from Critique of Dialectical Reason. Jean-Paul Sarte 1960

The Dogmatic Dialectic and the Critical Dialectic

Written: 1960;
Source: Critique of Dialectical Reason;
Translator: Allen Sheridan-Smith;
Transcribed: Andy Blunden.

1 Dialectical Monism

Everything we established in The Search for Method follows from our fundamental agreement with historical materialism. But as long as we present this agreement merely as one option among others we shall have achieved nothing, and our conclusions will remain conjectural. I have proposed certain methodological rules; but they cannot be valid, in fact they cannot even be discussed, unless the materialist dialectic can be assumed to be true. It must be proved that a negation of a negation can be an affirmation, that conflicts – within a person or a group – are the motive force of History, that each moment of a series is comprehensible on the basis of the initial moment, though irreducible to it, that History continually effects totalisations of totalisations, and so on, before the details of an analytico-synthetic and regressive-progressive method can be grasped.

But these principles cannot be taken for granted; indeed most anthropologists (anthropologistes) would reject them. Of course, the determinism of the positivists is necessarily a form of materialism: whatever its subject matter, it endows it with the characteristics of mechanical materiality, namely inertia and exterior causation. But it normally rejects the reinteriorisation of the different moments in a synthetic progression. Where we see the developmental unity of a single process, the positivists will attempt to show several independent, exterior factors of which the event under consideration is the resultant. What the positivists reject is a monism of interpretation. Take, for example, the excellent historian Georges Lefebvre. He criticises Jaures for claiming to see the unity of a process in the events of 1789. As presented by Jaures, 1789 was one simple event. The cause of the Revolution was the ripening of the power of the bourgeoisie, and its result was the legalisation of that power. But it is now well known that the Revolution of 1789 as a specific event required a truly abnormal and unpredictable set of immediate causes: a financial crisis aggravated by the war in America; unemployment, caused by the commercial treaty of 1786 and by the war in the Far East; and, finally, high prices and shortages brought about by the poor harvest of 1788 and by the edict of 1787 which had emptied the granaries.

As for underlying causes, Lefebvre stresses the fact that without the abortive aristocratic revolution, which began in 1787, the bourgeois revolution would have been impossible. He concludes: ‘The rise of a revolutionary class is not necessarily the only cause of its victory; nor is its victory inevitable; nor need it lead to violence. In this instance, the Revolution was begun by those whom it was to annihilate rather than by those who profited from it, and . . . there is no reason to suppose that great kings could not have checked the progress of the aristocracy in the eighteenth century.’

I do not wish to analyse this text, at least at present. Certainly, Lefebvre may be right to say that Jaures’ interpretation is simplistic, that the unity of a historical process is more ambiguous, more ‘polyvalent’ than he says – at least in its origins. One might try to find the unity of the disparate causes in a broader synthesis, to show that the incompetence of the eighteenth century kings was effect as much as cause, etc., to rediscover circularities, and to show how chance is integrated into those ‘feed-back’ devices which are the events of History; and that it is instantly incorporated by the whole so that it appears to everyone as a manifestation of providence, etc. But this misses the point. It is not a matter even of showing that such syntheses are possible, but of proving that they are necessary: not any particular one, but in general that the scientist must adopt, in every case and at every level, a totalising attitude towards his subject matter.

Let us not forget that anthropologists never reject the dialectical method absolutely. Even Lefebvre does not formulate a general criticism of every attempt at totalisation. On the contrary, in his celebrated lectures on the French Revolution he approached the relations between the Assembly, the Commune and various groups of citizens, from lo August to the September Massacres, as a dialectician; he gave the ‘First Terror’ the unity of a developing totalisation. But Lefebvre refused to adopt the totalising attitude consistently. In response to our questions, he would no doubt say that History is not a unity, that it obeys diverse laws, that an event may be produced by the pure accidental coincidence of independent factors, and that it may, in turn, develop according to totalising schemata which are peculiar to it. In short, Lefebvre would simply say that he rejects monism, not because it is monism, but because it seems to him a priori.

The same attitude has been formulated in other branches of knowledge. The sociologist Georges Gurvitch has described it very accurately as dialectical hyper-empiricism. This is a Neopositivism which rejects every a priori; neither the exclusive appeal to analytical Reason, nor the unconditional choice of dialectical Reason can be justified rationally. We must accept the object as it is and let it develop freely before our eyes, without prejudging what types of rationality we will encounter in our investigations. The object itself dictates the method, the manner of approach. Gurvitch calls his hyper-empiricism ‘dialectical’, but this hardly matters since all he means is that his object (social facts) presents itself to investigation as dialectical. His dialecticism is thus itself an empirical conclusion. This means that the attempt to establish totalising movements, reciprocities of conditioning – or, as Gurvitch quite correctly puts it, reciprocities of ‘perspectives’ – etc., is based on past investigations and is confirmed by present ones. Generalising this attitude, one might, I think, speak of a neo-positivism which discovers in a given region of anthropology now a dialectical field, now a field of analytical determinism, and now, if occasion demands, other types of rationality.

Within the limits of an empirical anthropology this distrust of the a priori is perfectly justified. I have shown in The Problem of Method that this is necessary if a living Marxism is to incorporate into itself the disciplines which have hitherto remained external to it. However, whatever else one may say about it, this incorporation must consist in revealing beneath the classical determinism of particular ‘fields’, their dialectical connection with the whole or, where we are dealing with processes whose dialectical character is already recognised, in revealing this regional dialectic as the expression of a deeper totalising movement. In the end, this means that we are confronted once again with the need to establish the dialectic as the universal method and universal law of anthropology. And this amounts to requiring Marxists to establish their method a priori: whatever relations are investigated, there will never be enough of them to establish a dialectical materialism. Such an extrapolation – that is, an infinitely infinite extrapolation – is radically different from scientific induction.

