Notes on “Dialectical Logic” by Evald Ilyenkov

Friday, 27th May, 2016

Book details

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


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.


*** “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.


8 Responses to “Notes on “Dialectical Logic” by Evald Ilyenkov”

  1. […] 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 […]

  2. N Filbert Says:

    Holy crap – how’d I miss this guy? It’s like how seldom I run into Bakhtin. Ecstatic about delving into this! Thank you!

  3. harrisonivy Says:

    Hello! I run a blog myself. I’m a communist but my friend wrote this – what do you think:

    ===========Some thoughts on Hegelian Marxism============

    If there is any revolutionary theoretical potential to be drawn from Hegel, the easy targets of choice for finding them seem to be the Phenomenology and Philosophy of History.
    The Phil of History is generally ignored these days as rather distasteful due to its positive “idealist” account against the “materialist” conception of history. Because of this, the Phenomenology is obviously preferred due to its negative dialectical progress of dissolution of what is by internally self-destructive contradictions.

    This is particularly seen with favor by Hegelian Marxists who take modern capitalism to be exactly such a negative dialectical structure that is bound to implode. The theory of Capital, however, does not match this form of brute contradiction and implosion, but rather shows a positive dialectical construction of ever increasing self-generated logical mediations which can take care of contradictions. Unlike in the Phenomenology where dialectics collapsed and required a new conception to bring out what was true in prior inadequate conceptions and move development forward, the theory of capital safely carries its logical contradictions onward and positively builds upon them without discarding prior determinations.
    Unlike how Feudalism advances over slavery not by integrating it in a further mediating system, but by getting rid of the categories and replacing them, capital’s advances retain prior determinations in full though not as absolute. What then are we to make of Marx’s claims that communism will follow capitalism as a full systematic negation with new categories that take up and build on its positive aspects while leaving behind its negatives? Either capital is a logical aberration that somehow manages to carry out a positive dialectic while still ultimately succumbing to an ultimately negative dialectic resulting from an arbitrary irrational positing of factors, or Marx’s speculative hope that communism is the >necessary logicalnecessityonly< legitimately fit for the historical moment of capitalist society and does not provide any knowledge of anything but such.

    Seems weird to me.

    He seems to think that guys like Lukacs don't focus enough on the "Logic" and only on the negative dialectics of the Phenomenology.

    • llaisdy Says:

      Hello! Thanks for your comment.

      I don’t pay much attention to this kind of stuff. It’s difficult to work out what is being said, if anything. Who do they mean by “Hegelian Marxists” – Adorno maybe (who wrote “Negative Dialectics”)? Marx’s Capital is often linked to Hegel’s Logic (eg Lenin’s jotting, & a whole school of work comparing the two). This is something churned out on a facebook page? Your post on Marx’s theory of value is infinitely better.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.