locke. Once appearance and reality are
separated in this fashion, and related only contingently to each other, an unbridgeable gulf is created
between them, and Berkeley’s objections become unanswerable.

The lesson that Marxists should learn from
Berkeley is that reflection theory is not defensible
in its dualistic, Lockean, form. There is no gulf
or gap between appearance and reality; the relation
between them is not a merely contingent one: they
exist in unity. Rub en , however, has another way out.

It is a mistake, he tells us, even to try to answer
Berkeley. Materialism cannot ultimately be justified:

‘There is no non-circular justification for belief in
a material world’ [16], he says. By this he means
that it is impossible ‘to justify the belief in a
realm essentially independent of mind by reference to
something else’, such as sense-experience, which
‘does not presuppose the existence of the mindindependent r€·a1ity for which the justification is
being sought’ [17].

Ruben here poses the problem of justifying ‘materialism’ in terms which materialism rejects. These
terms presuppose his own dualist realist outlook, and
make the problem insoluble. If consciousness is
divorced from the material world in dualistic fashion,
then indeed knowledge of the material world by consciousness becomes inexplicable and impossible. This
is merely Berkeley’s argument re-stated. But the
problem does not arise in this form for materialism,
since materialism denies that consciousness is
independent of matter.

Ruben, on the other hand, does face this problem.

He makes short work of it, however: ‘We eschew all
attempts to justify, by non-question-begging arguments our belief in mind-independent objects. We
merely begin with them’ [18. In other words, dogmatic assertion takes the place of argument at this
point. And this dogmatism is justified in the following terms:

‘Ultimately the choice between materialism and
idealism is the choice between two competing
ideologies. The choice is not an “epistemological” choice to be made on grounds of
stronger evidence or more forceful argument,
but is a “political” choice to be made on
class allegiance’ [19].

In short, blind political commitment is to replace
rational and philosophical thought. This disastrous
view of philosophy can be traced back to Althusser;
for he, undoubtedly, has been the main exponent of
such dogmatism in recent years. According to
Althusser, philosophy is mere ‘class struggle in the
field of theory’. It has no ‘object’ and no ‘history’

(20]. Different philosophies are merely the ideological expression of different class outlooks.

Questions of truth and of rational justification do
not arise – all that is involved in doing philosophy

is commitment to a political line.

Of course, it is true that political issues are
involved in philosophical positions. In defending
materialism in philosophy one is defending one of the
most basic aspects of the socialist outlook and
attitude. However, the only effective and useful way
of doing this is to show that materialism is a true
and rationally defensible account of the world and of
our knowledge of it. Mere dogmatic commitment, blind
and irrational adherence by philosophers, even to the
‘correct line’, on the other hand, is not a help but
a hindrance to the socialist cause.

In ancient China, a number of men always accompanied the army on its campaigns, to bang loud gongs and
cymbals and to wave banners of ugly monsters at the
enemy. The idea was that these unpleasant sights and
sounds would frighten the enemy into submission.

Some philosophers, it seems, have recently been trying to resurrect these primitive methods. By the use
of ugly and heavy-sounding jargon they have been
attempting to scare their opponents. But, just as in
military affairs, so too in philosophy, it is the
real forces brought to bear which are ultimately
decisive. And ugly jargon, dogmatically asserted,
while it may disconcert people, is ineffective as
argument. Irrational noise-making is no help, and
the ~esort to it is a disastrous rejection of what
philosophy can, in fact, contribute to the ‘class
struggle in theory’. For philosophy can articulate
the basic theoretical presuppositions of the socialist outlook, and give them rational justification and
defence. In this way, philosophers can play an
important role in the struggle for socialism and be
of real service.

The conclusion so far, then, is that materialism
must reject dualism, and insist on the unity of the
subjective and the objective, of consciousness and
matter. Lenin is very clear on this. However, to
maintain the unity of these opposites does not entail
their absolute identification, in such a way as to
exclude all difference. For it is important to see
that dialectical materialism equally rejects any
immediate identification of thought and reality, it
rejects the reduction of matter to thought or viceversa. Such reductionism can take either an idealist
or a materialist form. Materialism of an abstract
and metaphysical kind is the result when thought is
reduced to matter. In the theory of knowledge this
takes the form of ‘direct realism’. This is the view
that reality is presented directly and immediately in
appearance. Would that it were so! For, as Marx
observed, ‘all science would be superfluous if the
outward appearance and essence of things directly
coincided’ [21]. The real nature of things would be
immediately manifest, and no work cf discovery or
understanding would be required in order to gain

Berkeley’s subjective idealism, by contrast, involves the reduction of reality to appearances.

Objects are mere ‘collections’ or, in more recent
‘phenomenalist’ versions of this philosophy, ‘constructions’ of ideas or sense-data [22]. Sometimes
one meets the view that this philosophy is ‘irrefutable’; but that is absurd. On the contrary, it is
perhaps the least adequate and least plausible philosophy ever to have been put forward, and attempts to
develop it by subsequent phenomenalists have been no
more successful. It is an untenable philosophy for
all the reasons given by Lenin in MateriaZism and
Empirio-Critiaism. It is based upon an untenable
account of experience, as I have argued above. If
consistently developed, subjective idealism leads to
a denial of any knowledge of the objective world, of
the past, of the future; indeed, of anything beyond
the confines of our own immediate subjective impres-

sions. It leads, in other words, to pure solipsism,
to the view that only my consciousness and its
present state exist.

Dialectics in general, whether of a Marxist
materialist or Hegelian idealist form, rejects both
the dualistic and absolute separation of thought and
matter, the subj~ctive and the objective from each
other; and also it rejects the reductionist collapse
of either into the other. Dialectics, to be sure,
asserts the unity of thought and matter; but not as
an abstract, lifeless, metaphysical unity or identity
which excludes all difference and contradiction.

Thought and matter, appearance and reality, are
opposites which exist in unity, and to allow for this
we must reject the ‘metaphysical either/or’ [23]
exemplified in the traditional alternatives of dualism
and reductionism. The relation between these opposites
is neither a mere identity nor a mere difference:

rather we must recognise that thought and matter,
the subjective and the objective, are both opposed
(different) and aZso united (identical): they are
opposites which exist in unity. And the process of
knowledge is the process through which the unity of
these opposites is realised:

‘The whole point of scientific enquiry is to
estabZish a harmony by making our thought
conform to reality. A pre-established harmony
would make the whole project of scientific
experiment unnecessary. On the other hand a
pre-established insulation of thought from
reality would make science impossible’ [24].

