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.


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.

Пятичасовой Скорый / The Five O’ Clock Express


Они ночевали в одном из монастырских покоев, который отвели дяде по старому знакомству. Был канун Покрова. На другой день они с дядей должны были уехать далеко на юг, в один из губернских городов Поволжья, где отец Николай служил в издательстве, выпускавшем прогрессивную газету края. Билеты на поезд были куплены, вещи увязаны и стояли в келье. С вокзала по соседству ветер приносил плаксивые пересвистывания маневрировавших вдали паровозов.

They spent the night in one of the rooms of the monastery, which they’d given uncle for old times’ sake. It was Pokrov’s Eve [1]. On the next day they would have to go off far to the south, to one of the big towns in Povolzhye [2], where father Nikolai worked at a publisher, putting out one of the progressive newspapers of the region. The train tickets had been bought, the luggage had been packed and put in the room. From the local station the wind brought the whining whistling of the manoeuvring distant trains.

К вечеру сильно похолодало. Два окна на уровне земли выходили на уголок невзрачного огорода, обсаженного кустами желтой акации, на мерзлые лужи проезжей дороги и на тот конец кладбища, где днем похоронили Марию Николаевну. Огород пустовал, кроме нескольких муаровых гряд посиневшей от холода капусты. Когда налетал ветер, кусты облетелой акации метались, как бесноватые, и ложились на дорогу.

Towards evening it got very cold. Two windows at ground level looked out into the corner of a tired little kitchen garden, planted around with yellow acacia bushes. Through frozen puddles went a road and at the end of that the graveyard, where that day they’d buried Maria Nikolaevna. The garden was empty, apart from a few shiny rows of turned-blue-with-cold cabbages. When the wind blew up, the acacia bushes flapped and tossed about, as if possessed, and lay themselves down on the road.

Ночью Юру разбудил стук в окно. Темная келья была сверхъестественно озарена белым порхающим светом. Юра в одной рубашке подбежал к окну и прижался лицом к холодному стеклу.

In the night Yura was woken by a knock at the window. The dark cell was supernaturally lit up with white fluttering lights. Yura in just a nightshirt ran up to the window and pressed his face against the cold glass.

За окном не было ни дороги, ни кладбища, ни огорода. На дворе бушевала вьюга, воздух дымился снегом. Можно было подумать, будто буря заметила Юру и, сознавая, как она страшна, наслаждается производимым на него впечатлением. Она свистела и завывала и всеми способами старалась привлечь Юрино внимание. С неба оборот за оборотом бесконечными мотками падала на землю белая ткань, обвивая ее погребальными пеленами. Вьюга была одна на свете, ничто с ней не соперничало.

Through the window there was no road, no graveyard, no garden. In the courtyard raged a blizzard, the air billowed with snow. One might think that the storm noticed Yura and, realising how terrifying it was, enjoyed making an impression on him. It whistled and howled and tried in every way to attract Yura’s attention. From the sky turn after turn in endless windings fell on the earth in a white tissue, wrapping it up in a funeral shroud. The storm was the only thing in the world, with nothing to compete against it.

Первым движением Юры, когда он слез с подоконника, было желание одеться и бежать на улицу, чтобы что-то предпринять.

Yura’s first desire, when he came down from the window-sill, was to get dressed and run outside, and start doing something.

То его пугало, что монастырскую капусту занесет и ее не откопают, то что в поле заметет маму, и она бессильна будет оказать сопротивление тому, что уйдет еще глубже и дальше от него в землю.

He was frightened that the monastery’s cabbage was being buried and they wouldn’t dig it out, that in the field his mother was being covered up and she was powerless to resist, that she was going away deeper and further into the earth.

Дело опять кончилось слезами. Проснулся дядя, говорил ему о Христе и утешал его, а потом зевал, подходил к окну и задумывался. Они начали одеваться. Стало светать.

Again it ended in tears. His uncle woke up, spoke to him about Christ and comforted him, but then yawned, walked up to the window and thought for a bit. They began to get dressed. It was starting to get light.


  1. Pokrov is the “Intercession of the Holy Virgin”, but I thought translating “канун Покрова” as “the eve of the feast of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin” might break the mood.
  2. The Volga Region

This is a translation (by me) of the first section of the first part of the first book of Doctor Zhivago (by Boris Pasternak). In the English I’ve tried to preserve from the original the bold language and especially the background coming through into the foreground.

