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The Trouble with Contradictions

In a critical comment in Radical Philosophy 16
Russell Keat has raised some interesting objections
to Ray Edgley’s account of the significance of the
dialectic for social science (1). Pro.minent among
them is the charge that while this account ‘succeeds
in showing the critical practical function of scientific
knowledge’ the results have nothing distinctively
socialist about them. Thus, ‘the realisation of its
value of reason, i. e. the eli.mination of contradictions’ would not, Keat suggests, ‘be necessarily
accompanied by the realisation of specifically
socialist values’ for ‘criticism of contradictions
does not exhaust the meaning of socialist criticism’

(2). In reply Edgley has argued that although he did
not show that a science ‘that takes objective social
contradictions as its target’ can be socialist, never.theless it’s true that it .must be, and moreover that
such a science exhausts the .meaning of socialist
criticism ‘impliCitly’ even if it does not do so
‘expliCitly’ (3). This is an effective line of reply
within the it shares with the objection as
originally for.mulated, and yet that objection retains
a certain significance. It draws attention in the
clearest manner to the goal of Edgley’s programme,
the delineation of a socialist social science, and it
correctly suggests that he does not achieve it. Where
it goes wrong is in conceding too much to his framework of assumptions and so it misconceives the
character of this failure. The truth is not that
Edgley’s critical practical science falls short in
some respects of socialist practice and criticis m,
but that it is so far not critical and practical at all.

The point involved here is of the greatest importance
for the prospects for dialectical social science.

It may be well to start to explicate it by getting clear

as to the nature of Edgley’s achievement. This consists primarily in the demonstration that the category
of contradiction may, while retaining its logical
character, be instantiated in social reality. The
argument has the form of a series of steps by means
of which the category is extended in the direction
required from regions where it is unquestionably at
home; that is, from statements and propositions
through beliefs to actions, and thence to practices
and institutions. Through this process a rational
basis is provided for a conclusion that is all too
often .merely asserted or assumed and one which is,
.moreover, a necessary precondition for talk of
dialectical social science to have any point. Any
further inquiry will have to have the dialectical
merit of preserving this achievement. It is also
important, however, to be clear preCisely where it
leaves us. For that one has to distinguish the thesis
accepted here from another than tends to be run
1 R. Keat, ‘Comment~ RP16, p48. R. Edgley, ‘Science Social Science and
Socialist Science: Reason as Dialectic’, RP15, pp2-7. A version of the
present paper was read at Golds’llith’s College, University of London, in
February 1979, and I am grateful to all who took part in the discussion
for their comments. I am grateful most of all to Roy Edgley for his
criticisms on that occasion, and on others in conversations and correspondence. These have helped the formulation of my views in numerous ways
though they have not, I think, let to any substantial reduction of our

2 R. Keat, loco cit.

3 R. Edgley, ‘Dialectic: A Reply to Keat and Dews’, RP21, p29.



together with it in the discussion. This is the view
that the revealing of social contradictions is in itself
necessarily a critical activity. Such a view is
largely taken for granted by Edgley, as indeed it is
by Keat, and yet it surely stands in need of argument.

In so far as there is any attempt at justification it
consists in the general claim that ‘to characterise
so.mething as a contradiction, where that concept is
a category of logic, ~ at least by implication, to
criticise it’ (4). This claim is crucial to the whole
pOSition, and we shall begin the task of assessing it
by considering what appear to be awkward cases.

Are Contradictions Critical?

Suppose that one is interested in the .moral character
of a person’s beliefs and actions. It is surely not the
case that contradictions .must now appear as defects,
and it easy to conceive of situations in which
they would be taken as signs of .merit. Thus they may
be seen as reflecting the struggle of decent
i.mpulses against the pressure of a racialist upbringing, as in the case of Huck Finn’s crisis of conscience
over the failure to give Jim up to his pursuers. It is
worth noting that for some philosophers such cases
present themselves in a large and sympathetic perspective as the natural results of quite funda.mental
features of the context in which practical reason has
to operate. Thus, for instance, David Wiggins insists
that it is of the essence of the concerns which an
agent brings to any situation ‘to make competing and
inconsistent claims’, and he adds: ‘This is a mark
not of human irrationality but of human rationality
in the face of a plurality of human goods. ‘ (5)
Clearly within such a theoretical fra.mework the
susceptibility of an agent to inconsistency .may be
taken to indicate seriousness and sensibility, and
complete freedom fro.m it is likely to arouse suspicions of fanaticism, shallowness, narrowness of
sy.mpathy or lack of commitment to the institution
of practical reasoning. The point at stake here is
not the substantive merit of Wiggins ‘s position: one
had simply to note that in stating it he com.mits no
paradoxes nor are any concepts subjected to unnatural
strain. Moreover, the relationship between the concepts of consistency and rationality which is touched
on in the passage just cited is of particular interest
for our discussion and will have to be taken up later.

