EPICENE PRONOUN [Linguistics]
Refers to a pronoun (or sometimes another kind of word) that is not specific to a single gender. [‘Epicene’ is from the Greek meaning “common to all”.] In English, for example, the non-epicene pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’ have traditionally been used with the male gender and ‘she’ and ‘her’ have traditionally been used with the female gender, whereas the epicene pronoun ‘you’ is used regardless of gender. However, in a sentence such as “Whenever someone arrives at the door I always invite him in”, the word ‘him’ is nevertheless used in an epicene way (and can thus refer to either a male or female). Therefore in English the grammatical context indicates whether pronouns such as ‘he’ and ‘him’ are being used in the more common non-epicene way, or else in an epicene way.
Some people today, in order to promote more gender equality within the English language, also use ‘she’ and ‘her’ in an epicene way, as in: “Whenever someone arrives at the door I always invite her in”. However, because this is not the way things have been done in the past, this sounds quite jarring and distracting to many people. (Alternating the use of ‘he’ and ‘she’ in these situations is also quite distracting.) For this reason many of us prefer to use a different approach, i.e., to use ‘they’ and ‘them’ in a singular sense: “Whenever someone arrives at the door I always invite them in”. This use of what is more commonly a plural pronoun in a singular sense also has a long history in English, and therefore does not sound jarring or distracting (in the way that using ‘her’ in this context does). For this reason many of us encourage people who want to avoid the specially privileged use of the epicene pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’, as well as the gender-neutral but quite cumbersome ‘he or she’ and ‘his or her’ expressions, to use ‘they’ or ‘them’ instead. If it be objected that ‘they’ and ‘them’ mean more than one person, this is simply not always true in English (as the example given above illustrates). Moreover, there is a precedent in English of transforming a plural pronoun into also being a singular one: The pronoun ‘you’ was once only used to refer to groups of more than one person (while ‘thee’ was used for individuals), but has now been used for centuries in both a plural and singular way. —S.H.
EPICURUS (c. 341-c. 270 BCE)
Important ancient Greek materialist philosopher and atheist.
“The first man who made a deliberate attempt to rid men of their fears and bonds, the first man who tried to abolish slavery within his domain, Epicurus, was a materialist.” —Jean-Paul Sartre, “Materialism and Revolution,” Literary and Philosophical Essays, (NY: Criterion Books, 1955), p. 207. Quoted in Monthly Review, April 2021, p. 63.
“Epicureanism—the doctrine of the ancient Greek philosopher
Epicurus of the 4th to 3rd centuries B.C. and his successors. The aim of philosophy,
according to this doctrine, was man’s happiness; freeing him from suffering and enabling
him to attain a state of bliss. It taught that philosophy was called upon to overcome
obstacles to happiness: the fear of death due to ignorance of the laws of nature and
giving rise therefore to belief in supernatural, divine forces.
“As regards the theory of knowledge, Epicurus was a sensationalist. He supposed that very subtle images proceed from things and penetrate the human soul through the sense-organs. Conceptions of things are formed on the basis of the sensuous perceptions of the soul, in which memory preserves only the general features of images. Epicurus regarded sense-perceptions themselves as the criterion of truth, and he considered that the source of errors lay in the accidental character of individual sensations or in the over-hasty formation of judgments.
“The idealists, who distorted the teaching of this great materialist of ancient Greece, made more attacks on Epicurianism than on the other philosophical theories of antiquity.” —Note 49, LCW 14.
A regional outbreak of an infectious disease, such as the flu or the measles, which spreads unexpectedly, very quickly, and often exponentially for a period. If this outbreak spreads internationally to many people in many parts of the world it is referred to as a pandemic.
