Dialectical Materialism (A. Spirkin)
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Cognition and Practice

The unity of cognition and practice. The basic form in which human life manifests itself is activity — sensuously objective, practical, and intellectual, theoretical. Man is an active being, not a passive observer at the "feast" of life. He influences things around him, gives them the shapes and properties necessary to satisfy historically evolved social and personal needs. The human being does not merely inhabit nature, he also changes it. An immeasurable amount of human labour has been expended on its transformation. People have drained marshes, erected dams, built factories and created enormously complex implements of labour.

Humanity converts the wealth of nature into the wherewith al of the cultural and historical life of society. For how many centuries did the flash of lightning in the night cause destruction and terrify the imagination of man, forcing him to prostrate himself on the ground at every thunderbolt! But man has conquered and disciplined electricity, forcing it to serve the interests of society. Lightning obediently flashes in laboratories, illuminates streets and houses, sets machines and trains in motion.

As society developes, its labour has an ever greater effect in changing the environment, endowing it with new properties that take it further and further away from its virgin state.

Practice is material, sensuously objective, goal-oriented activity intended to master and transform natural and social objects and constituting the universal foundation, the motive force of the development of human society and knowledge. Practice has numerous facets and different levels. By practice we mean all forms of sensuously objective human activity. But the basic forms of human practical activity are the production of material goods, labour, and also the revolutionary activity of the masses for the purpose of changing social relations, their participation in socio-political life, the class struggle, and social revolutions. Sensuously objective scientific activity involving the use of instruments and equipment in the process of observation and experiment is also a form of practice.

As the basic mode of human social existence, the crucial form of man's self-fulfilment in the world, practice is a complex and integral system. It comprises, above all, such elements as need, goal and purposeful activity in the form of separate actions and also the object upon which this activity is targeted, the means by which the target is achieved and, finally, the result of activity.

Social practice forms a unity with cognitive activity, with theory. It is a source of scientific cognition, its motive force, it gives cognition the necessary factual material for generalisation and theoretical processing. People began not from thinking about the world but from activities, mastering the objects of the external world by means of practice. People's power of discovery depended at first on the extent to which they acted in practice and were themselves influenced by the external world. The essence of things was revealed through the forms and ways of human practical activity. Man's very cognitive abilities have been formed and developed in the actual process of social practice, which has determined the structure, content and direction of human thought. At the early stages of human development the process of cognition reproduced the techniques of practical actions directly, which then served as a basis for logical operations. Cognition arose and developed because it ensured the survival of society and became a vitally significant social value. People's practical production activity was the foundation for the emergence of the natural sciences. For example, the need to cross the seas gave rise to astronomy, geometry sprang from the needs of agriculture, medicine from the needs of health, and so on.

In the final analysis it is practice that predetermines the choice of the objects of scientific research. The vital needs of society and individuals guide research activity. Production emerges as the basic consumer of the results of scientific cognition and the provider of the technical means for it, the instruments and equipment without which research is practically impossible.

Consequently, practice not only stimulates cognition but also creates the conditions for it to come about. Success in science depends not only on the scientist's talent, intelligence and imagination but on the existence of the necessary equipment. The development of technology has provided science with powerful means of experimental research up to and including computers, synchrophasotrons, and space ships. Electromagnetic and intra-atomic processes became targets of research only when society achieved the high level of production that provided science with the means for investigating these phenomena.

The increasingly bold practical application of the natural and social sciences created the mechanism of feedback between science and practice, which has become a crucial factor in the choice of many basic channels of research. For instance, the development of sputniks and spaceships as new means of astronomical observation has not only upgraded research of the solar system to a leading place among the problems of astronomy; it has also laid the foundation of a new science, experimental astronomy, which has much in common with geophysics. Astronomers have acquired the ability to "touch" the environs of the Sun and observe the various streams of particles that it sends out into surrounding space.

Scientific knowledge has practical meaning only if it is realised in life. Practice is the arena where knowledge demonstrates its force. The ultimate aim of cognition is not knowledge in itself but the practical transformation of reality in order to satisfy society's material and spiritual needs. The practical realisation of ideas, their conversion into an objective world is a process of objectification. Knowledge is objectified not only in linguistic forms, but also in material culture. This also has considerable practical meaning. Since practical activity implies awareness, the intellectual principle is one of its essential components. Any theory that separates material and spiritual activity is alien to dialectical materialism. The two form a unity. Knowledge exists only in people's heads; it is there and only there, for better or worse, that cognition takes place, whereas everything that becomes reality is practice. Practical activity is performed with the aid of material means and creates material products, whereas spiritual, intellectual activity operates with images, concepts and generates thoughts and ideas. The process of practically influencing the world is both material and ideal.

