V.I. Lenin


Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy


Supplement to Chapter Four, SECTION I[1] [2]

From What Angle Did N. G. Chernyshevsky Criticise Kantianism?

In the first section of Chapter IV we showed in detail that the materialists have been criticising Kant from a standpoint diametrically opposite to that from which Mach and Avenarius criticise him. It would not be superfluous to add here, albeit briefly, an indication of the epistemological position held by the great Russian Hegelian and materialist, N. G. Chernyshevsky.

Shortly after Albrecht Rau, the German disciple of Feuerbach, had published his criticism of Kant, the great Russian writer N. G. Chernyshevsky, who was also a disciple of Feuerbach, first attempted an explicit statement of his attitude towards both Feuerbach and Kant. N. G. Chernyshevsky had appeared in Russian literature as a follower of Feuerbach as early as the ’fifties, but our censorship did not allow him even to mention Feuerbach’s name. In 1888, in the preface to the projected third edition of his The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality, N. G. Chernyshevsky attempted to allude directly to Feuerbach, but in 1888 too the censor refused to allow even a mere reference to Feuerbach! It was not until 1906 that the preface saw the light (see N. G. Chernyshevsky, Collected Works, Vol. X, Part II, pp. 190-97). In this preface N. G. Chernyshevsky devotes half a page to criticising Kant and the scientists who follow Kant in their philosophical conclusions.

Here is the excellent argument given by Chernyshevsky in 1888:

Natural scientists who imagine themselves to be builders of all-embracing theories are really disciples, and usually poor disciples, of the ancient thinkers who evolved the metaphysical systems, usually thinkers whose systems had already been partially destroyed by Schelling and finally destroyed by Hegel. One need only point out that the majority of the natural scientists who endeavour to construct broad theories of the laws of operation of human thought only repeat Kant’s metaphysical theory regarding the subjectivity of our knowledge. . . .” (For the benefit of the Russian Machians who manage to muddle everything, let us say that Chernyshevsky is below Engels in so far as in his terminology he confuses the opposition between materialism and idealism with the opposition between metaphysical thought and dialectical thought; but Chernyshevsky is entirely on Engels’ level in so far as he takes Kant to task not for realism, but for agnosticism and subjectivism, not for recognition of the “thing-in-itself,” but for inability to derive our knowledge from this objective source.) “. . . they argue from Kant’s words that the forms of our sense-perception have no resemblance to the forms of the actual existence of objects. . . .” (For the benefit of the Russian Machians who manage to muddle everything, let us say that Chernyshevsky’s criticism of Kant is the diametrical opposite of the criticism of Kant by Avenarius, Mach and the immanentists, because for Chernyshevsky, as for every materialist, the forms of our sense-perception do resemble the form of the actual—i.e. objectively-real—existence of objects.) “. . . that, therefore, really existing objects, their real qualities, and the real relations between them are unknowable to us. . . .” (For the benefit of the Russian Machians who manage to muddle everything, let us say that for Chernyshevsky, as for every materialist, objects, or to use Kant’s ornate language, “things-in-themselves,” really exist and are fully knowable to us, knowable in their existence, their qualities and the real relations between them.) “. . . and if they were knowable they could not be the object of our thought, which shapes all the material of knowledge into forms totally different from the forms of   actual existence, that, moreover, the very laws of thought have only a subjective significance. . . .” (For the benefit of the Machian muddlers, let us say that for Chernyshevsky, as for every materialist, the laws of thought have not merely a subjective significance; in other words, the laws of thought reflect the forms of actual existence of objects, fully resemble, and do not differ from, these forms.) “. . . that in reality there is nothing corresponding to what appears to us to be the connection of cause and effect, for there is neither antecedent nor subsequent, neither whole nor parts, and so on and so forth. . . .” (For the benefit of the Machian muddlers, let us say that for Chernyshevsky, as for every materialist, there does exist in reality what appears to us to be the connection between cause and effect, there is objective causality or natural necessity.) “. . . When natural scientists stop uttering such and similar metaphysical nonsense, they will be capable of working out, and probably will work out, on the basis of science, a system of concepts more exact and complete than those propounded by Feuerbach. . . .” (For the benefit of the Machian muddlers, let us say that Chernyshevsky regards as metaphysical nonsense all deviations from materialism, both in the direction of idealism and in the direction of agnosticism.) “. . . But meanwhile, the best statement of the scientific concepts of the so-called fundamental problems of man’s inquisitiveness remains that made by Feuerbach” (pp. 195–96). By the fundamental problems of man’s inquisitiveness Chernyshevsky means what in modern language are known as the fundamental problems of the theory of knowledge, or epistemology. Chernyshevsky is the only really great Russian writer who, from the ’fifties until 1888, was able to keep on the level of an integral philosophical materialism and who spurned the wretched nonsense of the Neo-Kantians, positivists, Machians and other muddleheads. But Chernyshevsky did not succeed in rising, or, rather, owing to the backwardness of Russian life, was unable to rise, to the level of the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels.


[1] See pp. 194–205 of this volume.—Ed.

[2] The manuscript of the “Supplement to Chapter Four, Section 1, ‘From What Angle Did N. G. Chernyshevsky Criticise Kantianism?’\thinspace” was sent by Lenin to A. I. Ulyanova-Yelizarova in the second half of March, when the book was already in the press. In a letter to his sister dated March 10 or 11 (23 or 24), 1909, Lenin wrote in reference to this supplement: “I am sending you a supplement. It is not worth while delaying on account of it. But if there is time, put it at the end of the book, after the conclusion, in small print, for instance. I regard it as extremely important to counterpose ‘Chernyshevsky’ to the Machists.” (Collected Works, present edition, Vol. 37, pp.419–20.)

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