Response to Steve G on EVI and Bakhurst

From: Oudeyis (
Date: Wed May 05 2004 - 11:14:40 PDT


You asked for IT!!!???

It is a very long and very condensed monster. Have fun.


This analysis of Bakhurst’s arguments is solely based on chapter 6 "The Problem of the Ideal" of his book, Consciousness and Revolution in Soviet Philosophy: From the Bolsheviks to Evald Ilyenkov_ (1991, Indeed, the very chapter that was part of the on-line CHAT course last year).




Beginning at the beginning, I find the whole first section of chapter 6, The problem of the ideal, Ideality, moral properties, and the “ban on anthropocentricity” an unnecessarily exercise of professional philosophical virtuosity and an inaccurate representation of dialectics and the problem of the Ideal in Marxism in general and in EVI’s writings in particular. My focus here is on Bakhurst’s interpretation of EVI’s theory of the ideal as a dialectical synthesis of subjectivism and objectivism, on his assertion that EVI’s adoption of anthropocentricity is the dialectical synthesis of subjectivism and objectivism, and, most importantly of all, his representation of EVI’s theory of anthropocentricity as an innovation in Marxist thinking.


The “absolute conception of the world” cosmology is clearly a case of the persistence of Spinozan and Feuerbachian “contemplative materialism.” I do not have access to Bakhurst’s book so I’m unable to access his discussion on its manifestation in Russian Marxist theory, but it is surely NOT a feature of Marx or Lenin’s thinking. Neither Marx nor Lenin came to the conclusion that man – not individual men, but man – builds objective material world conditions as a solution to the fairly abstruse problem of the contradiction between subjectivism and objectivism. The answer is far more obvious and EVI discusses it at length and in too many places in his works to cite here. It is the fact that production; the transformation of the subjects of production, through the exercise of instruments of production, by human labour, recreates the world in accordance with human needs and in an anthropocentric form. There is no absolute conception of the world because human production is continuously transforming world conditions into the non-organic extensions of the human (collectively speaking) body. This is why EVI 1960 Chapter 10 section 1 I think) makes a point of emphasizing the primary role of production in establishing the conditions for all other human practice. Interestingly enough Bakhurst discussion of EVI’s theories of the ideal avoids all reference to EVI’s economic determinism or to the role of production in the formation of the ideal.


EVI’s works (1960, 1974 and 1979 Leninist Dialectics and the Metaphysics of Positivism) all show that his theory of the Ideal, that of “ The Concepts…” evolves somehow from an intelligent and sophisticated analysis of Marx that is absolutely consistent with the objectivist and materialist paradigms of the Marxian synthesis of Spinozan materialism and Hegelian (objective) Idealism. The anthropocentrism of EVI’s materialism is consistent with Marxist-Leninist theory of production as prime mover of human history and does not represent a synthesis of subjectivism and objectivism. Nor is such a synthesis necessary for a materialist theory of the anthropocentrism of ideality. We do agree with Bakhurst that EVI’s theory of the ideal does have a strong subjectivist bias, but regard this as a product of a much less orderly and consistent train of thought than the one he proposes. We shall show here that it is EVI’s practice of describing the ideal as the product of abstract human activity, rather than of the productive process that is responsible for the subjectivism of his theory of the ideal. Abstracted activity includes both contemplation and production and the description of the ideal as being a product of activity in general could conceivably lead EVI into the very dualisms of mind and matter that he criticized in Feuerbach’s contemplative materialism. It is, after all, these contemplative materialists (and Bakhurst, who considers ideation as external to the physical world) for whom the material world is inhabited only by objects, and that are the chief critics of Marx’s assertion that ideal phenomena can have objective existence. An indiscriminate accounting of ideality as a product of all forms of activity could very well create a confusing mélange of subjectivist and objectivist theories of the ideal.