What has to be added now is that where the structure
of an individual’s beliefs is concerned the range of
possibilities to be dealt with extends well beyond the
moral or practical aspects. Consider Walt Whitman’s
well-known declaration:

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) (6)
Clearly Whitman is not engaging in self-criticism
here. Rather he is laying claim to what he takes to
be a merit, even a constituent of greatness, in an
artist. It may be felt that it is an excessively roman4 R. Edgley, RP15, p6.

5 D. Wiggins, ‘Deliberation and Practical Reason’, in J. Raz, ed., Practical
Reasoning, 1978, p145.

ti Leaves of Grass, ‘Song of Myself, 51.

tic conception that is involved but the lesson to be
extracted from its use fits curiously well wi th a
persistent strain in Marxist aesthetics. This is the
tendency to regard the great writers of class society
as those who most completely incorporate its contradictions into their work. The classic instances are
provided by the judg.ments of Engels on Balzac, of
Lenin on Tolstoy, and of Lukacs on Scott or, as in
the following case, on Cooper’s Leather-Stocking
~: ‘The tragedy of the pioneers is linked superbly
here with the tragic decline of gentile society, and
one of the great contradictions of manldnd’s journey
of progress therewith acquires a wonderful and
tragic embodiment.’ (7) Here is a clear expression
of the idea that artistic importance may be directly
dependent on the way social contradictions are
embodied in a text. But the general conclusion we
‘need .may be reached in a variety of ways. The value
of contradictions for enhancing the resonance and
vitality of a literary work has been exploited b ymany
artists and the results explored by .many critics.

Thus, William E.mpson’s discussion of the sixth and
seventh of the ‘types of ambiguity’ is an extended
co.m.mentary on his claim that ‘contradiction is a
powerful literary weapon’ (8). It quite safe to
conclude that in pointing to a contradiction the literary critic need not be maldng or implying an adverse
judg.ment. Now we arrive at a fa.miliar way of conceptualising the operations of reason in this area, at
the idea of distinct spheres of judgment or modes of
appraisal. Using the idio.m appropriate to this idea
we may say that contradictions do not necessarily
constitute defects fro.m the standpoint of .moral or
aesthetic appraisal. If we wish we may mark the
contrast that is needed by agreeing that they must
indeed do so within the sphere of logical appraisal;
that is, in so far as one is interested in appraising
things from a logical point of view. If the general
character of this point of view is indicated roughly by
saying that it concerns itself with the idternal coherence of structures, then it is natural to suppose that
from it contradictions must appear as defects. That
this is so may well be thought to be constitutive of
the possibility of logical criticis m.

In the light of these distinctions it should now be
easier to deal with the thesis that to characterise
something as a contradiction is to .make or imply a
criticism of it. It seems clear to begin with that in
all the awkward cases we have cited the contradictions .may properly be said to have a logical character in the sense presupposed by Edgley’s argUment.

For to say this is primarily just to say that they
depend on relations of meaning between their terms.

It is only in so far as this condition is met that they
go beyond mere external opposition and achieve their
significance for the discussion. But logical appraisal
is not the only ldnd that .may be brought to bear on
such cases and within other perspectives their
defects of logic may not take on any Significance at
all. Thus one seems obliged to reject the conclusion
that the revealing of contradictions is essentially or
in general a critical activity and in so far as Edgley’s
thesis implies this it is false. However, in so far as
it .may simply be taken as making the point that
such contradictions necessarily are defects from a
logical point of view it seems uncontentiously true.

7 For Engels and Lenin see D. Craig, ec., Marxists on Literature, 1970,
Sections 13 and 16. For Likacs see The Historical Novel, translated by
H. & S. Mitchell, 1969, Ch. I. For the sentence quoted see p72.

8 W.Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, Second Edition, 1961, Chs.6 and 7
esp. p197.

It may be that it derives of its initial force

from an ele.ment of ambiguity here. At any rate the
important questions that now arise are ones concerning the availability and status of the mode of logical
appraisal where forms of social life are concerned.

Answers to them cannot be assumed in advance but
will have to be reached by concrete arguments.

Contradictions in Society
It natural at this point to wish to take some

account of the work of specialists in the study of
such forms of life. Many social scientists have
managed to escape the influence of the dogmatic
restrictions on the scope of logic which, as Edgley
shows, have characterised the analytical tradition
in philosophy. Hence they have been quite capable
of recognising the reality of contradictions in the
sense with which he is concerned, particularly when
dealing with societies other than their own. The involved in coming to terms with the contradictions of ‘primitive’ cultures have loomed large
in the anthropological literature. E. E. EvansPritchard’s study of witchcraft among the Azande is
an especially rich, and much-discussed, source of
material. Thus, for instance, the Azande believe
that witchcraft is ‘transmitted by unilinear descent
fro.m parent to child’ so that: ‘The sons of a male
witch are all witches but his daughters are not,
while the daughters of a fe.male witch are all witches
but her sons are not.’ (9) Yet they also regard witchcraft as a physical substance empirically detectable
in the bodies of dead witches, and the result of the
autopsy can serve to acquit or convict so.meone of
being a witch regardless of the state of public knowledge about members of their clan. How can Azande
believe that witchcraft is inherited in the way they
do and also attribute this ldnd of si~ificance to
autopsies? Evans-Pritchard sees plainly that there
is a contradiction at this point in their beliefs and
practices. Yet his account carries no suggestion
that the exposure of it is critical in the sense of
implying that things would be better otherwise.

