Voline, “On Synthesis” (1924) (part 1 of 2)

On Synthesis

I.

Legend maintains that Jesus Christ gave no response to the question of Pontius Pilate: “What is truth?” And it is very likely that in these tragic moments he hardly had the heart to concern himself with philosophical arguments. But even if he had had the time and the desire to engage in a controversy concerning the essence of truth, it would not have been easy for him to respond in a definitive manner.

Many centuries have passed since then. Humanity has made more than one step toward knowledge of the world. The question of Pontius Pilate has troubled humanity, it has made people think, work and seek in all directions, and it has brought suffering to a great number of minds. The ways and methods of the search for truth have varied many times… Yet the question always remains without an answer.


Three principal obstacles arise along the path we follow to seek and establish objective truth, no matter in what direction or in what region we hope to find it.

The first of these obstacles is impressed with a purely theoretical and philosophical character. In fact, the truth is the great existing All: everything that exists in reality. To know the truth means to know what is. But to know what is, to know the veritable truth, the essence of things (“things in themselves”) would appear to be, for several reasons, impossible at this time, and perhaps it will always be so. The essential reason for that impossibility is the following: The world would never be for us anything but the idea that we fashion of it. it presents itself to us, not as it is in reality, but as it is depicted to us by our (or more) poor, false senses, and by our incomplete and crude methods of knowing things. Both are very limited, subjective and fickle. Here is an example drawn from the domain of the senses: as we know, there exists in nature, in reality, neither light, nor colors, nor sounds (there exists only what we believe to be movements, oscillations); however, we have above all an impression of the monde consisting of light and colors (oscillations collected and transformed with the aid of our visual organs) and sounds (movements collected and transformed by our auditory apparatus.) Let us also not that a whole series of phenomena unquestionably taking place in nature elude the organs of our senses. To serve as an example in the domain of knowledge, it is enough to indicate the fact that, constantly, certain theories are rejected to be replaced by others. (A very recent example is that of the famous theory of Einstein on relativity tending to “devastate” all our systems of knowledge.) The only thing that I know immediately is that I exist (cogito, ergo sum, I think, therefore I am) and that there exists some reality outside of me. Without knowing it exactly, I know nonetheless that it exists: first, because it I exist, there must exist some reality that has created me; second, because some entity that is found outside of me communicates to me certain impressions. It is that reality, the essence of which I do not know, that I call world and life; and it is that reality that I seek to know as much as it will lend itself to the knowing.

Obviously, if we wanted to always consider that obstacle, it would only remain for us to say once and for all: everything that we think we know is only lies, deception, illusion; we cannot know the essence of things, for our means of knowing are far too imperfect… And on that basis, we would have to renounce every sort of scientific labor, every work in search of the truth and of knowledge of the world, considering every attempt of that sort perfectly useless and destined to never succeed.

However, in the overwhelming majority of our scientific acts, acts of thought as well as practice—if we set aside the domain of purely philosophical speculation—we hardly consider that obstacle: first, because if we did, we would truly have to renounce all scientific activity, every search for the truth (something which, for many reasons, is entirely unacceptable to us); and then, for we have certain reasons to believe that our impressions reflect all the same, up to a certain point, reality such as it is, and that our understanding comes closer and closer to knowledge of that reality, to knowledge of the truth. It is this last argument in particular, together with other impetuses, that leads us to widen and deepen without ceasing our work of research.

Taking as data, — that is as having for us a real, concrete meaning, common to us all, — our impressions and especially our knowledge of the world and of life; taking as given the milieu, concrete for us, in which we live, work and act, — we think and we seek on the bases and within the limits of that reality as it presents itself: a subjective and conventional reality.

The question of truth is equally posed within the limits of that reality. And, above all, to decipher that reality, accessible to our understanding and our impressions, as well as to pursue the continual widening of its knowable limits — this already appears to us as a problem of the highest importance.

But, in this case as well, we see loom up before us, and the path of research and of the establishment of truth, two other obstacles, of a concrete character as well.

Second obstacle. — Like life, truth is undivided. Truth (like life) is the great All. To know this or that part of the truth still cannot mean that we know the Truth (although it is sometimes necessary to go from knowledge of the parts to the knowledge of the whole). To know the truth — this means, to be precise, to know all the universe in its entirety: all of existence, all of life, all the paths of life, as well as all its forces, all its laws and tendencies, for all times and all terms, in all its different secrets, in all its phenomena and separate details, as well as in its entirety. Now, even if it was only within the limits of the world intelligible to our faculties of impression and understanding, — to embrace the universe, to know life and penetrate its inner meaning appears to us impossible at present, and perhaps it will never be possible.

