Dialectics of Nature

Also found in: Wikipedia.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Dialectics of Nature


an outstanding philosophical work by Friedrich Engels, presenting the most fully developed exposition of the dialectical materialist understanding of the most important theoretical problems in natural science.

Dialectics of Nature is an unfinished work, which has come down to us in the form of a manuscript containing two outlines, ten more or less finished articles, and 169 notes and fragments. Engels’ conception of the book was outlined in his letter to Marx of May 30, 1873, and developed in detail between 1873 and 1876. Most of the book was written between 1873 and 1882. In addition to this manuscript Engels intended to include in the book three notes written in 1885 and 1886 and originally intended for his works Anti-Dühring and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. His work on Dialectics of Nature was interrupted by the death of Marx, after which Engels had to devote all of his time to the final editing of Das Kapital and to the leadership of the international labor movement.

The task Engels set for himself in Dialectics of Nature was formulated in his preface to the second edition of AntiDuhring. Describing the course of his studies in natural science, Engels observed that this study was “undertaken in order to convince myself also in detail—of what in general I was not in doubt—that in nature, amid the welter of innumerable changes, the same dialectical laws of motion force their way through as those which in history govern the apparent fortuitousness of events … to me there could be no question of building the laws of dialectics into nature, but of discovering them in it and evolving them from it” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 20, pp. 11, 12). That is, the task was to disclose the objective dialectics of nature and thereby demonstrate the necessity of conscious materialist dialectics in the natural sciences and to rid them of idealism, metaphysics, and agnosticism; to provide dialectical materialist generalizations for the most important results of scientific development; and thus to demonstrate the universality of the fundamental laws of materialist dialectics.

The structure intended for Dialectics of Nature may be seen from the outline of the book’s general plan, which dates probably from August 1878. The 11 points in the plan can be grouped in three parts: natural science and philosophy (points 1 to 3); classification of the sciences and the dialectical content of particular sciences (points 4 and 5); and the critique of agnosticism, idealism, and metaphysics in the natural sciences (points 6 to 11). However, the actual material in Dialectics of Nature does not fully correspond to this plan, except in overall conception. The last part is especially fragmentary.

In the articles and fragments belonging to the first, most general part, Engels studies the achievements of natural science, beginning with the Renaissance, and shows that scientific development has always been determined by the development of production and is inseparably linked with philosophy. He argues that “the metaphysical outlook has become impossible in natural science owing to the very development of the latter” and that “the return to dialectics takes place unconsciously, hence contradictorily and slowly” (ibid., p. 343). Engels singles out the two basic forms of pre-Marxist dialectical philosophy, ancient Greek philosophy and classical German philosophy from Kant to Hegel, formulating a critique of Hegel’s idealist dialectics. Emphasizing the role of the three great discoveries in natural science—the law of the conservation and transformation of energy, the discovery of the organic cell, and Darwinism— discoveries that revealed the dialectics of nature, he demands that scientific theory acquire a conscious mastery of rational, materialist dialectics (ibid., pp. 343–72, 500–25). Engels defines dialectics and lists its basic laws. Dialectics is “the science of universal interconnections” (ibid., p. 343), “the science of the most general laws of all motion” (ibid., p. 582). The laws of dialectics can be reduced to three fundamental ones: the law of transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa, the law of the interpenetration of opposites, and the law of negation of the negation. Engels distinguishes the objective dialectics of nature from the subjective dialectics of thought: subjective dialectics reflects objective dialectics, and dialectics is the most advanced method of thought. However, Engels did not set himself the task of composing a guide to dialectics: “We are not concerned here with writing a handbook of dialectics, but only with showing that the dialectical laws are really laws of the development of nature, and therefore are valid also for theoretical natural science” (ibid., p. 385; see also pp. 526–57).