2 Scientific and Dialectical Reason

The attempt to ground the Marxist dialectic on anything other than its content, that is to say, the knowledge which it provides, might be denounced as idealism. In the first place, it might be said that Diogenes demonstrated motion by walking; but what if he had been momentarily paralysed? There is a crisis in Marxist culture; there are many signs today that this crisis is temporary, but its very existence prohibits us from justifying the principles by their results.

The supreme paradox of historical materialism is that it is, at one and the same time, the only truth of History and a total indetermination of the Truth. The totalising thought of historical materialism has established everything except its own existence. Or, to put it another way, contaminated by the historical relativism which it has always opposed, it has not exhibited the truth of History as it defines itself, or shown how this determines its nature and validity in the historical process, in the dialectical development of praxis and of human experience. In other words, we do not know what it means for a Marxist historian to speak the truth. Not that his statements are false – far from it; but he does not have the concept of Truth at his disposal. In this way, Marxism presents itself to us, as ideologists, as an unveiling of being, and at the same time as an unanswered question as to the validity of this unveiling.

In response to this, it may be claimed that physicists are not concerned with the ground of their inductions. This is true. But there is a general, formal principle; that there are strict relations between facts. This means: the real is rational. But is this really a principle, in the ordinary sense of the term? Let us say, rather, that it is the condition and fundamental structure of scientific praxis. Through experimentation, as through any other form of activity, human action posits and imposes its own possibility. Praxis does not, even dogmatically, affirm the absolute rationality of the real, if this means that reality obeys a definite system of a priori principles and laws, or, in other words, that it complies with a kind of constituted reason. Whatever the object of his research, whatever its orientation, the scientist, in his activity, assumes that reality will always manifest itself in such a way that a provisional and fluid rationality can be constituted in and through it. This amounts to saying that the human mind will accept everything presented to it by investigation and will subordinate its conception of logic and of intelligibility to the actual data revealed by its investigations. Bachelard has shown clearly how modern physics is in itself a new rationalism: the only presupposition of the praxis of the natural sciences is an assertion of unity conceived as the perpetual unification of an increasingly real diversity. But this unity depends on human activity rather than on the diversity of phenomena. Moreover, it is neither a knowledge, nor a postulate, nor a Kantian a priori. It is action asserting itself within the undertaking, in the explanation of the field and the unification of the means by the end (or of the sum of experimental results by the aim of the experiment).

This is why any comparison between the scientific principle of rationality and the dialectic is absolutely unacceptable.

Scientific research can in fact be unaware of its own principal features. Dialectical knowledge, in contrast, is knowledge of the dialectic. For science, there is not any formal structure, nor any implicit assertion about the rationality of the universe: Reason is developing and the mind prejudges nothing. In complete contrast, the dialectic is both a method and a movement in the object. For the dialectician, it is grounded on a fundamental claim both about the structure of the real and about that of our praxis. We assert simultaneously that the process of knowledge is dialectical, that the movement of the object (whatever it may be) is itself dialectical, and that these two dialectics are one and the same. Taken together, these propositions have a material content; they themselves are a form of organised knowledge, or, to put it differently, they define a rationality of the world.

The modern scientist sees Reason as independent of any particular rational system. For him, Reason is the mind as an empty unifier. The dialectician, on the other hand, locates himself within a system: he defines a Reason, and he rejects a priori the purely analytical Reason of the seventeenth century, or rather, he treats it as the first moment of a synthetic, progressive Reason. It is impossible to see this as a kind of practical assertion of our detachment; and equally impossible to make of it a postulate, or a working hypothesis. Dialectical Reason transcends the level of methodology; it states what a sector of the universe, or, perhaps, the whole universe is. It does not merely direct research, or even pre-judge the mode of appearance of objects. Dialectical Reason legislates, it defines what the world (human or total) must be like for dialectical knowledge to be possible; it simultaneously elucidates the movement of the real and that of our thoughts, and it elucidates the one by the other. This particular rational system, however, is supposed to transcend and to integrate all models of rationality. Dialectical Reason is neither constituent nor constituted reason; it is Reason constituting itself in and through the world, dissolving in itself all constituted Reasons in order to constitute new ones which it transcends and dissolves in turn. It is, therefore, both a type of rationality and the transcendence of all types of rationality. The certainty of always being able to transcend replaces the empty detachment of formal rationality: the ever present possibility of unifying becomes the permanent necessity for man of totalising and being totalised, and for the world of being an ever broader, developing totalisation. But knowledge of such scope would be a mere philosophical dream if it did not have all the marks of apodictic certainty. This means that practical successes are not enough; even if the assertions of the dialectician were infinitely confirmed by research, this permanent confirmation would not get us beyond empirical contingency.

So we must take up the whole problem once again, and explore the limits, the validity and the extent of dialectical Reason. We cannot deny that a Critique (in the Kantian sense of the term) of dialectical Reason can be made only by dialectical Reason itself; and indeed it must be allowed to ground itself and to develop itself as a free critique of itself, at the same time as being the movement of History and of knowledge. This is precisely what has not been done until now: dialectical Reason has been walled up in dogmatism.

3 Hegelian Dogmatism

The source of this dogmatism lies in the basic problem of ‘dialectical materialism’. In setting the dialectic back on its feet Marx revealed the true contradictions of realism. These contradictions were to be the very substance of knowledge, but they have been concealed. We must therefore take them as our starting-point.