Indeed its whole tenor indicates that he would oppose
any attempt to purge Zande SOCiety of this contradiction. It might be te.mpting to say that he regards
it as ‘functional’, in that it contributes as a matter
of fact to the stability of Zande institutions. The
feasibility of such a view has general signifiCance for a discussion of the practical implications
of a science of contradictions. Yet the suggestion
may not quite do justice to the particular case.

Evans-Pritchard’s account is pervaded by the awareness that biological transmission and the efficacy of
autopsies are both integral elements of Zande views
of witchcraft, that these views are in turn intimately
9 E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft. Oracles and Magic Among the Azande,
1937, p23.














bound up with the rest of their belief system and that
this system is itself partly constitutive of their
social life. The point to be made now is simply that
he has no wish to see Zande society destroyed. What
this case suggests is that a social scientist may consciously practice a mode of inquiry that involves the
exposure of contradictions without thinking of it as
being critical in any sense relevant to the present
discussion. This result should in itself give us pause
in asserting necessary conceptual links here. But it
may well be that the issues can only be decisively
pursued in relation to problems posed by our own
bourgeois society. To begin with we need to expose
ourselves to the variety of the ideological possibilities
it affords.

The first of them is suggested by what may be
regarded as a distinctively ‘conservative’ position.

In the terms of our discussion it is characterised by
a blank denial of the claims of logical appraisal
where social phenomena are concerned. Such
claims are seen as the expreSSion of a doctrinaire
rationalism pursuing its abstract calculations beyond
their proper sphere. The whole enterprise, it may
be suggested, presupposes a conception of society on
the ,model of a scientific theory or mathematical
system with the kind of unity that pertains to such
intellectual products. Whereas, it may be said, at
least by those conservatives who are not Simply
overwhelmed by the sense of the manifold particularity of the phenomena, such unity as it has is that of
an organic entity which we ‘,murder to dissect’.

This line of thought, whatever its ultimate ,merits,
has at least a certain cautionary value. It is a
reminder of the need to attend to the specificity of
the object of our social science, a the,me that will
recur in this discussion. It serves more particularly
to focus a suspicion that hovers on the fringes of
Edgley’s argument, that its progra,mme can be
carried through only with the help of a partial lapse
into idealism. For in one aspect idealism is or
involves precisely the view that society is an intellectual product. Within such a perspective it is
perhaps intelligible enough that the uncovering of
contradictions should be assigned a critical function.

But to note this is not to advance the cause of the
,materialist dialectic a single step. Hence, the
warning offered by the conservative position is of
the need to guard against ‘the idealist temptations
involved in the dialectic’ (10), and this point will
have to be accommodated in any satisfactory treatment of the subject.

A second kind of ideological response may be thought
of by contrast as a distinctively ‘liberal’ one. Its
character may be indicated by saying that it seizes
on the demonstration of the possibility of social
contradictions and tries to turn it to its own purposes
In doing so it relies on the claim that such contradictions may have a positive value. Thus a society
rich in them is, it may be said, likely to be one in
which there is acceptance of diversity and, hence,
in which the virtues of freedo,m and tolerance can
flourish. This in turn guarantees a congenial setting
for the exercise of imagination and creativity and
the pursuit of truth. The best society will be the one
with the most ramified contradictions and this, it
may well be, turns out to be bourgeois society. This
general line of thought should be familiar enough.

It is a restatement, in what may well be a more
powerful form, of traditional liberal themes, and
10 L.AJ.tnusser, Essays in Self-CritiCism, 1976, p177.


approximates in particular to the position of a
thinker like Karl Popper, freed of its arbitrary
restrictions on the scope of logic. Indeed by demolishing such prejudices Edgley ,may now be thought
to have done a service to the liberal cause by
providing it with a broader theoretical base. The
new liberalism may turn out to be a ,more formidable
opponent than its non-dialectical predecessors. For
present purposes, however, the important point is
that our sketch of it has been able to trade on an
authentic element in the dialectic which is constantly
e,mphasised by the classical writers. This is the
positive aspect of contradictions, their role as conditions of progress hinted at in the sentence quoted
earlier fro,m Lukacs. It is an element to which
Edgley’s account pays little attention and which is
difficult to deal with on his pre,mises. It is natural
to suppose, as Keat does, that the realisation of
his science would be a society without contradictions.

