This chapter is devoted to the most influential and important Soviet philosopher of the post-Stalin era: Evald Vasilevich Ilyenkov (1924–1979). Ilyenkov burst on the scene in the early 1950s, arguing that Ilyenkov should be understood, not as a meta-science concerned to formulate the most general laws of being, but as “the science of thought.” The chapter explores how Ilyenkov developed this idea, beginning with the controversial Ilyenkov-Korovikov theses and his unpublished “phantasmagoria,” “The Cosmology of Spirit.” Bakhurst then turns to Ilyenkov’s influential writing on scientific method, which portrays cognition as an “ascent from the abstract to the concrete,” and to his now-famous solution to “the problem of the ideal,” which represents the concept of activity as the key to understanding both the nature of objectively existing ideal forms and the possibility of human minds. Bakhurst shows how Ilyenkov’s views on these issues inform his critique of scientism and positivism in Soviet thought and inspire his distinctive conception of education, exemplified by his contribution to Alexander Meshcheryakov’s work on the education of blind-deaf children. Although Ilyenkov styled himself as a dialectical materialist and a Leninist, his ideas were in tension with orthodox Soviet philosophy and he was often in trouble with the Soviet philosophical establishment, which found it hard to tolerate what it saw as Ilyenkov’s dalliance with idealism as well as his call for the cultivation of critical, free, creative thinkers. Bakhurst concludes by reflecting on the many crises Ilyenkov experienced during his career, exploring how he was frequently subject to criticism and persecution. This, combined with his disappointment over the suppression of the Prague Spring, eventually led to his untimely death by his own hand in March 1979.
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During his lifetime translations of his writings appeared in Chinese, German, English, French, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Serbo-Croat, Slovakian, and Spanish. Posthumous translations have appeared in many of these languages, as well as Bulgarian, Czech, Finish, Korean, and Punjabi. A list of Ilyenkov’s translated works can be found at: http://amaid.tk/ilyenkov/aln.html.
It is important to understand the character of Soviet academic censorship. It is not that Ilyenkov’s writings were subjected to the blue pencil of an official censor. Rather, the work of members of the Institute of Philosophy, especially collective work specified in the Institute’s five-year plan, was usually submitted to (not entirely disinterested) peer review and required the approval of the Institute’s Scientific Council before it could be published. The system was open to many abuses (see the discussion of the controversy around Ilyenkov’s paper “Dialektika ideal’nogo” below and in Ilyenkov 2018a, 354–373). Between 1964 and 1970, Ilyenkov made five trips abroad to Austria (1964), GDR (1965, 1970), Czechoslovakia (1966), and Bulgaria (1967) (Ilyenkov 2018a, 294–295). At least one other trip, in 1967 to a conference at the University of Notre Dame, USA, was canceled, ostensibly because he was hospitalized (see Bakhurst 1991, 7). After 1970, his requests to travel abroad were denied.
Aida Vasil’evna Ilyenkova (1926–2002) became an architect, specializing in the restoration of historic buildings. She married architect Evgenii Grigor’evich Rozanov (1925–2006), who became a renowned exponent of Soviet “brutalism.”
In presenting Ilyenkov’s position, I draw not just on the text of the theses (which is actually rather obscure), but also on other writings from this period, and relevant commentary, as presented in Ilyenkov and Korovikov 2016. That book was prepared prior to the discovery of the complete manuscript of the theses, and so contains only Illesh’s partial reconstruction thereof. The full text is included in Ilyenkov 2017. See Bakhurst 2019 for a detailed discussion, which includes an English translation of the theses.
It is important that by “science” Ilyenkov and Korovikov mean any discipline engaged in systematic and rigorous inquiry aimed at knowledge, not just natural science; the Russian nauka has affinities with the German Wissenschaft.
There is a 1975 photograph of Ilyenkov with Kuznetsov. It is reproduced in Ilyenkov 2018a, facing p. 305.
Of course, if the object of inquiry is a mental phenomenon, its nature may be constituted, at least in part, by our understanding of it in the sense that some mental states are essentially self-conscious. However, we may still fail to understand how this is so: even if self-consciousness is a necessary feature of judgment, we can still misunderstand the nature of judgment and the nature of self-consciousness.
This notion of abstraction is derived from Hegel, whose essay “Who Thinks Abstractly?” was a favorite of Ilyenkov’s.
Ilyenkov seems to think all objects of cognition must be understood in their historical evolution. This makes sense for social and economic systems, but what of the objects of the natural sciences? I think Ilyenkov would say that the ultimate objects of scientific inquiry do have a history: the universe, the solar system, the Earth, life, and so on. These are the objects that the physical and life sciences ultimately seek to explain in their development. Mathematical objects are not historical entities, but they are ideal, and the ideal in turn has a history, as we shall see in the next section.
