The Problem of the Ideal

by David Dubrovsky

The Material and the Ideal.
The Initial Definition of the Category of the Ideal

The contrariety of the categories of the material and the ideal presupposes their mutual positedness. The materialist solution of the basic question of philosophy consists in the acknowledgement of matter, the material as primary, and consciousness, the ideal, as secondary. The mutual positedness of these categories reveals itself as their mutual differentiation which makes it possible not only to fix in thought the necessary links between them, but also to avoid their confusion and establish the relative independence of spiritual phenomena and their problems. The study of these problems calls for specific cognitive means largely determined by the methodological functions of the category of the ideal (in its Marxist interpretation).

So, the content of the category of the ideal can only surface


when it is compared with the category of the material. Yet in order to do so we must first define the relation between the notions of "matter" and "the material". Are they just different terms denoting one and the same thing, or two different categories? If "matter" and "the material" are different categories, contiguous though as they may be, what are their specific features?

The opinions expressed in relevant literature are far from being unanimous. Some authors hold that "the material" is identical with "matter"2 as both denote nothing else than objective reality.*

Others view them as two different notions which cannot be identified. By "the material" in that case is understood every property of a material object.4 Thus I. S. Narsky contends that "materiality and matter are not identical notions".5 In his opinion, the relationship between these categories is highly dialectical as it expresses the connection between matter and its properties (ibid., pp. 63-65). Such a view ensues from Narsky's general approach to the matter-consciousness antithesis called by him "antinomy-problem". He writes: "Consciousness is material since it is a product of matter, yet it is also ideal, as it is very different from matter which produces it and which is determined through relationship to this product. Matter begets consciousness as its material and immaterial product. The material is and is not matter" (italics mine--D.D.) (ibid., pp. 33-34).

Indeed, the relationship of fundamental categories is charged, as it were, with antinomies. Overcoming an antinomy is only possible in a concrete philosophical context where each of the opposite categories is interpreted with the help of other categories, and this makes it possible to adopt a definite theoretical solution. Dialectic presupposes the possibility not only of an antinomy, but also of its resolution. In other words, an antinomy should not be allowed to subsist as it is since it represents but the most abstract, starting point of theoretical thought bound to override indeterminacy in one or another concrete sense.

* An opinion has also been expressed that the terms "matter" and "the material" ("materiality") are different as the latter "is applicable not only to matter as such, but also to all its properties, except consciousness. . ."; "the material" denotes all that is inherent in matter "except its ideal reflection in consciousness".3


Therefore the assertion that "the material is and is not matter" needs to be qualified.

In Narsky's opinion, consciousness is material in the sense that the cause of its ideality, as well as the content reflected in it, is material by nature (ibid., pp. 69 and 70). The general line of his thought is clear: he seeks to underscore the dependence of consciousness on matter, the reflective nature of the former. Yet he leaves open the question regarding the sense in which "the material. . . is not matter". This statement in fact amounts to an assertion that the material is not objective reality and, consequently, that the material is the ideal. How are we in that case to distinguish the material from the ideal? Even if we should say that "some material phenomena are ideal" (which binds us also to assert the opposite), we should hardly find grounds for demarcating the above indicated notions. Abstract identification of opposites results in a high degree of indeterminary which, theoretically speaking, derives from the antithesis of possibility and reality and the conversion of the former into the latter: indeed, the ideal carries the possibility of the material, and vice versa.

The ideal is necessarily connected with the material (matter), but it would hardly be correct to assert that the material is necessarily connected with the ideal. Already at this point we have a sharp logical distinction which is of crucial importance. The ideal is capable of turning into the material, and vice versa (for instance, in the acts of objectification and deobjectification). Yet it gives no reason for the abstract identification of these categories, as the ideal in one and the same sense and in one and the same respect cannot be simultaneously objective reality.

Nor would we clarify the matter by distinguishing the material from objective reality. We believe that there is no logically sound method of distinguishing the terms "matter" and "the material" within the conceptual framework of the basic question of philosophy. It is very important that we never lose sight of the guiding principle: ". . . the sole "property" of matter with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up is the property of being an objective reality, of existing outside the mind".6 The notion of the material therefore covers every object, process, every property, relationship, etc. existing objectively, i.e.


outside and independent of consciousness. Put another way, the material is synonymous with matter and make one and the same category.

A different viewpoint does not accord with the logical structure of the basic question of philosophy and clouds the category of matter as its clarity can only be retained in opposition to the category of consciousness (the ideal). We fully subscribe to Kopnin's criticism of attempts to define matter "as such, as some substance" and share his view that "the concept of matter is meaningless outside the relationship of being to thinking."7

The materialist solution of the basic question of philosophy does not eliminate the logical contrariety of the categories of the material and the ideal. The ideal does not turn into the material just because it is necessarily connected with and determined by it; if it does, it stops being the ideal. Therefore the assertion that the ideal is the material (even if it is qualified as a property of the material) can hardly be accepted as it tends to wash out the demarcation between these categories and creates an illusion that matter or consciousness may have a purely ontological definition.

