RE: EVI's Concept of the Ideal - mirrors

From: Eugene Matusov (
Date: Sat May 15 2004 - 17:14:42 PDT

Dear Andy and everybody-
My understanding of EVI's notion of the ideal (and his notion of reflection)
is NOT based on a "mirror" metaphor. For me, EVI argued that the material
world is known to us (humans) always and only through our
socio-cultural-historical activities that are shaped by our various social
relations. What is interesting is that, although the world we know is always
"subjective" ("subjectivity" means here that we are acting on the world
through our socially constructed needs, goals, and values;
"subjective"="subject"="actor"="activity"), we actually do not need the pure
"objectivity". The pure objectivity cannot be known and does not need to be
known because of its indifference to a subject: only dead does not have
biases, subjectivity, needs, goals, and values. The only way to become
objective and lose all biases is to commit suicide.
The world is "given" to us (as individuals) through socio-cultural
activities. For example, some stars are viewed to be formed in a
castellation that are/were USEFUL for navigation practices. However, for an
(modern) astronomy practice the same stars might not be a castellation
because they may even belong to different galaxies (or at least to be very
far away). Without a reference to a practice, it is meaningless to ask "are
these stars really in a castellation?" because castellation itself is a
pattern relative to our, human, practice (i.e.,
socially-historically-culturally-economically-politically defined goals).
"Objectively" speaking (i.e., outside of human practices with their
"subjective" goals and values) castellation does not exist. We have been
"patterning" (from the word "pattern")/"idealizing" the material world in
our activities to make them successful for our goals. Notice that this
understanding of the ideal is nothing to do with mirror reflections (like
Andy, I dislike Lenin's philosophical primitivism and vulgar materialism).
Thus, actions are primary ideality. Mental representations of the world that
achieved through a special activity of mental representing are secondary
ideality - patterning the already patterned world.
As to "mirror reflections", I do not think that this metaphor is very
useful. What seems to me useful is a form of (secondary) ideality that is
often called "models". Models are involved abstraction of certain features
from the targeted material objects projected to other special material
objects (e.g., words, clay) that are very relevant for the targeted
activities. Models allow us acting in a specially constructed ideal plan
("symbolic", "figured world") to test consequences of our actions. Models
do not only provide a safe space for experimentation but also to test if we
understand - i.e., whether we can abstract the most relevant relations from
the objects that are important for our goals.
What do you think?

From: Andy Blunden []
Sent: Saturday, May 15, 2004 9:36 AM
Subject: Re: EVI's Concept of the Ideal - mirrors
I think that both Vygotsky and Ilyenkov really loved Lenin, and this mirror
metaphor caused them some problem because Lenin had committed himself to it
so decisively in 1908. Nevertheless, I think Vygotsky is not being true to
himself in repeating it. Perhaps it was not politically possible to
criticise it, but surely he didn't have to repeat, don't you think?

For me, it is the fact that the mirror is passive, whereas a human being is
active. (see good old Theses on Feuerbach again). Lenin points out
(correctly I think) that reflection is a capacity of *all matter* (e.g. a
footprint) and one can even impute an element of "interpretation" in nature.
But what is lacking is the 3-sided process of human activity which includes
an *ideal*.

What do you think?

At 06:27 AM 15/05/2004 -0700, you wrote:

I like this point Andy makes below about the subject-object problem:

Andy said:
"If a number of different people say "We are all pursuing the same ideal
..." what is it that they are pursuing? A phantom? A state of brain matter?
Obviously what they are pursuing is something which exists independently of
"the mind" (in Lenin's sense, ontologically), but not of course
independently of objective, willful, needy, human practice.

"The whole issue is the posing of the issue as a mind-matter problem, when
it can be understood only as a subject-object problem."

As for Vygotsky's mirror image quote, I am with Andy on this, too.

Andy said:
"I really didn't like the way Vygotsky used the "mirror" metaphor so beloved
by Lenin."

Andy's quote is from Chapter 13 of The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in
Psychology: A Methodological Investigation (1927). It is part of several
paragraphs where Vygotsky rambles around, trying to liken a mirror image to
consciousness. I believe he fails. He even comments on this series of
paragraphs as being a "protracted argumentation" and seems relieved to end
it. I believe these paragraphs about an object "A" and its mirror image "a"
can be happily skipped over with no loss in an otherwise brilliant work.

The problem with Vygotsky's analogy is that light beams bouncing off a
mirror do not form an image unless a reasonably intelligent being (perhaps a
bird, a dog, a human) is seeing it and interpreting it. This is the fatal
flaw in LSV's line of reasoning in creating this mirror analogy for
consciousness. Without a conscious being involved, mirrors cannot produce
"images." They can just reflect light beams. A mirror is not a form of
consciousness just because it reflects light. It has no mind or brain or
nervous system or other organic system that responds to stimuli. Mirrors
cannot be a successful analogy for how organisms "reflect" in Marx's or
Lenin's sense because mirrors have no consciousness. Mirrors do not
**process** images - only organisms do. It does not help when Vygotsky
begins to talk of the reflections in mirrors as phantoms - for mirrors
cannot reflect phantoms at all - because the light beams they can reflect
are certainly never phantoms because they do not exist. Anthropomorphizing
mirrors in order to explain consciousness could only work if we imagine the
mirror as a living being with its own agenda. But then, if we performed
such a thought experiment, a mirror's capacity to "reflect" in the way we
want to understand would be due to its being a living entity, and not due to
its ability to reflect light beams. It would "reflect" because it was
responsive. Leontiev as a comparative psychologist (comparing the
psychologies of different animals) considerably developed this idea by
analyzing the different levels of responsiveness among different kinds of
animals, and how these levels evolved. Mirrors were not likely among the
objects of his investigation, but spiders were.

Some of the other points LSV makes in that chapter 13 about ontology and
epistemology - and about the object/subject relationship - are, however,
very useful to the materiality/ideality discussion we have been having.
Perhaps we can return to LSV's thinking on these issues.

- Steve

At 02:24 PM 5/15/2004 +1000, you wrote:

Sorry, I accidentally omitted the first line of that quote. I've added it in

At 08:32 PM 14/05/2004 -0700, you wrote:

Andy, can you give the full citation to LSV's use of the mirrror metaphor?
This goes to the question of the use of the term, reflection, in this
Mike, this is copied from an article Dot Robbins showed me. The source is
Let us compare consciousness, as is often done, with a mirror image. Let the
object A be reflected in the mirror as a. Naturally, it would be false to
say that a in itself is as real as A. It is real in another way. A table and
its reflection in the mirror are not equally real, but real in a different
way. The reflection as reflection, as an image of the table, as a second
table in the mirror is not real, it is a phantom. But the reflection of the
table as the refraction of light beams on the mirror surface - isnt that a
thing which is equally material and real as the table? Everything else would
be a miracle. Then we might say: there exist things (a table) and their
phantoms (the reflection). But only things exist(the table) and the
reflection of light upon the surface. The phantoms are just apparent
relations between the things. That is why no science of mirror phantoms is
possible. But this does not mean that we will never be able to explain the
reflection, the phantom. When we know the thing and the laws of reflection
of light, we can always explain, predict, elicit, and change the phantom.
And this is what persons with mirrors do. They study not mirror reflections
but the movement of light beams, and explain the reflection. A science about
mirror phantoms is impossible, but the theory of light and the things which
cast and reflect it fully explain these phantoms. (Vygotsky, 1997, p. 327)
Vygotsky, L. S. (1997). The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky. Vol. 3.
Problems of the theory and history of psychology. In R. W. Rieber and J.
Wollock (Eds.). New York: Plenum Press.

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