Hysterious and perplexing as this may sound when
put in such abstract and logical terms, the fact of
the opposition and identity of these terms is a
familiar feature of experience. The opposition, the
distinction, of thought and reality is to be seen in
the fact that they do not always and necessarily
coincide. Our ideas about reality can be mistaken
and false. On the other hand, there is’no· impassable
gulf or barrier between reality and thought. On the
contrary, these opposites interpenetrate and pass
into each other. Matter is transformed into thought,
and thought into matter. The processes of perception
and knowledge are the processes of the transformation
of reality into thought. In knowledge we apprehend
the objective world in thought, and thereby transform
reality into ideas and thoughts. The opposite movement, from thought to reality, is present in practical activity; for in our actions, our consciousness,
our intentions and purposes are given a material
form, reaZised and embodied in things. The interpenetration of thought and reality is thus a familiar
and everyday phenomenon, which may be observed even
at the level of animal life. As Hegel so nicely puts

‘Of a metaphysics prevalent today which maintains
that we cannot know things because they are
absolutely shut to us, it might be said that
not even the animals are so stupid as these
metaphysicians; for they go after things, seize
them and consume them.’

As Hegel here suggests, practical activity, the
appropriation of the world, eating and drinking, are
the most basic manifestations of the unity of consciousness and matter, and the basis upon which all
subsequent developments of this unity rest.

‘We have all reason to rejoice that the things
which environ us are not steadfast and independent existences; since in that case we should soon
perish from hunger both bodily and mental.’

In eating and drinking we appropriate and incorporate
the material world, and thus sustain our consciousness and subjective being. In perception and know19

ledge of the world we also appropriate the objective
world and transform it into consciousness and thought.

On the other hand, in practical activity we translate
our subjective purposes and intentions into reality,
we realise them and embody them in things. Here, in
all our awareness and action, we have the concrete
unity of consciousness and matter.

From the outset man’s relation to nature takes
this practical form. Conscious and articulate
thought and knowledge develop only on this basis, as
an extension of these essentially practical relations.

Our relationship to the material objective world is
first of all a practical and a material one. The
idea that we are cut off from the things that
surround us, things-in-themselves, comes from
regarding human subjectivity and consciousness as
purely mental, cut off not only from the external
world, but equally from our own material and practical activity. This is what Marx is saying in the
well known passage from his ‘Notes on Wagner’:

‘With a schoolmaster-professor the relations
of man to nature are not praotiaal from the
outset, that is, relations established by
action; rather they are theoretiaal relations …

But on no account do men begin by “standing in
that theoretical relation to the things of
t~ external world”.

They begin, like every
animal, by eating, drinking, etc., hence not
by “standing” in a relation, but by relating
themselves aatively, taking hold of certain
things in the external world through action,
and thus satisfying their needs. (Therefore
they begin ‘1i th production.) Through the
repetition of this process, the property of
those things, their property “to satisfy
needs”, is impressed upon their brains; men,
like animals, also learn to distinguish
“theoretically” from all other things the
external things which serve for the satisfaction
of their needs. At a certain stage of this
eVOlution, after their needs, and the activities
by which they are satisfied, have, in the meantime, increased and developed further, they
will christen these things linguistically as a
whole class, distinguished empirically from the
rest of the external world.’ [27]

So far, I have been considering objections to the
reflection theory which were put by Berkeley and
which have been particularly influential within the
empiricist tradition; and I have tried to show how
the dialectical materialist approach provides the
basis for a response to them. But this is not the
end of the difficulties for the reflection theory.

There are other objections, that raise even greater
problems for the traditional Marxist account, which
have been made from the rationalist and Kantian perspective. Lenin’s account of the reflection theory,
in Materialism and Empirio-Gritiaism, seems especially vulnerable to these objections, since it is so
strongly empiricist in character.

Lenin’s empiricism is evident in his tendency to
equate knowledge with what is given in sensation.

This reduction of knowledge to sensory data is characteristic of empiricism. And, as with the classical empiricist writers, Lenin tends to portray
knowledge as a merely passive registration of what
is immediately apparent to the senses. The very
language that Lenin uses to describe the way in
which our sensations reflect reality is strikingly
passive and mechanistic: our sensations and ideas,

he says, are ‘photographs’, ‘copies’, ‘images’ of
reality [28].

These metaphors are entirely inadequate to comprehend the relation of knowledge to its object. A
photograph records merely the outward and immediately
given appearances of particular things. Likewise,
sensation presents us only with the outward appearance of particular things. However, there is much in
human knowledge which is not given directly in the
outward and immediate appearance of things. Much of
our knowledge is not given in sensation and cannot be
captured on a photograph. This has been stressed
particularly by the rationalist philosophers, who
have emphasised that thought plays an essential role
in knowledge. In Hegel’s words:

‘The reality in object, circumstances or event,
the intrinsic worth or essence, the thing on
which every thing depends, is not a selfevident datum of consciousness, or coincident
with the first appearance and impression of the
object; … on the contrary, Reflection [i.e.

thought] is required in order to discover the
real constitution of the object.’ [29]

In particular, as Kant stressed, the elements of
universality and necessity are not given in immediate appearance. Through sensation we are presented
with a mere diversity of different appearances. That
we come to interpret this diverse manifold of appearances as indicative of order and necessity in the
world is the work of thought, which we bring to bear
on our experience. As Hegel says,
‘Nature shows us a countless number of individual
forms and phenomena. Into this variety we feel
a need of introducing unity: we compare, consequently and try to find the universal on each
single case. Individuals are born and perish,
the species abides and recurs in them all, and
its existence is only visible to reflection
[Le. thought].’ [30]
Likewise, necessity and law are not given immediately
in experience. Our experience, rather, presents us
with an apparently unrelated succession of distinct
events. When we observe the planets, for example,
we see them now here, now there. The necessary
connections between these events, the laws and principles governing their movements, are not given to
experience alone, but are discovered by thought.

‘The universal does not exist externally to
the outward eye as a universal. The kind as
kind cannot be perceived: the laws of the
celestial motions are not written on the sky.

The universal is neither seen nor heard, its
existence is only for the mind.’