The superiority of Hegelian dogmatism, for those who believe in it, lies precisely in that part of it which we now reject – its idealism. For Hegel, the dialectic had no need to prove itself. In the first place Hegel took himself to be at the beginning of the end of History, that is to say, at that moment of Truth which is death. The time had come to judge, because in future the philosopher and his judgement would never be required again. Historical evolution required this Last Judgement; it culminated in its philosopher. Thus the totalisation was complete: all that remained was to bring down the curtain. Besides, and most important, the movement of Being and the process of Knowledge are inseparable. This implies, as Hyppolite rightly says, that Knowledge of the Other (object, world, nature) is self-Knowledge, and conversely. Thus Hegel could write: ‘Scientific knowledge, however, demands precisely that we surrender to the life of the object, or, which means the same thing, that one hold present and express the internal necessity of this object.’ Absolute empiricism becomes identical with absolute necessity: the object is taken as given, at its moment in the history of the World and of Spirit. But this means that consciousness returns to the beginning of its Knowledge and allows this Knowledge freely to reconstitute itself within consciousness – it reconstitutes knowledge for itself; it means, in other words, that consciousness can see the strict necessity of the sequence and of the moments which gradually constitute the world as a concrete totality, because it is consciousness itself which constitutes itself for itself as absolute Knowledge, in the absolute freedom of its strict necessity. The reason why Kant could preserve the dualism of noumena and phenomena is that, for him, the unification of sense experience was effected by formal and non-temporal principles: the content of Knowledge could not change the mode of knowing. But if form and knowledge were modified together, and by each other, if necessity no longer belonged to a pure conceptual activity, but to a perpetual, and perpetually total, transformation, then it would have to be suffered in the realm of Being in order to be recognised in the development of Knowledge; and it would have to be lived in the movement of knowledge in order to be attributed to the development of the object. In Hegel’s time, this seemed to imply the identity of Knowledge and its object. Consciousness was consciousness of the Other, and the Other was the being-other of consciousness.

4 The Dialectic in Marx

Marx’s originality lies in the fact that, in opposition to Hegel, he demonstrated that History is in development that Being is irreducible to Knowledge, and, also, that he preserved the dialectical movement both in Being and in Knowledge. He was correct, practically. But having failed to re-think the dialectic, Marxists have played the Positivist game. Positivists often ask Marxists how they can claim, given that Marx had the good sense to realise that ‘pre-history’ had not yet come to an end, to detect the ‘ruses’ of History, the ‘secret’ of the proletariat, and the direction of historical development. For Positivists, prediction is possible only to the extent that the current order of succession re-enacts a previous order of succession; and so the future repeats the past. Hegel could have answered them by saying that he had only predicted the past, in that his history was finished and complete and that, as a matter of fact, the moment which posits itself for itself in the process of living History can only guess the future, as the truth of its own incompleteness, unknowable for it. The Marxist future, however, is a genuine future: it is completely new, and irreducible to the present. Nevertheless, Marx does make predictions, and long term rather than short term ones. But in fact, according to Positivist Rationalism, Marx had disqualified himself from doing this, and given that he himself was pre-historical and within prehistory, his judgements can have only a relative and historical significance – even when they concern the past. Thus Marxism as dialectic must reject the relativism of the positivists. And it must be understood that relativism rejects not only vast historical syntheses, but also the most modest assertions of dialectical Reason: whatever we may say or know, however close we may be to the present or past event which we attempt to reconstitute in its totalising movement, Positivism will always deny us the right. It does not regard the synthesis of all knowledge as completely impossible (though it envisages it as an inventory rather than as an organisation of Knowledge): but it considers such a synthesis impossible now. It is therefore necessary to demonstrate, in opposition to Positivism, how, at this very moment, dialectical Reason can assert certain totalising truths – if not the whole Truth.

5 Thought, Being and Truth in Marxism

But that is not all. For Hegel, as we have seen, the apodicticity of dialectical knowledge implied the identity of being, action and knowledge. Marx, however, began by positing that material existence was irreducible to knowledge, that praxis outstrips Knowledge in its real efficacy. Needless to say, this is my own position. However, this position gives rise to new difficulties: how can we establish that one and the same movement animates these different processes? In particular, thought is both Being and knowledge of Being. It is the praxis of an individual or a group, in particular conditions, at a definite moment of History. As such, thought is subject to the dialectic as its law, just like the historical process, considered either as a whole or in its particular details. But it is also knowledge of the dialectic as Reason, that is, as the law of Being. But this presupposes an explanatory separation from dialectical objects, allowing us to unveil their movement. Is there not an inevitable contradiction between the knowledge of Being and the being of knowledge? The demonstration that thought, as Being, is carried along in the same movement as the whole of history, does not dissolve all contradictions. In fact it is precisely to this extent that thought is incapable of grasping itself in the necessity of its own dialectical development.

In the Phenomenology of Spirit, consciousness apprehends its own necessity in the Other and, at the same time, it apprehends in itself the necessity of the Other. But according to Hegel, Christianity and scepticism provide the means for understanding the previous moment, Stoicism; and, in general, Being is Knowledge, and thought itself is simultaneously both constituent and constituted. In one and the same movement it is subject to its law in so far as it is constituted, and it knows this law in so far as it is constituent. But if thought were no longer the whole, it would see its own development as if it were an empirical succession of moments, and this lived experience (le vecu) would appear as contingency and not as necessity. If thought were to understand itself as a dialectical process, it could not formulate its discovery except as a simple fact. Still less could thought pretend to settle the question whether the movement of its object is modelled on the movement of thought, or whether the movement of thought is modelled on that of its object. If material being, praxis and knowledge are indeed irreducible realities, do we not have to appeal to a pre-established harmony in order to relate their developments? In other words, if the search for Truth is to be dialectical in its methods, how can it be shown without idealism that it corresponds to the movement of Being? And on the other hand, if Knowledge is to allow Being to develop itself according to its own laws, how can w e prevent whatever processes are involved from appearing as empirical? Moreover, in the latter case, the question arises how passive, and therefore non-dialectical, thought can evaluate the dialectic; or in ontological terms, how it can be that the only reality which lies beyond the laws of synthetic Reason is that which decrees them. Let no one think that he can get out of these dilemmas by means of some pseudo-dialectical answer such as: Thought is dialectical by virtue of its object, it is simply the dialectic as the movement of the real. For, even if it is true that History becomes intelligible when considered dialectically, the example of the Positivists shows that this can be regarded as mere determinism. For this reason, one must already be situated within constituent dialectical Reason in order to see History as constituted dialectical Reason. But if dialectical Reason creates itself (rather than suffering itself), how can one prove that it corresponds to the dialectic of Being, without relapsing into idealism? This old problem recurs whenever traditional dogmatic dualism is revived. No doubt it will seem surprising that I refer to Marxist monism as a dualism; it is, in fact, both monist and dualist.