The central idea of the main section of the book, the second part, is the classification of the forms of motion of matter and the corresponding classification of the sciences studying these forms of motion. The lowest form of motion is simple transposition from one place to another, the highest is thought. The basic forms studied by natural science are mechanical, physical, chemical, and biological motion. Each lower form of motion makes a transition by means of a dialectical leap into a higher form. Each higher form bears within it as a subordinate moment a lower form but cannot be reduced to it (see ibid., pp. 391–407, 558–71). Guided by this central idea, Engels makes a thoroughgoing study of the dialectical content of mathematics, mechanics, physics, chemistry, and biology and of the transitions of one form of motion to another and, correspondingly, the transitions of one science to another. In mathematics he singles out the problems of apparently a priori statements and of mathematical abstraction and explains their objective meaning; in physics, the doctrine of the transformation of energy; in chemistry, the problem of atomistics; and in biology, the problems of the origin and nature of life, cell theory, and Darwinism. The transition from natural science to the history of society takes the form of the labor theory of human origins developed by Engels (see ibid., pp. 486–99).

In the third and critical part of his work Engels demonstrates the one-sided empiricism of the positivists and considers various manifestations of antiscientific and reactionary world views in science.

In studying the dialectics of nature, Engels relied on the achievements of the natural science of his day. It is quite logical that in the ensuing decades, with the rapid growth of all the natural sciences, certain parts of Dialectics of Nature inevitably became outdated. However, the general methodology and overall conception of the book continue to retain their validity even to this day. The ideas in Dialectics of Nature were reflected in two other works by Engels, Anti-Duhring and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. These ideas were developed further in Lenin’s Materialism and Empiriocriticism and in the works of other Marxist philosophers and natural scientists.

Dialectics of Nature was not published during Engels’ lifetime. For 30 years after his death the manuscript lay in the archives of the German Social Democrats. During this time only two articles from the body of the work were published: “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition From Ape to Man” was published in 1896 in the magazine Die Neue Zeit (Stuttgart; Russian translation, 1906); and “Natural Science in the Spirit World” appeared in 1898 in the annual lllustrierter Neue Welt-Kalender (Hamburg).

The full text of Dialectics of Nature was first published in 1925 in the USSR by the Marx-Engels Institute in a parallel edition in German and Russian (Archives of Marx and Engels, book 2, edited by D. B. Riazanov). The book has been reprinted many times since, with the manuscript deciphered more exactly, the translation improved, the arrangement of the materials more exact, and the scholarly and annotational material fuller. The most important editions after 1925 were the edition in German in 1935— Herrn Eugen Diihrings Umwálzung der Wissenschaft: Dialektik der Natur (special edition; Moscow-Leningrad, 1935), in Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe; the Russian edition of 1941; and the edition published in 1961 as part of the 20-volume Works of Marx and Engels. The complicated problem of correctly arranging the chapters and fragments of Dialectics of Nature was first solved in the 1941 edition, prepared by V. K. Brushlinskii, in which all the material in the manuscript was successfully arranged along the main lines indicated in Engels’ outline.

On the basis of the text published in 1925 an improved version was printed in the 1927 German edition of the Archives of Marx and Engels (Marx-Engels-Archiv, vol. 2). Several different editions appeared in Russian between 1929 and 1936, including a 1931 printing that was part of the 14-volume Works of Marx and Engels. A Bulgarian translation was published in Sofia in 1931, a Ukrainian translation in Kharkov in 1932, and an Armenian translation in Yerevan in 1936.

On the basis of the 1935 edition, editions appeared in Great Britain and the United States in 1940 and after, in Argentina in 1941, in Japan in 1948, and in France and Italy in 1950.

Between 1946 and 1955 the Russian edition was reprinted several times. It was translated into Ukrainian in 1949, Latvian in 1949, Armenian in 1950, Georgian in 1950, Byelorussian in 1954, Lithuanian in 1960, Estonian in 1962, Azerbaijani in 1966, Turkmen in 1969, English in 1954 (Moscow edition; London edition, 1955; and Toronto edition, 1956), Tamil in 1969 (Moscow edition). In 1959 the first edition in German in the German Democratic Republic appeared, following the 1941 Russian edition. Similar editions came out in Bulgaria in 1950, in Czechoslovakia (in Czech in 1950 and in Slovak in 1954), in Hungary in 1952, in Poland in 1952, in France in 1952, in Yugoslavia (in Slovenian) in 1953, in Japan in 1953, in Rumania in 1954, in Italy in 1955, in China in 1955, in Korea in 1957, in Mexico in 1961, and in Vietnam in 1963.

