For Benjamin, religion was a vessel that contained within its authoritarian history and structures the spark of liberation

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin: "The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule" Photograph: EPA

By Peter Thompson

The Guardian, UK April, 22, 2013

Quoting Hegel, Walter Benjamin reminds us that before all philosophy comes the struggle for material existence: "Secure at first food and clothing, and the kingdom of God will come to you of itself – Hegel, 1807", or as Brecht – Benjamin’s greatest and closest friend – put it "first bread, then morality". But this precisely did not mean that abstraction, speculation and thought per se had to be rejected in favour of an entirely mechanistic historical materialism. What sets all of the thinkers in this series apart from many of their more orthodox Marxist contemporaries is precisely their concern with those issues which cannot be measured, tested and decided upon but which remain undecided and undecidable.

As Benjamin puts it in his On the Concept of History: "The class struggle, which always remains in view for a historian schooled in Marx, is a struggle for the rough and material things, without which there is nothing fine and spiritual. Nevertheless these latter are present in the class struggle as something other than mere booty, which falls to the victor. They are present as confidence, as courage, as humour, as cunning, as steadfastness in this struggle, and they reach far back into the mists of time. They will, ever and anon, call every victory which has ever been won by the rulers into question. Just as flowers turn their heads towards the sun, so too does that which has been turned, by virtue of a secret kind of heliotropism, towards the sun which is dawning in the sky of history. To this most inconspicuous of all transformations the historical materialist must pay heed."

On this reading, history escapes a linear or teleological path around a fixed point and becomes a mixture of points at which possibilities are either realised or rejected but never disappear completely. Again, this continues the theme that Marx took up in his 1844 letter to Ruge, which I have quoted before, about the realisation of a long-held human dream. Benjamin calls this "messianic time" in which historical possibility is resurrected over and over again in order to inform our choices at specific historical junctures. For this reason his historical materialism called upon the services of theology, which, however, had to be kept well-hidden from public view even though it was often pulling the strings. To those who criticise communism and Marxism as "merely" a new form of religious belief, Benjamin’s position – as with Ernst Bloch, whom I shall look at next week – was that religion was actually a vessel that contained within its authoritarian history and structures the spark of liberation which could only be fully realised through historical materialist transformation. In that sense religion is "merely" an old form of a future and as yet unrealisable dream.

Until this unrealisable future becomes realisable its traces have to be read into the symbolic forms of human expression in various different historical epochs. To return to Adorno’s take on history in Negative Dialectics, Benjamin’s position is that we find the solution to the apparent non-identity of the material and the transcendental within the symbolic. We can see here quite clearly another point of contact between Marx and Freud where transcendental thoughts exist not as something separate from material reality but as something both produced by and also affecting and influencing that material reality. In Marx this is the interpenetrating relationship between base and superstructure, to put it at its simplest, and in Freud it exists in the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious realms. In Freud the symbolic plays the role of expression of that which is unknown to us but which we secretly know; namely, the unconscious. In Marx this symbolic expression is present in ideology, which, far from being a straightforward linear relationship between base and superstructure is constantly in flux and which can be captured and changed by the attempted realisations of human possibility. Ideas change as society changes but ideas also create social change.

For Benjamin the role of the symbolic in art thus takes on a transitional historical role. His work on the Baroque, for example, posits it as the turning point between medieval religiosity and renaissance secularisation and the Trauerspiel (Mourning-Play) of that period, with its obsession with violence and death, reflects the growing yet still largely unconscious realisation that there is no happy end in heaven and that – as Bloch puts it – death becomes the harshest of all anti-utopias. Art and culture in his era though, in the era of what he hoped was the transition from capitalism to socialism, had to grasp the dual possibilities of technology so that it could be harnessed not to master nature but to master the relationship between humanity and nature.

This means that art had to take on a political role in increasing the awareness of what was at long last the real human potential for the realisation of the old dreams. It could go either way though; down the Adornian route from the slingshot to the megaton bomb or onwards and upwards to the sunlit uplands of social liberation. Art and technology therefore become interlinked and politicised, predominantly in film. The "aura" of traditional art may have been destroyed by modernity but the future "aura" of liberated humanity as a living work of art had to take its place. If fascism represented the aestheticisation of politics then the fight against fascism had to involve the politicisation of aesthetics and the active creation of the aura of potential.

This is why Benjamin states that "the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realise that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism." In other words, all class society is a permanent state of emergency in which the rulers are always under threat. Fascism is thus not some sort of breakdown of tradition but a continuation of traditional class rule by other means. Overcoming it thus requires not just anti-fascist attitudes but also a destruction of its roots in class oppression. Or, as Horkheimer put it in 1939: "If you don’t want to talk about capitalism then you had better keep quiet about fascism." 

Category : Capitalism | Fascism | Philosophy | Blog

Posted on March 12, 2011 by Socialism and Democracy Online

There are many points of interest pertaining to the development of Marxist philosophy in contemporary China. This paper will focus on the following areas and problems: the debate about the criterion of truth; Marxist philosophical textbook reform; the inquiry into the human agent and subjectivity; Marxism and Confucianism; Deng Xiaoping’s theory; and the socialist market economic system. Let’s start with the debate about the criterion of truth, for this is the historical starting-point of contemporary Marxist philosophy in China.

1. The Debate about the Criterion of Truth

Academically, the real development of Marxist philosophy in contemporary China started in 1978. In that year, China’s intellectual life witnessed a great event. People in every walk of life were engaged in a debate: What is the criterion of truth?

Initially, the debate was related to the political struggle and the ideological debates within the Chinese Communist Party. Chairman Mao Zedong died in 1976, and the Cultural Revolution was officially declared to be ended. However, in ideology nothing seems to change much. The Chair of the Communist Party at that time was handpicked by Mao. As a way to maintain his position, he insisted on the doctrine of the “two whatevers”: (1) whatever policy decisions Mao had made must be firmly upheld; (2) whatever instructions Mao had given must be followed unswervingly. Hence, for the opposite faction, led by Deng Xiaoping (who was purged by Mao in 1975) to come back to power, it was necessary to break these “two whatevers.”

On May 11, 1978, a prominent Chinese newspaper, the Guangming Daily, published an article entitled “Practice Is the Only Criterion for Judging the Truth,” signed by “the Special Commentator.” The article argued that for all forms of knowledge, including Marxism, the nature of their truth must be judged and proved by practice. All scientific knowledge, including Marxism, should be amenable to revision, supplementation, and development in practice, in accordance with the specific conditions under which it is to be applied. This paper was widely echoed and provoked lively discussions throughout China. These led to a consensus that it is practice, not Mao’s words, that can tell us what is right and what is wrong. The immediate consequence of this great debate was that the advocates of the “two whatevers” lost their power, and Deng Xiaoping regained his power and started the Chinese economic reform. In contrast to the “two whatevers,” Deng’s motto is, “It does not matter whether a cat is black or white; as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat.”