It is dualist because it is monist. Marx’s ontological monism consisted in affirming the irreducibility of Being to thought, and, at the same time, in reintegrating thoughts with the real as a particular form of human activity. This monistic claim, however, appears as a dogmatic Truth. But we must distinguish it from conservative ideologies which are mere products of the universal dialectic: in this way thought as the vehicle of truth can recover what it has lost ontologically since the: collapse of idealism, and become a Norm of Knowledge.

Of course dialectical materialism has a practical advantage over contemporary ideologies in that it is the ideology of the rising class. But if it were merely the inert expression of this rise, or even of revolutionary praxis, if it did not direct its attention back upon this rise so as to explain it to reveal it to itself, how could we speak of a progress of consciousness? How could the dialectic be regarded as the real movement o f History unfolding itself? Like philosophical liberalism today, it would be no more than a mythical reflection. Besides, for the dialectician, even ideologies, however mystifying, contain an element of truth, as Marx often emphasised. But how is this partial truth to be established? Materialist monism, in short, has successfully eliminated the dualism of thought and Being in favour of total Being, which is thereby grasped in its materiality. But the effect of this has only been to re-establish, as an antinomy – at least an apparent one – the dualism of Being and Truth.

6 The External Dialectic in Modern Marxism

This difficulty has appeared insurmountable to modern Marxists. They have seen only one solution: to refuse to acknowledge thought itself as a dialectical activity, to dissolve it into the universal dialectic, and to eliminate man by dispersing him into the universe. This enables them to substitute Being for Truth. There is no longer knowledge in the strict sense of the term; Being no longer manifests itself in any way whatsoever: it merely evolves according to its own laws. The dialectic of Nature is Nature without men. There is therefore no more need for certainty, for criteria; even the attempt to criticise and establish knowledge becomes useless. Knowledge of whatever form is a relation between man and the world around him, and if man no longer exists this relation disappears.

The source of this unfortunate approach is well known: as Whitehead said, a law begins by being a hypothesis and ends by becoming a fact. When we say that the earth revolves, we do not feel as though we are stating a theory, or that we are relying on a system of knowledge; we feel that we are in the presence of the fact itself, which immediately eliminates us as knowing subjects in order to restore to us our ‘nature’ as objects of gravitation. For anyone with a realist view of the world, knowledge therefore destroys itself in order to become the world, and this is true not only of philosophy but also of all scientific Knowledge. When dialectical materialism claims to establish a dialectic of Nature it does not present itself as an attempt at an extremely general synthesis of human knowledge, but rather as a mere ordering of the facts. And its claim to be concerned with facts is not unjustified: when Engels speaks of the expansion of bodies or of electric current, he is indeed referring to the facts themselves – although these facts may undergo essential changes with the progress of science. This gigantic – and, as we shall see, abortive – attempt to allow the world to unfold itself by itself and to no one, we shall call external or transcendental, dialectical materialism (le materialisme dialectique da dehors ou transcendental).

7 The Dialectic of Nature

It is clear that this kind of materialism is not Marxist, but still it is defined by Marx: “The materialist outlook on nature means nothing more than the conception of nature just as it is, without alien addition”[from draft of Ludwig Feuerbach, by Engels]. On this conception, man returns to the very heart of Nature as one of its objects and develops before our eyes in accordance with the laws of Nature, that is, as pure materiality governed by the universal laws of the dialectic. The object of thought is Nature as it is, and the study of History is only a particular form of it: we must trace the movement that produces life out of matter, man out of primitive forms of life, and social history out of the first human communities. The advantage of this conception is that it avoids the problem: it presents the dialectic a priori and without justification, as the fundamental law of Nature. This external materialism lays down the dialectic as exteriority: the Nature of man lies outside him in an a priori law, in an extra-human nature, in a history that begins with the nebulae. For this universal dialectic, partial totalisations do not have even provisional value; they do not exist. Everything must always be referred to the totality of natural history of which human history is only a particular form. Thus all real thought, as it actually forms itself in the concrete movement of History, is held to be a complete distortion of its objects. It becomes a truth again only if it is reduced to a dead object, to a result; and thus a position outside man, and on the side of things, is adopted so that the idea can be seen as a thing signified by things rather than as a signifying act. In this way, that ‘alien addition’ which is man – concrete, living man with his human relations, his true or false thoughts, his actions, his real purposes – is removed from the world. An absolute object is put in his place:

‘What we call a subject is only an object considered as the centre if particular reactions’ [Pierre Naville]. The notion of truth is replaced by those of success or normality as applied to performances in tests: ‘As the centre of more or less delayed reactions, the body performs movements which organise themselves as behaviour. This produces actions. (Thinking is an action. Suffering is an action). These actions can be regarded as “tests”..., as trials’. [Naville]

Thus we get back to the disguised scepticism of ‘reflection’. But when everything has apparently culminated in sceptical objectivism, we suddenly realise that it has been imposed on us dogmatically, that it is the Truth of Being as it appears to universal consciousness. Spirit sees dialectic as the law of the world. Consequently we fall back into complete dogmatic idealism.