Пятичасовой Скорый / The Five O’ Clock Express


Шли и шли и пели “Вечную память”, и когда останавливались, казалось, что ее по залаженному продолжают петь ноги, лошади, дуновения ветра.

On and on they sang “Eternal Memory”, and whenever they stopped, it seemed that, as if coming out from behind, continuing the singing, were the feet, the horses, the breath of the wind.

Прохожие пропускали шествие, считали венки, крестились. Любопытные входили в процессию, спрашивали: “Кого хоронят?” Им отвечали: “Живаго”. “Вот оно что. Тогда понятно”. — “Да не его. Ее”. — “Все равно. Царствие небесное. Похороны богатые”.

Passers-by let the procession by, counted the wreaths, crossed themselves. The curious came up to the procession, asked: “Who are they burying?” They were answered: “Zhivago”. “So that’s it. Understood.” — “And not him. Her.” — “It’s all the same. God’s in His heaven. It’s a lovely funeral.”

Замелькали последние минуты, считанные, бесповоротные. “Господня земля и исполнение ея, вселенная и вси живущие на ней”. Священник крестящим движением бросил горсть земли на Марью Николаевну. Запели “Со духи праведных”. Началась страшная гонка. Гроб закрыли, заколотили, стали опускать. Отбарабанил дождь комьев, которыми торопливо в четыре лопаты забросали могилу. На ней вырос холмик. На него взошел десятилетний мальчик.

The last minutes slipped by, counted, irrevocable. “The Еarth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world and all ye that dwell therein.” The priest with a baptising movement threw a handful of earth on Maria Nikolaevna. They started singing “With the spirits of the righteous”. A terrible rush broke out. They closed the coffin, they nailed it up, they began lowering it. Lumps of mud rained down, with which four spades hurriedly filled the grave. On it grew a little mound. Onto that climbed a ten year old boy.

Только в состоянии отупения и бесчувственности, обыкновенно наступающих к концу больших похорон, могло показаться, что мальчик хочет сказать слово на материнской могиле.

Only in the state of stupor and unfeelingness that usually comes at the end of big funerals, could it seem that the boy wanted to say a few words on his mother’s grave.

Он поднял голову и окинул с возвышения осенние пустыри и главы монастыря отсутствующим взором. Его курносое лицо исказилось. Шея его вытянулась. Если бы таким движением поднял голову волчонок, было бы ясно, что он сейчас завоет. Закрыв лицо руками, мальчик зарыдал. Летевшее навстречу облако стало хлестать его по рукам и лицу мокрыми плетьми холодного ливня. К могиле прошел человек в черном, со сборками на узких облегающих рукавах. Это был брат покойной и дядя плакавшего мальчика, расстриженный по собственному прошению священник Николай Николаевич Веденяпин. Он подошел к мальчику и увел его с кладбища.

He raised his head and cast, from his summit, over the autumnal wasteland and the cupolas of the monastery, an absent glance. His snub-nosed face twisted up. His neck stretched. If a wolf-cub had raised its head like this, it would be clear that it would now begin to howl. Covering his face with his hands, the boy began to sob. A cloud flew up and began to lash him in the hands and face with wet cold rain. Up to the grave came a man in black, with gatherings in his narrow tight-fitting sleeves. This was the brother of the deceased and the uncle of the crying boy, a priest unfrocked at his own request, Nikolai Nikolaievich Vedenyapin. He went up to the boy and took him out of the graveyard.

Realia: National Museum of Scotland

Saturday, 31st December, 2011

[updated with vocab.]

Visiting museums and galleries we often pick out the guide leaflet in a few languages, and compare translations. Most recently we were at the National Museum of Scotland and I picked out the Chinese and Russian versions (as well as the English).

Some highlights:

  • The English version was entitled “Map”, and the Chinese version had a similar general term “地图” (dì tú, map). The Russian was entitled “схема”. The usual Russian word for map is “карта”. A Google image search can illustrate the difference in meaning:

    “Карта” is used for geographical maps, “схема” is used for diagrams and plans.

  • Chinese has no word for “Scotland” — or rather, the Chinese word for “Scotland” is onomatopoeic: “苏格兰” (sūgélán). Note “land” becomes “兰” (lán, orchid), rather than for example 国 (guó, country/nation).
  • The emotive language in the English is generally avoided in the other languages — e.g., “a selection of treasues” becomes “избранные экспонаты” (selected exhibits) — but occasionally the translators find a fitting idiom — e.g., “getting the most out of your visit” becomes “让您的参观满载而归” (ràng nín de cān guān mǎn zài ér guī). The first five characters translate as something like “let your visit be”; the final four characters is an idiom meaning (pseudo)literally “full to the brim and go back”.