Now, let’s turn to Bakhurst discussion of EVI’s investigation into artifacts: The problem of the ideal, The insight about artefacts. Despite a poor start in the section on anthropocentrism, Bakhurst presents here a fair account of EVI’s theory of the artifact. He also addresses the issue that may have led EVI to describe the origin of the ideal in general human activity rather than in production. Incidentally, this issue is the very same one that inspired Peter Jones critique of Bakhurst’s paper. This “hard place” is the role of some objects as representations of relations of production, i.e. social relations, as well as of the knowledge involved in their production and use. Here we are referring to the transformation of a particular commodity: gold, dentalium shells, copper tablets, and so on, into a representation of both concrete and abstract labour (use value and exchange value). Ilyenkov’s resolution of the problem of an object that represents social relations as well as the knowledge embodied in its production and use is to generalize the processes the object may represent. In the case of the universal medium of exchange, gold, it is the incorporation of the object into the aim oriented life activity of a human community, to its use that is embodied in the form of the object. Note that his method of defining Ideality is just the search for a common denominator of a class of objects that EVI disparages as “formalistic logic.”


Bakhurst’s discussion of the relationship between EVI’s solution of the problem of objects embodying social as well as (sublated) production relations and Vygotsky’s theory of meaningful speech is certainly relevant, though he misses a crucial point of difference between them. Bakhurst’s description of the link between EVI’s theory of the Ideal and Vygotsky’s thinking is apt:

“ For him, words are just a subclass of idealized natural objects. Second, Ilyenkov offers us a strong reading of the Vygotskian idea that signs are tools (see Vygotsky 1978: 52-7). They are so, not just in the sense that, as a matter of fact, we use independently meaningful words as tools (i.e., to get things done), but because the very meaning of a word is constituted by its role in human activity, by what we use it to do.” (Bakhurst 1991, Chapter 6 The insight about artefacts)

What Bakhurst does not show is that Vygotsky’s theory is based on a dialectical relation between production of objects, in this case useful vocalized sounds, and the notion as diverse stages of its development while EVI’s adoption of “words as tools” is just a part of his generalization of the relation between ideations and their material representation by the object. Using Vygotsky’s theory as a key, we can produce a truly dialectical theory of the object, while EVI’s formulation leads only to a over-generalized abstraction of objectified ideation.


In the 3 section of chapter 6, Agency and the Humanization of Nature, Bakhurst continues to map out EVI’s generalization of Ideality:

“Thus, for Ilyenkov, when Marx and Engels say, “activity, this unceasing sensuous labour and creation” is “the basis of the whole sensuous world as it now exists,” they mean that activity, through its objectification, is the source both of the world we inhabit and of the way we inhabit it (Marx and Engels 1845-6: 63)” (Bakhurst 1991, Agency and the Humanization of Nature)

The difference between Marx and Engels “activity;” labour and production, and EVI’s “activity;” activity through objectification is of critical importance for understanding how EVI’s generalization of the object draws him into a subjectivist theory of the ideal. For Marx and Engels the object represents sensuous labour and creation, the relations involved in the productive process, while for EVI it simply represents human activity. Production, the origin of Marx and Engels’s object, is an array of relations between objects, be they activities or no, while EVI’s contemplated activity is just another object. EVI’s formula that the object represents activity, in other words, that the object perceived represents another object, is virtually identical to the subjectivist idealist’s notion that the material object; action or what have you, is and must be represented in the human mind by an “ideal object.” Steve, do you see where I’m going with this?




Bakhurst ignores this fateful development in EVI’s thinking on Ideality. And, like EVI in “The Concepts…” finds it hard to escape the subjectivism inherent in the overly generalized and abstract notion of the Ideal as a representation of all activity and ultimately of all objects. Let’s turn now to Bakhurst’s tortured reasonings for demonstrating EVI’s materialism.