Scientific laws are experimental hypotheses verified by facts; but at present, the absolute principle that ‘Nature is dialectical’ is not open to verification at all. You may claim that some set of laws established by scientists represents a certain dialectical movement in the objects of these laws, but you cannot prove it. [These remarks apply, of course, only to the dialectic conceived as an abstract and universal law of Nature. However, when the dialectic is applied to human history, it loses none of its heuristic value. Concealed, it directs the collection of facts; then it reveals itself by making them comprehensible, by totalising them. This comprehension reveals a new dimension of History, and finally, its truth, its intelligibility]. Neither the laws nor the ‘great theories’ will change, however you view them. Your problem is not whether light transmits energy particles to the bodies it illuminates, but whether the quantum theory can be integrated into a dialectical totalisation of the universe. You need not question the kinetic theory of gases; you need only see whether it weakens the totalisation. You are reflecting on Knowledge. And since the law discovered by the scientist, taken in isolation, is neither dialectical nor anti-dialectical (it is only a quantitative determination of a functional relation), the consideration of scientific facts (that is to say, of established laws) cannot furnish, or even suggest, a proof of the dialectic. Dialectical Reason can only be captured elsewhere, so that it can be forcibly imposed on the data of physics and chemistry. It is well known, in fact, that the notion of dialectic emerged in History along quite different paths, and that both Hegel and Marx explained and defined it in terms of the relations of man to matter, and of men to each other. The attempt to find the movement of human history within natural history was made only later, out of a wish for unification. Thus the claim that there is a dialectic of Nature refers to the totality of material facts – past, present, future – or, to put it another way, it involves a totalisation of temporality. It has a curious similarity to those Ideas of Reason which, according to Kant, were regulative and incapable of being corroborated by any particular experience.

8 Critique of the External Dialectic

Thus a system of ideas is contemplated by a pure consciousness which has pre-constituted their law for them, though utterly incapable of justifying this ukase. But in order to grasp materiality as such, it is not sufficient to discuss the word ‘matter’. Language is ambiguous in that words sometimes designate objects and sometimes concepts; and this is why materialism as such is not opposed to idealism. In fact, there is a materialist idealism which, in the last analysis, is merely a discourse on the idea of matter; the real opposite of this is realist materialism – the thought of an individual who is situated in the world, penetrated by every cosmic force, and treating the material universe as something which gradually reveals itself through a ‘situated’ praxis. In the present case, we are evidently confronted with an idealism which has appropriated the vocabulary of science in order to express ideas of such poverty that one can see straight through them. But the important point is this: if you are hunting for the Truth (as a human undertaking) of the Universe, you will find it, in the very words you use, as the object of an absolute and constituting consciousness. This means that it is impossible to get away from the problem of Truth. Naville deprives his ‘centres of delayed reactions’ of the ability to distinguish between True and False; he imposes the dialectic on them without allowing them knowledge of it; but what he says thereby becomes an absolute truth without foundation.

How can we accept this doubling of personality? How can a man who is lost in the world, permeated by an absolute movement coming from everything, also be this consciousness sure both of itself and of the Truth? It is true that Naville observes that ‘these centres of reaction elaborate their behaviour according to possibilities which, at the level both of the individual and of the species, are subject to an unalterable and strictly determined development . . .’, and that ‘experimentally established reflex determinations and integrations enable one to appreciate the narrowing margin within which organic behaviour can be said to be autonomous’. We obviously agree with this; but the important thing is Naville’s application of these observations, which inevitably leads to the theory of reflection, to endowing man with constituted reason; that is, to making thought into a form of behaviour strictly conditioned by the world (which of course it is), while neglecting to say that it is also knowledge of the world. How could ‘empirical’ man think? Confronted with his own history, he is as uncertain as when he is confronted by Nature, for the law does not automatically produce knowledge of itself- indeed, if it is passively suffered, it transforms its object into passivity, and thus deprives it of any possibility of collecting its atomised experiences into a synthetic unity. Meanwhile, at the level of generality where he is situated, transcendental man, contemplating laws, cannot grasp individuals. Thus, in spite of Naville, we are offered two thoughts, neither of which is able to think us, or, for that matter, itself: the thought which is passive, given, and discontinuous, claims to be knowledge but is really only the delayed effect of external causes, while the thought which is active, synthetic and desituated, knows nothing of itself and, completely immobile, contemplates a world without thought. Our doctrinaires have mistaken for a real recognition of Necessity what is actually only a particular form of alienation, which makes their own lived thinking appear as an object for a universal Consciousness, and which reflects on it as though it were the Thought of the Other.

We must stress this crucial fact: Reason is neither a bone nor an accident. In other words, if dialectical Reason is to be rationality, it must provide Reason with its own reasons. From this point of view, analytical rationalism demonstrates itself, because, as we have seen, it is the pure affirmation – at a quite superficial level – of the bond of exteriority as permanent possibility. But let us see what Engels says about ‘the most general laws’ of ‘the history of nature and human society’. It is this:

‘... they can be reduced in the main to three:

    • The law of the transformation of quantity into quality, and vice versa;
    • The law of the interpenetration of opposites;
    • The law of the negation of the negation.

‘All three are developed by Hegel in his idealist fashion as mere laws of thought.... The mistake lies in the fact that these laws are foisted on nature and history as laws of thought, and not deduced from them.’ [Engels, Dialectics of Nature]

Engels’ uncertainty is revealed by his words, for abstraction is not the same as deduction. And how can universal laws be deduced from a set of particular laws? If you want a name, it can only be called induction. And as we have seen, the only dialectic one will find in Nature is a dialectic that one has put there oneself. But let us suppose for a moment that universal laws can actually be induced, that is to say, that they provide both a means of ordering scientific Knowledge and a heuristic procedure. For all that, they will remain only probabilities. Let us suppose, also, that their probability is very high and that, consequently, we are obliged to accept them as true. Where will this get us? To a discovery of the laws of Reason in the universe, like Newton’s discovery of the principle of gravitation. When Newton said ‘Hypotheses non fingo’, he meant that while calculation and investigation permitted him to prove the de facto existence of gravitation, he would not try to establish it de jure, to explain it, to reduce it to some more general principle. Thus, to his contemporaries, rationality seemed to come to a halt with demonstrations and proofs; the fact in itself remained inexplicable and contingent. Science does not have to account for the facts that it discovers; it firmly establishes their existence and their relations with other facts. Later, the movement of scientific thought itself was to overthrow this hypothesis, for in contemporary physics gravitation is treated quite differently; without ceasing to be a fact, it is no longer the untranscendable final fact; it is part of a new conception of the universe and we know now that every contingent fact, however untranscendable it may appear, will be transcended in its turn, by other facts.

