Imre Lakatos: Modern Physics, Modern Society


Imre Lakatos’s philosophy of science is rooted in a number of different fields, and not all of them are purely scientific. During his years of education, he was influenced by mathematics and natural sciences as well as by philosophy, but the role of political ideologies cannot be denied. His basic philosophical ideas – such as the rationality of science, the continual growth of knowledge, the social determinism of scientific activities, and the indispensable role of historical attitude in the philosophy of science – are definitely in accordance with his early devotion to Marxism (and Lukacs’s philosophy) both in theory and in practice.

One can easily find clear evidences that Lakatos saw basic connections between the theoretical sciences he studied and the practical principles he followed in politics. This is clearly demonstrated by the early papers he published in different journals, and it must have played an important role in the doctoral dissertation he wrote in 1947. Unfortunately, no copy of this dissertation can be found now. There are several assumptions as to when and why the paper disappeared, but most probably Lakatos himself might have “stolen” it some time before leaving Hungary in 1956. Later he hinted several times that he was rather unsatisfied with it, regarded it as “immature”, and he also said that he would not have minded if nobody had ever seen it. After some failures to find it, we have good reasons to believe that the dissertation is lost for ever.

Fortunately, we are not left without traces of the contents of this work, because it seems that important parts of it were published while it was being written. Sándor Karácsony, one of the most influential of Lakatos’s teachers in the university, the opponent of the dissertation, evaluated it in July 8, 1947 with the following words:

“I got interested in the foregoing scientific activities of this young man, and not least because I read most of them at the moment they were published. Now I see all of Imre Lakatos’s work in unity, and I deem that it comes up to the standard. His dissertation is not a sudden idea, it was matured by two previous publications, both in very serious journals. The first was published in Athenaeum under the title A fizikai idealizmus bírálatai, and the second came out in a thick volume written to teachers: Továbbképzés és demokráciaii, entitled Modern fizika, modern társadalomiii.”

Here we can skip a list of Lakatos’s early publications cited by Karácsony in the evaluation. We continue the quotation, however, with mentioning another important paper, since its topic – education – was extremely important for Lakatos at this time, and formed the subject of a lot of his investigations. Karácsony writes:

“The journal Embernevelésiv also published a paper by Lakatos, which had the title: Demokratikus nevelés és természettudományos világnézetv. Its most essential statement is: democratic education teaches humbleness towards the facts, it teaches the desire to face reality instead of mere views. The original democracy of natural sciences is to be emphasised: their facts and theories can be controlled by anyone, and this control drives them forward.

The foregoing scientific works of Imre Lakatos are based on dialectic Marxism, but in its modern and not orthodox form. And it is only a base, since he himself has original and particular things to say, and more now than earlier. His originality is increasing. The philosophy behind all of his opinions is consistent and systematic.”

Now, if we compare the two papers mentioned by Sándor Karácsony as the preliminaries of the dissertation, we come to see that the essential body of the earlier one (The Criticism of the Physical Idealism) is almost literally identical to a great part of the longer paper (Modern Physics, Modern Society). The small differences are either stylistic or explanatory, since the journal Further Education and Democracy, an ideological collection of writings for supporting teachers (published by the Ministry of Religion and Education), served more popular purposes than the rather scientific Athenaeum, the journal of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Hungarian Philosophical Society. Naturally, it is very likely that this text contains most of young Lakatos’s essential thoughts and ideas concerning the position, the development and the function of science, and it is reasonable to suppose that it formed an important part of the lost dissertation entitled A természettudományos fogalomalkotás szociológiájárólvi.

The Criticism of the Physical Idealism is a critical essay discussing Susan Stebbing’s book Philosophy and the Physicists (London, Pelican, 1943). Lakatos, however, criticises not only Stebbing’s analyses of Eddington’s and Jeans’ idealism, but he also adds his own criticism of the two scientists’ world views that he considers as typical examples of the “bourgeois” science. Instead of focusing on the immanent development of science, he decides to look for explanations outside of science. He emphasises the indispensable role of sociological and economic influences on scientific concept building, and he concludes that the world view of a given scientific age or community is nothing more than a historical category. The whole argumentation appears again in Modern Physics, Modern Society, supplemented by some further ideas and more loose associations: the context becomes broader and the investigations more fundamental. Here we are given a deeper (Marxist and Lukacsian contra Hegelian) analysis of the “dialectical structure” of the modern scientific view determined by social relations and motions. And if we imagine that we go further in this direction, then we must be very close to the text of the lost dissertation.

The whole translation of the paper Moder Physics, Modern Society is given here. Notes marked with numerals are those of the author, comments and specifications of the translator are put in square brackets. Further references not given by Lakatos are specified in endnotes marked with asterisks. We also indicate the beginning and the end of the part of text that the two papers mentioned above have in common.