See also: EPIDEMIOLOGY, “FLATTENING THE CURVE”
“Capitalist rule cannot allow itself the pleasure of creating epidemic
diseases among the working class with impunity; the consequences fall back on it and the
angel of death rages in its ranks as ruthlessly as in the ranks of the workers.” —Frederick
Engels, “The Housing Question – Part Two: How the Bourgeoisie Solves the Housing Question”,
1872; online at:
[While Engels is of course correct here, sometimes the bourgeoisie is so stupid in dealing with an epidemic or pandemic that it inadvertently endangers itself. This is especially obvious at the present time (March 2020) as the scientifically ignorant Trump administration in the U.S. is refusing to take all the medical social-distancing and social-isolation, masking, and other steps necessary to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control in the U.S. Even some of the very inadequate steps they have reluctantly taken so far will very likely be reversed way too soon in a vain and foolish attempt to get people (healthy or not) quickly back to work and the economy “healthy” again. This will undoubtedly backfire on both the health of the capitalist class itself and also on their economy. —Ed.]
The branch of medical science focused on dealing with outbreaks of infectious diseases. The precise means used to end or at least control the particular disease will depend on its specific nature, the means by which it is spread, and the tools available to treat or control it, and so forth. Thus respiratory diseases like Covid-19 will have to be combatted in considerably different ways than sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis are. Still, in each category of infectious diseases there have developed standard approaches.
In the case of air-borne respiratory diseases like Covid-19 the basic approach is as follows: 1) Test everyone who seems to have possible symptoms of the disease; 2) Also test all the recent contacts of those who have symptoms, whether or not these contacts themselves yet have symptoms; and, if necessary, the contacts of the contacts; 3) Completely isolate and carefully treat all those who test positive for the disease until they recover (or die); 4) Strongly promote the widespread use of effective face masks; and 5) Of course, if vaccines are available, you also vaccinate as much of the population as you can. That is really all there is to it, as far as ending or at least controlling this sort of epidemic! However, for diseases which are infectious before the victims typically show any symptoms (such as Covid-19), this contact-tracing, testing and isolation aspect of the process becomes especially key in controlling the outbreak. In short, TEST, ISOLATE and TREAT, CONTACT-TRACE, MASK and VACCINATE. Although this is basic epidemiology for this type of epidemic, and was the strong advice of a consensus of the medical authorities, this program was not immediately and consistently followed in the case of the Covid-19 epidemic in the U.S., and the disease got completely out of hand. More than 1 million people have already died from it in the U.S. alone, and more are still dying. The ruling class did not make anywhere near adequate and sufficient advance preparations for such epidemics, even though scientists warned for years that they were inevitable. And the level of government incompetence and indifference to the welfare of the people in this event has been nothing short of astounding. Instead the bourgeoisie has focused primarily on their much greater concern for maintaining production and corporate profits. (For more information see: COVID-19 PANDEMIC )
Can such a program actually end or at least almost completely control a disease like Covid-19, if it is thoroughly carried out? Yes, it can! But only if the epidemiologists have the trust and cooperation of the masses of the people, which in a bourgeois ultra-individualist, scientifically ignorant and ill-prepared country like the United States they do not. —S.H. [March 23, 2023].
An epiphenomenon is a secondary effect or process that accompanies, or derives from, a more fundamental process. In its most common usage in philosophy, the term epiphenomenalism is the doctrine that mind and mental processes are epiphenomena of the physical operations within the brain. While this way of looking at things is sort of on the right track, it usually tends to still be rather naïve and skewed.
Materialism views matter (including brains) as primary and minds and mental processes and states as outgrowths of the physical operation of brains. So far this sounds like epiphenomenalism. However, epiphenomenalism—in its usual form—has the connotation that the epiphenomena involved are somehow actually “fictitious”, or at least do not play any real role in the actual functioning of the human being. In this view, everything important is really determined by physical processes in the brain, and our minds and mental life are merely sorts of phenomenalistic appendages added on later. Those championing epiphenomenalism have mostly viewed mind and mental states along the lines of “illusions” which people have, and in their theories brains give rise to the epiphenomena of minds, but minds and mental processes do not in turn have any genuine role in what we actually do.
