Re: 1973 article by Wartofsky on perception, representation, artifacts

From: Steve Gabosch (
Date: Sat May 22 2004 - 19:56:38 PDT

I want to focus on some issues regarding what is meant by "ideality", and
ways to use this term. Reading Victor's annotations and his recent post on
Wartofsky carefully, I believe we are pretty much on the same page on many
essential items, but there may be some useful nuanced differences to discuss.

What is sparking this post is a way Victor used the term "ideality" in his
recent post commenting on the Wartofsky article.

from Victor's May 21 Wartofsky comments:
"... these three kinds of ideality (determined of course by the processes
by which they are produced and incorporated into production) are
dialectically related, they represent distinctly different practices, and
that it is important to recognize these and identify their particular
cultural and historical roles ..."

In this context, Victor is using the term "ideality" as a synonym for
"artifact." If the reader substitutes "artifact" for "ideality" in the
above, it is a strong and very good statement about cultural artifacts from
a CHAT perspective - Wartofsky's three kinds of artifacts are dialectically
related, represent different practices, they are important for identifying
cultural and historical roles, etc.

As I will try to argue, however, "Ideality" is not the same as artifact.

The next passage from Victor's annotations provides what I think is an
excellent description of ideality in the midst of making another point:

from Victor's annotations, numbered 131:
"...Nature (the natural properties of things) and Ideality (those of their
properties which they owe not to nature but to the social human labour
embodied in these things) ..."

This distinction between the "natural properties of things" and the
"properties which they [things - sg] owe not to nature but to the social
human labour embodied in these things" gets to the heart of what I think
Ilyenkov and cultural-historical theory mean by ideality. EVI is
emphasizing that ideality is a set of properties that humans embody in
objects that are not the same as the natural properties of these
objects. Victor here and numerous other places captures this essential

from Victor's May 21 Wartofsky comments:
"The recognition of these distinctions and of their different roles in
historical and cultural development might also enable us to further
how different modes of ideality relate to particular social conditions and
their development ..."

I found the phrase "different modes of ideality" really interesting. If
the term "ideality" is interpreted as meaning "artifact," it just becomes
another way of saying that the "forces" or "techniques" of production
change historically. That isn't very interesting. But if the phrase
"different modes of ideality" refers to different modes of attributing or
embodying human social properties and relations to material objects, it
becomes a significant way to conceptualize different kinds of historical
periods and cultural systems where the ways people think may differ. It
allows us to understand that just as modes of production change in history,
and social relations change along with them, we can understand that "modes
of ideality" also change historically. This is a powerful conceptual tool
for analyzing human cultural behavior, especially in our world today, where
we seem to be co-existing with so many conflicting "modes of ideality". I
like this term.

Returning to this problem - just exactly what is "the ideal" - this next
passage may miss the mark by a nuance or two:

from Victor's annotations, numbered 131:
"There is no self-evident material difference between the ideal and the
neutrally material ..."

This seems to imply that the ideal is material, but it is different from
the "neutrally" material. The problem here may be that a few qualifying
words got left out, but I want to pick this statement apart to emphasize
EVI's theory, and try to sharpen CHAT theory in doing so.

Let's look at the following passage from EVI''s Concept of the Ideal, which
I numbered paragraph 132. (BTW, Victor inadvertently omitted the original
paragraph 52 (my number) from his annotations, so our paragraph numberings
differ by one after that.) Here, EVI uses the term the "the "ideal" plane
of life activity" to add to our ways of looking at this thing "ideality."

"Man acquires the "ideal" plane of life activity only through mastering the
historically developed forms of social activity, only together with the
*social* plane of existence, only together with *culture*. "Ideality" is
nothing but an aspect of culture, one of its dimensions, determining
factors, properties."

What EVI is saying here, in my interpretation, is that ideality, one of the
determining properties of culture, is a product of human social
activity. Ideality is an aspect of cultural activity.

Next, let's insert another statement about ideality EVI makes that focuses
on things, this one from paragraph 134.

