Andy Blunden 1998

National Values
Differences in Epistemology

In the historical development of the bourgeoisie there is an unmistakable vista which runs as follows.

The most well-known of such national lines of development are British Empiricism, French Rationalism, American Pragmatism. Sometimes we hear talk of "Continental" and "Anglo-American" traditions of philosophy expressing the rival groupings of national tendencies. Germany is particularly rich in the diversity of its traditions. Knowledge of and familiarity with the traditions of other countries is typically deficient. For my part, I am particularly unfamiliar with the Dutch, Swiss, Austrian and most intriguing of all as it is not part of the European tradition at all, Japanese epistemology, and there is Russia and Italy which should be considered.

The world market of today reflects the resultant of all these national capitals, the net outcomes of all these histories. The particular character of knowledge brought forward by each national tradition, if we are able to connect and understand it in relation to the characteristic solution the capitalist class of each country found to the problem of accumulating value, allows us to figure out the general relation of the theory of knowledge to the theory of value.

Periods of Development of Capital

There are a number of epochs is the growth of capital. In the various countries where capital is originally accumulated (or introduced by foreign investment/intervention? another question) capital accumulation begins initially under the domination of feudalism, and at an earlier or a later stage in the development of national capital, the political revolution is made and the bourgeoisie takes leadership of the nation. By the time the national bourgheoisie has achieved political power its character has been born. While adolescence gives way to maturity, the class retains the mark of its birth. As each national section breaks into the world-market at a certain stage in the development of the forces of production internationally, it necessarily also reflects the total development of the bourgeoisie at successive historical stages. The period of formation of the bourgeoisie in the various countries is thus of particular significance in the formation of the various national traditions in bourgeois philosophy.

  1. The Dutch Republic was home to Spinoza, the son of Portugese-Jewish refugees, and Descartes, also to some extent a refugee from the French Clergy. Among other scientists, the physicist Christiaan Huygens (1629 - 1695 who insisted against Newton on entirely mechanical explanation of natural phenomena) was a son of the United Provinces. Calvinism took root in the Netherlands in the middle of the 16th century, known as the home of humanism, and was inspirational in the struggle for independence from Roman Catholic Spain. The Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602 predates the British version and controlled a vast commercial empire.
    The Dutch Republic consisted of the seven northern Netherlands provinces that won independence from Spain from 1568 to 1609. For the next two centuries political control of the decentralized state shifted repeatedly between the province of Holland and the princes of Orange, who held the office of stadholder and represented a greater degree of centralization. This internal political stress, however, did not prevent the ascendancy of the Dutch Republic in the 17th century. In this "Golden Age" the republic developed a world colonial empire far out of proportion to its resources, played a notable role in the coalition wars against Louis XIV, emerged as a centre of international finance, and served as a notable cultural centre. The republic experienced an equally spectacular decline in the 18th century. It was exhausted by its long land wars, its fleet was in a state of neglect, and its colonial empire stagnated and was eclipsed by that of England. In 1795 the republic collapsed under the impact of a Dutch democratic revolution and invading French armies. The Batavian Republic lasted 11 years, during which it proclaimed the sovereignty of the people but was in fact a protectorate of France. Under French domination the Netherlands degenerated into a largely agricultural economy.
  2. Through the 17th century to the middle of the 19th century, we see particularly the flourishing of Empiricism in Britain - Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Mill. The British bourgeoisie takes state power in 1640 which marks the high point of the period of primitive accumulation by means of robbery of the state and people of Britain; later on the commercial bourgeoisie grow rich by pillaging the colonies and the slave trade; the late 18th early 19th century (approx. 1780 - 1815) is the period of the first industrial revolution in which is far and away the most indistrialised country in the world, and it is the industrial bourgeoisie predominates in Britain.
  3. The founder of Rationalism is Rene Descartes (1596 - 1650). The early 18th century sees the flourishing of various forms of Rationalism as the French bourgeoisie comes on to the scene (Voltaire, Montesquieu) and the Enlightenment leading up to the Revolution of 1789 (Diderot, Rousseau, Condillac, Condorcet, D'Alembert), the French Socialists (Saint-Simon, Comte). Primitive accumulation is impossible within France under the rule of the French nobility and the French bourgeoisie at first rely on trade outside of France. From 1789, we see at first the predominance of the finance capital in France and only by the 1830s - 40s do the industrial bourgeoisie come to the fore. Prior to this, the French bourgeoisie actually tried to avoid the growth of an urban proletariat.
  4. The German bourgeoisie remains under the yoke of the junkers and have no Empire and do not achieve political power until after World War One. Nevertheless it from the late 18th to the end of the nineteenth century that we see the flourishing of German Idealist Philosophy. Kant to the Hegelians, from the time of the French Revolution to 1848, then the great natural scientific movement (Helmholtz, Mach, Boltzman and many others) of the late nineteenth century). Whereas French phiosophy has always a strong sociological strain (Rousseau's educational philosophy Social Contract, Comte's sociology, the socialists), the Germans move exclusively in the realm of general ideas.
  5. American philosophy comes on to the scene in the late 19th century as the US appears as a world power promoting "neo-colonialism", the gaining of colonial possessions not by military might but through commercial and industrial superiority. William James (1842 - 1910), Peirce (1839 - 1914) are the founders of Pragmatism. It is said that the Americans looked to see what worked in the Old World, and transplanted it to the New World. The New World was founded by refugees fleeing old religious dogmas and had no interest in debating the truth or falsity of theory, being interested in a guide to action.