It is far from clear that such a state of affairs could
be coherently described in any detail. Moreover,
the suggestion of it leaves the way open for a
familiar kind of anti-socialist rhetoric. This revolves around a picture of the socialist society as
a nightmare world of stasis and ,mediocrity in which
differentiation is reduced to a minimum with the
loss of everything that makes human life admirable
and interesting. In order not to lend any encouragement to such travesties it may be necessary to say
clearly that the goal of socialism is not, even were
such a thing conceivable, a society without contradictions. This in turn suggests a need to ,make discriminations within the varieties of social contradiction so that some escape the critical verdict of
socialist science. Such a move is inhibited by the
character of Edgley’s argument, dependent as that
is on tracing conceptual connections at a general
level. Yet it represents a kind of flexibility that is
essential if justice is to be done to our subject.

It is worth re,marking that this require,ment holds
no difficulties for the classic case of dialectical
social science in operation. The work of Marx involves no clai,ms to be a general science of social
contradictions. To grasp its relevance here one has
first to note a point made by many commentators
concerning the specificity of its object. This-is not
human society as such but rather class society, or
,more particularly, as exemplified in Capital, ,modern bourgeois society. Moreover, it is clear that
criticism of contradictions, important as it is,
does not exhaust the variety of the criticisms brought
to bear on this object. Marx’s freedo,m from the
dogma of the autonomy of values, of the idealist
separation of the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ (11), enabled
hi.m to deploy a wide range of practical scientific
concepts in a way impossible to bring under such a
rubric. The use made of ‘exploitation’ and of ‘alienation’ provides only the most obvious instances. It
should also be said that there is no reason to ascribe
to him any generalised hostility to social contradictions, and hence no reason to ascribe the fantastic
ideal of a society from which all contradictions have
been eliminated. He may, of course, be said to have
assumed that a society without classes would escape
the pervasive and systematic co~tradictions whose
11 See the letter of 1837 to his father in which the teenage Marx repudiates his
former belief in ‘a complete opposition between what is and ought to be’

and adds, in connection with his first efforts in law and philosophy: ‘Here
the same opposition of “is” and “ought” which is the hallmark of idealism
was the dominating and very destructive feature … ‘ (D. Mc Lellan, ed. ,
Early Texts, 1972, pp2-3). The later MaFX never departed from this
insight and it makes a significant contribution to the remarkable unity of
his intellectual career.

e:xi.stence depends on class structure. Thus, it is
the contradictions specific to class society, those
that flow from and give expression to the fundamental
fact of the division into classes, that he opposes and
seeks to abolish. But this stance does not require,
and in truth is inco.mpatible with, the assumption
that social contradictions as such must be defects.

It leaves all the room one needs to make the discriminations within the varieties of social contradiction
that were spoken of earlier. Indeed the .main problem that Marx’s practice bequeaths to this discussion
is that of giving an adequate explanation of the
theoretical basis for such discriminations.

The Epistemological Solution
The tendency of the discussion so far has been to
cast doubt on the assumption that the revealing of
contradictions is by nature a critical activity. It
has tried to loosen its grip through the method of
giving counter-exa.mples to indicate the true co.mplexity of the pheno.mena. This procedure is, however,
too negative and piecemeal to lead by itself to full
theoretical understanding. For that some fundamental issues have to be tackled directly. A convenient place to start is with the recognition that for
. objects of appraisal it can hardly be denied
that contradictions do indeed constitute defects.

Such a conclusion nor.mally to be forced in
dealing with items falling within the category
identified earlier of ‘intellectual products’. The
question has to be asked of what after all is wrong
with contradictions in such cases: in precisely what
way do they constitute defects? It is a question to
which a variety of answers may be found in the
literature. So far as the study of formal logic itself
is concerned a standard response relies on the idea
that from a contradiction any conclusion whatever
.may be derived (12). Hence a logic that admitted
contradictions would, as Susan Haack points out,
‘be useless for the purpose of discriminating valid
fro.m invalid inferences’ (13). The weakness of this
line of thought, however, is that while it may be
decisive on its home ground it seems to offer no
purchase at all on the problem of what is wrong with
contradictions in social beliefs and practices. The
suggestions made by students of ‘informal logic’ are
scarcely .more helpful. P. F. Strawson represents a
common view when he contends that a .man who
contradicts himself does not actually succeed in
saying anything:

The point is that the standard purpose of speech,
the intention to communicate something, is
frustrated by self-contradiction. Contradicting
oneself is like writing something down and then
erasing it, or putting a line through it. A contradiction cancels itself and leaves nothing (14).

Here again the suggestion, whatever this merits in
its original context, fails to address our concerns.

