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On Lukács’ alleged dualism

Tuesday, 31st May, 2016

It is on my books to write a piece on why I think McNally 2015 does not demonstrate (as it claims to) that “the social relations of race, gender and sexuality, among others, [are] internally constitutive of class”. However, that is a story for another day.

One of his footnotes recalled a snippet of Gramsci I came across once, so for now I’d just like to discuss that.

Quotations

Among these shortcomings [of Lukács] are a dualistic confinement of dialectics to society rather than to nature, and a related failure to theorise the mediating role of labour in the dialectic of humans and nature.

McNally, 2015, n.5.

It would appear that Lukács maintains that one can speak of the dialectic only for the history of men and not for nature. He might be right and he might be wrong. If his assertion presupposes a dualism between nature and man he is wrong because he is falling into a conception of nature proper to religion and to Graeco-Christian philosophy and also to idealism which does not in reality succeed in unifying and relating man and nature to each other except verbally. But if human history should be conceived also as the history of nature (also by means of the history of science) how can the dialectic be separated from nature? Perhaps Lukács, in reaction to the baroque theories of the Popular Manual, has fallen into the opposite error, into a form of idealism.

Gramsci, 1971.

[The Popular Manual Gramsci is referring to is Nikolai Bukharin’s Historical Materialism.]

Comments

These two texts point to the same shortcoming of Lukács. Lukács conceives of dialectics as applying to social/historical phenomena only, and not to nature. Ilyenkov shares this shortcoming. Ilyenkov is very clear in Dialectical Logic that dialectics/logic is the science of thinking, with thinking understood as a social practical activity. Ilyenkov includes as thinking not just speech, but “the whole objective body of civilisation, … tools and statues, workshops and temples, factories and chancelleries, political organisations and systems of legislation.”

I don’t share Gramsci & McNally’s perspective so I can only guess where the accusation of dualism might come from. It sounds like there is this thing called “dialectics”, and Lukács has decided to apply it to one set of things (society, history), but not another set of things (nature). Splitting reality into two like this — instead of using this given “dialectics” to understand all of reality — is dualist. Lukács has decided that reality is made up of two types of thing.

In his essays on the history of dialectics, Ilyenkov presents things the other way around. Logic and dialectics developed, over the centuries, through a long study (an empirical study if you like) of thought. Ilyenkov’s (and I should think Lukács’) position on what dialectics rightly applies to is based on understanding of how dialectics came to be.

The Gramsci & McNally conception of dialectics seems to be of something handed down to us, something pre-existing.

I am not very familiar with this “Dialectics of Nature” position (I haven’t read much Engels at all apart from his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific pamphlet). Dialectics would certainly have something to say about chemistry or biology as sciences (i.e. as thinking), but I can’t see how dialectics would be applied to chemical or biological matter.

If anyone can recommend recent applications of dialectics to nature, I would like to read and try to understand.

References

Gramsci, Antonio. (19??, tr. 1971). “The Concept of ‘Science'” section of “Problems of Marxism,” in Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), page 448.
Gramsci on Lukács and the dialectic in human vs natural history

McNally, David. (2015). “The dialectics of unity and difference in the constitution of wage-labour: On internal relations and working-class formation”. Capital & Class, February 2015; vol. 39, 1: pp. 131-146.
http://cnc.sagepub.com/content/39/1/131.full.pdf+html

Book details

Dialectical Logic: essays on its history and theory
Evald V. Ilyenkov
1974 (tr. English 1977)
Progress

Contents

This is a short book of two halves (both good). Here is the table of contents (I’ve added names of philosophers covered to the essays in Part One):

  • Introduction

Part One: From the History of Dialectics

  • Essay 1: The Problem of the Subject Matter and Sources of Logic [Descartes, Locke, Leibnitz]
  • Essay 2: Thought as an Attribute of Substance [Spinoza]
  • Essay 3: Logic and Dialectics [Kant]
  • Essay 4: The Structural Principle of Logic. Dualism or Monism [Fichte, Schelling]
  • Essay 5: Dialectics as Logic [Hegel]
  • Essay 6: Once More about the Principle of Constructing a Logic. Idealism or Materialism? [Feuerbach]