                                                                                                                                                    Gábor Kutrovátz

Notes to Preface

i   “The Criticism of the Physical Idealism” (1946)
ii  “Further Education and Democracy”
iii “Modern Physics, Modern Society” (1947)
iv  “Human Education”
v   “Democratic Education and the Scientific World View”
vi  “On the Sociology of Concept building in the Natural Sciences”

Modern Physics, Modern Society


When examining the significance of modern physics in the history of sciences and of humankind in general, we have to emphasise three aspects in the first place:

  1. the exploration of nuclear energy as a productive force;
  2. the considerable development of newer physical terminology in terms of epistemology and logic;
  3. the preparation and the establishment of large scale working-forms of natural sciences, and of their planned co-operation.
Let us examine these issues in more detail.

1. If heat and electric energy multiplied man’s power over nature, created an artificial environment on the ever smaller surface of Earth, and tore out a sizeable piece of free time from the time needed for the constant direct war against nature, then, with proper technical utilisation, these results can be increased incredibly by the deliverance of nuclear energy: It disconnects the remaining “natural” elements from the picture of the Earth’s surface (hence it finally removes the dependence of industrial plants on coal source areas, waterfalls, etc.), it makes our planet a narrow homeland (leaving the Earth becomes possible for us), and it soon eliminates almost entirely the direct war against nature (the required labour time dropping to few minutes a day).

But “by thus acting on the external world and changing it, he [man] at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway.”[1] Hence human nature is changed primarily not by “spiritual renewals”, nor by “re-education”, but by transformation of the mode of production. Therefore there is no doubt that the whole habit of human personality will be changed in the nuclear era.

Heat and electric energy played an indispensable role in the shaping of human personality’s present historical phase. This gave the immense strength to capitalism to destroy once and for all the feudal constraints on individuals, the dependence on other persons; this unfolded in man an incredibly rich and varied mass of abilities inconceivable before; partly by reducing the labour time, partly by - with the help of instruments using heat an electric energy in transportation, telecommunication and lighting industry (that brought close village to town, continent to continent, and lengthened the day) - widening the borders of free time so much that more and more populous parts of humankind can be reached by the collection of the cultural treasures of previous centuries.

When, however, capitalism started this splendid progress on the basis of heat and electric energy, when, through the extension of human labour, it extended men himself who is formed by labour, it then, at the same time, initiated another progress as well which turned this process of labour upside down, deformed it, and transformed it from the extensor of man into the spoiler, and then the remover of him. Because the product taken away from man’s hands - dead labour - becomes alive in the commodity production, it gains a form of independent existence not ruled by but ruling over man, determining him, either when - like capital - it throws itself as an evil vampire onto the living labour in order to suck overlabour with insatiable appetite, or when - like the simple product realising its value only on the market (or not realising it at all) - depriving average men from the result of their labour, or when forcing them into crises and wars not impressionable by human will. And not only the product of labour is separated from the worker, opposing him as an enemy power in this enchanted world, but the instruments of labour that once was his personal property and the elongation of his hands does become alien to him, even an enemy, something to be destroyed. If the guildsman’s tool is the elongation of his fingers, then the modern worker at the production line is the mere elongation of his tool. The process of labour is understood only by the engineer who works in his laboratory outside the factory. Physical labour and mental labour are differentiated, they begin to fight, and in the meanwhile men sink to be partial workers: these are the characteristics of this strange distorted motion. Man disappears, and there remain turners and engineers, Germans and Frenchmen, townsmen and villagers, capitalists and workers. Labour is not forming but deforming man. Men can only be men outside labour hours: what a contradiction! Heat and electric energy have brought people close to one another, but at the same time - under the supervision of capital - it squeezed them into blind character masks. Bringing them together was still a historical achievement, and it was achieved by the bourgeoisie through the vast extension of the productive forces.

But what can the bourgeoisie do with nuclear energy? A society where production is not regulated by the law of value, where man is the master of the objectual aspects of his labour, could definitely use it: with it the differences between physical labour and mental labour, village and town, nation and nation could be abolished, and a new historical form of labour could be shaped: of which the Entfremdung would no more be a structive characteristic, as Hegel believed it - always postulating the passing category of civil labour in the “sich entfremdete Geist”- ; which will no more be measurable in hours; and of which the “tasteless story” of Menenius Agrippa will no more be true, for hands and brain will not be projected into different persons. Division of labour, quantitatively measurable labour, the irrationality of the motion of product of labour: these can be left behind.

If, however, the productive forces that emerge in classical capitalism launched a contradictory evolution, then the declining capitalism with its last great productive force, the nuclear energy, is able to nothing but destroy. The brilliant source of humankind’s future wealth has been distorted into a terrible weapon of the world bourgeoisie. The remarkable difference between the introduction of electric and nuclear energies is not a mere accident.

