Social Research Glossary

 

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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International, http://www.qualityresearchinternational.com/socialresearch/

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.

 

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Reflection theory


core definition

Reflection theory is the idea that our knowledge reflects the 'real world'.


explanatory context

There are a variety of versions of reflection theory.

 

Types of Reflection Theory

Empiricist reflection theory

Empiricist reflection theory was developed by John Locke who argued that we have knowledge of the world because our ideas resemble (or reflect) the objects that give rise to them. Locke argues that ideas are generated in consciousness via sensate experience of the external world. A physical process, of 'observation', gives rise to a mental one and the connection between objective world and subjective idea is causal and contingent.


Sensations are therefore mental entities with the character of subjective appearances reflecting material objects independently of consciousness that gives rise to them.


According to Sayers (1983) Locke's position is dualistic on two fronts, the metaphysical (mind/matter dualism) and the epistemological (subjective appearance/objective reality dualism). Sayers goes on to suggest that there are various versions of reflection theory: empiricist, rationalist, idealist and materialist. See below for more detail on Sayer's (1983) analysis.

 

 

Dialectical materialist reflection theory

The dialectical materialist version of reflection theory was developed by Engels and Lenin. Their view of Marxist metascience claims that the material world exists independently of consciousness, however, the converse is not true. The material world is knowable through consciousness because consciousness reflects material reality and the test of truth is practice (praxis).


This dialectical materialist version of reflection theory does not draw up a dualist distinction of subjective and objective. Lenin is clear about this. Like Hegel, Lenin is opposed to the subjective idealist view that 'sensation' constitutes the world. He argues instead that sensation is the connection between consciousness and the external world, such that they constitute a single entity. Sensation is, for Lenin, the subjective form of appearance of the thing in itself, (the form in which the thing in itself is manifested to consciousness). The thing in itself is transformed via sensation into the apparent thing in itself. There is no dualistic barrier, rather there is a constant process of transition and transformation of the one into the other.


Lenin, however, despite rejecting the dualism of appearance and reality, does reflect Locke in confusing the ontological dualism (reality and appearance) with the epistemological one (subject and object). Locke does this by conflating idea (ontological aspect) with appearance (epistemological notion). This is reflected in Lenin's empiricism.


However, Lenin is aware that both forms of dualism must be rejected and argues that sensations are not merely mental entities but are also 'physical' in some way. Consciousness, via the processes of the brain, becomes an internal state of matter. For Lenin, all reality is material. It is matter in motion. Consciousness is matter organised and acting at its most complex and developed level.


The dialectical materialist version of reflection theory attempts to critically appropriate the 'true' content within the distorted perceptions of reality. It also attempts to understand the material conditions which make consciousness take these false and distorted forms.

 

 

Reflection theory and literature

Reflection theory is used rather more loosely in the field of literary studies and tends really to pose the question as to what extent society is reflected in literary production.


analytical review

An example of reflection theory can be found in Lacey et al. (2010) feminist analysis of video games, albeit taking a rather direct positivist notion of 'reflction':

Media, that conglomeration of advertisements, television shows, movies, and countless other formats, is a medium that can provide a surprising amount of insight into modern society. The sociological idea of Reflection Theory describes how media is essentially the reflection of the inherent social structures of society; how the films, books, magazines, and commercials we see everyday directly reflect the values, norms, and beliefs of our culture. Indeed, in their 2007 study, Jaeroen Jansz and Rynel G. Martis state that people can "actively interpret that they have seen in the media to attribute specific meaning to...their social relations or their identities." This idea in mind, video games, the fastest growing form of media in the United States, racking up $10 billion in 2004 alone, can be said to distinctly and accurately reflect the society that has created them. Indeed, analysis of modern video games reveals the inherent female-discriminating sexism that pervades today's American society.
Despite the best efforts of the feminist revolution of the 60s, sexism is still widely prevalent in modern society. Numerous studies and statistics over the years have illustrated ever-present gender differences in countless aspects of society, from substantial female performance pressure and overall discrimination in the workplace, to the rules that women are not allowed to serve in combat in the military, to the simple proven fact that women in general make only 77% of the income of men. In the 1950s, women were expected to be thin, beautiful, and submissive beings, fragile housewives that served a much lesser purpose to their male counterparts. Interestingly enough, modern video games are yet another proof of the fact that, despite various feminist revolutions, such expectations have not changed.... [The rest of this article is worth reading and can be accessed on line, see references]


associated issues

Marxist materialism and reflection theory

There is an argument that the materialism of Marx and other Marxists is a form of reflection theory. This view was advanced by Ruben (1977) and discussed further by Sawyer (1983). Their analysis is outlined below.

