Part-time Philosophy—a case study of post-kantian idealism

June 2024 Forums General discussion Part-time Philosophy—a case study of post-kantian idealism

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    Part-time Philosophy

    A case study of post-kantian idealism1

    Intellectual literati have performed an autopsy on the social-democratic parties of the Second International.

    Shlomo Avineri, Leszek Kolakowski and Gryörgy Lukács have condemned Frederick Engels for the destruction of pre-WWI “socialism” and the rise of post-WWI fascism.

    They charge him with a philosophical crime of

      not being a post-kantian epistemological idealist

    What is post-kantian epistemological idealism?

    Aside from the glib answer that it’s what was rammed down their throats at university, the formal answer is given by Dr Vincent L. Casil

      knowledge is, in some sense, constructed and produced, or modified, by the human subject as knower

    Post-kantian imprecision

    What a whimper! Surely this has been tacitly assumed by everyone from time immemorial.

    And does a manifesto that hedges its options, in some sense, deserve respect?

    After all, it commits post-kantians to precisely nothing or, worse, it condemns them to ignorance, just as Frederick Engels said of the neo-kantianism of his day.

    Post-kantian philosophical matrix

    Post-kantians aren’t committed to philosophical consistency.

    They are part-time materialists and part-time idealists, who cut up materialism and idealism into the parts they like and those they dislike.

    This has the effect of making materialism appear as internally divided as their idealism actually is.

    Here is their eclectic matrix of dissociated sub-materialisms and sub-idealisms, one for “thinking” (epistemology) and another for “being” (ontology).

     – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    |                 |                 |
    |   Ontological   |   Ontological   |
    |   Materialism   |    Idealism     |
    |                 |                 |
    |- – – – – – – – -|- – – – – – – – -|
    |                 |                 |
    | Epistemological | Epistemological |
    |   Materialism   |   Idealism      |
    |                 |                 |
     – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –


    Here are the classical definitions of materialism and idealism as they relate to the ontological foundations of human thought.

    1. Materialist ontology is the philosophical position that Mind (the Ideal) does not transcend the World (the Material).

    2. Idealist ontology is the philosophical position that the World (the Material) is produced by a Mind (the Ideal) that does transcend the World, as in Hegel’s Idea or Christianity’s Word.

    Frederick Engels — Ludwig Feuerbach (1886)2

    These two expressions, idealism and materialism, originally signify nothing else but this


    1. Materialist epistemology is the view that objective knowledge of the World is in principle accessible to humans.

      The key to materialist objectivity is practical error-correction, which falls outside our immediate concern with post-kantianism.

    2. Idealist epistemology is the view that objective knowledge of the World is, in principle, inaccessible to humans.

      In other words, human knowledge will forever remain subjectivein some sense.

    Although post-kantians concede the ontology of human thought to materialism, they part company over how humans arrive, in some sense, at the content of their thought.

    Hence their furore over epistemology.

    Post-kantian offensive

    Dr Casil’s prime exhibit for post-kantian epistemology comes from a genuine literatus, György Lukács, hereditary Austro-Hungarian baron, son of investment banker, and student under neo-kantian Georg Simmel.

    György Lukács — History and Class Consciousness (1923)3

    the objective reality of social existence is in its immediacy the ‘same’ for both proletariat and bourgeoisie.

    But this does not prevent the specific categories of mediation by means of which both classes raise this immediacy to the level of consciousness, by means of which the merely immediate reality becomes for both the authentically objective reality from being fundamentally different,

    thanks to the different position occupied by the ‘two’ classes within the ‘same’ economic process.

    To paraphrase:the objectively different class consciousness of the working class and the capitalist class appear to each class as its objective social reality, owing to each class’s different objective experience of the same social reality.

    Lukács explains the acquisition of class consciousness by a purely materialist epistemology, without any purported help from post-kantian epistemology.

    Rather, Lukács provides the materialist explanation of what makes post-kantian epistemology appear to work.

    Materialist counter-offensive

    How about the naive audacity of Dr Casil choosing to defend epistemological idealism over the epistemological development of “class consciousness”!

    György Lukács well knew that Frederick Engels had formulated the genesis of class-consciousness, materialistically, long before he was born. What he didn’t know was that Frederick Engels (in his handwriting, not in Marx’s) had further formulated the genesis of ruling-class consciousness of a politically unripe working-class.

