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Book Review: Marxism and the Philosophy of Science — George Martin Fell Brown

Summary:
Helena Sheehan’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Science , originally written in 1985, but reprinted at the end of 2017, recounts a wide history of serious Marxist thought on science starting with Marx and Engels themselves, and going up to the mass workers’ movements of the 1930s and 1940s. In keeping with a dialectical conception of science, Marxist ideas aren’t presented as static but evolving through debate and experiment in the face of new scientific and political challenges.... This review gives a brief historical account of how Marxism grew out of the naturalistic assumption of the scientific method that became the dominant world view of the liberal West elite that replaced the traditional theologically based worldview of the great chain of being. However, Marxism departed from the

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Helena Sheehan’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Science , originally written in 1985, but reprinted at the end of 2017, recounts a wide history of serious Marxist thought on science starting with Marx and Engels themselves, and going up to the mass workers’ movements of the 1930s and 1940s. In keeping with a dialectical conception of science, Marxist ideas aren’t presented as static but evolving through debate and experiment in the face of new scientific and political challenges....
This review gives a brief historical account of how Marxism grew out of the naturalistic assumption of the scientific method that became the dominant world view of the liberal West elite that replaced the traditional theologically based worldview of the great chain of being. However, Marxism departed from the "standard" analysis based on Newtonian mechanism, e.g., followed by neoclassical economics, by including factors not reducible to assumptions resembling, imitating actually, the natural sciences — physics and chemistry.
Materialist ideas in science predate Marx and Engels by quite a bit, with forms of materialism going as far back as ancient Greece and being a significant part of the philosophy of the enlightenment in the eighteenth century. But the application of materialist methods for understanding the internal workings of society was a revolutionary contribution in more ways than one. Not only did it point to direct social and political revolution, it pointed to a different understanding of materialism itself. The materialism of the enlightenment philosophers was a highly mechanical conception, reducing nature and society to fixed objects either existing in stasis or confined to simple motion. The materialist conception of history put forward by Marx and Engels didn’t adhere to that approach.
In hindsight, nineteen century thought was influenced chiefly by Darwin in life science, Freud in psychology, Nietzsche in philosophy and Marx in economics, sociology and political theory (which were just emerging fields in his day). I make this claim from the point of view of their subsequent influence, both derivative and reactive. I know this is a provocative claim but defending it is beyond the scope of this comment. Think about it.

This is not to say that the great scientists working in physics and chemistry were also not key in contributing the 20th century dominant worldview in the West. Conventional economics tended to hew to this trend, while many heterodox thinkers branched out to include other rising influences.

Marx and Engles, Marxism as a tradition that follows them, and Marxianism as a tradition that is influence by them constitute an important strain in Western intellectual history. This review is interesting as an exploration of this.

Incidentally, I think this is exaggerated.

This [the dialectical method] was Hegel’s approach, but Hegel saw these contradictions and transformations as taking place only within the world of ideas. From Marx and Engels’ materialist perspective, these contradictions and transformations are part of nature itself.
I think that "only" is too strong. It is reading Hegel chiefly from the point of view of the Logic. Hegel's point was that nature is rational. He tried to account for this. Virtually all scientists agree that nature is rational in the sense that causal explanation in natural science is cannily mathematical. There is no way for science to account for this in terms of the assumptions of its model. It is just assumed to be the case. This conundrum goes back at least to the Greeks, who struggled with it, and were somewhat freaked out by the existence of irrational numbers that figured in scientific (to them) explanation.

On the other hand, Hegel was largely a traditionalist whereas Marx was a materialist. They are both contributors to German liberalism, which is different from Anglo-American liberalism. Contemporary economics is chiefly Anglo-American, and even most heterodox economists are working from within this worldview and its ideology. They agree pretty much on the worldview, with American capitalism at its foundation, but differ on ideology.

Another contribution Sheehan makes is recognizing the position of Engels in Marxism as not merely a contributor or even just a collaborator. Engels was an important thinker in this strain of thought being birthed, although he is now greatly overshadowed by Marx in recognition and reputation. He was a first-class thinker and researcher.

Sheehan discusses three key works of Engels on the question: Anti-Dühring, The Dialectics of Nature, and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. The first of these was a polemic against Eugen Dühring, a briefly popular figure in the socialist movement, who put forward a crudely mechanical and schematic approach to science and politics. The Dialectics of Nature was an unfinished work, inspired by Marx’s own desire to write a work salvaging what was rational in Hegel’s thought. And Ludwig Feuerbach was a historical account of the philosophical road leading from Hegel to Marx.
In these works Engels grappled with a number of scientific questions of his day, from a dialectical perspective. He pointed to a number of the laws of development Hegel had put forward, such as the transformation of quantity into quality, and pointed out how they arise in nature and not simply in thought, as Hegel had put forward. He looked into how social conditions shaped scientific discovery....
Sheehan adds an interesting tidbit.
Ironically, when Stalin waged his war on genetics, he was actually putting forward the very neo-Lamarckian ideas Engels polemicized against [in Anti-Dühring: The Dialectics of Nature].
Warning: Longish.

Socialist Alternative
Book Review: Marxism and the Philosophy of Science
George Martin Fell Brown

Mike Norman
Mike Norman is an economist and veteran trader whose career has spanned over 30 years on Wall Street. He is a former member and trader on the CME, NYMEX, COMEX and NYFE and he managed money for one of the largest hedge funds and ran a prop trading desk for Credit Suisse.

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