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Joseph Dietzgen (1828-1888)


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Called by Marx “The Philosopher of Socialism," Joseph Dietzgen was a pioneer of dialectical materialism and a fundamental influence on anarchist and socialist thought who we would do well not to forget.

Dietzgen examines what we do when we think. He discovered that thinking is a process involving two opposing processes: generalization, and specialization. All thought is therefore a dialectical process. Our knowledge is inherently limited however, which makes truth relative and the seeking of truth on-going. The only absolute is existence itself, or the universe, everything else is limited or relative. Although a philosophical materialist, he extended these concepts to include all that was real, existing or had an impact upon the world. Thought and matter were no longer radically separated as in older forms of materialism. The Nature of Human Brain Work is vital for theorists today in that it lays the basis for a non-dogmatic, flexible, non-sectarian, yet principled socialist politics.

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The Nature of Human Brain Work: An Introduction to Dialectics
By Joseph Dietzgen with an afterword, notes and bibliography by Larry Gambone
Published by PM Press
ISBN: 978-1-60486-036-8
Pub Date May 2010
Format: PDF
Page Count: 144 pages
Size: 8.5 by 5.5
Subjects: Dialectics/Politic

About the Authors:

Born near Cologne in 1828, Joseph Dietzgen worked most of his life as a tanner. A self-educated man, he participated in the Revolution of 1848 where he first read the writings of Karl Marx and became one of his supporters. Exiled from Germany after the failed revolution, he spent time in both America and Russia, where he wrote his most famous work The Nature of Human Brain Work, published in 1869, before returning to Germany. In 1884 he moved to the United States for the third and last time after being imprisoned in Germany for his political writing. He became editor of the anarchist Chicagoer Arbeiterzeitung when it’s previous editors were hung by the State in response to the Haymarket bombings. When he died 2 years later he was buried beside them in Chicago.

Larry Gambone grew up in logging towns on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, where he was active in the anti-nuclear weapons ‘Ban-the-Bomb’ movement. He attended Simon Fraser University between 1967-70 and was involved in the campus New Left. He formed a campus IWW branch, and later joined the Vancouver Yippies. Gambone briefly lived on a commune in the Kootenays in the 1970's, helped form the anarchist paper Open Road and became involved in the Surrealist Movement. In the 1980's he began a serious study of working class movements and the autodidact thinkers that influenced them, which lead to an interest in the writings of Joseph Dietzgen. Gambone remains active in his community and continues to study and write about anarchism and other social movements.


“Here is our philosopher!” --Karl Marx

“...brilliant contributions to the theory of knowledge.” --Anton Pannekoek

“Left...a fine legacy of wisdom in his writings” --Friedrich A. Sorge

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brainThe Nature of Human Brain Work: A Review
The Marx & Philosophy Review of Books
By Bruce Robison
February 27, 2011

Dietzgen begins by discussing the nature of philosophy and contrasting it to science. Speculative philosophy develops reason out of thought itself without reference to the material, sensuously experienced world. As science has advanced, the realm of speculation has diminished and, if philosophy is to be the most general of sciences, it has to concern itself not with idle speculation but with 'explain[ing] the general nature of the thought process' (16). At the same time, Dietzgen rejects one contemporary alternative to idealism in Germany, the reductionist materialism of Büchner, Vogt and Moleschott. He acknowledges that`thinking is a function of the brain and nerve centre just as writing is a function of the hand. But the study of the anatomy of the hand can no more solve the question: What is writing? than the physiological study of the brain can bring us nearer to the solution of the question: What is thought?' (17)Thought has to be explained in terms of the faculties of mind rather than brain function (thus 'brain work' in the title might be better translated as 'mental labour').

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