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Sven-Eric Liedman – ‘The Game of Contradictions: The Philosophy of Friedrich Engels and Nineteenth Century Science’

Originally published: Marx & Philosophy on July 27, 2023 by Matt Shafer (more by Marx & Philosophy)  | (Posted Aug 02, 2023)
| Sven Eric Liedman The Game of Contradictions The Philosophy of Friedrich Engels and Nineteenth Century Science | MR Online

The Game of Contradictions: The Philosophy of Friedrich Engels and Nineteenth Century Science
Author: Sven-Eric Liedman
Bibliographic information: trans. J.N. Skinner, Brill, Leiden, 2023. 608 pp., $225 hb
ISBN: 9789004528789

The fundamental achievement of Sven-Eric Liedman’s monumental Game of Contradictionsis its demonstration of a rather counterintuitive claim that appears only late in the book. In calling the theory he had developed with Marx ‘scientific socialism’, Engels did not aim simply to distinguish their project from the ‘utopian’ politics they had long opposed; the real force of the term, Liedman argues, was directed ‘against competing conceptions of science and scholarship’ (328). This thesis is as likely to surprise those who cherish Engels’ more explicitly political writings as it is to scandalise those who would hold Marx’s social theory apart from Engels’ controversial natural-scientific excursions. To defend it, and to establish that it aptly characterises not only Engels’ position alone but the project he shared with Marx as well, Liedman takes up an astonishing range of interpretative, historical and theoretical problems in their work: their unsteady relationship with Hegel, their confrontations with questions of method, the unity or disunity of their distinct intellectual efforts, their shifting accounts of ‘ideology’ and, most of all, their place in the conflictual world of the sciences—natural and social—in their time.

Liedman portrays Engels’ alternative picture of science as a ‘non-reductive materialism’ characterised by a deep confidence in the unity of knowledge and by an equally deep resistance to treating any level of reality as totally determined by another. Engels’ account of scientificity—of what shape a legitimate theory can take—was modelled both on Marx’s theory of capitalism and on Darwin’s theory of evolution. In the nineteenth century, Darwinism was the preeminent exemplar of a form of scientific theory that rejected the task of deductively predicting individual cases or outcomes from necessary general laws; like Marx’s critique of political economy, it was in this way ‘in conflict with the predominant scientific ideal’ (400). Yet Engels wanted more than to vindicate Marx’s own scientific sensibility; he wanted to outline a picture of the world that could make sense of the connections between all areas of its scientific study, including those dealing with capital and its history. He took up this task in an intellectual milieu where new efforts at the popularisation and systematisation of science proliferated. But as Liedman demonstrates, Engels’ ‘system’ was of a singular kind.

The book’s lengthy second section gives a detailed account of the most significant debates within and about the specialised sciences of the nineteenth century. Individual chapters examine not only Darwin and his reception but also the revolutionary discovery of the conservation of energy, the grand enterprise of German historism and the new frontiers of anthropology. Liedman tracks how these emerging scientific disciplines jockeyed for academic and public position amid the vicissitudes of specialisation and professionalisation and in the face of wide contestation over such fields’ ideological significance. In this context, Liedman argues, any attempt at theoretically unifying the various sciences within an overarching system faced two key questions (cf. 305-307). The first was that of what kind of knowledge should be regarded as most fundamental: should a science like Newtonian mechanics, which deals with very simple but also very ‘abstract’ entities, be regarded as the most basic, or does instead a field like philosophy, which deals with very complex but also very ‘concrete’ objects, contain the key to the world as a whole? The second was the problem of how distinct areas of knowledge are then connected: would scientific progress eventually make it possible to translate all questions into the language of the most fundamental field (Newtonian mechanics or, conversely, idealist philosophy), or do different scientific areas deal with qualitatively distinct phenomena that depend on, but cannot be reduced to, those studied by more basic theories?