 

Ruben (1977) Marxism and Materialism: A Study in Marxist Theory of Knowledge

1. Marx and Lenin

In this analysis of Marx's theory of knowledge and subsequent Marxist developments, Ruben argues that Marx held a materialist ontology that was supported by a materialist epistemology, which necessarily involved a reflection (or correspondence) theory of knowledge. The necessity of the reflection theory is a 'rational' necessity, not a logical one, according to Ruben, who suggests that there are logical alternatives but that they are implausible. (Ruben, 1977, p. 2). Marx's reflection theory, Ruben claims, was more fully articulated by Lenin in 'Materialism and Empirico-Criticism'. 'The argument, put schematically, runs like this:

Materialism asserts the essential independence of reality from all thought. On an interpretive theory of knowledge… every object in reality which is known has an essential relation to thought. Hence if we are to have any knowledge whatever of the reality to which materialism commits us (and hence the requirement is essentially epistemological), then a materialist must reject the interpretive theory of knowledge which I associate with Kant. What materialism needs then, epistemologically speaking, is a correspondence or reflection theory of knowledge on which the relationship between a belief or a thought and the objects or real states of affairs which the beliefs are about is a contingent relationship. If the theory of knowledge adopted does not preserve the contingency of the relationship between known objects and the knower, the credibility of materialism is undercut, since no known object could then be essentially independent of mind. There may be such objects but they would be unknowable.' (Ruben, 1977, p. 2-3)


Ruben argues that different Marxisms have distorted Marx's materialism in a variety of ways and that Lenin's systematic development of a materialist epistemology has been unjustifiably attacked for being the harbinger of a number of sins.


1.1. Distortions of Marx:

a: Positivist distortions (of the 19th century), primarily in the Second International and German Social Democracy. This hinged on the connection between positivist methodology and inevitablist doctrines of historical change. This led to political quiescence or reformism. [Ruben doesn't bother to discuss these]. One of the problems in this period of distortion was the tendency to 'assimilate Marxism to a form of reductive materialism'. Ruben attacks Bernstein for fostering this view of Marxism.

b: Idealist distortions (of the 20th century). These have arisen as a result of a disjuncture in a materialist approach. Materialism as ontology needs a materialist epistemology. Ruben argues that materialist epistemology is sometimes wedded to an idealist ontology (derived from Kant, Hegel or Mach); or conversely, an idealist epistemology is wedded to a materialist ontology. This latter approach is the key focus of the critique in the book. It leads to voluntarism.


1.2. Attacks on Lenin:

Reflection theory has been accused of the following: Stalinism, political passivity, mechanical materialism, state capitalism, denial of dialectics, positivism.


1.3. Note on Terminology:

Ruben equates 'Reflection theory' and 'Correspondence theory' . Reflection theory is a theory about knowledge, while conventionally correspondence theory is a theory about 'truth'. Ruben argues that as truth is a condition of knowledge the equation of reflection theory and correspondence theory is philosophically sound. For Ruben, essentially, a correspondence theory of truth presupposes a correspondence theory of (at least some) concepts to reality.


