Book details

Georg Lukacs: Record of a Life
Georg Lukács, István Eörsi
1981 (English translation of “Gelebtes Denken. Eine Autobiographie im Dialog” 1983)

Summary & comments

This book collects together notes made by Lukacs towards an autobiography, “Gelebtes Denken” (Lived Thought), and a series of interviews with Lukacs about his life — notes and interviews all done in the months before Lukacs died of illness in 1971. The material covers Lukacs’ whole life, from childhood, revolutions, exiles and returns.

It is very interesting, and occasionally moving, to see Lukacs bring his characteristic unblinking insight to bear on his own life. He does not separate his intellectual development from his political activity, and separates neither from his love life. One of the central figures throughout is his wife Gertrud Bortstieber.

Lukacs does not waffle and consequently the book is packed with ideas and observations, on cultural, philosophical or political figures (Bartok, Mann, Spinoza, Hegel, Lenin, Stalin), historical events and situations (the Hungarian and Russian revolutions, Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968).

Consequently, it is extremely annoying that Verso decided not to include an index.

Otherwise a beautiful, indispensible book.

Next steps

Lukacs ranged widely (both under the Attribute of Extension and under the Attribute of Thinking). Reading this autobiography prompts me to think about his life’s work as a coherent developing whole. I am familiar with Lukacs’ “mature” work in politics & philosophy (e.g., H&CC, Young Hegel, Destruction of Reason), and literary criticism (e.g. The Historical Novel, Contemporary Realism, essays on Mann & on Solzhenitsyn), but less familiar with his very early (i.e. pre-Marxist) or very late (e.g. his Ontology) work.

So, my Lukacs “to read” list:

  • Georg Lukacs: Life, Thought and Politics (Kadarkay, 1991)
  • Lenin’s criticism of Lukacs
  • Lukacs’ own later criticism(s) & defense(s) of H&CC
  • Lukacs’ book on Lenin
  • the Blum Theses (1928)
  • look at the social ontology
  • doesn’t look like the Aesthetics (1972-9) has been translated into English. Maybe read The Aesthetics of Gyorgy Lukacs Bela Kiralyfalvi 2015 Princeton UP

Sex and gender

Saturday, 28th January, 2017

Working definitions and some corollaries.


Sex is a biological category, part of the system of reproduction. Some creatures (animals and plants) reproduce asexually: a single individual of a species can reproduce on its own. Some creatures reproduce sexually: two individuals of distinct kinds (sexes) must come together to reproduce. The sexes are generally called male and female. Each sex plays its own distinct role in reproduction. Categorisation of the sexes depends on the logically prior category of reproduction. A sex is defined by its role in reproduction.

We could imagine a species requiring three sexes for reproduction — e.g. providing sperm, egg and incubator. I don’t know if there are there any such species, animal or plant.

What makes a particular individual a male or a female of its species will be a set of biological features, each of which will be more or less important, more or less directly related to reproduction. In a given species, the biological feature sets of the different sexes might overlap — less so in spiders, more so in rabbits.

In a given individual, the extent to which it carries the features of one or other sex will presumably vary as well. However, given natural selection, we’d expect most functional individuals of a species that reproduces sexually to be functionally one sex or the other.

As I failed to imagine or know, but as @peter4logo points out, there are species that reproduce sexually in which individuals can change sex, e.g. snails, (aka Sequential hermaphroditism), and species in which an individual can function as both sexes (e.g. giant clams). So, the above paragraphs should be generalised. Note that above kinds of species retain the separate sex categories of male and female.

So, we have the biological system of reproduction and, within that system, we have the sexes male and female, defined in relation to each other, and in relation to the system of reproduction.


Gender is an ideological category, an artefact of the oppression of women. That is, oppression on grounds of sex.

By artefact I mean both “effect” and “means”.

A gender is a set of virtues (update: i.e. of required or acceptable behaviours) historically associated with a particular (human) sex. For example, the archetypal feminine virtues in Elizabethan England were obedience, silence and chastity.

A logical/historical development of gender might follow these lines:

  1. oppression of women
  2. specification of virtues (behaviours & other traits) required of women
  3. ideological elevation of this specification: femininity
  4. naturalisation of the specification: gender, masculinity

Whereas with sex we have the system of reproduction directly entailing both male and female, with gender we have the system of oppression entailing only constraints on women’s behaviour. “Femininity” is an ideological elevation of this set of constraints. “Gender”, as a naturalisation of femininity, comes later (logically, and I would hypothesise, historically). “Maculinity” is a corollary of gender.

So “feminine” and “masculine” genders don’t make a direct ‘pair’ in the way that “male” and “female” sexes do.

