The Notorious Inevitability of Leaps In The Process of Development.


A well known (and rather vague, especially in its later, Soviet, incarnations) argument that Hegel’s dialectics provided Marx (and Marxism) with a proper method goes back to Engels’ discussion of the so-called “laws of dialectics” in his Dialectics of Nature (beloved by Soviet Marxists):

The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa. For our purpose, 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).

Much has been made of this. The kinds of examples Engels makes certainly do not have anything that would demonstrate that this is a “law” of any sort. Most often water is used as an example of sudden transformation of quantitative changes to qualitative changes.

In his Fundamental Problems of Marxism (Selected Philosophical Works, III:139) Georgi Plekhanov uses Hegel to argue that dialectics and not the same as any other “theory of development” and cites this long passage from Science of Logic (di Giovanni translation, page 322):

Natura non facit saltum, as the saying goes; and ordinary thinking, when confronted by a coming-to-be or a passing-away, believes that it has comprehended it conceptually by representing it, as we said, as a gradual emerging or vanishing. But we have seen that the alterations of being in general are not only the passing over of a magnitude into another magnitude, but the transition from the qualitative into the quantitative and contrariwise, a becoming-other that interrupts gradualness and stands over against the preceding existence as something qualitatively other. Water, in cooling, does not become hard a bit at a time, as if it became first like a porridge and would then gradually harden to the consistency of ice, but is hard all at once; it can persist in fluid state even at freezing temperature if it stands still, but then the least disturbance brings it to the state of solid…

Explaining coming-to-be and vanishing from the gradualness of alteration suffers from the tediousness typical of any tautology; the coming-to-be and the vanishing are presupposed as ready-made beforehand and the alteration is reduced to the mere mutation of an external difference, and in this way the change becomes in fact only a tautology. The difficulty confronting an intellect intent on this kind of explanation lies in the qualitative transition from a something into its other in general and into its opposite – a difficulty which the intellect meets by pretending that identity and alteration are the indifferent external identity and alteration of the quantitative sphere.

Not that Hegel seems to suggest that in addition to gradual kind of change (quantity into quantity) there is also a non-gradual sudden kind (quantity into quality). But later it seems that all change is the non-gradual kind since gradual change (the concept of gradual change) is not philosophically solid…

In Plekhanov this becomes the “dialectical view… as to the inevitability of leaps in the process of development.” He never explains what is so dialectical about water reaching its freezing point and changing quality, but Engels said that it is, so it must be the case!

How this rather obscure passage from the depths of Hegel’s logic became a law of dialectics repeated over and over again for decades in Soviet textbooks is a bit of a mystery to me – need to look into it…

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