On Suchting on Aristotle, Galileo, Marx, materialism and the meaning of law in science and in the law of the tendency of the profit rate to fall
This is the script for a talk at a conference put on by the journal Historical Materialism at the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts last year. Because it was a script, there are no references and it is in no way a perfectly formed argument. Just notes that I cut and pasted together roughly to say something about the research I was doing on WA Suchting at the time.
A speaker opened this conference with some comments about Karl Marx’s infamous law of the tendency of the profit rate to fall. They said that it is not an “empirical law” but a “law of tendencies” and that this was the source of its failure.
My ears perked up. Counterposing empirical law to laws of tendency is one of the key examples that WA Suchting, my research subject, developed as a misreading both of what law means in science and of Marx’s use of the word law in his critique of political economy. The difficult answer to this stuff about laws of tendency being somehow less than the esteemed empirical laws of the hard sciences is that the laws of physics—empirical laws par excellence—are laws of tendency in Marx’s sense. Counterposing empirical laws to laws of tendency is more like placing a mirror between them.
The error is not that the idea of law in Marx has been misread, but that what a scientific law is has been missed; it has, particularly, been taken as law in the premodern sense of something that can be seen or observed to happen, in Aristotle’s words, “always, and for the most part.” Suchting argued that this Aristotelianism was a source of misunderstandings about both Marx and science. Highlighting the line that Galileo cuts through history—Gramsci calls it the separation of two worlds in history—is the first half of the thematic division the structures Suchting’s Marxism.
The second half of that thematic came in another speaker’s reference to the material and the formal cause of the present crisis as something like a lack of class organisation paired with an ideological crisis. I have no particular criticism of their use of these terms. Suchting also relied, quite ironically, on Aristotle’s four causes to talk about practice; he tended generally to use the tropes of precisely those figures he was most critical of to construct his prose—perhaps because he dwelled so long in their words he felt at home in them.
But what I was hearing in the opening plenary was, on the one hand, a speaker talking about a problem central to the interpretation of science after Galileo and, on the other hand, an Aristotelian framework being used to discuss the political roadblocks of the present moment.
These coordinates—Galileo, Aristotle and the scientific revolution that divides them—are the thematic structure that Suchting cuts through Marxism.
In order to move on now to describing his Marxism, I want to discuss first what he does with Galileo and Aristotle. I’ll then talk about what he does with Marx and draw on the notion of law as a key example.
The key thematic of Suchting’s Marxism is the emergence of a modern scientific practice with Galileo and the epochal break that this marks with Aristotle’s legacy, which had grown over the centuries into what we know as scholasticism.
This Aristotle-Galileo break replaces the more well known pairing of Hegel and Marx, which Suchting had written his masters thesis on.
For example, his last stoush with Analytical Marxism is a paper reviewing Erik Olin Wright, Andrew Levine and Elliott Sober’s Reconstructing Marxism; his final judgement is that they are Aristotelians. On Hegel, he argued that the Science of Logic is a recuperation of the logic of post-Galilean science into a teleological philosophy indebted to Aristotle.
It should also be mentioned that Suchting is not the first to do this. Galvano Della Volpe had also emphasised this in his Logic as a Positive Science, where he works through a series of breaks in the history of philosophy that culminate in Marx’s break with Hegel. He explicitly uses Galileo’s break with scholasticism as the model for this.
Gramsci also drew a line between Galileo and Marx. He writes in his Prison Notebooks:
There is no doubt that the establishment of the experimental method separates two worlds in history, two epochs, and it begins the process of the development of modern thought, whose crowning is the philosophy of praxis.
The philosophy of praxis, being Gramsci’s prison censor code for Marxism.
I think that, for Suchting, the focus on Galileo opened up a way to include Marx in a far bigger world than was allowed by the provincial break in German thought, that spends an enormous amount of time variously distinguishing and aligning Hegel and Marx. Indeed, it is almost the case that Suchting displaces the well-trod division of philosophy into idealism and materialism onto the world before and after Galileo—Gramsci’s two worlds in history. Marx and Hegel then become two individuals fighting their own battles with the consequences of Galileo’s revolution and the modernity it had a hand in unleashing.