However, the debate has had a far-reaching influence on Chinese social science, in particular, on the study of Marxism itself. Since the Communist party came to power in 1949, Marxism, and its Chinese representative, Mao Zedong’s thought, has been regarded as the absolute and as a completed truth system. The only role philosophers could play¾and were required to play¾was to prove the rightness or truth of Marxism and Mao’s theory. Only political leaders, actually only Mao himself, could establish new truth and develop Marxism. Just as philosophy was the handmaiden of theology in the medieval West, so in China philosophy became the servant of Mao’s politics. Any question or criticism put to Marxism and Mao’s theory was regarded as a political challenge. For Mao, the most important thing that Marxist philosophy can teach is its theory of class struggle and the theory of proletarian dictatorship. Mao’s philosophy actually became a kind of “Struggle Philosophy.”

Now the debate about the criterion of truth and the establishment of practice as that criterion broke this myth of Marxism and of Mao’s theory. Marxism became a subject that could be reflected upon, examined, renewed, and developed. The truth-criterion discussion of 1978 was indeed a movement of enlightenment, a movement of thought liberation. It paved the way for contemporary China’s economic development, and it also paved the way for any possible new contributions to Marxism. It used to be the case that one could only “insist” on Marxism; now we could “develop” Marxism, and many now believed that only by developing Marxist philosophy could one really insist on it. It used to be the case that academic philosophy was always subordinate to the leaders’ thought and did not have any independent status. Since 1978, however, philosophical research has won a relatively independent academic position.

2. Reform of the Philosophical Textbook

The immediate effect of these developments for Chinese Marxism was the publication of new editions of the Marxist textbook. One would think that a new edition of a textbook is a matter of pedagogy, of the teaching of philosophy, rather than a matter of philosophical development, or development in philosophical thought. This is not the case in China, however.  For, generally speaking, it is only the Marxism embodied in the textbook that is regarded as the orthodox Marxism, the “true” Marxism that should be learned. A change in the textbook means therefore a change of attitude towards Marxism. To a great extent, the changes of the textbook mirror the situation of Marxist philosophical research.  To get a new edition of the Marxist textbook published, what is essential is not the approval of the referees, but that of the government. Now the situation has changed significantly, yet the reform and reconstruction of the official textbook is still regarded as an important aspect of the progress of Marxist philosophy.

Until 1978, the main textbook of Marxist philosophy in China was Dialectical Materialism and Historical Materialism (edited by Ai Siqi, the former leader of the Party School of the Communist Party). Its contents and structure were basically transplanted and transferred from the textbook of Marxist philosophy in the former Soviet Union, and it was deeply influenced by Stalinist dogmatism. Though political relations between the Soviet Union and China were broken in the early 1960s, this type of official philosophical textbook had remained unchanged.

Since 1978, Chinese philosophers have introduced important modifications or re-formulations to different aspects and levels of Marxist philosophy.

First, breaking away from the constraint of the traditional textbook, they returned to the original works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Many concepts have been redefined, such as matter, consciousness, existence, spirit, static, motion, ideals, struggle, social existence, social consciousness, knowledge, truth, practice. Various basic views and positions were re-evaluated, such as, “the basic problem of philosophy,”  “the challenge of epistemological skepticism,” “the relationship between dialectics and metaphysics,” “the relationship between materialism and idealism,” “the basic contradictions in human society,” “epistemological methods,” and so on. Some Marxist theories were abandoned, whereas others were re-formulated.

Second, many new concepts and views, mainly derived from Western philosophy and/or sciences, were introduced into the Marxist philosophic textbook, including concepts such as: subject and subjectivity, object and objectivity, medium, element, structure, function, information, feedback, control, social system, social organism, purpose, emotion, will, cognitive model, thinking world, value, evaluation, and so on; and views such as:  “the idealist way and the practical way of human understanding of the World”; “the interactive law between subject and object”; “the farsightedness, selection, and creativity of human cognition”; “subjective principle and the system principle in cognition”; “the unity of truth and value”, “the concrete and historical unity among Truth, Good, and Beauty.” Some new research methods were transplanted, and applied to Marxist philosophical research, for example, the methods of genetic theory, atomic analysis, constructive explanation, and functional analysis.

Third, many new domains have been explored, and many new branches have been introduced and developed, for example, axiology, theory of practice, philosophical methodology, philosophical anthropology, the theory of social organisms, the theory of social control, the genetic theory of cognition, the theory of cognitive evolution, philosophy of man, philosophy of science, philosophy of humanities and social science, scientific epistemology, social epistemology, philosophy of daily life, feminist philosophy, philosophy of environment and ecology, and so on.

These philosophical achievements provided the new foundation to the textbook reform and reconstruction of Marxism in China. There are many textbooks with different outlooks. I would like to mention briefly the following four that are the most influential.

a. Dialectic Materialism and Historical Materialism, editor-in-chief, Xiao Qian, a professor at the People’s University of China. The book maintains the main structure of Ai Siqi’s textbook but thoroughly absorbs the new achievements of the sciences. It includes sub-divisions such as materialism, dialectics, and epistemology, theory of society and history, and methodology. It is the most influential textbook of Marxist philosophy in China. The problem of this book is that some of the new contents of the philosophy could not find their suitable place in the old system.

b. The Basic Principles of Marxist Philosophy, chief editor, Gao Qinghai, a professor at Jilin University. It is based on the historical development of Western philosophy and of Marxist philosophy. The major strength of the book lies in its attempt to locate the historical sources of the main philosophical concepts and its emphasis on understanding Marxist philosophy historically. The problem of this book is its difficulty in distinguishing the content of Marxist philosophy from that of Western philosophy. The other problem is that it is too historical, and somewhat weak in the construction of philosophical arguments.

c. Professor Huang Danshen, of Beijing University, tries to compile a system of Marxist philosophy according to his understanding of Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks. The structure of his textbook system is based on 36 pairs of concepts. Since Lenin’s philosophical notebooks are his reading notes on Hegel’s Logic, Huang’s plan carries the obvious influence of Hegel’s philosophy. The other problem of his system is that 36 pairs of concepts are not enough to include all aspects of philosophy.

d. Professor Xia Zhentao of the People’s University of China, and Ouyang Kang [the present author], a professor at Wuhan University, have created another new system of Marxist philosophy according to their understanding to Karl Marx’s “Practical Materialism.” We understand that the major characteristic of Marxist philosophy is its emphasis on “practice.” This is also the basic point of difference between Marxist and non-Marxist philosophy. It is a fact that Karl Marx never called his philosophy dialectical materialism or historical materialism; instead he referred to it as “Practical Materialism” in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844). His most famous sentence was the one that appeared on his tombstone: “Philosophers only explain the world, but the problem is to change it.” Based on Marx’s ideas, we developed a comprehensive understanding of the concept of “practice” and redefined the nature of Marxist philosophy as a kind of Dialectical, Historical, Humanistic, and Practical Materialism. Marxist philosophy is a philosophy of the relationship between Man and the World. The highest function of Marxist philosophy is to help people to recognize, to understand, to evaluate, to control, to develop, and to deal with this relationship more rationally and more efficiently. The new outlook of Marxist philosophy will be a kind of new Subjective-Methodological system.

At the present time, the reform and the reconstruction of the textbook of Marxist philosophy is still going on. We believe that further developments of Marxist philosophy in China should be individualized and personalized, rather than following a unified pattern. Different Marxist philosophers should be encouraged to develop their own philosophical systems based on their own understanding of Marxist philosophy, and they should use their special research methodology.          

