Idealist Epistemology and Historical Idealism (2012)

Reconstructed in 2013 from journal notes from the summer of 2012, after studying Marxist and non-Marxist philosophy, including Lenin, Trotsky, Ilyenkov, Mehring, Fourth International Magazine, “Trotskyism Versus Revisionism,” and many general reference books, audio books and websites. Part 1 is especially influenced by Lenin. Part 2 is especially indebted to Mehring.


There are several basic epistemologies which predominate in capitalist society. We shall consider four of them. The formal epistemologies which are most relevant to a discussion of modern bourgeois ideology can be placed under the heading of subjective idealism.

The particular types of subjective idealism employed most frequently in bourgeois society are largely derivative of general empiricism, which is rooted in the idea that sensory data composes the basis for all cognition, and philosophy must work from immediate reductions of sensory attributes based on the direct observability or non-observability of phenomena. If phenomena cannot be immediately reduced to sensory data they are deemed super-empirical or “metaphysical.”

We shall see how this plays out in individual epistemologies. The basic definition of subjective idealism as a whole is that the truth is to a large degree subjective, or real to a great extent only in the mind of the observer, because sense perceptions cannot be verified or separated from cognition. The moment when empiricism becomes outright idealism is the moment when the mentality of sense perceptions decisively overcomes their objectivity.

A pure idealist philosophy like that of George Berkeley believes sense perceptions are mentally based in the observer. Since they are, interconnections attributed by the individual to the outside world are actually innate and only exist within the mind. Such interconnections are purely subjective, as all that is experienced is mental. Ideas serve only subjective ends in the “outside world,” which itself is unprovable, though it is convenient for the thinker to act as if it does exist, if for no other reason than personal caprice. Experience of this world and concepts of its interconnection are ultimately supplied by God and God alone.

Let us now turn to fully developed bourgeois epistemologies of the 19th and 20th centuries, which do not openly adhere to subjective idealism because they adopt an eclectic, agnostic approach.

For a positivist epistemology sense perceptions are the basis of all cognition, but as such they contain a certain minimalistic objectivity by default . While sense perceptions cannot be definitively reconciled with an outside world, everything is reducible to them and relies on them, so they are the ultimate truth, if there is any truth. This eclectic position consistently collapses into subjectivity. For example, for the positivist all interconnections and categories “imposed” on sense perceptions are super-empirical. To be valid for inquiry a concept or description must be “verifiable” (that is, human understanding not immediately reducible to empirically derived direct quantities are unverifiable). Otherwise any attempt to understand nature has to be discarded. This skepticism ultimately results in an agnostic position toward reality and the historical process, creating a state of instability and paralysis that can open the door for religion and for nihilism [see Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism]. Any efforts to understand reality as objective and particularly as a process are countered with charges of overstepping the austere and depressed minimalism of verificationism or its successor, falsifiability. These criteria tend to consign every investigator to understanding all complex, abstract and synthetic knowledge as subjective. It has been suggested that even verificationism and falisfiablism themselves are unverifiable and unfalsfiable by the standards of positivism.

For the philosophical pragmatist sense perceptions are regarded in the same manner as they are regarded by the positivist. All interconnections and categories of the “outside world” are super-empircal. However, these concepts may have and can be regarded or judged as having use value. Ideas may be imbued with a measure of practical utility for humanity, which gives them a belated objective meaning. The pragmatist asks what social or individual results and consequences belief in an idea has, even if these results occur strictly within subjective experience, rather than an objective, universal process in itself (which is unapproachable by science and incapable of being proved by the human mind). This epistemology can either be used to advocate a socially-based utilitarian assessment of knowledge (John Dewey) or at the opposite pole, can lead to an advocacy of purely individual and semi-subjective utility as the criteria for knowledge. Pragmatism shares many of the potential lapses into subjectivity which positivism suffers from.

The post modernist (who is related to the pragmatist) also believes sense perceptions are ultimately reliant on cognition and all knowledge must be reducible to them. The post modernist sees interconnections and categories in the world as totally subjective (purely or decisively mental), serving subjective ends. The world beyond immediate, quantitative perceptions is super-empirical and metaphysical. These categories and ideas may be useful, but they aren’t meaningful. Moreover, they are necessarily only individually useful. Post modernism is based on extreme relativism and agnosticism toward reality, as well as a reversion to acceptance of metaphysical ideas (because they are considered to be as legitimate and/or as illegitimate as concepts about reality). Post-Modernism tends to realize the worst tendencies and contradictions of positivism and pragmatism, bringing the empiricism of the latter back full circle to unchecked subjective idealism.


Besides epistemological idealism, there are other types of idealism, such as causal idealism (“metaphysics”) and historical idealism, which we will now turn to.

There are several categories of historical idealism, within which it operates. These are the naturalist approach, the theological approach, the rational approach, the individualist approach and the incidentalist approach. There are many interrelations between these categories.

The naturalist approach focuses on the primacy of “human nature” and individual and group psychology in history. The theological approach is based on the intervention of deities and the supernatural, and is not merely the domain of religious writers and believers. The rational approach is concerned with the supposed role of ideology in itself, as a pure and super-historical motive force, consciousness in the same sense, and abstract culture (including “great races” like “western culture” and “Greek genius”). The individualist approach focuses classically on “great men” such as geniuses, leaders, inventors, philosophers, conquerors, in sum the human personality in isolation. The incidentalist approach attributes historical primacy to great historical episodes, such as military campaigns, technology (discoveries, weapons, etc), or superficial political developments (elections, slogans, parties, coups, pacts etc.).

Individuals, ideas and incidents are the final products of history for materialism and the starting point of history for idealism.

For the historical idealist, beyond the immediate sensual, statistical “facts” of isolated events, individuals and ideas, there is no necessary super-empirical interconnection or process in history, no holistic historical necessity or agency in terms of human social development. History as such does not exist, only these immediate incidents and their immediate empirical consequences (lives lost, elections won, battles lost or won, governments overthrown, ideas formulated, technology invented). Mankind stumbles from crisis to crisis, or discovery to discovery, never really changing.

The self-ascribed role of the idealist historian is to document an incident in regards to the “facts” it presents, making no unnecessary extrapolations. The consequences of a historical event are the direct quantitative aspects it brings to bear. Positivist sociology begins from the immediate “facts” of social life, statistics, customs, whatever is directly quantifiable, and bases its concepts precisely from these, substituting the simple and momentary apparent logic of minutiae and superficialities for the unified logic of a law guided universe. “Historicism,” historical development and context are eliminated. History becomes permutations of human nature.


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