Elementary Principles of Philosophy
by Georges Politzer

<< | main | contents | reference | bio | extras | >>


WE KNOW that the faults of the 18th century materialists stem from their form of reasoning, from their particular method of research which we have called the “metaphysical method.” The metaphysical method thus conveys a certain concept of the world. We should notice that pre-Marxist materialism differs from Marxist materialism in the same way that metaphysical materialism differs from dialectical materialism.

This is why we must now learn what this “metaphysical” method is in order to examine what, on the other hand, the dialectical method is.

1. The characteristics of this method

What we are going to study here is the “old method of investigation and thought which Hegel calls ‘metaphysical,’...” (Engels, Feuerbach, p. 45.)

Let us begin straight away with a simple remark. What seems most natural to the majority of people: motion or immobility? What is the normal state of things for them: rest or mobility?

In general, it is thought that rest existed before motion and that in order for a thing to be in motion, it must have first been in a state of rest.

The Bible also tells us that before the universe, which was created by God, there existed an immobile eternity, i.e., rest.

Here are some words which we shall often use: rest and immobility; motion and change. But these two last words are not synonymous.

Motion, in the strict sense of the word, means displacement. Example: a falling stone and a moving train are both in motion.

Change, in the correct sense of the word, is the passage from one form to another. Example: The tree which has lost its leaves has changed form. But it also signifies the passage from one state to another. Example: The air has become unbreathable: this is a change.

Hence, motion signifies changing place and change signifies changing form or state. In order to avoid confusion, we shall try to respect this distinction (when we study dialectics, we shall be obliged to reexamine the meaning of these words).

We have just seen that, generally speaking, it is thought that motion and change are less normal than rest; it is certain that we have a kind of preference for considering things to be at rest and unchanging.

Example: We have bought a pair of yellow shoes and after a period of time and numerous repairs (new heels, new soles, patching) we still say, “I’m going to put on my yellow shoes,” without realizing that they are no longer the same. For us they are still the same yellow shoes which we bought at a certain time and for a certain price. We do not consider the changes which have occurred to our shoes: they are still the same, they are identical. We disregard change and see only the sameness (identity) as if nothing important had happened. This is the

    (1) First characteristic of the metaphysical method: The principle of identity

It consists in preferring immobility to motion and identity to change when confronted with events.

From this preference, which constitutes the first characteristic of this method, is derived a whole way of looking at the world. The world is considered to be ossified, says Engels. The same is true for nature, society and man. So it is often claimed that “there is nothing new under the sun,” which means that there has never been any change, that the universe has remained immobile and identical. This phrase can equally signify a periodical return to the same events. God created the world by producing fishes, birds, mammals, etc., and since then nothing has changed, the world has not budged. It is also said, “Men are always the same,” as if men had never changed.

These common expressions are the reflection of this concept which is deeply rooted in us, in our minds, and the bourgeoisie exploits this misconception to the utmost.

When socialism is criticized, one of the arguments which is most readily given is that man is selfish and it is necessary for some force to intervene to restrain him, otherwise disorder would rule the day. This is the result of the metaphysical idea that man has a permanent nature which cannot change.

It is quite certain that if suddenly we had the possibility of living under a Communist regime, that is to say, if goods could be immediately distributed to each according to his needs and not according to his work, there would be a rush to satisfy everyone’s whims, and such a society could not last. Nevertheless, that is what Communist society is and that is what is rational. But it is because we have a metaphysical outlook rooted in us that we imagine future man, living in a relatively distant future, as being the same as contemporary man.

Consequently, when it is maintained that a socialist or Communist society is not viable because man is selfish, it is forgotten that, like society, man also will change.

We hear critical remarks every day about the Soviet Union, which reveal to us the difficulties in understanding encountered by those who formulate them. This is because they have a metaphysical concept of the world and things.

From the numerous examples which we could cite, let us take only this one. We are told, “A worker, in the Soviet Union, earns a salary which does not correspond to the total value of what he produces; there is therefore a surplus value, i.e., a levy imposed on his salary. Hence, he is robbed. In France, it is the same, workers are exploited. So there is no difference between a Soviet worker and a French worker.

In this example, where is the metaphysical concept? It consists in not considering that there are two types of societies here and in not taking into account the differences between these two societies. It consists in believing that, from the moment that there is surplus value both here and there, that it is the same thing, without considering the changes which have occurred in the U.S.S.R., where man and the machine no longer have the same economic and social meaning as in France. Now, in France, the machine exists in order to produce (for the boss) and man exists in order to be exploited. In the U.S.S.R., the machine exists in order to produce (for man) and man exists in order to enjoy the fruit of his labor. The surplus value in France goes to the boss; in the U.S.S.R., it goes to the socialist State, i.e., to the collectivity in which there are no exploiters. Things have changed.

