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The New International, June 1938


William Gruen

Metaphysics of H. Levy


From New International, Vol.4 No.6, June 1938, p.188.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


A Philosophy for a Modern Man
by H. Levy
x+309 pp. New York. Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50.

This book is motivated by a keen enthusiasm for the socialist movement It deals with the philosophy “that explains how the movement has arisen, what shapes it, what it is becoming, and your part in it”. The function of this philosophy is, however, not merely explanation; it is also meant to aid man in “reshaping the world so that his ideals may finally be achieved”. Since not all men have the same ideals, one gathers that Levy’s philosophy is not for any modern man but only for those who have socialist ideals.

With this general program for a “practical philosophy” revolutionary socialists will readily sympathize. They need a philosophy that is scientific, empirical and reduced to its fighting weight. But precisely for this reason they will find Levy’s book disappointing. For his philosophy is neither scientific, nor empirical, nor is it unencumbered by the dead weight of those traditions which he so ardently repudiates in his introduction.

By far, the larger part of the book consists not of what is properly called philosophy, but of a wide assortment of scientific information. The treatment of this subject is ingenious and sometimes original, but often it seems devoid of any philosophical bearing. Anticipating this objection, Levy writes:

“It will be futile to argue moreover that the matters we have touched on fall properly under other headings – sociology, science, ethics, religion, or politics – and are not therefore the concern of philosophers. If our problems are human problems, we cannot ignore these things that are vital to human beings, by withdrawing ourselves from the immediate and practical task of using our science, our sociology, our history, and our politics to shape die world according to our needs.”

Now, this argument is an abdication of all criteria of relevance. All problems are human problems. But not to all human problems is sociology, or history, or politics relevant. A problem in topology or in nuclear physics is human, since it is raised by human beings and its solution is attempted in order to satisfy a human interest. If one takes Levy’s argument seriously, then problems could not be dealt with without using sociology, history and politics!

In itself this point is not important. But it is symptomatic of a bourgeois intolerance towards scientific thought when it does not yield immediate cash value, when, in other words, it is not technological. Underlying Levy’s attitude is a confusion between the social interests of philosophers or scientists and the nature of philosophy and science. It is admitted that philosophers and scientists, since they are members of society, should participate in social movements, and are in turn profoundly influenced by the structure of their society. But this does not mean that the problems of philosophy or physics are sociological or political problems. The demand that all intellectual enterprises yield immediate technological results is a form of fanaticism and it is not made less vicious by being supported in the name of the socialist revolution.

It is consistent with this anti-intellectual bigotry, that Levy’s attack on metaphysics is no more than a shibboleth under which he tries to advance his claim to a scientific philosophy. In practise what he objects to is metaphysical analysis, not metaphysical dogma. He justifies this dogmatism by saying, in effect, that the philosophy of a “real human being” cannot wait to raise metaphysical questions. But it can give the answers. A strangely scientific philosophy! It asserts doctrines, but forbids their critical examination!

Take for example this assertion on page 15: “The universe exists”, or this: “actual existence is something different from mere being”. A philosophy of scientific empiricism could readily show that, considered as empirical statements, they are entirely meaningless. If they have any meaning, it is only as statements of syntax or formal logic, which is quit obviously not the sense in which Levy takes them. Moreover, Levy not only fails to analyze them, but he adds that “Those who question this need not proceed further with this book.” This is astonishing advice, for on page 63 Levy himself denies the existence of the universe. He says: “Existence implies existence in groups.” If this means anything, it means that if anything exists it exists within a group. But the universe does not exist within a group. Hence it does not exist at all!

Levy makes a great deal of his concept of “isolates”. An isolate is anything we think about. It is a part of a wider situation which has become the subject of our examination. When the isolate is regarded as a unit in relation to other units or to a group, it is an “atomic isolate”. When it is regarded as consisting of parts, that is, as a group, then it is a “statistical isolate”. “Every isolate is simultaneously both atomic and statistical.”

The universe, since it includes everything, is not part of a wider situation. Hence it is not an isolate. But everything that becomes the center of our analysis is an isolate. Therefore, the universe cannot become the subject of analysis, that is, we cannot think about it. These conclusions follow from Levy’s own doctrines, yet his book abounds in statements about the universe. Can a scientific philosophy make statements concerning something we cannot think about?

Another concept of basic importance in Levy’s book is “matter”. Although he uses this concept very often, and in fact defines his philosophy in terms of it, his explanation of the concept is scientifically naive and self-contradictory. Everything – it appears from several passages – is a quality of matter. But matter is not a quality of anything; it is presumably a substance. “It does not vanish, it passes from one changing form to another.” Now what is this matter which “does not vanish”? “The word matter,” writes Levy, “is used here for what we pick up as pieces and objects everywhere” and he adds that science may dissipate matter into light, heat and electrical energy. But if such dissipation is possible (and it is) then matter, as Levy conceives it, can be dissipated into something that is not matter, for obviously light, heat and electrical energy cannot be picked up “as pieces and objects”.

These contradictions and obscurities are not incidental to the general content of the book. They are typical of the crudeness with which Levy treats his fundamental concepts and the resulting confusion pervades the entire work.

The chapters on How a Quality Is Modified, How a Quality Is Transformed and What Causes Change form a Procustean bed for science. By its means the concept of isolates is applied to a vindication of the so-called laws of the dialetic. A detailed examination of this operation is not possible in this brief review. One may, however, gain some impression of it from a few typical results of Levy’s analysis. Note, for example, the following: “A scientific law is a unity of past and present”; “Number as a changing entity is a statistical isolate with an internal quality of continuity”; “The kind of Russia that has now developed” could have been predicted statistically in 1914; “The collapse of Russia was almost inevitable.”

This last concept of inevitability is another example of the metaphysical content of Levy’s philosophy. It is evident that no statement of the inevitability of an event can be empirically verified. For empirical science can tell us only what is probable, not what is necessary or inevitable. Any assertion concerning inevitability is therefore either meaningless or is a linguistic assertion concerning the derivability of some statement from given premises.

Levy’s doctrine of inevitability becomes sheer mysticism when he asserts that although a change is “inevitable” it may be “delayed by the introduction of artificial constraints”. It recalls the Aristotelian doctrine of potentiality and essences. In fact, despite Levy’s arguments against teleology, his theory of inevitability makes his own natural and social philosophy ideological.

This review has concentrated on what the reviewer regards as serious and fundamental defects of Levy’s book. Its merits lie entirely in its popular exposition of some concepts of probability, physics and economics. These commonplaces of science are available in many popular works where they are not obscured by the traditional metaphysics which vitiates Levy’s treatment.

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