Universality and necessity are not features of the
outward appearance of things. They are not given
directly in experience. These aspects of our knowledge cannot be accounted for in terms of the direct
reproduction in consciousness, in a photographic
fashion, of what is given to the senses. Nor can we
say, with Locke, that universality and necessity can
be ‘abstracted’ from appearances. For experience
tells us only of particulars, and no matter how
extensive it is, it can never inform us of what is
universally or necessarily the case. Claims to
knowledge of what is universally or necessarily so
clearly go beyond what can be given in any possible
particular experience, and cannot therefore be
‘abstracted’ from it.

Our knowledge goes beyond what is directly given
in experience, and it was Kant’s view that ‘going
beyond’ was the work of thought’. Our minds, argues
Kant, are active in knowledge, actively interpreting
and giving form and order to the data provided by the
senses. Here we have the distinctively Kantian idea
of knowledge as an ‘instrument’ which actively transforms the immediately given object. These ideas
present the gravest difficulties for any reflection
theory of knowledge. For, as Hege1 says, we are
faced with the problem that ‘the application of an
instTument to an object does not leave it as it is
in-itself, but rather entails in the process, and has
in view, a moulding and alteration of it’ [32]. And
this, indeed, is the basis for the Kantian rejection
of the reflection theory. We are active in knowledge,
we interpret and order the given sensory material, we
apply categories to it. But in so doing, we necessarily alter it, and so ‘produce’ or ‘create’ something new: an ‘object of knowledge’ which, as in part
our ‘construct’, must necessarily differ from the
thing as it is in-itself. In this way, the process
of knowledge, in Hege1’s words, seems to ‘bring about
the opposite of what it intended’ [33], and to construct an object of knowledge which is discrepant
from the thing-in-itself, which it was the aim of
knowledge to grasp. A gulf is thus created between
the thing-in-itse1f, the ‘real object’, on the one
hand, and the thing as it is grasped and known by us,
the ‘object of knowledge’, on the other [34]. Our
knowledge, Kant therefore argues, is necessarily confined to appearances, and we can never gain knowledge
of things-in-themse1ves.

These Kantian arguments have exerted an enormous
influence on contemporary philosophy; and understandably so, since they bring into focus the active role
of thought in our knowledge. In the light of these
considerations, one must certainly recognise the inadequacy of the passive and mechanical account of
reflection implied by some of Lenin’s formulations.

Many philosophers would go further than this, however,
and argue that an appreciation of these points must
lead to the rejection of the reflection account of
knowledge altogether. This was certainly Kant’s response: he insists that our knowledge is confined to
appearances and can never grasp the thing-in-itse1f.

So here again we come against the problem of dualism.

For Kant’s philosophy, like Locke’s, also involves an
unbridgeable separation, a gulf, between appearances
and things-in-themse1ves; with things-in-themse1ves
placed irretrievably beyond the grasp of our

Although Lenin, in Materialism and EmpipioCriticism, is quite clear about the dualist and idealist character of this Kantian account of knowledge,
he does not there develop any satisfactory response
to it. This is because the account of knowledge he
gives in that work is so strongly empiricist in character. As I have stressed already, he tends to
identify knowledge with sensation, anc to regard

reflection in passive and mechanical terms. As a
result, he fails to acknowledge the active role of
thought in knowledge. However, I now want to argue
that due recognition can be given to the active role
of thought in knowledge, without abandoning the
reflection theory and the materialist approach in
epistemology. Lenin himself came to recognise this,
after writing Matepialism and Empirio-Criticism, in
the course of reading Hege1’s Logic; and it is not
surprising that reading Hegel should have brought
this home to him, since Hegel makes this point with
unparalleled clarity and force in his criticisms of

Hegel accepts Kant’s argument, that active thought
– the theoretical interpretation and transformation
of the materials of experience – plays an essential
role in the process of knowledge. But he rejects the
Kantian idea that thought and interpretation are
purely subjective forms, something that we impose on
our knowledge and which takes us away from the objectin-itself. In other words, he rejects the Kantian
idea that our thought, our interpretations, our
theories, act as a barrier between us and the world
as it is in-itself. Hegel makes this point against
Kant in the following terms:

‘To regard the categories as subjective only,
i.e. as part of ourselves, must seem very odd
to the natural mind …. It is quite true that
the categories are not contained in the sensation as it is given to us. When, for instance,
we look at a piece of sugar, we find it hard,
white, sweet, etc. All these properties we
say are united in one object. Now it is this
unity that is not found in the sensation. The
same thing happens if we conceive two events
to stand in the relation of cause and effect.

The senses only inform us of the two several
occurrences which follow each other in time.

But that the one is cause, the other· effect
– in other words, the causal nexus between the
two – is not perceived by sense; it is evident
only to thought. Still, though the categories
such as unity, or cause and effect, are strictly
the property of thought, it by no means follows
that they must be ours merely and not also
characteristic of the objects. Kant however
confines them to the subject-mind ..• ‘ [35]
The contribution of thought, in other words, is not
merely subjective. Thought and theory do not cut us
off from the objective material world; again, it is
‘the sophism of idealism’ to regard it so. On the
contrary, as Lenin says,
‘Essentially, Hegel is completely right as
opposed to Kant. Thought proceeding from the
concrete to the abstract – provided it is
coppect … – does not get away from the truth
but comes closer to it. The abstraction of
mattep, of a law of nature, the abstraction of
value etc., in short all scientific (correct,
serious, not absurd) abstractions reflect nature
more deeply, truly, completely.’


The mind is certainly active in the process of
knowledge, interpreting experience, forming theories,
but Lenin makes the essential point here when he
stresses that thought does not thereby, as at first
appears, cut us off from the thing-in-itself; rather
it helps us to grasp and understand reality more
fully and more completely. The ‘object of knowledge’

that we construct theoretically with the aid of
thought is not, or ought not to be, entirely different or discrepant from the real object, from the
object as it is in-itself. Rather, we seek, with
the aid of theoretical understanding, to reflect the
nature of things-in-themse1ves ‘more deeply, truly,

completely’. Thought is the means by which we can
penetrate beyond immediate appearances and the given
data of the senses, and grasp the essential and
underlying reality of things. In this way it is
possible to acknowledge the Kantian insight that
thought contributes actively to knowledge, and yet
resist the idealist implications that Kant, and so
many other philosophers, have sought to draw from it.

