Discussion of EVI's Concept of the Ideal

From: Steve Gabosch (bebop101@comcast.net)
Date: Wed May 12 2004 - 05:20:21 PDT

This post discusses Ilyenkov’s article “The Concept of the Ideal.” It
begins with a brief reference to Marx’s concept of the ideal, then goes on
to discuss Ilyenkov’s concept of the ideal in some detail.

The following quote is from Marx's 1873 Afterword to The Second German
Edition of Capital Volume 1. Marx says "the ideal is nothing else than the
material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of

Evald Vasilyevich Ilyenkov (1924-1979) (EVI) in his 1977 article "The
Concept of the Ideal," offers an ambitious interpretation of what Marx
meant by the concept of the ideal.

In the above quote, Marx certainly seems to be speaking about the mind of
the human *individual*. EVI, however, argues that Marx's concept of
ideality refers to something very different than just individual
consciousness. To remain in the framework of the above Marx quote (not
mentioned by EVI), EVI argues, in words I have *added* for illustration,
that in his interpretation of the Marxist concept of the ideal, the ideal
is nothing else than the *humanized* material world reflected by the
*collective* human mind, translated into *human culture (not just* forms of
thought). These additions of mine, which I believe capture EVI’s concept
of the ideal, appear to be saying something different from what Marx meant,
and how Marx is commonly interpreted in this regard. I will return to this.

First, some descriptions of EVI’s concept of the ideal. After briefly
touching again on the question of Marx’s concept of the ideal, I will
discuss some possible implications of EVI’s theory.

EVI explains that the ideal consists of the unceasing reciprocating
transformations between humanly created things (cultural artifacts in CHAT
terms) and human activity (see paragraphs 140 - 142 in my numbered
version). This realm called the ideal, or ideality, according to EVI, is
the product of human labor, which transforms material nature into "cultural
artifacts". These cultural artifacts, (EVI usually calls them "things"),
in turn continue to maintain their ideal forms - alongside their obvious
material forms - insofar as they remain a part of human life activity.

While in this article EVI does not attempt to explain Marx's above quote,
EVI does devote serious attention to several other passages and ideas in
Marx's writing in regard to ideality. One theme that EVI stresses is that
commodity exchange, as explained in Marx's labor theory of value, is a
particular example of the general case of ideality. Just as the value form
is a social relationship in the form of a relationship between things, the
ideal form is a social relationship that is embodied in the material
products of human labor.

One of the overriding ideas in EVI's concept of the ideal is that the
boundary between the material and the ideal is not formed by what is inside
and outside the heads of individuals. EVI attributes this conception to
non-dialectical (popular) materialism, which he suggests tends toward a
Kantian view of ideality. Rather, EVI argues, the borderline between the
material and the ideal lies within all cultural artifacts, the products of
human activity. Just as commodities contain both exchange value and
use-value, so too do cultural artifacts contain both ideality and
materiality. The location of ideality, however, is not inside people’s
heads – although ideality obviously requires people’s heads. According to
EVI, ideality is located in social relations.

The cause and effect relationship between the ideal, on one hand, and human
consciousness and will, on the other, is discussed by EVI in some
detail. He stresses that human consciousness and will are the
manifestation, and not the cause, of the ideal. EVI explains that the
newborn child is confronted by a cultural world that compels this child to
assimilate according to its social rules. It is in this process of having
to distinguish between themself and the demands made on them by the social
world that the child develops a consciousness and will. EVI contrasts this
with the animal world.

EVI uses this concept of the ideal to offer many insights into idealism,
including its Kantian, Platonic, and Hegelian versions. One concept EVI
presents is the secret twist of idealism, which, especially in its
Platonic-Hegelian tradition, gets important features of ideality correct,
but then declares that all there is to the world is this ideal plane,
thereby removing the material world from the field of vision. The real
world then becomes just an already idealized world. Another theme EVI
discusses is that idealism, insofar as it does grasp important dynamics of
the ideal, especially in the Hegelian tradition of comprehending labor
activity, alienation, reification, objectification, etc., needs a more
thoroughgoing critique and appreciation than is offered by Kantian-inspired
popular materialism.

Popular materialism, which draws the border between the material and the
ideal according to what is inside and outside the head, falls victim,
according to EVI, to fetishism. He attributes fetishism in general, of
which philosophical idealism is one of its forms, and of which popular
materialism is another, to the human individual being confronted by and
thereby fusing together two different kinds of external influences – nature
(materiality) and culture (ideality). According to EVI, this is the source
of the incorrect but very popular notion that ideality starts and stops at
the boundary of the human head.