Part Two: Certain Problems of the Marxist-Leninist Theory of Dialectics

  • Essay 7: A Contribution to the Problem of a Dialectical Materialist Critique of Objective Idealism
  • Essay 8: The Materialist Conception of Thought as the Subject Matter of Logic
  • Essay 9: On the Coincidence of Logic with Dialectics and the Theory of Knowledge of Materialism
  • Essay 10: Contradiction as a Category of Dialectical Logic
  • Essay 11: The Problem of the General in Dialectics
  • Conclusion

So part one traces a development of dialectics and/or logic, while part two looks as particular aspects of dialectical logic from a Marxist perspective.

Comments

*** “thought” and “thinking”

In the short introduction, Ilyenkov defines Logic as the science of thought. The text always qualifies the word with the word “thinking”, e.g.:

Our ‘object’ or ‘subject matter’ in general, and on the whole, is thought, thinking; … (p. 7)

we understand thought (thinking) as the ideal component of the real activity of social people transforming both external nature and themselves by their labour. (p. 8)

It is so invariable I thought I’d check the Russian, and indeed, the Russian always uses “мышление” (thinking) and not “мысль” (thought). Perhaps a tiny echo of the influence on Ilyenkov of Vygotsky’s “Мышление и Речь” (Thinking and Speech).

Essay Two’s title has a much stronger Vygotskian and Spinozan and radical ring to it when translated properly as “Thinking as an Attribute of Substance”.

*** five essays not translated from the russian (after Essay 9 in the english)

While checking the Russian (here), I noticed the Russian original has five essays not translated into the English edition. Three of these are in Part Two, after Essay 9:

  • Essay 10. Логика “Капитала” — The logic of “Capital”
  • Essay 11. Абстрактное и конкретное в диалектической логике — The abstract and the concrete in dialectical logic
  • Essay 12. Диалектическая взаимосвязь логического и исторического — The dialectical inter-relationship between the logical and the historical

The last two are in a third part entitled “Dialectics and the Present” (“Диалектика и Современность”) (Современность is contemporaneity or “the now”):

  • Essay 15. Материализм воинствующий – значит диалектический — Militant materialism means dialectical materialism
  • Essay 16. Диалектика и мировоззрение — Dialectics and “Weltanschauung”

*** Part One

The Russian title for Part One is “Как Возникла и в чем Состоит Проблема”, which means something like “how the problem sprang up and in what it consists”. It’s a wordy but better title: these six essays plot the development of dialectics and/or logic in the modern era. Each essay takes a pivotal figure and describes how they took the field forward.

The essays in the part are a delight. Each is purely positive — Why was Kant important? How did his work enrich our understanding of logic? Criticism is made part of the historical process, so limitations of Kant’s approach are seen through the eyes of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel.

It’s a nice literary trick — and the untranslated Essay 12, on the relationship between the logical and the historical, might show the substance behind the rhetoric.

Given Ilyenkov’s enthusiasm for Plato, which surprised me, I’m slightly disappointed there’s no essay here on logic and dialectics in the Classical world. However, it’s easy to forget the hostile environment under which Ilyenkov was writing.

*** Part Two

Each essay in Part Two explores a particular aspect of logic from a Marxist perspective. In the Introduction Ilyenkov describes these essays (indeed the whole book) as preliminary sketches, statements of the problem: Lenin has bequeathed to us the task of creating a Logic (with a capital “L”) … these essays attempt to concretise some points of departure.

