[xmca] re: a materialist psychology

From: Bruce Robinson <bruce who-is-at brucerob.eu>
Date: Fri May 30 2008 - 08:06:28 PDT

As usual I limp into this discussion late, but nevertheless...
In an article 'Dialectics, Materialism and the Theory of Knowledge', originally
written as entries for the 'Dictionary of Marxist Thought' but reprinted
in 'Reclaiming Reality' (Verso, 1989), Roy Bhaskar reviews the history of and
meanings attributed to the term 'materialism' in Marxism. He distinguishes three
different forms of 'philosophical materialism': ontological (ultimate roots of all
being in matter); epistemological (independent existence of at least some objects
of thought = scientific realism) and practical (constitutive role of human
practical agency in creating social forms). Plus 'historical' and 'scientific'
materialisms. A few pages on comes the following passage:
€œ...since Marx and Engels Marxism has conducted a double polemic: against idealism
and against vulgar, reductionist or 'undialectical' materialism... the project of
elaborating a satisfactory 'materialist' critique of some subject matter,
characteristically celebrated by idealism, has often amounted in practice to the
endeavour to avoid reductionism (for instance...society or mind to nature...) - the
characteristic ['crude'] 'materialist' response €“ without reverting to a dualism,
as would more than satisfy idealism. This in turn has usually necessitated a war of
position on two fronts: against various types of 'objectivism' ... and against
various formally counterposed, but actually complementary forms
of 'subjectivism'... It would be misleading to think of Marxist materialism as
seeking a via media or simple Hegelian synthesis of these historical duels €“ it is
rather that, in transforming their common problematic, both the errors and the
partial insights of the old antagonistic symbiotes are thrown, from the new vantage
point, into critical relief.€
Though Bhaskar is very unlikely to have read it when he originally wrote this in
1983, this €“ and particularly the last sentence €“ seems to me a pretty accurate
description of what LSV was trying to do in 'Crisis'. He rejects neither Pavlov and
Bekheterev nor the 'introspectionists' etc as being totally devoid of insight or
scientific value, acknowledging their empirical results while seeking to put them
into a different framework (which changes their significance as 'facts'). He
rejects a reductionism whereby mind can be reduced to stimulus-response patterns.
And the 'general science' seems to me to be both a knowledge structure and a
suggested direction for research capable of supporting such an 'Aufhebung'.

So in what sense is this materialist? Obviously in Bhaskar's epistemological sense
as it implies the independent existence of mind and consciousness as real objects
of scientific investigation. But how is this compatible with both (a) ontological
materialism and (b) opposing reductionism? Bhaskar's answer in his own Critical
Realism (and I think this is also implicit in Vygotsky's theory of mind and of
history) is that an adequate ontology must be based on a stratified and emergent
conception of existence i.e. that there exist higher levels (e.g. the sphere of
historical materialism) that are dependent on / require the existence of lower
levels (e.g.laws of nature) but are not reducible to them as the higher levels
possess emergent properties that cannot be decomposed into lower level properties.
Thus a materialist theory does not require that all relevant phenomena be
explicable in terms of the physical properties of matter as 'crude' materialism
This conception of stratification and emergence is around in a lot of CHAT writing
e.g. explicitly from Jay Lemke and also in Sylvia Scribner's chapter on Vygotsky
and history. It is also close to the late Lukacs' idea that totality should be
understood as implying a nested hierarchy of 'totalities' rather than simply a
blank summation of all that exists. The ideas of emergence and stratification seem
to me to provide a basis for a critique of both crude materialism as reductionist
and of forms of idealism that write out the material / natural substrate as
subsumed totally into the human or social.
Bruce R

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Received on Fri May 30 08:24 PDT 2008

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