Brain Excretes Thought (On Vulgar Materialism)


One interesting figure in the Soviet reading of Hegel (of which there are many interesting examples, of course, and hopefully more will be translated or discussed in the nearest future) is Evald Ilyenkov and his attempts to find vulgar materialism of “brain excretes thought” variety. This sort of dumb materialism is still alive and well. Think about all the people who say things like “there is nothing in the world but matter” or “everything is material, i.e. physical” and the like (take your pick).

The problem is not to propose the existence of the “ideal” as a realm separated from the “material” but to think through the problem of the “ideal” in a way that avoid the vulgarity of the above-mentioned positions. Ilyenkov’s discussion is subtle and it does not go against the usual standards of materialism (although the notion of “matter” as stuff that constitutes reality is certainly an atavism from nineteenth century materialisms – no amount of dialectics can fix that).

“The ideal is the subjective image of the objective reality, i.e. the reflection of external world in the forms of human activity, in the forms of his consciousness and will. The ideal is not something individual-psychological, and, of course, not something physiological, but it is the social-historical fact, the product and the form of spiritual production. The ideal is realized in various forms of social consciousness and human will as the subject of social production of material and spiritual life.”

(Идеальное – субъективный образ объективной реальности, т.е. отражение внешнего мира в формах деятельности человека, в формах его сознания и воли. Идеальное есть не индивидуально-психологический, тем более не физиологический факт, а факт общественно-исторический, продукт и форма духовного производства. Идеальное осуществляется в многообразных формах общественного сознания и воли человека как субъекта общественного производства материальной и духовной жизни.)

This is from Ilyenkov’s encyclopedia entry on the subject.

Here is a piece in English in which Ilyenkov elaborates his understanding based on Marx’s discussion of the subject matter:

In Capital Marx defines the form of value in general as “purely ideal” not on the grounds that it exists only “in the consciousness”, only in the head of the commodity-owner, but on quite opposite grounds. The price or the money form of value, like any form of value in general, is IDEAL because it is totally distinct from the palpable, corporeal form of commodity in which it is presented, we read in the chapter on “Money”. [CapitalVol. I, pp. 98-99.]

In other words, the form of value is IDEAL, although it exists outside human consciousness and independently of it…

The ideal that exists outside people’s heads and consciousness, as something completely objective, a reality of a special kind that is independent of their consciousness and will, invisible, impalpable and sensuously imperceptible, may seem to them something that is only “imagined”, something “suprasensuous”…

So to claim that all that exists is material is rather stupid – it is to ignore the sort of thing that Marx (following Hegel and German idealism) did with the entire problem of materialism. In other words, to talk about materialism today as if we are still in the eighteenth century (“matter is all there is” or “there is only physical, period”) is to exhibit a lack of understanding of what truly constitutes materialism as a philosophical position.

2 thoughts on “Brain Excretes Thought (On Vulgar Materialism)

  1. Pingback: Brain Excretes Thought (On Vulgar Materialism) | Research Material

  2. Pingback: Brain Excretes Thought (On Vulgar Materialism) | Research Material

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