A Contribution to the Problem of a Dialectical Materialist Critique of Objective Idealism

How did Hegel’s *Idealism* constrain his development of dialectics? Why did this Idealist dialectics necessarily tend toward an apologetics of the current order? This essay relates Marx’s Capital (especially it’s first chapter) to Hegel’s Science of Logic, and there’s a nice (though not over-stretched) analogy between Marw’s M-C-M’ and Word-Act-Word.

The Materialist Conception of Thought as the Subject Matter of Logic

Again this is “thinking” — and “conception” is “понимание”, “understanding”.

This essay takes as its starting point Marx’s criticism of Feuerbach’s materialism: “that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively” (“Theses on Feuerbach” #1). Ilyenkov develops a “materialist conception of thought” as a conception of this sensuous — practical, social — human activity.

Spinoza gets a look-in here, in particular Spinoza’s rule (“On the Improvement of the Understanding” #96.1) that a definition of a thing should include its proximate cause:

(1) If the thing in question be created, the definition must (as we have said) comprehend the proximate cause.
(2) For instance, a circle should, according to this rule, be defined as follows: the figure described by any line whereof one end is fixed and the other free.

Ilyenkov: “This definition provided the /mode of constructing the thing/ in real space.”

On the Coincidence of Logic with Dialectics and the Theory of Knowledge of Materialism

Kant, and especially Hegel, were already pushing the territory of Logic beyond its traditional (Scholastic) boundaries. This essay takes as its kernel a note of Lenin’s from his Philosophical Notebooks:

In Capital Marx applied to a single science logic, dialectics, and the theory of knowledge of materialism (three words are not needed; it is one and the same thing).

It’s a side issue to the main drift of the essay, but there’s a very strange passage which seems to touch very gently on the “dialectics of nature” debate (roughly: is dialectics only about human thought, or does it also cover natural processes. Engels seemed gung-ho on the latter. Lenin’s position is unclear (to me at least), leaning towards dialectics of nature in his “Empirio-criticism”, not so much in his Philosophical Notebooks). Ilyenkov seems perhaps to hint that Lenin might have misinterpreted a point of Hegel’s (leading Lenin to make a pro-DN statement) — but Ilyenkov changes the subject as soon as possible and it’s gone. I’ll have a look at the Russian for these paragraphs perhaps.

The passage is four paragraphs starting with the paragraph that starts, “In appearing as a practical act thought included things outside consciousness in its movement, …” Here’s a precis (italics by Ilyenkov, bold by me):

Logic consequently proved to be precisely a theory of knowledge of things also, and not solely a theory of the self-knowledge of the spirit.

Lenin wrote: ‘Logic is the science not of external forms of thought, but of the laws of development “of all material, natural and spiritual things”, i.e., of the development of the entire concrete content of the world and of its cognition, i.e., the sum-total, the conclusion of the History of knowledge of the world.’

There is no such a formulation, and furthermore no such a conception of the subject matter of logic in Hegel himself. In this passage Lenin did not simply translate Hegel’s thought ‘into his own words’, but reworked it materialistically. Hegel’s own text, in which Lenin discovered the ‘rational kernel’ of his conception of logic, does not sound at all like that.

[Ilyenkov quotes the passage from Hegel, including the phrase quoted by Lenin:]

… But these thoughts of all natural and spiritual things [Only these words are found in Lenin’s formulation – EVI] even the substantial content, are yet such as to possess manifold determinations and to contain the distinction between Soul and Body, between a concept and its respective reality; …

The difference between Hegel’s formulation and Lenin’s is one of principle, because there is nothing in Hegel about the development of natural things, and could not even be. It would therefore be a gross error to think that the definition of logic as the science of the laws of development of all material and spiritual things is only Hegel’s idea transmitted by Lenin, or even simply cited by him. It is nothing of the sort; it is Lenin’s own idea, formulated, by him in the course of a critical reading of Hegel’s words.

