Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Reading :: Dialectical Logic (second reading)

Dialectical Logic
By Evald Ilyenkov

The last time I reviewed this book, in 2005, a new copy was only available on But now the print version (Creative Commons license, of course) is available from the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute (you have to buy it via PayPal) as well as through Amazon. Insert ironic commentary here. I am not a fan of the amateurish page layout and typography, but the book is readable, sturdy enough, and more convenient than reading the text in pieces on

Reading the book ten years later, I have a better background for understanding it. I've read Marx and Engels more extensively, I've read Lenin, and I've read Bakhurst's survey of Ilyenkov and his Soviet philosophical milieu. And I am more aware of the author's constraints as a philosopher in a country in which philosophy was largely reduced to Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, a country that had just recently emerged from Stalinism. Let's see if these new experiences get us somewhere different in terms of this second review.

From the first page, Ilyenkov seeks cover for his project from Lenin, from whom he also borrows his polemics:
The task, bequeathed to us by Lenin, of creating a Logic (with a capital ‘L’), i.e. of a systematically developed exposition of dialectics understood as the logic and theory of knowledge of modern materialism, has become particularly acute today. The clearly marked dialectical character of the problems arising in every sphere of social life and scientific knowledge is making it more and more clear that only Marxist-Leninist dialectics has the capacity to be the method of scientific understanding and practical activity, and of actively helping scientists in their theoretical comprehension of experimental and factual data and in solving the problems they meet in the course of research. (p.1)
Dialectical logic, he says, paraphrasing Engels, is the science of development of all things, material and spiritual (pp.2-3). In the first part of the book, he sets off to trace the development of dialectical logic through Spinoza (Ch.2), Kant (Ch.3), Fichte (Ch.4), Schelling (Ch.5), Hegel (Ch.6), and Feuerbach (Ch.7).

From Spinoza, he advances the propositions that (a) nature itself thinks through man (p.18) and "thinking is not the product of an action but the action itself" (p.19).

From Fichte, he lifts the insight that "either the principle of contradiction was absolute (but then no synthesis was possible in general, not uniting of different determinations) or there was development and a synthesis of the determinations of concepts (and they did not conform to the absolute requirements of the principle of contradiction)" (p.75)—that is, we can understand contradiction as possible because of development.

From Schelling, he continues this line of thought: activity is always open-ended; fixed, it ceases to be activity (p.78). He also endorses Schelling's idea that in two phases of a dynamic process, the two "objects" appear mutually contradictory even though they are actually the same, one developed more than the other (p.89). This argument becomes key later in the book. Alas, he says, "Schelling confirmed dialectics as the genuine theory of scientific knowledge, but then broke all its links with logic" (p.94).

In the second half of the book, Ilyenkov discusses problems of Marxist dialectics. One such problem is that of the ideal, which is more or less recapitulated from The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx's Capital:
The ideal existed immediately only as the form (mode, image) of the activity of social man (i.e. of a quite objective, material being), directed to the external world. When, therefore, we spoke of the material system, of which the ideal was the function and mode of existence, that system was only social man in unity with the objective world through which he exercised his specifically human life activity. The ideal thus did not boil down to the state of matter found in the cranium of the individual, i.e. the brain. It was the special function of man as the subject of social labour activity, accomplished in forms created by preceding development. (p.152)
Notice the familiar Marx-Engels origin story of man as self-made through social labor. This story is developed further in this book:
The ideal is therefore nothing else than the form of things, but existing outside things, namely in man, in the form of his active practice, i.e. it is the socially determined form of the human being’s activity. In nature itself, including the nature of man as a biological creature, the ideal does not exist. As regards the natural, material organisation of the human body it has the same external character as it does in regard to the material in which it is realised and objectified in the form of a sensuously perceived thing. Thus the form of a jar growing under the hands of a potter does not form part either of the piece of clay or of the inborn, anatomical, physiological organisation of the body of the individual functioning as potter. Only insofar as man trains and exercises the organs of his body on objects created by man for man does he become the bearer of the active forms of social man’s activity that create the corresponding objects. 
It is clear that the ideal, i.e. the active form of social man’s activity, is immediately embodied, or as it is now fashionable to say, is ‘coded’, in the form of the neuro-cerebral structures of the cortex of the brain, i.e. quite materially. But the material being of the ideal is not itself ideal but only the form of its expression in the organic body of the individual. In itself the ideal is the socially determined form of man’s life activity corresponding to the form of its object and product. To try and explain the ideal from the anatomical and physiological properties of the body of the brain is the same unfruitful whim as to try and explain the money form of the product of labour by the physico-chemical features of gold. Materialism in this case does not consist at all in identifying the ideal with the material processes taking place in the head. Materialism is expressed here in understanding that the ideal, as a socially determined form of the activity of man creating an object in one form or another, is engendered and exists not in the head but with the help of the head in the real objective activity (activity on things) of man as the active agent of social production. (pp.154-155)
Here we get an argument that is familiar to, or at least amenable to, activity theorists. In activity theory, the activity is the unit of analysis because it is the smallest meaningful unit. Here, Ilyenkov similarly argues that the ideal exists only in a unit of activity. Even traits that are encoded in the cortex—for instance, the speech center of the brain—emerge from and make sense only within human social activity. Indeed, "determination of the ideal is especially dialectical" (p.156): it exists only in the cyclic movement from thing to deed to word to deed to thing (p.157). As Ilyenkov says later in the chapter:
the ideal as a form of human activity exists only in that activity, and not in its results, because the activity is a constant, continuing negation of the existing, sensuously perceived forms of things, is their change and sublation into new forms, taking place in accordance with general patterns expressed in ideal forms. When an object has been created society’s need for it is satisfied; the activity has petered out in its product, and the ideal itself has died. (pp.162-163, his emphasis)
In Ch.10, Ilyenkov affirms with all Marxists that contradiction is the real nucleus of dialectics (p.189). "Dialectics as logic is the means of resolving these contradictions" (p.190).

Readers, I confess that I am often bored by philosophical discussions, so I found this book to be a tough read in the sense of keeping interested in the discussion. But I also found it to be a tough read for other reasons. First, the polemic tone wore on me; I think Ilyenkov was imitating Lenin here, and perhaps the style worked better for the Soviet milieu than it does for me. Second, the argument seemed stretched at points. Bakhurst does a good job of discussing the leaps involved, particularly the claim that logical contradictions simply don't take account of development. But I'm less interested in the question of whether the claim makes sense and more interested in what Ilyenkov thought it did for logic, which was to differentiate dialectical logic as a superior account to that of formal logic due to its commitment to materialism and its attention to development.

Beyond that, I was interested in how Ilyenkov's account laid some of the foundations for Engestrom's later work. I intend to review the 20th anniversary version of Learning by Expanding soon, so this review was useful. If you have also been influenced by Engestrom's work, definitely check this book out.

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