For further discussion, see Bakhurst 1991, chapter 5.
Note, however, that this will not be a reductive account of the ideal, since much of the activity in question is intelligent and purposeful and hence infused with ideality.
In a 1968 lecture on the ideal, recently published for the first time, Ilyenkov refers to Ivan Sokolyansky’s blind-deaf pupil Iulia Vinogradova, who returned from a walk in a ravine and made a plasticine model of the shape of the ravine (Ilyenkov 2018a, 102). Her mental image of the ravine could hardly be the kind of thing philosophers typically take it to be, but what she had was the power actively to reproduce by the movements of her body and her hands, the objectiveform of the object.
There is a hilarious discussion in Ilyenkov’s lecture, “Historicism in Psychology,” where Ilyenkov says that the fact that people think with their brains and not their arses is admitted by all, and given experimental confirmation by Dr. Guillotine, who not for nothing designed his machine to cut off heads and not buttocks (Ilyenkov 2018a, 229). A tape of this lecture exists, the only known recording of Ilyenkov in action.
This line of argument is explored in Bakhurst 2008.
Partiinost’ [literally “partyness”] is hard to translate. “Commitment to the Party” probably comes closest to its meaning.
The self-criticism may not in fact have been so sincere. The typescript of Ilyenkov’s remarks suggests that not everything he said was written by him (see Ilyenkov 2017, 50).
Ilyenkov protested that dialectical logic had been assigned only two entries (“Logic (dialectical)” and “Logical and historical”), compared to 22 devoted to aspects of formal logic. This gave the misleading impression that dialectical logic was a sub-branch of logic, instead of a comprehensive approach to thought that subsumed and transcended formal approaches. Ilyenkov also complained that the editorial work he had so far undertaken had been redone and “hopelessly spoiled” by A. G. Spirkin. Ilyenkov asked that his name be removed from the list of editors of volume three, asserting that he hadn’t “the slightest desire to put his name to Spirkin’s work” (Ilyenkov 2018a, 306).
At the defense, Ilyenkov was harshly criticized by two colleagues, I. Elez and G. A. Davydova. Davydova, who had formerly been Ilyenkov’s follower, was the ex-wife of Ilyenkov’s friend, the psychologist V. V. Davydov. She was now married to Elez. Illesh comments, “I am not saying that her theoretical change of mind was directly connected to the change in her personal life, but neither can we entirely ignore this circumstance” (Ilyenkov 2018a, 328). The dissertation passed by 26 votes to 3 (the third negative vote was likely B. S. Ukraintsev’s, see below). Notwithstanding this massive majority, VAK (the “Higher Attestation Committee”—the principal degree-awarding body of the USSR) insisted on sending the dissertation to a further referee before finally granting Ilyenkov the degree in April 1969.
This was Ilyenkov’s paper for the Notre Dame conference, “Marx and the Western World,” which Ilyenkov was unable to attend in person (see note 2 above).
Ilyenkov was genuinely convinced that Meshcheryakov’s work was of deep philosophical significance. There is no doubt, however, that he is often incautious in the way he states his case, portraying the work as an experimentum crusis vindicating his Marxist account of the social construction of mind. However, such claims need to be understood in context. Many of these writings were designed to celebrate and popularize Meshcheryakov’s work in an effort to convince the authorities to provide the resources that would allow the work to continue. This was particularly crucial after Meshcheryakov’s sudden death in 1974. Naturally, such writings tended to simplify the issues and it was no surprise that they provoked a negative response from thinkers who favored more naturalistic conceptions of mind. However, it was one thing to get an uncomprehending response from a geneticist, such as A. A. Malinovskii (1970) (son of Lenin’s rival A. A. Bogdanov), another to find one’s own colleagues utterly uncomprehending of the philosophical depth of Meshcheryakov’s project. (Ukrainstev’s reflections, in response to Ilyenkov, on the sense of smell as a channel of communication are astonishing in their stupidity.) Hostility to Ilyenkov’s work in this area continued after his death, when his old adversary David Dubrovsky and others mounted “a battle for truth in blind-deaf pedagogy,” accusing Ilyenkov of falsifying data and other failures of academic integrity. Carol Padden and I came to Ilyenkov’s defense in Bakhurst and Padden 1991. Some of Ilyenkov’s best writing on Meshcheryakov was published only recently in Ilyenkov 2018a, 240–254.
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Bakhurst, D. (2021). Evald Ilyenkov: Philosophy as the Science of Thought. In: Bykova, M.F., Forster, M.N., Steiner, L. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Russian Thought. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-62982-3_17
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