Suchting argues that Galileo makes three key moves with his new practice in science.
Firstly, it introduces concepts of things, properties, relations which are not immediately accessible to to ordinary perception, are ‘unobservable’, (from atoms and electromagnetic fields to the neurological bases of generative grammar) and which are not formed in terms of means or ends of human action.
The premodern science indebted to Aristotle proceeds from either perception or sensation. In On the Heavens, Aristotle writes that “knowledge of nature is the phenomena always and properly given by perception” and in the Prior Analytics that “it is the business of experience to give the principles which belong to each subject.” What is being claimed here is that universals are freely given up from the objects we perceive in a sort of intuition. He refers to this as a passage from particulars to universals.
An example of Galileo’s introduction of concepts of things is the introduction of functions in mathematics. For example the law of falling bodies—that relates to a likely apocryphal story about Galileo dropping objects off the Leaning Tower of Pisa—expresses the distance travelled by a falling object as a function of the square of the time that it falls. This law describes an invariant relation. It says nothing about any actual instance of a body falling and it certainly doesn’t matter if anyone sees something fall in a forest.
For Aristotle laws are based on the frequency with which some phenomena is actually observed. He argues that laws relate to things that happen “always, or for the most part,” but never for things that happen by chance—chance, average and probability, of course, come to dominate science after the nineteenth century.
A final way to say this is that for Aristotle science is about the things some phenomenon involves, whereas after Galileo science becomes concerned with invariant relations between those things—theoretical relations that are necessarily invisible to the senses.
Secondly, wherever possible, it replaces the unassisted sense organs with material instrumentation.
The classic example of this is the telescope. In the Sidereus Nuncius—The Starry Messenger—Galileo describes how he built a telescope and what he saw when he looked through it.
The response of the scholastics of the day was outrage. According to the cosmology they had inherited from a mixture of Aristotle and scripture, anything beyond the earth was perfect. It was only the sublunar, fallen world that exhibited things like change and accident and so on. The heavens were perfection, the earth was monstrous. So for these seventeenth century philosophers the moon was a perfect sphere. They were shocked by Galileo’s report:
From my observations of [the heavens], often repeated … I feel sure that the surface of the moon is not perfectly smooth, free from inequalities and exactly spherical.
He adds for good measure: “as a large school of philosophers considers.”
Indicative of the problems that scholastics faced in coming to terms with change was their refusal to even look through the telescope; they could not be sure that what they were seeing wasn’t simply produced inside the telescope itself; they only trusted their bare senses, in this case their eyesight. A corollary of this is a belief that any interference with an object will mean that we cannot intuit “true” knowledge of it—a belief that the rise of experiment destroyed.
Thirdly, it introduces the radically new procedure of constructing in thought situations where abstraction is made from the complexity of the elements and interactions present in real situations—”pure” or “ideal” cases—representations of actual situations then being constructed by adding to the model bit by bit, more elements and their characteristic modes of interaction, a situation that may be described as a “deduction” … to … the real situation.
One of the key criticisms of the Aristotelian approach is its anthropocentrism—or humanism. It models scientific practice on the sensory experiences that make up everyday life. Laws were developed from the frequency with which phenomena were observed, using everyday binaries to order and categorise these observations, like hot and cold, dry and moist, up and down, and so on.
Descartes gives us a quick way into why Galileo broke with this sort of human-centric worldview. In the Meditations he famously doubts the reliability of sense perception. He has no way of knowing if the people he sees out his window are not automatons, machine men marching in the street. It is only the abstract inner world of thought that he can rely on.
Likewise, Galileo writes in his Dialogue Concerning Two New Sciences:
No firm science can be made of such events as heaviness, speed and shape, which are variable in infinitely many ways. Hence to deal such matters scientifically, it is necessary to abstract from them. We must find and demonstrate conclusions abstracted from the impediments, in order to make use of them under those limitations that experience will teach us.