EVI 134:
"Ideality is a characteristic of *things*, not as they are determined by
nature but as they are determined by *labour*, the transforming and
form-creating activity of social man, his *purposeful*, sensuously
objective activity."

This emphasizes that it is not the natural or material properties of a
thing that give it ideality, it is the purposeful activities of humans that
do so.

Next, let us add one of summarizing statements of the article that
emphasizes the collective aspect of ideality, of its reality as an
"aggregate of all social relations."

EVI 139:
For this reason the "ideal" exists *only in man*. Outside man and beyond
him there can be nothing "ideal". Man, however, is to be understood not as
one individual with a brain, but as a real aggregate of real people
collectively realising their specifically human life activity, as the
"aggregate of all social relations" arising between people around one
common task, around the process of the social production of their life. It
is "inside" man *thus understood* that the ideal exists, because "inside"
*man thus understood are all the things* that "mediate" the individuals
that are socially producing their life: *words, books, statues, churches,
community centres, television towers*, and (above all!) *the instruments of
labour*, from the stone axe and the bone needle to the modern automated
factory and the computer. It is in these "things" that the ideal exists as
the "subjective", purposeful form-creating life activity of social man,
embodied in the material of nature.

Returning to the passage in 132, let's look at the peculiar feature of
ideality that makes it so vexing.

EVI 132 continues:
"In relation to mental activity it [ideality - sg] is just as much an
*objective* component as mountains and trees, the moon and the firmament,
as the processes of metabolism in the individual's organic body. This is
why people often confuse the "ideal" with the "material", taking the one
for the other."

Here is what EVI calls the "secret of fetishism," the source of so much
confusion for humans. In relationship to an individual's mental activity,
the *material* properties of a thing are objective. But likewise, so too
are the "ideal" properties of a thing. Being both objective to the
individual, they become easily confused.

This is so profound that it must be translated to simpler terms. The
abstract terminology of philosophy at this point keeps us from ascending
from the abstract to the concrete. We need to take this to the next level
of concrete understanding.

It is right at this point that we must step back and ask again, what is
ideality, what is the ideal, what is this "ideal" plane of life
activity? How can we speak of this essential idea - of the material and
the ideal both being "objective" - in everyday terms? How can we translate
it to a manner of speaking that all people and not just philosophers can
use? How can we begin to sort this out, so we can learn how to avoid
taking the material for the ideal, and the ideal for the material?

My answer is to translate the concept of the ideal - the term "ideality" -
to what is ordinarily meant by "meaning."

The distinction between the material and the ideal is actually an everyday
practice if we look at the "ideal" as being "meaning." The everyday
dictionary is a perfect example. The dictionary is based fundamentally on
the distinction between the material and the ideal, between the physical
aspects of words and their meanings. It shows the graphic and phonic
aspects of a word - its material properties - followed by its meanings -
its ideal properties. Sometimes people use dictionaries to figure out how
to spell or pronounce a word, and sometimes they look up the meanings.

In doing so, they understand that the material properties of a word - on
paper or spoken - and the meanings of a word - are objective. A dictionary
has authority as a result.

People make a distinction between the physical form and the social meanings
of things all the time. This distinction forms the basis of a great deal
of humor, drama, and irony. Over and over, people see that what things
look like on the outside does not necessarily reveal its inner
meaning. They see that the material properties of a thing may not at all
reflect its "true" meaning.

Of course, it is not quite this simple. The problem is, no "things" found
in human-land - in the human-sphere - are really "neutrally
material." None are just collections of material properties - they all
have some kind of meaning, some investment of ideality. If something has
no meaning, it immediately become a curiosity, a mystery, and if nothing
else, becomes that "thing no one recognizes or knows what it is." Science
fiction stories stereotypically begin with such unusual objects, events,

What is a source of so much human entertainment are the everyday objects
with ordinary meanings - along with their ordinary physical appearances -
that have a hidden meaning, and perhaps, even a hidden material
property. One icon in modern literature and the theatre arts that
expresses this is the "murder weapon" - an ordinary object that is used in
an out of ordinary event, and thereby accumulates a whole new level of
meaning. An amusing version that captures both the hidden cultural meaning
and the hidden material property aspects of this perpetual arena of
entertainment is the old school yard puzzle about the murdered man with a
punctured heart and a pool of water by the body - but no knife. We are
told the weapon is still there. What was the murder weapon?