A society is not an individual subject of discourse,
a would-be co.mmunicator, in the sense required,
and hence the fact that it speaks with many voices
cannot be held against it in the same way. Much
more promising is an idea put forward by Roy
Edgley himself in his book Reason in Theory and
Practice which draws on the link between contradiction and falsity or incorrectness. In virtue of this
link it follows that ‘if the propoSition that ~ is inconsistent with the proposition that q, one of these

propoSitions must be false, so that anyone who
believes both must be believing something that is
false.’ (15). This point is presumably what Edgley
has in mind in remarking in his paper that he has
argued elsewhere for the critical significance of
identifying contradictions, and indeed it seems easy
enough to take it over for our purposes. For it is
also the case that in asocial situation in which some
peoples’ beliefs contradict those of others one side
at least must be believing what is false. To point
this out is, it may be said, to offer a criticis.m if
anything is, for being false is the primary way in
which beliefs can go wrong and be liable to censure.

The suggestion is that the revealing of social contradictions is a critical activity in so far as it signals
the presence of falsity or incorrectness in its object.

On this view it is with cognitive defects that critical
social science is ultimately concerned: its cuttingedge is of a specifically epistemological kind. In
order to try its keenness it may be well to make
explicit a point that has hitherto been tacitly assumed
in the discussion. It is that objective social contradictions cannot be exclusively associated with, or
regarded as precise analogues of, the ‘contradictions’

of traditional logic. For those are distinguished by
the fact that their ele.ments exhaust the range of
possibilities and necessarily have opposite truthvalues. The social contradictions, on the other hand,
.must include, and perhaps will typically consist of,
cases that correspond rather to the traditional
category of ‘contraries’, where truth on one side
rules out the possibility of truth on the other but its
existence on either is not guaranteed. Thus critical
social science will often have to deal with .mere
inconsistencies or incompatibilities and in such
cases its operation is sensitive only” to a presence
of falsity, not of truth. At this point doubts about
the significance of its achievements come into
sharper focus. For surely it will nor.mally be only
the most ingenuous observer who will find it informative to be told that at least of the beliefs
involved in a social situation are false. The real
task of criticis.m will still remain to be done, and it
.must presumably take the form of a process of validation applied to individual cases. Moreover, it is
hard not to feel that once this is carried out the
critical weight will be borne by the notion of falsity
rather than that of contradiction. The latter now
begins to look suspiciously like an idle cog in the
epistemolOgical .mechanis.m.

Even where the issue of falsity itself is concerned
the critical edge is not so keen as one could wish.

15 R.Edgley, Reason in Theory and Practice, 1969, p84.

12 See, for instance, the discussion in K. Popper ‘What is Dialectic?’

Section 1. Conjectures and Refutations, 1963.

13 S. Haack, Deviant Logic, 1974, p36.

14 P. F. Strawson, Introduction to Logical Theory, 1952, p3.


The case for it was introduced by Edgley in terms ot
the situation of someone who believes inconsistent
things. The risk in extrapolating from such exa.mples
to the social level is one of succumbing to a kind of
‘methodological individualism’. The assumption
that in characterising a particular belief as false
one is criticising it does indeed have an air of rockbottom certainty. An almost equal assurance
attaches to the idea that it must constitute a criticism of the state of an individual’s beliefs to say that
some are false: such a remark would normally be
thought to be practical in the straightforward sense
of offering the individual a reason for doing something to alter the situation. It does not follow from
this, and does not seem independently obvious
either, that it is necessarily a criticism of a social
situation that it contains or involves false beliefs.

It is as easy to imagine a ‘liberal’ treatment of the
suggestion in this form as it is when presented
directly in terms of contradictions: the freedom to
make mistakes and tolerance of at least some forms
of error may be said to be socially desirable just as
is diversity of opinion. Moreover the postulate of a
society free of incorrect beliefs is even more obviously a fantasy than that of one free of contradictions. Matters are not improved if one supposes
that our science is critical only of those false beliefs
that form elements of contradictions in being opposed by other beliefs, while leaving unscathed ones
that are universally accepted. If the epistemological
turn is taken seriously it becomes hard to see why
science should not take the entire realm of error as
its target. Once again we seem to be pointed towards
the conclusion that the result of such a turn must be
to deprive a discourse based on contradictions of
any independent significance.

It may also be doubted whether the turn can meet
the needs of that vital part of Edgley’s argument
accepted at the start of this paper. For the recourse
to the notion of cognitive defect does not seem to be
equally available at all stages of it. The argument
depended, as we ~aw, on a piecemeal extension of
the category of contradiction so as to apply to social
pheno.mena. The preliminary to it was a rejection of
some views of logic that are deeply rooted in the
analytical tradition, among them the view that
‘logical relations are truth-value relations between
propositions’ (16). This preliminary is needed partly
at least because of doubts as to whether the notion of
truth-values can take us as far as we need to go. It
applies readily enough to beliefs but less happily to
other elements of social reality. Moreover, one
might wish to leave open the possibility that contradictions between, say, social practices should be
thought of on the model of a logic of imperatives
rather than of propositions. For that one needs the
ability mentioned earlier to speak of relations that
hold in virtue of meanings rather than truth-values.