3. Exploring the Human Agent and Subjectivity

In the past, human beings had little standing in Chinese Marxist philosophy. Even when the notion of man was mentioned occasionally, it mainly referred to the collective, group, class and nation, but not to the individual. This has been criticized as “stressing nature but forgetting man” – i.e., stressing the collective man but forgetting the individual person. Now it is agreed that the individual human being should be the main topic of Marxist philosophy.

With the publication of Marx’s newly discovered  Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,* Chinese philosophers have become more interested in the problems of humanism and alienation. Some claim that the individual human being should be the starting point of Marxist philosophy. Others think that problems of the individual human being should be the highest target, the primary task, the central subject-matter and the final destination of Marxist philosophy. Still others suggest that humanism can be included in Marxism if it is defined as a basis for ethical consideration. The discussion, however, suffered a setback in the anti-liberalism movement of 1984.

Another related topic is subjectivity. Both subject and object are new concepts of Chinese Marxist philosophy that did not appear in the old philosophical textbook. In the 1980s, discussion of this issue was not limited to Marxist philosophy, but was also found in the literatures of critical theory, ethics, aesthetics, and so on. Why were Chinese intellectuals so interested in the problems of subject, subjectivity, and the subjective principle? The answer is that in discussing subjectivity, the central philosophical position of the individual human being could be established. There are many different positions in the inquiry into subjectivity. Some argue against it on the ground that to emphasize subjectivity would lead to the denial of cognitive objectivity. Others, on the other hand, push the subjective principle to the extreme of advocating an absolute free will. My M.A. thesis is entitled “On Subjective Ability,” and I have published many papers on this topic. I believe that the subjective movement in contemporary Chinese philosophy was actually a thought liberation movement.

In May 1997, Professor Huang Danshen of Beijing University organized a National Association of the Philosophy of Man, which held its first conference in Beijing. The Philosophy of Man has become a very hot topic in China today. One strong feature is to connect this topic with the new outlook of Marxist philosophy. Some claim that the Philosophy of Man is the hallmark of contemporary Marxist philosophy. Others think that the Philosophy of Man is only a part of Marxist philosophy. Nevertheless, the efforts to establish the Philosophy of Man have stimulated much philosophical research and have greatly extended the development of Marxist philosophy in China.

4. Marxist Philosophy and Confucianism

How should Marxist philosophy deal with its relationship to the traditional Chinese value system?           

The controversy between traditionalism and anti-traditionalism has been hot in modern China for many decades. Since the New Cultural Movement of May 4, 1919, anti-traditionalism was the main trend. To some, revolution means rejecting traditional Chinese culture, especially Confucianism. Mao Zedong was deeply influenced by traditional Chinese culture in his early years. But one of the most important aims of his Cultural Revolution was to get rid of Confucianism, and even of all traditional Chinese culture. Traditional Chinese culture is regarded as an obstacle to China’s modernization. Others looked down upon Chinese philosophy, and believed that Chinese philosophy was not mature, and that it lacked logic. They admired only Western civilization and philosophy. Meanwhile, the more traditionally-minded scholars insisted that Chinese culture and philosophy should be the mainstream in China. Now the problem is whether it is possible to combine Marxist philosophy with traditional Chinese culture. Can Marxist philosophy be developed without learning from Chinese culture and philosophy? How can Marxist philosophy become intrinsic to contemporary Chinese culture? How can Marxist philosophy find its foundation and roots in Chinese soil?Almost all Chinese philosophers now realize the necessity of combining Marxist philosophy and traditional Chinese philosophy. Integrating Chinese philosophy and culture into Marxist philosophy is the necessary way to develop Marxist philosophy in China. It is also the necessary way to discover and recognize the contemporary meaning of traditional Chinese culture and philosophy.  There are many positive elements in traditional Chinese culture and philosophy that may be profitably absorbed into Marxist philosophy. Here we briefly list some of them:           

The idea of the unity of Man and Heaven (Nature)
Now our entire world is deeply involved in the ecological controversy surrounding the relationship between Man and Nature. The sharp opposition between man and nature has been characteristic of much traditional Western culture and philosophy, and Marxism itself is a product of that tradition. To find possible ways to achieve a harmony of man and nature has from the beginning been a basic theme in traditional Chinese philosophy. Chinese philosophers insisted that nature is to be regarded not as the slave of man but as the equal partner in human life and in the formation of humanity. Man should stay on good terms with nature. Human beings should respect and protect nature. To protect nature is to protect the necessary environment of human life. Traditional Chinese philosophy is full of ecological insights and anticipations.  The same ecological concerns can be found in Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts.   
The outlook and method of the Mean (Zhong Yong).
The Mean, also called “the Impartiality” or “the Doctrine of the Mean,” is the Middle Way.  Epistemologically, the method of the Mean seeks to master the object in a complete and rounded way by avoiding any kind of extreme, excess, and partiality. In the context of social life, the Middle Way prescribes that each human being should form his own judgment regardless of the opinions of others. 

Harmony among peoples
Chinese philosophy emphasizes peace and harmony among peoples and condemns irrational and unnecessary conflicts and unjust wars. Chinese philosophers insisted that human beings should respect and help each other. And their harmonious relationship is to be based on the common understanding of virtues. Rulers should treat their people as they treat their children. To show respect to the old and to protect youth were regarded as the basic virtues in ancient China. Traditional Chinese virtues, such as diligence and filial piety, have their contemporary meanings in today’s human life and should become the intrinsic content of Marxist ethics.

Recently there have been heated discussions on Asian Values in the East and also in the West.. It is generally agreed that Confucianism is the main core of Asian values, which include in particular “Family Values.”   Many Chinese philosophers believe that the teachings of traditional Chinese philosophy could still be applicable to human life today.  They retain their relevance in contemporary world culture.
5. Deng Xiaoping Theory

Deng Xiaoping theory is regarded as the new stage and new outlook of Marxist philosophy in contemporary China. It is the guiding ideology in building Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. Deng’s thought has been intensively studied.

I think that the most important contributions of Deng Xiaoping theory lie in the liberation of the human spirit in contemporary China. The core and key point of Deng’s theory is “emancipating the mind” and “seeking truth from facts.”  Seeking truth from facts is the quintessence of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. Deng emphasized this in 1978 and used it to counter the “two whatevers,” thus opening up a new area for China. It was called the first Spirit Liberation Movement in China.  After the political incidents in 1989, there were some arguments about where China should go, especially whether China should continue its reform and open policy. Deng stressed the emancipation of the mind in his trip to South China in 1992. This affirmation cleared up many important misconceptions about Socialism, and advanced the reform to a new stage. This was called the second Spirit Liberation Movement, which initiated the socialist market system in China. After Deng’s death, there have been some debates regarding his theory and practice. Secretary-General Jiang Zemin and the central committee of CPC stressed these two aspects again in its 15th National Congress in September 1997. This was regarded as the third Spirit Liberation in today’s China.

