Re: Discussion article now available; Dubrovsky and Holzkamp

From: Steve Gabosch (
Date: Thu Sep 23 2004 - 06:03:59 PDT

Thank you Wolff-Michael for all these great ideas to work with! Here are
some thoughts on your post on Dubrovsky, Holzkamp, etc. I think I may be
heading toward a different outlook on some issues, but how different I am
not sure. See what you think.

I haven't read anything by Wolfgang Holzkamp, but just to stir up some
discussion, I am going to offer a critical thought about his ideas based on
something Wolff-Michael brought up.

First though, a little on Dubrovsky. The only thing I have read by David
Dubrovsky is extracts from a 1988 article entitled "The Problem of the
Ideal." I think Andy brought that piece to my our attention on xmca a few
months ago. It can be found at:

In this writing, Dubrovsky does not mention Ilyenkov directly but he does
present arguments that the ideal is nothing more than subjective
reality. He says:

"If the material is objective reality, the ideal cannot be anything else
but subjective reality. The definition of the ideal as subjective reality
is the starting point of our investigation and should remain invariable in
all contexts where reference is made to the category of the ideal. If this
requirement is not observed, the category of the ideal becomes meaningless."

He also provides challenging quotes from Marx and Lenin that indicate they
agree with this, saying:

"The understanding of the ideal (spiritual) as human subjective reality,
that is the reality of our thoughts, sense images, internal motives, etc.,
runs as a leading thread through all philosophical thought of Marx and
Engels. In contrast with Hegel, Marx pointed out that the ideal is nothing
else than the phenomenon of human consciousness, the reflection of the
material in the human mind: "The ideal is nothing else than the material
world reflected by the human mind and translated into forms of thought."
For the classics of Marxism the ideal does not exist outside the human mind."

This is a powerful argument and cannot be dismissed lightly. However,
neither Marx nor Lenin lived to study any of the work of the Vygotsky
school in the 1920's or the international growth of cultural-historical
psychology since the 1960's. A key question to ask - on the basis of a
wealth of new knowledge from a host of disciplines in social science - is
just what IS human mind? If, as CHAT and other socio-cultural theory
tendencies within the Vygotsky school argue, for example, that culture is
always in the middle of mind-making, that cognition is in part collectively
distributed, and that the mind is in large part socially constructed
(especially the higher psychological functions), then a far more refined
concept of the human mind emerges than the ones under discussion before,
say, 1924. One key implication from my point of view is that
meaningfulness, or the ideal, is social and historical, and not just
individual and arbitrary - the ideal must exist both objectively in
language and culture and does not just exist subjectively in individual
heads. (Marxists have traditionally argued this, BTW.) Another is that
all meaningful objects, representations and imaginings must have both
"ideality" and "materiality." This even includes "thoughts." But we need
to remind ourselves that when Lenin argued with the 19th Century Marxist
Joseph Dietzgen, as Dubrovsky quotes, "That both thought and matter are
"real", i.e., exist, is true. But to say that thought is material is to
make a false step, a step towards confusing materialism and idealism," that
Lenin is arguing with a concept of "thought" and "spirit" known decades
earlier, not decades later. We can be far more precise today about the
material aspects of thoughts (neurons, neurotransmitters, etc.) than we
could then. We have much more to work with today to see or at least
theorize about the material aspects of human thoughts without losing our
understanding of their simultaneous "ideal" (culturally meaningful)
nature. At the same time, we can also explain much better now than then
how objective social and historical processes become internalized into the
subjective reality of individuals. Dialectical materialism must grow as
science advances. There is productive work to be done updating how Marxism
understands the "mind/matter" question.

Turning to Holzkamp, if I understand Holzkamp's argument, that

"We are not, for example, acting towards some general contradictions but
only in the contradictions concretely realized in our personal (subjective)

as Wolff-Michael describes it, I wonder if we aren't losing some ground in
trying to move beyond objectivist-materialist thinking (which rigidly
identifies the objective with the "material" and the subjective with the
"ideal" or individual-mental). Only, instead of going straight back to the
usual reductionist-mechanical modes of trying to grasp how the material and
ideal, and the objective and subjective, are developmentally intertwined
and mutually interactive, by drawing mechanical boundaries between them,
Holzkamp appears to be slipping down the other side of the same hill,
arguing in this case more for a subjectivist-materialist outlook. In this
outlook, instead of simply reducing the realms of the material and ideal to
what is outside and inside someone's head, the realm of the "objective"
becomes reduced to what is subjectively experienced. Now, the objective is
*only* what is in somebody's head (what is perceived).

Vygotsky's essential solution, based on dialectical materialism, made an
historic advance that points toward what I think are better solutions to
how the material and the ideal and the objective and subjective interact
and develop - better than both the objectivist-materialist approach (e.g.,
Dubrovsky) and the subjectivist-materialist approach (e.g., Holzkamp). LSV
viewed the social contradictions and processes that impacted people as
objective forces, which are then subjectively internalized and which in
doing so generate psychological development. Ilyenkov furthered this
theory by deepening our understanding about these objective forces with his
concept of the ideal.

Dubrovsky seems to want to oversimplify the problem of consciousness by
segregating the subjective and objective into rigid categories of what is
ideal (the mental) and what is material (the non-mental). But LSV went
well beyond this simplistic and untenable dichotomy to show how objective
reality - history, culture, social reality, biological development (both
the ideal and the material) - is the basis of the subjective individual
(both the mental and the physiological).

Holzkamp seems to be adding a complication with an extra step - a
stipulation that one must "perceive" a contradiction to internalize
it. But LSV to my knowledge made no such qualification, nor do I see such
a perspective advanced (in what I have read) by other leading thinkers in
the cultural-historical tradition.

~ Steve

At 09:46 AM 9/22/2004 -0700, Wolff-Michael wrote:
>Hi all,
>I think one thing that might be interesting to discuss is how we bring
>together the work of Engeström and Holzkamp to craft an account of
>identity that brings in both third and first-person perspective. I know
>that the two felt there were differences in their respective thinking
>about, for example, learning by expansion. I was thinking these last few
>days as I re-read Il'enkov, Dubrovsky, and Bakhurst's account of Il'enkov
>that the former two may stand in a similar relation as Engeström and
>Holzkamp with respect to the ideal as existing objectively outside the
>human being (Il'enkov) versus it being the objective subjective experience
>of the world (Dubrovsky).
> Unfortunately to most on this list, there is little of Klaus
> Holzkamp's writing available in English, and even his German writing is
> so complex that most of our German colleagues abandon reading him. But in
> essence, KH argues that what is really important to actions and
> interactions is the way we see and understand the world. We are not, for
> example, acting towards some general contradictions but only in the
> contradictions concretely realized in our personal (subjective)
> perception, which is nevertheless objective in the sense that this is all
> we have and can go by. (I think in terms of a person who sees ghosts. All
> your efforts telling the person otherwise will not help, and the person
> will act in a world that is inhabited by ghosts.)
> KH also introduces a distinction between generalized
> possibilities, which I take as existing at the cultural-historical,
> activity level, and the concretely realized possibilities, which are at
> the action level. If we looked at the Il'enkov/Dubrovsky debate, I think
> that we can get around what they thought to be contradictions, which are
> not real ones, because they were talking about different things.

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