Indeed the original enterprise is most readily
intelligible if it is seen as an attempt to show how
the concept of meaning can embrace and unite the
whole field of phenomena. The weakness of purely
epistemic concepts here may be brought out in other
ways. The social scientist who relies on the interpretation they suggest may be found to be committed
to some odd claims. Thus, for instance, it may have
to be concluded that: ‘Either it is false that witchcraft
is biologically transmitted or it is false that autopsies are decisive tests of its presence or both of
16 RP15, p4.


these beliefS are false.’ The sense of strangeness
is connected with the fact that judgements of the truth
or falsity of the beliefs presuppose a grasp of their
sense and this depends on, and is intelligible only
within, a conceptual framework that is not, and could
not be, that of the social scientist. The possibility
of scientific criticism arises within a perspective
that is not available to the Azande. As EvansPritchard re.marks, ‘they have no theoretical interest in the subject’ (17), and to raise such problems
about it is already to have left their view of things
behind. The corollary is that the question of the
truth or falsity of the beliefs cannot arise in any
significant or vivid way for the investigator. To
insist that the discussion of it .may be critical in its
implications is to pay lip-service to an ideal of
criticis.m. Without succumbing to the temptations of
relativis.m it may be suggested that those features of
the concept of truth that give rise to the.m are also a
source of e.mbarrassment here. That concept has an
element of contextual specificity, of cultureboundedness, about it that makes it unsuited to the
role of an all-purpose weapon of critical social
science. At this point the general ·moral of the discussion should begin to be clear. It is that the
suggestion being considered errs in representing
logical defects as though they were episte.mological
ones and, hence, in seeking to explain phenomena
at one categorial level by invoking another that is in
relevant respects less fundamental. It is at the level
of logic and meaning that the inquiry into what is
wrong with contradictions must be pursued. It
should be possible to hold on to this idea while taking a hint from the title of Edgley’s paper and book
and from the general character of much of their
argument. To do so is to postulate a vital, mediating role for the concept of rationality .”The trouble
with contradictions, it may be suggested, is that
they are ‘irrationalities’: they run contrary to
reason. The suggestion needs careful explication,
but a preliminary check on its feasibility is provided
by referring to our working model of dialectical
social science. It is true that Marx’s explanatory
critique is rich in resources for the scientific
criticism of the contradictions of class society.

But something important about his practice is
captured in the suggestion that it attaches a special
Significance to the possibility of seeing them specificallyas offences against the light of reason, as,
in Edgley’s telling phrase, ‘structural irrationalities’ (18). It is the conditions for the possibility of
such a view that now need to be explained.

The Importance of Rationality
To explore them adequately one seems obliged to
attempt an account of the concept of rationality
itself. The prospect is a daunting one for its complexity is a fair reflection of its unique status. It
should perhaps be recognised that one is confronted
with a collection of concepts loosely gathered under
a single heading, or with what is in itself an entire
conceptual field. There can be no question of doing
justice to the situation here. But it may be possible
to pick out a theme that is of particular interest for
the discussion and that is central and substantial
enough to suggest the outlines of a view of the whole.

The discussion has warned already of the need to
attend to the specificity of the object of discourse.

For a dialectical social science the object consists
17 op. cit.

18 RP15, p7.

of such items as human actions, activities, policies,
enterprises and practices. In such cases the most
obvious way in which the concept of rationality can
be applied is in connection with the intelligent shaping of means to ends. A paradigm is, one might
say, provided by the notion of ‘instrumental rationality’. It is true, and indeed a common source of
complaint, that this .model is often abused by being
given too much to do. It has to be borne in mind that
it cannot be straightforwardly applied to many quite
ordinary activities from having a conversation to
improvising at the piano or going for a walk. For
these activities are not usually structured in
of a goal that .may be identified independently of
them. -A familiar way of making the point is to say
that they are not .means to anything external but are
pursued just for their own sakes. This way of talking need not, however, introduce any significant
difference so far as our present interests are concerned. From this standpoint it may not matter
greatly that some activities have to be regarded as
ends in the.mselves rather than as instrumental
means. For, as this formulation suggests, they can
still be appraised in terms of criteria that have to
do with notions of intentionality and purpose, and
that may be all we need. These notions are, it may
be supposed, the key ones here and it is through the
cOIUlection with them that one may seek to grasp the
category of rationality. Over a wide range of applications that category has son:ething inescapably
teleological about it.

