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Re: [xmca] Wolves and Ilyenkov: Ideality
Below is an annotated (by me) version of Ilyenkov’s views on ideality,
which he summarized in 12 paragraphs in a 1977 article. Of all of
Ilyenkov's contributions to CHAT, this theory is regarded in CHAT
circles as one of his most significant - and perhaps, most difficult.
Chapter 8, "The Materialist Conception of Thought as the Subject
Matter of Logic" in the book you are reading, Problems of Dialectical
Logic, also deals in depth with the question of ideality.
I offer this because I think the topic of the ideal is a very good
window for us, or anyone oriented to CHAT, to delve into Ilyenkov.
Not that the questions you are raising aren't also very relevant.
As for some of your specific comments directed toward me, David, I
wonder if we might be best off if we found specific, common readings
and passages with which to discuss the topics you raise before we
proceed too far.
For my part, I would not characterize thinking as merely
"representing" objects (I would probably try to argue that thinking
*transforms* human images of objects), I think the relationship
between the abstract and concrete is more complex than the former just
being an aspect of the latter (some of the problem here might be
needing to sort out the ontological versus epistemological senses of
these terms), and I am not in the least hostile to an historical
understanding of Vygotsky's transition from Ch 5 to Ch 6 in T&S -
quite the opposite. But without specific readings to discuss and
measure our respective ideas against, there is the possibility of
wandering about without an anchor, perhaps sometimes misunderstanding
Anyway, since you are focusing on Ilyenkov, I thought I'd bring into
the fray his concept of the ideal.
It was this concept or theory, probably more than any other, that won
me over to CHAT. However, by no means is this theory equally agreed
on throughout the CHAT community, including among its "strong" Marxist
participants. For some, perhaps many, at least aspects of Ilyenkov's
theory are controversial. If you happen to sense that Ilyenkov and
you may be at odds on some significant questions, this question of
ideality could help flush out some of your differences. On the other
hand, perhaps you might find his concept of the ideal persuasive.
In my case, what really got me interested in this theory or concept
was the way Ilyenkov explained how Marx's labor theory of value is a
special case of Ilyenkov's activity-based concept of ideality. For
me, this insight linked Marx's Capital to Vygotsky's call for a
Capital of psychology in a fundamental way, and connected my
understanding of Marxism to CHAT in ways that have greatly influenced
my understanding of both. Although this particular argument about the
labor theory of value is not covered in the 12 paragraphs I copy and
annotate below, I mention it because it was what really turned the
light on for me. (Or, perhaps, why I keep stumbling around in the
So, below is an annotated version of Ilyenkov’s views on ideality.
The piece below is about 2000 words, so it is really more of an
article. The last 12 paragraphs of the essay The Concept of the
Ideal, copied below, form a useful summary of his basic concept of the
This essay, published in the collection Philosophy in the USSR –
Problems of Dialectical Materialism (Progress, 1977), is based on a
groundbreaking article Ilyenkov wrote on this topic for a Soviet
encyclopedia in 1962.
With the intention of helping the reader grasp Ilyenkov’s difficult
ideas and sometimes opaque writing, I have interspersed an annotated
quasi-translation (from English to English), or at least summary, of
the sentences in these paragraphs. I know it at least helps me to
write these annotations out. The numbers, 132 etc, correspond to the
relevant paragraph in the 143-paragraph essay. I’ve broken these
paragraphs into individual sentences, which I find to be a helpful way
to study Ilyenkov. My annotations precede the material they are
The Concept of the Ideal by Ilyenkov can be found online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/ilyenkov/works/ideal/ideal.htm
- Steve Gabosch, September 2009
from The Concept of the Ideal by EV Ilyenkov, 1977
[1. Ideality is a product of the cultural-historical activity of
Man acquires the “ideal” plane of life activity only through mastering
the historically developed forms of social activity, only together
with the *social* plane of existence, only together with *culture*.
“Ideality” is nothing but an aspect of culture, one of its dimensions,
determining factors, properties.
[2. The objective existence of the ideal is the basis for both
principled idealism and the fetishism of pseudo-materialism. –sg]
In relation to mental activity it [ideality –sg] is just as much an
*objective* component as mountains and trees, the moon and the
firmament, as the processes of metabolism in the individual’s organic
This is why people often confuse the “ideal” with the “material”,
taking the one for the other.
This is why idealism is not the fruit of some misapprehension, but the
legitimate and natural fruit of a world where things acquire human
properties while people are reduced to the level of a material force,
where things are endowed with “spirit”, while human beings are utterly
deprived of it.
