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The Philosophy of Living Experience

tags : [[philosophy]] [[Alexander Bogdanov]] [[materialism]]

type : literature

1. What is Materialism?

  • Bogdanov defines [[nature]] as the endlessly unfolding field of their labor-experience

  • [[labor]], as a whole, is the activity of all of humanity in the historical interconnectedness of all its generations

  • Human beings change the elements of nature by means of labor

  • Labor organizes the world for humanity

  • Labor requires conscious effort

  • Matter, which we consider real, is the object of collective labor

  • Bogdanov says that [[Marx]] used the term [[“materialism”]] because he realized that matter is the object of production

  • Labor must systemically organize to overcome nature

  • Bogdanov uses the term “[[ideology]]” to refer to the realm of ideal thought

  • He says that things like human speech arose from labor

  • Bogdanov asserts that [[philosophy]] arose in an era when to organize meant to rule over, and that the natural product of this was [[idealism]]

  • Bogdanov characterizes [[materialism]] as the philosophy which arose out of seeing the world through laborious acts, whereas [[idealism]] sees the other half of the picture

  • [[Democrtius]] believed that the seemingly immaterial aspects of our lives; our wishes, desires, etc. were actually made of atoms

    • Sounds like discussion from [[Cosmopod]]. Did Democritus mystify the real social relations as matter?
  • Bogdanov says that there is a method called substitution by which things become almost mystified. The example he gives is a book: the physical properties of a book do not contain knowledge, it is the interpretation of the letters in the book that articulate its knowledge

    • This isn’t a bad thing, he says, it’s just a means of explanation
  • [[Democrtius]]’s theory of atoms speaks to immaterial phenomena being material, and therefore able to be studied

  • Bogdanov notes the distinction between symbol and meaning, and that this distinction itself is a form of substitution

  • He seems to be making a distinction between an explanation of a thing being confused for a thing itself

  • Bogdanov says that materialism unifies and explains the world of experience through “matter”, whereas idealism substitutes ideal elements (spirit, etc.) for material processes

  • Bogdanov says that “matter is matter and that is all!” doesn’t actually say anything

  • Bogdanov reiterates what Marx says in Capital regarding [[commodity fetishism]]; that distribution of labor among members of society (“relationship between people”) is conceived of as a relationship between things (commodities). Commodities are exchanged by virtue of something intrinsic to themselves, not something in society

  • Bogdanov felt that [[Ernst Mach]] revealed a fetishistic attitude towards matter, but was unable to uncover the source of that fetishism

  • Bogdanov describes matter as something that’s socially valid upon which labor can act upon

  • Bogdanov says that matter that cannot be acted upon is “absolute” and therefore becomes fetishized

    • The example he gives is bacteria
  • Bogdanov mentions that Marx criticizes [[Feuerbach]] (in [[Theses on Feuerbach]]) that the main problem with materialism consisted of seeing the world as an object of contemplation, not as a form of concrete human activity

  • Bogdanov observes that [[Aristotle]] noticed a connection between activity and matter, but externalized it, i.e. clay becomes bricks for a house, that clay takes the “form” of bricks with the intention of being a brick for a house. The materialist observes that clay only becomes bricks through labor, and that it’s through conscious human activity that clay becomes a brick for a house

  • Bogdanov says that Mach criticizes [[Isaac Newton]] for his definition of matter and mass, that it is meaningless, and that all that can be done is to measure the relationship of masses

  • Bogdanov criticizes people for believing that “truth” has anything besides a social meaning. Mathematics has no meaning if there are no people around to give it meaning!

  • Bogdanov gives a great definition of [[commodity fetishism]] (more like a generalization of fetishism) here:

    The nature of fetishism is clear, and it is fetishism all the same, whether abstract or absolute. An idea which is objectively the result of past social activity and a tool for further activity is conceived of as something independent of and aloof from that activity, and this blocks the path to actual cognition of it. The correlation of an idea with the practice that it organizes turns out to be inaccessible to people’s thinking.