So the problem with premodern science is, first, that it is concerned with things rather than invariant relations between things and, second, that privileging sense experience means that instrumentation and experimentation can actually hinder the growth of knowledge about the natural world. After Galileo, science involves invariant relations—expressed as mathematical functions, instrumentation, experiment and abstraction to “pure cases.” Suchting adds that after Galileo laws:
are necessarily of conditional form, since they concern in the first place, a range of possible situations, whereas in the Aristotelian theory of nature, generalities are categorical.
This comes back to what yesterday’s speaker said regarding empirical law and laws of tendency, which I’ll come back to in a moment.
What is important for Suchting is not simply that there is a change in the practice of science. Suchting wants to look at how thinking has come to grips with this change; how this change has impacted the terms with which thinking grasps the world; in Heidegger’s enigmatic words, how this change informs “the question of the meaning of being.”
Following from the humanism of the premodern scientific practice just described, a particular Weltanschauung is developed that comes to dominate philosophy for twenty centuries. There is something called first philosophy which founds special domains of inquiry. The world consists of substances that are catalogued as classes or kinds of qualities that exist “always, and for the most part.” Universals are intuited through unmediated sense-perception.
Galileo breaks with this.
There is no first philosophy that founds the special disciplines: there is no extra scientific truth that science must adhere to. Knowledge is about invariant relations, not substances, and is constructed, not intuited. What is the case is no longer conceived in terms of human projects, nor is the the individual subject given any special place in the production of knowledge; which, as Heidegger notes, is now to a research that exists independently of and prior to its agents, as a continually developing common labour. Pascal would later say that the only principles of physics were the experiments that physicists carried out and the continually growing body of knowledge and further experiments that these produced.
Suchting argues that this break haunts a philosophical modernity that retains a Weltanschauung indebted to Aristotle; a modern philosophy that invokes for itself a right to found practices—like science, politics and art—and uses subject-centred motifs to guarantee this. Descartes famously doubts everything out of existence before rebuilding on the foundation of his faith that God is a subject that would never trick him about the existence of things. Hegel makes Spirit his subject, immanent in the world, guaranteeing that the world is always moving in the direction of the right telos.
Suchting attributes this premodern worldview first to the scholasticism that Galileo breaks with and then to Marx’s break with alles bisherigen Materialismus: all previous materialisms.
This break plays out in Marx’s Theses on Feurbach, written in Brussels in 1845. The Theses involve a series of oppositions between two materialisms, one new and one traditional. Each of the eleven theses either points to some deficiency in traditional materialism or provides a rejoinder from the new, and sometimes they do both.
Suchting points out that, Marx links traditional materialism with the German verb anschauen three times in the Theses. Anschauen is a verb meaning to look at, or regard something. We’ve already seen anschauen in the word Weltanschauung, a compound of Welt—world—and Anschauung, a view or outlook on something. The conjugates of anschauen that Marx uses in the Theses are Anschauung, its gerund, and anschauende, its present participle.
- In the first thesis, he describes traditional materialism as deficient because its objects are captured by observation (Anschauung gefasst).
- In the fifth thesis he says that when Feuerbach is unsatisfied with abstract thinking (abstraken Denken) he appeals to observation (Anschauung).
- In the ninth thesis he calls a materialism that does not comprehend the objective world as practical activity, a materialism of intuition or contemplation (anschauende materialismus).
The traditional materialism that Marx is rejecting is clearly associated with looking at, observing, intuiting or contemplating something (Anschauung, anschauende).
On the one hand there is the essentially passivistic character of traditional materialism, its failure to recognize the role of human activity in constructing both objectivity and that activity itself (both “object” and “subject”). On the other hand, there is the characterization of Marx’s materialism and the central role in it of precisely that transformative activity or practice.
So Marx’s Eleventh Thesis might now sound a little different: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways, the point is to change it.”