The objective reality of “ideal forms” is no mere invention of the
idealists, as it seems to the pseudo-materialists who recognise, on
one side, the “external world” and on the other, only the “conscious
brain” (or “consciousness as a property and function of the brain”).
This pseudo-materialism, despite all its good intentions, has both
feet firmly planted in the same mystical swamp of fetishism as its
opponent — principled idealism.
This is also fetishism, only not that of the bronze idol or the
“Logos”, but a fetishism of a nervous tissue, a fetishism of neurons,
axons and DNAS, which in fact possess as little of the “ideal” as any
pebble lying on the road. Just as little as the “value” of the diamond
that has not yet been discovered, no matter how huge and heavy it
[3. Ideality is the socio-historically generated plane of
relationships between man and nature. And ideality is indeed
connected to individual consciousness and will. However, in the
direct sense, individual consciousness and will are manifestations of
ideality, and not the other way around. –sg]
“Ideality” is, indeed, necessarily connected with consciousness and
will, but not at all in the way that the old, pre-Marxist materialism
describes this connection.
It is not ideality that is an “aspect”, or “form of manifestation” of
the conscious-will sphere but, on the contrary, the conscious-will
character of the human mentality is a form of manifestation, an
“aspect” or mental manifestation of the *ideal* (i.e., socio-
historically generated) *plane of relationships between man and nature*.
[4. Ideality is a product of labor, not nature. –sg]
Ideality is a characteristic of *things*, not as they are determined
by nature but as they are determined by *labour*, the transforming and
form-creating activity of social man, his *purposeful*, sensuously
[5. On one hand, the ideal form of things is that which is **created**
by human labor. –sg]
The ideal form is the form of a thing created by social human labour.
[6. On the other hand, the ideal form is that in which humankind
**places** (realizes, alienates, embodies) its labour. –sg]
[6a. Note: this distinction between “creating” and “placing”
corresponds to something Ilyenkov will explain in a moment, that
ideality takes two forms – things (artifacts) and activity. –sg]
Or, conversely, the form of labour realised in the substance of
nature, “embodied” in it, “alienated” in it, “realised” in it and,
therefore, presenting itself to man the creator as *the form of a
thing* or a relationship between things in which man, his labour, has
[7. Human bodies, like all forms of nature that humans use in their
laboring activities, are also transformed in the labor process. For
this reason, humankind tends to see its aims as “embodied” in nature. –
In the process of labour man, while remaining a natural being,
transforms both external things and (in doing so) his own “natural”
body, shapes natural matter (including the matter of his own nervous
system and the brain, which is its centre), converting it into a
“means” and “organ” of his purposeful life activity. This is why he
looks upon “nature” (matter) from the very first as material in which
his aims are “embodied”, and as the “means” of their realisation. This
is why he *sees* in nature primarily what is suitable for this role,
what plays or may play the part of a means towards his ends, in other
words, what he has already drawn into the process of his purposeful
[8. Humankind tends to view the materials and processes of nature in
terms of human activities. But this leads to an inherent
contradiction. The properties and regularities of the materials and
processes of nature must be reckoned with as objective components of
**human activity** even though these are **independent** of human will
and consciousness. –sg]
Thus at first he directs his gaze at the stars exclusively as a
natural clock, calendar and compass, as *instruments* of his life
activity. He observes their “natural” properties and regularities only
insofar as they are properties and regularities of the material in
*which his activity is being performed*, and with these “natural”
features he must, therefore, reckon as a completely objective
*component of his activity* which is in no way dependent on his will
[9. This is the reason that humankind tends to view its
**activities** as the forms and relations of **things as they are**. –
But it is for this very reason that he takes the results of his
transforming activity (the forms and relations of things given by
himself) as the forms and relations of things as they are.
[10. This gives rise to idealism and other forms of fetishism.
Idealism in particular tends to regard the ideal form of things, that
is, the things human activity has transformed, as eternal and
This gives rise to fetishism of every kind and shade, one of the
varieties of which was and still is *philosophical idealism*, the
doctrine which regards the ideal forms of things (i.e., the forms of
human activity embodied in things) as the eternal, primordial and
“absolute” forms of the universe,
[11. Furthermore, idealism tends to only attempt to account for those
aspects of reality that have been transformed (or observed) through
human activity - that is, it only attempts to account for the ideal. –
and [idealism -sg] takes into account all the rest only insofar as
this “all the rest”, that is to say, all the actual diversity of the
world has already been drawn into the process of labour, already been
made the means, instrument and material of realisation of purposeful
activity, already been refracted through the grandiose prism of “ideal
forms” (forms of human activity), is already presented (*represented*)
in these forms, already shaped by them.