I find this whole passage very strange and strong. It would be very easy to pas over it as praising Lenin’s materialist re-working of Hegel’s idealist dialectics, but I can’t help reading it as Ilyenkov pointing to a mis-reading by Lenin, an over-reach. The rest of the book — the rest of Ilyenkov — argues firmly against a dialectics of nature position and for a position that the subject matter of logic/dialectics is thought (granted, thought understood as practical social activity).

n.b.: I don’t think Ilyenkov is negative about Lenin generally. He puts Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks to good use as a kind of commentary to read alongside Hegel. The title of the untranslated Essay 15 “Militant materialism means dialectical materialism” is presumably a reference to Lenin’s essay “On the Significance of Militant Materialism” (which actually I haven’t read …).

Contradiction as a Category of Dialectical Logic

Contradiction is a central category in Hegel’s Logic. This essay looks at Marx’s use of the category in Capital, especially Marx’s assessment and use of the logical contradictions in Ricardo’s economics.

The Problem of the General in Dialectics

A companion to the previous essay, this one takes the category of the general or universal ( a complementary category perhaps to that of contradiction) — as a “standard” category in Hegel, and how Marx “materialises” the category in Capital.

Next steps

Well, those untranslated essay are calling, and I’ll have a look at the Russian for that odd passage in Essay 9.

Otherwise the obvious next step is to re-read Chapter 1 of Capital, this time noticing the dynamics and the dialectics behind the politics and economics.

Notes on “A History of Mathematics”

Sunday, 24th April, 2016

Book details

A History of Mathematics (3rd ed.)
Uta C. Merzbach & Carl B. Boyer
1968, 1989, 1991, 2011
Wiley

Summary

There is a lot of maths in this book. If you don’t like maths, you probably won’t like this book. This book is definitely aimed at the lay reader however (or perhaps the beginning maths student), so concepts are explained, worked examples are given, some are even fun to try out for yourself (e.g. in arithmetic and geometry). Having said that (negation upon negation), the bulk of this book was written in days when “popular exposition” and “accessibility” were taken far more earnestly than they are today: the reader is not pandered to, and there are no silly jokes or narcissistic digressions.

The first nineteen chapters are geographical and chronological. Chapter 19 is about Gauss (1777-1855) and his immediate influence. After the Gauss chapter there are three topic surveys on geometry, algebra, and analysis, and a chapter on “Twentieth-Century Legacies”. Perhaps the authors as historians made an implicit judgement that Gauss separates past from present. However, these later chapters are still “historical” in the sense that they are about the development (and continuing development) of the discipline. There is a brief final chapter sampling some “Recent Trends”.

A book this size (600 pages before bibliographies and index) doesn’t need to present a single linear “path of progress” and full acknowledgement is given to dead-ends, decadence, re-appearances, simultaneous discoveries, etc. It’s a good “history”.

More than anything else I got an idea of the gradualness and lumpiness of the development of the discipline. For example, the piecemeal move from natural language to symbols for ideas like “the thing” (i.e., “x”), arithmetic operations, exponents, etc. Famously “zero” appeared long after all the other numbers, but using the same base for fractions as for integers was not settled for a long time. The equals sign first appeared in print in 1557.

There is a constant interaction, from the earliest times, between what we might call “applied” and “pure” approaches to (or even “conceptions of”) mathematics. From earliest traces (calculations for temple design, rituals, games, patterns), via figures like Archimedes and Euclid, through to figures like Newton and Gauss who were as involved in practical projects as they were in purely mathematical exploration. The institutionalisation of “pure” and “applied” mathematics in academe and schooling isn’t touched on, but it is clear that it is a very very recent development.

Pedagogy is a strong theme in the book. Mathematics is presented as a discipline in which the elite are centrally concerned with defining, presenting, and renewing their discipline. There’s Euclid’s Elements, and several similar projects, but the theme really takes off in the chapter on the French revolution (Chapter 18, “Pre- to Postrevolutionary France”). An interesting 20th century example is Nicolas Bourbaki, a “polycephalic” mathematician producing mathematics textbooks since the 1930s.