Indeed, it is possible to use Kant’s important insight to deepen and strengthen the reflection theory,
and the materialist theory of knowledge.

The significance of these ideas is profound and
important. In saying that the interpretations and
theories. that make up our knowledge can provide a
correct reflection of the objective world as it is
in-itself, one is saying something with important
implications about the nature of the world in-itself.

If scienti~ic theory reflects reality, then reality
must be as described in theory. In particular, the
universality and necessity which are a part of our
account of the world must really be in the world, as
inherent features of the world as it is in-itself.

The division of the world into different kinds and
species, the necessary and law-like behaviour of
things, must be features of reality in-itself, and
not the mere impositions of our thought. In saying
this, one is taking issue with two widely influential
opposing views on these matters. First of all, one
is rejecting the Kantian idea that interpretations
and categories are merely subjective forms which
We impose on the given data, our ‘way of seeing
things’; and secondly, one is rejecting the empiricist view that the world is made up of unrelated
particulars, or particular ‘ideas’ or appearances,
and that kinds (universals) and laws (necessities)
are only convenient ‘abbreviations’ for ‘COllections’

or series of such particulars. On the contrary,
universality and necessity are not the merely subjective creations of our minds, they are rather the
inherent characteristics of things-in-themselves,
which exist independently of our thought.

There are natural kinds and natural necessities.

Contrary as such ideas may be to some deeply ingrained
philosophical assumptions, these materialistic views
are common within the sciences, where, as Hegel says,
‘objective reality is attributed to laws, forces
are immanent, and matter [is regarded as] the
true nature of the thing itself …. Genera,
too, … are not just a grouping of similarities,
an abstraction made by us; they not only have
common features but they are the object’s own
inner essence …. Physics looks upon these
universals as its triumph.’


Only a few years ago these ideas would have seemed
outlandish and extravagant; but recently there has
been a widespread renewal of interest in the notions
of natural kinds and natural necessities. Within the
Marxist tradition this has been due particularly to
the work of what may be termed various ‘structuralist
realists’ [38]. Bhaskar and Godelier will serve as
my examples [39]. Both insist that universality and
necessity have objective existence, embodied in real
‘mechanisms’ (Bhaskar) or ‘structures’ (Godelier).

However, these mechanisms or structures are not
directly present to the senses. Characteristic of
these writers is their extreme hostility to empiricism
and to the idea that experience can be a source of
knowledge. The senses, they argue, give us knowledge
only of the world of appearances, the empirical world;
but this must be sharply distinguished from the level
of ‘reality’ at which mechanisms and structures
operate. Bhaskar, for example, talks of structures
and mechanisms as ‘transcendent’ and as ‘transfactual’

r401 entities, and repeatedly emphasises their indep22

endence from the empirical world, the world of
experience. Godelier, likewise, puts all the stress
in his account on the distinction and the separation
of the structural level from the world of appearances.

The appearances we apprehend with our senses, he
insists, conceal these real structures; and so scientific theory must simply reject and put aside these
sensory appearances in order to grasp reality ‘The scientific conception of social reality does
not “arise by abstraction” from the spontaneous
or reflected conceptions of individuals. On the
contrary, it must destroy the obviousness of
these conceptions in order to bring out the hidden
internal logic of social life. Therefore, for
Marx, the model constructed by science corresponds to a reality concealed beneath visible
reality. ‘

[ 41]

The dialectical materialist reflection theory, as
I have been explaining it, clearly shares much in
common with such structuralist ‘realism’. In particular, it also insists that scientific and correct
knowledge reflects the real nature of things: laws
and kinds have an objective existence; they are not
the mere creations of our subjective activity. However, the structuralist realists that I am considering go too far in their eagerness to emphasise that
such laws and kinds are not directly present in
experience. They stress the distinction of appearances from reality in a one-sided and metaphysical
fashion. They create an absolute gulf, an unbridgeable duality, between appearances and reality.

Reality is put ungraspab1y beyond appearances; it is
regarded as something merely in-itself and not also
for-us, and knowledge of it becomes impossible and

Such realism, which is a rationalist form of
realism, thus shares with the Lockean, empiricist
sort of realism considered earlier, a ~ualistic basis.

And, as I argued earlier, dualism, although it acknowledges the existence of the material world independent of consciousness, cannot explain our knowledge of it. Once an absolute gulf and distinction
is presupposed between appearance and reality, there
is no way in which we can gain knowledge of reality
starting out from appearances. It is impossible to
develop a satisfactory theory of knowledge on the
basis of dualistic assumptions. Rather, it is
essential to recognise the dialectical relation of
appearance and reality. There is no absolute gulf
between these opposites – they exist in unity – they
interpenetrate and pass into each other. This is the
essential point that Hegelian and materialist
dialectics makes.

Dualist realism involves an unsatisfactory account
of appearance and reality and of the relation between
them. Reality and appearance are each regarded as
self-contained realms, isolated and detached from
each other. It is true, as the dualist realists
insist, that the reality of things is not directly
and immediately apparent. Reality is different from
appearance; appearances conceal reality. That is
true – provided that this point is not emphasised in
a one-sided and exclusive fashion, and it is also and
equally acknowledged that reality is revealed to us
in and through appearances. Appearances both conceal
and reveal reality – only by recognising both aspects
here can we properly understand the relation between

First, as regards reality: it is only because reality does manifest itself to us, and reveal itself as
appearance, that we can gain knowledge of it. If
appearances were merely different from reality, and
did not also reveal reality, we could have no way of
knowing reality through experience. Scientific

discovery would be impossible. Reality does not forever remain ‘beyond or behind appearance’. Material
things, and the forces and tendencies at work in them,
certainly have a being in-themselves, independently
of our knowledge and consciousness of them. But
equally they can impinge on us. Reality does not
stay shut up in-itself – it ‘shines forth’ [42], and
manifests itself as appearance.

Similar points can be made with regard to appearances. As Hegel says, ‘appearance is not to be confused with a mere show’ [43]. Appearance should not
be regarded as mere appearance, cut off from the
reality of things-in-themselves. Initially, we may
take the.immediate appearances that things present
for their reality. But gradually, through the process
of knowledge, we come to distinguish appearances from
reality. When we have done this, we come to understand appearances, not as mere appearances, but as
appearances which reveal the reality which underlies
them and which is manifest in them. We understand
them as appearances of this reality. In this way, we
come to understand how our subjective ideas reflect
the reality of the objective world.

