“Marx on the Concept of the Proletariat: An Ilyenkovian Interpretation”: Siyaves Azeri
The notion of “concept” and the concept of “class” plays a central role in Marx’s and Marxist analysis of society and human activity. There is a large body of study about concepts, their formation and development, which has been made, in great extent, by Soviet psychologists from cultural-historical tradition that have been inspired by works of Lev Vygotsky. Yet, the achievements of the scientific works of these scholars have not been fully incorporated toward developing an epistemological-philosophical theory that aims at a proper understanding of concepts. Evald Ilyenkov is one of the major figures that has undertaken this task and has made great contribution to a Marxist philosophical theory of concepts and conceptual systems. Yet, his early tragic death has left his task unfulfilled. This paper is an attempt toward a first step of furthering and deepening Ilyenkov’s philosophical analysis of concepts. To this end, Marx’s concept of class will be analyzed with the use of Ilyenkovian approach to concepts. The paper attempts to show that contradiction is an essential aspect of conceptual and real development. It also aims at showing that the contradictory nature of concepts, on the other hand, reveals the normative aspect of conceptual activity: concepts and thus conceptual systems are not only contradictory but also normative. Normativity is a necessary aspect of conceptual development in that it put concepts into work, that is, it facilitates the resolution of contradictions that are inherent in reality and thus causes development of both the real and the conceptual realms; this development will reveal itself in form of a new, higher form of contradiction.
Criticizing formal logic Ilyenkov (1960/1982) states, “Conceiving a thing means forming a conception about the entire totality of its properties and relations” (12). According to formal logical understanding a concept is concrete when is devoid of content –“free from all thoughts or properties of this thing”—thus, formal logic considers concepts as impoverishing reality. Following Spinoza and Vygotsky, Ilyenkov elaborates further on the idea that true concepts reveal the essence of things. They are not abstractions made from sense-experience (sense-data). They appear in human consciousness at spiritual-theoretical culture level. Such concepts mature and crystallized in human intellect gradually. They are not self-obvious and if intellect does not develop within cultural-theoretical context, they will be absent. “It is only reasonable knowledge taken as a whole that, as it develops, works out such concepts.
Concrete ‘is the unity of diverse aspects’ (Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, p. 206, quoted in Ilyenkov 1960/1982, 32). Ilyenkov articulates this idea as follows: “the concrete, concreteness, are first of all synonyms of the real links between phenomena, of concatenation and interaction of real aspects and moments of the object given to man in contemplation and in a notion” (1960/1982, 32-3).
Concepts, revealing the essence of the real and of the object and as tools of cognitive activity thus facilitate accessing the essence of the real and acting upon that essence and reveal the necessary connections among aspect of diverse objectivity. “The concrete in thinking also appears, according to Marx’s definition, in the form of combination (synthesis) of numerous definitions. A logically coherent system of definitions is precisely that ‘natural’ form in which concrete truth is realized in thought. Each of definitions forming part of the system naturally reflects only a part, a fragment, an element, an aspect of the concrete reality—and that is why it is abstract if it is taken by itself, separately from other definitions” (1960/1982, 37). A definition, a concept has meaning and is possible only within a system of definitions and concepts. An isolated concept is just a mere abstraction devoid of life and meaning.
The traditional view of concepts, when compares concept to contemplative/sensual image of a thing, conceives the former as a lesser, impoverished, one-sided—and in this sense “abstract”—image. As Hegel puts, in this view “the abstract is counted of less worth than the concrete, because from the former so much of that kind of material has been omitted. To those who hold this view, the process of abstraction means that for our subjective needs one or another characteristic is taken out of concrete… and it is only the incapacity of understanding to absorb such riches that forces it to rest content with meager abstraction” (1960/1982, 46-7).
Concept bestows “meaning” onto, or better to say “extracts” and “expresses” the meaning of a specific element of the entirety of reality. To have meaning, as Vygotsky puts it, is to be made into a tool, that is, to become a concrete universal, which not only is applicable within the system this particular meaningfulness is a part of, but is also applicable within other systems and engulfs newer areas of reality and newer significances. Concept is concrete because it is the non-sine-qua tool of a specific form of action; it is universal because it is a tool that has application beyond the immediate context within which it has been produced.
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