We see then, from this example, that errors in judgment stem, in the case of sincere persons, from a metaphysical method of thought, especially from the application of the first characteristic of this method, a fundamental characteristic which consists in underestimating change and preferring immobility or, in other words, which tends to perpetuate identity in the midst of change.

But what is this identity? We have seen a house built which was finished on January 1, 1935. On January 1, 1936, as in all succeeding years, we say that it is identical, because it still has two floors, twenty windows, two front doors, etc., because it always remains itself, does not change and is not different. Hence, being identical means remaining the same, not becoming different. Yet this house has changed! It is only at first sight, superficially, that it has stayed the same. The architect or the mason, who sees things more closely, knows very well that the house already is not the same one week after its construction: here, a small crack has appeared, there a stone is loose, over there the paint has come off, etc. Thus, it is only when we consider things “roughly” that they seem to be identical. Under detailed analysis, they are constantly changing.

But what are the practical consequences of the first characteristic of the metaphysical method?

Since we prefer to see identity in things, i.e., to see them remaining themselves, we say for example, “Life is life, and death is death.” We maintain that life remains life, that death remains itself, death, and that that is all there is to it.

Becoming used to considering things in their identity, we separate them from each other. To say “a chair is a chair” is a natural statement, but it puts the emphasis on identity. This means at the same time that what is not a chair is something else.

It is so natural to say this that to underline it seems childish. In this connection, we might say, “A horse is a horse, and what is not a horse is something else.” Hence, we carefully separate chairs and horses, as we do for everything else. Hence, we make distinctions, rigorously separating things from each other; this is how we have been brought to transform the world into a collection of separate things. This is the:

    (2) Second characteristic of the metaphysical method: Isolation of things

What we have just said seems so natural that one may wonder why we said it at all. We are going to see that, nonetheless, it was necessary to do so, for this system of reasoning leads us to see things from a certain angle.

Again it is by its practical consequences that we are going to judge the second characteristic of this method.

In daily life, if we think about animals by separating them, we do not see what there is in common between animals of different species and kinds. A horse is a horse; a cow is a cow. There is no relation between them.

This is the point of view of the old zoology, which classified animals by separating them clearly from each other, and which saw no relation between them. This is one of the results of the application of the metaphysical method.

As another example, we could cite the fact that the bourgeoisie wants science to be science and philosophy to remain philosophy; the same for politics. And, of course, there is nothing in common, absolutely no relation between them.

The practical conclusions of such reasoning are that a scientist should remain such and not mix his science with philosophy and politics. The same thing holds for the philosopher and the politician.

When a sincere man reasons in this way, it can be said that he reasons as a metaphysician. The English writer Wells went to the Soviet Union a few years ago and visited Maxim Gorky, a great writer who is gone today. He proposed the creation of a literary club from which politics would be excluded, for, to his mind, literature is literature and politics is politics. Gorky and his friends, it seems, began to laugh and Wells was annoyed. The fact is Wells saw the writer as being outside of society, while Gorky and his friends knew full well that it just is not so in life, where, in truth, all things are linked together—whether we like it or not.

In common practice, we try to classify and isolate things, to see and study them for themselves. Those who are not Marxists see the State in general by isolating it from society, as if it were independent from the form of society. To reason in this way, by isolating the State from society, is to isolate it from its relations with reality.

The same mistake occurs when we speak of man while isolating him from other men, from his environment, from society. If we also consider the machine by itself, while isolating it from the society in which it produces, we make the mistake of thinking, “Machine in Paris, machine in Moscow; surplus value here and there, there is no difference, it is absolutely the same thing.”

This is, however, a type of reasoning which we can constantly read, and those who do so accept it because the general and usual point of view is to isolate and divide things. This is a characteristic habit of the metaphysical method.

    (3) Third characteristic: Eternal and impassable divisions

Having preferred to consider things as immobile and unchanging, we have classified and catalogued them, thus creating divisions between them which make us forget the relations there may be between them.

This way of seeing and judging leads us to believe that these divisions exist once and for all (a horse is a horse) and that they are absolute, impassable and eternal. This is the third characteristic of the metaphysical method.

But we must be careful when we speak of this method; for, when we Marxists say that there are two classes in capitalist society, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, we are also making divisions which may seem to belong to the metaphysical point of view. Only, it is not simply by introducing divisions that one is a metaphysician; rather it is by the way in which one establishes the differences and relations which exist between these divisions.

