Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Common Sense Knowledge and Natural Science

Common Sense and Natural Science

The common sense beliefs of people mean that they experience things as
existing independently of themselves as individuals. What we call
commonsense belief is based on instinct and not upon a philosophical
argument that can be logically proven. This means that tables, chairs, rocks
etc. are believed to have an existence independently of humanity. This is
the instinctive knowledge that defines humanity. Instinctive knowledge is
otherwise known as common sense knowledge or folk knowledge. Yet folk
knowledge qualifies as valid knowledge. It is an instinctive form of
knowledge embedded in the human brain since the emergence of Stone Age Homo
sapiens sapiens. It forms the basis for the emergence of the physical

Now this common sense knowledge, in a sense, serves humanity well in its
quotidian struggle for existence. On the basis of these instinctual beliefs
people, according to Bertrand Russell, transform knowledge by acquaintance
into knowledge by description. Knowledge by description is, ipso facto,
social knowledge or shared knowledge. Because it necessarily transcends the
person’s private knowledge it is thereby social or public knowledge. It is
thereby shared public knowledge that is communicatively accessible.
Scientific inquiry is a more systematic form of public knowledge.

Common sense knowledge forms part of the knowledge necessary for the
struggle for survival of the human species – primarily the securing of food
and shelter. This knowledge is inherently grounded in certain forms of
action such as the use of technology in the control and manipulation of
nature. This is the original basis of the natural sciences. Socially
conscious labour is a central feature of praxis.

Nature, Society and Meaning

Humans actively engage with nature in the context of meaningful social
relations of production. They do not just investigate the physical world per
se. The physical world is scientifically investigated in the context of
meaningful social relations --however intangible the latter may be. This
being so we can claim, then, that all scientific inquiry is ultimately
meaningful. Subjecting phenomena to scientific inquiry is not necessarily to
reify and instrumentalise them, as Critical Theory (and some mainstream
Marxists) mistakenly claims, since meaning is still an integral aspect of
the entire unified process of praxis. Humanity engages in scientific
activity as part of conscious social struggle with nature which forms a
significant part of historical development. Meaning underlies all physical
and scientific action with respect to nature. It is the societal aspect of
scientific knowledge that renders it meaningful. Thereupon it cannot be said
that natural phenomena such as atomic and subatomic particles are
meaningless. Nature and history form part of an integral meaningful life

However history and nature are related to causal relations and regularities.
Atoms don’t have intentions and thought processes whereas people do.
Arguably they may have such cerebral properties when they are combined
together under specific configurations. Consequently the actions of people
are not simply circumscribed by regularity and the natural laws. Their
actions are largely caused by motivation based in purpose. The actions of
people then are a complex product of natural laws, social laws and
individual purpose.

Kantian Transcendentalism

Kant’s transcendental approach to questions of knowledge involves
investigation of the epistemological conditions that must be in place in
order to render knowledge secure. What is that makes it possible for a human
being to have knowledge of the world? Kant’s answer appealed to the way in
which the human mind processes the experiences that it receives from the
senses. Kant saw the emergence of knowledge as something that appeared in a
pure unadulterated way independently of concrete reality – a philosophical
phenomenon. By contrast the more historical (or perhaps
‘quasi-transcendental’) approach looks to the development of humanity as a
biological and cultural species driven by revolutionary praxis.

As I have heretofore indicated knowledge cannot be characterised, as Kant
mistakenly believed, as an unfiltered epistemological process. It (non
transcendentally) emerged out of concrete struggle which gave it, especially
in the initial stages, an adulterated form. Science is not a Fichtean-like
pure activity metaphysically divorced from the venal praxis of the great
unwashed masses. Rather it has its roots in the practices of industrial
workers, craftsmen and farm workers and in the practice of anybody who
solves everyday practical problems in the context of the exchange process.
The sciences are thus a distilled and disciplined aspect of the everyday
capacity that humans have for engaging in consciously social labour.