  • An idea is the product of abstraction to some degree

  • [[monism]]: a unified worldview

2. Materialism of the Ancient World

  • Bogdanov says that [[philosophy]] (presumably western philosophy) was born in Greek colonies in Asia minor

  • Philosophy began here as the embracing of non-religious knowledge (what we would today call [[science]])

  • Bogdanov says that philosophy arising in Asia Minor was no accident: it was a nexus of trade between Europe and Asia broadly speaking

  • Bogdanov says that the exchange of goods created the first “secular” knowledge. Things like geometry and astronomy were used for the purpose of guiding trade

  • [[Thales]] was an early materialist of sorts, and posited that everything is made of water. This, as Bogdanov says, is a form of substitution: he replaced matter in general with a specific type of matter

  • Water being significant was also no coincidence: the ancient world was surrounded by water

  • Up next was [[Anaximander]], who, as Bogdanov says, provided an important next step in abstract thinking: endlessness is what allows things to exist, therefore heat and cold arose from endlessness, and then in turn water

  • Next was [[Anaximenes]], who believed the basis of things was air, not water

  • Bogdanov would consider these three part of the tradition of materialism, as they first looked out into the world to understand it (i.e. understand it in terms of matter)

  • These ancient philosophers had stumbled upon a “primordial dialectic”, that the world was one of activity

  • Enter [[Democrtius]], who was also born in an Ionic trading colony, like the Miletus philosophers

  • Democritus sought to sum up the knowledge of natural science for his time. Bogdanov believes that he was an influence on [[Aristotle]]

  • Materialism arose from a study of nature

  • Two basic methods of human labor are division and combination

  • [[Anaxagoras]] was yet another ancient philosopher who thought of the world in terms of elements, but he thought that objects could be divided up into an indefinite number of elements. He also believed that all of space was filled with elements, and that empty space didn’t exist

  • Bogdanov goes into a bit about how “atom” in Greek was translated into Latin as “individual”, and that exchange society (i.e. capitalism) is atomistic

  • Bogdanov tries to show that capitalist society attempts to atomize workers lives, but fails because these individuals have to inherently come together in the market to make society work

  • [[Leibniz]] saw the world as a series of monads, or a completely self-isolated element. He believed that each monad-individual was, at the end of the day, a completely self-contained entity that didn’t exist under the influence of others. Each of these monads operate under a sort of supreme will and only approach something that appears to be communication. This is [[idealism]], for it substitutes the idea of “spirit” for everything

  • Contrasting Leibniz, atomism and materialism aren’t the same: atoms exist in relation to one another

  • Matter, unlike monads, is external to a person

  • Atoms are individualistic but they must be brought together and united into a whole, organized world

  • [[Epicurus]] believed that the first cause of atoms was falling. He correctly predicted that in empty space, all objects would fall at the same rate, since there could be no resistance in empty space

  • [[Empedocles]] is credited with being the person who came up with the idea that the four fundamental elements were earth, air, fire, and water

  • He also believed in two fundamental forces through which matter interact: attraction and repulsion

  • He believed that when things came together and were purposeful and stable, they would survive, and the inverse would perish or be destroyed (“selection”). In this way he could have anticipated [[Darwin]] and [[natural selection]]

  • Bogdanov criticizes [[Darwin]] because he felt that he didn’t quite grasp the social nature of biology, and instead grafted on the idealized capitalist ideology of [[Malthus]]

  • Competition is only a particular kind of selection

  • Bogdanov criticizes [[sensualism]], the idea that all we know is sensuous experience, and that this can be universalized. E.g. “external objects are nothing more than my mental images”

  • Bogdanov says that [[solipsism]] is 1. a characteristic example of [[abstract fetishism]] and 2. could only come from thinkers who are cut off from the labor process

  • For the sensualist [[Protagoras]], the sensory organ undergoes an action in perception, but is also acted upon. For example, a tree cannot be known in itself, but, once observed, you obtain a visual sensation and the tree suddenly exists in relation to you via its visual form in relation to you, but only for that moment

