1950s >> 1952 >> no-573-may-1952

A philosophical digression

Zeno Elea was an early Greek philosopher who denied the existence of motion. He said that the change and movement going on everywhere was illusory, had no real existence, and he devised some very subtle arguments to try to prove this. One of those “proofs” was that if an arrow is shot from a bow, the arrow must, at every point in the line of flight, occupy space; therefore it is at rest at those points. If it is at rest it can’t be in motion. The Eleatics, the school of philosophy to which Zeno belonged, were the first to question the senses as a reliable source of knowledge, and their arguments prepared the way for the view that only through reason alone could real knowledge be attained.

Readers who haven’t read the philosophers and don’t know the questions they have asked may think it absurd to mistrust the senses. Those readers may say that the philosophers have had a lot to think about and that if they had some practical work to take up their time they wouldn’t be asking such silly questions. There is some truth in this opinion as such questions could only be asked when a leisured class had arisen and had the time to think about them. Taking no part in the practical work of producing society’s needs, these philosophers would exaggerate the part played by reason in the understanding of the world. But those questions and the answers given to them have been steps in the development of human understanding. And those readers who think such questions absurd should note that to-day many scientists claim that the qualities perceived in things, like colour and taste, have no real existence, the real world being a whirling mass of protons and electrons.

Since the days of the Eleatics, succeeding ruling classes, once they had become firmly entrenched as the State power, found the belief that the senses are false witnesses very useful. The subject class or classes may reject this view when it is stated simply and clearly yet accept it when it is applied in particular instances.

For example, in present-day society, the evidence of the senses indicates that the working class are exploited. They are compelled by economic necessity to produce wealth for the capitalist class and receive back insufficient to allow them to live decently, while the capitalist class don’t have to work and yet live in luxury.

Those who wish to preserve capitalist society say it only appears as if the working class are exploited, and, like Zeno, they provide many arguments to attempt to show that appearances are deceptive. They attempt to explain the “seemingly” privileged position of the capitalist class.

They argue that members of the capitalist class work also. This may be true in certain very small concerns, but not for the giant companies which produce most of the wealth in modern society. The shareholders in these companies take no part in production at all.

And it is argued that the large shareholder with investments in dozens of different companies earns his huge dividends because of his organising ability. It is impossible for one man to have the knowledge of the complicated processes involved in running one company, let alone trying to run several. The capitalist class employ workers to do their organising for them and even employ members of the working class to advise them how to invest their money.

Another argument put forward is that the capitalist class are entitled to their large profits because of the risks they take with their investments. What risk is involved buying State bonds? And in these days of “increased” crime is the person who keeps his money at home not taking a bigger risk of losing it? And what about the meagre compensation the working class receive though they risk their lives and health in such industries as mining, transport, etc.

Another aspect of the “risk” argument is that for saving his money and sacrificing present pleasures the capitalist must have some recompense. To talk of the Rothschilds, the Ellermans or the Nuffields foregoing pleasures because of their investments is absurd. Again to abstain from the pleasures of present spending is to indulge in the pleasure of making more money for future spending.

The capitalist class also claim that by investing their wealth they provide the working class with the means to live. Many a black page has been written describing how the rising capitalist class dispossessed the majority of the population of the means to live. The capitalist class invest their money to procure profit. They buy the workers’ physical and mental energies by the week or the month and after the workers have used their energies for the specified period producing wealth for the capitalist class they receive back just sufficient to enable them to live. The difference between what the worker produces and what he receives is the source of the capitalists’ wealth and is the object of the whole process.

The senses do provide dependable information, but the arguments based on it by the supporters of Capitalism are deceptive.

Man evolved from some ape-like ancestor between one million and 500,000 years ago and his survival is proof that the senses are reliable. Millions of years before man’s arrival on earth other living things not endowed with the faculty of abstract thought existed depending on their senses. Many of these species are still in existence.

Reason, though it can be deceptive, does provide true knowledge when it interprets sense-experience accurately. But reason is often led astray by overlooking certain facts because of prejudice or through not being acquainted with a sufficient number of facts. And reason is also limited by the circumstances of the time. Just as the telescope and the microscope extended the range of the senses so the new facts brought to light enlarged our ideas and increased our understanding, and the only way that reason can be trusted to give accurate information is if it is continually tested by the evidence of the senses.


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