Basic Question of Philosophy

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Basic Question of Philosophy


the question of the relation of the consciousness and being, of the spiritual and the material in general. This question is the starting point of philosophical inquiry. Therefore, an answer to it, whether materialistic, idealistic, or dualistic, lies at the foundation of every philosophical doctrine. F. Engels wrote: “The answers which the philosophers gave to this question split them into two great camps. Those who asserted the primacy of spirit to nature … comprised the camp of idealism. The others, who regarded nature as primary, belong to the various schools of materialism” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21, p. 283).

In formulating the basic question of philosophy, the problem of what is to be considered material and what is to be considered spiritual arises, as well as the issue of the priority of the material or the spiritual. This gives rise to numerous modifications in the answer to the basic question of philosophy, both in materialism and in idealism. Hegel, for example, gives primacy to some thought that exists outside man (the “absolute idea”). A. Schopenhauer proceeds from the concept of an unconscious cosmic will, and E. Mach believes that all things consist of sensations.

Many pre-Marxist and non-Marxist philosophers do not consider the question of the relation of the spiritual to the material to be the basic question of philosophy. For F. Bacon the basic question of philosophy is the problem of mastering spontaneous natural forces. A. Camus, a 20th-century French philosopher, believed that the basic question is whether life is worth living. Only a few philosophers, particularly Hegel and L. Feuerbach, came close to the correct formulation of the basic question of philosophy.

Engels was the first to single out the basic question of philosophy and elucidate its role in the construction of philosophical doctrines (ibid., pp. 282–91). According to him, the basic question of philosophy is the theoretical summation of the intellectual history of mankind. Even the religious beliefs of primitive peoples contain some concept of the relationship of the mental to the physical, of the spirit to the body. Theoretical consideration of this relationship became possible only after the development of abstract thought, self-observation, and analysis. Historically, this stage of intellectual development coincided with the rise of the distinction between mental and physical labor.

According to Engels, during the Middle Ages, when religion became the dominant form of social consciousness, the basic question of philosophy “was sharpened into this: Did god create the world or has the world been in existence eternally?” (ibid., p. 283). After the spiritual dictatorship of the clergy had been eliminated by the bourgeois revolutions the basic question of philosophy “could be put forward in its whole acuteness, could achieve its full significance” (ibid.).

In formulating the basic question of philosophy, Marxism-Leninism proceeds from the assumption that the concepts of the spiritual and the material, the subjective and the objective, and, correspondingly, those of subjective reality and objective reality, form a dichotomy that encompasses all that exists, all that is possible, all that is conceivable. All phenomena can be classified as spiritual or material, subjective or objective. The basic question of philosophy includes, in addition to the question of the objectively existing relationship between the mental and the physical, between the spiritual and the material in general, the question of the cognitive attitude of human consciousness toward the world. “In what relation do our thoughts about the world surrounding us stand to this world itself? Is our thinking capable of the cognition of the real world? Are we able in our ideas and notions of the real world to produce a correct reflection of reality?” (ibid.). A negative answer to this question is characteristic of the representatives of skepticism and agnosticism. Materialism and idealism offer fundamentally different solutions to the problem. In knowledge materialists see the reflection in human consciousness of an independent reality. Idealists are opposed to the theory of reflection and interpret cognitive activity in a number of ways: as a combination of sensory data, as the construction of objects of knowledge by means of a priori categories, and as a purely logical process of drawing new conclusions from existing axioms or assumptions.

The historically limited nature of pre-Marxist materialism (its metaphysical and mechanistic qualities, as well as its idealistic interpretation of history) was also manifested in its answer to the basic question of philosophy. The limitations of pre-Marxist materialism have been surmounted only by Marxist philosophy, which understands the spiritual as a specific product of the development of matter and extends the dialectical materialist solution of the basic question of philosophy to knowledge of social existence. “Since materialism in general explains consciousness as the outcome of being, and not conversely, then materialism as applied to the social life of mankind has to explain social consciousness as the outcome of social being” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. sock, 5th ed., vol. 26, pp. 55–56). This premise is the starting point for the materialist understanding of history. The two main philosophical orientations—materialism and idealism—are revealed in the search for a solution to the basic question of philosophy. The struggle between materialism and idealism is the content of the historical process and the development of philosophy.


Oizerman, T. I. Glavnye filosofskie napravleniia. Moscow, 1971.
Osnovy marksislsko-leninskoi filosofii, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1973.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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