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

From: Oudeyis (
Date: Sat May 22 2004 - 23:26:33 PDT

It appears we don't even differ in nuances. Rather our focus on different features of ideality reflects (sorry Mike) different subjects of interest.
As Mike Cole put it (as well as yourself)

'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.'

'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.'
Ideality is a higher level of unity for two very different, and contradictory, concepts: the artefact and meaning. Meaning, the ultimately notional dimension of ideality can be either subjective or objective with one important limitation; objective meaning can only be ideal, i.e, united with the artefact (which is by the way by definition a man-made or reworked article). Objectification is a necessary condition for ideality.
 It is the very difficulty of distinguishing between neutral materiality and the material aspect of ideality that lies at the heart of the so-called problem of the contingency of the relation between meaning and the modes and means of its representation by artefacts. It is a so-called problem insofar as the contingent relation between meaning and modes and means of representation is the only way an a-historical theory of meaning can relate to the ideal. Clearly what makes an object ideal is the array of properties that collectivities (mostly if not exclusively of humans) embody in artefacts.
Discourse on the ideal as a unity of object and meaning can then focus on its material or notional features, but this can only be meaningful if the original subject of focus is ultimately shown to be related to its contradictory but integral partner in ideality. Thus, if in the course of discussion of ideality, we focus on the production of artefacts, we must then show how the special or not-so-special productive processes are related, historically and in rarer cases ontologically, to the aspect of meaning inherent to ideality and idealities. Vygotsky's work on language acquisition does just this. Speech itself is vocal noise; I think it was Ursula LeGuin who called it "bagabba bagabba." For speech to be meaningful specific noises, call them what you may, accretions of phonemes, words, word strings, and sentences, must be unified to notions or meanings. Vygotsky by and large worked from meaning to object, consistent with his interest in discovering the ontological development of concept. The question I'm asking is; what if any features of the material production of artefacts, as objects and subjects of production, contribute to their development as embodiments of meaning, their becoming idealities (remember that artefacts that are idealities are not just neutral material objects).
The catalyst for the recognition of this problem was Jones's contention that ideal objects bear special features not encountered in material objects. Now, Jones argument for utensiles and instruments as material objects ignores the ideational (notional or meaningful) aspects of production. Whether verbally expressed or not, the production of even the simplest tools involves some conceptualization of what we intellectuals call physics, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, and these, as Hegel, Marx, and Ilyenkov have shown are notional, the product of conscious, purposive relations to natural material conditions. Jones's argument that the notional aspects of material production are materially identical to the object itself, just does not hold, unless someone can show how the exploitation of the principle of the difference between the motion/time necessary for circumnambulation of the circumference of a circle and that of circumnambulation of its vertex is materially expressed in the material form of the hammer. Jones's argument that the object representing strictly social activity is also not convincing. Marx's example of primitive exchange; the linen cloth/linen coat case, does not posit a necessarily different form between the object as means of production and the object as relation of production (in this case as commodity). Still, Jones has a point: standards of value, indications of social rank and power, and tokens of membership are often, though not always (the stone of scone for example) marked by special features that distinguish them from other objects. Archaeologists are particularly sensitive, and sometimes overly so, to the "ritual artefact;" that peculiar object that has no imaginable use as a means of material production or that object that may resemble other things involved in material production, yet appears to be too small, too delicate, or whatever for its incorporation in industrial process. The "reuse" of an artefact as a signifier of activities that are not related to its meaningful relation to production represents a change in ideality which is at least sometimes expressed in some special material form imparted to the object itself and/or (sorry about that) to its being associated in some special way to other objects; e.g. being enclosed in a special envelope, placed on a special surface, or handled in a special manner.
Then there is the special problem of languages; vocal and non-vocal alike. Language forms are not at all like means of production or even means of production modified to indicate that they signify something other than productive process. The labour and means of production by which they are generated is different from those devoted to the means of production characteristic of elementary productive systems. In addition to this, language production, and for that matter the production of special objects signifying relations other than those involved in their production, involves motivations that are different from those of elementary production, namely the transmission of meaning. That is, language production is production of ideality! I'm still not sure that the development of production of language has the same roots as elementary production; it appears to originate in calling systems which are at least as ancient as systems for elementary production. It may well be that semantical relation, the relation between object and meaning may have been the product of the unity of two very different kinds of human activity; meaningful collective labour and autonomic call systems, and that it is only when the latter is united with the former that we have semantically significant calling systems (language). At any rate it appears to me that the social demands of production and reproduction are and were more likely to form the basis of ideality than expressions of anger, surprise, and so on that are the proto-forms of spoken language.

What do you think?

Highest regards

  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Steve Gabosch
  Sent: Sunday, May 23, 2004 4:56 AM
  Subject: Re: 1973 article by Wartofsky on perception, representation, artifacts

  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 concept.

  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 investigate
  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, sightings

  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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