There is an hermeneutical dimension to historiography. This is because it
endeavours to make sense of use values, architecture, artefacts, texts,
institutions, social residues and social relations that orevious generations
bequeathedd to us. The methods of the natural sciences are of no direct use
to historiography. Social and historical events are also quite different
sorts of objects than those studied by the natural scientist. The natural
scientist does not ask what an atom means and what motivation it might have.
The natural scientist simply confines her/himself to pursuing the causal
relationships in which the atom is involved.

But the hermeneutics exercised by historians on objects such as books,
institutions documents and architecture consists of the physical world which
is subject to the same laws of nature. Books and other use values is a
product of the human social struggle to survive and develop. However this
struggle is paradoxically undertaken on the basis of a physical or natural
environment. This struggle is influenced, even determined, by the
regularities and properties of the physical world. For example success in
understanding the historic significance of specific buildings and other
artefacts is partly due to the ability of nature to influence buildings and
books. The degree of human success in socially and consciously struggling
with nature will demonstrate this in relation to the kind of architecture or
use-values made available. Indeed, as Foucault might argue, many
architectural constructions are incarnations of ideology. Ideology is
hardwired into them. This is what lends them their inherent hegemonic
character. Generally these functioning buildings cannot be liberated from
their oppressive character. Oppressive social relations are inscribed in
them. Artefacts, under analysis, manifest the kind of past social relations
obtaining then. We can undertake an hermeneutical exercise on such objects
precisely because it is conscious social struggle with nature that led to
the production of these artefacts. The intricacies of this struggle
generated production. The struggle implies both the discovery and
manipulation of natural laws; the social relations under which these laws
are manipulated together with the consciousness involved in this intricate
process. Each factor in the process has a bearing on what is produced and
how it is produced and to what degree. Without the production process
interpretation and understanding are impossible. The process of production
is then the basis for the materialist conception of history. It is the basis
for interpretation and understanding. It is the basis too for the discovery
of the laws of nature and for the physical sciences. The human production
process is the basis for the existence of human history. It produces
history. This history leaves behind diverse residues from the past. These
take the form of architectural objects, records, documents and diverse
texts, use-values from the past. But we must also include residual social
relations of production and institutions from the past. To understand
history we must interpret these things primarily on the basis or within the
framework of the capitalist production process. Because this has a certain
configuration we produce our understanding of history within specific
parameters. These limits prevent us from fictionalising or fantasising the

History must then follow certain structures or forms that correspond with
the specific nature of the contemporary production process. The
understanding of history then is determined by the contemporary production
process or mode of production and secondly past residual production
processes or modes of production. Both poles determine our interpretation of
history. But the outcome of the study of history cannot have a speculative
character or predetermined result since the things (and by things here I
include social production relations and institutions) of history are primary
evidence in the historical process and prescribe our capacity to understand
history. We cannot understand history without evidence. These things (this
evidence) are of critical significance in our endeavour to provide a correct
understanding of history. It is these things (evidence) that make all the
difference. Because the things (evidence) discovered in the West are
significantly different from the historical things (evidence) accessible in
the East we get different respective histories. And this is despite the fact
that the production process is the source of history. In short there is an
indispensable empirical character to the understanding of history.

Social Relations and Agency

Social science is based on the process of production. To understand social
relations and the human agency lodged in them we must understand them within
the context of the production process. The character of the production
process determines the character of the existing structure of social
relations and their human agents. Consequently to understand the existing
social relations and its corresponding agents we must understand the nature
of the mode of production. To achieve this we must analyze the use values,
architecture and the things that are involved with human agency. This
constitutes a form of reverse engineering. The creation of use-values by
concrete human labour within society entails the endowment of nature with
meaning. This signifies that nature is meaningful for human agency. This
suggests that we cannot validly claim that nature, sub-atomic particles etc
are meaningless. Divested of meaning there would be no motive to acquire
knowledge of nature. Indeed the scientific study of the building blocks of
nature such as sub-atomic and atomic particles are meaningless in the
absence of a meaningful physical nature. It follows that if physical science
is meaningless then it is unknowable and thereby nihilistic. All meaning
relates to human beings. Consequently nature must have meaning. If it was
divested of meaning we would not endeavour to acquire knowledge of nature
and then there would be no natural science.

