Index - Knowledge & Value - Liberation - Value - Structuralism - Ethics - Post-structuralism

Essence as Value

The concept of this project was to discover what the peculiar state of philosophy these days - "post-modern theory" and so forth - had to tell us about how the world had become the way it is - the extreme inequalities in wealth, the ubiquity of war, the universal egotism and shallowness of life in the industrialised countries, the atomisation of society and the failure of all attempts to maintain social services or genuine forms of collectivism, etc. The project quickly led to a need to study the whole history of philosophy and expanded laterally into economics, the history of economic theory, mathematics, etc., etc.. I was determined not to pull back from the scope of the project and settle for something less, because it seemed that the lack of any synthesis, the compartmentalisation of knowledge was part of the problem. So, certain challenging methodological problems were posed.

If we are to understand the history of philosophy, how thinking has changed over time, under what circumstances and as a result of what social changes, then we have to address some problems of method. Initially, we are confronted with the same problems which will confront us when we try to understand any complex phenomenon. Before we can begin to explain what we see, before we can comprehend the available traces of ways of thinking, be they books, records of conversations or great historical events, we have to consider the very principles through which we conceive of the objects under consideration and their relations to each other.

This is not just a question of the organising principles to be applied to the mass of data, for such a definition of the problem already predisposes us towards an approach based on grouping the work into schools, tendencies, "camps" in ever broader and more abstract categories.

On the other hand, our very aim is one of synthesis. It is not enough to be able to describe. History is indeed, "one damn thing after another", but it also has meaning; when subject to the electron-microscope of historical analysis all "grand narratives" dissolve into unstable textual traces, but we can surmise more beyond the traces, and it is that more that we must reveal and describe.

Such a methodological clarification is made tricky by the fact that the mainstream of positive bourgeois science and philosophy has consistently promoted an abstract universal method of conception of the general over a period of centuries, and doubly complicating the problem, currently fashionable post-structuralist writers have criticised this abstract generalism by denouncing all striving for the general, all "grand narratives" and so on. Under these conditions, the project I have set myself here would be rendered impossible.

I intend to draw upon Hegel for the basic approach to the problem of conceptualisation: - "it can be only the nature of the content itself which spontaneously develops itself in a scientific method of knowing, since it is at the same time the reflection of the content itself which first posits and generates its determinate character. ... it is this self-construing method alone which enables philosophy to be an objective, demonstrated science" [Preface to the first edition of the Science of Logic, 1812].

I shall employ the concepts of Being, Essence and Notion from Hegel's Logic.

I cannot attempt to justify or explain this approach other than to do the best I can to solve the problems to which I am addressing myself. In particular, I am seeking a simple abstract Notion of bourgeois philosophy which can form the starting point for an understanding of the dominant forms of consciousness in the current period in the advanced capitalist countries. It is the concept of Essence which I need to explain here.

"Bourgeois Philosophy" & Epistemology

I have set out to try to discover what the current state of philosophy has to tell us about the state of the world and the possibility of overthrowing it and establishing socialism. On the face of it, the philosophical discourse of today makes no sense at all, so I have gone back to Marx, and from there to Feuerbach and Hegel, from there to Kant to Hume and so on back to Galileo.

Here I found a kind of beginning. Galileo had to defend the Copernican opinion against an Inquisition which asserted the literal interpretation of the Bible. In doing so, Galileo prefigures all those issues which will be the subject of the essential development of bourgeois philosophy for the next two hundred years. Although forced to recant, he remained utterly confident that scientific enquiry would continue and triumph despite the censorship of the Church.

Meanwhile, in Britain the scoundrel Francis Bacon, the Royalist Thomas Hobbes and the bourgeois political theorist Locke inexorably undercut the foundations of religion and laid the basis for bourgeois rule.

The Dutch bourgeoisie in its "Golden Age" gave refuge to Descartes and Spinoza, the founders of Rationalism, and were the first to systematically educate its youth in the physics of Newton and Huygens.

The French Revolution was prepared in the Enlightenment, the archetypal representatives of which were Denis Diderot, leader of the Encyclopaedists, who disseminated knowledge of all and every kind for the sake of Revolution, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the founder of modern educational, social and linguistic theory.