In reality, our minds and mental processes do exist, and can definitely affect what we do. For example, I can decide to raise my arm and do so because of that decision. However, this is possible only because my mental decision itself is merely a sophisticated way of viewing one part of the complex physical process in my brain-body that leads to the raising of my arm.
It is certainly true that our minds and mental processes and states derive from the physical operations within the brain. But what the epiphenomenalists do not clearly understand is that mental phenomena and states are just special high-level, summary ways of looking at the physical operations going on in the brain. Thus mentalistic operations such as deciding, remembering, thinking, etc., are not simply “unnecessary” or “illusory” perceptions, but are themselves special ways of talking about very important aspects of the physical functioning of the brain-body system.
Thus epiphenomenalism, in its usual form, is sort of a naive concession to dualism. Like ordinary dualism, it tacitly understands mind and mental phenomena as something different than, or “beyond”, the physical functioning of the brain. But unlike ordinary dualism, it considers these mental epiphenomena as more or less useless and unnecessary. It recognizes the fundamental physical basis for what is actually going on in brains/minds of human beings, but it doesn’t clearly understand what mental phenomena themselves are. It doesn’t really understand that mental processes and states are just the very convenient (and absolutely necessary) ways we have of monitoring in a summary fashion what is going on in our brains, and that these mental phenomena themselves really do have a physical basis as well as further physical consequences.
A fancy name used in psychology for the trust we all need to develop for the sources of information that we can best rely on. For family, friends and other individuals who we are directly acquainted with, we all have to learn through personal experience how much trust we can put in the information received from these particular people. (This is normally reasonably reliable for everyday matters and information, but much less so when it comes to scientific or theoretical information and ideas, since the educational system in American capitalist society is so extremely poor in general.)
However, more generally in society we need to learn which categories of people, which organizations, and which publications, we can usually trust. Everyone who needs to obtain medical, scientific, technical or other specialized information, for example, should ideally be educated to understand which sources are most trustworthy. However, a great many people in this bourgeois society do not know who to trust, and even have no idea how to go about finding out which sources are most worthy of trust for each category of information. And things have gotten qualitatively much worse recently with the advent of all the social media on the Internet, wherein more and more phonies, fakers, quacks and ideologues are able to spout off and fool the masses of people into thinking that they are the real authorities and reliable sources of information.
With regard to medical information specifically, people should of course rely primarily on medical professionals, such as doctors and medical researchers, and publications issued by organizations of these professionals. These are the experts or authorities within the field of medicine. However, here—as well as in other areas where we find ourselves in need of reliable information—there is the problem of conflicting information and opposing ideas within the medical field itself, and even within each specialty (such as among cardiologists, rheumatologists, dermatologists, etc.)! In this worrying situation a good and rational practice is to rely on the best authorities in that field, if you are certain you can identify who they are. But what if you cannot? Or if you do not have access to these recognized top authorities? Then a good and rational strategy is to try to rely on the dominant or prevailing views within the medical community, or that specialized branch of it. Why? Because the most widespread views are typically those which agree with the top authorities. This is the consensus strategy for determining epistemic trust when there are serious differences within the expert community. It is not guaranteed to work! (Nothing is.) But when most doctors in the relevant specialty say that you should follow a certain course of action, while only a few argue against that course, then the best bet is that the consensus view is most likely to be correct. But try to find out the consensus view of those doctors or medical books whose expertese covers conditions as close to yours as you can!
One alternative strategy is to try to become an expert on the precise question yourself! This can actually sometimes be done in exceptional cases, because most doctors are generalists and are not themselves really expert on every condition or disease, while you might only need to focus on one much narrower topic. But on the other hand, who will you find to teach you to become that expert yourself? If you trust individual doctors or books enough to teach you, then you might better just trust their views about your own condition in the first place. Nevertheless, it is true that in our present capitalist society, with its extremely deficiant health care system for the working class and masses, it is frequently a very good idea for the patient to study up on the health problem that they have as well as seeking out the best doctors they can. For one thing this can help the patient better understand what the doctor is suggesting, and how to best impliment it. (And, by the way, this same logic applies in our individual participation in applying the science of revolution!)