We must examine too the specific institutions that contemporary society
produces. By studying these things within the context of the production
process we arrive at a model of the social relations and their agents. The
process of production produces these things including social relations.
Again it is production that determines the character of these social things
that explain contemporary society. These things are the evidence by which
understanding is sustained. The understanding of contemporary social being
is not predetermined in some overly deterministic fashion without the
requirement of evidence. Things that exist or are produced convey to us the
character of society. Evidence is critical here. Results must be supported
by evidence or facts.

Hypothesis Testing

The hypothesis that communists advance is that humans act on nature in a
socially conscious (purposive) mediated way. This communist hypothesis has
been repeatedly tested against the facts. Yet no relevant facts have ever
falsified it. Given this it can be regarded as a secure theory. It is a
hypothesis that is highly testable and never been falsified. Thereby
identifying it as a law of social science is valid. I call it the
fundamental principal of communism. It is a simple, coherent and credible
hypothesis. Nothing is certain. There are just degrees of probability in

The physical sciences have their context in humanity’s socially mediated
conscious action on nature. As already intimated knowledge of the natural
laws is a product of this process –the capitalist production process. The
natural sciences then are a product of the production process. This means
that the natural sciences cannot exist independently from the social
relations and thereby the social sciences. They are mediated by these
relations. The character of a society is a reflection, in a sense, of the
character of its inquiry into nature or its claims about nature. By studying
the claims about nature or natural science we can reconstruct the nature of
the capitalist production process and the society that produced it. The
aforementioned is known as reverse engineering. The claims made concerning
nature today have acquired the form of scientific knowledge. This
epistemological form has a specific character, labelled scientific,
determined by the character of the production process and society.

The critical emancipatory capacity of certain intellectual forms have their
roots embedded in common sense knowledge. When humans act consciously in a
socially mediated way on nature in their production of use values they
inevitably reflect critically upon this process. In their reflections they
may discover errors, defects and inefficiencies. As a result of this
reflective activity they can affect a more advanced way of progressing. This
more advanced way of progressing is proof of its correctness. Similarly in
reflections on the nature of society humans also reflect on its
contradictions and draw conclusions as to how these limits can be
historically transcended thereby yielding self-emancipation from the social
shackles of reality. The critical capacity, a legacy from the Stone Age, is
hardwired into our brains. It is inextricably lodged in our socially
mediated link to nature. It is what makes us Homo sapiens sapiens.

The Antinomy between subject and object

In this short critique I seek to overcome, in a sense, the antinomy between
subject and object. My piece encompassed the objective aspect of reality by
recognising the important role of nature together with its natural
scientific investigation. The subjective plane involves focusing on human
agency and meaning. Now I discussed nature and society in such a way as to
transcend the antinomy that is irreconcilably posited between the two. In
the past logical positivism focused on knowledge qua knowledge of the
objective world. It thereby focused on the physical sciences. Consequently
structures such as causality were more its concern. Matters such as morality
and meaning transcended its epistemological dimensions.

Cartesian philosophy focuses on subjectivity. Consequently it discusses such
matters as meaning and morality. This renders it impossible to make sense of
reality since there obtained an irreconcilable antinomy between these two
fundamental ontological aspects of reality. This renders accounts of both
the physical sciences and social sciences very incomplete and contradictory.
Hegel unsuccessfully sought to transcend this ontological contradiction
while Marx largely succeeded.


The brief critique is not based on claims to my having any privileged access
to reality:

“However it is based on seeking to arrive at a reasoned picture of what
there really is. The philosopher is not a god surveying and assessing human
activities and checking them off against some absolute standard of existence
and truth. The philosopher remains a human being. His only activities,
including philosophical ones, are human activities and the comparisons and
assessments he makes are bound by this fact. Philosophy differs from other
human activities not by presuming a grasp of standards higher than those
implicit in non-philosophical activities, but only in the way philosophers
reflect consciously on the standards implicit in other activities and effect
comparisons between them. The fact that we can only get at reality through
the sort of things we are inclined to say and think about it mean that part
of the work of philosophy involves examining whether a given area of
discourse --such as physics, religion, history or astrology – meets certain
minimum standards of coherence, clarity and credibility.” (Anthony O Hear, What Philosophy Is, pp 13-14).