[12. The ideal, however, exists only within the actual realm of
humankind. Outside of humankind, ideality does not exist. –sg]
For this reason the “ideal” exists *only in man*. Outside man and
beyond him there can be nothing “ideal”.
[13. Ideality is the not product of the human individual, but of the
collective, active human, of humankind. Humankind is the aggregate of
humans in their social relations. Human social relations, in the last
analysis, revolve around one common task: the social production of
human life. –sg]
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.
[14. Ideality exists in the socially produced artifacts which mediate
social human life. –sg]
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.
[15. The ideal exists as the dynamic life activity of humankind
within these artifacts. –sg]
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 nature.
[16. It is also true that ideality exists apart from these artifacts
as something else, as the goals and needs of humankind, which
themselves are also forms of human life activity. –sg]
The ideal form is a form of a thing, but a form that is outside the
thing, and is to be found in man as a form of his dynamic life
activity, *as goals and needs*.
[17. In other words, ideality exists both in the form of humankind’s
socially produced artifacts **and** in the form of human activity,
which includes the social goals and needs of humans. –sg]
Or conversely, it is a form of man’s life activity, but outside man,
in the form of the thing he creates.
[18. In fact, the relationship between these two forms and ideality
is even more complex. Ideality, in actuality, does not coincide with
either form **taken separately**. Ideality, as such, exists only in
the constant **succession** and **replacement** of these two forms of
external embodiment. –sg]
“Ideality” as such exists only in the constant succession and
replacement of these two forms of its “external embodiment” and does
not coincide with either of them taken separately.
[19. Ideality, as it turns out, exists only in the unceasing process
of the transformation of these two forms – from forms of activity to
forms of things - and back again. –sg]
It [ideality -sg] exists only through the unceasing process of the
transformation of the form *of activity — into the form of a thing and
back — the form of a thing into the form of activity* (of social man,
[20. Any attempt to identify ideality with one or the other form
alone will lose sight of the ideal. If one chooses
“things” (artifacts) alone, then by themselves these forms will only
appear as material entities and their properties. If one chooses
“activity” (which includes goals and needs) alone, then by themselves
these forms will only appear as body and brain processes. The example
of uttering a word out of any social context illustrates this. –sg]
Try to identify the “ideal” with any one of these two forms of its
immediate existence — and it no longer exists.
All you have left is the “substantial”, entirely material body and its
The “form of activity” as such turns out to be bodily encoded in the
nervous system, in intricate neuro-dynamic stereotypes and “cerebral
mechanisms” by the pattern of the external action of the material
human organism, of the individual’s body. And you will discover
nothing “ideal” in that body.
The form of the thing created by man, taken out of the process of
social life activity, out of the process of man-nature metabolism,
also turns out to be simply the material form of the thing, the
physical shape of an external body and nothing more.
A *word*, taken out of the organism of human intercourse, turns out to
be nothing more than an acoustic or optical phenomenon. “In itself” it
is no more “ideal” than the human brain.
21. Our reasoning allows us to draw two fundamental conclusions.
First, it is only in the reciprocating movement of the two opposing
forms, the forms of activity and the forms of things, that the ideal
And only in the reciprocating movement of the two opposing
“metamorphoses” — forms of activity and forms of things in their
dialectically contradictory mutual transformations — DOES THE IDEAL
22. Second, dialectical materialism rocks.
Therefore, it was only DIALECTICAL materialism that was able to solve
the problem of the ideality of things.
\\\ end ///
- Steve Gabosch
On Sep 10, 2009, at 4:16 PM, David Kellogg wrote:
Martin, Andy, Steve:
No, I think I noticed the word "seem". What I CERTAINLY noticed is
that this passage comes at the very beginning of a long essay called
the history of dialectics, and that part of the point of this essay
is to make a clear distinction between the living fossil of pre-
scientific philosophy (that is, philosophy which is in some sense
meta-science, and therefore without any empirical or experimental
method) and philosophy which is an integral part of science just as
mathematics (also a pre-scientific discipline) is part of physics,
and thus part of the empirical and experimental methodology of
I think that is how I understood Hegel. The problem is that I am NOT
sure if Ilyenkov understands him that way. If I say "the world SEEMS
to be flat" and Ilyenkov answers me "That is very aptly put" it's
not at all clear to me that it is "seems" and not "flat" that is
aptly put . I need more data before I decide what he means.
