Why is a Philosophy of the Natural Sciences Needed?

My answer to the question “Why is a philosophy of the natural sciences needed?” will take the form of several distinct components. Before enumerating them, I should point out that no separate Marxist philosophy of the natural sciences exists distinct from dialectical and historical materialism. Marxist philosophy of the natural sciences is the methodological application of dialectical and historical materialism to investigations in the various natural sciences.

1. The logic of the Marxist analysis of social development is based on the philosophical system of dialectical and historical materialism. Dialectical and historical materialism together constitute a unitary philosophical system. Comprehensive philosophical systems, or worldviews, are always universal in character, embracing the spheres of nature, society, and thought. In asserting the validity of their philosophical system, Marx and Engels felt it necessary to demonstrate that dialectical and historical materialism provide the universal logical basis for understanding processes of change in the spheres of nature and society as well as in the thought processes by which this understanding comes about. Engels stressed this in his work on the dialectics of nature when he wrote: “The fact that our subjective thought and the objective world are subject to the same laws, and, hence, too, that in the final analysis they cannot contradict each other in their results, but must coincide, governs absolutely our whole theoretical thought. It is the unconscious and unconditional premise for theoretical thought” (Engels 1987, 544).

2. By the 1870s, Marx and Engels had essentially established the law-governed revolutionary transformative character of the process leading from capitalism to socialism. They had laid the theoretical basis for a revolutionary political movement that would be needed in this process and participated actively in its formation. Already in 1844, Marx put forth the view: “The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses” (1975, 182). An ideologically strong revolutionary political movement is needed to bring this material force into being. The material character of this movement was further elaborated by Lenin in outlining the organizational character of the party of a new type in What is to be Done? The reformist undermining of the thesis that a revolutionary movement is necessary was based on the mechanistic projection that the operation of dialectics of nature would inevitably bring about the self-destruction of capitalism, making unnecessary a class struggle oriented toward socialism. Therefore, according to Bernstein, and later Kautsky and Hilferding, the task of socialists was to work for reforms within the capitalist system (Azad 2005, 504). By ignoring the necessity of ideological struggle for the cause of socialism, they effectively discarded historical and dialectical materialism and turned dialectics of nature into a mechanistic determinism. But the transition from capitalism to socialism differs from previous societal transformations in that the process can only be brought about with conscious understanding of its nature and necessity. Life under the material conditions of existence under capitalism serves as the source for acquisition of this consciousness among the masses, but this acquisition cannot occur spontaneously through economic struggles. The consciousness must be imparted to them by the party that is guided by historical and dialectical materialism.

3. The Hegelian Marxists, such as Lukács, Korsch, and Gramsci, argued that dialectics is not applicable to nature and that in fact its application to nature is the source of the mechanistic determinism that led to reformism (Azad 2005, 307, drawing on Callinicos 1976, 70). In making this argument, they also rejected the Leninist reflection theory of knowledge as the basis for the Marxist-Leninist concept of the relationship between the two fundamental philosophical categories, matter and ideas. The understanding of this relationship lies at the heart of the Marxist concept of the scientific method. The idealist character of this view led to giving overriding priority to the development of a socialist consciousness while paying inadequate attention to strengthening the material organizational basis of the class struggle. Despite the common idealist character of their philosophies, Lukács, Korsch, and Gramsci differed considerably in their political orientation. Although Gramsci’s philosophical inclinations leaned toward idealism, he was in fact a Leninist in politics (Gedő 1993, 15, citing Argeri 1976, 141).

In the latter half of the twentieth century, the effectively reformist attempt to deny the applicability of dialectics to nature took the additional form of separating Marx from both Engels and Lenin. Marx was characterized affectionately as a humanist, while Engels and Lenin were characterized as crass materialists. Supporters of this view (for example, the well-known Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri) assert unabashedly that Marx never accepted the applicability of dialectics to nature, and that we have only Engels’s word for his doing so. Such assertions are made in spite of the fact that Avineri and others of that school were well aware of Marx’s letter to Kugelman in which he wrote that “the dialectical method” is “the method of dealing with matter” (27 June 1870, 528). Actually it was not necessary, of course, for Marx to state explicitly (although clearly he did) that dialectics applies to the sphere of nature. Hegel had already spelled this out in his works, as did Marx himself in Capital and elsewhere. Underlying the attempt to deny the applicability of dialectics to nature is a strong anti-Communism that dissociates itself from any political, organizational forms of class struggle. Reassertion of the integrity of historical and dialectical materialism and its applicability to nature, society, and thought strengthens the theoretical basis for engaging in day-to-day organized political struggle essential for opening up space for the development of a socialist consciousness.