These are not the only national centres of the bourgeoisie, but they will do as a first cut. We need to be able to comprehend the specific character of each national tradition of bourgeois philosophy in relation to the political economic process of its emergence and test out the relation of knowledge and value in this specific connection.

[My own country, am imperialist outpost, was founded on the production of primary produce for the consumption in Europe, and in general that is reflected in the outlook of the Australian bourgeoisie, which doesn't even car eabout "what works" like the Americans, but values knowledge to the esten that it is valued in the real world overseas - the ideology of the Freetrader.]

The late nineteenth century sees the growth of finance capital (banks and shareholdings) up until the beginning of this century which we refer to as the epoch of imperialism characterised by the domination of finance capital over industrial capital. However, finance capital is capital accumulated by the exploitation of labour which has become separated not only from the labourer, but also initially, from the colonial people and the commercial capitalist, and then more from the industrial capitalist.
In Britain, the Industrial Revolution is more or less complete and the British Empire is expanding to its peak around 1900.
The French bourgeoisie have overcome political problems and are entering into competition for Empire;
The German bourgeoisie is still under the yoke of the Junkers.
The US bourgeoisie is applying with great success techniques borrowed from Europe.

The Social Psychology of Capital

Like the individual who must develop the various "sides" of their personality in order to live in the world, and it is that side with which a person has most success when they are young which develops and dominates, though in maturity one must if one is to continue to develop, develop the "dark side" of your personality - just like a person, a capital has it's "personality" and its "psychology". All this stuff is Jung's work, and as a matter of fact, Jung built his own theory of history on this kind of basis. A further exploitation of Jung's "archetypes" in relation to the development of capitalism might form am interesting connecting link here.

When one makes a judgment of the "world", one is describing oneself; just as a bourgeoisie describes the world, so they see themselves, and through that we see them. In epistemology, where one focuses one's attention on what is virtually nothingness, here the world-view comes out in it's purest form.

What are the different sides of capital? What are the different vocations of the young bourgeois? Chiefly robber, landlord, merchant, banker, industrialist, speculator, comprador, soldier, bureaucrat, priest, professional (and the various professions), intellectual. Among these only a few can take a dominating position within a whole capitalist class, and then only for a phase of its development. Most important are: merchant, banker and industrialist, and after that: speculator, comprador, soldier and bureaucrat.

It is no mystery that success in one or another vocation requires certain personality traits, and there must be a characteristic theory of knowledge, and emphasis given to one or another aspect of evidence, which is associated with the various vocations of capital.

The industrialist it would seem at first sight is the closest to nature - though the banker is not impressed, he thinks the industrialist does not have such wide experience and subject all the mad-hat ideas of the industrialist to the light of financial common sense; the industrialist is just a "technical person", not a realist, in that he makes a buck by effectively using human labour power in manipulating nature. But what is his/her attitude to Reason and experience? Well, that depends, doesn't it? The British industrialists had nothing to go by; the Americans could pick what worked from European industry.

Who relies on principle, on Reason and devalues experience? Who has Reason but not experience? Who finds experience an unreliable guide and Reason certain? Well, certainly the French.


French Merchantile Capital: Rationalism: The merchant is a salesperson after all. "Look at this product I have for you, see its merits, Never mind what your experience is, you'll love this one" He transmits the objectified knowledge (value) of the producer.

One is reminded also of Descartes' love of travel. The only concession he makes to "experience" as opposed to Reason, is the need to travel and learn from other cultures how to recognise the prejudices of one's own otherwise narrow experience, to "broaden the mind by travel".

Military: what is the epistemology of the Conqueror? War is a game of wits for the general, it is not a physical fight, or a battle of wills. Is Rationalism [Reason] the Epistemology of the soldier, contradictory to be sure!