The German bourgeoisie, unable to engage in politics within its own borders, translates the French Revolution into the language of pure philosophy with the systems of Kant and Hegel.

The American bourgeoisie is first heard in Europe with the revolutionary impact of its Declaration of the Rights of Man, but later in the nineteenth century, enters the world of philosophy with the epistemology of Pragmatism.

This development is presaged in the Protestant Reformation of the 1540s, which leaves the Church, the Monarchy and the feudal system intact but creates the space into which Galileo and Bacon can step. The Essence of the whole sweep of "classical bourgeois philosophy" from Galileo to Hegel is Epistemology. All along we see systems of Ethics (indeed Spinoza entitles his opus magnum Ethics), expositions of Logic, studies in all branches of natural science, theories of language, Ontology, various religious affiliations and political positions and theories which extend all the way from Hobbes' Royalism to the radical revolutionism of Diderot. But is not these but Epistemology which provides the thread connecting the whole process.

Throughout the whole period, this argument cast within the conceptual language of Epistemology is indeed about the human condition, about the problems posed by the contradiction between human labour and human needs. But it is not expressed that way; it is expressed in terms of the theory of knowledge, just as in earlier centuries, the same problems were expressed in terms of rival interpretations of the Word of God. A discussion of the human condition could, in those days, only take that form; but from about 1600, in Europe, the same struggle was continued in the form of Epistemology.

Working over this material, we are able to perceive this Essential process; the different writers refer to each other, whether by way of allusion, refutation or authority, allowing the genesis to be detected. The form taken by this process is that in each generation there is a polarisation, with one or another writer emphasising opposite sides: Rationalism versus Empiricism, for example. The struggle of each generation reaches its limit in a kind of "stalemate", an unresolved dynamic equilibrium, in which a new problem emerges to engage the next generation; each of these contradictions continues to exist side-by-side with the new contradiction it has given rise to; the problem is more and more concretely posed.

This is broadly the nature of the process described by Hegel in the Doctrine of Essence. Ethics, Logic and Ontology are inessential in relation to the whole development of bourgeois philosophy. And throughout the whole process, the solution of the day-to-day problems of science, navigation, trade, political struggle and industry are part of the Being reflected in philosophy, but lie outside of philosophy itself. It is in this sense that I am saying that Epistemology is the Essence of bourgeois philosophy. It is the thread, which allows us to make sense of the whole process of formation of bourgeois ideology.

It can and must be understood in its own terms, that is to say, as an unfolding "debate" on the limits and validity of knowledge. It can also be read as a struggle to understand the human condition as the possibilities for human labour and the nature of the relation between human needs and human labour change, generation by generation during the period in question. But it must also be understood at the level of the social struggle of the bourgeoisie to create the intellectual preconditions for the accumulation of value. It is contradictory, but a fact, that the participants in this "debate" include the Royalist Hobbes and any number of writers of noble extraction and most with no social connections to capital. Ideology is created not by individuals but by whole social classes, and those who formulate it and commit it to writing are not more bound to be capitalists than those who labour in the factories producing that value.

The Essential development of bourgeois ideology must also be understood in terms of the development of the forces of production which pose and resolve problems of knowledge at the same time as bringing together the material conditions for the accumulation of capital.

Thus, when we come to sketch the story of Classical Bourgeois Philosophy, we shall depend on a small part of the writing of but a small number of writers. Of course! this does not exhaust the subject! Nor does it imply for a moment that the picture is not "oversimplified". The issue is not to write a history of the period, but to allow the writers themselves to pose the problems they wish to solve and make sense of the process for us, to show us the Essence of the process.

The Bourgeoisie and Epistemology

Now, I have said that Epistemology is the Essence of Bourgeois Philosophy. I confess that I have no knowledge of philosophy before Galileo, but in 1600 we see the founders of bourgeois philosophy arguing against a theory of knowledge which went no higher than various methods of interpreting the Bible, and if Bacon's Preface to his Natural History is to be believed, much, much lower. Although speculative epistemology takes a big step backwards, in many respects, after 1841, the sciences and the whole social division of labour continues to develop to this day.

