from the activity of logic to the logic of activity

Speculative thought is important, and unless you are doing speculative thought you are not doing any thought at all. You are only playing about.

CLR James, “Lectures on the Black Jacobins”

I knew little about Ilyenkov when I began to read him, but immediately fell in love with his anger and acumen. [1] This is the first entry, on Chapter 2, “Hegel and the Problem of the Subject Matter of Logic,” in a series I’ll be posting to this blog drawn from notes I compiled over the course of an otherwise dull winter month on the Intelligent Materialism collection of essays on Hegel and dialectics published on Haymarket’s Historical Materialism imprint. I skip the first essay, “Hegel Today” (1970), not because it was a popular piece published in Pravda but because it’s an introduction without explanation of the problematic Ilyenkov develops over the course of the next nine essays. It’s a passionate defense of the rational kernel of Hegel’s thought under the auspices of Lenin’s authority, who once said the whole of Hegel’s Logic was a necessary prerequisite for a complete understanding of Capital. The title of the collection is taken from a quote in Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks that reads “intelligent idealism is closer to intelligent materialism than stupid materialism.” [2] Because his life’s work was to make materialism intelligent, Ilyenkov distrusted vulgar materialist critiques of idealism and was ostracized by academic authorities enforcing orthodox Soviet diamat, which ended with his suicide in March 1979. [3] Rather than eulogizing him as a martyr for the truth under authoritarianism we can, following Ilyenkov’s own lead, say that he was not the first or the last casualty of the global academic reaction of 20th century philosophy (encompassing orthodox Soviet diamat, analytic neopositivism, and continental hermeneutics) which he called, in Hegelian terms, the revenge of the understanding on reason, or, more succinctly, neo-Kantianism. Ilyenkov’s lesson for Marxists: you need your own critique of Hegel, on your own (materialist) terms, because when anyone else critiques Hegel, to quote Marx quoting Horace, De te fabula narratur! [4]

Chapter 2, “Hegel and the Problem of the Subject Matter of Logic”

Our open is the Hegel-Napoleon parallel: genius opportunists in the saddle of a revolution trying to ride it into power of the time-honored kind (monarch, priest) they’d battled against alongside and as revolutionaries. Traitors to the revolution of which they were matchless champions, Napoleon falls to the Vienna Congress and Hegel to the Vienna Circle. (A coincidence too perfect for Ilyenkov to miss.) They deserved their respective fates–their Waterloos and St. Helenas. In Hegel’s case, exile was issued post-mortem by what Ilyenkov calls the revenge of the understanding against reason.

To make sense of this revenge story, I need to take a brief detour through the opening of the Science of Logic. The understanding, for Hegel, is the faculty of cognition by which we solve our problem of making sense of the world by weaving a knotted web of categories, the ideas we use to organize ideas and experience, that provides us with the security of sense called common-sense, in its more or less ‘sophisticated’ forms (ranging from academic-specialist vocabularies to folk sayings). The understanding, once it’s solved a sense-making problem, is inveterately conservative, and as creatures of the understanding we’re married to our categories, which we guard against critiques and, what’s much more upsetting, the contradictions that inevitably sharpen between our categories themselves. High-profile examples: Plato’s Euthyphro, where we see neither myth nor law can decide for a noble whether to try his father, or Sophocles’ Antigone, where we find a family ruined by fidelities to the mutually exclusive laws of state and nature. The understanding is an ideological organ of cognition, eternalizing temporary solutions to the problem of sense-making. Reason is the cognitive faculty capable of bringing these categories, to which we defer as if by instinct, to consciousness and into connections with one another, at which junctures we find real contradictions. These sites where our sense-making categories are contested, where they contest each other, assure the perpetual possibility of social critique. Where do we stand as critics? Not outside of society, but wherever inside precedent encounters itself as a deadlock between conservators of the status quo. Critique reveals the perversity of the norm to itself, as Adorno says, when reason puts the limits of what’s reasonable on public display. For Ilyenkov, the revenge of the understanding on reason in the 20th century is the joint effort of (1) theoretical positions sometimes grouped together under the name “the linguistic turn,” (2) empiricist philosophies of science, and (3) neo-Kantianism (internally split between phenomenology, on the one hand, and a fideistic ethics of postulates, on the other). The fight is Spinoza-Hegel-Marx versus everyone, and the panoramic view of the battlefield only takes shape across all ten chapters of Intelligent Materialism. The stakes are the same as those of the Theses: grasping the significance of revolutionary, critical-practical activity, or the unity of theory and practice. [5]

