Ilyenkov's concept of the ideal

From: Steve Gabosch (
Date: Mon May 03 2004 - 03:36:18 PDT

What follows is a response to some questions by Eugene on Ilyenkov's
writings and some friendly challenges to Victor regarding some of his
comments on Ilyenkov, Bakhurst, Jones, and the concept of the ideal.

David Bakhurst clears up most of Eugene's questions about when Ilyenkov
wrote on the question of the ideal in his book _Consciousness and
Revolution in Soviet Philosophy: From the Bolsheviks to Evald Ilyenkov_
(1991). Eugene has the basic idea of what happened. Several versions of
his 1962 encyclopedia article have appeared in Russian and English, and
keeping track of them gets a little confusing, see below. I am still not
clear from the References whether there are two different articles with
multiple versions, or whether Ilyenkov worked on a revision of the 1962
original in 1979, or actually, quite what happened. The version of the
Ilyenkov article available on Marxist Internet Archives is from the 1977c
citing below. This version is at the url Victor provided,

 From Bakhurst, beginning of chapter 6 "The Problem of the Ideal" (this
chapter was part of the on-line CHAT course last year, as was the above
version of the Ilyenkov's "The Concept of the Ideal," BTW).

"Ilyenkov first presented his account of the ideal (ideal'noe), or
"ideality" (ideal'nost'), in a long entry in the Soviet philosophical
encyclopedia in 1962, an article that represents his most impressive
contribution to the renaissance of Soviet philosophy after Stalin (Ilyenkov
1962b). Ilyenkov never lost faith in the validity of the theory he
outlined there, and when he returned to the problem of the ideal in a late
article (1979a), he did so not to question his earlier views but to
reaffirm them."

 From Bakhurst's book, References pg 272 etc.

(1962b), Ideal'noe [The Ideal]. *Filosofskaya entsiklopediya*, vol. 2;
219-27. Republished, amended in Ilyenkov (1974a: 183-210; 1984a: 164-88).
(1979a), Problema ideal'nogo [The Problem of the Ideal]. VF, no. 6:
145-58, no.7: 128-40. Republished as Dialektika ideal'nogo [The Dialectic
of the Ideal], Ilyenkov (1984b: 8-77); partly trans. as Ilyenkov (1977c).
(1977c), The Concept of the Ideal. *Philosophy in the USSR: Problems of
Dialectical Materialism*. Moscow: Progress: 71-99. Trans. (abridged and
amended) by Robert Daglish of Ilyenkov (1979a).
(1984b), *Iskusstvo i kommunistcheskii ideal * [Art and the Communist
Ideal]. Moscow: Iskusstvo.
(1974a), *Dialekticheskaya logika. Ocherki istorii i teorii* [Dialectical
Logic. Essays in Its History and Theory]. Moscow: Politizdat. Translated
as Ilyenkov (1977e).
(1977e), Dialectical Logic. Essay in Its History and Theory. Trans. by
H. Campbell Creighton of Ilyenkov (1974a). Moscow: Progress.

The multiple versions and republications of Ilyenkov's original 1962
encyclopedia article seem to strongly support Bakhurst's claim that
"Ilyenkov never lost faith in the validity of the theory he outlined" in
that 1962 article.

However, Victor says he has the "general impression ... that the subjective
idealist implications of the article of 1977 (I basically agree with
Bakhurst here) were a striking anomaly when compared to the rest of EVI's
writings." But the multiple publications and apparent revisions of this
article in the 1970's would be puzzling if Ilyenkov agreed with Victor that
this theory was a striking anomaly to his other writings. I think the way
to resolve Victor's sense of there being a striking anomaly is to agree
with Bakhurst's analysis that there was none - that EVI considered his
concept of the ideal to be integral to his life-long work.

I also want to question Victor's characterization of EVI's concept of the
ideal as "subjective idealist", and especially the notion that Bakhurst
suggests that this is the case. My reading of Bakhurst is that he is
saying just the opposite.

In the sub-section "Conclusion" in the aforementioned Chapter 6, Bakhurst
quotes Marx's first "Thesis on Feuerbach": "The chief defect of all
hitherto materialism - that of Feuerbach included - is that the thing
[Gegenstand], reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the
object [Objekt] or of contemplation [Anschauung], but not as human
sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively. ...."

Bakhurst continues:
"Ilyenkov's theory of the ideal is an attempt (which he takes to be
implicit in Marx's own writings) to remedy this defect. By giving sense to
what it is to "conceive of the thing as human sensuous activity," Ilyenkov
offers us a new, dialectical materialism in the form of a radical realism
that treats the thinking subject as located in material reality, in direct
contact with its objects."

Bakhurst clearly sees EVI's work on the concept of the ideal as an
extension of dialectical materialism, and not a version of subjective idealism.

But wait, there is more (I am really giving Victor some challenges
here. They are of course offered with the highest of regards).

I also want to make some comments on Peter Jones' take on ideal and
cultural artifacts. In that on-line CHAT course we did a year ago, we also
read and discussed one of the versions of the critique Peter Jones wrote on
Ilyenkov's Concept of the Ideal. It was my wrestling with some problems I
had with the Jones article that fully convinced me of Ilyenkov's
argument. Jones is opposed to one of Ilyenkov's central theses - he argues
against the notion that all cultural artifacts have ideality as well as

This article is available on MIA at

However, Jones adds a strange twist to this discussion by claiming that
Ilyenkov agrees with him, and that it is Bakhurst that gets this business
about cultural artifacts all having ideality wrong. This Jones article
also takes on Engestrom, who agrees with Bakhurst's interpretation and
provides a clear quote by Ilyenkov that unambiguously shows Ilyenkov did
claim all cultural artifacts have ideality. Nevertheless, Jones continues
to argue that Ilyenkov does not hold this position by offering an
alternative interpretation of the passage Engestrom had quoted from. Jones
also offers a number of what I found to be strange ways of quoting Marx to
also try to get Marx to appear to support his positions.