Deng Xiaoping’s other important contribution to Marxist philosophy is to establish a new criterion for socialist theories. He claimed that the fundamental questions we should ask about socialism are what socialism is and how to build it. He raised three fundamental criteria for judging a proposal or a policy: whether it is favorable for promoting growth of the productive forces in a socialist society, whether it is favorable for increasing the overall strength of the socialist state, and whether it is favorable for raising the people’s living standards. The criteria were called the “three favorables.”  By these three value criteria, people could actually evaluate all social policy and social administration and could judge between right and wrong and between good and bad.

Deng Xiaoping theory is a system with rich contents. He has greatly contributed to the contemporary development of China. His philosophical ideas give us enlightenment although they do not complete the development of Marxist philosophy in China. Deng’s theory itself should be developed in time.

6. Marxism and Chinese Socialist Market System

One special and current problem facing Chinese Marxist philosophers is how Marxist philosophy answers the challenges of constructing a socialist market economic system in China. In the past 20 years, the economic system in China has been changed from the central planning system via planned commercial system to a socialist free market system. The economy has developed rapidly. The new market system has thrown all traditional disciplines, such as philosophy, literature, and history into turmoil. As everyone knows, Marxism in China had a privileged political position in the planning of the social system. Now Marxist philosophical research has become a kind of academic research. The authority of Marxist philosophy can only be based on its content and function, depending on whether it is recognized by society. Marxist philosophers stand on the same level as other scholars. It is not only a kind of challenge but also a fair competition. This situation forces and stimulates Marxist philosophers in China to do their work better than ever. It is the motivating force underlying the development of Marxist philosophy as an academic discipline.

The socialist market economy, as a part of Chinese Marxism, is both a heritage and a development of Marxist economics. In our prior understanding of Marxism, socialism is the opposite of capitalism. The basic nature of capitalism is private ownership, free market economic system, and wealth distribution according to the ownership of capital. As the opposite of capitalism, the basic nature of socialism lies in the public ownership of capital, planned economic system, and wealth distribution according to work. The former Soviet Union, some Eastern European countries, and China had tried for many years to follow these criteria for socialism, and the consequence is not good at all. This situation led the Chinese Communist Party to re-think and re-understand Marx and Engels, especially the ideas of their later years. If one inquires more deeply into why they contrasted socialism with capitalism, one will discover that in their understanding, the highest goal of socialism is to create the higher productive forces, to get rid of social inequality, to destroy poverty, and to make all social groups richer. Socialism is thus a more advanced system than capitalism. But these ideas are not easy to actualize. Each country has to find its own effective and possible way according to its own history and reality. Only when your socialist theory succeeds can it be proved to be true socialism, and only then can your practice be accepted and followed by your people. Otherwise socialism will have no reason and no power to attract the people. Here we should insist that practice is the only criterion to judge the truth of socialism and of Marxism.

The Chinese socialist market economic system is based on following arguments.           

1). Marxist socialism is not a kind of dogma but an active and practical movement. The highest goal of socialism is to develop productive forces in the most effective way. The basic doctrine of socialism is to enrich all members of society. To meet its goals, the development models of socialism in the world are not universal and unique but variable and multiple. In different countries, socialism requires different models and different ways. This is a necessary way to realize and to develop socialist theory.

2). The market, as an economic form, is neutral in relation to political and ideological systems. The market system does not belong only to capitalism but can also be used by socialism. Today’s world is basically a global market economic system. Any individual country should consciously join in the world market system if they want to become a member of international society rather than being isolated. This also applies to China.

3). It is impossible to complete the transition from capitalism to communism in one step. There are some middle stages between them. Socialism is a middle stage in the transitional process. It should contain the characteristics of these two societies.

4). The Socialist free market system with Chinese Characteristics is a new development of Chinese Marxism. On the one hand, it insists that the highest aims of socialism are to develop the productive forces and to enrich people’s lives to the greatest extent. On the other hand, it fits with the down-to-earth situation of contemporary China.

5). It has been proven through many years’ unsuccessful practice in China before 1978 that the pure central planning economic system was a way neither to develop productive forces nor to raise the people’s living standard. The fastest continuous economic development in China since 1978, especially since 1992, has strongly proved the benefits of the socialist market system.


Ai Siqi ed.: Dialectic Materialism and Historical Materialism, People’s Press, Beijing, 1970.

The Special Commentator: “Practice Is the Only Criterion for Judging the Truth”, Guang-ming Daily, May 11, 1978.

Gao Qinghai: The Basic Principles of Marxist Philosophy, Jilin Press, Changchun 1989.

Xiaoqian etc. ed. The Basic Principles of Marxist Philosophy, The Chinese People’s University Press, Beijing, 1992.
Ouyang Kang: An Introduction to Social Epistemology, China Social Science Press, Beijing, 1990.

Ouyang Kang: The Methodology of Philosophy Research, Wuhan University Press, Wuhan, 1998.

Ouyang Kang: From the Discussion of Truth Criterion to the Construction of the New Morphology of Marxist Philosophy, TIANJING SOCIAL SCIENCES, 1998(6)

The author: Prof. Dr. Ouyang Kang, Dean of the School of Humanities, Head of the Department of Philosophy, Wuhan University, Wuhan, Hubei 430072, P. R. China, Tel/Fax +86-27-87882755 , Email:

*[Ed. note: Although Marx’s 1844 manuscripts were first published in 1932 (in Berlin), it was not until 1979 that they were published in China.]

Category : Capitalism | China | Marxism | Philosophy | Socialism | Blog

Unlike Hegel, Theodor Adorno rejected the idea the outcome of the dialectic will always be positive, and preordained

Philosopher Hegel

‘Adorno criticised Hegel, above, for presenting a positive and affirmative dialectic in which ‘everything that is real is rational’.’

By Peter Thompson

The Guardian, UK

April 1, 2013 – Already in the comments about the first instalment of this series, a problem of traditions has emerged. For a predominantly Anglo-Saxon audience, raised in the empirical and positivist tradition, understanding a group of thinkers schooled in speculative Hegelianism and Marxist dialectics is always going to require a leap of faith. This is also compounded by the fact that the largely monoglot Anglo-Saxon tradition has to work with translations of these thinkers, which are not always the best that can be achieved.

For example, terms such as Wissenschaft and Geist traditionally get translated into "science" and "spirit", apparently irreconcilable opposites, whereas in philosophical terms the difference between the two is much less marked. In fact, you might argue that in the original German they could both be translated as "knowledge", albeit different types of knowledge bounded by speculation. When it comes to the Frankfurt school, the Anglo-Saxon tradition is confronted with all of its worst nightmares in one torrid night of speculative muscle flexing.

Theodor Adorno opens his treatise on negative dialectics with the statement that "[it] is a phrase that flouts tradition. As early as Plato, dialectics meant to achieve something positive by means of negation; the thought figure of the ‘negation of the negation’ later became the succinct term. This book seeks to free dialectics from such affirmative traits without reducing its determinacy." In other words, he asks us to reject the idea that the outcome of the dialectic will always be positive but that we do so without leaving the dialectic behind as an explanatory model. We simply have to make it an open rather than a closed process.


Category : Marxism | Philosophy | Blog


The Frankfurt school united Marx and Freud to become the most influential thinkers of the 20th century left. The respectable right are suspicious, and the far right loathes them. An ongoing series, others will follow.

