Brian Jones responds:

Brian Jones responds to "Engels the bad philosopher"

Rosa Lichtenstein has a strange approach to the question of dialectics and their applicability to nature and human society. Ultimately, I believe that she reproduces the same upside-down error of Hegelian dialectics that Marx and Engels aimed to turn on its head. Hegel tried to understand the dynamics of the transformation of ideas. For Marx and Engels, the point was to explain the general dynamics of change in the real world.

First, Lichtenstein wants dialectical laws to prescribe precise nodal points of transformation from quantity to quality. When dialectical laws cannot meet that level of specificity, she declares them “hopelessly vague.” Lichtenstein can knock down her straw-man law all day, but it does not refute the general law that Engels describes. “For our purpose,” he writes in Dialectics of Nature, “we could express this by saying that in nature, in a manner exactly fixed for each individual case, qualitative changes can only occur by the quantitative addition or subtraction of matter or motion (so-called energy)” (my emphasis). The transformation of water to ice or to steam, according to Lichtenstein, isn’t really a qualitative change anyway, since all three have the same molecular structure. Well, I don’t think we have to “relax” our definition of quality too far to imagine that the unique qualities of steam allowed it to play a special role in industry. An ice engine will never be as productive as a steam engine, even though ice and steam are both H2O. Lichtenstein must be blissfully unconcerned about the melting of the polar ice caps—no qualitative change there, she must claim. Polar bears might disagree.

Lichtenstein admits that there are some cases of quantitative changes—for example, increasing degrees of heat—that lead to qualitative changes. (She concedes some examples of melting—but why does she admit them, since they also do not produce new molecular composition?). But since the precise di­men­sions of the “nodes,” or threshold—a millisecond or a geological age—cannot be prescribed, she claims that the “law” is worthlessly vague. Yet similar events can occur on vastly different scales. Geologists regularly refer to the “collision” of tectonic plates. These are quite different from, say, our automobile collisions. Surely, since tectonic plates move mere millimeters a year, and automobiles move at many miles per hour, Lichtenstein must find it ludicrous to call both “collisions,” even though the term describes something important that they have in common.

Anyway, even Lichtenstein’s ex­amples of node-less transformations don’t hold up. She claims that all kinds of things don’t melt “smoothly” (meaning, without a precise melting point)—metal, glass, and so on. Is she serious? If that were correct, metal would begin melting as soon as any heat were applied to it. Hasn’t Lichtenstein ever cooked a meal? Did her metal pots and pans melt on the stove? Probably not, because while she was applying a certain quantity of heat to them, each metal has a unique quantitative threshold at which melting begins—and not before—“in a manner exactly fixed for each individual case.”

Amazingly, she claims to refute this law further by placing animals next to each other—a mouse, a pony, and an elephant—and moving her eyes from one to the other. They have different qualitative sizes, so she determines: “change in quality here, but no matter or energy has been added or subtracted. Plainly that would make a mockery of this law.” Let me see if I’ve got this right: three different animals placed side by side show no change from quantity to quality? If the mouse is not transforming into the pony, and the pony changing into an elephant, what is the change being considered here? Are we talking about the change that takes place in her mind as she looks at different animals? Surely she understands that in order for something the size of a mouse (say, a pony embryo) to grow into something the size of an adult pony, an enormous amount of energy (food, etc.) is required. The same holds true for something the size of a pony (say, a young elephant) to grow to the size of an adult elephant. Plainly Lichtenstein has made a mockery of herself.

Finally, Lichtenstein presents the example of stereoisomers. I am not by any stretch of the imagination a chemist. Still, this example doesn’t seem to be a far cry from another very common phenomena in nature—bicameralism, things that are mirror images of each other yet cannot be exchanged for each other. Your left and right hands are bicameral. If you could detach your hands and place them on the opposite arms, you’d look silly. So your hands are the same stuff arranged a different way—qualitative change without quantitative change? Sure, if you have found a way to observe the transformation of your left hand into a right hand! Engels, on the other hand (pun intended), was on a different mission. “We are not con­cerned here with writing a hand­book of dialectics,” he explains, “but only with showing that the dialectical laws are really laws of [the] development of nature.” The problem with Hegel is that he got it the other way around. “The mistake lies in the fact that these laws [in Hegel’s idealist scheme] are foisted on nature and history as laws of thought, and not deduced from them.”

Lichtenstein, like Hegel, is trying to “foist on nature and history” dialectics as laws of thought, losing sight of the real life motion of things in the natural world, which is inherently dialectical. There are countless silly examples on Lichtenstein’s website. She claims, for example, that Necker cubes are qualitatively different from regular cubes with no quantitative difference, and thereby are another refutation of dialectics. But by definition, these cubes are ambiguous in our perception of them. They are, afterall, not even real cubes, only representations of cubes! Their qualitative difference from other cubes exists entirely in the realm of the idea of a cube. Lichtenstein has lost sight of the purpose of dialectics—to understand the motion of things as we observe them in nature. I’m not sure what laws (if any) govern the transformation of one representation of a cube into another representation of a cube. Down here on earth, in order for one thing to truly change from one qualitative state to another, specific quantities of energy must be added or subtracted, in a manner exactly fixed for each individual case.

Issue #66

July 2009

The limits of liberalism

Issue contents

Top story



Critical Thinking


  • Why race still matters

    Brian Kelly reviews How Race Survived U.S. History: From Settlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon by David R. Roediger
  • Soldiers against war

    Martin Smith reviews Winter Soldiers: An Oral History of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War by Richard Stacewicz and Winter Soldier Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations by Iraq Veterans Against the War
  • The crisis and its roots

    Petrino DiLeo reviews The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences by John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff
  • Early U.S. sex radicals

    Sherry Wolf reviews Free Comrades: Anarchism and Homosexuality in the United States, 1895-1917 by Terence Kissack
  • Design flaws

    Phil Gasper reviews Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design and the Future of Faith by Philip Kitcher and Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism Versus Creationism from Antiquity to the Present by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York