Here's some more data, from later on in the same essay:
p. 61: "...(D)ifference is not identity, or is non-identity, while
cause is not effect (is non-effect). True, both cause and effect are
subsumed purely formally under one and the same category of
interaction, but that only means that a higher category embracing
both of them is itself subordinated to the law of identity, i.e.
ignores the difference between them."
And why the law of identity (A = A) and not the law of difference (A
does not equal B)? As we know from Claparede and Piaget and Carol
and Paula, difference is in fact prior to identity in human will and
consciousness? Well, because we are talking about something that is
to be treated as independent of will and human consciousness. (Of
course, we are left with the problem of asking whether the law of
identity was really independent of Aristotle's will and
Now, this entirely independent something-or-other may well be in the
conciousness of Kant only and not in that of Ilyenkov. It may well
be that Ilyenkov is just giving us an entertaining intellectual
history of all the fool's errands that certain German philosophers
ran in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
But since this essay is called a history of dialectics and not a
history of Western thinking, wouldn't it really be far more accurate
to discuss, say, Buddhist doctrine or Taoism or even medieval
Christianity (with its doctrine of the trinity)? Wouldn't any or all
of these ideas be more relevant to real dialectics than this fatuous
notion that we can have "cause" without "effect" or "randomness"
without "probability" quite independently of the analytical
(IMAGINATIVE) power of human consciousness and will?
A few pages later (p. 67), we've got this:
"Fichte sought and found the fundamental inconsistency in the
Kantian doctrine on thought in the initial concept that Kant
consciously proposed as the basis of all hiscontructions, in the
concept of 'thing-in-itself'. Already, in this concept and not in
categorial predicates that might be ascribed to things, there was a
flagrant contradiction: the supreme fundamental principle of all
analytical statements was violated, the principle of contradiction
in determinations. This concept was thus inconsistent in a logically
developed system-theory. In fact, in the concept"of a a thing as it
exists before and outside any possible experience' there was
included a bit of nonsense not noted by Kant: to say that the Ego
was conscious of a thing outside consciousness was the same as to
saythat there was money in one's pocket outside one's pocket."
That's ONLY true if we consider the Ego to exist independently of
any one human consciousness and any single person's will. Otherwise,
it's not true. I can be perfectly conscious that someone else is
conscious of something without being conscious of it myself. (That
is precisely how I feel about Martin, Andy, and Steve, actually.)
Even if I stick to my OWN (socially derived and therefore
multifarious) consciousness, I find it quite easy to be conscious
about something without actually being conscious of it, or to
remember about something without actually being able to remember it,
or to think about something without actually being able to think it.
Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am
voluminous; I contain worlds. Of course, a moment's thought will
show you that this feeling of knowing about something without
actually knowing it is derived from SOCIAL experience; it is not
something that Avicenna's "suspended man" every could have felt.
Seoul National University of Education
Steve, I've got a few more problems with what you wrote, and then I
really will follow Martin's lead and rush off to class:
a) I think that your theory of thinking as REPRESENTATIONS of
objects does not differentiate sufficiently between perception and
thought. One is a lower psychological function, and the other a
higher one; we know it is higher because it has the ability to
remake perception in its own image (verbal perception, the
microgenesis of which is essentially what Paula and Carol's paper is
b) I think that the key insight Vygotsky got from Marx (and NOT
Hegel) was that the abstract is to be seen as an aspect of the
concrete, not the other way around. That means that concepts are an
emergent aspect of complexes, in much the same way that complexes
are emegent aspects of heaps. So I think that moments really are
"aha" moments, and not limited to the noticing of objective
c) I know that you are hostile to a HISTORICAL appreciation of the
relationship of Chapter Five to Chapter Six, and you think that the
texts should be treated as existing outside human will and human
consciousness, like the flying man. But I STILL think that one
possible way of understanding how they are articulated, how they
represent different moments in a nonlinear emergence is rather
gritty and grim and dark and dim.
In 1931, under the pressure of the dissolution of Krupskaya's
Narkompros, under RKP(B)'s sudden and arbitrary volte face against
pedology in general and complexive thinking in particular, Vygotsky
was forced to retrench. He began to write of the possiblity of
direct INFLUENCE on the growth of complexes into concepts, that is,
the direct influence of abstract thinking on concrete thinking. It
was this obligatory concession to a manifestly Stakhanovite policy
in education that eventually become the "next zone of
development" (that is, the zoped).
That doesn't make it wrong, of course; but it does explain why the
zone of proximal development sometimes seems to be a bit of a leap
in the dark, a bridge too far, a flying man. It was more of an
emergency than a gradual emergence.
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