According to Ilyenkov, Hegel’s great offense against the understanding was opening the scope of logical science to include things allegedly outside and independent of thinking. Though this reproach appears justified at first given Hegel’s claim that the world is an external embodiment-explication of the creative force of a self-developing logic in the mind of God, Ilyenkov insists we read ‘God’ as an allegory for the collective activity of society. Ilyenkov’s claim (following Marx’s critical reception of Feuerbach) is no image of God against which we are measured and found wanting is a simple fiction, but is instead an inadequate representation of something real–viz., the collective force of social totality that really does (under present and past modes of production) stand against individuals as a hostile, alien power. For Ilyenkov, implicit common-sensical understanding of this social reality is expressed in religious imagination and explicit theoretical understanding of this social reality is expressed in social critique, but everyone understands it at varying degrees of confusion. Even Hegel, Ilyenkov adds, speaks like a theologian at his limits, painting cherubs in the heavens on the ceilings of his thought. It’s a marvelous thesis, that Hegel is closest to materialist social analysis when he’s sermonizing.

The subject matter of logic is thought itself, which makes logic the science of thinking. Where Hegel differs from classical and 20th century logic, Ilyenkov says, lies in the scope of Hegel’s answer to the question: what counts as thinking? Hegel’s rival (a position Ilyenkov attributes widely, from the Sophists to the neopositivists and many in between) is the psychological theory of thinking, according to which thought is one of many mental capacities (alongside memory, smell, will, etc.) defined as the capacity of an individual to give attention or form a representation. Thought is assumed to begin with an individual who possesses private meanings they try to communicate to another individual, with variable degrees of success, through the spoken or written word. Naturally, Ilyenkov says, it follows from this assumption that logic ought to be propositional, focusing on the grammatical form thought takes in language as the vehicle for individuals seeking to express meaning to one another. This theory of thinking is proven artificial, Ilyenkov argues, as it inevitably takes the form of a collection of rules for what consistent, valid, sound, or truthful thinking ought to be when these ‘rules of thinking’ are in fact broken at every step of real thought-processes. ‘Logic,’ which is supposed to be the science of thinking, can in this form neither explain nor constrain real thought, but only hold it to arbitrary rules for cognition and argumentation that not even logicians can follow. For Hegel, Ilyenkov says, thought not only reveals itself in human action as much as it does in words, but the chain of human deeds is a better exhibition of the laws of thought than laces of phrases. He returns again and again to Lenin’s excited remark in his comments on Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach that for Hegel practice becomes a criteria for the evaluation of discursive thinking (from everyday language to specialist discourse). To make this more intuitive, Ilyenkov refers to a folk saying, “a tongue is given to man to hide his thoughts.” However, the problem is not just that the spoken and written word can be used to intentionally deceive, but that the spoken and written word is an inadequate indication of our own thought, even when we believe we have given honest self-reports of what we’re thinking, when considered in isolation from our real activity. If the goal of logic as a theoretical project is to discover the real logic that orders real thinking and not impose order onto living thought, activity (individual or collective, equally social) must be included under the ambit of logic as a science. But as thinking is manifest equally across the spoken word, the written word, and (social) practice, so it is in the artifacts produced by those practices, in the colossal body of civilization and non-organic human body we call culture–from tools to temples to statues to offices to factories to political organizations to ships to toys. [6] Thought is objectified through the production of artifacts, which confront us as ‘thinking in its other-being’ (Anderssein), what Marx called the “active side” of thought, and the study of which yields indications of the successive shapes of thought throughout history without which we’d be forced to take historical testimonies at their word. Practice, succinctly, is introduced into logic as both

(1) The process whereby previously elaborated concepts and purposes of historical agents are objectified, out of which we can read the laws of thought


(2) The criterion of the truthfulness of concepts and purposes, in light of which we can judge the adequacy of our self-understanding and the success of our projects

