Re: Discussion of EVI's Concept of the Ideal

From: Andy Blunden (
Date: Wed May 12 2004 - 05:55:20 PDT

I think that Ilyenkov clarifies and develops what was only partially
developed and "hesitant" in Marx. In Chapter 3 of Capital Marx says:

"The price or money-form of commodities is, like their form of value
generally, a form quite distinct from their palpable bodily form; it is,
therefore, a purely ideal or mental form."

and he later contrasts price and value in a way that does not allow us to
say that Marx saw money as an objective ideal as Ilyenkov does. He uses
"ideal" in Capital on several occasions in the way engineers talk about
equations as "just ideal" in contrast to real behgaviour. I would venture
to say that Marx was not able to go as far as Ilyenkov at an historical
time when a "life force" was still being posited as the cause of body
temperature and the memory of Hegel's Geist was still very fresh.
Personally I find Ilyenkov's extension of the Marx's idea valid and
appropriate. Marx for example, uses the word "abstract" in just the way
that Ilyenkov uses it, but it does appear that he did not go so far as to
use the word "ideal" in quite that way.


At 05:20 AM 12/05/2004 -0700, you wrote:
>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 thought."
>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
>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.

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