And the physicist? The physicist doesn’t want to destroy. But the atomic bomb, the product of his labour, withdrawn from his hands, becomes his master in the same way as the shoe becomes the master of the worker when it is taken from his hands. The physicist created the conditions of one of the most important leaps in humankind’s development, the conditions of a society without classes; and the product of his labour has become a weapon in the war against the classless society, a weapon in the pompous fortress of capitalism.

2. It cannot be surprising that such a discovery with its unmatched significance in the history of humankind causes crucial changes in human thinking as well. As a result of the exploration of the atomic structure, the alliance of metaphysical materialism and formal logic collapsed, though it had been ruling over natural sciences for hundreds of years, and it had connected the very concept of matter to the notion of material structure of the 18th and 19th centuries: the notion of rushing billiard balls in empty space with only measurable properties. As Du Bois Reymond (since then classically) put it (1872): “Cognition of nature - that is, acquiring scientific knowledge of the world of bodies with the help of and in the terms of theoretical natural sciences - lies in reducing changes in the world of bodies to motions of atoms, motions caused by time-independent central forces. Hence cognition of nature is the dissolving of natural processes in the mechanics of atoms.” Since then it has turned out that this picture is an approximation valid only in earthly dimensions, and it is as useless in the million light year regions of the universe as in the tiny cosmos of the atomic nucleus. The rapid, eruptive development of science has made deeper and deeper demands on human thinking that was used to intermediate dimensions when building scientific concepts: the exploding qualitative transformation of live and inanimate nature - the unfolding of matter’s history full of revolutions - on the one hand, the constant changing of the picture we conceive of nature on the other, have proved clearly that science is a reflection of an ever changing material world on an ever changing human mind, where the coincidence of image and object will never follow. The structure of matter is constantly changing - we can observe on the small scale how the cosmic radiation, the mere oscillation of the electromagnetic field, transforms into masses bearing negative and positive charges [2] - and we are beginning to realise a vast tide (a tide in which the subsequent states are connected not only by the thin chain of causation but by relations much broader, much more complicated, more alive) of which our earthly world is only a provincial corner in space and time with its generally peacefully balanced atomic configurations [3], and with its slow particles with relatively constant masses [4]. In this idyll, however, everything is a mere historical category, even the carbon atom which, with its peculiar character, has launched this wonderful and maybe momentary awakening of matter to self consciousness. In the immense density chaos of distant stars [5] we would look in vain for this strange symbiosis of six neutrons and six protons [6], not to mention the shell of six electrons which, with its fellows, is able to join in to the magnificent round dance, the base of the organic world [7], but we would probably search in vain for the dialectics of protons and neutrons: matter is a dense ancestral mass of neutrons [8], which hardly knows anything about the tension of electric charges dissolved in the dynamic balance of the atom, nor about the electric charge itself; here the opposites of matter are yet in a sleep of germs, ripening the emergence of diverse forms of their motion. Chemical laws are not valid yet, since there are no atoms that could fuse as molecules and then part again; and what meaning could Coulomb’s Law get when electron and proton haven’t parted yet, when positrons and electrons in a beam of gamma light are waiting for the proper historical moment [9] to show their corpuscular aspects? And if we go further, peeping into dim shapes with groping imagination, towards the final, undifferentiated unity of mass and energy, of mass and space, where, perhaps, existence is boiling without quantitative law, then it is not difficult to convince ourselves that the present state cannot be the final one (which is implied gloomily by the red shift in the spectra of stars, not known whether it suggests the explosion of our universe). Therefore, as the only thesis of materialism, there remains an infinitely broad Leninian axiom postulating an existence independent of our mind, of which our mind reflects constantly more and more, without ever exhausting it.

This picture differs qualitatively from the world view of classical physics which described a seemingly ever moving universe - for example, it revealed the firm iron bars of bridges to be busy swarms of molecules which can, with certain probability, disperse at any moment - but this motion was governed by eternal laws. Even Hegel himself, who recognised the revolutionary dialectics of the history of society, thought of nature as the limit of his method. In his opinion, historical change, as opposed to nature where change is only circular, that is, the repetition of the same, takes place not just on the surface but in the notion. The notion itself - the law - is what changes.

The great achievement of modern physics is planting historism into natural science (of course not in the narrow idiographic, Rickertian sense!), thus eliminating all types of nomothetic-idiographic dualism [10]. And here we can think not only of the results of astrophysics which deprive the earthly forms of matter from their absolute and exclusive character, because we can think of those contradictory structures so frequent in modern physics: the opposites of mass and energy, of light and particle, of particle and wave, contrasts that exclude each other conceptually but are still inseparable, transforming into each other. (According to the classical scientific ideal which could deal with problems only in which the identity or opposition of only two things could be examined at once, a scientific result which postulates the identity and the opposition of two poles at once is viewed as false: contradiction, therefore not true. The Hegelian dialectics for the case of the spirit, and its firm version, the Marxist economy for the case of the society, show that such contradictions do not point to the incorrectness of our opinions but they belong to the self-development of the spirit, to the essence of the motions of society. Modern physics has resolved the temporary splitting of natural and social realities that came this way.)

