Dialectics, Science, and Naturalism: An Outline

8 August 2023

Should one claim that, unless they have studied the Science of Logic, these scientists don’t know what they are doing? Doubtless, they know what they are doing but, philosophically speaking, they often do not know what they know and beyond a certain point this limitation cannot but have a regrettable influence on their work

(Sève 2008: 91)


The last century saw two prevailing trends between dialectics and science. On one side, Western Marxism, which was defined by Lukács rejection of Engels’ philosophy of nature; on the other, those who embraced the dialectics of nature, the dialectical materialists (Foster 2020). While the former tended to conflate science with positivism and therefore ignored it, the latter where ‘pro-science’ but also sought to determine the limits of science within capitalism [1].

This was not meant to undermine the cognitive validity of scientific result. Scientific results are related to society at large yet have inherent dynamics that exists in relative autonomy from this embeddedness. Hence, the dialectical approach to science is neither externalist nor internalist, but about the constitutive dialectics between the internal workings of science and the society in which it finds itself.

Science is not an innocent activity, performed outside society. Lewontin and Levins write: ‘To do science is to be a social actor, whether one likes it or not, in political activity’ (1985: 4). Denying this fact is itself political, and it implicitly provides support to the prevailing system. Yet, even if science has been commodified, it is still highly important. As Richard Levins puts it: ‘When we say that all science is class science, that is not equivalent to saying that all scientific claims are lies. Class science can give powerful and valid insights into the world but within certain boundaries and restrictions’ (Levins 1981: 9).

What is the Purpose of Science?

We could say that contexts constrain but do not determine the cognitive veracity of research. This implies that a dialectical understanding of its relation to society is required. Of course, some contexts are more conducive to scientific progress, but even the narrow confines imposed by market imperatives cannot halt the forward march of science, even if it might slow it down.

Also, views that are ignored for a period, might gain traction when the context changes, and science also contributes to such a change (Kosambi 1957). The relationship between science and society is complex and nonlinear. In line with Desmond Bernal (1939), science is not directly productive – aiming at producing an economic surplus – but reproductive, aimed at the reproduction of the processes that enable our societies to function and survive. In this view, it represents use value instead of exchange value (Lewontin and Levins 1987). It does not imply that science should uncritically contribute to whatever system is in place – suggesting a technocratic view of science, where the scientists are detached from the rest of society. If this happens, science becomes what Lewontin (1991) named a ‘institution of social legitimation.’  This shrinks the freedom enjoyed by the scientist, as she must simply accept the context in which she finds herself.

It also makes the ethical responsibilities and philosophical basis of scientist seem irrelevant (Raju 2022). It makes science more about production that reproduction – more about supporting the status quo ante than questioning it. As such, the scientist is alienated and proletarianised.[2] By contrast, the view that scientist have a responsibility, ‘to insist upon the truth’ and to ‘see events in their historical perspective’ (Chomsky 1967), entails that science should seek to further the continued reproduction of society. It should ground the aims of science democratically in the needs of the people, not the interests of the prevailing social and economic system. This is simultaneously a liberation of science:

“Only in science planned for the benefit of all mankind, not for bacteriological, atomic, psychological or other mass warfare can the scientist be really free. He belongs to the forefront of that great tradition by which mankind raised itself above the beasts, first gathering and storing, then growing its own food; finding sources of energy outside its muscular efforts in the taming of fire, harnessing animals, wind, water, electricity, and the atomic nucleus. But if he serves the class that grows food scientifically and then dumps it in the ocean while millions starve all over the world, if he believes that the world is over-populated and the atom-bomb a blessing that will perpetuate his own comfort, he is moving in a retrograde orbit, on a level no beast could achieve, a level below that of a tribal witch-doctor” (Kosambi 1957)

Such a democratisation also requires scientific literacy. To make everyone a ‘reasonable sceptic’ as Lewontin (1991) says, we cannot glorify science as another religion, nor dismiss it cynically. Science is too important to be left for the experts.

Science is a process; it is about change, not stasis. And it has the capacity to alter the scene on which it emerges. This indicates another aim than short-term profit: ‘The real task is to change society, to turn the light of scientific inquiry upon the foundations of social structure’ (Kosambi 1957). It echoes Marx’s understanding of science as a revolutionary force. If scientists find that the reproduction of society is threatened by the prevailing socioeconomic model, it has an obligation to criticise this society, and their own complicity in its development. If scientists disavow such findings, or delink them from historical and societal context, their analysis becomes too shallow and unsystematic to have any scientific value. Against this, science must seek to understand its conditions of existence scientifically (Raju 2021).