Схема diagram, chart, plan
приветствовать to greet, welcome (cf. привет, “Hi!”)
избранный selected, select (cf. собранный, collected)
полезный useful
учёба study(ing), training


世界 (shì jiè) world
主 (zhǔ) owner, master; main, primary; manage, direct; indicate, signify
信息 (xìn xī) information, news, message
免费 (miǎn fèi) free of charge
全 (quán) complete, whole
卫生间 (wèi shēng jiān) toilet (room)
厅 (tīng) hall (for holding meetings, concerts, receiving guests, etc.)
参观 (cān guān) visit, have a look around
同一 (tóng yī) same, identical
地图 (dì tú) map
小时 (xiǎo shí) hour
手势语 (shǒu shì yǔ) sign language
技术 (jì shù) technology, skill, technique
文化 (wén huà) civilization, culture
时间 (shí jiān) (the concept of) time
楼层 (lóu céng) storey, floor
欢迎 (huān yíng) welcome, greet
活动 (huó dòng) exercise, activity
满载而归 (mǎn zài ér guī) come back with fruitful results, return from a rewarding journey
科学 (kē xué) science, scientific knowledge
窗 (chuāng) window
自然 (zì rán) natural world, nature
艺术 (yì shù) art
让 (ràng) give way, give ground, yield, allow
设计 (shè jì) design, plan
购物 (gòu wù) shopping
足够 (zú gòu) enough
食品 (shí pǐn) food, provisions
饮料 (yǐn liào) beverage, drink (esp. a soft drink)

(Chinese definitions: Pleco)

Translating nonsense

Thursday, 20th January, 2011

At the end of the Ithaka chapter in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom falls asleep chatting to himself like this:


Sinbad the Sailor and Tinbad the Tailor and Jinbad the Jailer and Whinbad the Whaler and Ninbad the Nailer and Finbad the Failer and Binbad the Bailer and Pinbad the Pailer and Minbad the Mailer and Hinbad the Hailer and Rinbad the Railer and Dinbad the Kailer and Vinbad the Quailer and Linbad the Yailer and Xinbad the Phthailer.

How do you translate something like this? The meanings in the original language are not as important as the sounds and rhythms.

Here’s a translation into Russian [1]:

И с ним?

Синбад-Мореход и Минбад-Скороход и Тинбад-Тихоход и Пинбад-Пешеход и Винбад-Вездеход и Линбад-Луноход и Финбад-Виноход и Ринбад-Ракоход и Кинбад-Коновод и Бинбад-Шутоход и Шинбад-Чудоход и Зинбад-Обормот и Чинбад-Сумасброд и Динбад-Дремоход и Хинбад-Храпоход.


I s nim?

Sinbad-Morekhod i Minbad-Skorokhod i Tinbad-Tikhokhod i Pinbad-Pyeshekhod i Vinbad-Vyezdyekhod i Linbad-Lunokhod i Finbad-Vinokhod i Rinbad-Rakokhod i Kinbad-Konovod i Binbad-Shutokhod i Shinbad-Chudokhod i Zinbad-obormot i Chinbad-Sumasbrot i Dinbad-Dremochod i Khinbad-Khrapokhod.

Literal translation of the Russian into English:

And with him?

Sinbad the sailor and Minbad the runner and Tinbad the sloth and Pinbad the pedestrian and Vinbad the Landrover and Linbad the moonwalker and Finbad the ?winer and Rinbad the ?crab-walker and Kinbad the ringleader and Binbad the ?silly-walker and Shinbad the ?wonder-walker and Zinbad the ?bonehead and Chinbad the madcap and Dinbad the ?sleepwalker and Khinbad the ?snorewalker.

(Words with a “?” are not in my dictionary.)

I like Динбад-Дремоход и Хинбад-Храпоход (Dinbad-dremochod i Chinbad-chrapochod; Dinbad the sleepwalker and Khinbad the snorewalker) at the end, with Bloom falling asleep.


[1] Улисс Москва, Знаменитая Книга, 1994. Перевод: В. Хинкис, С. Хоружий.