When we say, for example, that there are two classes in society, the bourgeoisie immediately thinks that there are rich and poor. And, of course, it will tell us, “There have always been rich and poor.”

“There have always been” and “There will always be”: this is a metaphysical way of reasoning. Things are forever classified independently of each other, and impassable partitions and walls are put up between them.

The metaphysician divides society into rich and poor, instead of noting the existence of a bourgeoisie and a proletariat. Even if this last division is recognized, the latter are considered independently of their mutual relations, i.e., the class struggle. What are the practical consequences of this third characteristic, which establishes absolute barriers between things? For example, there can be no relationship between a horse and a cow. The same holds true for all the sciences and for everything which surrounds us. We shall see later if this is correct, but it now remains for us to examine the consequences of these three characteristics which we have just described, namely the

    (4) Fourth characteristic: Opposites are mutually exclusive

It follows from everything which we have just seen that when we say, “Life is life” and “Death is death,” we are stating that there is nothing in common between life and death. We see life and death separately and classify them apart from one another, without seeing the relations which may exist between them. Under these conditions, a man who has just lost his life must be considered a dead thing, for it is impossible for him to be both alive and dead at the same time, since life and death are mutually exclusive.

By considering things to be isolated and completely different from each other, we end up setting them against each other.

Here we arrive at the fourth characteristic of the metaphysical method, which says that opposites mutually exclude each other and which maintains that two opposite things cannot exist at the same time.

Indeed, in the example of life and death, there can be no third possibility. We have to choose one or the other of the possibilities which we have singled out. We regard a third possibility as a contradiction and we consider this contradiction to be absurd and, hence impossible.

The fourth characteristic of the metaphysical method is, therefore, the abhorrence of contradiction.

The practical consequences of this line of reasoning can be seen, for example, when one speaks of democracy and dictatorship. The metaphysical point of view requires that society choose between the two, because democracy is democracy and dictatorship is dictatorship. Democracy is not a dictatorship and dictatorship is not a democracy. We have to choose, otherwise we are confronted with a contradiction, an absurdity, an impossibility.

The Marxist attitude is completely different.

We, on the other hand, think that the dictatorship of the proletariat, for example, is both dictatorship by the masses and democracy for the exploited masses.

We believe that the life of living beings is only possible because there is a perpetual struggle between cells and because there are continually some which die only to be replaced by others. Thus, life contains death within itself. We think that death is not as total and separate from life as metaphysics believes, for on a corpse all life has not disappeared, since certain cells continue to live for some time and from this corpse other lives will be born.

2. Summary and evaluation

Hence, we see that the different characteristics of the metaphysical method oblige us to look at things from a certain angle and lead us to reason in a certain way. We note that this way of analyzing possesses a certain “logic” which we shall study later on and also that this logic corresponds to a great extent to the way of seeing, thinking, studying and analyzing prevalent in our society.

One begins—and this list will allow us to summarize—by

We have seen, when we examined the practical consequences of each characteristic, that none of this corresponds to reality.

Is the world consistent with this concept? Are objects in nature immobile and unchanging? No. We find that everything changes and we see its motion. Hence, this concept does not agree with the things themselves. It is obviously nature which is right and this concept which is erroneous.

From the beginning, we have defined philosophy as wanting to explain the universe, man and nature, etc. Specific problems being studied by science, philosophy is, we said, the study of the most general problems which join and extend the sciences.

Now, the old “metaphysical” way of thinking, which is applicable to all problems, is also a philosophical concept which considers the universe, man and nature in a very particular way.

To the metaphysician, things and their mental images, ideas, are isolated, to be considered one after the other apart from each other, rigid, fixed objects of investigation given once for all. He thinks in absolutely discontinuous antitheses. His communication is: “Yea, yea, Nay, nay, for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” For him a thing either exists, or it does not exist; it is equally impossible for a thing to be itself and at the same time something else. Positive and negative absolutely exclude one another; cause and effect stand in an equally rigid antithesis one to the other. (Engels, Anti-Dühring, pp. 27-28.)

The metaphysical point of view, then, regards “the universe as a complex of fixed things.” In order to clearly grasp this way of thinking, we are going to study how it conceives of nature, society and thought.

3. The metaphysical concept of nature

Metaphysics regards nature as a complex of permanently “fixed” things.

But there are two ways of considering things in this fashion.

The first way esteems that the world is absolutely immobile, motion being only an illusion of our senses. If we remove this appearance of motion, nature does not budge.