Theory and practice form a unity, in which practice has the initially decisive role.

However, we know that man's practical transforming attitude to objective reality is impossible without accurate reflection of objects, their properties and relations. Theory is by no means confined to the simple generalisation of practice that has already taken place. It works creatively on the empirical material and thus opens up new prospects for the development of practice. In relation to practice theory plays a programming, intellectually enlightening role. Practice precedes theory. This becomes particularly clear as soon as we raise the question of the origin of knowledge. It is significant that in the language of tribes who have only recently emerged from the tribal system things are designated by the same words as human actions. At the earliest stages of the development of science, when human empirical thinking was taking its first timid steps, knowledge was indeed formed mainly on the basis of generalisation of direct practical operations with objects. At the level of scientific thought, however, this way of building knowledge cannot be the basic one, although it may be applied at certain stages of research. Here there is a tremendous growth in the possibility and necessity of mental, theoretical use of ideal models of things, their properties and relations without having direct resort to practice. As thought becomes more sophisticated, as science develops, the link between cognition and practice becomes increasingly mediated and human progress makes this mediation ever more complex and multistaged. Whereas practice used to march ahead of theory now, on the contrary, theory tends more and more to anticipate practice and illuminate its way forward. Knowledge seems to take shape above practice and finds its embodiment and confirmation in practice. This has opened up many opportunities for theoretical thought to break out of the confines of direct experience and made possible a very long-term vision of practice in the future. The chains of mediation between theory and practice become longer and longer, and the first link may be as much as a century away from the last. The patterns of object interactions encountered in the mechanics of Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo were directly projected on the production situations of their time, but this certainly cannot be said of the theory of relativity or of quantum mechanics, for instance.

The internal logic of the development of cognition. By this we mean the stimuli that appear in the actual process of cognition, when one discovery leads to another and the development of one science encourages vigorous growth in other spheres. It is also seen in the influence that some ideas have on others, the methods of one science on others, of some minds on others.

Society has a duty to know more about the world than it can use at the given moment. Science must resemble an iceberg. Its visible peak should always be less than the part hidden under water. Utilitarian objections to pure theory may be discounted. Theory usually produces not immediate benefit but a spiritual value which sooner or later will acquire direct usefulness. When, for example, we speak of the general physical picture of the world or general field theory, or the origin of matter, science does not need to excuse itself for being too abstract. Not all the movements of theoretical thought need to be justified by immediate returns. For example, thousands of scientists in hundreds of laboratories the world over are investigating the behaviour, properties and interactions of elementary particles which have as yet not been used in practice. Experimenters and theoreticians are making unexpected discoveries, mounting ingenious experi ments, advancing bold hypotheses, arguing with each other in search of the laws governing the structure and motion of matter.

The cognition of the forces of nature and society is bound to be followed sooner or later by the practical mastering of these forces. There is no such thing as a useless discovery. There is nothing more practical than a true theory. When people ask about the possible practical application of any new discovery, one is reminded of Faraday's answer when questioned about the practical significance of the electromagnetic induction that he had discovered. How can one say, he replied, what kind of a man a baby boy will grow into? No one can predict the ultimate result of any scientific discovery. The history of science tells us there have been many cases of a discovery becoming the cornerstone of a whole branch of technology.

Scientific research has various stages, some of which cater for the immediate needs of practice (solution of today's tactical problems, as it were), while others are targeted on more distant prospects. These are the upper floors of scientific research. They are oriented on solving strategic problems, revealing bigger, wider opportunities for the practice of the future, introduction of fundamental changes in existing practice.

Narrow practicism may be harmful to science, particularly its fundamental theoretical departments. It restricts scientific thought, confining it to the limits of the object of research, which are important only for historically transient forms of practice, and thus scales down the range and content of research activity. Conversely, when scientific thought is not fettered by such limits, it is capable of discovering in an object properties and relations that in perspective offer the opportunity of its far more diversified practical use.