Every systematisation had to choose between concretisation and abstraction, reduction and non-reduction, in representing the structure of scientific knowledge. Surveying the competing approaches, Liedman argues that Engels showed his real ‘originality’ in his unique attempt to develop a system that was both non-reductive and abstracting (306). Like many of the natural scientists themselves, he was ‘abstracting’ in that he saw Newtonian mechanics as the most fundamental level of reality. But like Hegel, he viewed the distinctions between fields as qualitatively meaningful, unconquerable by the reductionism that many researchers took for granted as their ambition. The sciences are both systematically interrelated with and partly autonomous from each other. Liedman emphasises the recurrent parallel between Engels’ account of scientific knowledge and the theory of base and superstructure in his and Marx’s work (393-401; 425). Biology is conditioned by physics just as political processes are conditioned by economic dynamics, but the relationship is never deterministic. One can no more predict an animal’s behaviour from a theory of fundamental particles than one can forecast a parliamentary election from an analysis of the value-form.

Liedman takes seriously both Engels’ insights and the contradictions in how he expressed them. In other words, he rescues Engels from the vulgarisation and dismissal so rampant among his readers, while also showing why Engels’ work was of such a character as to be so readily vulgarised and dismissed. Engels’ most positivistic formulations about knowledge, for example, offer a key example of ‘how the ideological determination outflanks the theoretical’ at certain moments in his work. Every way of expressing a theoretical idea reflects the interplay between the internal question of how to explicate the insight and the external question of how to account for the ideological context of its likely reception. In his rhetorical lurches toward positivism, Engels did not simply express a philosophical claim on its own terms; he responded to ‘an ongoing controversy over the status of scientific theories’, in which the only mainstream ‘alternatives were either pure empiricism or a speculative view of knowledge’, a choice with significant stakes for the status of science in wider disputes about ‘religion, politics, ethics and aesthetics’ (531). Because Engels felt it necessary to take a strong position on the public debate, he remained sometimes ‘at the mercy of an ideological controversy that distorted his own position’ (532). In agreement with later scholars like Helena Sheehan, John Bellamy Foster and Kaan Kangal, Liedman makes it clear that Engels’ approach to scientific and methodological questions cannot be adequately comprehended in terms of his own most simplistic slogans (Engels was clearly not the positivist he is often depicted as, nor was he an unreconstructed Hegelian, as other fragments of his work might equally suggest). In his more detailed attention to the scientific-historical context, Liedman shows how such tensions in Engels’ style arose not just from the unfinished state of his writings, but also from his confrontation with the complex ideological milieu in which they were formed.

But why did Engels take up this scientific project at all? Lukács’ early position, that the turn to nature wrongly extended Marx’s method beyond its proper sphere, remains influential today. It is tempting to think that Engels was simply drawn beyond Marx’s more focused concerns by his own idiosyncratically expansive interests. Liedman unequivocally rejects such interpretations. Within the scholarly and public controversies in which Marx himself sought to intervene, Marxist theory necessarily ‘had to be put in relation to all the difficult questions [of] contemporary scientific debates: the questions of determinism, development, tendencies, and so on’ (318). As early as the introduction to the Grundrisse, Marx had implicitly raised a problem he himself did not directly address, that of ‘the extent to which what he said about political economy applies to all of the scientific method’ (73). Through an extended reading of Marx’s own methodological writings, Liedman argues that Marx’s work ‘is not compatible with just any materialist conception of reality whatsoever’ but instead ‘is irreductionist to its very foundations’ (461). Not just an airy question of methodological pretentions, the challenge of reductionism had direct implications for the Marxist analysis of capitalism. Darwinism had recast the problem of ‘the relation of the sphere of history itself to the sphere of biology’, for some of Darwin’s enthusiasts held that natural selection drove the transformation of human societies as surely as it did the evolution of species. Marx and Engels thoroughly rejected this view, but to defend their position against it would require explaining how a scientific theory operating at one level (the analysis of human society) could be secure from reductionistic restatement in terms of a theory operating at another, lower one (the study of biological change). For this reason, Engels’ turn to the sciences in general ‘was of the greatest importance for the materialist conception of history and for the theory of capital’ (461); it was in search of an understanding of the sciences that could justify such a non-reductionist materialism that Engels took up the themes that have proven so controversial in his later reception.

