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Re: [xmca] Consciousness: Ilyenkov Epistemology Quiz


A reading of EVI's Concept of the ideal gives off the impression that he waffles a bit on exactly what kinds of things are ideal. In a number of places he discusses idealities purely in terms of explicitly symbolical things like flags, printed or minted money, words of course and so on. Nevertheless in his grand conclusion to the article he asserts that all cultural things are ideal; houses, shovels, as are whatever other product of human activity that comes to mind. Indeed my reading of Ilyenkov's final description of the ideal is very close to yours, i.e. normative modes of activity and supporting articles or simply, conventions of behaviour and of the making and using of artefacts.

A convention informs us how to make an object, when and how to use it, and on what to use it without itself being the object in the material or, to use Marxian concepts, in the sensual sense. And, they are as the means for the transmission of these conventions, the plans, blueprints, or texts significant as the embodiment of the ideal in a material form that can be handled, seen, and heard. Thus the convention, the ideal, cannot itself be matter except in the form of the means of its transmission, symbolical representations, the meanings of which are, of course, themselves conventions. It is this ambivalence between the entirely immaterial convention - which Lenin in some of his notes on Hegel's logic calls spirit - and the embodiment of meaning in the sensually evident symbolical representation that lies on the one hand at the heart of fetishisms, such as attributing value to its representation as coin, scrip, or bank account. And on the other hand, of the reification of the immaterial ideal, attributing to it a sublime force in human affairs as Hegel tends to do in his more exalted moments.

What does the discussion on the nature of the ideal have to do with the dynamical relation between consciousness and sense governed activity? Consciousness is that activity that is concerned with the expression and management of ideals, their communication (the act and not the means) to others as well as to us, ourselves. It most decidedly dependant upon the development of para-symbolic and symbolic representations of experienced and imagined things, but probably needs the extra push from the sheer complexity of human social life aggravated as it was and is by the wealth of artificial enhancements of human capacities. Clearly consciousness could only be developed by a mentally well-endowed creature, and certainly the acquisition of consciousness through learning is reflected in the growth of the human brain, but it would come as no surprise to discover that the conditions of living in a community of conscious organisms may exert natural selective advantages to consciousness.

Sense governed activity (a bit less risqué than sensual activity) is both a contrapositive and a necessary partner to consciousness. Both Ilyenkov and Vygotsky describe it as a necessary but distinctly different companion to thought. Vygotsky makes a point of the critical role of physical speech in the formation and practice of spoken language; however we have found very little development of this element of his theory in any of his works. In a way Sassure, despite his objectivist approach to language study, contributes more to understanding the relation between sense-governed activity and conscious thought by developing the concept of the phoneme. The phoneme is an abstraction of the phone or speech act into contrastive elements which can be used to produce a highly diversified quantity of distinctive, repeatable verbal routines that at a later stage of the development of language become words and sentences.

In general, Ilyenkov treats the sensual physical component of human activity with the same contemplative distance characteristic of Lenin's conception of matter. Such statements such as "matter naturally and historically preceding ideation", or the "material environment of human history is the product of the labour of prior generations", while important and true, do little to explain the dynamical relation between the ideal and matter and the historical process engendered by this relationship. Marx in his first thesis against Feuerbach makes just this point: "I. The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism - that of Feuerbach included - is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism - which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such." Marx application of the analysis of the contraposition between matter and idea on human practice, of consciousness and sense governed physical activity as sensuous human activity, as subjectivity, is most significantly evident in the description of labour cited in an earlier message. Here he describes the movement of activity back and forth between the world of matter and of ideas, each movement enhancing the subsequent steps towards transforming nature to serve human needs.

Neither Ideals nor matter can stand alone in the analysis of human activity and the historical process. Marx's analysis of the relation between rational consciousness and sense governed physical activity in human labour provides exactly the model by which such analyses may be realized for virtually all aspects of human life activity.
Victor Friedlander
2. 10. 2009

----- Original Message ----- From: "Martin Packer" <packer@duq.edu>
To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>
Sent: Monday, September 28, 2009 8:08 PM
Subject: Re: [xmca] Consciousness: Ilyenkov Epistemology Quiz


What you write does seem at fist glance a very reasonable way of
thinking about 'idealizations.' But it is not, in my view, what
Ilyenkov proposes. In his account, it is possible for us to use an axe
or a shovel in practical activity only because collective social
practice has *made* them 'an axe' or 'a shovel,' and so they have an
ideal character (and material too, of course). The ideality here has
nothing to do with planning or blueprints or design; and all to do
with the way society confronts the individual as a second nature, as
an objectivity, as what has been called an equipmental totality, as
normative modes of behavior and the artifacts by means of which that
behavior is conducted. Even simply hacking a hole in the ground is an
action that is necessarily shaped by the labor of prior generations,
for these have produced both the tool and its user.


On Sep 28, 2009, at 5:53 AM, Victor wrote:

  If we are designing a spade or axe, discussing which tool to use
for a particular practical objective, or using them as metaphors in
a literary product, then they are certainly idealizations.  That is
to say they are abstractions (not necessarily the same abstractions
as this depends on the focus of the plan, practical objective, or
metaphor) represented by discrete symbolical forms such as pictorial
icons, spoken words and sentences, or graphically represented
speech, the significance of which is a function of their formation
and use by the community of users that depends upon them for
effective transmission of information.  On the other hand, the axe
and spade used respectively to cut up firewood and to hack a hole in
the ground are in large part material, sensable objects the sensing
and handling of which are concrete and continuous involving constant
adjustments of bodily activity to realize the object of their use.

    True, as Steve, citing EVI, reminds us, the object and formation
of the instruments of labour are in part the products of ideation,
the conventions for the production and use of the means of
production, but these are practically meaningless in the absence of
concrete productive activity.

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