These dialectic structures are naturally not yet processed by logic at all today; but it is certain that the mere conceptual list of dialectical structures is absolutely unimportant and épatez le bourgeois-like as far as they are emphasised only as exotic (the more they upset our present intuition, the more effective they are); but they immediately become precious heuristic principles when we start looking for the historical dialectics lying behind the contingent, formal elements of conceptual dialectics. The opposition of the exchange-value and the use-value within commodity was already recognised by Ricardo. Marx’s revolutionary deed was to show that the commodity, as a unity of these opposites, is a historical category, the antithetic phase in the dialectic line of product-commodity-product [11]. The problem is not simple. Since, after all, the Marxist dialectics literally - conceptually as much as historically - is properly supported by examples only in The Capital [12], it is difficult to cope simply with analogies. One thing is for certain: conceptual dialectics is useful only in the case when it is backed by historical dialectics. The appearance of conceptual dialectics in modern physics means the necessity of the historical method.

We can see now that the world of eternal, universal ideas borrowed from mathematical conceptualisation failed not only in the field of the history of ideas but in natural sciences as well. But if the old ideal in the mathematical science held that the cognitive subject must withdraw totally from the result of cognition (so that the image can really be objective) and that knowledge becomes truly scientific when all the subjective characteristics of the cognitive subject have vanished from it (“Subjekt überhaupt”) then historism - the ideological intensification of class antagonisms following the wavering of the ideological supremacy of the bourgeoisie - denies even the possibility of such a cognition, but naturally only in the field of social existence. But the legacy of the resulting dualism has met serious doubts owing to the Heisenberg uncertainty relation, which determines the smallest change one can cause in nature when touching it with the finest “finger”, a photon or an electron. (Note that with humankind the biological evolution has virtually come to an end; humans evolve in their instruments of labour as if in elongated organs.) Of course it is conceivable that the Heisenberg relation is just a temporary, approximate result of science. One can assume that this minimal uncertainty can decrease or transform structurally. But it will have no influence on the fact that, while as a condition of scientific cognition it has been held until now that the observer must not disturb the observed object, today this disturbance is acknowledged as a condition of scientific cognition without which no effect would get to us at all. (The sociological condition of the emergence, and then the disintegration, of a world view from the primitive man’s demonic view of nature, a world view in which nature is independent of man and is ruled by strict superhuman laws, to which it is possible to reflect as an outer passive “observer”, this condition can easily be explained by the theory of commodity fetishism [13].)

Atomic physics therefore has a huge importance concerning the general world view and human thinking. The rigidly separated - in subject as well as in method - disciplines of metaphysical materialism and historism are taken over by the uniform cosmos of historical materialism.



But the bourgeoisie is as incapable of exploiting the results of modern physics in philosophy as in production. And like the atomic bomb, the practical result of the atomic physicist’s work, having left the laboratory becomes independent of his will, and then turns against him, so becomes the theoretical result of his labour, independent of or against his will, a servant of the demands of the bourgeois class ideology, the authentiser of all kinds of fideist-idealist chaos in the ideological front of the struggle against socialism. This is how the questions of free will and of moral responsibility, the problems of materiality of existence, of God and the world, could get into the centre of the philosophical arguments concerning modern physics: such complexes whose examinations did not help at all in the specific developments of natural and human sciences. This is obviously necessary in the case of ideologists belonging to a class whose existential uncertainty leads to the obsessed search for the elixir of life in every field, and which thus looses all objective connections to reality.

Two prototypes of these ideologists are Jeans and Eddington. In Jeans’ case the main question is the material versus spiritual character of existence. Susan Stebbing in her book [14] on the modern physical idealism shows how Jeans# makes the picture of the universe subjective when he steals “senseless” distances and “lonely” stars into it in order to get to a hostile, cold cosmos where we live our momentary lives as miserable nothings, where our lives are not purposeful and essential at all. This picture does not require any specific element from modern physics; Kant could have associated the same to the vast distances of the sky, instead of the experience of the moral world order. (Poetry of course reflects society quicker and more sensitively than physical or philosophical world views: 50 years before Kant, Pope writes: “A mighty maze, but not without a plan”, while 50 years before Jeans, Matthew Arnold says: And we are here as on a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night” [15].)

Out of this hopelessness leads then the Jeansian metaphysics: the cosmos is only a thought in God’s mind. For if there is no “matter”, there are no “real” physical relations, then the insignificance of man and the terrible emptiness of the world are ceased.