I am not a fan of revisionist histories, but it is miserable that only five women were mentioned in the whole book: Hypatia, Sofia Kovalevskaya, Sophie Germain, Mary Winston Newson, Emmy Noether (so that’s no women at all between 415 and 1850).

Next steps

On the mathematical side, I am reminded of my interest in Riemann’s non-Euclidian geometry (for Schrödinger‘s wave mechanics). I don’t think reading this history has been a mathematical “preparation” but Schrödinger (“Space-Time Structure”, 1950) or Weyl (“Space-Time-Matter”, 1922) might be a nice next read.

Philosophical or foundational issues were not touched on much, apart from as occasional asides, but there is plenty of historical grist for such considerations. Two introductions to the philosophy of maths I have my eye on are “Thinking About Mathematics” (Stewart Shapiro, 2001) and “Introducing Philosophy of Mathematics” (Michele Friend, 2007).

Idealism and Idealism

Sunday, 10th April, 2016

When I think of Idealism I think of Plato and Hegel.

For Plato, Ideas (the Greek word he used – ἰδέα – is where everyone else gets the word from) floated about in their own little realm, somewhere other than spacetime, completely independent of humanity. Our human conceptions were more-or-less clumsy graspings after these Ideas.

For Hegel, there was only one thing which existed: the Idea (Hegel used the German Geist or spirit). Hegel’s philosophy was all about exploring the multi-faceted contradictions of this single thing (especially in the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Science of Logic). Humanity, or rather human-type consciousnesses, tumble out of the proceedings at some point.

Reading Marx, and Marxist philosphy, this is the way terms like Idealism, the Ideal, etc. are used.

Now I am reading more broadly, I have started coming across people for whom Idealism means Something Else. This Idealism is rooted in Descartes and Kant, and it essentially understands “Ideal” as “Mental”. From my Big Book of Philosophy (entry on idealism, philosophical):

[Idealism] maintains that what is real is in some way confined to or at least related to the contents of our own minds. … It has been argued by Myles Burnyeat that idealism proper could not appear before Descartes had argued for the epistemological priority of access to our own minds.

The entry goes so far as to claim that Plato was not an Idealist (which of course he certainly wasn’t, according to that definition):

Plato’s theory of forms is sometimes said to be a species of Idealism on the grounds that his Forms are also called Ideas. But those so-called Ideas were not simply contents of our minds; indeed Plato explicitly rejects that supposition in his Parmenides.”

(That is D. W. Hamlyn writing in 1995)

Sadly this latter conception of Idealism seems to be common. I can’t see how it is an improvement on even Plato’s Idealism as it pre-supposes the most important thing to explain, i.e., the thinking subject. I can see now why Rowlands felt the need to devote a chapter to chasing after various types of contemporary neo-Kantianism (e.g., Sapir-Whorf, Chomsky, post-structuralism).

On these pages, Idealism will generally refer to proper Idealism (Plato, Hegel). If I need to discuss the degenerate (post-)Kantian version I’ll do so explicitly.

Book details

Externalism: putting mind and world together again
Mark Rowlands
2003
Acumen

Overview

I liked this book a lot. It describes the internalist position and gives a kind of chronological survey of the externalist response. After highlighting the limitations of the “standard” externalism (which Rowlands calls Content Externalism), Rowlands outlines a more radical (and much more interesting imho) variant which he calls Vehicle Externalism.

** The Internalist position: Cartesianism (Chapter 2) and Idealism (Chapter 3)

Rowlands roots internalism in Cartesian dualism: the Mind/Body split, and the individual pairing between an individual Mind (or Soul) and that Mind’s own Body. In “Cartesian materialism” the explicit dualism is dropped and instead of the Mind/Soul being linked to the Body, the mind is somehow located or implemented in the body. Internalism is then characterised as holding two claims (p. 13):

  • Location: “any mental phenomenon is spatially located inside the boundaries of the subject, S, that has or undergoes it.”
  • Possession: “the possession of any mental phenomenon by a subject S does not depend on any feature that is external to the boundaries of S.”