Bakhurst’s discussion of the relation between Ideality and thought and experience (Bakhurst 1991, Chapter 6, Ideality and the possibility of thought and experience) presents the basis of EVI’s subjectivist idealism. The first part of the section deals with the distinctions between EVI’s thinking and that of Kant and the Logical positivists, the European Empirico-positivists (Machism in the USSR). The Kantian argues that experience necessitates that intellect impose a structure on the raw inputs of sensuality. Understanding contains the necessary repertoire of concepts – categories – as a scheme of a priori forms of thought that determines the basic forms of judgement. (Ilyenkov 1979a: 140). In short, experience of the must be filtered through this conceptual scheme if it is to be meaningful. Although the synthesis of pure, unstructured sensuousness and a priori forms of thought is a unity of scheme and content in which the two components cannot intelligibly be imagined apart, cognition is regarded as an interaction between the inputs of an independently existing reality and the individual mind. Since the Kantian asserts that the mind can only regard what ever is filtered through our conceptual scheme, he is forced to conclude that the world prior to its expression in human concepts is inaccessible to human cognition. For him experience is an interface between the subject and the reality beyond the human mind.


 While Ilyenkov thinks that the Kantian confronts the right problem, he rejects the Kantian’s solution. He proposes to replace the strictly subjectively relevant a-priory categories of doubtful origins with the idealized forms of the activity of the community: Ilyenkov can only do this because he has come to regard the ideal as objects representing other objects; actions and things. Neither Hegel, nor Marx and Lenin would countenance this solution. For them the ideality of the object is that knowledge of the relations between objects that is essential to the object’s production and use (for production, of course). The reasons for the ideality of knowledge of relation is that, unlike objects, it cannot be immediately apperceived by the active spirit in the case of Hegelian Objective Idealism or by human perception in the case of Marxian Historical Materialism. For Marx, Engels and Lenin, and EVI in (1974 Chapter 9) there is no filter whatsoever between ideation and material conditions, for them ideation is no less connected to physical and material reality than are the strictly sensual objects. The Kantian argument that cognition is necessarily a product of the filtering of sensual experience can only lead back to a subjectivist theory of cognition and an unbridgeable chasm between real and perceived things, no matter how that filter is produced. Ilyenkov’s broad generalization of the ideal as representation of all nature: its activities and things, lands him more or less in the subjectivist camp, despite his arguments that Idealities are products of social activity. EVI is more or less in the subjectivist camp because he has yet another card in play in his theory of the ideal.


Ilyenkov’s additional card is the Marxian theory of the anthropomorphisation (ye gods did I invent this word?) of material world conditions through human production. The transformation of nature into a human product through the productive process effectively objectifies and materialises the socially originated filterings and transforms it into – surprise! - the material world conditions of unmediated human experience. While this does confound somewhat the argument that EVI’s theory of the Ideal is subjective and idealist, it contains the seeds of future contradiction and opens the theory to an even more devastating critique.


In the last part of the section, Ideality and the possibility of thought and experience, of chapter 6, Bakhurst now turns to the correlative theory origin of human consciousness in the assimilation or internalisation of objectified and materialized Idealities. Bakhurst, and quite possibly EVI, regarded this aspect of the theory of the ideal as close to Vygotsky’s theory of “the social genesis of the individual,” though I argue (see above) that Vygotsky’s theory of the meaningful object is much closer to the objectivist theories of Hegel, Marx (see A Blunden on this) and Lenin than it is to Ilyenkov. Incidentally, it is significant that EVI’s and Bakhurst’s interest in Vygotsky’s theories were focused on the social genesis of the individual rather than on its relevance for the production of the object and the object’s relation to the development of the notion. It seems to me that it is in this disregard for the implications of Vygotsky’s work for the theory of the object that EVI and Bakhurst finally slide into a subjectivist idealist theory of the ideal.