Anders Behring Breivik

‘Anders Behring Breivik is the perfect example of the authoritarian personality Theodor Adorno wrote about.’ Photograph: Heiko Junge/AFP/Getty Images

By Peter Thompson

The Guardian, UK, March 25, 2013

When Anders Breivik launched his murderous attack in Norway in July 2011, he left behind a rambling manifesto which attacked not only what he saw as Europe’s Islamicisation but also its undermining by the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt school. So what is the Frankfurt school? Has its influence has been as deep as Breivik feared and many of the rest of us have hoped?

Many will have heard of the most prominent names from that tradition: Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer, but its reach goes much further, taking in many of the 20th century’s most important continental philosophers and socio-political developments.

The Frankfurt school was officially called the Institute for Social Research and was attached to the University of Frankfurt but functioned as an independent group of Marxist intellectuals who sought, under the leadership of Felix Weil, to expand Marxist thought beyond what had become a somewhat dogmatic and reductionist tradition increasingly dominated by both Stalinism and social democracy. Most famously they sought to marry up a combination of Marxist social analysis with Freudian psychoanalytical theories, searching for the roots of what made people tick in modern consumer capitalist society as well as what made people turn to fascism in the 1930s.

The Frankfurt school went back to Marx’s early theoretical works from the 1840s and tapped into his more humanist impulses found in the German-French Annals and in his correspondence with Arnold Ruge. It is in these early writings that we find many of Marx’s most important writings on the role of religion in history and society. His ideas about the way materialism worked in the world were still being formulated and he had not yet become the economic theoretician he was later known as. It is not that Marx left ideas of religion behind after these early years, but he felt he had dealt with them properly and could move on to more tangible affairs. In a letter to Arnold Ruge in 1842 he wrote:

"Our motto must be: reform of consciousness not through dogmas, but by analysing the mystical consciousness that is unintelligible to itself, whether it manifests itself in a religious or a political form. It will then become evident that the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality. It will become evident that it is not a question of drawing a great mental dividing line between past and future, but of realising the thoughts of the past. Lastly, it will become evident that mankind is not beginning a new work, but is consciously carrying into effect its old work."

But the idea that what was required was a reform of consciousness which had become unintelligible to itself is the central working principle of the Frankfurt school. Religious thought, which Marx saw as a part of false consciousness, was to be combated not by a full frontal attack in some sort of Dawkins-like crusade, but by removing the social conditions that created it. Marx was, therefore, not an atheist. Indeed he said of the term atheism that it "reminds one of children, assuring everyone who is ready to listen to them that they are not afraid of the bogey man". But the Frankfurt school did not believe that this reform of consciousness could come about simply by changing the socio-economic base of capitalist society. Religion was, for them, not only the opium of the people, but also a repository of hope that had become unintelligible to itself.


Category : Marxism | Philosophy | Blog

An Examination of Hardt and Negri’s Postmodern Mistakes

By Sean Sayers
Practice & Text, Nanjing University


Work in advanced industrial society is changing rapidly. According to Hardt and Negri industrial labour that produces material goods is being superseded by new post-industrial forms of work. These cannot be comprehended by Marx’s account of labour which is based on an industrial model. New concepts of `immaterial’ labour and `biopolitical’ production are needed. This paper criticizes these arguments from a Marxist perspective. Marx’s account of labour is explained, and Hardt and Negri’s criticisms of it are shown to be mistaken. Their account of post-industrial labour, it is argued, is confused and unhelpful. Properly understood and suitably developed Marx’s theory continues to provide a more satisfactory basis for understanding the nature of work in the modern world.

10 October 2006

In recent years the character of work in advanced industrial society has been changing rapidly. Production is being automated and computerized. The factory operated by massed workers is being superseded. Industrial labour is ceasing to be the dominant form of work. Work in offices that used to require intellectual skills is now done by computers. With the enormous growth of jobs in the service sector and the increasing use of information technology, new kinds of work are being created.

These changes are often summed up by saying that these societies are moving from the industrial to the post-industrial stage. In some important respects this notion is highly questionable. Arguably, the economic system is still industrial, but it now operates on a global scale. If industry is ceasing to be the predominant form of work in Western Europe and North America, that is mainly because it is being relocated to other parts of the world in a new global division of labour.

Nevertheless, it is beyond dispute that work is changing. With the widespread use of computers and information technology new kinds of work have developed. Hardt and Negri’s (2000; 2005) attempt to theorize these changes has been particularly influential. The older industrial forms of labour which produced material goods, they argue, are no longer dominant. They are being superseded by new `immaterial’ forms of work involved in the media, management, public relations, information technology, the caring professions, etc.. Jobs in these areas do not make material products, rather they produce ideas, images and other symbolic and cultural contents, and they create and alter social relations. They are `biopolitical’ activities which produce `subjectivities’ and human relations rather than material goods.

Hardt and Negri situated their thought within the Marxist tradition. However, they maintain, Marx’s ideas need to be rethought in the light of the new conditions of post-industrial society.  Marx takes material production as the paradigm of work, his concept of labour is based on an industrial model. In order to describe the new post-industrial forms of work, Marx’s account must be supplemented with the concepts of `immaterial’ labour and `biopolitical’ production.

My aim in this paper is to criticize these ideas. First I will explain Marx’s account of labour and show that Hardt and Negri’s criticisms are based on a fundamental misreading of his thought. Then I will argue that Hardt and Negri’s own account is confused and unhelpful. Properly understood and suitably developed Marx’s concept of labour continues to provide a more satisfactory basis for understanding the nature of work in the modern world.


According to Marx, labour is an intentional activity designed to produce a change in the material world. In his early writings, he conceives of work as a process of `objectification’ through which labour is `embodied and made material in an object’ (1975, 324). Later he describes labour as activity through which human beings give form to materials and thus realize themselves in the world. In the labour-process

. . . man’s activity, with the help of the instruments of labour, effects an alteration, designed from the commencement, in the material worked upon. The process disappears in the product, the latter is a use-value, Nature’s material adapted by a change of form to the wants of man. Labour has incorporated itself with its subject: the former is materialized, the latter transformed. (Marx, 1961, 180)

This account is often taken to assume a `productivist’ model that regards work which creates a material product as the paradigm for all work. It is much criticized on this basis. Hardt and Negri along with many others point out that many kinds of work do not seem to fit this picture, some with which Marx was familiar, others that have newly developed.


Category : Capitalism | Marxism | Philosophy | Working Class | Blog

Religion Without God

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April 4, 2013
By Ronald Dworkin

New York Review of Books

Before he died on February 14, Ronald Dworkin sent to The New York Review a text of his new book, Religion Without God, to be published by Harvard University Press later this year. We publish here an excerpt from the first chapter. —The Editors

The familiar stark divide between people of religion and without religion is too crude. Many millions of people who count themselves atheists have convictions and experiences very like and just as profound as those that believers count as religious. They say that though they do not believe in a “personal” god, they nevertheless believe in a “force” in the universe “greater than we are.” They feel an inescapable responsibility to live their lives well, with due respect for the lives of others; they take pride in a life they think well lived and suffer sometimes inconsolable regret at a life they think, in retrospect, wasted. They find the Grand Canyon not just arresting but breathtakingly and eerily wonderful. They are not simply interested in the latest discoveries about the vast universe but enthralled by them. These are not, for them, just a matter of immediate sensuous and otherwise inexplicable response. They express a conviction that the force and wonder they sense are real, just as real as planets or pain, that moral truth and natural wonder do not simply evoke awe but call for it.

