Friedrich Engels on “Eternal Truths” and Absolute Certainty

Friedrich Engels on “Eternal Truths” and Absolute Certainty

Anti-Dühring is to Engels what Capital is to Marx. As Engels wrote to Marx, it was an attempt “to produce an encyclopaedic survey of our conception of the philosophical, natural-science and historical problems.” Aside from being the book that contains the most sarcastic insults that Herr Eugen Dühring perhaps had to endure in his life, it is also a wonderful exposition of Marxism. The following excerpt is Engels discussing “eternal truths,” which Dühring had claimed existed in “the world of morals” as they existed “just as much” in the world of general knowledge:

“… Eternal truths are in an even worse plight in the third, the historical, group of sciences, which study in their historical sequence and in their present resultant state the conditions of human life, social relationships, forms of law and government, with their ideal superstructure in the shape of philosophy, religion, art, etc. In organic nature we are at least dealing with a succession of processes which, so far as our immediate observation is concerned, recur with fair regularity within very wide limits. Organic species have on the whole remained unchanged since the time of Aristotle. In social history, however, the repetition of conditions is the exception and not the rule, once we pass beyond the primitive state of man, the so-called Stone Age; and when such repetitions occur, they never arise under exactly similar circumstances. Such, for example, is the existence of an original common ownership of the land among all civilised peoples, or the way it was dissolved.

In the sphere of human history our knowledge is therefore even more backward than in the realm of biology. Furthermore, when by way of exception the inner connection between the social and political forms of existence in any epoch comes to be known, this as a rule occurs only when these forms have already by half outlived themselves and are nearing extinction. Therefore, knowledge is here essentially relative, inasmuch as it is limited to the investigation of interconnections and consequences of certain social and state forms which exist only in a particular epoch and among particular peoples and are by their very nature transitory. Anyone therefore who here sets out to hunt down final and ultimate truths, genuine, absolutely immutable truths, will bring home but little, apart from platitudes and commonplaces of the sorriest kind — for example, that, generally speaking, men cannot live except by labour; that up to the present they for the most part have been divided into rulers and ruled; that Napoleon died on May 5, 1821, and so on.

Now it is a remarkable thing that it is precisely in this sphere that we most frequently encounter truths which claim to be eternal, final and ultimate and all the rest of it. That twice two makes four, that birds have beaks, and similar statements, are proclaimed as eternal truths only by those who aim at deducing, from the existence of eternal truths in general, the conclusion that there are also eternal truths in the sphere of human history — eternal morality, eternal justice, and so on — which claim a validity and scope similar to those of the insights and applications of mathematics. And then we can confidently rely on this same friend of humanity taking the first opportunity to assure us that all previous fabricators of eternal truths have been to a greater or lesser extent asses and charlatans, that they all fell into error and made mistakes; but that their error and their fallibility are in accordance with nature’s laws, and prove the existence of truth and accuracy precisely in his case; and that he, the prophet who has now arisen, has in his bag, all ready-made, final and ultimate truth, eternal morality and eternal justice. This has all happened so many hundreds and thousands of times that we can only feel astonished that there should still be people credulous enough to believe this, not of others, oh no! but of themselves.

… We might have made mention above also of the sciences which investigate the laws of human thought, i.e., logic and dialectics. In these, however, eternal truths do not fare any better. Herr Dühring declares that dialectics proper is pure nonsense; and the many books which have been and are still being written on logic provide abundant proof that here, too, final and ultimate truths are much more sparsely sown than some people believe.

For that matter, there is absolutely no need to be alarmed at the fact that the stage of knowledge which we have now reached is as little final as all that have preceded it. It already embraces a vast mass of judgments and requires very great specialisation of study on the part of anyone who wants to become conversant with any particular science. But a man who applies the measure of genuine, immutable, final and ultimate truth to knowledge which, by its very nature, must either remain relative for many generations and be completed only step by step, or which, as in cosmogony, geology and the history of mankind, must always contain gaps and be incomplete because of the inadequacy of the historical material — such a man only proves thereby his own ignorance and perversity, even if the real thing behind it all is not, as in this case, the claim to personal infallibility.

Truth and error, like all thought-concepts which move in polar opposites, have absolute validity only in an extremely limited field, as we have just seen, and as even Herr Dühring would realise if he had any acquaintance with the first elements of dialectics, which deal precisely with the inadequacy of all polar opposites. As soon as we apply the antithesis between truth and error outside of that narrow field which has been referred to above it becomes relative and therefore unserviceable for exact scientific modes of expression, and if we attempt to apply it as absolutely valid outside that field we really find ourselves altogether beaten: both poles of the antithesis become transformed into their opposites, truth becomes error and error truth.

Let us take as an example the well-known Boyle’s law. According to it, if the temperature remains constant, the volume of a gas varies inversely with the pressure to which it is subjected. Regnault found that this law does not hold good in certain cases. Had he been a philosopher of reality he would have had to say: Boyle’s law is mutable, and is hence not a genuine truth, hence it is not a truth at all, hence it is an error. But had he done this he would have committed an error far greater than the one that was contained in Boyle’s law; his grain of truth would have been lost sight of in a sand-hill of error; he would have distorted his originally correct conclusion into an error compared with which Boyle’s law, along with the little particle of error that clings to it would have seemed like truth. But Regnault, being a man of science, did not indulge in such childishness, but continued his investigations and discovered that in general Boyle’s law is only approximately true, and in particular loses its validity in the case of gases which can be liquefied by pressure, namely, as soon as the pressure approaches the point at which liquefaction begins. Boyle’s law therefore was proved to be true only within definite limits. But is it absolutely and finally true within those limits? No physicist would assert that. He would maintain that it holds good within certain limits of pressure and temperature and for certain gases; and even within these more restricted limits he would not exclude the possibility of a still narrower limitation or altered formulation as the result of future investigations.

This is how things stand with final and ultimate truths in physics, for example. Really scientific works therefore, as a rule, avoid such dogmatically moral expressions as error and truth, while these expressions meet us everywhere in works such as the philosophy of reality, in which empty phrasemongering attempts to impose itself on us as the most sovereign result of sovereign thought.”

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