 Vygotsky’s hypotheses of the acquisition of meaningful speech, well supported by experimental research are powerful evidence for the origins and development of thoughtful expression in the external social environment. Clearly it is the developing human’s exposure to and assimilation of social practices that are responsible for the kinds of ideas he expresses and the way he expresses them. It’s a most convincing argument for the external origin of ideas in social consciousness. As such Vygotsky’s work supports Ilyenkov’s theory of the objectivity of the ideal in the material world. But, given Ilyenkov’s generalized definition of the ideal, adoption of Vygotsky’s theories cannot but revive the subjectivist concept of filtered cognition of Kant and the Empirico-positivists. It should be noted that this problem simply does not occur in Vygotsky’s works – mainly because Vygotsky maintains a very objectivist dialectical theory of ideation.

In other words, if (as Ilyenkov himself puts it) the world is only given “refracted” through the “prism” of social consciousness, how can the mind reach out to the world as it is prior to that refraction (Ilyenkov 1960a: 41)? It seems that Ilyenkov is driven to the same unfortunate conclusion as the Kantian: Things in themselves are unknowable. He must therefore be committed either to agnosticism about the nature and existence of a world independent of us, or, like the Empiriocritics whom he so despises, to the idealist view that the world is constructed out of our conceptual scheme. It seems that, by lifting the ban on anthropocentricity, Ilyenkov has let anthropocentricity run amok. (Bakhurst 1991, Chapter 6 Ilyenkov, radical realism, and the critique of “two-worlds epistemology”)

But it is not the lifting of the ban on anthropocentricity that is the problem here; it is his generalization of the ideal to the point that it represents things rather than relations. It’s his formal generalizations of the ideal that have run amok and not anthropocentricity. As Bakhurst points out there is no clear path out of this quandary for EVI:

Evidence may be found in Ilyenkov’s writings to support either of these readings. For example, Ilyenkov certainly appears to invoke the concept of activity as a direct response to a problem he takes to have been posed by Kant. Nevertheless, his failure to develop this appeal to activity into a systematic theory of the conditions of thought and experience might be taken to suggest that the appeal is designed to reorientate the philosopher’s project in ways to which a Wittgensteinian might be sympathetic. It could therefore be that Ilyenkov wished to be read in one of these two ways, but was perhaps hindered by the political climate from making this explicit. However, I believe it most likely that Ilyenkov would have resisted either interpretation, rejecting the conception of transcendental philosophy at the heart of the neo-Kantian reading, while fearing that a Wittgensteinian strategy ultimately robs us of the power to criticize those social practices in which all explanation ends. In consequence, I have (albeit at the risk of incoherence) resisted the temptation to resolve Ilyenkov’s position into either of these readings, and presented him as striving to give sense to an alternative strategy position to which it is an alternative. And if so, Ilyenkov is innocent of the charge of idealism.


I think we’ve shown here that the subjectivist and idealist tendencies of EVI’s theory of the ideal are inherent in the way he defines the ideal and that Bakhurst (1991) misses this entirely in his presentation of Ilyenkov’s theoretical formulations. We have traced the origins of this problem to the difficulties of reconciling the ideality of products with that of objects representing social relations, and to EVI’s attempt to develop a general theory of the ideal by using formalist logic to define the ideal. We then argue that the generalist and abstract definition of the ideal as undifferentiated activity eventually leads him to regard the ideal as the representation of all activities and things in nature, a view that is irreparably idealist and potentially subjectivist. Ilyenkov’s theory of the objective and material nature of the ideal as the product of man’s transformation of nature for his own needs (anthropocentrism), while appearing to contest the subjectivist and idealist character of his theory produce serious contradictions for the development of the theory. The objectivity of the ideal in social consciousness means that individual’s ideas and ideational skills – along with consciousness and will – must be acquired from society, external to him. On the other hand, his generalized definition of the ideal as indiscriminately representing all nature as a product of human production gives rise to the argument that if all objects are ideal, than in fact there is no need for learning the ideal; the ideal and material world are one. Ilyenkov’s theory of the ideal is then an indigestible combination of an objectivist and materialist theory of the ideal as an external product of human production and a subjectivist and idealist theory of the ideal as a learned “filter” which enables individuals to give structure and meaning to their experiences.