Liedman’s study deserves to be much more influential within that reception than it heretofore has been. The book was first published in Swedish in 1977; a German version of the 1980s was radically abridged. This new translation into English, ably rendered by J. N. Skinner (who also handled Liedman’s recent biography of Marx, A World to Win), is thus long overdue. In most respects, the book’s analysis more than holds its own against later scholarship, and it is therefore understandable that it appears now in an unrevised form. Nonetheless, in certain areas it might have been written differently today. Three such (inevitable) gaps should be kept in mind by those reading it now.

The first is its relationship to subsequent scholarship in the interdisciplinary area of science and technology studies. In 1977, Thomas Kuhn (whom Liedman cites several times) represented perhaps the leading edge of this emerging field; today he is widely seen as one of its canonical, but largely superseded, antecedents. On the one hand, Liedman’s own approach to the history of science nicely anticipates later methodological developments, particularly in his attention to how scientific practice is shaped not only by the immanent demands of theoretical understanding but also by the sociological significance of ideological pressures, the dynamics of professionalisation and specialisation, and the institutional locations and apparatuses that make such practice possible. There is, for example, a very nice excursus on the relationship between the ‘seminar’ and the ‘laboratory’ as sites of competing forms of knowledge-production (cf. 221-224) as well as a suggestive outline for the ‘semiotic analysis of nineteenth-century technical texts’ (272). On the other hand, certain themes characteristic of contemporary scholarship remain largely beyond Liedman’s scope, especially questions about how identity-categories like gender and race shape the social construction of scientific authority and about the relationship between science and state-building in an age of imperial ambition. More striking, given Liedman’s explicit concerns, is his general inattention to the role of technology in Engels’ account of the history of science, despite Engels’ substantial writing on technological change (which he took up largely, though not exclusively, in relation to military history). In a scholarly context today where much debate attends even such matters as the terminological choice between ‘science and technology’ and ‘technoscientific practice’, Liedman’s narrower focus does not compromise the internal value of his own account, but it does implicitly leave certain problems as exercises for the reader.

A second relevant area of later scholarship comprises ecological Marxism, which has seen probably the most significant re-evaluation of Engels’ philosophical writings since Liedman’s own. He only once gestures explicitly to the importance of ecology for Marxism today (463); the term ‘metabolism’, so central to newer studies of Marx’s relation to the natural sciences and to Engels’ writings on them, is entirely absent. The lacuna probably results from his strict focus on the scientific disciplines of Engels’ own time, rather than ours. This represents not a distortion within Liedman’s account of Marx and Engels but rather an opportunity for further research into the significance of their ‘scientific socialism’ for the distinctive scientific dilemmas that confront any socialism today.

The third area is represented by later work on Marx’s own methodology. In the decades since Liedman’s study appeared, much of the richest rethinking of Marx’s method has played out in debates about his theory of value; yet this category barely appears in Liedman’s extensive attention to the theoretical dilemmas of the critique of capitalism. In retrospect, this is a serious gap, since the new readings of Marx associated with such debates have reframed the problem of his intellectual relationship to Engels largely around the question of how fully Engels did or did not comprehend the value-theory—and the answers to this question have mostly not been to Engels’ credit. For many today, it is Capital, and no longer Dialectics of Nature, that marks the real rift between the two men. Those who see in the value-form the true key to Marx’s method are unlikely to find their scepticism of Engels assuaged by Liedman’s study. But Liedman, by offering such an otherwise systematic analysis of Marx’s and not only of Engels’ scientific concerns, also offers an implicit warning about the risk of distorting Marx’s own project whenever the critique of political economy is read in isolation from the many other scientific problems that Marx’s materialism implicated. Those problems cannot be assessed without attention to Engels alongside Marx. To do so responsibly, as Liedman forcefully demonstrates, requires that we see in their lifelong friendship neither a perfect intellectual harmony nor a total philosophical rift. Instead, their work—together and apart—was a game of contradictions in itself, and the dilemmas that each of them faced alone cannot properly be grasped without confronting the problems they faced together as well.

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