Ruben argues that while materialism and idealism are ambiguous terms and their meaning evolves out of the analysis, a pre- statement is necessary, thus, Ruben uses 'materialism' in the same sense as Lenin and Engels. For Lenin,

'the fundamental premise of materialism is the recognition of the external world, of the existence of things outside and independent of our mind…for materialism, the object exists independently of the subject and is reflected more or less adequately in the subject's mind…' (Lenin, 1970, p. 100)


Ruben suggests that the denial of the reduction of the world to mental experience is usually called 'Realism'. Hence Ruben equates Marxist materialism with realism, both assert the existence of something other than the mind and its contents. This is not to be confused with reductive materialism that claims that everything, including the mind and its contents, can be reduced to matter, or the physical. (Ruben admits that there is a view that Engels was partly responsible for the tendency for Marxism to be equated with reductive materialism. He reckons, however, that Engels' work as a whole does not support the reductive view. Engels, like Marx, attacked the reductive view. In 'Ludwig Feuerbach' Engels criticised Feuerbach for such reductivism. See also Weiss (1977)).


Ruben argues that most philosophers take realism for granted.

'Not since the phenomenalism of the logical positivists died a welcome death some decades ago have many orthodox philosophers argued that external reality is mind- dependent...' (Ruben, 1977, p. 6)


From Kant, through Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, the mind- dependence of things was a major (German) philosophical proposition. Marx attacked this tradition.


2. Kant

Kant faced a dilemma, according to Ruben. Suppose we could have knowledge of pre-conceptualised entities whose existence is essentially independent of interpretive thought. Then we would know without having synthesised experiences, etc. So knowledge would arise through something other than thought processes. Taken to its logical conclusion, Kant's thesis would then reduce to simple empiricism; knowledge comes from direct acquaintance with the objects of perception. Some knowledge, at least, reflects reality rather than arises from interpreting reality.


On the other hand, if all knowledge is synthetic, how can we know that which exists independently of thought.


Ruben notes:

'When Kant discusses the thing-in-itself, he denies the possibility of knowing that it exists. However, when he mentions the pre-conceptualised intuitions, that second source of our knowledge. Kant speaks as if we could know that this second source existed. Yet the problem of the thing-in-itself and that of the pre-conceptualised intuitions raise substantially the same epistemological difficulty, namely the problem of how one could even know that such a thing exists, let alone what it is like. Since both are independent of the concepts of the understanding and forms of intuition, there could be no possible experience or knowledge of either the one or the other.' (Ruben, 1977, p. 34)


In short, Ruben argues that one learns from Kant that for a realist ontology one needs a reflection theory of knowledge. A thesis which asserts an interpretive understanding of all thought is inconsistent.


3. Hegel and Feuerbach

Ruben discusses Hegel’s and Feuerbach’s opposing resolution of Kant's 'problem', selecting these rather than other philosophers because of their effect on Marx. He notes in conclusion:

'Feuerbach's insistence on the independence of the object, nature, from thought or idea, which we have been calling realism, is coupled with a rejection of the theory of knowledge implicit in the interpretive thought claim, a theory on which objects come to express or realise their concepts rather than their concepts correspond with their objects. Feuerbach's realism is complemented, then, with a correspondence theory of knowledge, and that is why I have claimed that Feuerbach resolved Kant's 'problem' in a way precisely opposite to that of Hegel. Instead of the Hegelian resolution in terms of interpretive thought and object dependence, one finds in Feuerbach object independence and a correspondence theory of knowledge. Feuerbach is not always faithful to that rejection of an idealist theory of knowledge and acceptance of a realist, correspondence theory, but this does not form the most important tendency in his theory of knowledge.' (Ruben, 1977, p. 58)


Ruben argues that Marx took Feuerbach's criticism of Kant and Hegel and Feuerbach's elaboration of his own alternative for granted. Marx adds and amplifies, but never rejects Feuerbach's critique of Hegel.


4. Marx and Materialism

Kant attempts to wed an idealist epistemology to a realist ontology. Hegel resolves the problem by adopting an idealist ontology. Independence of object world abandoned for an interpretive view of knowledge production. Feuerbach retained the realist ontology, the interpretation approach is abandoned in favour of the independence of nature. Marx retained a materialist ontology.