The sense in which it could be said that Epistemology is the Essence of bourgeois philosophy changes after 1841, since the predominant forms of knowledge are no longer developed speculatively, but in close connection with the progress of various branches of science. In fact, in the first century or so after 1841, the theory of knowledge is developed by means of attempting to resolve the problems at issue by concrete, positive scientific investigation, and this later passes over to the problem of method which is developed by working upon the material gathered in the various branches of science. The question of method later passes over to the question of the social and historical forms of knowledge, the kind of philosophical struggle characteristic of the present times.

Thus, investigation has led me to the conclusion that the assertion that Epistemology is the Essence of bourgeois ideology, has to be modified in relation to several great phases in the development of the world-wide division of labour. This further concretisation of the Notion I must leave to the other parts of this work where I pay closer attention to the way problems of knowledge are posed in different times. What is significant for the moment is the strong relationship between bourgeois rule, which is characterised by the growing ubiquity of the commodity relation, and knowledge.

Thus it seems to me that whatever may have been achieved by Feudalism, it did little to forward epistemology and in the 15th and 16th century, used considerable violence to suppress it. The rise of the bourgeoisie is intimately connected with the advances of the theory of knowledge.

During the early period of its development, the bourgeoisie required as a vital necessity a knowledge of nature which would provide the basis for the expansion of the productivity of labour. In saying this, it should be recognised that there was always a huge gap between speculation on forms of knowledge, the acquisition of knowledge and its application in industry. Also, it is by no means the case that the knowledge workers of old worked to some kind of "production plan". Newton died before the Industrial Revolution put his laws of mechanics into practice in the factory, and there was no Ministry of Science and Industry working on a development plan for the industrial revolution to come. Newton's science and the industrial revolution arose out of specific conditions pertaining at the time.

Conversely, the bourgeoisie regarded the knowledge of feudalism as worthless superstition. The bourgeoisie really did develop an objectively true knowledge of nature, but beginning even in the mid-17th century, but decisively from the mid-19th century the promotion of knowledge ceased to directly serve its class ends in the way it did up until the bourgeoisie succeeded in gaining state power in the various countries.

From the day the bourgeoisie take political power in a given country the counter-tendency begins. On the one hand, arises the need for the techniques of social control, but on the other to maintain a monopoly of control over knowledge. So on the one hand, the requirement for deception, and on the other, exclusion. The bourgeoisie is not by any stretch of the imagination a direct expression of the immanent tendencies in the development of the forces of production - these are contradictory.

It is a fact however, that while the bourgeoisie was a class excluded form political power, the promotion of natural science had a definite political value, and was a part of its formation; subsequently the bourgeoisie stands in a contradictory, ambivalent relation to science. The history of any aspect of society must be seen on the basis of the unity and conflict of the forces of production and the mode of production. The actual elaboration of the various branches of history are huge tasks that can only be undertaken through positive study. We will have to call on such results as we can to assist in this project.

The most crucial date in respect of this contradictory relation between the bourgeoisie and knowledge is 1848, but as it turns out, a few years earlier, 1841, the date of the denunciation of Hegel by the Prussian State which had formerly promoted Hegel. This time marks the end of the development of Epistemology in the form of "metaphysical" speculation. The further development of bourgeois philosophy after Kant is disowned by the bourgeoisie and epistemology turns on the one hand inward, taking on the character of irrationalism, an actual rejection of the validity of knowledge and on the other hand, recapitulates its development in close connection with the development of natural science.

Philosophical Tendencies and Currents

One of the problems we face in trying to understand and find meaning in the mass of data presented to us by the history of epistemology, is the conception of tendencies and currents among the individual participants in the struggle.

The task of analysis is not one of categorising, along the lines of abstract universals, gathering objects together according to "common properties". For example, "all those who give priority to an independently existing Material world are Materialists, and all those who give priority to the Mind are Idealists", or "all those who emphasise experience over reason are empiricists, and all those who emphasise Reason over Experience are Rationalists". Such concepts are invaluable for the understanding of a philosophical system, but cannot be used to comprehend an historical process by a method of categorisation.