Following Della Volpe and Gramsci, Suchting is arguing that it may be more fruitful to see Marx as talking about the epochal break between Aristotle and Galileo than his own generation’s provincial break with Hegelian idealism; Marx is drawing us into bigger world than Hegel’s Heidelberg or his own, at the time, Brussels.
Returning now to the start; to the question of scientific law.
First, if we consider the brief comments I made about Galileo’s invention of a new practice in science, it involved abstraction to “pure cases” and the return to real situations, which he called a resuluto-compositive method, and the use of mathematical functions in place of the sort of categorical laws associated with what we might call alle bisherige Wissenschaft – all previous science.
Marx’s presentation in Capital involves the realisation of theoretical notions through the progressive introduction of real world determinations. This is the method that he refers to in the Grundrisse as rising from the abstract to the concrete—something like Galileo’s resuluto-compositive method.
He does this in his discussion of labour in Chapter Seven of Capital I; he gives a separate discussion of the concept of labour before attributing any real-world traits to it; he separates its most general characteristics from the those characteristics it takes in the real-world of capitalism, thus using the labour process in its most general sense to specify the valorisation process.
He also does this more famously across the three volumes of Capital by suspending the difference between values and prices in Capital I before reinstating this in Capital III; or alternately by not conceptually differentiating profit from surplus-value until Chapter 9 of Capital III. More generally, greater levels of competition and uncertainty are introduced across the three volumes as his description of capitalism infinitesimally approaches its historical world.
Second, counterposing empirical laws to laws of tendency is more like placing a mirror between them. Suchting developed this as a key misreading of both law in science and Marx’s use of the word law. The difficult answer for those insisting on this division between empirical laws and laws of tendency, as dividing the natural from social sciences, is that the laws of physics are themselves laws of tendency in Marx’s sense. The error is not that the idea of law in Marx has been misread, but that what law means in science has been missed.
In the Results of the Immediate Process of Production, Marx makes this link explicit, in a remark that might be clearer after the discussion of Galileo above:
In order to portray the laws of political economy in their purity we are ignoring these sources of friction, as is the practice in mechanics where the frictions that arise have to be dealt with in the application of its general laws.
In terms of law in physics, British philosopher Stephen Toulmin distinguishes clearly between the incorrect notion that a physical law can be true or false and the conditions under which a law does hold:
Departures from [a] law and limits to its scope … come to be thought of as anomalies and thought of as things in need of explanation … and at the same time the statement of the law comes to be separated from statements about the scope and application of the law…. Saying a law holds universally is not the same as saying that it is true always and not only on certain conditions.
Kurt Lewin, a key source for Suchting, who drew explicitly on the break between Aristotle and Galileo in pioneering experimental methods in psychology in the first half of the twentieth century, goes further with reference to Galileo’s law of falling bodies:
The law of falling bodies, for example, does not assert that bodies very frequently fall down. It does not assert that the event to which [it] applies, “the free and unimpeded fall of a body,” occurs regularly or even frequently in the actual history of the world. Whether the event described by the law occurs rarely or often has nothing to do with the law. Indeed in a certain sense, the law refers only to cases that are never realised, or only approximately realised in the actual course of events. Only in experiment, that is, under artificially constructed conditions, do cases occur which approximate the event with which the law is concerned.
We might then say that an economist never need observe a profit rate falling for Marx’s law of the tendency of the profit rate to fall to hold universally for capitalism.
In Capital III he notes that even where the law of the tendency of the profit rate to fall is completely inoperative—he says “paralysed”—it is not invalidated. Alternately, he comments:
With the whole of capitalist production, it is always only in a very intricate and approximate way, as an average of perpetual fluctuations which can never be firmly fixed, that the general law prevails as the dominant tendency.
To put it the other way around: the dominant tendency prevails through perpetual fluctuations away from itself. The exception is the rule. The dominant tendency is the average of what it isn’t.
If you were going to analyse the law of value, you would have a research agenda that was “intricate and approximate” and involved an “average … which can never be firmly fixed”. This sort of ridicules the idea of making lists of observations in order to arrive at categorical scientific knowledge. The law can’t be derived from experience but only from—in Marx’s words—the violence of abstraction.