It is Begel who put these points most clearly and
fully, and in so doing provides the necessary philosophical basis for an adequate reflection theory of
knowledge. He rejects Kantian and other forms of
dualism for the way in which it attaches to ‘appearance a subjective meaning only, and put(s) the
abstract essence immovably outside it as the thingin-itself beyond the reach of cognition’ [44].

As well as concealing reality, appearances reveal
reality. In other words, and in this sense, appearances reflect reality. And it is important to see
that this is a necessary relationship which applies
to all appearances, all ideas, all thought – false as
well as true. True ideas may be distinguished from
false ideas in terms of the particular way in which
they reflect or correspond to reality – but not in
terms of whether they do so or not. If the relationship between appearance and reality, the subjective
and the objective, is regarded as a merely contingent
one, then we are back to dualism. Indeed, the view
that this relationship is a purely contingent one is
simply the logical expression of dualism. Dialectics
regards the relationship of appearance and reality as
a necessary one. Reality must appear and ‘shine
forth’. Hegel puts this in theological terms when he
says: ‘all that God is he imparts and reveals’ [45].

In other words, reality is knowable by us, it is not
a ‘beyond’ to us. Moreover, there are no mere appear-

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ances. There are no absolutely false ideas – all
beliefs which are genuinely entertained reflect and
reveal some aspect of reality – it is only a question
of interpreting and understanding them correctly.

These are, indeed, the views which are implicit
in Marx’s account of ideology. For example, Marx
clearly regarded the religious view of the world as a
false and mystified one, ‘the opium of the people’;
and yet he did not regard religious ideas as merely
false, merely illusory ones. Religious ideas, he
insists, arise out of specific social and historical
conditions, which they reflect. They reflect and
give expression to real and genuine aspirations of
the people who hold them, be these reactionary or
progressive, albeit in mystified form. ‘The religious world is but the reflex [i.e. reflection] of the
real world’, says Marx [46]. Moreover, religious and
ideological reflections will continue to hold sway
until social conditions have changed in such a way
that ‘the practical relations of everyday life offer
to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable
relations with regard to his fellowmen and to Nature’

[47]. To see religious ideas as mere illusions, as
mere subjective and false appearances, is a superficial and inadequate view. And yet this is the highest
insight attainable by dualist realism. Dialectical
materialism, by contrast, is capable of grasping ‘the
positive in the negative’ [48] and seeing the way in
which ideology both conceals and reveals reality.

Similar points can be made even about dreams, as
Freud’s work shows; and this is particularly significant, since dreams are regarded by Descartes, and by
many philosophers since, as the paradigm case of mere
subjective delusion. For Descartes dreams are
mere appearances, merely false and illusory visions
to which no reality corresponds. Freud showed,
however, that the appearances which dreams present
– their ‘manifest content’ – are not mere appearances, purely subjective delusions or simply false
ideas. The manifest content of dreams, what is
immediately apparent in them to the dreamer, can be
interpreted. It can be understood as the (distorted)
appearance of reality. The dream, according to
Freud, is a reflection of real – though often unconscious – wishes, desires, reactions and feelings of
the dreamer, usually responses to events of the previous day. Dreams are thus ‘the royal road’ to the
unconscious [49]. But they reflect this reality in
distorted form; they need interpreting. In this way,
dreams, too, both reveal and conceal reality. The
dream is thus the distorted reflection of aspects of
the dreamer’s reality. The dream is thus the distorted reflection of aspects of the dreamer’s reality,
whose very distortions, even, reveal facts about the
(unconscious) wishes and desires of the dreamer [50].

Moreover, even ‘purely subjective’ feelings and
sensations must be seen as reflecting objective
reality. Pain, for example, which has, since
Wittgenstein, become the central philosophical
example of subjective sensation, reflects the reality
of our physical being. It is also a very important
means by which we come to know about and react to
features of external world. Thus even pain is not a
purely subjective feeling, but reflects the objective
reality of our physical condition. Indeed, pains
play an important role in medical diagnosis on just
this basis.

All ideas and subjective states reflect reality.

This is the materialist position. As Lenin says,
‘there is definitely no difference in principle
between the phenomenon and the thing-in-itself’ [51];
there is no impassable gulf between appearance and
reality: they form a unity. And this unity is an
existing fact – not an ideal, which merely ought to
be. In saying this, of course I am not saying that

all ideas are true, and that all knowledge complete.

Ideological illusions, dreams, etc., reflect reality,
but they do so in an inadequate, mystified, distorted
and false form. Of course, illusions and false ideas
must be criticised and rejected as false and illusory.

But one understands very little of religion and dreams
if all that one knows of them is that they are false.

The realist theories of knowledge that I have been
criticising go no further than this. The dialectical
materialist theory, however, seeks to understand these
false ideas as reflections of reality. It seeks to
interpret and understand the meaning of religion,
the significance of dreams – it seeks to critically
appropriate their true content within their false
form – it seeks ‘the positive in the negative’. And
beyond this it seeks to understand the material
conditions which make consciousness take these false
and distorted forms.

So far I have discussed the materialist criticism of
Kantian dualism in epistemology. However, materialism
must also reject the metaphysical dualism involved in
Kant’s philosophy. As with Locke, so with Kant, the
two sorts of dualism are intimately connected. In
Kant, however, we find not only a mind/matter dualism,
but also a dualistic distinction of reason and nature.

According to Kant, as we have seen, our ability to
interpret our sensations, to apply categories to them:

is a necessary condition for us to have experience
and knowledge. Sensation, for Kant, is a merely
particular reaction to a particular present object;
whereas the identification, recognition and interpretation of the things presented in experience requires
the use of concepts and categories, the employment of
our faculties of understanding and reason. In Kant’s
famous phrase, ‘intuitions without concepts are
blind … ‘ [52]. Moreover, it was Kant’s view that
only human beings have these rational capacities and
abilities: he regarded human beings as essentially
rational beings and, as such, distinct from the rest
of natural creation. Thus Kant’s philosophy involves
a sharp distinction and division between the rational
sphere of the human world and the rest of nature.

Of course it is indisputable that human beings
have rational powers which set them apart from other
creatures. And yet materialism insists that there is
no absolute gulf or separation between man and nature.