The legitimate critique of positivism or scientism does not warrant dismissal of science as such. Disregarding natural science means undermining the critical potential of the dialectical approach at a time when its resources are direly needed. Instead, we should seek to identify the points at which science turns into ideology – grasping how ‘wrong theoretical assumptions may eventually lead to useful previsions and right performances, until a threshold of accumulating contradictions is reached’ (Bizzarri and others 2017: 13).

The ideal suggested here does not entail making use of scientific results to confirm philosophical concepts, as if philosophy is outside science and untouched by it; nor does it mean passively accepting empirical findings at face value. Instead, it means dealing with tensions in how scientist interpret them and the theories that inform their views. We must unearth how philosophy operates within science and aim to contribute to its further development from the inside. This entails making scientists aware of the theoretical assumptions behind their views and the vagueness that many of them exhibit (Soto and Sonnenschein 2021).

Weak Nature and Metabolic Rift

Does science itself, as one such social institution, and as one set of cultural practices, remain the same within this different kind of naturalism?

(Gallagher 2018: 117)

Let us turn to nature. Lewontin held that the ideological biases of biology ‘prevent a rich understanding of nature and prevent us from solving the problems to which science is supposed to apply itself’ (1991: 15). This introduces a false dichotomy between holism and reductionism which influences the research that is undertaken. Another, dialectical, notion of nature might lead to another kind of science, but this progress is hindered by current scientific ideals, as well as the political-economic dimension of science (Supiot 2021).

The different iterations of the dialectical approach share an emphasis on the idea that nature is not simply a static background for our actions, and that it also does not work on us a mechanical or external manner. Instead, nature is a complex system which is caught up with our activities, even if it also maintains autonomy from these. To concretise, I sketch Luca Illetterati’s Hegelian and Foster’s Marxist understanding of nature.

In The Capital, Marx emphasised that the soil was being robbed for the nutrients necessary to sustain its fertility. He took this to indicate how the current organisation of production, capitalism, causes a rift between the social metabolism and the metabolism of nature, which sustains all life, and this rift can only be amended within another societal system (Foster 2022a). Metabolic rift denotes the breakdown of the relationship universal metabolism of nature and the social metabolism that sustains our society, which ultimately depends on the universal metabolism, ‘the biophysical conditions of production’.

The universal metabolism of nature exists prior to and apart from human activity. It also interacts with and enables the social metabolism, which is a concrete shape of this ecological metabolism. Labour mediates between these metabolisms. While we can affect the universal metabolism of nature, we must grant nature autonomy – not regard it is wholly internalised by society. Nature places constraints upon human activities, and even if we may constrain nature in return, there are limits to how much we can change natural processes without undermining its capacity to sustain our societies.

Contrary to the caricature, Hegel believes that science provides the content upon which philosophy must work, that ‘the empirical sciences […] have readied this material for philosophy by discovering its universal determinations, genera, and laws’ (Hegel 2010: 41). Further, he holds that nature is an enigma that can never be solved. It is not only beyond our conceptual capacities, but beyond itself. Our logical categories cannot deduce the concrete instance of nature because it is too contingent to display these categories reliably. In other words, nature lacks the capacity to control its own becoming (Di Giovanni 2010). Nature is weak because it is riddled with contingency and fails to be a completely logical sphere. Yet it displays a fragmented rationality, through its concrete shapes – which is also why detailed knowledge of its particularities is needed, why philosophy depends on science to provide its content.

Conversely, science requires philosophy to be able to distil the logical principles that are displayed by nature. Philosophy cannot impose categories on science from without but should strive to ‘situate the sciences within their broader non/extra-scientific contexts’ (Johnston 2019: 55) and show how they contain more metaphysics than they are aware of.

Hegel’s view indicates that there is already a rift in nature – pace Foster – before the emergence of a specific mode of production. This rift enables subjectivity to emerge, and it also changes retroactively by this emergence. In other words, subjectivity emerges from within the incompleteness of nature, not as opposite to it. This indicates how knowledge about nature enabled by nature itself.

New Nature, New Science?