Wallis Arthur Suchting was born in 1931 and died in January 1997. He came from Northern Queensland—a world sugar cane fields and glaring sun—where his father was a police sergeant (given the patriarchy, there is no record of his mother). He studied literature and philosophy at the University of Queensland from 1949. After graduating he worked for a time sub-editing Brisbane’s daily newspaper, The Courier Mail. He then moved South to Melbourne. He produced both a Masters Thesis on the Hegel-Marx relation in 1953 and his doctorate on empiricism in the philosophy of science in 1961 at at the University of Melbourne. He spent time teaching high school history when his scholarship ran out, during his eight-year program.
Throughout his life, Suchting strove to read sources in their original languages, a task that takes on great importance in philosophy, where interpretation can hang on a phrase and even a word, as we will see regarding his treatment of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach. By the conclusion of his doctorate, Suchting had taught himself to read Italian, German, French, Spanish and Russian—texts in these languages are cited in his PhD—as well as Latin and Ancient Greek. In later life he read the Bible daily in Ancient Greek.
In 1962 he was appointed to the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sydney. Through the 1960s he lectured on themes in the philosophy of science—e.g. themes from Carnap, Popper and Hempel—as well as on the history of philosophy: Hume, Kant and Hegel, and particularly on John Dewey, who would be the subject of his final course.
During his the 1970s he helped to instigate a turn toward Althusser and Maoism in the philosophy department that ultimately lead to the department (appropriately) splitting from one into two: the Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy, lead by esteemed analytic heavyweight David Armstrong, and the Department of General Philosophy lead by Suchting along with figures from the Vietnam war protest movement and the emerging Feminist movement. The department was run democratically, by students and faculty, and courses included Marxism-Leninism and the politics of sexual oppression (which unfortunately were two separate courses).
When this tumult settled down, he published two studies of Marx:
- Marx: An Introduction in 1983
- Marx and Philosophy in 1986, the title referring to Althusser’s 1969 lecture Lenin and Philosophy.
He co-translated Hegel’s Encyclopaedia Logic in the late 1980s. He was granted a minority preface to the translation when it was published in 1991, after disagreeing heavily with the choices his co-translators made. Interestingly, a recent set of Hegel translations for Cambridge cite his preface positively—a sort of posthumous validation of a very hard moment in his academic life. Suchting felt that a reader’s experience in English should mirror that of the German reader’s; thus the tendency of English translators to complicate ordinary words from other languages didn’t sit well with him.
Suchting took an early buy-out and retired in 1990 as the university began its first movements toward the contemporary market driven model of education, a model that wouldn’t work with his year-long close reading courses on The Critique of Pure Reason and Hegel’s Science of Logic.
In retirement he began publishing the papers that act as his philosophical testament. These include:
- a series of almost yearly papers for the journal Science and Education
- a long paper on Marxism for the New School’s Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal
- a final volley against Analytical Marxism for Science and Society,
- an important paper on Marxism and Experiment for Studies in Marxism
- a paper on the Communist Manifesto from the same journal’s monograph on the anniversary of the Manifesto
- Three long papers on Hegel
- A long paper on Althusser for the journal Historical Materialism
He was also actively working on three books and had completed a fourth.
- He was in talks to produce a translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, on the basis of positive responses to his minority preface to the translation of the Encyclopaedia Logic
- He had begun work on a book on Hegel and post-Galilean science entitled Hegel’s Science of Logic and the Logic of Science, arguing that Hegel’s book a recuperation of the logic of post-Galilean science into a teleological philosophy indebted to Aristotle
- He had begun work on a book on epistemology, which would have been a sustained response to the Sociology of Science research project
- He completed an introductory monograph on the forgotten Marxist critic Max Raphael, interestingly the first person to put Picasso’s name into the title of a book—From Monet to Picasso, in 1913.
This testament is currently in preparation to be published in the Historical Materialism Book Series with Brill, but the available published material is well worth seeking out.