But what are we to make of a doctrine which presents the laws of Reason in the same way as Newton presented those of gravitation? If someone had asked Engels: Why are there three laws rather than ten, or just one?; Why are the laws of thought these and not others?; Where do they come from?; Is there some more general principle from which they might be deduced, instead of appearing as having the contingency of a fact?; Is there some way of uniting them in an organised synthesis, and putting them in some order?; etc., he would probably have shrugged his shoulders and replied, like Newton, ‘Hypotheses non fingo’. The upshot of this is paradoxical: Engels criticises Hegel for imposing the laws of thought on matter, but he does precisely the same himself, in that he expects the sciences to verify a dialectical reason which he discovered in the social world. But, in the historical and social world, as we shall see, there really is a dialectical reason; by transferring it into the ‘natural’ world, and forcibly inscribing it there, Engels stripped it of its rationality: there was no longer a dialectic which man produced by producing himself, and which, in turn, produced man; there was only a contingent law, of which nothing could be said except it is so and not otherwise. In short, Reason once more becomes a bone, since it is merely a fact and has no knowable necessity. It so happens that opposites interpenetrate. Rationality is merely a final and universal law; and therefore it is irrationality pure and simple. However one looks at it, transcendental materialism leads to the irrational, either by ignoring the thought of empirical man, or by creating a noumenal consciousness which imposes its law as a whim, or again, by discovering in Nature ‘without alien addition’ the laws of dialectical Reason in the form of contingent facts.

9 The Domain of Dialectical Reason

Must we then deny the existence of dialectical connections in inanimate Nature? By no means. Indeed, in the present state of our knowledge, I do not see that we are in a position to affirm or deny it. Every one is free either to believe that physico-chemical laws express a dialectical reason, or not to believe it. In any case, in the domain of the facts of inorganic Nature, the claim must be extra-scientific. We merely ask for the restoration of the order of certainties and discoveries: for if there is such a thing as a dialectical reason, it is revealed and established in and through human praxis, to men in a given society at a particular moment of its development. On the basis of this discovery, the limits and scope of dialectical certainty have to be established. The dialectic will be an effective method as long as it remains necessary as the law of intelligibility and as the rational structure of Being. A materialist dialectic will be meaningless if it cannot establish, within human history, the primacy of material conditions as they are discovered by the praxis of particular men and as they impose themselves on it. In short, if there is to be any such thing as dialectical materialism, it must be a historical materialism, that is to say, a materialism from within; it must be one and the same thing to produce it and to have it imposed on one, to live it and to know it. Consequently, this materialism, if it exists, can be true only within the limits of our social universe. It is at the heart of a society which is organised and stratified – and which is also rent by strife – that the appearance of a new machine will bring profound changes which will reverberate from the infrastructures to the superstructures; it is within a society which possesses tools and institutions that the material facts – the poverty or richness of the subsoil, the climate, etc. – which condition it and in relation to which it is itself defined, will be discovered.

As for the dialectic of Nature, it cannot be anything more than the object of a metaphysical hypothesis. The procedure of discovering dialectical rationality in praxis, and then projecting it, as an unconditional law, on to the inorganic world, and then returning to the study of societies and claiming that this opaquely irrational law of nature conditions them, seems to us to be a complete aberration. A human relation, which can be recognised only because we are ourselves human, is encountered, hypostasised, stripped of every human characteristic and, finally, this irrational fabrication is substituted for the genuine relation which was encountered in the first place. Thus in the name of monism the practical rationality of man making History is replaced by the ancient notion of a blind Necessity, the clear by the obscure, the evident by the conjectural, Truth by Science Fiction. If there is a dialectic now, and if we are to establish it, we shall have to seek it where it is. We shall accept the idea that man is a material being among other material beings and, as such, does not have a privileged statute; we shall even refuse to reject a priori the possibility that a concrete dialectic of Nature will one day be discovered, which would mean that the dialectical method would become a heuristic in the natural sciences and would be used by scientists themselves and under experimental control. All I say is that dialectical Reason must be turned over once again, that it must be recognised where it is there to be seen, instead of being dreamed of in areas where we cannot yet grasp it. There is such f a thing as historical materialism, and the law of this materialism is the , dialectic. But if, as some writers imply, dialectical materialism is to be understood as a monism which is supposed to control human history from outside, then we are compelled to say that there is no such thing as dialectical materialism, at least for the time being.

[It may be said that the metaphysical hypothesis of a dialectic of Nature becomes more interesting when it is used to explain the passage from inorganic matter to organic bodies, and the evolution of life on earth. This is true. But it should be noted that this formal interpretation of life and evolution will never be more than a pious dream as long as scientists have no way of using the notions of ‘totality’ and ‘totalisation’ as a guiding hypothesis. Nothing is gained by proclaiming that the evolution of the species or the appearance of life are moments of the ‘dialectic of Nature’ as long as we are ignorant of how life appeared and how species are transformed. For the present, biology, in its actual research, remains positivistic and analytical. It is possible that a deeper knowledge of its object, through its contradictions, will force biology to consider the organism in its totality, that is to say, dialectically, and to consider all biological facts in their relation of interiority. This is possible, but it is not certain. In any event, it is curious that Marxists, as dialecticians of nature, denounce as idealists those who, like Goldstein, attempt (rightly or wrongly) to consider organic beings as totalities although this only involves showing (or trying to show) the dialectical irreducibility of the ‘state of matter’ which is life, to another state – inorganic matter – which nevertheless generated it.]

This long discussion has not been useless. it has enabled us to formulate our problem; it has revealed the conditions under which a dialectic can be established. No doubt these conditions are contradictory, but it is their moving contradictions which will throw us into the dialectical movement. Engels’ mistake, in the text we quoted above, was to think that he could extract his dialectical laws from Nature by non-dialectical procedures comparison, analogy, abstraction and induction. In fact, dialectical Reason is a whole and must ground itself by itself, or dialectically.