The inability to articulate its own conditions of possibility characterises so-called contemplative materialism. Foster says that avoiding the contemplative stance is ‘exactly what the theory of contingent emergence developed in classical historical materialism […] is, in the final analysis, all about’ (Foster 2022b: fn22, 7–8 emphasis original). Emergent levels of organisation, which are interdependent yet autonomous, solves the problem. But if Heron (2021) is right, the notion of ontological incompleteness found in Hegel is also needed the cognise the emergence of the subject that can set itself apart from nature immanently.

The notion of weak nature also suggests why science is simultaneously socially constructed and cognitively valid. It is because the distortions and contradictions we disclose are indicative of the nature of reality itself. It is the inchoate structure of nature that enables subjectivity (as self-determination) and allows us to understand it rationally, even if this understanding can only be aporetic. It is this inconsistency that enables the subject to emerge from within nature. Here, the rift is present in nature before the emergence of modern society, even if our current social system may exacerbate it.

More important than their possible tensions, these approaches share the notion that no level is unconstrained or isolated from others but in a constant and formative interaction with them. Together, part and whole form a processual totality. Teleological causality is actual as it emerges from the interaction between different levels and scales. Dialectics thereby overcomes the mechanistic worldview that undergirds the contemplative stance, which dismisses everything that cannot be explained through efficient causality.

Hence, a dialectical view of nature can provide a richer and more radical understanding of nature, the object of science, and of science itself – in which it includes subjectivity or self-determination as its own self-negation. Nature is beyond itself, not only external to us but to itself, and thus cannot control its own genesis. The same principle applies to science. Secondly, and implicitly, we get a more encompassing notion of causation, not as simple cause and effect but as complex, constitutive and reciprocal. Here, boundary conditions impose constraints that are not only limiting but also enabling (see Longo and others 2012). We are dealing with historical systems, whose space of possibilities are themselves subject to change.

We should not limit the scope of naturalism to the confines deemed acceptable by a narrow conception of science. Instead, we need a naturalism ‘whose very core is the notion of life’ (Illetterati 2023: 188) – a naturalism which explains its own conditions of possibility through this living and constructive relation to the world.

Marx held that there would be a unitary science in the future. It would, however, only be possible after the shackles of bourgeoise society has been lifted, in his view. But this view seems too unilinear, and erects a barrier between ideology and science, instead of admitting that ideology is an inherent part of science – without thereby undermining its cognitive validity. It also undercuts the degree to which science affects the scene on which it appears, and the revolutionary force that science was for Marx. Instead of waiting for a revolution to inaugurate a new relation between the sciences and between science and philosophy the, we should foster a relationship that prefigures a new society and contributes to its establishment.

As we are constituted through our relationship to nature, the breakdown of this relation alienates us both form ourselves and from nature. A renewed concept of nature combats this alienation. It allows us to understand how freedom is ontologically possible and makes us aware of what it at stake if we do not exercise this freedom consciously and responsibly. Not only does it suggest another way to understand natural processes; it also pertains to the becoming and function of science itself, as part of a larger totality. Only within such a totality can the function of science be ascribed. We might never get a truly unitary science, not even if a new society is inaugurated, but we can achieve many advances through attempts at establishing a new naturalism and another mode of interaction between science and society, nonetheless.


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———. 2022a. Capitalism in the Anthropocene: Ecological Ruin or Ecological Revolution (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press)

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———. 2022. ‘Science and Imperialism: Scientists as Workers for Peace’, Science for the People, 25.3 <https://magazine.scienceforthepeople.org/vol25-3-killing-in-the-name-of/science-and-imperialism-scientists-as-workers-for-peace/>

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[1] This text is more suggestive than argumentative. I will not discuss the historical relation between ecology and Marxism and will only be able to indicate how the dialectical view indicates a more ecological scientific ideal. I will not discuss how dialectical principles can be found within science, nor interpret concrete sciences dialectically. I save this for another, more systematic article. For a discussion, which informed this article, of how the organicist perspective requires a context-sensitive and pluralistic approach, see El-Hani and Reis (2021).

[2] Proletarianisation involves a ‘fragmentation of skill’ and ‘specialisation’, which makes the scientist more replaceable and thus left in a more precarious position. Moreover, alienation concerns how ‘the producers do not understand the whole process, have no say over where it is going or how, and have little opportunity to exercise creative intelligence’ (Lewontin and Levins 1987: 202). Soto and Sonnenschein (2021) explain how the process of proletarianisation has affected biology, as new technologies have been introduced and undermined theory, with some even declaring its end.

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