Hence it is not surprising that Jeans’ philosophy stands on such a subjective, we could say, emotional base, and that his epistemological concepts are incredibly confused and contradictory. It is true though that exact, distinct thinking, and the existential “anxiety” [16] which makes all objective relations to the outer world impossible, are incompatible notions as well. Therefore it is no wonder that Jeans, who thinks of nature as a subjective category, holds that Heisenberg showed: “nature has more horrors of exactness and distinctness than of anything else”.

Jeans’ nature actually is a social category: in it the capitalist society is extended to be a cosmic vision. In capitalist society the position of individuals is characterised - as an upside-down appearance of a social constraint stronger than in any previous social form - by the loneliness in a hostile, alien world depicted by Jeans; where existence is senseless, where man is nothing, where the mood of death depresses the souls. (The realistically disadvantageous cosmic perspectives do not seem to have a special impression on men: they did not take notice at all of the heat death of the universe made plausible by the entropy theorem!) But all these are not eternal, unchangeable natural laws but a human net of relations that can pretend to be a natural law only in the extreme phase of the reification of society.

From Jeans’ conception there follows unavoidably what Stebbing calls “the escape of Jeans”: the fideist construction mentioned above by which he becomes a trivial apologist for the anti-human capitalism; the hopeless and senseless world is a mere illusion: drive matter out and the nightmare disappears. If “the world is purely thought” then the spirit is not any more an “accidental trespasser in the realm of matter” but something “creative and controlling”. With this mental construction, however, Jeans could not put an end to the painful reality of capitalism reflected by his cosmos so faithfully; this - somewhat indirect - ideology can ease only those for whom the dehumanising effect of capitalist production is only momentary discomfort, “Unbehagen” [17].

The fact that in Jeans’ last book [18] published in 1942 we can find, instead of his well-known brave and certain style, only careful ideas that mention his old theories only as possibilities, is in close connection with the wavering of the feeling of security of the English bourgeoisie to an extent that cannot be recovered by such an ideological weaponry.

The base of Eddington’s philosophy is the three-fold structure of reality: there is a “familiar” world, the world of colours, sounds, fragrances, there is a “physical” world, the world of oscillations, potentials, Heisenberg-matrices, and there is an unknowable, “real” world, of which the physical world is only an empty shadow or frame. This “real” world used to be the realm of theologians but now the roles have changed: if physicists used to refer to theologians as to the possessors of “higher” knowledge, then today theologians refer to idealist physicists: “science itself tells us so”. Modern physics, of course, does not postulate such an unknowable world any more than classical physics did. The Eddingtonian three-fold splitting of the world is still not Eddington’s arbitrary mental construction but the historical result of an ideological process necessary in its main lines. In what follows we attempt to outline this process.

This was not the first example of such an attack against “the physical world” in history. Think of Goethe. But Goethe started his attack from the “familiar” world, and not from an unknowable world like Eddington. “Goethe’s theory of colours must be viewed as an attempt which is meant to save the reality of sense impressions from the attack of science” - writes Helmholtz* . Indeed, Goethe claims not to “seek for something behind the phenomena”** , he voices “the superiority of ordinary human reason” over “the chamber of torture of the concepts”*** .

But how did concepts become chambers of torture? How did this mental (yet two-fold) splitting of uniform reality happen, characterised by Heisenberg as “Newton’s and Goethe’s theories of colour deal with two different layers of reality”? [19] According to Whitehead [20] - who illustrates the same process in the case of Wordsworth and Shelley - this originates from the discordance of man’s aesthetic intuition and the mechanism of science. This discordance, however, is not an eternal category at all. The same quantitative and mechanistic structures that Wordsworth felt too narrow and that are “chambers of torture” for Goethe, had mediated the harmony of spheres for Kepler.

The explanation for the phenomenon is yet simple on the whole. When products became commodities (things deprived from every perceptible feature except for exchange-value), when the concrete, directly human form of production was transformed into a rationalised mechanism torn to partial processes measurable with a watch, then the whole field of human knowledge, from geometry through physics and biology to ethics, was flooded by a new set of abstraction (the notion of the quantitative in the first place). This new group of concepts, despite its being objective, discovering the essence of nature, therefore independent of its manifestation in the motion of commodities, has unrecognisably fused with the spiritless number-world of the motion of commodities, with the mechanical nature prevailing over man in the capitalist production. Therefore in a society where class rule appears as a “feature” of machines to rule over men, where social and natural relations - as a result of social relations becoming natural ones - seem to transform into one another, there a realistic illusion is born by necessity that quantitative concept-building, and hence the concept of “physical world”, is “responsible” for the dehumanisation of capitalism. This dehumanisation, however, does not unfold itself in the era lasting for centuries when the capitalist production is yet an island in the feudal social order: in this time the capitalist is the citizen, the representative of humanity, the hopeful deposit of its infinite extension, just like quantitative concept-building seems to open up infinite perspectives for science - and for the social success of science. But the bourgeois reality soon changes these perspectives into illusions.