4. One of the principal reasons for attention to dialectical materialism by natural scientists is the clarity it brings to understanding processes of change in all the natural sciences. I found it an invaluable tool both in my teaching of physics and my research on the conceptual foundations of physics. In most of the twentieth century, the dominant philosophy of science was logical positivism, which gave birth to the concept that basic properties in any science have to be defined by operational definitions. The leading textbook of introductory physics at US universities in the 1970s was Fundamentals of Physics by David Halliday and Robert Resnick. In the 1974 edition, we read: “One view is that the definition of a physical quantity has been given when the procedures for measuring that quantity are specified. This is called the operational point of view because the definition is, at root, a set of laboratory operations leading to a number with a unit” (1). Although this was presented as “one view,” no other view was presented. Another 1970s textbook, Physics, by Chris Zafiratos, in discussing units of time, gives an operational definition of the second by the swings of a simple pendulum. It continues, “In this manner the romantic, philosophic question, ‘What is time?’ is ignored in favor of a definition so that we can get on with the study of motion” (1976, 3–4). As Lenin pointed out, however, fundamental properties cannot be defined, because if a property is fundamental, there is nothing more fundamental with which to define it (1962, 146). In the dialectical-materialist view, fundamental properties in a given field are akin to philosophical categories, the building blocks of logical thought. The meaning of fundamental properties is determined by the interrelationships among them as expressed through the laws of the particular scientific field invoking them. In reality, operational definitions in physics are not definitions at all, but procedures for standardizing the units in which they are measured. Largely as a result of the Marxist critique of logical positivism, operational definitions began to fade away from physics textbooks, as did logical positivism itself.

Another change in the direction of the Marxist dialectical understanding is the change in the textbook statements about the subject matter of physics – from characterizing it as the study of invariances (that is, the unchanging character) of matter to the increasingly current characterization as the study of changes in the physical world.

Prior to the 1920s, the concept of causality in physics was based on the principle that a single cause produces a single effect. With the emergence of quantum physics in the 1920s, this principle was thrown into confusion because it turned out that a single cause could produce a variety of effects. The outcome of a precisely established experimental process could not be predicted uniquely, but only statistically. This seemed to invalidate the philosophical principle of determinism. Marxist physicists – Paul Langevin in France, Vladimir Fock in the Soviet Union, and Mituo Taketani in Japan – showed that a materialist concept of determinism was not locked into what was essentially the mechanistic principle that a single cause produces a single effect. They demonstrated that acceptance of statistical laws as fundamental laws of physics is still an expression of determinism consistent with a materialist outlook (for details, see Freire 1995, and Hörz et al. 1980, 83–114).

In the 1920s, the famous Marxist biochemist Joseph Needham introduced in biology the philosophical and methodological concept that is designated today as levels of organization and integration of matter. For example, in physics we now have fields of specialization called elementary particle physics, nuclear physics, atomic physics, molecular physics, solid-state physics, etc. In the dialectical-materialist view, each level of organization and integration of matter represents a qualitative transformation from the level below it. Each level requires study for its own laws of behavior; this is an understanding quite opposite to the mechanistic reductionism that sought to explain the sciences by seeking the simplest parts of a physical system and basing its laws on them. The Marxist critique of racist theories of intelligence argues that attempts to factor out the cultural component of intelligence from the genetic component represent an incompatible mixing of the genetic level of the human being with the social level.