To begin with, such a method of categorisation must be ahistorical. A concrete historical analysis must pay attention to lines of development in the economic base, the social and political superstructure and philosophy and their interconnection. And in connection with these processes which constitute the Being of philosophical thought, we must identify and study "lines of development" in philosophy. By "lines of development" I mean that, for instance, we conceive of "Marxism" as encompassing Stalinism and Trotskyism, the Frankfurt School and "Western Marxism" - not because they have anything in common, but because through their connection with the workers movement and each other they constitute an organic line of development. At any given time, several lines of development co-exist. A branch of facet of a given line of development may be "untrue" and constitute a degeneration (I would say this of Stalinism). If we have a concrete Notion of what a line of development in philosophy or social development is, then we can recognise the dynamic which causes us to recognise that internal contradictions have given rise to a new line of development. For example, if we understand Marxism to mean the theoretical legacy of Karl Marx and the leading intellectual force of the proletariat - the coincidence of the two - then we can see in what way a particular current has become separated from the struggles of the proletariat or in what way it has become untrue to the theory of its founder. No ideological current can be understood independently of the practical struggles with which it is connected, nor outside of its historical development on the theoretical plane.

It is usually not too difficult to recognise an ideological current. Typically, the people involved in each line pay little attention whatsoever to the activity of another (unless to belittle it), and this may remain the case for the whole of their lives. (There are exceptions. For example, Dilthey and Husserl are two writers who I find defy location within a specific current, despite the originality and influence of their work).

Nevertheless, the work of each line affects that of every other along with other changes taking place "outside". Individual people always change their views and their activity in the course of their lives. The lives of individuals interweave those of the philosophical current with which we are concerned. However, although individual writers invariably move, it is relatively rare for one person to make a really historic impact on the development of philosophy in more than one current. There are a few exceptions, such as Schelling and Sartre, who, at a certain point in their life after they have already made an impact on the scene in one line of development, radically change to centre of their concern and their whole relation to other people - but these are rare. At different stages we also see significant syntheses and cross-fertilisations, but these are still best comprehended as the mutual interaction of different "lines of development" all developing within a common existent social reality.

The development of each "line of development" is "Essential" in the sense that it takes place by way of internal contradictions within itself which at a certain point reach a limit and are displaced by new contradictions which in turn redefine the old conflict and cast in the terms of a new conflict. The best description of this process is given us by Hegel in his "Doctrine of Essence".

In looking at the work of any given philosopher we will be interested in their epistemology, where it is stated explicitly or where it is implicit, or where their positive work contributes to the development of epistemology via others later. Also, we are interested in that stage of their development at which they "make an impact", although this may often be most clearly expressed sometimes at a much later period in their life. In all the work of this project I nowhere attempt to make any kind of summing up of the contribution or life-work of an individual, for that is not my aim. If I refer to individual (as I frequently must) I am concerned only with the specific impact they make on the development of one or another line of development.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, lines of development include at their centre a specific domain of enquiry which forms the basis of conflict between doctrines. For example, empiricism, pragmatism, positivism and spiritualism enter into conflict in the arena of psychology; at another time and another place, these same "tendencies" enter into conflict in social theory, or physics. Underlying all is the development of the productive forces and the various national sections of the bourgeoisie, and it is these changes which form the underlying context in which a struggle occurs within any given "line of development".

If we were, contrariwise, to seek to investigate the action of the various "trends" or "schools" of philosophy within the various areas of enquiry, then this leads to an arbitrary categorisation. We must let the subject(s) speak for itself. Just as capital finds its way to where it can make a profit, the philosophical currents find their way to area of enquiry where they can gain a footing. The perception of the currents of epistemology (pragmatism, empiricism, etc.) is the outcome of this process, not its starting point, even though in a sense, by way of their formation the opposite may be the case.

The end point of an essential development is creation of an entirely new social order in which all the conflicts of the past period intersect with the entirety of other lines of essential development and are placed in an entirely new context and resolved. The Notion terminates a line of development (if it does not just "fade away") and enters as a "result" into a process of maturation and concretisation in relation to other tendencies within a new line of development.