While Ilyenkov’s assertion that the ideal is objective (see above) does confound somewhat the argument that EVI’s theory of the Ideal is subjective and idealist, it contains the seeds of future contradiction and opens the theory to an even more devastating critique. Peter Jones’s critique of this formulation (1998a, Symbols, tools, and ideality in Ilyenkov’, 1998b, Ideality, Symbols, and the Mind (Response to David Bakhurst), 2004 The dialectics of the ideal and symbolic mediation.), though put a bit differently than this, is that Bakhurst’s interpretation of Ilyenkov’s theory of the ideal succeeds in presenting the ideal as the real thereby eliminating all need for the concept of the ideal. While I disagree with Peter that Bakhurst’s interpretation is at odds with EVI’s theory, I cannot but regard his critique of the theory as both very apt and as very destructive of the theory itself!


While Jones does not, in my opinion, prove that Ilyenkov did make a theoretical distinction between objects as tools and objects as symbolic representations of social relations, he does show that Marx and Engels and, for that matter Ilyenkov as well, did regard symbolic objects as formally different from tools. As we pointed out above it was just this problem of classifying both instruments and symbolic representations as objects that led EVI to define objects so generally and abstractly as to arrive at identity between ideality and socially generated material reality. In the Capital Marx was primarily interested in the emergence of symbolic objects representing the relations of production (political economy) and never had the need for developing a general theory of the object and its relation to ideality. Still Marx in Capital does make a number of observations on the special nature of objects representing social relations (Jones 1998 a, b) which strongly suggests that he did recognize a theoretical difference between they and objects as tools, even though he never actually produced a theory to explain their differences.


Jones’s explanation of the difference between objects as tools and objects as symbols is to describe tools as material objects, i.e. objects whose form is implied by the notions – of form and of function – they represent and symbolic representations of social relations whose form has no relation to the activities they represent. The problem with Jones’s interpretation of the ideality of objects, tools and symbols alike, is that he fundamentally concurs with EVI that ideation is the perception of action and things and that the objectification of Idealities is the representation of things: actions, materials and things, by things! In his discussion of the notions about tools Jones focuses on acts of production and usage, but not on the knowledge of relations; physical, chemical, and organic, that are critical for the production and use of tools. The hammer as an object has no relation whatsoever to the physics of the swing necessary to pound in the nail, the focus on the nail head necessary for effective pounding, or the selection of a sufficiently hard and flexible handle that will survive the stresses of the pounding. It is these things that comprise the notions concerning the object of the hammer, and the fact that this knowledge concerns mostly the laws of nature, does not make them any less human than, say the notions concerning commodity exchange (remember Marx and Engels’s; the anthropocentric transformation of nature through human production). Jones’s conception of the ideality of symbolic representations is no less perception oriented than his regard for notions about tools . For example he defines money as the symbolic representation of labour. Now labour as such is simply an activity and hence an object, an experience directly accessible to human perception. For Marx money is a representation of the general idea of value, which sublates the contrary relations of concrete labour (use value) and abstract labour (exchange value); a virtual complex of relations not one of which can be the subject of direct perception. Jones’s instincts are good, there is indeed a theoretical difference between the tool as object and the symbol as object, but his theory of the object and its relation to ideality is no better than that of EVI so his theory of the difference between tool objects and symbolic objects tends to a superficial distinction that relegates tools to the class of pristine natural objects while it regards social relations as simply activities carried out in the presence of other persons.


The resolution of the problem of the relation of the object to ideality is to be found in a dialectical theory of the relations between production of objects and the development of the notion. The unity of meaning, i.e. notion, and speech, the “cell” of such a theory, was proposed over 60 years ago by Vygotsky in his book (1934) Thought and Language. Using this abstract, elementary concept, the development of the object from the simple object; a representation of the knowledge for its production and use to the fully semiotic object, designed to transmit ideation, can be traced, explained, and integrated into the general science of human history.

Highest regards,


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