The 1941 edition was used as the basis for the text of Dialectics of Nature published in 1961 as part of the 20-volume second edition of the Works of Marx and Engels. Similar editions of this volume appeared in the German Democratic Republic in 1962, in Hungary in 1963, in Rumania in 1964, in Bulgaria in 1965, in the Ukraine in 1965, and in Japan in 1968. Editions are due to come out in China, Korea, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, as well as in the English and Italian editions of the Works of Marx and Engels. The book was published separately, following the text of the 20-volume Works edition, in 1964, 1965. and 1969.

Thus the complete text of Dialectics of Nature has been published no fewer than 100 times in 18 countries and in 27 languages; in the USSR it has been published in full more than 50 times in 13 languages with a total press run of over 2.5 million copies as of Jan. 1, 1970.


Kedrov, B. M. OproizvedeniiF. Engel’sa “Dialektika prirody,” 2nd ed. Moscow, 1954.
Kedrov, B. M. Klassifikatsiia nauk. Book 1: Engel’s i ego predshestvenniki. Moscow, 1961.
Kedrov, B. M. Engel’s i dialektika estestvoznaniia. Moscow, 1970.
Kol’man, E. O rabote Engel’sa “Dialektika prirody.”; [Moscow] 1946.
Haldane, J. B. S. “Predislovie k pervomu izdaniiu na angliiskom iazyke ’Dialektiki prirody’ F. Engel’sa.” Priroda, 1968, no. 9. (Russian translation of Haldane’s preface to the first English edition of Dialectics of Nature.)


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
To provide a point of comparison, consider how in his Dialectics of Nature, Engels summarizes a Hegelian perspective on the dialectic method (4):
Writers in the philosophical current of Western Marxism are criticized for their rejection of Engels' Dialectics of Nature. The authors, however, admit that Marx himself did not develop a dialectics of nature, but confined himself to dialectical interactions between humanity and the natural world.
On the question of ontological dialectics and the dialectics of nature/cosmology, see in particular Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1954), pp.
Though he was taken, particularly early on, by Hegel's dialectics of nature and a vision of an ultimate synthesis that would give meaning to existence, Whitman resisted the temptation to reduce the challenge of describing death, violence, or natural phenomena to such a synthesis and, for the most part, avoided the pathetic fallacy.
Studies in Dialectics of Nature 21(6): 5-10 (in Chinese).
Journal of Dialectics of Nature 4: 23-28 (in Chinese).
Engels's Dialectics of Nature serves as an early, unfinished attempt to push this project forward.
The epilogue largely discusses issues related to the topic of a 'dialectics of nature', the contentious concept developed by Engels, and how 20th century Marxists have responded to the ecological issue.
Bloch, "Women and the Dialectics of Nature in Eighteenth-Century French Thought," Nature, Culture and Gender, eds.
From the late 1850s, both Marx and Engels combined a renewal of their interest in Hegel's dialectics with an attention to contemporary developments in the natural sciences, this new perspective finding expression in Engels' Dialectics of Nature. However, Engels' work on the philosophy of the natural sciences was to be left unfinished as he felt obliged to intervene in debates in the German Social Democratic Party and to offer an attack on the work of Eugen Duhring, a polemic which was published in book-form as Anti-Dubring (1876-78), three chapters of which were issued as an extremely successful pamphlet, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, in 1883, the year of Marx's death.
In this article, and even more in the first article in the book, "Evolution as Theory and Ideology" (finally in print after years of circulating in typescript), these arguments are supported by biological detail enormously richer than generally found in philosophical discussions about the dialectics of nature. This substantive articulation of the behavior of complex living systems is an unusually sensuous and at times even playful embodiment of the sensitivity to contradiction and overdetermination that a Marxist worldview cultivates.