This theory was defended by a school of Greek philosophers called the Eleatic School. This simplistic concept is in such contradiction with reality that it is no longer supported today.

The second way of regarding nature as a complex of fixed things is much more subtle. It is not said that nature is immobile; that it moves is recognized. Rather, it is maintained that nature is animated by a mechanical motion. Here, the first way of regarding nature disappears; motion is no longer denied and this does not at first seem to be a metaphysical concept. It is called a “mechanistic” concept (or “Mechanicalism”).

This constitutes an error which is often made and which we observe in the materialists of the 17th and 18th centuries. We have seen that they did not consider nature to be immobile, but rather in motion. Only, for them, this motion was merely a mechanical change, a displacement.

They recognized the entirety of the solar system (the earth revolves around the sun), but they thought that motion was purely mechanical, that is to say, a mere change of place, and they thought of this motion only in this aspect.

But things are not so simple. The revolution of the earth around the sun is certainly a mechanical movement, but while turning, the earth can undergo influences, becoming colder, for example. Hence, there is not only a displacement, but also other changes which occur.

Therefore, what characterizes this so-called mechanistic point of view is that only the mechanical movement is taken into consideration.

If the earth revolves incessantly and nothing more happens to it, the earth changes place, but the earth itself does not change: it remains identical to itself. It only continues, before us as it does after us, to revolve again and again. Thus everything happens as if nothing had happened. Hence, we see that to concede motion, only to make of it a purely mechanical motion, is a metaphysical point of view, for this motion is without history.

A watch with perfect parts and constructed with unwearable materials would work eternally without changing in the least, and this watch would have no history. It is such a concept of the universe which we constantly find with Descartes. He tries to reduce all the physical and physiological laws to mechanics. He has no idea of chemistry (see his explanation of the circulation of blood), and his mechanical concept of things will be adopted by the materialists of the 18th century (with the exception of Diderot, who is less purely mechanistic, and who, in certain writings, foreshadows the dialectical conception).

What is characteristic of the materialists of the 18th century is that they turn nature into a clockwork mechanism.

If this were really true, things would continually return to the same point without leaving any trace and nature would remain identical to itself, which is the first characteristic of the metaphysical method.

4. The metaphysical concept of society

The metaphysical concept maintains that nothing changes in society. But, in general, this idea is not presented exactly like this. It is recognized that changes occur, as, for example, in production, when finished products are produced from raw materials; or in politics, when governments succeed each other. People acknowledge all that, but they consider the capitalist regime to be permanent and eternal, and even compare it at times to a machine.

In this way, one speaks of the economic machine which sometimes gets out of order but which one wishes to repair in order to maintain it. It is hoped that this economic machine might continue to distribute dividends to some and misery to others like an automatic apparatus.

One speaks also of the political machine, which is the bourgeois parliamentary regime, and only one thing is asked of it: that is to function, sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right, in order to preserve the privileges of capitalism.

We observe a mechanistic, metaphysical concept in this way of looking at society.

if it were possible for this society, in which all these cogs turn, to pursue its course continuously, it would leave no traces and, consequently, no historical successor.

There is another very important mechanistic concept which is valid for the entire universe, but especially for society, and which consists in spreading the idea of a regular course and a periodical return of the same events, in the formula: “History continually repeats itself.”

We should note that these ideas are very widespread. Motion and change, which exist and which one finds in society, are not really denied, but motion itself is distorted by being transformed into a mere mechanism.

5. The metaphysical concept of thought

What kind of idea about thought do we observe in those around us?

We believe that human thought is and was eternal. We believe that, while things may have changed, our way of reasoning is the same as that of men who lived a century ago. We consider our feelings to be the same as those of the Greeks, kindness and love to have always existed; in this way one speaks of “eternal love.” It is very common to believe that human feelings have not changed.

This is why it is said and written, for example, that a society cannot exist without another basis than individual and selfish enrichment. This is also why we often hear people say that the “desires of men have always been the same.”

We often think this way. Much too often. We allow the metaphysical point of view to penetrate the motion of thought, as we do with all the other types of motion.

This is because this method, “this mode of thought seems to us extremely plausible, because it is the mode of thought of so-called sound common sense,” is found at the base of our education. (Engels, Anti-Dühring, p. 28.)

It follows that this metaphysical way of seeing and thinking is not only a concept of the world, but also a manner of proceeding in order to think.

Now, while it may be relatively easy to reject metaphysical arguments, it is, on the other hand, more difficult to rid oneself of the metaphysical way of thinking. In this connection, we must make one thing clear. We call the way in which we seek explanations a “method.”