    Here we encounter an interesting peculiarity of Protagorean sensualism, which distinguishes him from later sensualists such as Locke, Condillac, and many moderate materialists. To be specific, for Protagoras the subject or the subject’s sensory organ plays a much more active role. The sensory organ not only undergoes an action from the object from which the sensation is actually produced, but it also acts on the object, generating in it ‘what is sensed’. So, a tree cannot be known in itself and has no optical image, but when you look at it, not only do you obtain a visual sensation, but the tree itself attains a visual form in relation to you – its optical appearance. Both fully correspond to one another, therefore sensation is always true and always truly conveys what is sensed. But what is sensed, itself, exists in the subject only in that moment and only for that given subject; the object in itself is not accessible to a person. This is a transitional point of view, the result of a situation in which theory is still not sufficiently removed from practice – not sufficiently specialised – to be able to live a completely separate, independent life. Practical people will always be ‘naïve realists’, i.e. they accept that objects are precisely as they are seen, perceived, and, in general, apprehended. The fetishism of naïve realism consists in that it considers the object to exist in such a form completely inde- pendently of any human practice. The naïve realist supposes that the object in itself is, for example, ‘quadrangular’, ‘two yards long’, ‘weighing three pounds’, and does not understand that all these ‘properties’ can in no way belong to the object ‘in itself’. Humanity, in its labour experience over millennia, had to work out methods of comparing and defining forms, measurement, and weight, in order to make ‘quadrangles’, ‘yards’, ‘pounds’, etc. possible. In nature itself – in the instances of elemental resistance which labouring effort comes up against – there are no such things, nor can there be. They are the result of the activity of humanity in overcoming, changing, forming, and organising these resistances. In the hands of fetishists – theoreticians who lock themselves up in their studies and whose narrow specialties have almost nothing to do with the resistance of material objects – this distortion develops further. Their sense of isolation from material objects and their sense of the ‘independence’ of material objects are considerably deeper. They believe that such objects not only exist independently from themselves but that they are so independent as to be completely inaccessible to their minds; only their ‘outward appear- ance’ is accessible – masks which they put on before the observer. And a feeling of their individual powerlessness – their personal passivity in relation to the external world – reinforces in them the conviction that this ‘outward appear- ance’ is entirely the result of the object’s action on them, that they themselves only ‘apprehend’ that action.

  • The main characteristics of ancient materialism were “unconscious applications of models taken from social practice”

  • All forms of ancient materialism had individualism (i.e. an individualized and atomistic perspective) and individualistic development of society at their core

3. Modern Materialism

  • Bogdanov makes the claim that the collapse of the [[Roman Empire]] was due to a lack of technological innovation due to the existence of [[slavery]]

  • [[Slavery]] was ineffective as a [[mode of production]] in the end because it required constant wars to obtain new slaves, and therefore commercial activity could not really spring up in such circumstances. Slavery prevents there from being suitable workers

  • The [[Renaissance]] was born hand-in-hand with the emergence of [[capitalism]]

  • Ancient philosophy and law provided for means of individualistic thinking, which also goes hand-in-hand with the rise of capitalism

  • New materialism was born out of this period as well, going along with the desire for a new rationality

  • This new materialism concerned itself with method rather than systems

  • [[Francis Bacon]] believed that the goal of knowledge was its practical value. “Precise and accurate knowledge was a tool that could conquer the world… [ushering in a] dominion of humanity”

  • There are “pure theoreticians” that Bogdanov criticizes, who believe the pursuit of knowledge should be done for its own sake, without regard for what the application of its discovery is