With regard to the other (genuine) sciences, and technical matters in general, the situation is similar. Look for the best experts for information and advice that you can find. Go with the consensus view in that science or sphere of knowledge, if you are not sure who the best experts are. And if the topic is important enough, try to also learn more about it yourself. Fortunately, in the realm of revolutionary politics it is quite clear who our primary experts and authorities are, namely, Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao. But we also have many contemporary leaders and revolutionary organizations who to some degree also function as authorities and experts. However, as the Cultural Revolution in China showed, we do each of us have to keep a close eye on our leaders and also study the issues for ourselves. —S.H. [May 30, 2023]
See also: SCIENCE — Trustworthiness Of
EPISTEMOLOGICAL RUPTURE or EPISTEMOLOGICAL BREAK
A term in French bourgeois philosophy that has most prominently been used in the pseudo-Marxist philosophy of Louis Althusser, particularly in his unfounded claim that Marx made an “epistemological break” in his later views from those which he had in the mid-1840s when—supposedly—he was still “under the spell” of Hegel. (See the entry on ALTHUSSER for a bit more discussion about this erroneous claim.)
It was the establishment philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, who first introduced the term rupture épistémologique into French philosophy, in the course of discussing his psychology- and psychoanalysis-based conception of how scientists develop their new theories. Bachelard seems to have only meant that a certain concept or way of thinking can block a further scientific advance, and when that “obstacle” is “ruptured” a new scientific advance can occur. That is a pretty simple idea to be dressed up so grandiosely in pretentious terminology about epistemological ruptures! (Notice also the focus on ideas in the head of the scientist rather than on practice and experimental evidence and their role in developing scientific theory; this is the sort of thing we might expect from an idealist philosopher!)
One also wonders about the word ‘rupture’ here (or even ‘break’, as it is more usually put in English). A rupture is “a tearing apart” or “bursting” of something, often even involving force or violence. That seems a little over-dramatic for most cases of the dialectical development of thought in a person’s head!
In less fancy language, the theory of knowledge; the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge, its nature, how it is acquired and verified, how much human beings can know, etc.
See also: AGNOSTICISM, HUMAN KNOWLEDGE, KNOWLEDGE, REFLECTION THEORY, and Philosophical doggerel about epistemology.
[To be added... ]
See also: INEQUALITY, GINI COEFFICIENT, SOCIAL JUSTICE INDEX
“[T]he real content of the proletarian demand for equality is the demand for the abolition of classes. Any demand for equality which goes beyond that, of necessity passes into absurdity.” —Engels, Anti-Dühring (1878), MECW 25:99.
EQUILIBRIUM THEORY [Bukharin]
A dubious conception of dialectics put forward by Nikolai Bukharin, which initially does not sound unreasonable until you look into what is only implied and is not usually overtly stated. Here is his basic conception:
“In other words, the world consists of forces, acting in many ways, opposing each other. These forces are balanced for a moment in exceptional cases only. We then have a state of ‘rest,’ i.e., their actual ‘conflict’ is concealed. But if we change only one of these forces, immediately the ‘internal contradictions’ will be revealed, equilibrium will be disturbed, and if a new equilibrium is again established, it will be on a new basis, i.e., with a new combination of forces, etc. It follows that the ‘conflict,’ the ‘contradiction,’ i.e., the antagonism of forces acting in various directions, determines the motion of the system.” —Nikolai Bukharin, Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology (1925: University of Michigan ed., 1969, p. 74.)