In the “physical world” natural things become mere coat-racks for numbers - that reflect their objective essence! - ; but at the same time they, as reificated forms of human relations, obtain quantitative features: the land will be characterised, for example besides its potassium content, by its allowance, or gold will be described not only by its density and atomic mass but also by its interest. And when we have characterised the Sun by giving the numerical value of its energy then the energy of man appears in joules as well.

But while the characteristic mathematical data of the “physical world” supersede neither the beauty of the Earth nor the brilliance of gold, the quantities of reificated nature turn grey both man and nature in an imperialist way, and deprive them from all other features.

In reality, therefore, we are indeed faced with a double world: the unity of the non-excluding opposites of the physical world and the familiar world which reflects the natural existence of things and, as an opposition to it, the fetish world reflecting the social existence of things. But the coincidence that the dialectical structure of the motion of commodities and of factory production turned out to be isomorphic with the structure of the essence of nature, and the fact that man was led by the economic unfolding of his own historical movement to, so to say, resound with this isomorphism, strengthen to a vast extent the objectual skin of social relations that was necessarily deposited in commodity production, and the objective splitting is forced to appear in the seemingly rigid opposite of familiar and physical worlds; the physical world (actually, by developing the productive forces, the extensor of humanity!) will seem to drown humanity, and the familiar world will seem the only object of direct human relations to the world. In reality, the natural nature is obviously restricted to the familiar world only in the eyes of the men of feudalism. Wordsworth and Goethe stay imprisoned in this restricted narrow perspective when they start their magnificent attacks against the dehumanised nature.

But if this is the war of humanism against capitalism (admittedly, in restricted perspective), the situation is absolutely different in the case of the present criticism of science in the name of humanism today. The problem is new even in its form: up to now we have observed the splitting of our picture of nature into two, but we can speak about a three-fold splitting in the new world view.

The question arises why the criticism of the physical world cannot appear from the side of the familiar world in the age of imperialism as well. This is so because even the memory and the possibility of all realistic forms of non-reificated man-nature relation have vanished from the intuition fascinated by the fetishes of the capitalist production. But does this mean that, with the vanishing of our critical standpoint, the physical world as the new relation of man and nature can be established without contradictions? No; the criticism remains there, even as a formless Unbehagen for a moment, in order to proceed soon from a new direction: from the direction of the unknowable world.

In Goethe’s criticism of Newton the fact played a crucial role that in Goethe’s time the physical world had not penetrated yet into technology enough, it had not measured itself in the vast practical field that it created later in the 19th century. The Goetheian standpoint, according to which man’s power is greater in the familiar world, can arise only in a society where the productive forces have not yet been transformed and suddenly increased by physics. Goethe is answered from capitalism by Heisenberg; that for our scientific world view - which creates our domination over nature - “we had to pay a great prize”, we had to give up our direct relation to nature [21]. Thus the capitalist development splits progressive humanism into the Heisenbergian “progression” neglecting humanity and the Goetheian “reactionary” humanism. But now we want to emphasise that the vanishing of the familiar world as a possible relation between man and nature, and the further evolution of reification, are made possible, even necessary, by the progression, by the (specifically capitalist) development of the productive forces.

The argumentation of Heisenberg, however, does not prove adequate at all when examined in more detail. In the age of world-wars the development of physics does not increase man’s domination over nature any more, and thus the physical world seemingly becomes a bloodless, abstracted (from reality) empty frame in its negative sense, for which it is not worth making any Heisenbergian “sacrifice” at all.

This is the way in which all concrete forms of relation to nature become senseless for man. Thus the desire is increased to get to real nature in another way which is different from all previous ways, may be it the Bergsonian “épouser l’essence des choses”, or any other form of direct cognition without concepts. What is blind for the progressive citizens, like Anschauung ohne Begriff, becomes the only source of light for the declining bourgeoisie! And so - in the hopeless deadlock of these experiments - the unknowable nature is born. Nevertheless, the unknowable world signifies the failure of bourgeois rationality [22]. As Goethe could not separate the physical world from the reificated world, so confuses modern physical idealism the failure of the bourgeois reason towards nature with the failure of reason itself towards nature. Bergson and Eddington are the victims of the same ideological shift, both of their theories show the bourgeois ideology becoming illusion, its purposes becoming unavailable, its rationality turning to irrationality.

How incapable the bourgeois ideologists are of evaluating objectively the important logical results of modern physics, is especially shown by the example of the principle of causality. Modern physics has undoubtedly modified our notion of causality. It showed that the universe is a machine which is not perfectly fixed, it has a certain allowed “play” determined by the Planck constant. Only the minuteness of the Planck constant compared to the quantities of our world makes it possible that the statistical laws of microphysics can take the form of causal laws that are valid in the macro-world by strong necessity.