    Engels’s authorship of this early masterpiece of materialist epistemology was brought to light by Terrell Carver and Daniel Blank in their 2014 publication of original “German Ideology” documents:

    Frederik Engels — German Ideology (1846)4

    The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.

    The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.

    The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.

    The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think.

    Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.

    Everyone can follow Engels’s materialism. He doesn’t use monikers like “epistemology” nor waffle in post-kantianese!

    * * *

    We can relate Engels’s “ruling ideas as the ideas of the ruling class” to pre-WWI “socialists” of the Second International. Their reformist support base was overwhelmingly imbued with the consciousness of their ruling classes.

    It was a movement of unripe “socialists” whose group consciousness, though genuine, was nevertheless an objectively false class-consciousness.

    The pre-WWI “socialists” pinned their hopes on a spontaneous breakout of Lukácsian class-consciousness, which never materialised, and so accelerated their own demise.

    Sadly, it took WWI to expose the shallowness of post-kantian epistemology.

    * * *

    Frederick Engels was equally prescient over the rise of post-WWI fascism:

    Frederik Engels — The Peasant War in Germany (1850)5

    The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply.

    What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence, the relations of production and means of communication upon which the clash of interests of the classes is based every time.

    What he ought to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him, or upon the degree of development of the class struggle and its conditions.

    He is bound to his doctrines and the demands hitherto propounded which do not emanate from the interrelations of the social classes at a given moment, or from the more or less accidental level of relations of production and means of communication, but from his more or less penetrating insight into the general result of the social and political movement.

    Thus he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved.

    In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination. In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests.

    Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost.

    This is full-time materialism, without a skerrick of part-time post-kantianism.

    Its devastating materialism lies in the fact that Lenin manoeuvred himself into the awkward position that Engels had pre-prepared for him. And at what cost to world socialism!

    So what now for materialist epistemology?

    Dr Casil appropriates Marx as one of his own, and confidently dismisses materialist epistemology.

    How wrong he is.

    In 2015, the first English translation of the unedited draft of Capital Volume III6 revealed that the crowning glory of Marx’s Capital was to be its realisation, by materialist epistemology, of the thoughts that dominate capitalist society!

    Marx’s materialist epistemology is the key to understanding him.7

    1 Vincent L. Casil (2018), Marx’s Epistemology and the Problem of Conflated Idealisms,

    2 Frederick Engels (1886), Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy,

    3 George Lukács (1919-23). History and Class Consciousness,

    4 Terrell Carver and Daniel Blank (2014), Marx and Engels’s “German ideology” Manuscripts: Presentation and Analysis of the “Feuerbach chapter”

    5 Frederick Engels (1850), The Peasant War in Germany,

    6 Ben Fowkes and Fred Moseley (2015), Marx’s Economic Manuscript of 1864–1865

    7 The hot topic of Marx’s materialist “epistemology” deserves its own treatment—to come. So too does the tepid topic of its academic censorship (as in professional anthropology) and vulgar misattribution.


    This can be said in a lot plainer language.

    Ontology is about what exists.
    Epistemology is about what we can know about what exists.

    ‘Materialism’, in the ontological sense, is the claim that everything is ‘matter’, ‘material’, or ‘physical’ (though what ‘matter’ or ‘material’ or ‘the physical’ might be is left open).

    If you take ‘materialist epistemology’ to mean that the laws of physics can explain everything, then ‘materialist epistemology’ would be something that is plainly false.

    Though, I don’t think the political struggle for socialism rests on any of this.


    Here’s what I was going to argue on the other thread before it became scatological.

    If the term “epistemological idealist” means anything, it ought to mean that the only world that exists is the world of ideas. But it doesn’t seem to be being used in that sense. Apparently, you can be an “idealist” even if you accept that there is a world that exists outside the mind.

    Academic philosophy draws a (valid) distinction between those who hold that “observable characteristics exist in the observed object, independent of the observer” (which they call “epistemological realism”) and those who hold that “the characteristics exist in the mind of the observer independent of the object” (so-called “epistemological idealism”) but I would have thought that these were two different types of materialism (since both accept that there is an “object” outside the mind).

