Friday, April 10, 2015

Reading :: Consciousness and Revolution in Soviet Philosophy

Consciousness and Revolution in Soviet Philosophy: From the Bolsheviks to Evald Ilyenkov
By David Bakhurst

Despite the title, this book really is mainly about Evald Ilyenkov, who is regarded as among the best of the Soviet philosophers. Not that that's high praise—Soviet philosophy doesn't have a good reputation, largely because it was severely constrained by the dominant Soviet ideology. But Ilyenkov, like Vygotsky, made a genuine effort to build on the ideas of his predecessors rather than to be constrained by them. And Ilyenkov, like Vygotsky, ran into resistance because of this.

Soviet philosophy, Bakhurst says, was largely built on Lenin and the principles and laws of dialectics that he endorsed  (pp.12-13). This philosophy became "official" under Stalin, leading one dissident, the exile Berdyaev, to lament that Soviet philosophy was not a philosophy at all—it was a theology that caricatured Christianity (quoted on pp.98-99).

Ilyenkov wanted to escape that dogma. One of his focuses was the dialectical method, specifically the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete. As Bakhurst summarizes the discussion, Ilyenkov argues that "concreteness is... a property of the object of cognition" (p.139)—an object that is "a unity of opposites," that is, a contextualized, internally dynamic instantiation. The dynamism comes from the tensions of the internal relations and yields "changes issuing in the development of the whole" (p.139). In contrast, the abstract is isolated from these relations, in relative autonomy, partial. An abstract conception is one-sided and partial (p.141).

Another focus was the ideal. Soviet philosophy had avoided the ideal, seeing it as nonmaterialist. But Ilyenkov argued that the ideal can have an objective existence, which it owed to human activity (that is, it didn't reside in the head or the ether but in activity) (p.180). For instance, human activity is what turns objects into artifacts, not through mental projections but in material activity (pp.181-182; compare to how we talk about genre in the Bakhtinian/North American genre theory tradition). Following Vygotsky, Ilyenkov says that words are one important subclass of idealized natural objects (p.186). Bakhurst summarizes, "as human beings change the world to conform to their needs, so their ends and powers become embodied or 'congealed' in natural objects" (p.186). This assertion is in line with Marx's idea of objectification, of course, but Bakhurst says that Ilyenkov takes this idea further: first, "objectification is construed as the basis of a form of self-consciousness," and second, "the humanization of the world is held to transform nature into a different kind of environment. Ilyenkov reads humanization as idealization" that transforms the material environment into a meaningful environment (p.187).

Thus, Ilyenkov asserts, activity is the key to explaining the world-in-itself. But Ilyenkov does not flesh out this argument, Bakhurst notes (p.202).

Ultimately, Bakhurst does a good job here of contextualizing Ilyenkov's project within the Soviet milieu as well as describing the project and its limitations. If you're interested in Soviet thought, and especially how Ilyenkov impacts activity theory, certainly you should pick up this book.