So, in answer to the question - what am I? - the materialist response of Spinoza, Vernadsky and Ilyenkov is that I am a mode of existence of matter, as are my thoughts.
E. V. Ilyenkov
And yet… Ilyenkov drew implications from Spinozism which caused his materialism to waver. As there is no thinking without matter as its substance, so there is no matter without thinking as its attribute.
If not the primacy of mind, then Ilyenkov at least felt compelled to restore some equanimity between mind and matter in his Cosmology of the Spirit, which was written in the 1950s, and published posthumously only at the end of the 1980s, as it was too heretical to be published in the author’s lifetime.
In Ilyenkov’s cosmology, thinking remains a part of the natural process of the motion of matter, conditioned by it but also reciprocally affecting it. Thought is a necessary attribute of matter as it is able to prevent the terminal entropic collapse.
At some very high point of its development reached by the time when the universe is near the state of its thermal death, mankind or some other collective of thinking beings intentionally creates a cosmic catastrophe that has a character of a chain reaction and leads to a rebirth of the dying universe. By this mankind pays back its ‘cosmological debt’ to nature which gave birth to thinking spirit. Its self-sacrifice becomes
…a genuinely creative act, an action that transforms the freezing deserts of intergalactic space, immersed in gloom, into rotating masses of incandescent, bright, warm sun- ny worlds; a system that becomes the cradle of new life, a new dawn of the thinking spirit, immortal like matter itself...
The death of the thinking spirit becomes, in this way, its immortality. And somewhere again—in the endlessly distant future—new beings in which nature evolves a thinking spirit, will (like us today) contemplate the worlds of stars, shining in the sky of their earth,, with the proud consciousness that these worlds owe their existence to a once vanishing thinking spirit, its great and fine victim.*
In this grand cosmic gesture of self-immolation, the suicide of the self, mind fulfils its purposive, rather than a ‘genuinely creative’, role in the interminable cycles of death and resurrection. The powers bestowed upon mankind in this cosmic drama confirm, rather than deny, the subjection of mind to Nature.
And yet, Ilyenkov was seeking the mystery of the creative act, self-motivated, frivolous even, that comes from nothing; an act that is divine; an act that is human.
The struggle seeking expression beneath Ilyenkov’s cosmology is as old as religion and the cosmogonic dualism lies deep in the oldest of beliefs.
In Ahuru Mazda, Zarathustra recognised the Supreme Being, and prayers were raised to this creative deity in the presence of light, be it fire or the sun. The light and flame were symbolic of the truth sought in a reaching out to the Supreme Being.
To participate in the divine would be to free our spirit and escape the limitations imposed upon us by our earthly circumstances.
The contesting force to Ahura Mazda was Angra Mainyu, or angry spirit, later personified as Ahriman, the Devil. Here was the destructive force, the force of darkness, who would tie us to the Earth, to matter.
This was the Zarathustrian struggle, the eternal cosmic struggle. The oppositional forces of light and darkness symbolise man’s struggle to free himself from the shaping forces of external reality and find from within his own internal resources, the power to create something new where nothing existed before, the divine power to create something from nothing.
*E. V. Ilyenkov, ‘Cosmology of the Spirit’, trans. Giuliano Vivaldip,
© John Dunn.