    The psychological truth is that if you search for truth you must concentrate all your attention and energy of thought on it alone; you must not be distracted at that moment by any collateral considerations – about what the truth is that one is seeking, where it objectively comes from, the practical tasks that it must help resolve, etc. But this applies generally to all intense and complicated human activity. When turning any delicate part of a machine on a lathe, a mechanic of course should not at that moment be thinking either about the usefulness of this part in the machine or about the usefulness of the machine in production; the mechanic should be thinking only about how to achieve the necessary form. When performing a difficult operation, a surgeon should not think about the benefit of that operation for the patient, one’s personal reputation as a surgeon, or even about the scientific results which can be obtained from findings connected with it; the surgeon should think solely about the means of successfully accomplishing the operation. However, this is not a reason why the tasks of the turner or the tasks of the surgeon must be self-contained, ‘pure’ tasks. It is not harmful for either of them to know what they are doing, i.e. to have an idea of those needs that are objectively served by their work. The same can be said about cognition as a means of satisfying the practical needs of society. — p. 99 - 100

    No one has ever proven that work is completed better and faster when the worker does not understand its objective meaning.

  • The value of truth is derived by crystallized social experience. Truth is produced, created out of humanity interacting with objects of nature. New truth replaces old truth

  • [[Scholasticism]] asserts several given truths, and new truths had to be derived from the truths that were there

    • Bogdanov mentions in a footnote that the term “scholasticism” refers to what was taught in European universities that was descended from the works of [[Aristotle]]
  • [[Empiricism]] (“empirical methodology”) asserted that new truths could be discovered without regard for what had already been known. It is the only avenue through which modern materialism could be possible

  • “pure experience” is the idea that correct thinking will lead to truth

    Everyday experience is full of contradictions; observations are entangled with many illusions. The scientific method must first of all liberate cognition from such elements; otherwise induction would not be able to lead to truth. This is the idea of ‘pure experience’, which plays a very large role in all further development of philosophical ideas; we will meet it many times in our account. Bacon gave it form in his doctrine about ‘idols’ – a word that can be translated both as ‘fetish’ and ‘illusion’. Its meaning is so broad that it contains both of these connotations. Bacon’s classification of these ‘idols’ is interesting because it so clearly sets forth the revolutionary mood of the new thinking against the entire traditional and conventional system of ideas.

  • Idola tribus: Idols of the tribe, “delusions associated with the general conditions of humankind.” Anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism, tendency to understand phenomena of nature as having human characteristics

  • Idola specus: Idols of the cave, individuals living within themselves and not being able to see outside of it. For example, specialists who believe their specialty is important and essential, while something unrelated isn’t

  • Idola fori: Idols of the marketplace. Commodity fetishism.

  • Idola theatric: Idols of the theatre. Illusions that arise due to a disguise, “to which reality is subjected at the hands of historians and philosophers”

  • Data of experience is organized through the method of generalization

  • A group voting to do something is attempting to correlate statistical data with organizing experience

  • Pages 104 - 106 (in PDF) sound like [[cybernetics]]

  • Abstract analysis is carried out through both observation and experimentation

  • [[Thomas Hobbes]] is seen as the next modern materialist for Bogdanov

  • The mathematics of Hobbes’ time arose out of trying to find the relationship of magnitudes (calculus)

  • For Hobbes, the only things that were real were the things that could be mathematically constructed

  • [[John Locke]] is next. Bogdanov categorizes him as a sensualist, who thought the most important thing was physical experience

  • Locke developed a sort of proto-psychology as well

  • Locke correctly disproved that there was no objective “idea”, that all knowledge was learned to some degree, and that this could be shown by virtue of the fact that there was a multiplicity of ideas (some people had no concept of God, etc.)

  • Locke categorized qualities as primary (form, size, position in space), secondary, and tertiary, and that experiencing these was completely subjective

  • [[David Hume]] is a representative of English sensualism as well, and maybe not materialism

  • Hume thought that all human experience essentially boils down to individual experience

  • Hume considered causality to be a succession of perceptions

  • Causation is a permanent interconnectedness of phenomena

  • Hume was a proponent of [[skepticism]] which was only an influence on ideas to come later

  • The early English bourgeoisie supported [[absolute monarchy]] because it led to political and civil stability

  • The early bourgeoisie and the late aristocracy were often similar people and had similar interests