Drum roll ... the pool of water, earlier in the form of an icicle. This is
one of countless stories about things not being what they appear to be that
seem to amuse humans, certainly modern day humans, to no end. In this
scenario, an ordinary object, a pool of water, is transformed into both a
murder weapon - and a solid - where neither of these properties were
immediately evident.

I've been picking apart some of the problems with the statement "There is
no self-evident material difference between the ideal and the neutrally
material ..." There are about three. 1) The phrase "neutrally material,"
not a term EVI used in his article, must refer to a thing without any
meaning, which is not likely in human culture - making it a purely
hypothetical entity - thereby rendering the term "neutrally material" an
unviable way to understand ideality in a practical or concrete way. It is
much more viable to understand something by comparing it with things that
do exist, rather than things that do not. 2) The distinction between the
physical form of a thing and its meaning is actually a well-understood
concept by anyone who understands dictionaries, and in general, modern
culture. In dictionaries and cultural training in general, people are
taught the physical characteristics of a thing on one hand, and its
cultural meaning, on the other. "These are my good sewing scissors, don't
hurt yourself, and don't use them to cut paper." Etc. 3) Finally, the
implication that the "ideal" is a kind of materiality is a misreading of
EVI's concept and what ideality must actually be from a materialist point
of view. Ideality is a form of collective consciousness, a property of
human social activity that is embodied in a thing, but it is not equivalent
at all to materiality itself.

So let's finish up with the original phrase that got me started on this
post: "these three kinds of ideality," which Victor used in reference to
Wartofsky's three kinds of artifacts.

We need to immediately remind ourselves that artifacts are material objects
that are invested with ideality, with meaning. Artifacts have ideality -
ideality is a property of cultural artifacts. As Mike Cole stresses,
cultural artifacts have both materiality and ideality. It is misleading to
substitute the term "ideality" for artifact for the same reason it is
misleading to substitute the term "value" for commodity.

But if we look more closely at Victor's concept, I think there is something
very powerful to examine here. Can cultural artifacts indeed be classified
into three different kinds of ideality? Are there three different modes of
meaningfulness that artifacts can be categorized in? Is this what
Wartofsky is doing with his theory of three kinds of artifacts?

Possibly. In fact, the primary, secondary, tertiary system may be
difficult to grasp without this high-level look. One easy error to make is
to see the primary artifacts as "concrete" or "material" and the secondary
and tertiary as "abstract" and "ideal." This is incorrect. All three
kinds of artifacts are both concrete and abstract, all three are both
material and ideal, all three have physical properties as well as meaning.

One simple way to view them, is that primary artifacts represent
themselves, such as a particular pair of sewing scissors "represents"
itself. The words I might use, such as "my sister's sewing scissors," to
identify them, are straightforwardly representational, and qualify as a
secondary artifact. An artistic painting of these scissors (perhaps being
used to form a face) would qualify as an imagined form of these scissors,
and would qualify as a tertiary artifact.

These three categories of artifacts may be very useful to look at as
containing three different kinds of ideality or meaning - the meaning of a
thing itself, the meaning of a representation of a thing, and the meaning
of an imagined form of a thing (what Wartofsky refers to as an "offline"
mode - contemplating, rehearsing - offline from direct praxis or direct
human action). It is these different levels of ideality - three different
kinds of meaningfulness - that may be the basis for the viability of these
categories. I think Victor's use of the term ideality as a substitute for
artifact may be intended to point toward this insight.

Some food for thought, anyway.

To conclude my little inquiry here, I see EVI's concept of the ideal - the
idea that all cultural artifacts contain both materiality and meaning, both
of which are objective properties in relation to the individual - as a
powerful way to sort out .... many complex questions and relationships ...
the basis for common misperceptions and confusions about what is the
natural, what is the "ideal" ... and the occasional imprecise statements we
all make when we try to grapple with these difficult matters.

- Steve

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