A dialectical-materialist content is reflected in any progress scientists make in moving the theory of a natural science forward, whether or not all scientists are conscious of it. A notable example of this is in Isaac Newton’s concept of inertial mass. Newton’s mechanics have long been considered the principal source of mechanistic thought. Yet he quantifies the (inertial) mass of a physical body by asserting its proportionality to the inertial resistance to a change in motion in the presence of an external force. In this way, he establishes the meaning of (inertial) mass by relating it to the interaction of two opposing forces. In his reasoning, he uses the Aristotelian dialectic of the realization of the actual from the potential by asserting that this inertial resistance (which he called “vis insita, or innate force of matter”) “only exerts this force when another force, impressed upon it, endeavors to change its condition” (Newton 1934, 1:2; for a more detailed discussion, see Marquit 1990).

5. Philosophy of the natural sciences is also needed because of the interconnection between the natural sciences and societal development. This interconnection exists, of course, whether or not natural scientists concern themselves with it. The problem is that natural scientists, in their education and work, tend to ignore this interconnection and focus intensely and narrowly on their particular fields of theory and practice, oblivious to the consequences of their work on other fields. Consider, for example, the Green Revolution, a development in agricultural technology that increased agricultural production in many developing countries. Its application, however, also contributed to the growth of surplus rural populations that migrated to cities with no plan to absorb them, resulting in huge slums.

One can cite numerous scientific and technological advances that when introduced into the economy subsequently endangered human life – most notably through the destruction of the physical environment. In particular, inadequately tested new materials and chemicals have been introduced with toxic properties causing tragic results. How does this come about?

Initial answers to this question may be to fault regulatory agencies and to cite the absence of regulatory legislation that would require adequate testing before the products are approved for use. While regulatory legislation requiring adequate testing is an absolute necessity, the initiative for signaling such testing should be built into the scientific methodology employed by the scientists involved in the development. But this is not done. A major reason for this disastrous omission is that educational and research institutions in most cases relegate philosophy to the social sciences, and in doing so isolate philosophy in a separate department. Philosophical research in the natural sciences is then perceived as a diversion from actual sciences. Instead, philosophy should be integrated into the individual disciplines of the social and natural sciences.

The failure to integrate philosophy into each discipline deprives natural scientists of intimate contact with the conceptual foundations of their sciences. They are left ignorant of understanding the broad scope of the interconnections of their fields with other fields unless they happen to self-educated in the philosophical literature concerning their fields as well as in philosophy in general.

The problem here is that when research in philosophy of physics is carried out by philosophers in a philosophy department, the tendency is to view the results of such research as a contribution to philosophy. Benefits of this research are effectively confined to other philosophers, who are not those doing the science. In contrast, when a physicist deals with philosophical problems of physics, it is not in order to make a contribution to philosophy, but rather to apply philosophical knowledge to the understanding of physics. The narrowness that is inevitably associated with mechanistic applications of science and technology can only be overcome by incorporating awareness of the dialectical interconnections among the sciences into the education and work of natural scientists.


Dialectical and historical materialism came into being as a philosophical system because Marx and Engels needed it to uncover the evolutionary process guiding societal transition from capitalism to communism. With this tool, they were able to unravel the political economy of capitalist production, especially the source of capitalist profit; and to establish the interconnection between the material conditions of life and the consciousness that arises from these conditions. They recognized that imparting this knowledge to the working class and its allies would give them an indispensable weapon: the understanding that the revolutionary transformation from capitalism to socialism is conditioned on the development of an ideologically alert mass movement aware of its historical mission. Their studies of the natural sciences enabled them to show how the development of the material forces of production (natural resources, tools, and labor), integrated with empirical and scientific knowledge about them, lies at the heart of societal change.

The spheres of nature, society, and thought all enter into Marx and Engels’s theoretical analyses. In laying the foundations of dialectical and historical materialism, Marx and Engels gave natural scientists, as well as social scientists, a most valuable methodological tool for research in the individual disciplines and demonstrated the danger of ignoring interconnections among the various fields of the natural and social sciences.

--Erwin Marquit is Professor Emeritus of Physics, University of Minnesota, and a contributing editor of Political Affairs. This paper was presented in abbreviated form at Communist University of Britain 2008, Croydon, London, 18 October 2008.


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