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The two sides of materialism

By Ricardo P Nunes

    The object of study of the sciences, as we know, is limited to what is demonstrable, verifiable, repeatable. These precepts were followed to such an extent that Karl Popper articulated them in a philosophy according to which what is not falsifiable may even be true, but belongs to a domain of non-scientific knowledge. In other words, in order to delimit its universe of study and the scope of its tools of action, science also had to establish the validity of its rules within a single realm of possible knowledge. Obviously, what we know of certain “science” and how it can be propagated is not able to go much further than its mere phenomena. These always presuppose another previous, which in turn another, and each cause a previous cause, which is enough for the capacity of our modest understanding. So, what really matters, what we have to resign ourselves to, therefore, is not really getting to the bottom of what something is or is not at all, but just digging out some of its superficial layers where we can find ways, even if partial or provisional, to explain, predict or manage their manifestations in practical or even merely contemplative life.

   So far, so good. But it so happens that, with the passage of time, a whole series of knowledge acquired through other forms of apprehension was not only abandoned, but reduced to an inferior condition. With the euphoria of the primacy of science, what in principle should be methodologically restricted to the field of exact or biological disciplines, spread precociously, with triumphant joy, to the domains of the humanities and social ones, which since then, incidentally, began to receive also, from its own enthusiasts, the ostentatious status of science. In this context, the damage would be greater: as only phenomena mattered now, their extension and complexity could be reducible to fragments, detached, disconnected, microcosmic facts, and without underlying principles. Then, a whole avalanche of disciplines and specialties would emerge from the shallow depths where their founders were content to arbitrarily define the phenomenal starting point of their field of study. It is curious that one of the most famous of these proponents, August Comte, should have foreseen their detours. He wrote, premonitory, almost two hundred years ago:

  The irrational spirit of specialization that has grown in our time will bring as a final result the reduction of history to a vain accumulation of unrelated monographs, where any idea of a real and simultaneous connection between the various human events will inevitably be lost amidst the sterile encumbrance of confusing descriptions.


   Just as a point is lost without a frame of reference, historical facts lack essence and meaning without their circumstances. The verdict of satisfaction with the partiality of phenomena would henceforth forget this principle. We are faced with one of the consequences of this restricted, segmented lais of the approach to events, for example, in the approaches of the two arch-rival currents that dispute with each other the primacy of truth in the economic domain. Or rather, on the ideological principles on which the minions of socialist political economy are supported and, on the other hand, on the foundations of blind pragmatism on which the disciples of the so-called Austrian School of Economics are oriented. Historical materialism presupposed a “prehistory” of the world that is nothing more than a reflection of the present, and where there is only a single and exclusive phenomenon: the exploitation of work. In the historical genesis devised by its opponents, the basic assumption is economic activity, the market, whose primary engine is human will, motivation or desire. Therefore, in both doctrines, the actions of individuals constitute facts in themselves, inaugural metaphenomena, and not even the most solitary of them escapes their labeling.

   Now, neither the exploration nor the fulfillment of a desire or will are intrinsic things. They are, above all, expressions of facts or ideas, developments within a context. As it only sees the appearance of the phenomenon as it seems or suits it, dialectical historical materialism advocates a society or, rather, a civilization, founded on the inherent value of things, which generates a whole chain of misunderstandings in the interpretation of the economic phenomenon. . While the Austrian School, when abstaining from any kind of preconceived scruples, probes the world only in what are practical manifestations of the market, that is, the symptoms of the phenomenon, the rules of the game; which gives it a certain effectiveness in the descriptive projection of indices and economic cycles, but denies it any possibility of explaining the qualitative meaning in the choices and actions of its agents in order to shed some light on the essence or paths of our civilization.       Insofar as what matters are only the phenomena, these two theories themselves lack a scientific ethos, in the sense of what could clarify the why of things and not just their implications. Perhaps that is why they remain incomplete and unsatisfactory. Basically, although both have a relatively recent origin, they are only under the same umbrella of two very ancient and opposing concepts: that of the presence of evil in the world and that of free will. Or, as Karl Mannheim wanted, ideology and utopia. The first governs the perverse one-sided exploitation among men; the second, the “invisible hand”, and blind, of the market.

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