Returning to the claim EVI makes about Marx, that Marx consciously adhered
to this concept of ideality, I believe there are good reasons to question
this more deeply than EVI does in his article. EVI does not offer
convincing evidence that Marx generalized a theory of the ideal with the
same clarity with which he developed his labor theory of value, which EVI
sees as a particularization of his concept of ideality. More inquiry into
how both Marx and Engels conceived mind, culture, and activity - and how
they saw these human social processes in terms of their particular
ontological conceptions of a dialectical materiality - could reveal more
about how their concept of the ideal compares with EVI’s. There are some
potential discoveries to be made here. One interesting observation to add
is that in his article, EVI returns several times to claims that Marx
purposely used the term “ideal” in Hegel's terminological tradition. It is
possible that EVI is using this indirect argument in lieu of having more
direct evidence of the similarity of Marx’s general position on ideality to
that of EVI.

However, what Marx’s precise position was on ideality is informative but
not at all decisive. Much more interesting to me is an evaluation of the
merits and shortcomings of EVI’s concepts and arguments, and a discussion
of what is relevant about his concept of ideality today.

In attempting to evaluate EVI’s article, I have produced a paragraph by
paragraph annotation of his article to begin the process of trying to
interpret it. It is a difficult article, but not at all indecipherable. I
will discuss this document of annotations that I have produced in another post.

In thinking about what is relevant about EVI’s concept of ideality, I am
beginning to suspect his theory has many positive implications for science,
social theory, and the social movements of the oppressed.

1. EVI’s concept may be a step toward a more scientific view of
culture. EVI’s concept of ideality shows how to conceive culture as the
aggregate of cultural artifacts that are in constant transformation by
human activity, with each artifact in turn, along with its own materiality,
reflecting the social relations that form the basis of a particular
cultural domain. It shows how to see culture not in subjective, individual
psychological terms, but as a product of objective social relations. It
locates culture – of which ideality, according to EVI, is a major property
– not in the heads of people, but in their social relationships,
activities, and in the totality of cultural artifacts. These are core
concepts that advance cultural-historical activity theory and the ideas of
the Vygotsky school in general.

2. It may be a step toward a more scientific view of psychology, as well as
linguistics, and other socio-historical sciences. In EVI’s words,
“psychology must necessarily proceed from the fact that between the
individual consciousness and objective reality there exists the “mediating
link” of the historically formed culture, which acts as the prerequisite
and condition of individual mental activity. This comprises the economic
and legal forms of human relationships, the forms of everyday life and
forms of language, and so on. For the individual’s mental activity
(consciousness and will of the individual) this culture appears immediately
as a “system of meanings”, which have been “reified” and confront him quite
objectively as “non-psychological”, extra-psychological reality.” (par 125).

3. It could be a step toward understanding how to strengthen movements for
social change, both within and across these movements. EVI’s concept of
ideality is a philosophical theory of social consciousness. It may be able
to help provide new insights and new ways of understanding how the
political, cultural and psychological dimensions of movements for social
change - of women, non-dominant ethnicities, etc. - are interconnected, to
themselves, to each other, to cultural domains, and to the socio-economic

4. It may be a step toward better understanding phenomena like working
class consciousness and feminism. EVI’s philosophical research and
reasoning into social consciousness locates what he calls collective
self-awareness (par 81) outside of people’s individual heads and in the
general social process. This may provide a new way to understand what is
often called solidarity during active social struggles.

5. Finally, EVI’s formulation “collective self-awareness” is suggestive of
what could turn out to be a new addition to Marxist ideology – a Marxist
Theory of Collective Self-Awareness. A great deal of Marxist political
writing – for example, that of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Guevara, and
Castro – is based on a theory of social consciousness and how human
consciousness responds to changes in socio-historical conditions. However,
most of this theorizing has been restricted to the realms of political
activism and historical analysis. EVI’s concept of ideality could be the
basis of a more comprehensive theory of collective self-awareness, which
can now, as never before, begin to draw on the ideas accomplishments of
modern scientific trends such as cultural-historical activity theory,
sociocultural theory, dialogic theory, and many others.

Thank you,
- Steve Gabosch

Note: Here is a more complete version of the Marx quote used at the
beginning, and a URL to its location on MIA.
"My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its
direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e., the
process of thinking, which, under the name of "the Idea," he even
transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world,
and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of "the Idea."
With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world
reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought." MECW,
Vol 35, page 19. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/p3.htm


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