Although the dualism has been officially expunged, idealism still has its influence, and Chapter 3 describes things like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, structuralism, and so on, as examples of a post-Kantian idealism.

Chapter 2 effectively shows the modern mainstream internalist position as a more-or-less direct descendant of the Cartesian position. Chapter 3 otoh is perhaps the weakest of the book, but also the least central (at least for my own interest).

There is a brief nod to historical context in Chapter 2, pointing to the influence on Descartes of “the rise of mechanism associated with the scientific revolution” (p. 18). Marx was very critical of the “mechanical” materialism of his own day, saying the the dynamic idealism of e.g. Hegel was closer to the truth than the mechanical materialism of e.g. Feuerbach. Interesting if the mechanical approach was not a consequence of materialism.

Repeatedly Rowlands conflates the Ideal and the Mental (e.g., pp 4, 32, 60). On p. 4 Rowlands is characterising Kant, and on p. 60 Berkeley. However, on p. 32 Rowlands seems to be defining Idealism per se as “the view that reality is mental”. This might be a fair characterisation of Kant’s idealism, but I don’t know if it is a fair characterisation of Plato’s idealism. It is certainly not accurate of Hegel.

Incidentally, the error of conflating the Ideal and the Mental — and an argument that this was *not* Plato’s position — is one of Ilyenkov’s main points in his Dialectics of the Ideal.

** Externalist responses

The Externalist response is presented in three chronological episodes:

  • Husserl & Sartre (Chapter 4)
  • Wittgenstein (Chapter 5)
  • Putnam, Burge and others — “Content Externalism” (Chapters 6-8)

I don’t want to use the word “historical” because there is no development from one episode to the next, although Husserl’s ideas reappear in Vehicle Externalism.

Husserl & Sartre

Chapter 4 was the surprise highlight of the book for me.

An important part of Husserl’s phenomenology seems to have been a “principle of unity” of consciousness. Each phenomenon of consciousness does not exist alone, but only in a network of related phenomena. Consequently each experience brings with it anticipations or expectations or potentialities (all words used by Rowlands at different points) of other experiences.

It’s easy to psychologise this — in fact, it’s difficult for me not to psychologise it. It immediately brought to mind Mead about the horse:

A person who is familiar with a horse approaches it as one who is going to ride it. He moves toward the proper side and is ready to swing himself into the saddle. His approach determines the success of the whole process. But the horse is not simply something that must be ridden. It is an animal that must eat, that belongs to somebody. It has certain economic values. The individual is ready to do a whole series of things with reference to the horse, and that readiness is involved in any one of the many phases of the various acts. It is a horse that he is going to mount; it is a biological animal; it is an economic animal. Those characters are involved in the ideas of a horse. If we seek this ideal character of a horse in the central nervous system we would have to find it in all those different parts of the initiated acts. One would have to think of each as associated with the other processes in which he uses the horse, so that no matter what the specific act is, there is a readiness to act in these different ways with reference to the horse. We can find in that sense in the beginning of the act just those characters which we assign to “horse” as an idea, or if you like, as a concept.

(Mead, 1934, Mind, Self and Society, chapter 2, page 12)

Sartre’s contribution spells out the implications of Husserl’s phenomenology for the internalist/externalist debate. Specifically, if consciousness is nothing more than a network of expectations, there need be nothing at all “in” consciousness: consciouness is an entirely outward pointing attitude (so for Sartre the opposition is not between matter and mind, but between “Being and Nothingness”). Rowlands makes the connection with behaviourism (and connectionism for that matter) virutally explicit when he says (p. 65):

Not only are the intentional objects of consciousness not in consciousness, but also there are no /representations/ of these objects.