  • The early French bourgeoisie originally aligned itself with the monarchy, but the monarchy didn’t provide political freedom for the bourgeoisie and was unable to cope with the economic needs of the country. Thus the [[French Revolution]] occurred

  • French materialism, unlike English materialism, was more about systematizing more than individualizing

  • The most relevant contribution of the French materialists is that human nature wasn’t something immutable, but was something that depended on social context

  • They also contributed the idea that the ideas of the time are subordinate to the social context in which they arise. Ideas in themselves do not transform society

  • Individuals are not actively conscious of their interconnectedness through society, and therefore things only appear individualistic

4. [[Empiriocriticism]]

  • Bogdanov says that what distinguishes pre-modern and modern empiricism is experience
  • Bogdanov cites [[Richard Avenarius]] — before we do philosophy we already have a common context. We have clothes, the sun, etc. we know what these things mean collectively
  • Bogdanov mentions that trees have characteristics outside of our heads, but it’s not until they enter our heads that they take on meaning
    • i.e. the greenness of the leaves of a tree are a social construct. Greenness is formed out of our collective experience but this characteristic is also intrinsic to the tree
  • Bogdanov is playing up the interrelations between the physical world and the world in our heads
  • Scientists and thinkers seek to explain facts. For empiriocriticism this is backwards: phenomena are only known when “their interconnectedness and dependence are found and accurately indicated”
  • Functional dependence: when A is present, B occurs
    • sounds like f(A) => B
  • Empiriocriticism doesn’t seek to “explain” the world (in causal terms), it views the world as interconnectedness of phenomena

5. [[Dialectical Materialism]]

  • “Dialectic” means “dialogue”
  • [[Plato]] defined the dialectic as “a conversation of the soul with itself concerning any subject whatever”
  • The dialectical process is a form of organizing character
  • The dialectical process, broadly, is two opposite tendencies whose antagonistic relationship develops a new organizational model containing each part
    • Health / illness => immunity, two groups going to war and creating a treaty, etc.
  • The dialectical process has its origins in the Milesian school
  • The formal originator of the dialectical means of thinking in the west was [[Heraclitus the Obscure]]
  • Heraclitus thought that fire was the basis of all things
  • Heraclitus observed that “in the struggle of opposites, each thing necessarily transforms into its opposite”
  • Some thinkers believe Heraclitus to have been influenced by [[Zarathustra]]
  • Heraclitus sounds like the Hegel of his day: no one read him and everyone was confused by him (this is unfair to Hegel)
  • [[Hegel]] is the next thinker to really popularize dialectical thinking, along with [[Fitche]] and [[Schelling]]
  • [[Fitche]] saw the “I” striving to be conscious of itself, but in this process encounters resistance. This resistance is found within one’s self, called “not-I”
    • Bogdanov only really sees the process as being valuable
  • [[Schelling]] took existing scientific thoughts at the time and tried to shoe-horn them into philosophy (namely polarity)
    • Althusser, supposedly, considers this to be a mistake on the part of philosophers, who see one concept from science and base their whole thing around it. It’s the inverse of STEM people
  • [[Hegel]], meanwhile, felt that the Absolute Idea (God) was a world-process
  • For Hegel, an Idea was the sum total of a certain phenomena (Bogdanov says that this is a substitution: he substitutes Idea for a given sum of phenomena)
  • Hegel believed that a dialectical contradiction was internal to a process. “In order to be, it is necessary to be something, and in order to possess being and nothing more, it is impossible to be anything concrete
  • “Becoming” contains both “being” and “non-being”, which is synthesized into a higher concept
  • Bogdanov believes that philosophy is like a map of a theatre of war: it provides a useful orientation but no more
  • [[Feuerbach]] was the person who, as Bogdanov puts it, took philosophy from the misty abstractions into the real world. He’s even quoted as saying “The old philosophy was abstract, the new philosophy is sensuous.”
  • Feuerbach pointed out that a deity is a representation of the essence of humanity
    • Marx criticizes this point in [[Theses on Feuerbach]] by saying that he didn’t consider religion to be a social construct
  • [[Engels]] was overly mechanistic in his understanding of dialectics in [[Anti-Dühring]]
    • A seed which grows, according to Bogdanov, doesn’t “negate” itself
    • Bogdanov criticizes Engels’ understanding of motion, as it’s not contradictory. An object’s location is not intrinsic to itself
  • Bogdanov says that [[Joseph Dietzgen]] is similar in philosophy to Marx and Engels
    • Dietzgen tried to synthesize dialectics with [[Spinoza]]
    • Dietzgen says that if a human being can conceive of infinity it must mean that they are part of an infinity
  • Bogdanov sums up the problems with dialectical materialism well: that it can be seen everywhere, but that’s not all there is to life