However, Ilyenkov criticizes Hegel for reducing practice to a mere test of thinking that was already accomplished elsewhere–‘in theory,’ or in the concept, as if either stood apart from or outside of history. So for Hegel, the French Revolution was the realization of the ideas of the Enlightenment (Robespierre is the practical Rousseau, the guillotine is the instrument for realizing the idea of absolute equality, etc.). Hegel can only understand practice as an expression for previously accomplished thought, not thought in its immediate articulation. In this, Ilyenkov concedes, Hegel was faithful to bourgeois revolution, whose revolutionaries saw revolution itself as the consequence of theoretical maturation of ideas of equality, liberty, and fraternity in the minds of revolutionary agents. For Ilyenkov, this accounts for the misunderstanding of Hegel as a subjective idealist, which is propagated above all by Marxists who, in their rejection of Hegel on these terms, throw out the rational kernel with the mystical shell. Ilyenkov returns to his thesis that Hegel’s exaltations of the divine mind are allegorical figurations of social totality, against which individuals might rebel or before which they might kneel but in either case confront as real constraint on their thought. Hegel’s position is incomplete, and, as a good professor of logic, studies the activity of logic but only indicates a greater study of the logic of activity. [7] If Hegel is an idealist, it’s because he treats human thinking as an uncreated, demiurgic cosmic force that causes and develops itself in a process outside of nature and history, both of which are reduced to outward manifestations of a process of thinking which always happens in a transcendent ‘elsewhere.’ For Hegel, we don’t need to explain the emergence of thought itself, which always was, is, and will be, and ‘woke up’ eventually, discovering itself incarnated in clever animals on a lone star among numberless stars in a remote corner of the universe. [8] Hegel’s absolute limit becomes clear as soon as the materialist asks for a genetic account of thinking itself. With Lenin, Ilyenkov affirms the primacy of practice (over theory), explaining logic in theory as a formalization of real practice repeated a thousand million times throughout the history of the species. [9] To condense Ilyenkov’s condensed story into a sentence: humans, taken as a species, relate to nature through labor, which is only successful if human activity coordinates with the rules of objects to produce specific effects, and these natural constraints on the practice of the human species shape the various social forms of human practice which in turn constrain theoretical practice. As a consequence, Lenin says, the task of logic is the theoretical articulation of the real logic of the “universal laws governing both ‘being’ (i.e. nature plus society) and ‘thinking’ (i.e. conscious human activity.” (qtd. in 23) The real prototype for Hegel’s theological-allegorical figure of God thinking through the logical development of the concept before the act of creation is the historical process of ‘thinking’–through spoken word, written word, practical activity, and the production of artifacts–that occurs between individuals through the social relationships (linguistic or violent or both or otherwise) which constitute them, and even ‘think’ them into being as one collective head with no face in constant dramatic dialogue with itself. In Marxist shorthand, social totality, our point of departure for the higher logic of the ultimate coincidence of nature, society, and thought under universal law in the forms of development of anything whatever. The subject matter of materialist logic is quite simply the universe.

[1] My first exposure was through this marvelous article by Alexei Penzin about Ilyenkov’s speculative cosmological thesis that the cosmic-historical (as opposed to merely world-historical) role of communism is to reverse the entropic heat-death of the universe through humanity’s final act of generous self-immolation in re-creating the Big Bang:

[2] p. 274,


[4] “The tale is told of you” (Horace, Satires, Bk I, Satire 1).


[6] Ilyenkov: “Thinking manifests itself–its force, its active energy and its nature in its universal patterns and schemes–not only in speaking or in the composition of treatises, but also in the creation of the entire grandiose world of culture, the entire ‘non-organic human body’ that stands over and against an individual human being, the body of civilization, including tools and temples, statues and offices, factories and political organizations, ships and toys–all that with which we are involved from the moment we are born and enter the human family.” (13)

[7] A paraphrase of Marx’s “matter of logic… logic of matter” formula from his critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, which Ilyenkov cites in Chapter 1. (2)

[8] Nietzsche’s assertion that knowledge was ‘invented’ by clever animals is the difference that makes a difference between Hegel and Nietzsche: “In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge.”

[9] Lenin: “For Hegel action, practice, is a logical syllogism, a figure of logic. And this is true! Not, of course, in the sense that the figure of logic has its other-being in the practice of man (= absolute idealism), but vice versa: man’s practice, repeating itself a thousand million times, becomes consolidated in man’s consciousness by figures of logic. Precisely (and only) on account of this thousand-million-fold repetition, these figures have the stability of a prejudice, an axiomatic character.” (qtd. in 21-22)

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