Re: EVI's Concept of the Ideal - mirrors

From: Oudeyis (
Date: Tue Jun 01 2004 - 08:22:51 PDT


     Sorry for so belated a response to your messages on Ilyenkov's theory of ideality (from 12/05 to 16/05). They appeared when I was first, immersed in trying to make heads and tails of Ilyenkov's "The Concepts." and then, while working out a reasonable interpretation of the paper. At that time "The Concepts." was so confusing that I refrained from writing for fear of contributing more gibberish to the gibberish already written on Ilyenkov's theory of the Ideal (mostly by Bakhurst and to a lesser degree in the responses to Bakhurst's contrivances). Didn't respond to those messages with which I was in complete agreement and to those that were uninteresting (the journey in the house of mirrors).


     Your message of

12/05 ( 1 )15:10 I fully agree with. Ilyenkov's theory of the objective ideal is implicit to all Marx's examples of value including Linen cloth/linen coats, money, and so on. Still, Marx ambivalences on the use of the term, ideal, can be very confusing to say the least.


13/05 ( 1 ) 11:12: Ilyenkov's theory of the ideal certainly has political implications, but what theory does not? As critique it certainly was aimed at the ritualistic restrictions of the diamat to the theory of the party and to the theory of class (outside the USSR of course), but that does not make EVI's concept of the ideal just a political statement. True, I think I wrote somewhere that the greatest threat of Ilyenkov's work to the Party was that it provided tools for a critical examination of any social system, including that of the Social Soviet Republics, but, surely, this would be true of any method that enables discovery through research. In Stalinist and post-Stalinist USSR, Lenin's analytical approach would have been no less a threat than that of Ilyenkov.

     I'm not sure what you mean when you write that Ilyenkov was not dealing with an ontological problem. Certainly he was not interested in the ontological problems of sensation (the unfortunate mirror analogy of Lenin), but there's more to ontology than the mediating role of sensation in the relation between perception and natural conditions. As I see it quite a bit of "The Concepts." is devoted to the ontology of the ideal; an important issue for a theory of the ideal that regards it as a restricted domain of general material conditions.


13/05 ( 2 ) 11:21: Agreed.

     Your welcome, (for the URL on Dubrovsky) I certainly agree with your that Dubrovsky 's equating the ideal with subjective reality and the material with objective reality is justified by at least some of Marx's writings, but as we noted above and as you've pointed out in your message of 12/05 that Marx was often ambivalent on issues concerning the ideal. Dubrovsky appears (I've not enough access to his works to make a full determination of this) to be no less a dialectician than Ilyenkov, so his assertion of subjective - ideal/objective - material dualities in his theory provides an interesting and possibly a useful contrast to Ilyenkov's theory of objective ideality. I wish we could learn more about Dubrovsky's thought; Bakhurst's strange idealist interpretations of Ilyenkov's works make suspect his evaluations of any Marxist thinker, and very little of Dubrovsky's work is readily available in English translation. Yes, I caught the Bogdanov quote, but I can't find any corroborative evidence of this anywhere. Both Lenin Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, and Ilyenkov (1979) Leninist Dialectics and the Metaphysics of Positivism fry Bogdanov for his "Machism." I suspect that the origins of Ilyenkov's theory of objective ideality is only to be found in the Hegelian "tendencies" of Marx's Grundrisse and Capital and in Lenin's conspectus of Hegel's The Science of Logic and The Smaller Logic..


14/05 ( 1 ) 01:45: Regarding your comments on a Marxist theory of psychology: Marx, despite his extensive constructive criticism of Hegel's works, never actually produced an alternative to Hegel's theory of knowledge. Lenin in Conspectus, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Summary of Dialectics and The Three Sources and three Components of Marxism comes a bit closer to a general theory of knowledge than Marx but he never followed these up with a complete treatment of the issue. It is Ilyenkov who tries to formulate of at least some of the basic components of a general Historical Materialist theory of knowledge. I regard Ilyenkov's work as primarily a theory of knowledge (of logic and of dialectics) rather than as an examination of the implications of Historical Materialism for psychology. As a theory of knowledge it is not only social theory but also the metatheory for Historical Materialist research for all scales and areas of human social activity, hence its usefulness for research on psychological (e.g. any number of CHAT articles on education) and organizational (e.g. Paul Adler's material on the socializing effects on labour of the Toyota work system) issues.

     Concerning the ethical vs. scientific concerns in Capital: It seems to me that your evaluation of Capital as critique is mostly relevant to the popular first volume. Most of the other volumes really are more political economy than polemics. Anyway, a basic tenet of Historical Materialism is the relatedness of all thought and knowledge to virtually all other aspects of culture, including, of course, ethical issues. Marx's expressions on ethical issues (despite his expressed disavowal of ethics) in Capital seem to me to be quite consistent with his general theory of human knowledge. Naturally, so long as the materialist theory of human knowledge was limited to the analysis of the capitalist mode of production, the ethical elements of theory were primarily related to issues of commodity production, class relations, and relations between capitalist societies and their hinterlands. One of the most positive features of Ilyenkov's efforts is to broaden the use of the tool of Historical Material analysis to other issues and a more concrete understanding of its ethical implications.

     Your comments on Marx's description of money (in the first chapters of Capital) aroused my curiosity, so I checked. You're right, of course. Though I'm not a stickler for argument from authority, I'd like to know what you think of the omission of the term, ideal, in Marx's discussions on the issues of exchange value.


14/05 ( 3 ) 17:24: These snippets remind me what a headache Hegel-reading can be. Do we really need all this elaborate verbiage to demonstrate that the tool despite its production by a subject is by virtue of its being replicable by others the norm for labour and that ideality is the necessary unity of the material and conceptual and the objective and subjective properties of the instrument?

15/05 ( 3 ) 15:47: Agree that the mirror metaphor is a reversion to contemplative materialism. Is it a mild Machist infection of Lenin's materialism maybe?
     What do you think?

Again, sorry for the delay.

Highest regards,


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Andy Blunden
  Sent: Saturday, May 15, 2004 3:36 PM
  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 below.

        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 literature.
        Mike, this is copied from an article Dot Robbins showed me. The source is shown:
            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 - isn't 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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