Thursday, July 28, 2005

Reading :: Dialectical Logic

Originally posted: Thu, 28 Jul 2005 21:00:45

Dialectical Logic: Essays on its History and Theory

by E.V. Ilyenkov

I've provided a link to the electronic version of this book at since Amazon doesn't list the version I read and doesn't have much on the book at all. Ilyenkov is credited by Yrjo Engestrom as the thinker that brought the issue of contradictions back to the forefront of dialectical thought; Engestrom and others applied the work to activity theory, making possible the development of the third generation of AT. For those of us who came late to activity theory, it's hard to imagine AT without contradictions as the central explanation for developmental change.

In this book, Ilyenkov does develop the idea of contradictions as the driving force of change and development in human activity. But the book mainly deals with the history of dialectical logic. Ilyenkov traces the prehistory and history of Marxist dialectic, touching briefly on Aristotle before jumping to Descartes, Locke, Bacon, Liebniz, and a series of other philosophers. Ilyenkov reserves extended discussion for Spinoza, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, and Lenin. Those who are familiar with Soviet publications from this era will not be surprised that Marx and Lenin are treated as infallible while the others are treated as men who couldn't quite escape their preconceptions. In vintage Soviet form, Ilyenkov casts Hegel's contributions in this way:

Marx, Engels, and Lenin showed both the historical contribution of Hegel and the historically conditioned limitations of his scientific advances, the clearly drawn boundary across which the Hegelian dialectic could not step, and the illusions, whose power it was incapable of overcoming despite all the strength of its creator?s mind. Hegel?s greatness, like his limitations, was due on the whole to his having exhausted the possibilities of developing dialectics on the basis of idealism, within the limits of the premises that idealism imposed on scientific thinking. (p.227).

Although Ilyenkov is a careful thinker, he sounds downright Engelsian in his claims for dialectic. "Dialectical Logic is therefore not only a universal scheme of subjective activity creatively transforming nature," he declares, "but is also at the same time a universal scheme of the changing of any natural or socio-historical material in which this activity is fulfilled and with the objective requirements of which it is always connected" (p.8). So is dialectic a logic -- a sociohistorical phenomenon -- or is it a universal law that applies equally to all types of change, as Engels would have it? My reading suggests the latter: Ilyenkov later approvingly quotes Engels' assertion that natural dialectic inevitably will produce thinking minds (p.55) and Lenin's assertion that thought is the highest form of development of the universal property of sensation (p.56). Later, Ilyenkov hails Schelling's contribution of the "truly universal" law of bifurcation, derived from various examples (magnetic polarity; acids and alkalis; positive and negative electricity). Again, this sounds much like Engels, and supports Deleuze and Guattari's charge that dialectic is arborescent. Finally, Ilyenkov insists that dialectical schemas revealed by Hegel were universal forms and laws of the natural world reflected in man's collective consciousness (p.251; cf. 290; 312). Haraway's critique of dialectics seems more and more relevant here.

Let's return to the question of contradictions, because this is where Ilyenkov makes his real contribution. Ilyenkov boldly asserts that "Contradiction as the concrete unity of mutually exclusive opposites is the real nucleus of dialectics, its central category. On that score the cannot be two views among Marxists" (p.320). Contradictions, he says, are the principle of self-movement in a "concrete, developing system" (let's say an "activity system" here) and are "the form in which the development is cast" (p.330). They provide the impetus for development; dialectics "is the means of resolving these contradictions" (p.322). In fact, studying contradictions is all about studying human activity geneticallly (i.e., historically-developmentally). How did this system develop? What contradictions have arisen and how will they be resolved?

We can see how the third generation of activity theory has taken on Ilyenkov's specific approach to studying development, while moderating or suppressing what appears to be a strongly teleological, universalist understanding of the principle. I'm becoming more and more convinced that activity theory is treading a difficult path at this point, attempting to hold onto the modernist understanding of dialectics and contradictions while simultaneously trying to integrate postmodernist, amodernist, and poststructuralist ideas (multiplicity, dialogism).

Is it worth reading this book? If you're interested in a history of dialectics, or if you're interested in how activity theory's notion of contradiction was developed, you should. I'm interested in both. But be prepared for -- how should I put this? -- some remarkably Soviet prose. >

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