Review and update of terms:

‘ Materialism: objects exist independently of thought and mind. For Marx this distinction (thought and mind) is unnecessary as he talks in terms of thinking human beings. Thus, materialism (or realism) can be viewed as the assertion of the essential independence of the object, or nature, from the activity of real individuals.’ (Ruben, 1977, p. 65). Thus materialism (as used by Ruben) is a philosophy 'which holds that there is an objective realm, i.e. some objects essentially independent of all human activity, whether that activity is thinking, any other variety of mental activity, or the activity of producing use-values for meeting human needs.' (Ruben, 1977, p. 66)


However, all products of human praxis are mind dependent.

'Paintings, or science, or the state, are always materialised things, practices or institutions. What they are 'materialised in' is not mind-dependent.... The important point is that social things, or things under social descriptions, are essentially dependent on man and human activity.' (Ruben, 1977, p. 66)


Sayers (1983) Materialism, Realism And The Reflection Theory
Sayers ties materialism, realism and reflection theory in together. He defines realism and materialism and then discusses how they are developed in Marxism, referring to reflection theory.

Realism: There is a material world existing independently of our consciousness of it and which can be known by consciousness.

Materialism: A form of realism in which consciousness is not independent of matter and all reality is material.


Lenin is a materialist. Locke's realism and Bhasker's 'scientific realism' are not materialist—they provide a dualistic distinction of consciousness and matter (appearance and reality, etc.). This is mechanical realism


Reflection theory is the traditional Marxist metascience, suggested by Engels (1970a) and developed by Lenin (1972)[1908]. It is realist materialist. It claims that the material world exists independently of consciousness, however, the converse is not true. The material world is knowable through consciousness because consciousness reflects material reality and the test of truth is practice.


Attacks on materialism, according to Sayers, all derive from idealism of Kant and Berkeley. He also notes that reflection theory has not been invented by Marxists, that there are a variety of versions, empiricist, rationalist, idealist and materialist besides the Marxist version of dialectical materialism.


Lenin's reflection theory is similar to Locke's in many ways, notably its empiricism, but cannot be simply refuted using Berkeley's demolition of Locke because Lenin's thesis is essentially different, thanks to its dialectical component.


Locke's account is mechanical. He argues that the immediate objects of consciousness and knowledge are purely subjective, private, mental entities. Outside them is an independently existing objective world. Locke rejects the thesis of innate ideas and argues that all ideas derive from experience, which is an empiricist position


Experience, however, is experience of ideas not things; i.e. experience is subjectively apprehended. Objective reality is not experienced directly. Experience is of things as phenomena not as things as existent. Locke is thus opposed to the notion of 'direct realism' (i.e. that we can apprehend reality directly and objectively).


Locke argues that ideas are generated in consciousness via sensate experience of the external world. A physical process, of 'observation', gives rise to a mental one and the connection between objective world and subjective idea is causal and contingent. We have knowledge of the world, then, because our ideas resemble (or reflect) the objects that give rise to them. Sensations are therefore mental entities with the character of subjective appearances reflecting material objects independently of consciousness that gives rise to them. Thus Locke is dualistic on two fronts, the metaphysical (mind/matter dualism) and the epistemological (subjective appearance/objective reality dualism).


Berkeley's critique of Locke is to say that if we only have experiences at a subjective level then we can say nothing about the external world [presumably including relationships of that world to our subjective ideas] nor can we make rational inferences about the external world which has no necessary connection to our experience. Berkeley, therefore, opts for idealism.


The dialectical materialist version of reflection theory does not draw up a dualist distinction of subjective and objective. Lenin is clear about this. Like Hegel, Lenin is opposed to the subjective idealist view that 'sensation' constitutes the world. He argues instead that sensation is the connection between consciousness and the external world, such that they constitute a single entity. Sensation is, for Lenin, the subjective form of appearance of the thing in itself, (the form in which the thing in itself is manifested to consciousness). The thing in itself is transformed via sensation into the apparent thing in itself. There is no dualistic barrier, rather there is a constant process of transition and transformation of the one into the other.


Lenin, however, despite rejecting the dualism of appearance and reality, does reflect Locke in confusing the ontological dualism (reality and appearance) with the epistemological one (subject and object). Locke does this by conflating idea (ontological aspect) with appearance (epistemological notion). This is reflected in Lenin's empiricism.