The archetypal voice of Rationalism is Descartes:

we should never allow ourselves to be persuaded excepting by the evidence of our Reason. And it must be remarked that I speak of our Reason and not of our imagination nor of our senses ... For Reason does not insist that whatever we see or imagine thus is a truth, but it tells us clearly that all our ideas or notions must have some foundation of truth. ... I wished to give myself entirely to the search after truth, ... and to reject as absolutely false everything as to which I could imagine the least ground of doubt, in order to see if afterwards there remained anything in my belief that was entirely certain. This, because our senses sometimes deceive us, I wished to suppose that nothing is just as they cause us to imagine it to be [from Discourse on Method, Descartes, 1637]

Descartes faced the same situation as the early empiricists, that is, that the entire existing body of knowledge had to be set at nought, and one had to begin from scratch. But the French brougeoisie were one step more removed from nature; there was no opportunity to employ labour productively in France. One first had to eradicate the social barriers to trade and industry erected by the French nobility. In the meantime, value could be accumulated by smart trading and superior military skills although facing the competition of the massively superior British resources.


Empiricism: the ideology of the first industrial revolution. "Theory is worthless or non-existent, suck it and see". Primitive accumulation by outright robbery and contempt for law, state and religion, and then the real work gets going breaking entirely new ground applying science and technique to industry. There is no model to go by.

But the Natural History which has been accumulated hitherto ... is sketchy and useless .... For it has not been stripped of fables and ravings, and it rushes into antiquity, philology and superfluous narratives, neglectful and high-handed in matters of weight, over-scrupulous and immoderate in matters of no importance.

Bacon proposes a systematic investigation of Nature, particularly mechanics, since "nature of its own accord, free and shifting, disperses the intellect and confuses it with its variety", and:

In general I assign the leading roles in shedding light on nature to artificial things, not only because they are most useful in themselves, but because they are the most trustworthy interpreters of natural things. Can it be said that anyone had just happened to explain the nature of lightning or a rainbow as clearly before the principles of each had been demonstrated by artillery or the artificial simulacra of rainbows on a wall? But if they are trustworthy interpreters of causes, they will also be sure and fertile indicators of effects and of works.

and Bacon urged

"we need more meticulous care and handpicked trials, not to mention funding and the utmost patience besides. For it has ruined everything in the experimental field that right from the beginning men have continually aimed at Experiments of Fruit not ones of Light, and have devoted their energies entirely to producing some splendid work, not to revealing nature's oracles, [and] mostly applied themselves to things hidden and rare, and put their efforts and inquiry into those while spurning common experiments and observations, ...

".. men have gone astray not only in the work, but in its very plan. ... I have long since decided how much I should grant to abstract philosophies. Indeed, I believe that I hold fast to the ways of true and good induction, in which all things lie, and which can help the frail and crippled faculty of human intellect towards the sciences, as by mechanical aids or by some thread to guide it through a labyrinth.". [Preface to Natural History etc., Francis Bacon, 1609]

To this day, any Englishman would agree.


Voluntarism is the epistemology of the bureaucrat. For example the German bourgeoisie, incapable of making its own revolution, turns to Bismark to build the German nation. For the dictator or bureaucrat, the rule is: "If I so Will, then it is so".

Voluntarism is also the ideology of the late-developer, who turns to militarism to compensate for the lack or colonies and market share. [Germany and Japan]. The Voluntarist does not expect to find what is required out there waiting for her - Will is required.

Schopenhauer is the original exponent of Voluntarism:

... Will. This and this alone gives him the key to his own phenomenon, reveals to him the significance and shows him the inner mechanism of his being, his actions, his movements. To the subject of knowing, who appears as an individual only through his identity with the body, this body is given in two entirely different ways. It is given in intelligent perception as representation, as an object among objects, liable to the laws of these objects. ... The act of will and the action of the body are not two different states objectively known connected by the bond of causality ... one and the same thing, though given in two entirely different ways, first quite directly, and then in perception for the understanding. The action of the body is nothing but the act of will objectified, i.e., translated into perception. ... indeed, that the whole body is nothing but the objectified will, i.e., will that has become representation. ... the will is knowledge a priori of the body, and that the body is knowledge a posteriori of the will. Resolutions of the will relating to the future are mere deliberations of reason about what will be willed at some time, not real acts of will. Only the carrying out stamps the resolve; till then, it is always a mere intention that can be altered; it exists only in reason, in the abstract. Only in reflection are willing and acting different; in reality they are one. Every true, genuine, immediate act of the will is also at once and directly a manifest act of the body; and correspondingly, on the other hand, every impression on the body is also at once and directly an impression on the will. As such, it is called pain when it is contrary to the will, and gratification or pleasure when in accordance with the will.

Nature is known only to the extent that it gratifies or frustrates, exhibits or excites the Will, all else is "mere representation" or "only abstract" or "mere intention".