    I think it will have been Lenin in 1908 who first called the second view “idealist” (and argued himself into a corner of having to say that the mind was like a mirror). Which would have made Bertrand Russel and AJ Ayer and the Logical Positivists. staunch atheists all, philosophical “idealists”. I think in fact that was CP line on them.

    An “epistemological idealist” ought to be someone who thinks that “objects” only exist in the mind (whether of a god, collective humanity, or an individual human). If you accept that there is an objective world (whatever it is like or whether or not it can be known) that exists independently of the mind then you are a materialist. In any event, you are not an idealist in the classical sense.

    If saying that the mind has a role in understanding the world makes you an “idealist” then, as Engels pointed out, everybody is an idealist:

    “The influences of the external world upon man express themselves in his brain, are reflected therein as feelings, impulses, volitions — in short, as “ideal tendencies”, and in this form become “ideal powers”. If, then, a man is to be deemed an idealist because he follows “ideal tendencies” and admits that “ideal powers” have an influence over him, then every person who is at all normally developed is a born idealist and how, in that case, can there still be any materialists?”—[Ludwig Feuerbach, Part 2, Materialism]

    (Quoted by twc in a draft of his post that appeared on Testing2).


    Marx solved this problem in the 1840s.

    He followed the German Idealists in realising that ‘activity’ was the key unifier of ‘idealism’ and ‘materialism’ (the link between subject and object).

    Where Marx differed with the GIs was in his philosophical (and political) views regarding the ‘active subject’ (the producer of its own object).

    The GIs regarded ‘God’ as the producer, whereas Marx regarded ‘Humanity’ as the producer. That’s why all of Marx’s concepts relate to ‘production’.

    Engels inadvertently re-opened the can of worms with his ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’, and returned to a pre-Marx position.

    Thus, Marx’s insights, into the ability of humans to change their own world, were lost.

    We’re still suffering from this huge mistake of Engels’ making.


    To revive this old chestnut, what is at stake is how we make concepts and how they are related to the real world. In plain language (who calls consciousness or the mind “the ideal”?) it’s something like this:

    As our experience of the world has to be mediated through the concepts we make of it (this is the top left box in TWCs diagram) the question arises that when we are theorising are we just self-referentially referring to these concepts or is there a way that these concepts are influenced by the real world.

    Note: The idealism of Hegel and Kant does not deny that the external world exists but that all we can know is concepts, not that world itself. Likewise “materialism” does not necessarily involve denying that minds exist or can play a causal role in the world.

    These were just some notes to introduce this video, which I thought was good at clarifying:

    • This reply was modified 9 months ago by DJP.

    DJP wrote: “As our experience of the world has to be mediated through the concepts we make of it … the question arises that when we are theorising are we just self-referentially referring to these concepts or is there a way that these concepts are influenced by the real world.”

    The use of the term ‘experience’ begins from a ‘passive’ conception of our world, that the ‘real world’ actively impinges upon us.

    Marx started from an ‘active’ conception, which followed the German Idealists, in that the ‘active subject’ CREATES its own ‘object’.

    Thus, our concepts are created by us (not from ‘objective’ action upon us), and used to ‘create’ OUR world, a ‘world-for-us’. If our concepts prove to be useless for us in our conscious activity to produce our world, we discard them.

    Therefore, as Marx famously argued, we can CHANGE ‘it’, ‘it’ being our creation.

    Any ‘real world’ that WE know, is OUR ‘real world’. ‘It’ is our socio-historical product.


    “Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistic brought him new and manifold evidence. This valiant fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in

    It seems Marx must have met LBird

    • This reply was modified 8 months, 4 weeks ago by DJP.

    DJP quoted Marx: “Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity.”

    Yes, it’s a good argument against ‘idealists’, DJP. I subscribe to Marx’s view, too.

    But what has it to do with Marx’s view, that we produce, and can thus change, our world?

    For example, if humanity was both ‘possessed with the idea of’ scuba gear, and socially produced and used it, we wouldn’t ‘drown in water’.

    I’m sure Marx would recognise that scuba gear is a socio-historical product, and that we could change it for some other more advanced technology in the future.

    Until ‘materialists’ engage with what Marx was actually arguing, his views will remain a closed book to them. The 18th century was a long time ago, and it’s time for workers to take up Marx’s insights, about democratic social production.

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