After setting up its logical basis, scientific theory acquires a capacity for self-development and reproduction of properties and relations of things that are not yet within the scope of practice and sensuous cognition, or that will be there only in the future. The development of science at any given period depends on the thought material inherited from past genera tions, from theoretical problems that have already been stated. Scientific development has a relative independence thanks to the necessity, based on the needs of cognition itself, to systematise knowledge, to break down its branches into various interacting disciplines, thanks to need for intellectual intercourse and free exchange of opinion. Many discoveries were not directly triggered by practice and only later became the source of new practice, i.e., the discovery of X-rays, radioactivity, and so on. The general theory of relativity arose not thanks to certain hitherto unknown experiments, which threw new light on the essence of gravity, but by means of purely theoretical analysis of the system of knowledge that had already taken shape in physics. The predicted experimental proofs only appeared at a later stage.

Discoveries arise partially as a result of the solution of internal contradictions in a scientific theory itself, and appear before the practical demand for them is consciously appreciated. Sometimes a new need arises under the influence of this or that discovery or invention. But quite often the opposite is the case. Despite the intense practical needs of society, science cannot come up with the answer and the need remains unsatisfied. At each stage in the development of society practice has to make do with the level of theory that has been achieved, no matter how poor it may be.

The ideal incentives to knowledge. What is it that drives people into the jungles of the unknown? The search for knowledge does not depend on practice. It is the result of the mind's inner urge to seek truth. The scientist studies nature not only because his studies yield useful results, but also because they give him satisfaction.

Material incentives play a by no means inconsiderable role in the development of science; but moral stimuli, ideal incentives, play an even greater role. Such incentives include the desire to make people's work easier, to enlighten, to reorganise social relations in the public interest, to delight in the process of creativity, to win fame, and so on. The awareness of one's duty to society and the desire to serve the interests of humanity have stimulated the creative work of many scientists. The work of Marx on Capital provides an impressive example. In one of his letters he wrote: ". . .Well, why didn't I answer you? Because I was constantly hovering at the edge of the grave. Hence I had to make use of every moment when I was able to work to complete my book, to which I have sacrificed health, happiness and family. I trust that I need not add anything to this explanation. I laugh at the so-called 'practical' men with their wisdom. If one chose to be an ox, one could, of course, turn one's back on the sufferings of mankind and look after one's own skin. But I should have really regarded myself as impractical, if I had pegged out without completely finishing my book, at least in manuscript."[1]

A scientist may indeed be carried away by the adventure of exploring the unknown. The joy he derives from creative work, when successful, is that he sees the most deeply hidden secrets of the world unfolding before him. He sees the mysteries of the origin of the universe revealed. He sees his own reason discovering purpose and order where those before him were unable to perceive anything but chaos. This feeling may be described as philosophical delight. And these incentives to creativity do indeed play a massive role; but it would be wrong to absolutise them.

Ideal incentives are not prime movers, they are derivative. They have an objective basis and express the real needs of society. Even a scientist of genius is the child of his age, whose needs ultimately determine the character of his activities. But in the course of humanity's historical development cognition becomes a relatively independent need, an insatiable thirst for knowledge, a curiousity that amounts to a totally unselfish interest in creativity.

Knowledge begins with wonder. He who is not surprised at anything discovers only the fact that he has lost the ability to think creatively. For the real researcher, discovery of something surprising is always a happy event and a fresh stimulus to work. The most wonderful thing of all is that we are able to experience the mystery of the unknown. A true scientist is irresistibly attracted by the sheer beauty of a logical scientific theory, by the amazing ingenuity of experimental techniques and solutions to the brain-teasing riddles of nature, society, and thought itself. "Even the most dispassionate scientist is at the same time a human being; he would like to be right, to see his intuition confirmed; he would like to make a name for himself, to be a success. Such hopes are motives for his work, just as is the thirst for knowledge."[2]

The all-absorbing urge for knowledge is one of the thinking person's deepest needs. It is like a demon, it pounces on the scientist and forces him to make desperate efforts in search of truth. Driven on by this demon, people store up knowledge and create works of art with no regard at all for practical goals and considerations. Most of us have read the biographies of such truth-seekers and know what their fate usually was. In upholding truth they risked their reputation, they were persecuted, accused of charlatanism. Many died in poverty. It has been truly said that he cannot become an apostle of truth who lacks the courage to be its martyr.

The history of science abounds in the spirit of selfless questing. Pioneers of science! For them the search for truth was the meaning of their whole conscious life. They made us wiser and more enlightened. They were martyrs in the name of humanity, crucified for our sake, so that we might rise a little higher. We should remember them with gratitude.



Karl Marx, "Letter to Sigfried Meyer in New York", Selected Correspondence, Progress Publishers. Moscow, 1975. p. 173.


Marx Born, My Life and My Views, p. 190.

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