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.


Notes on “The Young Hegel”

Friday, 28th August, 2015

Book details

The Young Hegel: studies in the relations between dialectics and economics
Georg Lukács
1966 (English translation 1975)
MIT Press


The point of “Young Hegel” is to show the development of Hegel’s thinking up to (and including) his Phenomenology of Mind. The special focus is to show how Hegel’s study of economics (primarily Adam Smith and David Ricardo) affected this development.

This is the most biographical treatment of Hegel I’ve read so far. It’s divided into sections with Hegel at Berne (1793-96), Frankfurt (1797-1800) and Jena (1801-03, 1803-07). The “very” young Hegel in Berne is depicted as idealising Classical civilisation, especially of Greece, which he would contrast absolutely with the “positivity” and dogma of the Christian world. In Frankfurt, Hegel became “reconciled” to the bourgeois/Christian reality, and this reconciliation brought with it (or was partly) a need to link the two worlds — for example to explain the historical changes (Hegel’s main source seems to have been Gibbon!).

I think “reconciliation” is Hegel’s word but, in Lukács’ telling, the process was more than only intellectual. Lukács talks of Hegel’s Frankfurt “crisis”, and how Hegel took much of the source material from his own personal experience of life.

Hegel’s debates with Kant, Fichte and Schelling are covered in detail. So Hegel is placed in historical context in terms of philosophy; also the political situation in Germany and France, and the political/economic situation in England are shown to influence (determine, Lukács would have it) Hegel’s thinking.

The exploration of Hegel’s study and use of economics is very good. Obviously at least part of the point of this exploration is to confirm and consolidate our understanding of the similarities between Hegel and Marx. Pinkard stressed how Hegel’s “idealism” (as in not materialism) is not quite as straightforwardly “idealist” as you might think (e.g., Hegel describes animals as idealists). What you might call Hegel’s “proto-materialism” is drawn out by Lukács.

Marx turns up from time to time in this book, but not really until the final chapter. After a synopsis of the Phenomenology, Lukács reviews Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (EPM), which culminate in a critique by Marx of the Hegel’s Phenomenology.

Another frequent visitor in the book is Goethe. Lukács is always stressing the similarity of thinking between Goethe and Hegel.

For all the foibles of his style (see below), Lukács knows how to put a book together, and this book finishes in a kind of triple climax. The first is the one you expect and that the whole book has been building up to: the Phenomenology, dealt with in a huge crescendo of exposition. For the second, Marx steps out of the shadows and we plunge in to EPM. The third and final climax is announced on the very last page — “Historically, only one figure may be placed on a par with Hegel: …” — and it is Goethe who takes the final bow and receives the bouquet.

Lukács’ style

Lukács does have a tendency

  • to be a bit unmediated/deterministic with his explanations
  • not to shilly-shally about with minor issues
  • to make sure Stalin gets a mention every so often.

For the unsympathetic reader there is plenty not to like about Lukács. I like to think Lukács was writing assuming two particular audiences: (a) Marxists, so certain things don’t have to be explained, and certain things can be short-circuited, and (b) the censor and the KGB.

Next steps

Marx’s EPM is an obvious next stop.

For strengthening understanding of the development of the dialectic, with Hegel and Marx as two points on the timeline as it were, I should re-read Ilyenkov’s Dialectical Logic.

Goethe: the work most mentioned is Wilhelm Meister. Iphigenia on Tauris and Confessions of a beautiful soul also get interesting mentions (as does Faust obvs).

book details

Aristotle: a very short introduction
Jonathan Barnes
Oxford University Press


I found this a very pleasant, readable overview of Aristotle’s philosophy. It is sensitive to his context and to his distance from our own culture and perspectives.

Before reading this I knew little about Aristotle. I’d read his Nicomachean Ethics and Jonathan Lear’s “Aristotle: The Desire to Understand”.

Three points stood out for me:


Aristotle’s Prior Analytics and Posterior Analytics are the foundation works of the study of formal logic. The roots of formal logic are in Aristotle the empirical scientist, the explorer, the man of the world — not e.g. in Plato the idealist.

I don’t think I need to read Aristotle’s logical works, but it might be interesting to explore how his more formal thought related to his more exploratory work (e.g. biology, politics).


For Aristotle, change seems to be fundamental — at least to things in the sublunary world. That’s interesting to me given my interest in Hegel and Marx.

Reading: Physics, which Barnes thinks is “one of the best places to start reading Aristotle.”


Bodies in the superlunary world are not subject to change, and Aristotle’s work on the heavens contain some of his speculations on divine creatures and on the source of change: the creator.

Reading: On the heavens; Metaphysics I & XII.

book details

The Destruction of Reason
Georg Lukács
1962 (tr. 1980)


This was a gruelling, depressing read. I am full of respect for Lukács for sifting through so much complete drivel (Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Spengler, Heidegger, and so on). I’d never read any of these people before and I had naively assumed they were proper philosophers (as they are presented in the mainstream media).

Lukács traces the history and the development of irrationalist philosophy from the French revolution right through to Hitler, with an epilogue on the post-war US, with its increasing shoddiness and cynicism and anti-humanism.

I couldn’t help notice similarities with contemporary developments: the denigration of democracy; the celebration of irrational political action (like the infantile Occupy movement); of apostasy (like the whistleblowers); the almost medieval approach to morality; temper-loss and name-calling in place of debate; …


Because of its nature as a critique and a warning, this book doesn’t open up so many new horizons as the Hegel book did. However there were three clear avenues:

  • Two heroes mentioned stand out: Rosa Luxemburg (obviously not new to me) and Georges Politzer (completely new to me).
  • “German Classical Humanism” (p530): Herder and Humboldt. These two popped up repeatedly while I was reading for my PhD (on Vygotsky and Ilyenkov) all those years ago (the early 90s).
  • I need to do something to correct my patchy knowledge of 19th century history, esp. the years 1848 and 1870.

Notes on “Hegel’s Naturalism”

Tuesday, 6th May, 2014

book details

Hegel’s Naturalism: mind, nature, and the final ends of life
Terry Pinkard
Oxford University Press


This is a really exciting book. I read it through once and read it again straight away. It introduced me to Hegel, and opened up my idea of what Hegel’s philosophy might be about. I can see him placed with other philosophers I like (Aristotle, Spinoza, Marx).

Below are some highlights, and then some ideas for further reading.

An appendix of typos is at the end.

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