However, Lenin is aware that both forms of dualism must be rejected and argues that sensations are not merely mental entities but are also 'physical' in some way. Consciousness, via the processes of the brain, becomes an internal state of matter. For Lenin, all reality is material. It is matter in motion. Consciousness is matter organised and acting at its most complex and developed level.


Sayers attacks Ruben for mistakenly trying to defend what he sees as Lenin's (correct) dualism. I.e. Ruben rejects realist materialism (believing Lenin not to be proposing realist materialism. Ruben attempts to portray Lenin's philosophy as dualist realist. Such a situation is not uncommon amongst commentators on Lenin. Ruben goes on to argue that the only choice between materialism and idealism is one informed by politics not epistemology if one, as he does, accepts Berkeley's critique. Sayers argues that this is a dogmatic approach and that essentially it derives from Althusser who has dogmatically asserted that philosophy is 'mere class struggle in the field of theory' (Althusser, 1971). Philosphy has no 'object' and no 'history', for Althusser. Different philosophies are merely the ideological expression of different class outlooks. Sayer says that, for Althusser, questions of truth and of rational justification do not arise: doing philosophy merely involves commitment to a political line. This perhaps distorts Althusser’s position somewhat]. Sayer, on the contrary, wants to show that materialism is a 'true and rationally defensible account of the world and of our knowledge of it'. (Sayers, 1983, p. 19).}


Dialectical materialism does not accept the dualism of subject/object, however, it equally rejects immediate identification of thought and reality, that is, it rejects the reduction of matter to thought or vice versa.


A simple reduction of thought to matter is the position advocated by 'direct realism'. (Marx is opposed to direct realism, for him, science would be unnecessary if outward appearances coincided with the essence of things. Knowledge would be immediate, there would be no requirement for understanding).


Subjective idealism reduces reality to appearances. Objects are constructions of ideas or sense data. (See, e.g. Ayer, 1956) This subjective idealism, despite claims that it is 'irrefutable', is untenable for it ultimately denies any knowledge of the 'objective world' and its history. xxxxxxxxxxx 'it leads to pure solipsism, to the view that only my consciousness and its present state exist'. (Sayers, 1983, p. 19)


Dialectical approaches reject either reduction and both forms of dualism.

'Dialectics ... asserts the unity of thought and matter; but not as an abstract, lifeless, metaphysical unity or identity which excludes all difference and contradiction. Thought and matter, appearance and reality, are opposites which exist in unity, and to allow for this we must reject the 'metaphysical either/or' exemplified in the traditional alternatives of dualism and reductionism'. (Sayers, 1983, p. 19).


The core of dialectical materialism, for Sayers, is the recognition that thought and matter, subject and object are opposed and also united, i.e. opposites existing in unity and the process of knowledge is the process through which the unity of these opposites is realised.

[One might be sceptical of the need to introduce the ontological notion of fusion of opposites. Arguably, it overdetermine the philosophy? Besides introducing unnecessary dichotomies - i.e. provide an analysis framed in and constrained by dualism, even if attempting to transcend it? An alternative might be to see consciousness as a process of apprehension; mind is not in any way existent (except that it 'works' physically through the brain), it is a vehicle for critical assessment of sensory experiences that are entirely derived from the material world. Prior experiences mediate later experiences; conceptualisation and retention of concepts inform experience; conceptualisation grows out of experience; experience is experience of a 'group made world'; conceptualisation are not pure, inherent or internal but are internalised via language (communication - even if, at its extreme, communication is unidirectional experience of other's activity). Conceptualisations are distortions, predicate upon praxis; hence empirically informed (and informing empirical reality and praxis)].


The process of knowing (and perception) itself transform material reality into thought. In praxis we transform ideas into a material form—embody them in things.


Survival in the world is the simplest form of unity of opposites of thought and matter. I.e. practical activity is the process by which the 'difference' is also 'identical'.


However, Lenin's reflection theory, despite its dialectical materialist base is overly empiricist and vulnerable. Lenin's empiricism is manifest in his tendency to equate knowledge with sensation; a characteristic empiricist reduction. Indeed, Sayers suggests that Lenin adopts an almost mechanistic view of the way sensations reflect reality: Lenin refers to sensations and ideas as 'photographs' of reality.