6. Empiriomonism

Labor Causality

  • Bogdanov believes that what transforms our relationship to the world is labor
  • Bogdanov asserts that labor is almost a mathematical transformation of the world. A water turbine generating electricity is the transformation of a natural process for a human end. It’s like f(x, y) => z where x, y, and z are natural phenomena
  • For Bogdanov, labor, and the fundamental activity of humanity, is the transformation of energy (see: machines)
  • Labor for Bogdanov is a derivation of energy in the real world
  • Labor causality is, in summary, a view of causation wherein labor actively transforms nature

Elements of Experience

  • Elements in the real world are the result of a particular labor process. Hydrogen was found in water by means of performing labor upon it to break it down.
  • Understanding elements in the real world via labor always correlate to a task at hand, and allow for a clearer understanding


  • We know there’s a real world out there because we agree there is through our collective being
  • The objective world is the subject of social experience, in the same way that dreams are the subject of individual experience
  • Bogdanov gives an example: an astronomer sees a comet, but only the astronomer has seen it. Is it objective? The astronomer can publish the position of the comet, etc. but once the astronomer classified it, it became the subject of collective experience because it can be described using the tools made by collective effort
  • Bogdanov criticizes Plekhanov for his take on wood demons: Plekhanov says that wood demons don’t exist, but Bogdanov feels that this isn’t precisely correct: The wood demons did not exist but their social existence served a purpose in ancient Russian society


  • Bogdanov asserts that all worldviews are predicated on a view of causailty, fundamentally

  • Sociomorphism can be defined as:

    Thought takes its forms from social practice.


    The interconnectedness of the elements of experience in cognition has as its basis the correlation of the elements of social activity in the labor process.

    This sounds like [[Sartre]]’s “existence precedes essence.”


  • Bogdanov gives a more complete picture of substitution: substitution is a simpler explanation of more complex phenomena. There’s only so much we can understand about the sun, for example. We cannot fathom its every facet, so we must substitute in an understanding.
  • Bogdanov reveals himself here to be a monist: for him, there is no separation between thought and matter.
  • Universal substitution is the goal for Bogdanov, where the signifier and signified are one in the same

A Picture of the World

  • Science for Bogdanov should be wider and have richer content, rather than complexity. This allows for a certain amount of modularity in explanations.


  • Bogdanov outlines what he calls “the science of the future”, what we now know is [[cybernetics]]
  • Bogdanov’s “science of the future” has no specialization and is a science of science, essentially
  • The science of the future will be an organizational force above all: once which studies the organizational structures of existence and organize humanity’s creative powers


The problem, says Bogdanov, is that we make a fetish of the part of the total labor process that we happen to do ourselves, taking it to be the key part. We compound this error by imagining the rest of the process, the social whole, even the whole universe, according to metaphors drawn from our own particular labors. He called this substitution. Philosophy, says Bogdanov, is any system of thought that takes an image from a concrete labor process and explains the rest of the world by via substituting metaphors from what is known toward what is unknown. We image the rest on the pattern of the part we know. Thus: “The Lord is my shepherd” is a way of understanding heaven and earth – if one happens to be a shepherd. — Against Social Determinism - Public Seminar


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