(1) The failure of dialectical dogmatism has shown us that the dialectic as rationality must be open to direct, everyday investigation, both as the objective connection between facts and as the method for knowing and fixing this connection. But at the same time. the provisional character of dialectical hyper-empiricism forces us to the conclusion that dialectical universality must be imposed a priori as a necessity. The ‘a priori’, here, has nothing, to do with any sort of constitutive principles which are prior to experience. It relates to a universality and necessity which are contained in every experience but which transcend any particular experience. But since, as Kant showed, experience provides facts but not necessity, and since we reject all idealist solutions, there is obviously a contradiction here. Husserl could speak of apodictic certainty without much difficulty, but this was because he remained on the level of pure, formal consciousness apprehending itself in its formality; but, for us, it is necessary to find our apodictic experience in the concrete world of History.

(2) We have noticed the aporias of being and knowledge in Marx. It is clear that the former is irreducible to the latter. On the other hand, the ‘dialectic of Nature’ has shown us that knowledge vanishes when reduced to one modality of being among others. Nevertheless, this dualism, which threatens to lead us into some form of disguised spiritualism, must be rejected. The possibility that a dialectic exists is itself dialectical; or, to put it another way, the only possible unity of the dialectic as law of historical development and the dialectic as knowledge-in-movement of this development is the unity of a dialectical movement. Being is the negation of knowledge, and knowledge draws its being from the negation of being.

(3) ‘Men make their own History . . . but under circumstances . . . given and transmitted from the past.’ If this statement is true, then both determinism and analytical reason must be categorically rejected as the method and law of human history. Dialectical rationality, the whole of which is contained in this sentence, must be seen as the permanent and dialectical unity of freedom and necessity. In other words, as we have seen, the universe becomes a dream if the dialectic controls man from outside, as his unconditioned law. But if we imagine that every one simply follows his inclinations and that these molecular collisions produce large scale effects, we will discover average or statistical results, but not a historical development. So, in a sense, man submits to the dialectic as to an enemy power; in another sense, he creates it; and if dialectical Reason is the Reason of History, this contradiction must itself be lived dialectically, which means that man must be controlled by the dialectic in so far as he creates it, and create it in so far as he is controlled by it. Furthermore, it must be understood that there is no such thing as man; there are people, wholly defined by their society and by the historical movement which carries them along; if we do not wish the dialectic to become a divine law again, a metaphysical fate, it must proceed from individuals and not from some kind of supra-individual ensemble. Thus we encounter a new contradiction: the dialectic is the law of totalisation which creates several collectivities, several societies, and one history – realities, that is, which impose themselves on individuals; but at the same time it must be woven out of millions of individual actions. We must show how it is possible for it to be both a resultant, though not a passive average, and a totalising force, though not a transcendent fate, and how it can continually bring about the unity of dispersive profusion and integration.

(4) We are dealing with a materialist dialectic; and by this I mean from a strictly epistemological point of view – that thought must discover its own necessity in its material object, at the same time as discovering in itself, in so far as it is itself a material being, the necessity of its object. This could be done within Hegelian idealism, and either the dialectic is a dream or it can be done in the real material world of Marxism. This inevitably refers us from thought to action. Indeed, the former is only a moment of the latter. We must therefore inquire whether, in the unity of an apodictic experience, every praxis is constituted, in and through the material universe, as the transcendence of its object-being (etre-objet) by the Other, while revealing the praxis of the Other as an object. But, at the same time, a relation must be established, by and through the Other, between each praxis and the universe of things, in such a way that, in the course of a perpetual totalisation, the thing becomes human and man realises himself as a thing. It must be shown, in concrete reality, that the dialectical method is indistinguishable from the dialectical movement; indistinguishable, that is to say, both from the relations which each person has with everyone through inorganic materiality, and from those which he has with his materiality and with his own organic material existence, through his relations with others. We must show, therefore, that the dialectic is based on this, everyone’s permanent experience: in the universe of exteriority, one’s relation of exteriority to the material universe and to the Other is always accidental, though always present; but one’s relation of interiority with men and with things is fundamental, though often concealed.

(5) The dialectic, however, if it is to be a reason rather than a blind law, must appear as untranscendable intelligibility. The content, the development, the order of appearance of negations, of negations of negations, of conflicts, etc., the phases of the struggle between opposed terms, and its outcome – in short, the reality of the dialectical movement, is governed in its entirety by the basic conditions, the structures of materiality, the initial situation, the continuous action of external and internal factors, and the balance of the forces involved. Thus there is no one dialectic which imposes itself upon the facts, as the Kantian categories impose themselves on phenomena; but the dialectic, if it exists, is the individual career of its object. There can be no pre-established schema imposed on individual developments, neither in someone’s head, nor in an intelligible heaven; if the dialectic exists, it is because certain regions of materiality are structured in such a way that it cannot not exist. In other words, the dialectical movement is not some powerful unitary force revealing itself behind History like the will of God. It is first and foremost a resultant; it is not the dialectic which forces historical men to live their history in terrible contradictions; it is men, as they are, dominated by scarcity and necessity, and confronting one another in circumstances which History or economics can inventory, but which only dialectical reason can explain. Before it can be a motive force, contradiction is a result; and, on the level of ontology, the dialectic appears as the only type of relation which individuals, situated and constituted in a certain way, and on account of their very constitution, can establish amongst themselves. The dialectic, if it exists, can only be the totalisation of concrete totalisations effected by a multiplicity of totalising individualities. I shall refer to this as dialectical nominalism. Nevertheless, the dialectic cannot be valid for all the particular cases which recreate it, unless it always appears as necessity in the investigation which reveals it, nor is it valid unless it provides us with the key to the process which expresses it, that is, unless we apprehend it as the intelligibility of the process in question.