There are famous and poetic expressions of the same set of attitudes. Albert Einstein said that though an atheist he was a deeply religious man:

To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.1

Percy Bysshe Shelley declared himself an atheist who nevertheless felt that “The awful shadow of some unseen Power/Floats though unseen among us….”2 Philosophers, historians, and sociologists of religion have insisted on an account of religious experience that finds a place for religious atheism. William James said that one of the two essentials of religion is a sense of fundamentality: that there are “things in the universe,” as he put it, “that throw the last stone.”3 Theists have a god for that role, but an atheist can think that the importance of living well throws the last stone, that there is nothing more basic on which that responsibility rests or needs to rest.

Judges often have to decide what “religion” means for legal purposes. For example, the American Supreme Court had to decide whether, when Congress provided a “conscientious objection” exemption from military service for men whose religion would not allow them to serve, an atheist whose moral convictions also prohibited service qualified for the objection. It decided that he did qualify.4 The Court, called upon to interpret the Constitution’s guarantee of “free exercise of religion” in another case, declared that many religions flourish in the United States that do not recognize a god, including something the Court called “secular humanism.”5 Ordinary people, moreover, have come to use “religion” in contexts having nothing to do with either gods or ineffable forces. They say that Americans make a religion of their Constitution, and that for some people baseball is a religion. These latter uses of “religion” are only metaphorical, to be sure, but they seem parasitic not on beliefs about God but rather on deep commitments more generally.

So the phrase “religious atheism,” however surprising, is not an oxymoron; religion is not restricted to theism just as a matter of what words mean. But the phrase might still be thought confusing. Would it not be better, for the sake of clarity, to reserve “religion” for theism and then to say that Einstein, Shelley, and the others are “sensitive” or “spiritual” atheists? But on a second look, expanding the territory of religion improves clarity by making plain the importance of what is shared across that territory. Richard Dawkins says that Einstein’s language is “destructively misleading” because clarity demands a sharp distinction between a belief that the universe is governed by fundamental physical laws, which Dawkins thought Einstein meant, and a belief that it is governed by something “supernatural,” which Dawkins thinks the word “religion” suggests.

But Einstein meant much more than that the universe is organized around fundamental physical laws; indeed his view I quoted is, in one important sense, an endorsement of the supernatural. The beauty and sublimity he said we could reach only as a feeble reflection are not part of nature; they are something beyond nature that cannot be grasped even by finally understanding the most fundamental of physical laws. It was Einstein’s faith that some transcendental and objective value permeates the universe, value that is neither a natural phenomenon nor a subjective reaction to natural phenomena. That is what led him to insist on his own religiosity. No other description, he thought, could better capture the character of his faith.

So we should let Einstein have his self-description, the scholars their broad categories, the judges their interpretations. Religion, we should say, does not necessarily mean a belief in God. But then, granted that someone can be religious without believing in a god, what does being religious mean? What is the difference between a religious attitude toward the world and a nonreligious attitude? That is hard to answer because “religion” is an interpretive concept. That is, people who use the concept do not agree about precisely what it means: when they use it they are taking a stand about what it should mean. Einstein may well have had something different in mind when he called himself religious than William James did when he classified certain experiences as religious or the Supreme Court justices did when they said that atheistic beliefs could qualify as religious. So we should consider our question in that spirit. What account of religion would it be most revealing to adopt?

We must turn to this challenge almost immediately. But we should pause to notice the background against which we consider the issue. Religious war is, like cancer, a curse of our species. People kill each other, around the world, because they hate each other’s gods. In less violent places like America they fight mainly in politics, at every level from national elections to local school board meetings. The fiercest battles are then not between different sects of godly religion but between zealous believers and those atheists they regard as immoral heathens who cannot be trusted and whose growing numbers threaten the moral health and integrity of the political community.

The zealots have great political power in America now, at least for the present. The so-called religious right is a voting bloc still eagerly courted. The political power of religion has provoked, predictably, an opposite—though hardly equal—reaction. Militant atheism, though politically inert, is now a great commercial success. No one who called himself an atheist could be elected to any important office in America, but Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion (2006) has sold millions of copies here, and dozens of other books that condemn religion as superstition crowd bookstores. Books ridiculing God were once, decades ago, rare. Religion meant a Bible and no one thought it worth the trouble to point out the endless errors of the biblical account of creation. No more. Scholars devote careers to refuting what once seemed, among those who enthusiastically buy their books, too silly to refute.

If we can separate God from religion—if we can come to understand what the religious point of view really is and why it does not require or assume a supernatural person—then we may be able to lower, at least, the temperature of these battles by separating questions of science from questions of value. The new religious wars are now really culture wars. They are not just about scientific history—about what best accounts for the development of the human species, for instance—but more fundamentally about the meaning of human life and what living well means.

As we shall see, logic requires a separation between the scientific and value parts of orthodox godly religion. When we separate these properly we discover that they are fully independent: the value part does not depend—cannot depend—on any god’s existence or history. If we accept this, then we formidably shrink both the size and the importance of the wars. They would no longer be culture wars. This ambition is utopian: violent and nonviolent religious wars reflect hatreds deeper than philosophy can address. But a little philosophy might help.

What Is Religion? The Metaphysical Core

What, then, should we count as a religious attitude? I will try to provide a reasonably abstract and hence ecumenical account. The religious attitude accepts the full, independent reality of value. It accepts the objective truth of two central judgments about value. The first holds that human life has objective meaning or importance. Each person has an innate and inescapable responsibility to try to make his life a successful one: that means living well, accepting ethical responsibilities to oneself as well as moral responsibilities to others, not just if we happen to think this important but because it is in itself important whether we think so or not.

The second holds that what we call “nature”—the universe as a whole and in all its parts—is not just a matter of fact but is itself sublime: something of intrinsic value and wonder. Together these two comprehensive value judgments declare inherent value in both dimensions of human life: biological and biographical. We are part of nature because we have a physical being and duration: nature is the locus and nutrient of our physical lives. We are apart from nature because we are conscious of ourselves as making a life and must make decisions that, taken together, determine what life we have made.

For many people religion includes much more than those two values: for many theists it also includes obligations of worship, for instance. But I shall take these two—life’s intrinsic meaning and nature’s intrinsic beauty—as paradigms of a fully religious attitude to life. These are not convictions that one can isolate from the rest of one’s life. They engage a whole personality. They permeate experience: they generate pride, remorse, and thrill. Mystery is an important part of that thrill. William James said that

like love, like wrath, like hope, ambition, jealousy, like every other instinctive eagerness and impulse, [religion] adds to life an enchantment which is not rationally or logically deducible from anything else.6

The enchantment is the discovery of transcendental value in what seems otherwise transient and dead.