Some corollaries

  • Ideologies which take gender as given are reactionary, and will to some extent be complicit in the oppression of women.
  • Feminism is opposition to the oppression of women — i.e., opposition to oppression on grounds of sex.
  • So-called “trans women” are not women.
  • The question of whether trans people are oppressed, and what to do about it, are legitimate political questions, but they have nothing to do with feminism.

Value, value, and value

Friday, 16th September, 2016

(in Chapter 1 of Marx’s Capital)

** Three types of value

In Chapter 1 of Capital, Marx describes three types of value: use-value, value, and exchange-value.

*** use-value

Every useful thing has use-value. The use-value of a thing is just the ways people might use it. That use-value might be historically conditioned (e.g. uranium had little use-value until recently), and it might be shall we say abstract (e.g., looks nice on my mantelpiece).

Use-value is a property of useful things in general, and is not limited to commodities. Use-value is not a property of commodities per se. For something to be a commodity that thing must have use-value, but things that are not commodities can have use-value; and things that are not products of human labour can have use-value.

A thing can be a use value, without having value. This is the case whenever its utility to man is not due to labour. Such are air, virgin soil, natural meadows, &c. A thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity. Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use values, but use values for others, social use values. Lastly nothing can have value, without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value.
(Last paragraph of Section 1.)

*** value

Value is congealed homogenised socially-necessary human labour time. “The value of a commodity represents human labour in the abstract, the expenditure of human labour in general” (from section 2). Value is entirely abstract.

Value is a property of useful products of human labour, but still not necessarily of commodities. Value is just human labour, in the abstract.

A couple of points on what I interpret as Marx’s humanism in Capital, in the way that he conceives of labour:

First, for Marx the very definition of labour includes the production of use-values: if the product is useless, “the labour does not count as labour”. So, usefulness, and all that entails about co-operation and togetherness and community, is in there right at the beginning.

Second, an interesting footnote about Adam Smith in section 2. This note is an extended comment on Smith’s labour theory of value. Deep in the middle, Marx says, “[Smith] has a presentiment that labour, in so far as it manifests itself in the value of commodities, counts only as expenditure of labour power, but he treats this expenditure as the mere sacrifice of rest, freedom and happiness, not as at the same time the normal activity of living beings. But, then, he has the modern wage-labourer in his eye.” Marx does not (only) have the modern wage-labourer in his eye; and he sees labour, and the expenditure of labour power, as more fundamental to humanity.

*** exchange-value

Exchange-value is the form value takes in commodity exchanging societies. Section 3 looks at this form in some detail (“20 yards of linen = 1 coat” etc.) before arriving at the universal equivalent, money.

Exchange-value is a property of commodities, and the exchange-value of a commodity has a concrete form (or forms) — two chickens, 50 quid, twenty packets of fags — depending on concrete circumstances.

Putting aside the money form for the moment, two commodities which are equated are (implicitly) judged as having the same value, i.e. as being embodiments of the same amount of abstract socially-necessary labour time.

Exchange value could be thought of as a kind of replacement value.

** The value, value and value of human labour

In the kinds of societies Marx is talking about, human labour becomes a commodity just like any other: it has a use-value, a value and an exchange-value. At the same time (in fact, just because of that reason), it becomes a special commodity unlike any other.

The use-value of human labour is to create value. Value is congealed abstract human labour (measured in units of socially-necessary time). The use or expenditure of labour, congeals that labour into its product.

As with any other commodity, the value of human labour is the (abstract, socially-necessary, etc.) human labour that has been congealed into it. Depending on the amount of labour you want to value, that congealed labour might be the reproductive labour that has reproduced yesterday’s worker, or it might be the extended training that has produced a heart surgeon or a web developer.

The exchange-value of a unit of human labour is just this value given concrete form, e.g., in money: a daily wage or an annual salary.


In order to be able to extract value from the consumption of a commodity, our friend, Moneybags, must be so lucky as to find, within the sphere of circulation, in the market, a commodity, whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption, therefore, is itself an embodiment of labour, and, consequently, a creation of value.
(Cheating slightly as that is from Chapter 6.)

The exciting thing for humanity in general, and for Mr. Moneybags in particular, is that — at a certain point in history, when productive forces rise up to a certain level — the expenditure of a unit of human labour creates more value than the value embodied in (and hence the exchange-value of) that unit of human labour. A unit of labour can then be bought and used at the correct — fair, just — price, and the value returned is greater than the value laid out. The difference between the value laid out and the value returned is a fourth type of value: surplus-value.

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.


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.]


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.


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.

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.

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


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.


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.]