The combination of the necessity and intelligibility of dialectical Reason, with the need to discover it empirically in each instance, leads to several reflections. In the first place, no one can discover the dialectic while keeping the point of view of analytical Reason; which means, among other things, that no one can discover the dialectic while remaining external to the object under consideration. Indeed, for anyone considering a given system in exteriority, no specific investigation can show whether the movement of the system is a continuous unfolding or a succession of discrete instants. The stance of the desituated experimenter, however, tends to perpetuate analytical Reason as the model of intelligibility; the scientist s passivity in relation to the system will tend to reveal to him a passivity of the system in relation to himself. The dialectic reveals itself only to an observer situated in interiority, that is to say, to an investigator who lives his investigation both as a possible contribution to the ideology of the entire epoch and as the particular praxis of an individual defined by his historical and personal career within the wider history which conditions it. In short, in order to preserve the Hegelian idea (that Consciousness knows itself in the Other and knows the Other in itself), while completely discarding its idealism, I must be able to say that the praxis of everyone, as a dialectical movement, must reveal itself to the individual as the necessity of his own praxis and, conversely, that the freedom, for everyone, of his individual praxis must re-emerge in everyone so as to reveal to the individual a dialectic which produces itself and produces him in so far as it is produced. The dialectic as the living logic of action is invisible to a contemplative reason: it appears in the course of praxis as a necessary moment of it; in other words, it is created anew in each action (though actions arise only on the basis of a world entirely constituted by the dialectical praxis of the past) and becomes a theoretical and practical method when action in the course of development begins to give an explanation of itself. In the course of this action, the dialectic appears to the individual as rational transparency in so far as he produces it, and as absolute necessity in so far as it escapes him, that is to say, quite simply, in so far as it is produced by others. Finally, to the extent that the individual becomes acquainted with himself in the transcendence (depassement) of his needs, he becomes acquainted with the law which others impose on him in transcending their own (he becomes acquainted with it: this does not mean that he submits to it), and becomes acquainted with his own autonomy (in so far as it can be and constantly is, exploited by the other – shamming, manoeuvring, etc.) as an alien power and the autonomy of the others as the inexorable law which enables him to coerce them. But, through the very reciprocity of coercions and autonomies, the law ends up by escaping everyone, and in the revolving movement of totalisation it appears as dialectical Reason, that is to say, external to all because internal to each; and a developing totalisation, though without a totaliser, of all the totalised totalisations and of all the de-totalised totalities.

If dialectical Reason is to be possible as the career of all and the freedom of each, as experience and as necessity, if w e are to display both its total translucidity (it is no more than ourself) and its untranscendable severity (it is the unity of everything that conditions us), if we are to ground it as the rationality of praxis, of totalisation, and of society’s future, if we are then to criticise it as analytical Reason has been criticised, that is to say, if we are to determine its significance, then we must realise the situated experience of its apodicticity through ourselves. But let it not be imagined that this experience is comparable to the intuitions of the empiricists, or even to the kind of scientific experiments whose planning is long and laborious, but whose result can be observed instantaneously. The experience of the dialectic is itself dialectical: this means that it develops and organises itself on all levels. At the same time, it is the very experience of living, since to live is to act and be acted on, and since the dialectic is the rationality of praxis. It must be regressive because it will set out from lived experience (le vecu) in order gradually to discover all the structures of praxis. However, we must give notice that the investigation we are undertaking, though in itself historical, like any other undertaking, does not attempt to discover the movement of History, the evolution of labour or of the relations of production, or class conflicts. Its goal is simply to reveal and establish dialectical rationality, that is to say, the complex play of praxis and totalisation.

When we have arrived at the most general conditionings, that is to say, at materiality, it will then be time to reconstruct, on the basis of the investigation, the schema of intelligibility proper to the totalisation. This second part, which will be published later will be what one might call a synthetic and progressive definition of ‘the rationality of action’. In this connection, we shall see how dialectical Reason extends beyond analytical Reason and includes within itself its own critique and its own transcendence. However, the limited character of the project cannot be emphasised sufficiently. I have said – and I repeat – that the only valid interpretation of human History is historical materialism. So I shall not be restating here what others have already done a thousand times; besides, it is not my subject.

If a summary of this introduction is required, however, one could say that in the field of dialectical rationality historical materialism is its own proof, but that it does not provide a foundation for this rationality even, and above all, if it provides the History of its development as constituted Reason. Marxism is History itself becoming conscious of itself, and if it is valid it is by its material content, which is not, and cannot be, at issue here. But precisely because its reality resides in its content, the internal connections which it brings to light, in so far as they are part of its real content, are indeterminate in form. In particular, when a Marxist makes use of the notion of ‘necessity’ in order to characterise the relation of two events within one and the same process, we remain hesitant, even if the attempted synthesis convinces us completely. This does not mean that we reject necessity in human affairs quite the opposite; but simply that dialectical necessity is by definition different from the necessity of analytical Reason and that Marxism is not concerned – why should it be? – with determining and establishing this new structure of being and of experience. Thus our task cannot in any way be to reconstruct real History in its development, any more than it can consist in a concrete study of forms of production or of the groups studied by the sociologist and the ethnographer. Our problem is critical. Doubtless this problem is itself raised by History. But it is precisely a matter of testing, criticising and establishing, within History and at this particular moment in the development of human societies, the instruments of thought by means of which History thinks itself in so far as they are also the practical instruments by means of which it is made. Of course, we shall be driven from doing to knowing and from knowing to doing in the unity of a process which will itself be dialectical. But our real aim is theoretical. It can be formulated in the following terms: on what conditions is the knowledge of a History possible? To what extent can the connections brought to light be necessary? What is dialectical rationality, and what are its limits and foundation? Our extremely slight dissociation of ourselves from the letter of Marxist doctrine (which I indicated in The Search for Method) enables us to see the meaning of this question as the disquiet of the genuine experience which refuses to collapse into non-truth. It is to this disquiet that we are attempting to respond. But I am far from believing that the isolated effort of an individual can provide a satisfactory answer – even a partial one – to so vast a question, a question which engages with the totality of History. If these initial investigations have done no more than enable me to define the problem, by means of provisional remarks which are there to be challenged and modified, and if they give rise to a discussion and if, as would be best, this discussion is carried on collectively in working groups, then I shall be satisfied.