Knowledge for the Nobility, the Bourgeoisie & the Proletariat

I have said that the Essence of Bourgeois philosophy is Epistemology. The whole bourgeois epoch could be said to be the Epoch of Knowledge. Feudalism did of course accumulate knowledge, but it do so differently; knowledge had to acquired in and through a conception of Rights and Obligations.

On the other hand, I believe that the historic role of the proletariat is not in fact at all tied up with furtherance of knowledge or the theory of knowledge. Science has already advanced to a point where we are capable of feeding even the present excessive population of the world and of curing diseases as fast as we create new ones, of keeping people alive as long as they can pay the power bill on the life-support machine, of building machines to perform any task of which the mind can conceive, of killing the population of the world many times over by several different techniques, of extracting foodstuffs from the soil as fast as we destroy the soil.

The historic task of the proletariat is to put an end to this madness and build an ethical world, to abolish the sick-joke of Utilitarianism and implement the maxim of "to each according to their needs, from each according to their ability".

Concrete and Abstract Generality

As I remarked at the outset, I fear I may have a problem being heard in the period after Foucault announced that "history ... has taken as its primary task, not the interpretation of the document, nor the attempt to decide whether it is telling the truth or what is its expressive value, but to work on it from within and to develop it", and denounces the idea "that history itself may be articulated into great units - stages or phases - which contain within themselves their own principle of cohesion." [Archaeology of Knowledge]

Nevertheless, the novelty of post-structuralism has surely by now worn off, and we well know what is the politics of this theory of knowledge which breaks up every unity and "shall not pass beyond discourse". In a world more integrated than ever before imagined, in which people are more isolated, more egoistic than ever before, surely there is a need for synthesis, for identifying the site of oppression amid the unutterable plethora of images and texts?

What post-structuralism negates we must also negate. We must also negate the abstract universal which "supposed that between all the events of a well-defined spatio-temporal area, between all the phenomena of which traces have been found, it must be possible to establish a system of homogeneous relations: a network of causality that makes it possible to derive each of them, relations of analogy that show how they symbolise one another, or how they all express one and the same central core; it is also supposed that one and the same form of historicity operates upon economic structures, social institutions and customs, the inertia of mental attitudes, technological practice, political behaviour, and subjects them all to the same type of transformation". This is the abstract method of conception which was at home with nineteenth century empiricism, was the basis of late nineteenth century positivism, and was carried to an extreme by Structuralism.

The challenge to this writer is to present the general so that it is not only written as concrete universal, but also cannot be read with structuralist meaning. This is no small challenge, for the eye constantly seeks for the abstract universal and tires of the concrete. But this is our task.

Epistemology and Ethics

At the level of ideology, the whole life course of the bourgeois epoch is the opposition between epistemology and ethics. Knowledge grew like a virus in the wounds of the weakened feudal society of Europe in the seventeenth century. The growth of knowledge and its application in industry and commerce undermined the feudal system of rights and obligations; it destroyed the feudal ethic, it undermined its way of life.

Adam Smith is renowned as the author of An Enquiry into the Origins of the Wealth of Nations, but his first book was Moral Philosophy. The demise of the feudal ethic brought about a new bourgeois ethic. The new ethic which came into being was given its most systematic elaboration by John Stuart Mill in his Utilitarianism written in 1861. The same John Stuart Mill is renowned not only as an Ethicist but as the foremost political economist of his time. This early association of Ethics with bourgeois political economy expresses the fact that political economy is in fact the bourgeois science of ethics, or to put it differently, the truth of ethics is expressed in the laws of political economy, whether Adam Smith or J S Mill know it or not.

The Essence of political economy is Value. That is to say, the development of the science of political economy is given meaning by the unfolding of the concept of value throughout its history. The triumph of knowledge over ethics marks the birth of the bourgeois epoch; the conquering of knowledge by ethics must mark its termination. Value appears with the commodity market (the essence of capitalism) and disappears with its abolition. The new ethic, of which I say it is the historic role of the proletariat to usher in, is one of the abolition of value.

Aristotle said that “Where people are in Friendship Justice is not required.” [Ethics Bk VIII] In a world of cooperative labour, there is no need of Value.