But this is not the first time for physics to modify the principle of causality. Causality - as the general but concrete law of the objective relations of the material world - will undoubtedly appear as a historical category, and its mental reflection has already proved to be a historical category. We must not forget that one of the most basic laws of the macro-world, the Newtonian law of motion, finds a cause for the change in velocity, but not for the change in location. (This was not understood by Kepler, and this is why he could not interpret his kinematic laws in terms of dynamic ones. Since he - standing on the ground of a blind notion of causality - was looking for the cause of change in location in forces effective along the tangent of the orbits, which forces were naturally not found.) In this sense we can say that as, according to modern physics, the familiar principle of causality is made possible by the minuteness of the Planck constant, so holds classical physics that this principle is based on the smallness of n in the law

m ------    =    K

(n is not greater than 2); were it not valid, motions would have a much greater - in a sense different from the one used in quantum mechanics - “acausal” play.

It is now obvious that the mental reflection of the objective respect of causality, the law of causality, has reached a higher degree in its development. The only remaining problem can be the one whether this development has any influence on the question of free will. The answer is: no, because the brain processes initiating human actions are macroscopic, and the present phase of the theory of causation offers yet no guideline to deal with the problem of free will.

But such an objective evaluation of scientific problems is not possible in a society which, from physics, “expects guiding too, a world view that guarantees the utmost earthly good, the inner peace of the soul” [23], but without the criticism of the capitalist relations of production.

And so it happened that the newer development of causality divided physicists into two opposing groups: the “jubilants” and the “mourners”[24].

Capitalist society in its imperialist era puts more and more shackles on the individual, surrounding him with its drowning, seemingly objectual net in which he cannot make a movement. Limit and freedom, of course, are generally not mutually excluding terms but presuppose one another. In the capitalist society these split into - realistically - rigid opposites. I cannot go now into the details of this process exceedingly peculiar to the capitalist order. I can only hint that while Goethe, for instance, could still say that “In der Beschrä nkung zeigt sich erst der Meister, und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben”, this conception is totally alien to the art of modern civil society: epigonal classicism on the one hand and the anarchy of -isms on the other have taken over the place of the great realism. Only two standpoints are possible within the capitalist society: the acceptance of limits, “trust in and total devotion to the higher power ruling our whole lives” [25], or the absolute rejection of limits in the action gratuite [26]. The dissolution of the unity of limit and freedom is therefore not only a subjective appearance, not only an “error” in the ideology of bourgeois thinkers, but a very real appearance, the real reflection of a real historical process. The only way towards the tertium datur is socialism, which absolutely transcends the capitalist society.

Our two poles are clearly demonstrated in the ideological movements swarming around physics: the action gratuite, this miserable and distorted copy of freedom, is recognised and seen verified by the “jubilants” in the unpredictable, playful electron of quantum mechanics. But the “mourners” turn against this groundless anti-capitalist rebellion distorted to be reactionary in its result, and they, starting from the incompatibility of action gratuite and human dignity, from this seemingly right argument which in essence idealises the capitalist reality (for where in capitalist society is any human dignity?), reach the conclusion that the domination of causality must be restored in quantum mechanics, and that only causality (in its old form!) as an eternal category makes scientific thinking possible## . Hence the bourgeois ideology today leaves only two ways open: the ways of irrationalism and of the restriction of rational theory.

We can therefore see how the declining capitalism turns back all the proceedings of humankind; how the most brilliant, most revolutionary era of natural sciences is reflected in the appearance of the seemingly insoluble crisis by the scientific public opinion fascinated by the view of the capitalist crisis. Naturally it is not a pure coincidence that, while the productive kinds of energy of capitalism brought an atheist and rational atmosphere, the mass murderer atomic energy hypocritically arises religious and irrational ideologies everywhere. This is how an idealist monism can be built from the blocks of a uniform materialist world view.


3. As capitalism has come from the individual producer through the concentration of the instruments of production to the institutionally organised production which is hence systematic in its cells but chaotic in the whole range, so has it come in science from the isolated scientist through the growing concentration of scientific apparatus to the institutionally organised scientific work which is hence systematic in its cells but chaotic in the whole range. Moreover, in the crisis of the bourgeois world power which by today has become permanent, when a scientific equipment worth millions is concentrated in one laboratory that works strictly according to a systematic plan, then not only it is impossible to speak about planned scientific work in a world-wide range but the internationality of scientific research also vanishes, it falls into hermetically isolated Anglo-Saxon, French, Russian sciences. As the exchange of the products of industrial production, the world trade, has ceased, the exchange of scientific results, the international science, has ceased in the same way.

And, as in the capitalist development of production, a parallel process has started, of which the essence is to deprive and to alienate workers from their instruments of production, so the development of science has led, through the abolition of private libraries and of private laboratories, to scientific factories owned by the bourgeois state or a certain tycoon.


