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Re: [xmca] Re: xmca Digest, Vol 45, Issue 47: Ilyenkov on ideality and social relations

Martin, I see a number of thought-provoking questions here:

1) are all, or only some, artifacts ideal
2) where is ideality located
3) what is ideality
4) how does Ilyenkov distinguish the ideal from the material
5) which artifacts does Ilyenkov include as ideal, and which does he not
6) are there two kinds of artifacts, ideal and non-ideal
7) is the social world made of ideal objects

First, what is an artifact. I am, and I believe we all are using the term "artifact" in the usual CHAT technical sense, as a convenient one- size-fits-all term to refer to any sociocultural (that is, socially understood) entity. My coffee cup, the words you are reading, my current goal, the painting on your wall, the stars in the Orion Belt, the tree next to the bus stop, a bird in flight we are watching, cell metabolism, the wind, a government, unicorns, etc. are all artifacts. Generally speaking, an artifact is any socially meaningful thing, process, thought, etc. It is our activity with it that imbues it with social meaning, with ideality.

On 1), are all or only some artifacts ideal. In a technical sense, I would say "only some". Artifacts only have "ideality" when they are in sociocultural motion, when humans are engaged with them. Otherwise, they are just plain material objects, processes, things, unengaged in human activity. But that is more or less a technicality. As soon as an object takes on an artifact role, according to my suggestion, it becomes imbued with ideality.

On 2), where is ideality located. My thinking is that it is located wherever humans are active. Whatever humans are doing or not doing, they are always "in" material reality, whether we are aware of this or that aspect of it, or not. We create ideality when we socially relate to material reality, which includes the world of artifacts and all human activity.

On 3), what is ideality. I believe that Ilyenkov stresses that ideality is concrete human activity, concrete engagement with material reality. Going a step further than Ilyenkov does, I suggest that the concept "meaning" is the everyday version of the philosophical concept of the ideal. The sum total of human meaning is the sum total of ideality. The sum total of ideality is the sum total of human activity. Artifacts are simply all the things that we engage with when we are active. So I believe it can be said that the sum total of what humans find meaningful = the sum total of ideality = the sum total of activity = the sum total of artifacts. At this level of abstraction, Artifacts = Activity = Meaning = Ideality. In a sense, rather than say artifacts "contain" or "have" ideality, following Ilyenkov, it might be more accurate to say that artifacts "are" ideality. Artifacts don't just "have" meaning, they "are" meaning, they are the embodiment of meaningfulness, the material of activity.

On 4), how does Ilyenkov distinguish materiality and ideality. Ilyenkov seems very clear on this in his writings. Materiality is any and all matter and energy in the universe. Everything is material. Ideality is what active humans do with materiality. Ideality is a special condition of materiality, something humans create with materiality when they are active. From these clear statements by EVI, I think we can safely extrapolate the idea that non-ideal materiality is materiality that humans have had little or nothing to do with.

On 5), we need to ask: in this essay, does Ilyenkov suggest a boundary between two kinds of artifacts, ideal artifacts and non-ideal artifacts? None I can find. Does Ilyenkov make a distinction of any kind at all between ideal and non-ideal artifacts? Not that i know of. My sense of the essay is that Ilyenkov is strongly arguing that any artifact consciously engaged with by people is going to be ideal, is going to be imbued with ideality, simply because it is part of a human activity. And, of course, all artifacts, like everything else are always material. But since he never says either "there is no such thing as a non-ideal artifact" or "some artifacts are ideal, others aren't," - the essay is not about that question - the problem of what was his position on that particular question is by nature open for interpretation.

On 6), leaving Ilyenkov aside, can we, should we, in principle, theorize ideal vs non-ideal artifacts? This is an interesting question. The rusty pliers I found in my backyard - the ones I lost about 10 years earlier - were, in a sense, non-ideal for a decade. When they reappeared, it was amusing - I remembered looking for them years earlier, and then shrugging them off, and then forgetting about them altogether. But this distinction is really just a technical or even trivial one. Is there a more profound distinction that needs to be made regarding ideality and non-ideality between two kinds of artifacts?

On 7), you ask if my view of reality presupposes that the social world is made of ideal objects, a position you point out that Ilyenkov attributes to Hegel. Yes and no. The surface answer is yes - when things are going well, most of the objects we interact with every day have ideality, or more precisely, are ideal, and normally we interact with them in predictable ways. But when things are out of the ordinary, things can happen before we can react, let alone act. Accidents happen, emergencies ensue, we catch diseases, we fall down, shit happens. Our realities as physical objects and biological organisms may, even just for a moment, take jarring precedence over our human sociocultural capacities and routines. Material reality is alway in play - what humans do, when they can, is build a humanized realm out of it. And we when can't do that very well, sometimes we just have to ride out the storm. Historical materialism begins with this essential concept.

But this does not address the interesting idea being suggested, that I may be coming from an idealist position, envisaging a world already assimilated by human culture and activity, and not accounting for a prior or underlying material reality. I am not crazy about being associated with Popper :-)), but I do get a kick out out being seen as chummy with Hegel and Plato. Where does this suggestion come from?

It seems to me that the logic may come from this problem of whether or not artifacts come in two varieties of ideality, some with, some without. If artifacts indeed come in these two varieties, ideal and non-ideal, not by virtue of, at any given point, some being out of sight and out of mind, but by the nature of the artifact's relationship to human activity, it would make sense to wonder if the position I have taken, that all artifacts have ideality, may be coming from a place that is ruling out some important aspect of an objective, material reality. Attributing "ideality" to things that don't have it - for example, spoons and rusty pliers - is indeed strongly suggestive of idealist thinking. Even mystical thinking.

So it may be that this issue of whether there are one or two kinds of artifacts in terms of ideality could be the center of this discussion about the nature of ideality and materiality. Perhaps?

- Steve

On Feb 21, 2009, at 6:18 PM, Martin Packer wrote:

"It is “inside” man *thus understood* that the ideal exists, because
“inside” *man thus understood are all the things* that “mediate” the
individuals that are socially producing their life: *words, books,
statues, churches, community centres, television towers*, and (above
all!) *the instruments of labour*, from the stone axe and the bone
needle to the modern automated factory and the computer. It is in
these “things” that the ideal exists as the “subjective”, purposeful
form-creating life activity of social man, embodied in the material of

Hi Steve,

Okay, let's start with the last of the excerpts (copied above), because I think this is the one that seems at first glance hardest to interpret the way I am proposing. It occurs towards the end of The Concept of the Ideal, where Ilyenkov is wrapping things up. To set it in a bit more context, he
has just written:

"For this reason the “ideal” exists only in man. Outside man and beyond him there can be nothing “ideal”. Man, however, is to be understood not as one individual with a brain, but as a real aggregate of real people collectively realising their specifically human life activity, as the “aggregate of all
social relations” arising between people around one common task,
around the process of the social production of their life."

My interpretation is that here Ilyenkov is emphasizing *where* the ideal is to be found. It is "in" man, but not in the usual sense of being inside the
individual mind. It is "inside" man if we reconceptualize man as being
collective, not simply a collection of people but a form of life, in which individuals' interactions are mediated by all the artifacts that we handle in our daily lives. Tools - the "instruments of labor " - are especially
important in this collective activity.

But what Ilyenkov emphasizes is that the ideal is to be found "in" this form
of life, not that it is found "as" the form of life, or "as" "all the
things" that mediate human activity. Indeed, it would hardly make sense to talk of ideality as "inside" a form of life if ideality *were* this form of life. I suggest that this passage is entirely congruent with my proposal
that Ilyenkov is proposing that only *some* of these things are ideal.

As to the notion that ideality is one thing representing another, he writes that a "coin represents not itself but “another” in the very sense in which a diplomat represents not his own person but his country," and continues:

"This relationship of representation is a relationship in which one
sensuously perceived thing performs the role or function of representative of quite another thing, and, to be even more precise, the universal nature of that other thing, that is, something “other” which in sensuous, bodily
terms is quite unlike it."

It is certainly true that, as you point out, it is human activity, the "form
of life activity," that brings things into this relationship of
representation. A diplomat couldn't represent her country without a set of practices of dimplomacy. A coin couldn't represent value outside of economic practices. But not just anyone can decide to represent their country. And not just any object can be used as legal tender. The kind of representation
that Ilyenkov suggests as at the heart of ideality is very particular.

You note that Ilyenkov states that, "The main problem of philosophy is to distinguish the ideal and material." But if everything social were ideal - and Ilyenkov notes that even the stars become social artifacts when we gaze on them - how could we distinguish the ideal and the material? Clearly he understands that it is a complete mistake to draw the line between the ideal and the material so that the mind is on one side and the world on the other. But he evidently still wants to draw the line. My interpretation is that he wants to draw it between those social artifacts that become ideal and those
that do not.

I think, in fact, that the interpretation you are offering is attributed by Ilyenkov to Hegel. For Hegel, he says (along with other idealists such as
Popper and Plato):

"what begins to figure under the designation of the “real world” is an
already “idealised” world, a world already assimilated by people, a world already shaped by their activity, the world as people know it, as it is
presented in the existing forms of their culture."

This is your position too, isn't it - that the social world is made up of
ideal objects?

Ilyenkov argues that Marx used the term 'ideal' in the same way as Hegel,
but applied it to a completely different "range of phenomena":

"In Capital Marx quite consciously uses the term “ideal” in this formal meaning that it was given by Hegel... although the philosophical- theoretical interpretation of the range of phenomena which in both cases is similarly designated “ideal” is diametrically opposed to its Hegelian interpretation."


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