Notes on “Dialectics of the Ideal” by Evald Ilyenkov

Wednesday, 3rd February, 2016

Book details

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


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 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.


One Response to “Notes on “Dialectics of the Ideal” by Evald Ilyenkov”

  1. […] 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. […]

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