My prejudice of Husserl had always been of a kind of latter-day, vulgarised Hegel. That prejudice is not challenged here. However, I can see how Husserl’s work on consciousness (as presented by Rowlands) could be part of a kind of “greater behaviourism” (which would include such as Vygotky and Mead alongside Pavlov and Skinner).

Sartre comes over as a latter-day, vulgarised Marx. Sartre claims his interpretation of Husserl is a “radical reversal of idealism” (p. 64; Sartre’s Being and Nothingness p. 239). This obviously recalls Marx’ declaration of turning Hegel right-side-up in the introduction to Capital.

Wittgenstein

I can’t get excited about Wittgenstein. It’s not that I disagree with what he says. His work just seems very slight. This chapter covers things like the private language argument, and the notion of following a rule as conforming to a community practice.

Content Externalism

Chapters 6-8 cover the archetypal Externalism of Anglo-American “Analytical” philosophy, with Hilary Putnam and Tyles Burge and their twin-earth thought experiments as prime exemplars. I’m afraid I find this kind of philosophy absolutely tedious. I can say Rowlands seemed to be systematic and thorough.

Chapter 6 lays out the strength of the Content Externalist attack on internalism.

One interesting thing about Husserl and Wittgenstein, which disappears in Content Externalism, is that with H & W the subject of consciousness is an active agent: some form of “situatedness” seems to treated as fundamental to the subject, so each “consciouness event” is related to previously experienced or anticipated events. With the “Analytic” philosophers, the examples are isolated events: a moment of perception, the holding of a belief. The subject of consciousness is purely contemplative. This takes us back to Marx’s criticism of Feuerbach and mechanical materialism.

** Vehicle Externalism

Content Externalism addresses Internalism’s Possession claim and (according to Rowlands in chapter 7) is further limited to certain kinds of “mental contents”. Vehicle Externalism addresses the Location claim. Vehicle Externalism is the position that the thinking subject, or the system that thinks, is to some extent outside the boundaries of the human body.

Chapter 9 spends a lot of time in biology, e.g., how some animals (examples used are beavers and acanthocephalan worms) have evolved to outsource functions to their environment. James Gibson’s ecological approach to vision is used to show (a) how animals use objective structure in their physical environment and (b) how important is the subject’s subjectivity, activity, to understanding their cognition.

It’s a slight shame that the relevance of Husserl & Sartre’s arguments from chapter 4 is not spelt out explicitly in this part of the book. There are very strong echoes of Husserl’s anticipations/expectations in the potentialities & sensorimotor contingencies referred to here. Rowlands criticises a representational theory of mind, preferring what he calls an “extended” approach (as in extending into the environment) — with similarly clear echoes of Sartre’s outwardly pointing consciouness (and imho echoes of behaviourism).

That’s just a slight shame though. I enjoyed the book as a whole, and I thought Chapters 4 (on Husserl and Sartre) and 9 & 10 (on Vehicle Externalism) were very strong.

Next steps

What would a Marxist make of all this? Surely a Marxist would never even consider an Internalist position? But Ilyenkov’s polemic in Dialectics of the Ideal, against the “official” Soviet Marxist line, is precisely against an Internalist line where the Ideal is mental and the mental is neural. So these arguments still have to be had.

Rowlands equates the Ideal with the mental, which is a weakness, but the most important line in this book (Husserl/Sartre through to Vehicle Externalism) doesn’t use that equation at all. In fact I think this line is if anything more sympathetic to Ilyenkov’s position, that the Ideal is based on social practice.

To me Vehical Externalism is far more interesting than Content Externalism, which really does feel like a debate entirely internal to academic Analytical philosophy. Content Externalism still retains the absolute split between subject and object, while in Vehicle Externalism part of the subject is “out there” in the object (e.g., language, custom, features of the social environment).