But how can religious atheists know what they claim about the various values they embrace? How can they be in touch with the world of value to check the perhaps fanciful claim in which they invest so much emotion? Believers have the authority of a god for their convictions; atheists seem to pluck theirs out of the air. We need to explore a bit the metaphysics of value.

The religious attitude rejects naturalism, which is one name for the very popular metaphysical theory that nothing is real except what can be studied by the natural sciences, including psychology. That is, nothing exists that is neither matter nor mind; there is really, fundamentally, no such thing as a good life or justice or cruelty or beauty. Richard Dawkins spoke for naturalists when he suggested the scientists’ proper reply to people who, criticizing naturalism, endlessly quote Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” “Yes,” Dawkins replied, “but we’re working on it.”7

Some naturalists are nihilists: they say that values are only illusions. Other naturalists accept that in some sense values exist, but they define them so as to deny them any independent existence: they make them depend entirely on people’s thoughts or reactions. They say, for instance, that describing someone’s behavior as good or right only means that, as a matter of fact, the lives of more people will be pleasant if everyone behaves in that way. Or that saying a painting is beautiful only means that in general people take pleasure in looking at it.

The religious attitude rejects all forms of naturalism. It insists that values are real and fundamental, not just manifestations of something else; they are as real as trees or pain. It also rejects a very different theory we might call grounded realism. This position, also popular among philosophers, holds that values are real and that our value judgments can be objectively true—but only on the assumption, which might be wrong, that we have good reason, apart from our own confidence in our value judgments, to think that we have the capacity to discover truths about value.

There are many forms of grounded realism: one is a form of theism that traces our capacity for value judgment to a god. (I shall shortly argue that this supposed grounding goes in the wrong direction.) They all agree that, if value judgment can ever be sound, there must be some independent reason to think that people have a capacity for sound moral judgment—independent because it does not itself rely on that capacity. That makes the status of value hostage to biology or metaphysics. Suppose we find undeniable evidence that we hold the moral convictions we do only because they were evolutionarily adaptive, which certainly did not require them to be true. Then, on this view, we would have no reason to think that cruelty is really wrong. If we think it is, then we must think we have some other way of being “in touch with” moral truth.

The religious attitude insists on a much more fundamental divorce between the world of value and facts about our natural history or our psychological susceptibilities. Nothing could impeach our judgment that cruelty is wrong except a good moral argument that cruelty is not after all wrong. We ask: What reason do we have for supposing that we have the capacity for sound value judgment? Ungrounded realism answers: the only possible reason we could have—we reflect responsibly on our moral convictions and find them persuasive. We think them true, and we therefore think we have the capacity to find the truth. How can we reject the hypothesis that all our convictions about value are only mutually supporting illusions? Ungrounded realism answers: we understand that hypothesis in the only way that makes it intelligible. It suggests that we do not have an adequate moral case for any of our moral judgments. We refute that suggestion by making moral arguments for some of our moral judgments.

The religious attitude, to repeat, insists on the full independence of value: the world of value is self-contained and self-certifying. Does that disqualify the religious attitude on grounds of circularity? Notice that there is no finally noncircular way to certify our capacity to find truth of any kind in any intellectual domain. We rely on experiment and observation to certify our judgments in science. But experiment and observation are reliable only in virtue of the truth of basic assumptions about causation and optics that we rely on science itself, and nothing more basic, to certify. And of course our judgments about the nature of the external world all depend, even more fundamentally, on a universally shared assumption that there is an external world, an assumption that science cannot itself certify.

We find it impossible not to believe the elementary truths of mathematics and, when we understand them, the astonishingly complex truths that mathematicians have proved. But we cannot demonstrate either the elementary truths or the methods of mathematical demonstration from outside mathematics. We feel that we do not need any independent certification: we know we have an innate capacity for logic and mathematical truth. But how do we know we have that capacity? Only because we form beliefs in these domains that we simply cannot, however we try, disown. So we must have such a capacity.

We might say: we accept our most basic scientific and mathematical capacities finally as a matter of faith. The religious attitude insists that we embrace our values in the same way: finally as a matter of faith as well. There is a striking difference. We have generally agreed standards of good scientific argument and valid mathematical demonstration; but we have no agreed standards for moral or other forms of reasoning about value. On the contrary, we disagree markedly about goodness, right, beauty, and justice. Does that mean that we have an external certification of our capacities for science and mathematics that we lack in the domain of value?

No, because interpersonal agreement is not an external certification in any domain. The principles of scientific method, including the need for interpersonal confirmation of observation, are justified only by the science these methods have produced. As I said, everything in science, including the importance of shared observation, hangs together: it rests on nothing outside science itself. Logic and mathematics are different still. Consensus about the validity of a complex mathematical argument is in no way evidence of that validity. What if—unimaginable horror—the human race ceased to agree about valid mathematical or logical arguments? It would fall into terminal decline, but no one would have any good reason, along the way, to doubt that five and seven make twelve. Value is different still. If value is objective, then consensus about a particular value judgment is irrelevant to its truth or anyone’s responsibility in thinking it true, and experience shows, for better or worse, that the human community can survive great discord about moral or ethical or aesthetic truth. For the religious attitude, disagreement is a red herring.

I said, just now, that the religious attitude rests finally on faith. I said that mainly to point out that science and mathematics are, in the same way, matters of faith as well. In each domain we accept felt, inescapable conviction rather than the benediction of some independent means of verification as the final arbiter of what we are entitled responsibly to believe. This kind of faith is not just passive acceptance of the conceptual truth that we cannot justify our science or our logic or our values without appealing to science or logic or value. It is a positive affirmation of the reality of these worlds and of our confidence that though each of our judgments may be wrong we are entitled to think them right if we have reflected on them responsibly enough.

In the special case of value, however, faith means something more, because our convictions about value are emotional commitments as well and, whatever tests of coherence and internal support they survive, they must feel right in an emotional way as well. They must have a grip on one’s whole personality. Theologians often say that religious faith is a sui generis experience of conviction. Rudolf Otto, in his markedly influential book, The Idea of the Holy, called the experience “numinous” and said it was a kind of “faith-knowledge.”8 I mean to suggest that convictions of value are also complex, sui generis, emotional experiences. As we will see [in a later section of the new book, Religion Without God], when scientists confront the unimaginable vastness of space and the astounding complexity of atomic particles they have an emotional reaction that matches Otto’s description surprisingly well. Indeed many of them use the very term “numinous” to describe what they feel. They find the universe awe-inspiring and deserving of a kind of emotional response that at least borders on trembling.

But of course I do not mean, in speaking of faith, that the fact that a moral conviction survives reflection is itself an argument for that conviction. A conviction of truth is a psychological fact and only a value judgment can argue for the conviction’s truth. And of course I do not mean that value judgments are in the end only subjective. Our felt conviction that cruelty is wrong is a conviction that cruelty is really wrong; we cannot have that conviction without thinking that it is objectively true. Acknowledging the role of felt, irresistible conviction in our experience of value just recognizes the fact that we have such convictions, that they can survive responsible reflection, and that we then have no reason at all, short of further evidence or argument, to doubt their truth.

