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Ilyenkov and the question

Sunday, 24 Jun 2018

Ilyenkov on Dr John Dunn. The Soviet philosopher E. V. Ilyenkov faced a similar self-questioning and his response appealed to me, in that he tried to answer the ‘what am I’ question within the context of Marxist materialism. Let’s face it, he probably had no choice.

E. V. Ilyenkov

His point was that it was the failure to arrogate this world of collectivised humanity that transformed the individual into a slave, a ‘speaking tool’ of alienated universally human forces, activity personified as money and capital, and further as the state, law, religion, and so on.

Arrogate, or to take, to claim, to seize. In order not to be the ‘speaking tool’ of the state, or the money economy, for example, we each need to make the world of collectivised humanity our own, in other words, cease to be subject to it.

But the question remains - what is it that wishes to cease? Where does the thought originate and who is doing the thinking?

Ilyenkov asked this question and, as a Marxist materialist, he had to answer that our thoughts come from matter and are materially determined.

Asking this question exposes a paradox, not only in the context ofMarxist materialism, but also that of contemporary science. For is it not the position of wider secular belief that thought originates in matter, more exactly in the anatomical complexity of the brain and its responses to sense stimuli?

Rather than being a ‘speaking tool,’ the individual is being asked by Ilyenkov to stand apart from the material forces that determine his thinking. This is having your cake and eating it.

It was through Ilyenkov’s struggle to separate freedom from necessity that I first became conscious of Baruch Spinoza’s world-changing role. Until then, I had always thought of Spinoza as just one name amongst many on the family tree of philosophers.

However, it was in Spinoza that Ilyenkov sought legitimacy for having our cake and eating it, for Spinoza contended also that thought is an attribute of matter. It is as though in Ilyenkov’s reading of Spinoza we are presented with the noosphere 300 years before Vladimir Vernadsky.

It is in man that Nature really performs, in a self-evident way, that very activity that we are accustomed to call ‘thinking’. In man, in the form of man, in his person, Nature itself thinks, and not at all some special substance, source, or principle instilled into it from outside. In man, therefore, Nature thinks of itself, becomes aware of itself, senses itself, acts on itself.

This is not just substance that thinks. Through the thinking being, substance also acts on itself and changes itself.1


Vernadsky’s noosphere (derived from the Greek nous for mind), is marked by the emergence of human cognition, which fundamentally transforms the biosphere through humankind’s creative or destructive impact. In Vernadsky’s construct, the noosphere is the third phase to emerge naturally from the Earth’s original substance, following the geosphere of inanimate matter and the biosphere of biological life. The point for our purposes here is that this mind-sphere arose from material substance

Ilyenkov’s Vernadskian reading of Spinoza continues:

The sole ‘body’ that thinks from the necessity built into its special ‘nature’ (i.e. into its specific structure) is not the individual brain at all, and not even the whole man with a brain, heart, and hands, and all the anatomical features peculiar to him. Of necessity, according to Spinoza, only substance possesses thought. Thinking has its necessary premise and indispensable condition (sine qua non) in all nature as a whole.2

To follow Ilyenkov’s demand to shake off the role of ‘speaking tool’, the individual must escape from the material forces out of which his thinking emerged. Man is the product of collective human activity, but must choose to escape this state, as though it were a prison. What then is choosing to escape? Is it free original thinking, or a necessary development of the noosphere?

Vernadsky himself admitted disquiet over the interchange between thought and matter. ‘Thought isn't a form of energy’, he pointed out, ‘so how on Earth can it change material processes? That question has still not been answered’.

In the end, Ilyenkov fell back upon Spinoza’s Substance that thinks, the standpoint that thought is a property, a mode of existence of matter, in the same way that extension is a mode of existence of matter. This was expressed by Spinoza in the language of his time, as the insistence that thought and extension are two attributes of one and the same substance ‘real infinite Nature’. Ilyenkov’s not very original additional contribution is that ‘It is in man that Nature really performs, in a self-evident way, that very activity that we are accustomed to call “thinking”’.3


1 Dialectical Logic, p.10

2 Dialectical Logic, p.23

3 Dialectical Logic, p.10

© John Dunn.







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