Third obstacle. – The most characteristic trait of life is its eternal and uninterrupted movement, its changes, its continual transformations. Thus, there exists no firm, constant and determined truth. Or rather, if there exists a general, complete truth, its defining quality would be an incessant movement of transformation, a continual displacement of all the elements of which it is composed. Consequently, the knowledge of that truth supposes a complete knowing, a clear definition, an exact reduction of all the laws, all the forms, all the combinations, possibilities and consequences of all these movements, of all these changes and permutations. Now, such a knowledge, so exact an account of the forces in infinite movement and oscillation, of the continually changing combinations,—even if there exists a certain regularity and an iterative law in these oscillations and changes,—would be something nearly impossible.

II

To know the Truth—that means to know life as it is, to know the true essence of things.

We do not know that true life, [so] we do not know the Truth.

However, we possess some knowledge of it.

As we receive impressions of life and we learn to know it through the testimony of our senses and through the means of knowing that we find at our disposal, precisely as we run up against the obstacles indicated,—we learn, first, that life is some great synthesis, as reality as well as personal feeling: some resultant of a quantity of diverse forces and energies, of factors of all sort.

We also learn that this synthesis is subject to a continuous movement, to incessant variations; we know that that resultant is never found at rest, but that, on the contrary, it oscillates and varies without ceasing.

To know the Truth—that would mean to embrace, know and understand the whole of this global synthesis in all of its details, in all its entirety and in all its eternal movement, in all its combinations and its uninterrupted variations.

If we know life in its details, in its entirety and in its movements, we will know the Truth. And that truth will be the resultant, constantly in movement, of a quantity of forces: a resultant of which we should also know all the movements.


We know neither the true life, nor its synthesis; we know neither its reality, nor its meaning, nor its movements. For us, life in its entirety is the great enigma, the great mystery. We only manage, from time to time, to pluck some fragments of its synthesis from the air…

We do not know the authentic truth, the objective truth of things. Not only have we still not managed to discover the truth, but we do not know if we will ever discover it. We only succeed, from time to time, in finding some isolated grains of the truth—dispersed and brilliant sparkles of precious gold, from which it is still impossible for us to form anything whole…

But—we seek the truth (or to put it better, some of us do.) We have sought it for centuries and thousands of years. We scan on all sides, in all directions—obstinately, offering all our forces to the search, painfully, sorrowfully.

And if we know that life is a great synthesis, we know, consequently, that the search for truth is the search for synthesis; that the path of truth is that of synthesis; that in seeking the truth, it is important to always remember the synthesis, to always aspire to it.

And since we know that life is a continuous movement, we should, in seeking the truth, constantly consider that fact.

III

The field of interest that particularly interests us is not that of pure philosophy and speculation. The circle within which our interests, our aspirations and our attempts principally move is the much more concrete and accessible one of the problems of biology and above all of sociology.

Seeking to establish some social conception, to intervene actively in social life and to influence it in a certain direction, we wish to discover in that concrete domain the guiding truth.

What do we do to find it?

Generally we take up certain phenomena in the given domain of life, we analyze them, we seek to know them and penetrate their meaning.

It often happens that we succeed in drawing the exact assessment from some phenomenon and that, consequently, we manage to put our finger on a coin, on a part, on a fragment of the truth.

Four fundamental errors are very frequent—and very characteristic—in these cases.

1. Human analysis is not infallible. It does not lead directly to the exact and indubitable, absolute truth. In every analysis, in every human research, we inevitably encounter, along with some scraps of truth grasped on the spot, more or less great errors, lapses, sometimes oversights and clumsy false judgments—thus, [we make] assertions not in conformity with the truth. We generally forget that this is the case, and instead of seeking to establish and to eliminate these errors, to find and apply the necessary corrections, we disregard them or else we do still worse—we consider our errors as an expression of the truth, so that we disfigure it and distort its value.

2. Save for very rare exceptions, we are generally inclined to exaggerate the significance, sometimes very minuscule, of the bit of truth found by us, to generalize it, to make of it the whole truth, to extend it, if not to life in its entirety, at least to phenomena of much larger and more complicated order, and at the same time to reject other elements of the truth we seek.

3. We let ourselves be carried away by the analysis and a generalization, erroneous from its immediate results, we constantly forget to consider the second moment—and that is the most essential one—necessary to the search for the truth: of the true and accurate way of generalization; of the necessity,—the analysis once made and a phenomenon, a fragment of truth grasped and understood,—not to take hold of that bit and raise it to the rank of keystone, by making it the entire truth, but, on the contrary, to remember other phenomena relating to the same order of ideas, to seek to fathom their meaning as well, to compare them with the bit of truth discovered and to do everything in order to establish a correct synthesis. This problem of the second degree generally escapes us. We forget that life is a synthesis of a great number of factors.