Pragmatism: The ideology of the American bourgeoisie. In the words of Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder of Pragmatism:

the whole function of thought is to produce habits of action; and that whatever there is connected with a thought, but irrelevant to its purpose, is an accretion to it, but no part of it. If there be a unity among our sensations which has no reference to how we shall act on a given occasion, as when we listen to a piece of music, why we do not call that thinking. To develop its meaning, we have, therefore, simply to determine what habits it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves. Now, the identity of a habit depends on how it might lead us to act, not merely under such circumstances as are likely to arise, but under such as might possibly occur, no matter how improbable they may be. What the habit is depends on when and how it causes us to act. As for the when, every stimulus to action is derived from perception; as for the how, every purpose of action is to produce some sensible result. Thus, we come down to what is tangible and practical, as the root of every real distinction of thought, no matter how subtle it may be; and there is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice.

Or in Williams James' words:

To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider what effects of a conceivably practical kind the object may involve and what sensations we may expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare. Our conception of their effects, then, is for us the whole of our conception of the object, so far as that conception has positive significance at all.

George Novack explains:

The central and characteristic philosophy of the American people has been, and remains to this day, one or another form of pragmatism. The pragmatic outlook and mode of thought had deep roots in the special conditions of the development of bourgeois civilisation and culture in North America. It was created as a distinctive theory at the turn of the twentieth century as the philosophical expression and instrument of that middle-class liberalism which was politically embodied in the Progressive protests against plutocratic domination. ...

James and Dewey, came upon the scene at a much later stage in the evolution of empiricism, when its fruits had not only ripened but had become somewhat decayed. These latter-day empiricists took for granted the ready-made premises of their school: the sensory origin of ideas, the nonexistence of innate principles, etc., and preoccupied themselves with an entirely different set of questions.

They did not ask, Where do our ideas come from? That was for them a settled question. They inquired, Where do our ideas go to and what are they good for? Instead of asking, How did ideas originate and what are their roots? they asked, What functions do they perform and what effects do they have upon further experienced They were, so to speak, primarily interested in the distribution and destination of ideas rather than in the sources and conditions of their production. [Empiricism and Its Evolution - A Marxist View]

and Novack himself clearly believes that Pragmatism is but a step away from dialectical materialism. Pragmatism is sometimes charitably described as the theory of knowledge which regards practice as the criterion of truth, but this is not really the case. It is more accurate to say that, for Pragmatism, truth is an irrelevant question: all that matters is whether a proposition or concept provides a useful guide to action. "Truth" is so much "metaphysics".

The Development of French capitalism.

Prior to 1789 French capitalism is totally unable to develop internal trade or manufacture due to the narrow, parochial, inflexible and parasitic dominance of the French Nobility. In the early 18th century French traders go to India, but cannot compete with the well-established British East India Company. They carve out an enclave in the Americas notably Canada, but they are militarily defeated sometime in the 1750s. The only opportunity for the accumulation of capital by the French bourgeoisie at tis time is in trade with the colonies. [In the 1770s the British are still the largest slave traders but between 1789 and 1809 the British move against slavery which is finally abolished in the US in 1863. Africa is only opened for massive colonisation in the 1870s].

Milestones for the French bourgeoisie:

Early 1700s: the Enlightenment, ideological struggle against the Feudal social order and the promotion of science and enlightenment;

1789-1799: The French Revolution; decapitation and seizure of power. The Declaration of Rights a steal from the American Constitution; Church and Crown lands sold to small holders. France is very strong on social theory even then. Republicanism, abolish monarchy 1792. War declared on Britain, Holland and Spain. Jacobins take power, Rousseau's Social Contract and the ideas of Montesquieu to be implemented. The Terror! "Cult of the Supreme Being', radical redistribution of wealth. After execution of Robespierre republicans return to "liberal" principles". Directory elected, Paris uprising suppressed by Napoleon Bonaparte.

The French merchant bourgeoisie is now able to trade at great profit and accumulate capital with a mighty military force behind it. The British had more money and this would limit the opportunities for the French, but military force was a help. One is reminded of Descartes' fascination with the military.

Note also that the French (like the Portuguese) coopt the colonies into France, rather than building countries and manipulating the indigenous ruling classes or importing a middle-class from elsewhere., etc like the British.

Nevertheless, one would have to say the French bourgeoisie came to political power through a concentrated series of social experiments guided by previously developed social theory.

NB: the struggle of Protestantism and Catholicism has been well-studied; the rendering of the bourgeois world-view (individualism, the work-ethic., etc) in terms of definition of the nature and personality of God, etc.

France remained a Catholic country to this day. The French bourgeoisie did not find it necessary (or should I simply "possible") to make a Lutheran or Anglican Church!? Despite the fact that the French clergy were a real player in politics (Richlieu, etc) and the "Cult of the Supreme Being", seizure of Church property, etc., during the height of the Revolution.

NB: The history of the Roman Empire and correlation between the policies of its various Emperors and the tendencies in its philosophy would be interesting source material.