A letter from Anton Pannekoek to E.K.  in The Hague 

AMSTERDAM, 18 January 1938.

Dear comrade,

I would like to try to find out how the question of causality stands. It seems to me that this word often refers to two different things. And therein may also lie the reason for the difference of opinion. In our ordinary lives, we call a cause that which precedes: a stone or block falls down; then we see or hear the splash in the water; then we say that the falling of the stone is the cause of the splash. The rain is the cause of the soil getting wet and the weather conditions growing the plant; the sunshine is the cause of the wall getting hot. It is this relationship between the earlier cause and the subsequent effect, I think, that governs your conception.

But there are other phenomena, where the names of cause and effect are also used, and these have become especially important in science. The stone falls because the earth attracts it; gravity is the cause of the fall. Originally it was thought that gravity had always been there and now, when the stone is released, it begins to fall. But here there is actually simultaneity; gravity is simultaneous with falling, it is always pulling and increasing the speed all the time (so that superficial thinking, which only pays attention to the speed of the stone, thinks it is coming after it).

A force in nature is there simultaneously with its action, and it is these kinds of forces that are called causes in science. And about this, surely it has long been understood that the word cause is a wrong name, at least in the old sense; that it should not be thought of as something that was already there and more original and which explains the matter, but that it is only a summary name. Gravity says nothing more than falling itself, nor does it explain anything, and is of value only as a general name as a so-called law, as a formula for all phenomena. Because the clarification of insight leading to this understanding of causes in science first came from Marxism (in Dietzgen's writings especially), we may well call the old idea a bourgeois limitation. It should be noted here, that even some bourgeois natural scientists (like Mach) have done a lot to disturb that old belief. This is what the other 2 apparently mean1. Now as to the rest of your writing, there is much in the train of thought that seems right to me, but not everything is clear yet. In fact, it is difficult for anyone to come to complete clarity here. What you seem to think is this: the world is always as a whole the same world; in all its progress it always remains identically the same. We, however, experience time in our consciousness as a progression of constantly new moments "now". So we perceive the world new every moment and the unity and remaining the same of the world must therefore take the form for us that all the following is determined by the previous, so the previous cause, the following effect.

Only I would not argue that when we think, we do so outside of being and that it is non temporal. The only world we know is that of our experience, the world of phenomena, and in it, running time is as much a fact of experience as anything else. Talking about what might be beyond experience is meaningless. Our thinking is also part of all this being. Since it does not encompass all being itself, it, practically, takes its stand [in] the moment and the limited place and environment it oversees. And therefore it then expresses that the world stays itself by saying, that all the former is the cause of all the later. But practically it does this imperfectly, by trying to establish in limited occurrence and in limited area this coherence in the parts.

This applies as much to temporal succession as it does to coherence in separate areas, which science discovered as forces, causes and laws, and which must therefore always be improved. Causality, I would say, is for us the way to order our experience about the world. I hope, perhaps, that this reflection may contribute something to clarify the point of contention.

Kind regards,

(w.s.) Anton Pannekoek


(1)  By "the others" are obviously meant those whose views differed from E's. 1 E., who belonged to a small Marxist group at the time, wrote to Pannekoek to ask for his opinion on a difference of opinion existing within that group in response to outlines by Joseph Dietzgen. It will undoubtedly not escape readers of this letter that Pannekoek, in his reply, tries to make clear the same thing he would argue in the chapter of "Lenin as philosopher" devoted to Dietzgen that same year. This has also prompted us to print his letter in this place. (D&G)