Psychoanalysis, post-structuralism and critical theory locate the idea and the ideal in the superego, i.e. a super-consciousness detached from empirical reality.
To this way of thinking, the unconscious that holds the potential for creativity and freedom is detached from the everyday life of social production.
The connection of the ideal with the historical transformation of material reality by human activity is broken in a bid to escape the Big Other, the grand narrative etc.
Such a break is idealist, producing the ideal as transcendental individual consciousness. A subjective world of creativity and freedom is thought to reside within immaterial speculative concepts, apart from social production.
The materialist alternative is to see the ideal not as a transcendental abstraction, but rather as part of the everyday life of social production and associated communication.
There is no split between matter and idea, since the ideal manifests itself as empirical existence. The ideal is not sublime nor does it supersede reality. Consciousness and external material reality are connected dialectically.
The ideal is not imaginary but rather exists as the objectified form of social labour, becoming the things of the material outer world. The ideal is the reflection of objective reality and its transformation by human activity.
Consciousness results from an apprehension of the ideal, not vice versa, which is to say that the ideal is not generated by a speculative consciousness. This is the very essence of the materialism to which idealistic post-modernist thought is opposed.
In the The Concept of the Ideal, E. V. Ilyenkov presented the ideal as the individual’s teleological correlation with outer reality via labor that is not codified biologically. An animal’s ‘development consists only in the development of instincts, congenital reactions to things and situations... The need for food is biologically encoded in man, but the need to eat it with the help of a plate, knife, fork and spoon, sitting on a chair, at a table, etc., etc., is no more congenital in him than the syntactical forms of the language in which he learns to speak.’
Human consciousness is acquired in interrelation with the outer world of history and social labour. It is generated by objectified forms of human activity such as a plate, knife, fork and spoon, which are cultural rather than natural. Ilyenkov is restating Marx’s point that social being defines consciousness.
© John Dunn.