It seems easy enough to develop this suggestion in
the way we need. Social practices and institutions
may be seen as permeated with intentionality by
virtue of embodying various modes of human will
and consciousness. An understanding of the mode
involved in each case should enable one to see the
point, the telos, of the institution and in terms of
that one can assess the rationality of details. If one
wishes one could speak of ‘rational appraisal’ here,
using the label to enforce the distinction with the
logical concern with questions of internal coherence
that was discussed earlier. To illustrate its potential we may return to reconsider some of our previous examples. Thus, formal logic is itself, though
the point is often lost sight of, a social practice,
something that human beings engage in and that is
created and sustained by their efforts. Hence it is
interesting that Susan Haack in asking what is wrong
with contradictions fro.m the standpoint of this
practice should have explicitly referred to its purpose of discriminating valid from invalid inferences.

It is equally interesting that P. F. Strawson in saying
what is wrong with inconsistent utterances should
have explicitly referred to the standard purpose of
speech, a co.mmunication of meanings that is frustrated if people give things and take them back in
the same breath. All of this fits readily with the
suggestion that to speak of irrationalities in COIUlection with forms of social life is to speak of obstacles
to the achievement of the purposes that are implicit
in the forms and provide their human significance.

It seems obvious that contradictions are likely to

have a large role in human affairs as obstacles of
this sort. Nevertheless, it remains the case that
whether or not they count as defects of rationality
depends on the constitution of the for.m of life in
which they occur. It is a contingent question to which
the answer will vary with circumstances: there can
be no guarantee of congruence between the critical

verdicts of rational and of logical appraisal. This
conclusion is easy to support from familiar ways of
thinking and speakirig. Thus it is not usually
supposed that it must be a defect in a joke that it
contains a contradiction. Indeed if theories that
cOIUlect humour with incongruity have any substance
one might rather expect a kind of affinity here (19).

Contradictions do not constitute breaches of the kind
of rationality that belongs to the institution of joketelling, and on occasions the insistence on applying
the logical point of view may simply reveal that one
stands outside that institution. It is easy to find
.more weighty illustrations. There is, for instance,
Paul Feyerabend’s account of science as an activity
whose aim is ‘objective knowledge’, an aim that is
not advanced by treating contradictions as defects.

A large part of his concern is to warn the practising
scientist against following ‘the barren and illiterate
logician’ who preaches about the virtues of clarity,
consistency, tightness of argument and so on.

Feyerabend’s ‘anthropological study’ of episodes in
the history of science has convinced him that these
virtues, if ‘practised with determination’ , would
bring the whole enterprise to a standstill for ‘there
is not a single science, or other form of life, that
is useful, progressive as well as being in agreement
with logical de.mands.’ (20). The point that concerns
us is not whether the anthropology is correct but
simply the fact that the conclusions Feyerabend
draws from it are conceptually in perfect order.

In this case, too, where one is dealing with an
activity often regarded as the paradigm of human
rationality, what is rational depends on what purposes
are being served.

The conclusion to be drawn is that if the contradictions of class society are to count as irrationalities
they will have to be Seen as obstacles to the achievement of some human purposes. How is one to say
what these purposes are? At this point the largest
issues begin to open up and new realms of theory
exert their claims. It also becomes clear that misgivings about Edgley’s work have their deepest
:source in the fear that, for all its positive achievement’ it .may encourage misunderstanding of the
nature and complexity of the tasks that remain. Its
apparent success in establishing dialectical social
science just on the basis of a large-scale map of the
conceptual relations between a limited number of
general categories .may obscure the need to engage
in concrete ways with these substantive theoretical
questions. The questions arise .most urgently for the
project of a materialist ‘philosophical anthropology’;
the attempt to give an account in materialist terms
of how we are to conceive of ourselves as human
beings, of what is distinctive about our existence,
of what its well-being consists in and of what purposes are co.mpatible with, or elements of, such a
condition. The project can, of course, draw help
and encouragement from the work of Marx. Thus, he
has much to say on the question of what differentiates
human beings from other animals. A particularly
graphic statement of his views is given in the section
on the labour process in the first volume of Capital:

We presuppose labour in a form in which it is an
19 See the discussion in S. Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the UnconsciOUS,
1960, esp. Section A H. Typical of Freud’s illustrations is the following:

‘Is this the place where the Duke of Wellington spoke those words? Yes,
it is the place; but he never spoke the words.’ (p60, n). A bad-taste
example of the category, that is much better as a joke and hard to omit in
the present context in view of the connection with a great master of
dialectic, is provided by the dying words attributed to Hegel: ‘Only one
man ever understood me. And he didn’t understand me.’