You may think that if all we can do to defend value judgments is appeal to other value judgments, and then finally to declare faith in the whole set of judgments, then our claims to objective truth are just whistles in the dark. But this challenge, however familiar, is not an argument against the religious worldview. It is only a rejection of that worldview. It denies the basic tenets of the religious attitude: it produces, at best, a standoff. You just do not have the religious point of view.

Religious Science and Religious Value

I have already suggested reasons why we should treat the attitude I have been describing as religious and recognize the possibility of religious atheism. We hope better to understand why so many people declare that they have a sense of value, mystery, and purpose in life in spite of their atheism rather than in addition to their atheism: why they associate their values with those of conventional religion in that way. We also hope to produce an account of religion that we can use to interpret the widespread conviction that people have special rights to religious freedom. [That is one of the projects of the new book.]

I want now to explore another, more complex, reason for treating the attitude I describe as religious. Theists assume that their value realism is grounded realism. God, they think, has provided and certifies their perception of value: of the responsibilities of life and the wonders of the universe. In fact, however, their realism must finally be ungrounded. It is the radical independence of value from history, including divine history, that makes their faith defensible.

The heart of my argument is the following assumption. The conventional, theistic religions with which most of us are most familiar—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have two parts: a science part and a value part. The science part offers answers to important factual questions about the birth and history of the universe, the origin of human life, and whether or not people survive their own death. That part declares that an all-powerful and all-knowing god created the universe, judges human lives, guarantees an afterlife, and responds to prayer.

Of course I do not mean that these religions offer what we count as scientific arguments for the existence and career of their god. I mean only that this part of many religions makes claims about matters of fact and about historical and contemporary causes and effects. Some believers do defend these claims with what they take to be scientific arguments; others profess to believe them as a matter of faith or through the evidence of sacred texts. I call them all scientific in virtue of their content, not their defense.

The value part of a conventional theistic religion offers a variety of convictions about how people should live and what they should value. Some of these are godly commitments, that is, commitments that are parasitic on and make no sense without the assumption of a god. Godly convictions declare duties of worship, prayer, and obedience to the god the religion endorses. But other religious values are not, in that way, godly: they are at least formally independent of any god. The two paradigm religious values I identified are in that way independent. Religious atheists do not believe in a god and so reject the science of conventional religions and the godly commitments, like a duty of ritual worship, that are parasitic on that part. But they accept that it matters objectively how a human life goes and that everyone has an innate, inalienable ethical responsibility to try to live as well as possible in his circumstances. They accept that nature is not just a matter of particles thrown together in a very long history but something of intrinsic wonder and beauty.

The science part of conventional religion cannot ground the value part because—to put it briefly at first—these are conceptually independent. Human life cannot have any kind of meaning or value just because a loving god exists. The universe cannot be intrinsically beautiful just because it was created to be beautiful. Any judgment about meaning in human life or wonder in nature relies ultimately not only on descriptive truth, no matter how exalted or mysterious, but finally on more fundamental value judgments. There is no direct bridge from any story about the creation of the firmament, or the heavens and earth, or the animals of the sea and the land, or the delights of Heaven, or the fires of Hell, or the parting of any sea or the raising of any dead, to the enduring value of friendship and family or the importance of charity or the sublimity of a sunset or the appropriateness of awe in the face of the universe or even a duty of reverence for a creator god.

I am not arguing, against the science of the traditional Abrahamic religions, that there is no personal god who made the heavens and loves its creatures. I claim only that such a god’s existence cannot in itself make a difference to the truth of any religious values. If a god exists, perhaps he can send people to Heaven or Hell. But he cannot of his own will create right answers to moral questions or instill the universe with a glory it would not otherwise have. A god’s existence or character can only figure in the defense of such values as a fact that makes some different, independent background value judgment pertinent; it can only figure, that is, as a minor premise. Of course, a belief in a god can shape a person’s life dramatically. Whether and how it does this depends on the character of the supposed god and the depth of commitment to that god. An obvious and crude case: someone who believes he will go to Hell if he displeases a god will very likely lead a different life from someone who does not have any such belief. But whether what displeases a god is morally wrong is not up to that god.

I am now relying on an important conceptual principle that we might call “Hume’s principle” because it was defended by that eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher. This principle insists that one cannot support a value judgment—an ethical or moral or aesthetic claim—just by establishing some scientific fact about how the world is or was or will be. Something else is always necessary: a background value judgment that shows why the scientific fact is relevant and has that consequence. Yes, whenever I see that someone is in pain, or threatened with danger, I have a moral responsibility to help if I can. Just the plain fact of pain or danger appears to generate, all by itself, a moral duty. But the appearance is deceptive: the pain and danger would not generate a moral duty unless it was also true, as a matter of background moral truth, that people have a general duty to relieve or prevent suffering. Very often, as in this case, the background principle is too obvious to need stating or even thinking. But it must still be there, and it must still really connect the ordinary judgment with the more concrete moral or ethical or aesthetic judgment it is supposed to support.

I agree that the existence of a personal god—a supernatural, all-powerful, omniscient, and loving being—is a very exotic kind of scientific fact. But it is still a scientific fact and it still requires a pertinent background moral principle to have any impact on value judgments. That is important because those background value judgments can only themselves be defended—to the extent they can be defended at all—by locating them in a larger network of values each of which draws on and justifies the others. They can only be defended, as my account of the religious attitude insists, within the overall scheme of value.

So a god’s existence can be shown to be either necessary or sufficient to justify a particular conviction of value only if some independent background principle explains why. We might well be convinced of some such principle. We might think, for instance, that the sacrifice of God’s son on the Cross gives us a responsibility of gratitude to honor the principles for which He died. Or that we owe the deference to the god who created us that we owe a parent, except that our deference to that god must be unlimited and unstinting. Believers will have no trouble constructing other such principles. But the principles they cite, whatever they are, must have independent force seen only as claims of morality or some other department of value. Theists must have an independent faith in some such principle; it is that principle, rather than just the divine events or other facts they claim pertinent, that they must find they cannot but believe. What divides godly and godless religion—the science of godly religion—is not as important as the faith in value that unites them.

Copyright ©2013 by Ronald Dworkin

  1. 1

    Albert Einstein, in Living Philosophies: The Reflections of Some Eminent Men and Women of Our Time, edited by Clifton Fadiman (Doubleday, 1990), p. 6.

  2. 2

    “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” (1816).

  3. 3

    William James, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896), p. 25.

  4. 4

    United States v. Seeger, 380 US 163 (1965).

  5. 5

    Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 US 488 (1961), fn. 11: “Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others. See Washington Ethical Society v. District of Columbia, 101 US App. D.C. 371, 249 F. 2d 127; Fellowship of Humanity v. County of Alameda, 153 Cal. App. 2d 673, 315 P. 2d 394; II Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences 293; 4 Encyclopaedia Britannica (1957 ed.) 325–327; 21 id., at 797; Archer, Faiths Men Live By (2d ed. revised by Purinton) 120–138, 254–313; 1961 World Almanac 695, 712; Year Book of American Churches for 1961, at 29, 47.”

  6. 6

    William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (The Modern Library, 1902), p. 47.

  7. 7

    Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), p. xi.

  8. 8

    Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, translated by John W. Harvey (Oxford University Press, 1923). Originally published in German in 1917.

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Category : Culture | Philosophy | Religion | Blog