Sayers argues that this reduces reality and knowledge of it to that of surface appearances. Quoting Hegel, he maintains that 'reflection' on the object of knowledge is essential to discover its 'reality'. [Arguably, then, Sayers is saying that to conceptualise one must reflect].


Specifically, to establish universality (and necessity) one must discover by thought. Universality is not evident from 'photographs' of reality nor, as Locke would have it, establishable by abstracting from experiences, as experience is of particulars and no matter how extensive can never provide universals. Knowledge, then, goes beyond experience and is the work of thought.


Materialism denies that consciousness is independent of matter. Kant sees knowledge as an instrument actively transforming the immediately given object. This is a problem for the reflection theory of knowledge. The mind, in its active pursuit of developing knowledge does not leave the object as it is, but changes it. Reality doesn't exist independently of appearance nor does appearance exist as mere appearance divorced from reality. This relates to all ideas (true and false ones!). There are no mere appearances—no absolutely false ideas, all ideas reflect and reveal some aspect of reality. This, argues Sayers, is the position embodied in Marx's theory of ideology. (note his remarks on religion, which Marx argues is not pure fantasy) and Freud's theory of the unconscious as manifest in dreams ,which before his research were regarded as the ultimate embodiment of pure subjectivity.


For Lenin, there is no impassable gulf between appearance and reality. They form a unity. This does not mean that all ideas are true, ideology, dreams etc., reflect but distort reality. The dialectical materialist version of reflection theory attempts to critically appropriate the 'true' content within the distorted perceptions of reality. It also attempts to understand the material conditions that make consciousness take these false and distorted forms.


The dialectical materialist version of reflection theory also rejects the nature/reason dualism of Kant. According to Kant, our ability to interpret sensations, to apply categories to them, is a necessary condition for us to have experience and knowledge. Sensation, for Kant, is merely particular reaction to particular present object. Identification and interpretation of sensate experiences requires rational faculties. As he says, 'intuitions without concepts are blind'. This is unique to humans. Materialism, says Sayers, sees no absolute gulf between nature and humanity (reason) a dog interprets owners reactions. Essentially survival in nature is conceptual. Even litmus paper reflects conceptual categories of 'acidity' and 'alkalinity', which are objectively [pre-existing] ones not merely interpretations of humans. They are inherent features of things in themselves. (Incidentally Popper agrees that there are no inborn ideas (only reactions) he argues that rational have a biological basis and theory is grounded in simpler and primitive material forms. However, Popper is not a materialist, rather he is opposed to the unity of reason and actuality and reverts to a Kantian type dualism as a result of his ludicrously inadequate critique of Hegel. Popper rejects all forms of the reflection theory, he claims that theories are arrived at speculatively, science is characterised by falsificationism).


All this is to argue that (1) the natural world is more than mere particulars and particular reactions, that it is made up of 'law like' regularities; i.e. is causal, and governed by universals; and (2) that rationality is grounded materially; in this case in primitive biological and physical responses and is not the realm of some detached mental world. For Popper, science is speculative conjecture, which reflects reality and fits the world purely by chance. Materialism (as in reflection theory) finds this absurd. Science is ordered practical activity that reflects the real world.


related areas

See also

idealism

materialism

realism


Sources

Lacey, A., Olokode, T. and Torrence, P., 2010, 'Modern video games: reflection theory, sexism, and the Lara phenomenon' available at http://sexismandvideogames.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/testing.html , accessed 8 April 2013,no longer available at 27 December 2016.

Lenin, V.I., 1970, Materialism and Empirico-Criticism, Progress Publishers.

Ruben, D-H, 1977, Marxism and Materialism: A study in Marxist theory of knowledge. Brighton, Harvester.

Sayers, S., 1983, 'Materialism, realism and the reflection theory', Radical Philosophy 33, Spring.

Weiss, D. D., 1977, 'The Philosophy of Engels Vindicated', Monthly Review, 28, no. 8, January, pp 15–30.


copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017


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