But leaving aside this problem with quoting and interpreting, Jones offers
a concept of reality that in my opinion reflects precisely the defective
version of materialism that Marx's first thesis and Ilyenkov's concept of
the ideal "attempt ... to remedy," as Bakhurst asserts. I believe
understanding the difference in approach to key elements of human reality -
such as the subjective and objective, ideality and materiality, the
abstract and the concrete, the mental (representational) and the physical -
that exists between mechanical and dialectical materialism - is critical in
being able to interpret Ilyenkov's concept of the ideal. As I see it, in
general, the mechanical materialist outlook sees these just-listed
dichotomies as mechanically distinct entities that are more or less
equivalent to one another (such as materiality and the concrete), but the
dialectical materialist outlook (as interpreted by Ilyenkov) sees them as
dialectical unities (systems) that are not interchangeable (such as the
abstract and the mental). From a mechanical materialist interpretation of
"the thing, reality, sensuousness," Ilyenkov's concept of the ideal would
appear to be subjective idealist. However, as Bakhurst and others argue,
and with whom I agree, Ilyenkov's concept of the ideal is a needed
continuation and expansion of dialectical materialism and is consistent
with the methods and philosophy of Marx and Engels. In my opinion,
following Vygotsky, this extension of dialectical materialism helps lay the
basis for a "Marxist" or a cultural-historical psychology.

To sum up, a careful reading of the Jones article reveals, in my opinion, a
tendency to view reality - and especially the distinctions between the
ideal and the material - in the mechanical materialist tradition. This is
clearly revealed in the thought question, do cultural artifacts (for
example, a hammer) have ideality? Jones argues they do not. Jones also
sees Marx and Ilyenkov as co-thinkers in this endeavor, and are in
agreement with his notion that hammers are devoid of ideality. Jones works
hard at interpreting the words and ideas of Marx and Ilyenkov to what I see
as his mechanical materialist end. Bakhurst, Engestrom offer
interpretations that I consider much more in line with the dialectical
materialist tradition of Marx and his mid-20th century disciple in
dialectical reasoning, Evald Ilyenkov. These writers argue that hammers
and cultural artifacts in general do have ideality. A careful reading of
Ilyenkov's article "The Concept of the Ideal" with dialectical conceptions
of the pervasive, unending and contradictory development of the abstract
and the concrete - in ideality and materiality, in the mental and the
physical, and in the subjective and objective - reveals, in my opinion, a
profound extension of dialectical materialism, just the opposite of
subjective idealism.

For a last word in my little challenges to Victor's take on the concept of
the ideal, this is the concluding paragraph in that Bakhurst chapter:

"As we noted above, Ilyenkov's account of the world as an object of thought
includes a correlative theory of the nature of the individual subject. If
we reject the Cartesian conception of the self as the foundation of the
mistaken doctrine of idealization as "mentalization," we make room for a
new idea of the individual, conceived not as a self-contained,
self-sufficient, and ready-made subject of "inner" states, but as a
socially formed being, essentially dependent on his or her ancestors and
peers. We shall explore this idea in the next chapter."

- Steve

Eugene wrote:
>As far as I know, the article "The Concept of the Ideal" was written by
>El'enkov in the early 60s or even the late 50s for the Philosophical
>Encyclopedia that was published in the early 60s (1964?). I'm not aware of
>1977 (re?)publication of this paper. Does anybody know anything about 1977
>publication? Is it the same article?
Victor wrote:
Just a bit of background: about three months ago, P. Jones asked if I had
written something on Ilyenkov's concepts of Ideality, i.e. those he
presented in his 1977 article "The Concept of the Ideal." After reading the
article about 8-9 times and finding it no less clear at the 8th reading than
it was at the first reading I went through the corpus of Ilyenkov's works
(those translated into English that is) and reviewed all available
interpretations of EVI's works by D. Bakhurst's and of P. Jones. My general
impression was that the subjective idealist implications of the article of
1977 (I basically agree with Bakhurst here) were a striking anomaly when
compared to the rest of EVI's writings, both those preceding and following
the publication of the 1977 article (here I take exception to Bakhurst's
efforts to regard "The Concepts..." as an integral part of Ilyenkov's life
work). This raised the interesting question; how did EVI - one of the
sharpest critics of Logical Positivism of the last century - come to write
up what is in essence a subjective idealist theory of the ideal?! "The
Concept of the Ideal" was part of a collection of articles including Leont'
ev's important "Activity and consciousness" published as,(1977) Philosophy
in the USSR: Problems of dialectical materialism. I just finished
reading/rereading the available writings of Leontiev (reread his, (1978)
Activity Consciousness and Personality, and read and reread his, (1977)
"Activity and Consciousness," several times) and a respectable number of
links between "The Concept...," and "Activity and Consciousness," suggests
that the anomalies of "The Concept of the Ideal" might well be the
consequence of a theoretical expansion of Leont'ev's Activity theory.


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