4. We forget at each step that movement and variability never cease; we forget that there exists no apathetic truth, that in life “everything flows,” that life and truth are the dynamics par excellence. Habitually, we do not account for this factor of an extreme importance and value: the uninterrupted dynamism of life and truth. However, just as it would be erroneous to take the form adopted at a certain moment by an amoeba in motion for its constant form, it would be a mistake to suppose a similar rigidity in the essence of truth: what has just been (or what could have been) truth moment a moment ago—is not longer truth in the following moment. The synthesis itself is not immutable. It is only a resultant constantly in motion, which sometimes comes closer to one of the factors and sometimes to another, and never remains close to one or the other for long. We do not take sufficient account of this singularly important fact. [1]

The errors indicated have a particularly harmful importance pour for the domain of the human sciences, for the comprehension and study of our social life, which represents an exceptionally complicated synthesis of particularly numerous factors, the majority of which are of a special order, a movement and a series of combinations—both exceptionally complicated—of the most diverse elements (which, moreover, are far from being solely mechanical.)

It is precisely in this domain that the most serious errors most often take place. It is especially the numerous followers of the seekers of truth who are guilty of this. The mission to reexamine their “truths,” to redress their errors and make the necessary corrections later falls to others.

Here are some examples that could serve as an illustration: the definition made by Marx-Engels, and especially by their followers, of the role of the economic factor in history (the so-called “historical materialism”)—that excellent but unilateral (and consequently not precisely correct) analysis, and—the exaggerated and “firm” (consequently quite inexact) deductions that have been drawn from it; the theory of classes of Karl Marx and his followers—that analysis, just as brilliant, but narrow and insufficient (and thus erroneous on many points), and the perverse deductions that have been made from it; the “law” of the struggle for existence (Ch. Darwin and also, and especially, his supporters in the various branches of science) with all its errors and exaggerations; the unilateral individualist theory of Max Stirner (and especially of his followers) and so many others.

The economic doctrine of Marx and his theory classes, the individualist conception of Stirner, as well as the law of the struggle for existence de Darwin, etc., etc., are always admirable analyses—well directed and called to give some important results—of one of the factors, of one of the elements of the complicated and vital synthesis, but in order to approach the truth of the synthesis, all these theories are lacking one essential thing: the understanding of the necessity of juxtaposing them with the analysis of other elements and other factors, with the deductions that can be made from the results of these other analyses. They lack the desire to account for phenomena of a different order, the aspiration to seek the synthesis. We forget that real life is a synthesis of different series of phenomena; that that synthesis is moreover the moving and variable outcome of these series, series that are also constantly in movement. We lose sight of the real and moving synthetic nature of life and the necessity of a corresponding synthetic character in scientific knowledge. This is the source of the errors of generalization and deduction. Instead of approaching the truth, we distance ourselves from it.


This erroneous attitude with regard to the phenomena examined, to the bits of truth discovered, causes considerable damage to all our attempts at social construction, for they cause us to wander very far from the road leading to a precise solution of the problems that loom up before us.

Indeed, if in each truth found by us we inevitably find mixed an alloy of non-truth; if every partial truth established by us is never the entire truth; if truth, like life itself, is always synthetic and moving,—then in our constructions we approach the truth, we reckon and understand vital phenomena and processes that much more correctly and exactly to the extent that we verify more meticulously the bit of truth found, to the extent that we compare it with other phenomena and bits of truth discovered in the same domain, to the extent that we approach synthesis and that we constantly recall the essential fact of the uninterrupted movement of all things. And we distance ourselves from the truth, from a proper understanding of life, from a correct conception—that much more as we concern ourselves less with verifying, comparing and contrasting, to the extent, finally, that we distance ourselves from synthesis and the idea of movement.

It is very probable that we will never attain the knowledge of a correct and complete synthesis. But the principle that must guide us is a constant effort to approach it to the greatest extent possible.

Each time that we close our eyes to the defects and the vices of the bits of truth found by us, we distance ourselves from the result sought. The proper method consists, on the contrary, to carefully account for these errors and of seeking their correction.

Each time that we take a fragment of truth found by us for the whole and only truth, and we reject the other fragments, sometimes without even taking the trouble of examining them closely—we distance ourselves from the correct solution. The correct method consists of juxtaposing each fragment found with others, to strive to discover some always new parts of the truth and to seek to make them agree, so that they form one single whole. That is the only way that we can reach our goal.

Each time that we limit ourselves to drawing the appraisal of our analysis made from a single aspect of the question, and we forget the necessity of continuing our work of research by aspiring to accomplish its synthesis with the other aspects—we distance ourselves more from the goal, however brilliant and exact our work of analysis has been. Each time that we forget to take into account the constant factors of movement and variability, and we take the bit of truth found by us for something stable, firm, “petrified,”—we distance ourselves from the truth. The true path is to always account for the multiplicity of factors that all find themselves engaged in a continuous movement and to seek the resultant (also moving itself) of these factors.


[1] This phenomenon of the “constant variability of the resultant,” as well as the importance of its application to the study of the facts of human history, will be examined in detail in another work.


[to be concluded in part 2]

[Articles appearing in numbers 25 and 27, March and April 1924, of the Revue anarchiste]

Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur