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

Derek, I'll have a go at answering your questions:

"1. Are purpose-made artifacts (a USB key, say, or a road sign) objectively observable physical phenomena?"

If this is not a trick question, obviously yes, but to be hyperstrict, "phenomena" is an appearance, an experience, whilst artefact refers to an entity, so there is a categorical difference between the terms. And of course it is the ideal properties of these things that make them what they are, not any physical or chemical (natural) properties.

"2. Are people's actions objectively observable physical phenomena?"

Yes, if we use Leontyev's definition of action, with the proviso again that it is their participation in activity that makes them actions, not the natural properties of arms, legs, etc..

But, I do think we have to look more closely at this claim to "monism" which both you, Derek, and Martin are raising. I fumbled the attempt earlier by latching on to a use of the words "material" and "spiritual" by Ilyenkov which were not narrowly ontological. I need to do better, but I don't know if this can be cleared up within the constraints of a listserv. But let me try ...

As David mentioned, Activity is reducible (in a certain sense) to actions, so can I quote from Leontyev's definition of Activity, which is one I agree with (so far as this quote goes) and I believe agrees with what Marx was talking about in Theses on Feuerbach, etc.:

"... these processes ... that realize a person’s actual life in the objective world by which he is surrounded, his social being in all the richness and variety of its forms. In other words, these processes are his activity.

"This proposition requires the further definition that by activity we mean not the dynamics of the nervous, physiological processes that realize this activity. A distinction must be drawn between the dynamics and structure of mental processes and the language that describes them, on the one hand, and the dynamics and structure of the subject’s activity and the language describing them, on the other."

So we need to be clear that when we are talking about actions, this implies that some physiological and nervous processes are taking place, but these are not included in the terms "action" or "activity".

Now on the question of claiming that "consciousness ... are actions" (Derek) and "material" (Martin). Lenin's 1908 book dealt with this and all the Russian CHAT people build on this. Ilyenkov's book is not easy to quote on this matter. You can read the whole thing from


But let me give you a glimpse:

"Here, then, is the question: take your thought, your consciousness of the world, and the world itself ... what is the relationship between them? ...

"These concepts are matter and consciousness (psyche, the ideal, spirit, soul, will, etc. etc.). ‘Consciousness’ – let us take this term as Lenin did – is the most general concept which can only be defined by clearly contrasting it with the most general concept of ‘matter’, moreover as something secondary, produced and derived. Dialectics consists in not being able to define matter as such; it can only be defined through its opposite, and only if one of the opposites is fixed as primary, and the other arises from it."

The point I want to make is this: to claim that everything is material or by some such sweeping statement make a claim to a radical monism, is just words. At some point you have to make a distinction. It doesn't really matter whether you call everything "Spirit", "matter", "nature", "texts" or whatever. So long as it is "everything" it is nothing, it is just a Kantian "thing-in-itself."

If "everything" is matter (or material) that includes the 100 talers I think I have in my pocket does it? If not, what are these 100 talers I think I have but when I put my hand in my pocket I find I don't? If they are material, but not in the form of talers but the illusion of talers, or some physiological process, that's just avoiding the question, what about my thought? not my brain.

I deal with this problem at greater length in sections 8-9 of my Foreword to Hegel's Logic:


Sorry that it's so unsatisfactory. I have always found it very hard to persuade that Spirit and Matter are the same thing so long as they are everything, namely nothing. I think Vygotsky said something along the same lines in that 1924 speech we discussed: if everything is a reaction, then 'reaction' is an empty concept.


Derek Melser wrote:
Dear Andy, Martin, Steve, David and other contributors to this thread,
Let me butt in here, possibly a bit rudely...
I presume everyone agrees with LSV and me that consciousness (including perceiving and thinking) and speech are actions of the person. [Even if consciousness covers, or qualifies, a whole range of actions ('conscious action'), it is still fundamentally actional – still something we /do /(and have to learn how to do).]

And I presume everyone agrees with LSV and me that solo action is derivative of and reducible to shared (concerted) activity, rather than the other way round.

And I presume everyone agrees that LSV sometimes describes speech as if it were the using of purpose-made artifacts (words qua 'tools') and at other times describes speech as if it were not an artifact-using kind of action at all, but rather a pure action (like sighing ostentatiously, signalling 'no' or plucking a grape). [I agree with the 'pure action' view. A written word is a graphic representation of an act of speaking. But that act of speaking is not literally a matter of 'using a word'. Even Skinner saw that.]

Whichever side we come down on on the 'words as artifacts' issue, we still have to face the fact that there are such things as purpose-made artifacts and they are somehow to be distinguished from natural phenomena. And there are such things as people's actions too. These also have to be distinguished, somehow, from natural phenomena.

So we are left with two very important questions. I personally would much rather know what the answers to them are than know what any past scholar, of whatever nationality or political persuasion, thought about it (though that could be interesting).

1. Are purpose-made artifacts (a USB key, say, or a road sign) objectively observable physical phenomena?

2. Are people's actions objectively observable physical phenomena?



2009/2/23 Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net <mailto:ablunden@mira.net>>

    I think I need to start saying things like 'ideal aspect' or
    referring to 'ideality'. (Almost) everything made by human
    labour has 'significance' or 'meaning' and this does not
    exclude the fact that many properties of a thing may be
    natural rather than ideal. The provenance of a coin
    incorporates it within a country's money system, but none of
    the physical properties of it establish that provenance,
    because coutnerfeiters are clever. But the tarnishing of
    silver coins is not an artefact, that is a natural of all
    silver coins. I think 'ideality' is a property of certain
    things which is quite distinct from any physical property.
    How do you describe what sort of property is ideality?

    Thinking about why Marx's analysis of money is so central
    (for Ilyenkov for example) to a solution of the problem of
    the ideal, and not just the nature of capitalism. I think
    money is a kind of 'microcosm' (to link this to the
    discussion with Nicolai).

    People can say words are just made up, conventional symbols,
    but words are just like money, and people think that money
    is just a conventional symbol, too. The way money emerged
    from thousands of years of human practice demonstrated how
    the ideal emerges out of the practice of bringing things
    into elation with one another in labour processes. I want to
    think about this some more, MArtin, and thank you for your
    continual challenges!


    Martin Packer wrote:
     > Andy,
     > Once again you're pointing out what is material for Ilyenkov. I
     > bother to emphasize what things are material, because Ilyenkov is a
     > materialist. Everything in his ontology is material. He is a monist!
     > But he still wants to draw distinctions. I should probably have
    been clearer
     > that when Ilyenkov writes that it is the task of philosophy to
     > "the distinction between the 'ideal' and the 'real'
    ('material')," what he
     > must mean is the distinction between what is ideal (and also
    material) and
     > what is material (but not also ideal). I presume that this
    distinction must
     > be drawn by humans (even philosophers are human!), using social
     > If everything within social practice becomes ideal (if, as you
    put it,
     > "every artifact is... ideal"), how could this task ever be
    completed? I can
     > only infer that for Ilyenkov there are things within social
    practice that
     > are material (of course) but not ideal. And then it follows that only
     > certain material things within social practice are (also) ideal.
     > What are these ideal (yet material) things? Images, monuments, money,
     > drawings, models, and "such symbolic objects" as banners, coats
    of arms....
     > Martin
     > On 2/22/09 12:36 AM, "Andy Blunden" <ablunden@mira.net
    <mailto:ablunden@mira.net>> wrote:
     >> Martin Packer wrote:
     >>> Clearly he [Ilyenkov]
     >>> 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 don't think this is right Martin, though Ilyenkov focusses
     >> so much on Marx's treatment of money, one wonders ... If
     >> there is to be a line, then it would be between artificial
     >> and natural, (i.e., part of a labour process or not part of
     >> a labour process) or between the mental and the material
     >> (see the commentary on Kant's idea about the real talers in
     >> his pocket). But even then there could be no actual thing
     >> which was wholly ideal or natural. Both the ideal and the
     >> natural can be material and can be reflected in
     >> consciousness. Ideal things are ideal from the beginning to
     >> the end of their perception by an individual, that's the
     >> point I think.
     >> Looking at any given artefact, there are things about it
     >> which are incidental with respect to any labour process and
     >> other things which can be understood only in relation to
     >> their meaning in some labour process. Every artefact is (as
     >> I read it) both natural and ideal.
     >> I take the materiality of a thing to be its existence
     >> outside of consciousness and its connection with every other
     >> material thing in hte universe. Materiality is therefore a
     >> property of an ideal such as a coin as much as it is a
     >> property of the other side of the moon. Hegel of course
     >> "mistakenly" thought that ideality existed in Nature.
     >> In his book about Lenin, Ilyenkov says:
     >> 'Consciousness' ­ let us take this term as Lenin did ­ is
     >> the most general concept which can only be defined by
     >> clearly contrasting it with the most general concept of
     >> 'matter', moreover as something secondary, produced and derived.
     >> You've raised some interesting issues in this email Martin.
     >> I need to think some more about it ...
     >> Andy
     >>> 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 ³real
    world² is an
     >>> already ³idealised² 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 ³ideal² in
    this formal
     >>> meaning that it was given by Hegel... although the
     >>> interpretation of the range of phenomena which in both cases is
     >>> designated ³ideal² is diametrically opposed to its Hegelian
     >>> Martin
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    Andy Blunden http://home.mira.net/~andy/
    <http://home.mira.net/%7Eandy/> +61 3 9380 9435
    Skype andy.blunden
    Hegel's Logic with a Foreword by Andy Blunden:

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