20 P. Feyerabend, Against Method, 1975. For references see pp257-60.


exclusively human characteristic. A spider conducts operations which resemble those of the
weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst
architect from the best of bees is that the
architect builds the cell in his mind before he
constructs it in wax. At the end of every labour
process, a result emerges which had already
been conceived by the worker at the beginning,
hence already existed ideally. Man not only
effects a change of form in the materials of
nature; he also realizes· (virwirklicht) his own
purpose in those materials. And this is a purpose
he is conscious of, it determines the mode of his
activity with the rigidity of a law, and he must
subordinate his will to it. (21)
21 K. Marx, Capital, Vol. I, trans. B. Fowkes, 1976, pp283-84. Cf. Engels:

‘In short, the animal merely uses its environment, and brings about
changes in it simply by its presence; man by his changes makes it serve

The exclusively human characteristic, it appears,
is labour animated by conscious purpose. In the
light of the preceding discussion Marx may now be
classified as one of the philosophers who conceive
of human beings as rational animals • But for him it
is a rationality that exhibits itself characteristically
not in theory or contemplation but in activity in the
world: what is quintessentially human is the faculty
of practical reason. The explication of his dialectical
social science has to be grounded in a theory of the
conditions for the proper exercise of this faculty;
that is to say, in a materialist theory of society. In
the end such a theory must prove to be the only
effective armour against the idealist temptations of
the dialectic.

his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man
and other animals, and once again it is labour that brings about this
distinction.’ Dialectics of Nature, 1954, pp179-80.

Jonathan Ree, Michael Ayers and Ada.m Westoby,
Philosophy and its Past, Harvester, 1978,
£8.50 hardback, £3.50 paperback
It is really rather surprising that this book, or
something like it, has not appeared before. For as
well as being straightforwardly interesting, and
readable, it could be i.mportant. The History of
Philosophy, which figures in almost all undergraduate Philosophy programmes, is arguably the
seat of Philosophy’s own self-consciousness. Only
Logic rivals it as a preparatory study for Philosophy proper. Like a nation’s history to the people,
it presents to the diSCiples of Philosophy images of
the fatal mistakes and the heroism of the founding
fathers, who fought (mostly amongst themselves)
to hand on the clear lines of philosophical practice
that we now enjoy. But this short book undermines
those images. Look again into your collective
me.mory, it suggests, think back over your past.

And the truth may be traumatic for the selfassured practitioner of academic Philosophy, if it
can get beneath his skin.

The book’s three articles cover not only different
sides of the subject of the History of Philosophy,
but different approaches to arguing for a change in
method. Jonathan Ree’s is an historical article. It
describes the genesis of Philosophy’s own view of
its distinct history in the Renaissance and
Enlightenment views of the history of culture itself.

Both periods had a vested interest in rejecting
part of their history. Thus, the Philosophes could
make good use of the systematisation of the history
of Philosophy into conflicting schools developed by
Jacob Brucker to train students in the new German
protestant universities. It made a good case for
rejecting out of hand all theorising, be it religious
or metaphysical, in favour of plain, reasonable
man’s understanding. But a tactically expedient
position has hardened into the orthodoxy of academic institutions for the following two centuries. And
today the History of Philosophy shows us no progress, only toing and froing over a given range of
possible philosophical positions. Kant, Regel and

Marx offer ways out of this collective ideology,
each of which shows how past philosophies are valid
preliminaries for future progress. But these have
not been taken up. Again, Ree claims the same
lineage for the central position attributed to episte.mology, and in particular to the opposition
between Rationalis.m and EmpiriCism.

I found this a fascinating piece of historical
research, but am unhappy about what seems a
major lacuna. Although so.mewhat unevenly, continental Philosophy has advanced, via Kant, Hegel,
Marx etc, fro.m the Enlightenment view of the
History of Philosophy. It is the country whose only
original contribution to Philosophy is E.mpiricis.m,
na.mely Britain, where that historical view which
counterposes futile theories, making them easy
targets for e.mpiricist reductionism, is still
followed, and where Empiricis.m, by being counterposed to all other philosophies, still appears to be
God’s gift to philosophical thought. I think there
must be historical reason why British
Philosophy (and to extent American) pulled
up while European Philosophy moved on. But this
historical account of the growth of a range of philosophical positions is chastening for the professional:

who takes them for granted. For to raise the question of their historical origin i.mmediately shows
how non-necessary they may be.

Though Ree’s essay contains certain philosophical
argu.ments (about, for example, whether it is
possible to identify a syste.m of beliefs outside a
context), it is Ayers’ article that attacks the Histor)l
of Philosophy with more conventionally pure philOsophical argument. Ayers shows up mistaken
philosophical presuppositions which underlie
various examples of .misinterpretation of historical
philosophers. Russell on Leibnitz, for example,
takes his own philosophical starting points and
prunes and trains Leibnitz’s philosophy to grow out
of them. Others adopting the same approach identify
mistakes in Hume’s or Kant’s formulation of their
poSitions which, if removed, magically produce the
writer’s own view. Accompanying this practice
there is the unfounded belief that what a philosopher

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