Man is a part of nature, the product of the natural
processes of biological evolution. This is the
modern scientific view, the materialist view, and the
only tenable view. Any attempt dualistically to
divide off the human world from the natural world
must therefore be rejected.

It is true that human beings are the only creatures capable of self-conscious experience (experience in which, in Kant’s words, the ‘I think’

accompanies my representations) [53]; and the only
beings that have developed language to describe and
communicate their experience. Nevertheless, it is
clear that animals have capacities which deserve to
be called rational ones by Kantian standards. In
particular, if experience and knowledge presuppose
rational capaCities, as Kant argues, then since
animals can have experience and knowledge, it must be
recognised that they too have these capacities. A
dog, for example, can ‘interpret’ its experience. It
can recognise its food, its home, its owner. It can
identify and categorise the objects in the world
around it. It can also form ‘expectations’ and
causal ‘hypotheses’ – it can, for example, show that
it expects to be fed or taken out for a walk. The
view implied by the Kantian philosophy, that animals
are merely sensory organisms which make only parti24

cular responses to particular situations, is quite

In arguing thus, I find an unaccustomed ally in
Popper. Particularly in his recent work, he has
developed similar ideas in fruitful and interesting
ways. He writes, for example,

‘Observation is always selective. It needs a
chosen object, a definite task, an interest, a
point of view, a problem … “A hungry animal”,
writes Katz, “divides the environment into
edible and inedible things. An animal in flight
sees roads to escape and hiding places” …

The ~heory of inborn ideas is absurd, I think;
but every organism has inborn reactions and
responses; and among them, responses adapted
to impending events. These responses may be
described as “expectations” without implying
that these expectations are conscious. The
newborn baby “expects” in this sense to be fed.

In view of the close relation between expectation and knowledge we may even speak in quite
a reasonable sense of “inborn knowledge”.’ [54]
According to Popper, our rational capacities and our
knowledge have a biological basis, and the developed
forms of theoretically articulate knowledge are
grounded in simpler and more primitive material
forms. Popper even extends this account to plant

‘Animals and even plants are problem solvers …

The tentative solutions which animals and
plants incorporate into their anatomy and
their behaviour are biological analogues of
theories; and vice versa: theories correspond
to endosomatic organs and their ways of
functioning. Just like theories, organs and
their functions are tentative adaptations to
the world we live in.’

Indeed, even at the inorganic level, there are
reactions and responses akin to those that Popper
points to. It is wrong to imagine that the natural
world is made up of mere particulars and particular
reactions. As Hegel says, and as I have argued,
‘Reason or Understanding is in the world’ [56], in
the sense that, even in the world of inanimate objects, things respond in ~-Zike ways. For causality, it must be stressed, is law-like behaviour: the
regular reaction of kinds of things to kinds of conditions. Litmus paper, for example, turns red in
acid: it responds in a particular sort of way in a
specific sort of condition. A burglar alarm goes off
when the door is opened. Even purely physical and
chemical reactions can exhibit what Rorty calls a
‘discriminative response’ [57]: a response which is
ordered and governed by universaZs .. This is the sort
of reaction which Kant’s philosophy suggests requires
the use of the categories. Litmus paper responds to
the universals of acidity and alkalinity. What this
shows, as I have argued already, is that the categories of acidity and alkalii1:i.t-” c-:’C objective ones:

not merely our ‘interpretations’ ,Jur ‘way of seeing
things’, still less those of the litmus paper, but
inherent features of things-in-themselves.

Clearly it would be absurd to attribute categories
and concepts to litmus paper or to a burglar alarm;
and I must emphasise that this is not what I am
suggesting. Nor is it Hegel’s meaning when he says
that ‘reason is in the world’, as he insists:

‘Nous … or Reason rules the world … but not
an intelligence in the sense of an individual
consciousness, not a spirit as such. These two
must be carefully distinguished. The motion of
the solar system proceeds according to immutable
laws; these laws are its reasons. But neither
the sun nor the planets … have any consciousi

ness of them.’ [58]
Nonetheless, to repeat, a burglar alarm, litmus
paper, and the solar system, show that sort of
behaviour that Kant and Hegel regard as the exclusive
prerogative of thought and reason. In pointing this
out, I am not, like Hegel, seeking to suggest that
the natural world is animated by thought and reason;
rather, I am arguing that our rational abilities and
capacities are continuous with, arise from, and are
animated by, the natural behaviour of things. Our
rational thought and activity is a development of
simpler and more primitive biological and physical
responses – it requires no appeal to supernatural
mental faculties to explain and understand it. In
other words, my purpose is not the Hegelian one of
spiritualising nature; it is rather the materialist
one of naturalising reason.

If Popper is strange company for me to be keeping,
how much stranger is this company for him! For,
though he may be loath to admit it, what is this line
of thought but Hegel’s idea that ‘reason is in the
world’, materialistically inverted? Nature is at the
basis of reason. There is no gulf between the natural
world and the world of reason. On the contrary, our
rational powers and capacities are built upon, and
presuppose, natural and biological forms of response.

In human life, to be sure, reason is developed to
much ‘higher forms than exist elsewhere in nature.

It is developed to the point of self-conscious and
articulate thought and knowledge. However, the
philosophy of materialism insists that these distinct·
ively human forms of rational activity are ultimately
developments of forms of activity which, in less
developed forms, pervade the material world.

‘What is rational is actual and what is actual is
rational’ [59]. There is an important degree of
truth in these notorious Hegelian assertions. Hegel,
however, develops these ideas in an idealist form.

Indeed, his philosophy is ultimately an extravagant
sort of idealism, best seen as a sort of pantheism
(even though Hegel himself rejected the term).