The purpose of this brief discourse was to show how close natural sciences are tied to society, how strongly determined their development is by the economic foundation. We saw that, as in the capitalist society the development of the productive forces involves the seeds of their limitation, the general theoretical proceeding launched by the natural sciences is distorted into the narrow canon of class ideology, and the scientific organisation cannot exceed the state of development of the organising forms of production. But does the dialectics of conceptual development not remain (delayed or accelerated, perhaps changed in its motives by the speed of the progress of society) untouched? Will hence physics not be an always more and more exact reflection of nature? In this way, in the development of conceptual reflection, we can discover the pure, immanent sphere of science, and only its radiation, the material limits of its motion, can be touched by the distortion of a society struggling with controversies!

But what should we mean by “more and more” exact reflection? Conceptual development is not quantitative development that renders the ever larger concentric circles of exactness. Nor it is “logical”, for conceptual development changes logic as well. So what guarantees the “more and more” exact system of concepts?

Does the sociological sphere not penetrate into scientific concept-building itself?

Dealing with this question on this occasion falls outside the limits of this paper. But it is at any rate certain that the examination of the subjective, sociologically determined aspects of scientific concept-building can only support us in the belief that the objective aspects play an ever larger role in the development of science; the nature independent of human mind is reflected more and more completely, in an ever larger domain of human practice, in our “physical world”.

Notes and References
(Given in footnotes in the original paper. For explanation see end of Preface.)

1.   Marx: Das Kapital. [The Capital, Vol. I, Part III, Ch. 5, Sect. 1 (The Labour Process), second paragraph]

2.   Materialisation of gamma rays.

3.   Protons, neutrons and electrons, the stable forms of this dynamic balance, are rather rare phenomena in the universe (the word “generally” refers to unstable systems, the radioactive elements).

4.   According to the theory of relativity, the mass of a particle travelling at a considerable velocity compared to the speed of light is increased compared to its rest mass.

5.   The latest results of astrophysics tell us that in some stars the matter is condensed at extremely high density.

6.   The carbon nucleus consists of six protons and six neutrons, surrounded by an electron cloud of six electrons.

7.   We think of the benzene ring here.

8.   See Landau’s paper in Nature, 1938, p. 333 (“neutronic state of matter”).

9.   It must be near a heavy nucleus, in order for the impulse law to be satisfied.

10.  In Rickert’s opinion, reality becomes nature if we look at it with regards to the universal, and becomes history if we look at it with regards to the particular and the individual. Having this in mind, Rickert  - following Windelband - opposes the universalising, nomothetic procedure of natural sciences to the individualising, idiographic procedure of historical sciences.

11.  Molnár, Erik: Dialektika, p. 116

12.  On the logic of The Capital see: Molnár: Dialektika, pp. 88-117, and Fogarasi, Béla, Marxizmus és logika. [Marxism and Logic]

13.  Lukács, G.: Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein. [History and Class Consciousness] Berlin, 1923, p. 109.

14.  Stebbing: Philosophy and the Physicists, Penguin edition, 1937.

#     Beginning of the part which is greatly identical to the body of the paper The Criticism of Physical Idealism.

15.  Whitehead: Science and the Modern World, pp. 99-101.  [Lakatos quoted the original English text in the footnote. The cited poems are: Alexander Pope: Essay on Man, and: Matthew Arnold: Dover Beach]

16.  Its philosophical representation is the Heideggerian Angst.

17.  Freud: Das Unbehagen in der Kultur.

18.  Jeans: Physics and Philosophy, 1942. Published in Hungary in 1945: Új fizikai világkép

*     In: The Scientific Researches of Goethe, p. 359. A lecture from 1859 Jan. The same lecture was given by Helmholtz in 1892, at the meeting of the Weimar Goethe Society.

**   In: Goethe: Scientific Studies, Suhrkamp Edition, Vol. 12, p. 307.

*** Loc. cit.

19.  Heisenberg’s talk in Budapest on Goethe’s theory of colours. In: Matematikai és Fizikai Lapok, 1943 (Translated by Faragó Péter.)

20.  Whitehead: Science and Modern World, 1926. [See chapter: The Romantic reaction]

21.  Heisenberg: Wandlungen in den Grundlagen der Naturwissenschaft, Leipzig, 1935 [in Hungarian: Változások a természettudomány alapjaiban, Egyetemi nyomda, 1946]

22.  This cannot be applied mechanically to the Kantian epistemology because that is based on the Wolffian dogmatism and is therefore directed mainly against feudal ideology.

23.  Planck: Sinn und Grenzen der exakten Naturwissenschaften.

24.  Eddington’s terminology.

25.  “Free action” that falls outside every causal chain.

26.  Planck, loc. sit. p. 131.

##   End of common part.