So, two paths lead out of this:

  • The book was written over twelve years ago. Where is Vehicle Externalism now? How has the Externalist position in general developed?
  • After reading this book, Husserl suddenly seems interesting. I want to get a quick overview of his philosophy and a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of his approach. IIRC Lukacs gives Husserl short shrift (in the Destruction of Reason). Does Hegel (Marx, Vygotsky, and others) give us everything we need? What exactly does Husserl bring? Part of the light shining on this exploration will be the differences between Husserl and Brouwer (in which my preference is closer to Brouwer).

[update: Mark Rowlands has a more recent (2013) book out on externalism: The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology.]

Book details

Dialectics of the Ideal: Evald Ilyenkov and Creative Soviet Marxism
Edited by Alex Levant and Vesa Oittinen
2014
Brill

Notes

The focus of this book is Ilyenkov’s essay “Dialectics of the Ideal”, which he wrote in 1974 but which was not published until 2009 (long after Ilyenkov’s death in 1979). This is the essay’s first translation into English in full (an incomplete translation was published in 2012). As well as the essay itself, there are various articles providing context and commentary.

“Dialectics of the Ideal” itself is a good introduction to Ilyenkov and, perhaps, a good introduction to (a certain kind of) Marxism. Ilyenkov’s is a “Classical” Marxism, in the sense that his references are to Marx, Lenin, and then to earlier sources like Hegel. Ilyenkov was strongly influenced by Vygotsky, and the two share an influence in Spinoza.

The essay is primarily a polemic against a reductionist interpretation of the Ideal, then current in Soviet philosophy, which interpreted ideal phenomena (e.g. concepts) as mental states, and thenceforth reduced them to neural events. This position is perhaps comparable to eliminative materialism and similar positions clustering around neuroscience.

Ilyenkov’s position is that ideal phenomena are social — kind of representations of social practices — which confront the individual, and consequently that any mental or neural states are effects of this pre-existing Ideal. Ilyenkov’s position can perhaps usefully be compared with social externalism in the analytical tradition.

the other essays

The other essays are variable, but some are very good. In particular, the essays about Ilyenkov and his context in Soviet (and current Russian) Marxism:

  • Alex Levant, the translator, and the kind of Maitre D’ of the book provides opening and closing essays;
  • Andrei Maidansky, an academic philosopher at Belgorod State University, who has an Ilyenkov web site, with texts in Russian, English and some other languages, writes a very good commentary essay “Reality of the Ideal”;
  • There is an interview with Sergei Mareev, author of “Из истории советской философии. Лукач-Выготский-Ильенков” (2008, “From the history of Soviet philosophy: Lukacs – Vygotsky – Ilyenkov”). Very nice interview — and I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the title of this book: my three favourite Marxists (after Marx and Lenin). I need to read it!

Next Steps

Read next/soon: Ilyenkov’s “Dialectical Logic” (1974).

Keep up with Alex Levant’s papers — which he publishes on his academia.edu page.

Read Mareev’s 2008 “Из истории советской философии. Лукач-Выготский-Ильенков”. Ha ha ha! No, really. First I am working my way through Maidansky’s 2009 review “Диаграмма философской мысли”. Reading that is interesting in its own right, and it will tone up my Russian so I can (slightly more) sensibly embark on Mareev’s book.

Re-familiarising myself with social externalism might be a worthwhile thing to do, as it might broaden out again my understanding of this area.

A New Year wish from Yang Lan

Saturday, 2nd January, 2016

Yang Lan (杨澜) sends a New Year message from her Weibo account:

http://www.weibo.com/1198920804/DbdtTgUAT

** gloss

In the New Year, with love at the centre, extending life’s radius, your world flourishing brilliantly!

** original

新的一年里,以爱为圆心,延长人生的半径,你的世界繁盛精彩!

** new words

圆心 yuán xīn centre (circle heart)
延长 yán cháng extend
半径 bàn jìng radius (half path)
繁盛 fán shèng thriving, flourishing, prosperous
精彩 jīng cǎi brilliant, splendid
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