Reason, for him, is ‘in the world’ and ‘actual’, not
only in the sense that the world is rationally
ordered and intelligible in rational terms, but also
in the sense that the material and objective world
is, for Hegel, the product, the expr.ession, the
‘self-alienation’ of the ‘Idea’, of reason. Marx’s
materialism is the very opposite of this: it inverts
this philosophy and turns it ‘on its feet’:

‘For Hegel, the life-process of the human brain,
i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the
name of “the Idea”, he even transforms into an
independent subject, is the demiurgos [the
creator] of the real world, and the real world
is only the external, phenomenal form of “the
Idea”. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is
nothing else than the material world reflected
by the human brain, and translated into forms
of though t . ‘


Popper, on the other hand, is extremely hostile
both to Hegel’s philosophy and to its Marxist inversion. Although he develops the idea of a natural
and biological basis for reason, he never fully
explores the implications of these metaphysical views
When it comes to the theory of knowledge, they are
forgotten, and Popper reverts to his own brand of
Kantian-style dualism. He is particularly opposed
to the reflection theory; and it is on these grounds
that he rejects the Hegelian assertion of the unity
of reason and actuality, which he dismisses as ‘the
worst of all absurd and incredible philosophical
theories’ [61]. However, it is not the reflection
theory which is really ‘absurd and incredible’, but
rather Popper’s own.

Popper’s account of Hegel’s philosophy is little
better than caricature. According to Popper, the
problem which Hegel sets out to answer is: ‘How can
mind grasp the world?’ Hegel’s answer, says Popper,
“‘Because the world is mind-like” [Le. the
actual is rational] has only the appearance of
[being] an answer. We shall see clearly that
this is not a real answer if we only consider
some analogous arguments like “How can the
English language describe the world?” – “Because
the world is intrinsically British”.’


This is crude stuff. Nonetheless, Hegel does
essentially argue that we can use reason to know the
world because the world is rational. The materialist:

as I have said, would see the reflective relationship
here as the opposite, the inverse, of this: thought
can grasp the world because our thought is made worldlike. Popper, however, rejects the reflection theory
in all its forms, using the Kantian kinds of argument
that I have criticised above. For example, he takes
Sir James Jeans to task for being troubled by the
question ‘How can mathematics grasp the world?’ and
for answering ‘Because the world is mathematical’.

Jeans, he says, was puzzled by the fact that purely
a priori and rational mathematical ideas can have
application to the physical world. According to
Popper, Jeans is being misled here by the error of
‘inductivism’. For Popper’s view is that it does not
matter how a theory is arrived at. What matters is
whether it has application and is empirically testable; and often, Popper claims, useful t~eories are
arrived at purely speculatively.

However, the questions that worried Jeans are not
as fruitless as Popper suggests. To be sure, Jeans
was a rationalist and an idealist; and his account
must be ‘turned on its feet’. It is not so much that
the world is mathematics-like; rather, mathematics is,
or rather has been made, world-like. Mathematics can
be applied in physical theory so that it reflects
reality. That it does so is the product, the result,
of a long process of practical activity and thought it is a human achievement. If one looks at the
actual historical development of mathematics, one
sees at once that its early development was neither
purely rational and a priori, as Jeans suggests;
still less was it the result of mere speculative
‘conjectures’, as Popper would have it. It has its
origins in the empirical and practical operations of
counting, measuring, surveying and assessing. The
experience and results of these operations are first
generalised in empirical and pragmatic rules of
calculation for particular operations, and only
later are they formalised into abstract and a priori
systems [63]. As Engels says,
‘Pure mathematics deals with the space forms
and quantitative relations of the real world that is, with material which is very real
indeed. The fact that this material appears
in an extremely abstract form can only superficially conceal its origin from the external
world. But in order to make it possible to
investigate these forms and relations in their
pure state, it is necessary to separate them
entirely from their content, to put the content
aside as irrelevant …. Even the apparent
derivation of mathematical magnitudes from
each other does not prove their a priori
origin, but only their rational connection ….

Like all other sciences, mathematics arose
out of the needs of men; from the measurement
of land and the content of vessels, from the
computation of time and from mechanisms. But,
as in every department of thought, at a certain
stage of development the laws. which were

abstracted from the real world, become divorced
from the real world, and are set up against it
as something independent, as laws coming from
outside, to which the world has to conform.’ [64]
In other words, mathematics is not a mere guess, a
mere speculative ‘conjecture’, which fits the world
and reflects reality purely by chance, as Popper
suggests. This surely is the most incredible and
absurd account. On the contrary, it is the outcome
of a lengthy process of experiment and practice, and

the attempt to sum this up in general and theoretical
terms. Mathematics can grasp reality because,
through this process, mathematics has been made to
reflect the world. Such is the nature of mathematical
knowledge of reality, and of other knowledge too.

It is only in these terms, the terms of the reflection theory, that knowledge can adequately be understood. This is what I have been trying to show in
this paper.









Engels, LudJ.1ig Feuerbaah and the End of CZassiaal German Philosophy, in Marx
and Engels, Seleated Works in One Volwne, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1970;
and Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Critiaism, Foreign Languages Press,
Peking, 1972.

Here and below, I am using the term ‘metaphysical’ purely descriptively, to
denote a particular branch of philosophy, rather than pejoratively.

Lenin’s studies of Hegel (1914-16) are recorded in his Philosophiaal
Notebooks, in Colleated Works, V01.38, Foreign Languages Publishing House,
Moscow, 1961. That his reading of Hegel led him to develop and modify his
earlier views is clearly apparent. Lenin himself implicitly acknowledged
this when he wrote, for example,
‘Concerning the question of the criticism of modern Kantianism,
Machism, etc…. Marxists criticised (at the beginning of the
twentieth century) the Kantians and Humists more in the manner
of Feuerbach (and BUchner) than of Hegel.’ (p.179)
These Marxists presumably included the Lenin of Mlterialism and EmpirioCritiaism((l908). However, the suggestion that Lenin entirely repudiated
the reflection theory on reading Hegel is quite clearly false. For the
evidence, see, e.g., J. Hoffman, Marxism and the Theory of Praxis, Lawrence
& Wishart, London, 1975: Chapter 5; and D.H. Ruben, Marxism and Mlterialism,
Harves ter, Brighton, 1977, Chapter 6.

Locke, Essay Conaerning Human Understanding, IV. i .1.

Cf. Locke, Essay, lI.viL12:

‘If then external objects be not united to our minds when they
produce ideas therein and yet we perceive such of them as fall
under our senses it is evident that some motion must be thence
continued by our nerves to the brains ..• there to produce in
our minds the particular ideas we have of them.’

In fact, for Locke, only the ideas of Primary Qualities reflect the
object. Cf. Essay, II.viiL15:

The primary qualities of bodies are resemblances of them, and
their patterns do really exist in the bodies themselves; but the
ideas produced in us by … secondary qualities have no resemblance
of tb.em at all. There is nothing like our ideas existing in the
bodies themselves.’

Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the PI>inciples of Human Knowledge,
Section 18.




Hegel, Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J.B. Baillie, revised 2nd edition,
George AlIen and Unwin Ltd., London, 1949, p.131.



According to Hegel,
‘The grasping of opposites in their unity or of the positive in
the negative…. [This] is the most important aspect of dialectic,
but for thinking which is as yet unpractised and unfree it is the
most di fficul t . ‘

Soienae of Logio, trans. A.V. Miller, AlIen & Unwin, London, 1969, p.56.

Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. J. Strachey, AlIen & Unwin,
London, 1954, p.608.

Freud’s well-known distinction between ‘psychical’ and ‘material’ reality
does not invalidate my point here. For example, in his Introductory
Leatures on Psychoanalysis, trans. J. Strachey, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth,
1974, p.4l5, Freud writes:

‘Phantasies possess psyohiaal as contrasted with material reality;
and we gradually learn to understand that in the WQrld of the


neuroses it is psyohiaal reality whioh is the deoisive kind.’



The terminology of the ‘real object’ and the ‘object of knowledge’ is used
by Althusser. See L. Althusser and E. Balibar, Reading Capital, NLB,


Hegel, Logio, Section 140 (Addition), p.198.

Marx, Capital, Vol.l, FO:t:’eign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1961, p.79.

This sentence is unaccountably missing from the Penguin edition, p.l72.



Lenin, Mlterialism and Empirio-Critiaism, p.46.

Hegel, Logia (Encyalopaedia of the Philosophiaal Saienaes, Part I), trans.

W. Wallace, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 3rd Edition, 1975: Section 131
(Addition); p.188.

Lenin, Materialism and Elrrpirio-Critiaism, p .132.

ibid., p.llO.

ibid., p.90.

D.H. Rub en , Marxism and Materialism, p.5.

ibid., p.3.

ibid., p.99.

ibid., p.98.

ibid., p.99.

ibid., p.l09.

L. Al thusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, NLB, London, 1971.

Marx, Capital. Vol.III, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1971, p.8l7.

See, e.g. A.J. Ayer, The Problem of Knowledge, Penguin Books,
Harmondsworth, 1956, Chapter 3.

Hegel’s phrase, see Logia: section 32 (Addition); p.52.

A. Collier, ‘In Defence of Epistemology’, in J. Mepham and D.H. Ruben (eds.),
Issues in Marxist Philosophy, Vo1.3, Harvester, Brighton, 1979, pp.84-85.

Disappointingly, the bulk of this article does not develop this point, but
takes instead a Kantian ‘realist’ line of the kind criticised below.

Hegel, Philosophy of Nature (E’nayclopaedia of the Philosophiaal Saienaes,
Part 11), trans. A.V. Miller, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1970, Section 246
(Addition), p.9.

Hegel, Logia, Section 131 (Addition), p.188.

Marx, ‘Notes on Wagner’, in Texts on Method, (ed.) T. Carver, Basil
Blackwell, Oxford, 1975, p.190.

See, e.g., p.145.

Hegel, Logia, Section 21 (Addition), p.33.

ibid., Section 21 (Addition, p. 34.

London, 1970, Part I.

Hegel, Logia, Section 42 (addition), p.70.

Lenin, Philosophiaal Notebooks, p .171 .

Hegel, Philosophy of Nature, Section 246 (Addition), p .10.

But see also S. Kripke, Naming and Neaessity, Harvard University Press,
Cambridge, Mass., 1980, for an extremely interesting exploration of these
ideas in a non-Marxist context.

R. Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Saienae, Leeds Books, 1975. M. Godelier,
‘Structure and Contradiction in Capital’, in (ed.) R. Blackburn, Ideology
in Soaial Saienae, ‘Fontana/Collins, London, 1972.

For ‘transcendent’, see Bhaskar, op.oit., p.37; for ‘transfactual’, see
p.14, etc.

M. Godelier, op.oit., p.337.

Hegel, Logio, Section 313 (Addition), p.186.

ibid., Section 131 (Addition), p.187.


Of course, there is a distinction between ‘material’ reality (what actually
happens) and ‘psychical’ reality (what is believed or remembered to happen Le. how events appear [consciously or unconsciously] to the person). But
the question with which the reflection theory is conce’tned, ‘is the question
of how psychical reality arises and how it is related to material reality.

SUl!1IJIing up Freud’s attitude to this question, J. Laplanche and J. – B.

Pontalis write in The Language of Psyahoanalysis, Hogarth Press and the
Institute of Psychoanalysis, London, 1980, pp.406-07,
‘Freud could never resign himself to treating phantasy as the pure
and simple outgrowth of the spontaneous sexual life of the child.

He is forever searching, behind the phantasy, for whatever has
founded it in its reality…. Indeed the first schema presented
by Freud, with his theory of seduction, seems to us to epitomise
this particular dimension of his thought: quite obviously, the
first stage – the stage of the scene of seduction – simply must be
founded in something more real than the subject’s imaginings alone.’

If anything, this puts the matter more strongly than I should wish, or need
for the purpose of my argument. However, I cannot pursue these issues here,
and will have to return to them on another occasion.

Lenin, Mlterialism and Empirio-Critiaism, p.llO.

Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. N.K. Smith, MacMillan, London, 1933,
A5l .. B75.

ibid., B13l.

K.R. Popper, Conjeatures and Refutations, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London,
5th edition, 1974, p.46.

K.R. Popper, Objective KnoWledge: An Evolutionary Approach, Clarendon Press,
Oxford, 1972, p.145.

Hegel, Logia, Section 24, p.37.

R. Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton University Press,
Princeton N.J., 1979, pp.182ff.

Hegel, Reason in History (‘ Introduction’ to Leotures on the Philosophy of
History), trans. R.S. Hartman, Bobbs-Herrill, Indianapolis, 1953, p.13.

Hegel, Philosophy of Right, trans. T.M. Knox, Clarendon Press, Oxford,
1952, p.10.

Marx, Capital, Vol.K, p.19.

K.R. Popper, Conjeotures and Refutations, p.330.


For a detailed and lucid account of the earliest development of mathematics
along these lines, see V.G. Childe, Man Makes Himself, Watts & Co., London,
1941, espeCially Chapter 8.

Enge 1s, Anti-Dfihring, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1962,
pp. 58-59.

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