Although Bukharin does mention the phrase “internal contradictions” (though in scare quotes, as if to say they are so-called internal contradictions!), it is not at all clear that he really understands the nature of dialectical contradiction as being inherent in, and really internal to specific things. It is not just “the world” that consists of opposed forces, but also all the things in the world; that is what shows the dialectical nature of every single thing. Moreover, though Bukharin starts by focusing on the ubiquity of change, he subtly negates this emphasis when he switches his focus to equilibria. The page before the above quoted passage Bukharin gives some examples of what he is discussing, and then says:
“In all these examples it is clear that we are dealing with one phenomenon, that of equilibrium. This being the case, where do the contradictions come in? For there is no doubt that conflict is a disturbance of equilibrium....”
Note that Bukharin has made equilibrium (not contradiction!) his central concept in dialectics. He then approvingly quotes the German chemist H. von Halban who says:
“The precise conception of equilibrium is about as follows: ‘We say of a system that it is in a state of equilibrium when the system cannot of itself, i.e., without supplying energy to it from without, emerge from this state.’”
This is an explicit rejection of the idea that change is based on development occurring within a system, and emphasizes that it must come from without. (In a simple chemical example this might actually be the case because the “system” is viewed too narrowly. But the use being made of this example by both von Halban and Bukharin is to promote the general view that change must most essentially be caused by external forces.) On the next page Bukharin emphasizes that this is actually his own view:
“Any object, a stone, a living thing, a human society, etc., may be considered as a whole consisting of parts (elements) related with each other; in other words, this whole may be regarded as a system. And no such system exists in empty space; it is surrounded by other natural objects, which, with reference to it, may be called the environment.... Man’s environment is society, in the midst of which he lives; the environment of human society is external nature. There is a constant relationship between environment and system, and the latter, in turn, acts upon the environment. We must first of all investigate the fundamental question as to the nature of the relations between the environment and the system; how are they to be defined; what are their forms; what is their significance for their system.” —Nikolai Bukharin, ibid., pp. 75-76.
So, again, it seems that Bukharin’s conception places the real source of change and
development not within the dialectical nature of the thing that changes, but rather in
the external environment. This is not in accordance with the perspective of Hegel, Marx,
Engels, Lenin or Mao. They all viewed the internal contradictions within things as
the fundamental basis for change, while recognizing that external factors are also
often of considerable importance. In the situations where “external factors” are truly
determining, and truly of central importance, then the process should be reconceived
in a larger way so that the governing contradictions at work include those important (and
not truly “external”) factors.
See also: THEORY OF TWO POINTS
“Equilibrium, Theory of. Based on a vulgarized conception of mechanics, this theory attempts to explain evolution in nature and society solely by means of the laws of equilibrium in mechanics. In opposition to dialectics it holds that rest (equilibrium) is the natural and normal condition of things, and that motion or evolution is temporary, transient. The theory of equilibrium denies that motion is ultimately self-motion, self-evolution. The application of this theory to society leads to the conclusion that the evolution of society depends on its interrelations with its surrounding natural environment, that the dynamic of this evolution is not the internal contradictions of society, not the class struggle, but its external contradictions with nature. The theory of equilibrium stems from Comte, Spencer, Dühring, Kautsky, and other idealists and eclectics.” —Handbook of Philosophy (International: 1949), ed. by Howard Selsam, and based on the Russian work Short Philosophic Dictionary, by M. Rosenthal and P. Yudin.
The current market value of a house (or other item) minus the amount of money still owed on it (in the form of a mortgage or other loan). Thus if a family’s home has a market value of $300,000, and after paying mortgage payments for 12 years the nominal “owners” of the house still owe the bank $200,000, the family’s equity is $100,000 and the bank still actually owns two-thirds of “their” house.
EQUIVALENCE PRINCIPLE [Relativity Theory]
The “Equivalence Principle” is the name Einstein gave to his idea that in a “closed laboratory” it is impossible to distinguish between the effects of an external gravitational force and the effects of the acceleration of the whole laboratory; that, in other words, they are equivalent in their effects.
However, it should be noted that while these two things may be equivalent in their effects, it does not logically follow that they are in fact identical. Indeed, in most cases we can easily peek outside the “laboratory window” and determine whether the effects within the laboratory are due to the gravity of a nearby massive object or our own acceleration.
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