And we find that the concept inspires and determines the method. Of course, having once been inspired by the concept, the method reacts in turn on the former, directing and guiding it.

We have seen what the metaphysical concept is; we are now going to see what its method of research is. It is called logic.

6. What is logic?

It is said that “logic” is the art of thinking well. To think in accordance with truth is to think according to the rules of logic.

What are these rules? The three principal ones are:

Hence, to be logical means to think well. To think well means not to forget to apply these three rules.

In the above, we recognize principles which we have studied and which derive from the metaphysical concept.

Logic and metaphysics are, consequently, intimately linked; logic is an instrument, a method of reasoning which proceeds by classing each thing in a very defined way, which consequently compels us to see things as being identical to themselves, which, then, obliges us to choose, to say yes or no, and, in conclusion, which excludes a third possibility between two cases, such as life and death.

When it is said, “All men are mortal; this comrade is a man; this comrade is mortal,” we have what is called a syllogism (this is the typical form of logical reasoning). By reasoning in this manner, we have determined the place of the comrade, we have made a classification.

Our mental tendency, when we encounter a man or a thing, is to say to ourselves, “Where should we class him?” Our mind asks only this question. We see things like circles or boxes of different dimensions and our concern is to insert these circles or boxes into each other, in a certain order.

In our example, we first determine a large circle which contains all mortals; next, a smaller circle which contains all men; and the next which contains only this comrade.

If we want to classify them we shall then, according to a certain “logic,” insert the circles into each other.

The metaphysical concept is thus constructed with logic and the syllogism. A syllogism is a group of three propositions: the first two are called premises, which means “sent before”; the third is the conclusion. Another example: “In the Soviet Union, before the last constitution, a dictatorship of the proletariat existed. Dictatorship is dictatorship. The U.S.S.R. is a dictatorship. Hence, there was no difference between the U.S.S.R., Italy and Germany, all countries of dictatorship.”

Here, for whom and on whom the dictatorship is exercised is not taken into consideration; the same as when one boasts of bourgeois democracy, it is not mentioned for whose profit this democracy is exercised.

In this way problems are stated, things and the social world are seen as belonging to separate circles and these circles are inserted into each other.

These are certainly theoretical questions, but they entail a certain way of acting in practice. We can cite the unfortunate example of the Germany of 1919, where social-democracy, in order to maintain democracy, destroyed the dictatorship of the proletariat without seeing that by so doing it allowed capitalism to subsist and gave rise to nazism.

Seeing and studying things separately were what zoology and biology did up until the moment when it was seen and understood that there existed an evolution of animals and plants. Before that, all beings were classified because it was thought that things had always been what they were. “And in fact, while natural science up to the end of the last century was predominantly a collecting science, a science of finished things,...” (Engels, Feuerbach, p. 45.)

But to finish we must give—

7. The explanation of the word “metaphysics”

There is an important part of philosophy which is called metaphysics. But it is important only in bourgeois philosophy, since it is concerned with God and the soul. Everything in it is eternal. God is eternal and unchanging, remaining identical to himself; the soul as well. The same is true for good, evil, etc., all of this being clearly defined, permanent and eternal. In this part of philosophy called metaphysics, things are seen, therefore, as a fixed conglomeration and reasoning takes place through oppositions: spirit vs. matter, good vs. evil, etc. That is to say, opposites are taken to be mutually exclusive.

This manner of reasoning and thinking, this concept, is called “metaphysics” because it deals with things and ideas which are found outside of physics, like God, goodness, the soul, evil, etc. "Metaphysics" comes from the Greek “meta,” which means “beyond,” and from “physics,” the science of worldly phenomena. Hence, metaphysics is that which is concerned with things situated beyond the world.

It is also due to a historical accident that this philosophical concept is called “metaphysics.” Aristotle, who wrote the first treatise on logic (the one which is still being used), wrote quite a bit. After his death, his disciples classified his writings; they made a catalogue, and, after a writing entitled Physics, they found a work without a title which dealt with the things of the mind. They classified it by calling it After Physics, in Greek, Metaphysics.

In conclusion, let us insist on the relation which exists between the three terms which we have studied: metaphysics, mechanicalism, logic. These three disciplines always occur together and are called by each other’s names. They form a system and can only be understood in relation to each other.

Control Questions

  1. 1. With the help of examples, show that we are in the habit of considering things in their immobility.
  2. 2. Give examples of the metaphysical concept of the world.
  3. 3. What is mechanicalism and why is it metaphysical?
  4. 4. What are the characteristics of the metaphysical concept and method?

Written Assignment
  1. Can one be both a metaphysician and a revolutionary?