To be sure, the logical contrariety of the material and the ideal is not absolute and does not rule out their passing into each other through mediating categories. The latter, once found, make it possible to express theoretically the unity of the material and the ideal in human activity, in the research into the mind-brain problem, and in many other respects without eliminating, however, the antithesis of the categories in question. Elaborating on this problem, Lenin wrote: "Of course, even the antithesis of matter and mind has absolute significance only within the bounds of a very limited field--in this case exclusively within the bounds of the fundamental epistemological problem of what is to be regarded as primary and what as secondary. Beyond these bounds the relative character of this antithesis is indubitable" (italics mine--D.D.)8 According to Lenin, this antithesis should not be excessive, exaggerated, metaphysical.9

Lenin's statements cited above are often adduced as an argument in support of the opinion that the antithesis of matter and consciousness does not obtain outside the bounds of the basic question of philosophy. Reference to Lenin, however, is based on a misinterpretation of his views. Lenin's explicit affirmation


of the relative character of the antithesis in question entails two important consequences. First, the categories of the material and the ideal preserve their world-view and methodological functions beyond the bounds of epistemological problems (we shall discuss this question later). Second, all thinkable logical relations of the contrariety of these categories are encompassed by the dialectical unity of the absolute and the relative: in one concrete respect such a contrariety may be absolute, in another, relative. Yet in all cases the logical contrariety of the above-indicated categories obtains in one way or another thus attesting to their interconnection. If the material is objective reality, the ideal cannot be anything else but subjective reality. The definition of the ideal as subjective reality is the starting point of our investigation and should remain invariable in all contexts where reference is made to the category of the ideal. If this requirement is not observed, the category of the ideal becomes meaningless.

The classics of Marxism have strongly opposed any attempt to camouflage the logical contrariety of the categories of the material and the ideal, to confound the ideal and the material. Criticising I. Dietzgen, Lenin wrote : "That both thought and matter are "real", i.e., exist, is true. But to say that thought is material is to make a false step, a step towards confusing materialism and idealism."10 "That the conception of "matter" must also include thoughts . . . is a muddle, for if such an inclusion is made, the epistemological contrast between mind and matter, idealism and materialism . . . loses all meaning" (ibid., p. 245). Thought is ideal, and not material; it only exists as subjective reality, it cannot be separated from man and treated as something outside his consciousness. According to Lenin, an idea independent of man, sensation independent of man is "a lifeless abstraction, an idealist artifice" (ibid., p. 227).

The understanding of the ideal (spiritual) as human subjective reality, that is the reality of our thoughts, sense images, internal motives, etc., runs as a leading thread through all philosophical thought of Marx and Engels. In contrast with Hegel, Marx pointed out that the ideal is nothing else than the phenomenon of human consciousness, the reflection of the material in the human mind: "The ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind and translated into forms of thought."11 For the classics of Marxism the ideal does


not exist outside the human mind. Analysing the process of labour, Marx draws his famous comparison between a conscious and an instinctive action: "But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement" (italics mine--D.D.) (ibid., p. 174).

The identification of the ideal with subjective reality is particularly manifest in Marx's analysis of the role of consumption in production processes: "Consumption creates the need for new production, and therefore the ideal, intrinsically actuating reason for production, which is the presupposition of production."12 According to Marx, "Consumption posits the object of production ideally, as an internal image, a need, an urge and a purpose" (ibid.).

Marx is also known to have repeatedly censured attempts to confuse the material and the ideal, i.e. what exists in man's mind as subjective reality with what exists outside man as objective reality. He pointed out the social roots of this theoretical muddle which helped to veil the trick of substituting an illusory change of the world--only in thought, in imagination, in fanciful dreams--for its real transformation. Exposing the idealist character of Bauer's notorious "absolute criticism", Marx wrote that to throw off the yoke of oppression "it is not enough to do so in thought and to leave hanging over one's real sensuously perceptible head the real sensuously perceptible yoke that cannot be subtilised away with ideas. Yet Absolute Criticism has learnt from Hegel's Phanomenologie at least the art of converting real objective chains that exist outside me into merely ideal, merely subjective chains, existing merely in me and thus of converting all external sensuously perceptible struggles into pure struggles of thought."13 This passage reveals with utmost clarity the contrast between the ideal and the material, as well as the sophistry underlying attempts to confuse them.

It is worth noting in this context that the dialectical analysis of the problem of the ideal is incompatible with the violation of basic rules of logic. Formal logic, as has been convincingly shown by Kostyuk, "prohibits not a dialectical contradiction, but eclecticism, sophistry, confusion."14


In order to avoid vagueness in the analysis of the problem in interest, one ought to strictly adhere to the basic definition of the ideal as subjective reality and never lose sight of the logical contrariety of the categories of the ideal and the material.


The Category of the Ideal and the "Personal Aspect"
of Social Consciousness and Social Activity

The concept of the ideal propounded in this work and understood as a capacity for action of social individuals provides a guideline for the further development of such methodological principles and conceptual means that would promote further investigation into man's conscious activity--an inseparable unity of the social and the existential, the actual and the possible, the present and the creatively constructed future. The result will be a better understanding of every socio-historical process which casts off, as it were, all dead shells of the "finished" objects, communication structures and events, leaving them in the past and ceaselessly moving forward, an eternal "becoming", an endless future-oriented progress of humanity. The dependence of this process on its objectifled results, on what has already come into being, is not a single-value predetermination. It is to a great extent only probabilistic. But then the already existent, the objectified, is not fully determined either. It is a product of the past historical process and its comprehension involves the restructuring of the previous man-inspired movement. There is no becoming, no socio-historical process without its creators, living human beings.

Hence the imperative need to combine the reductive-objective analysis with the personal approach, to exercise special attention to the methodology of investigation into the dynamic structure of subjective reality. Here we have, perhaps, the least explored area of the social dialectic of the material and the ideal.

V. Kelle and M. Kovalzon have convincingly showed that the historical process should be investigated on three interdependent planes: "natural-historical, operational and humanistic (personal).43 The absolutisation of any of them and disregard of others inevitably leads to a deviation from the principles of the dialectical methodology of historical materialism (ibid., p. 286). Underscoring the importance of the natural-historical aspect of the investigation (objective systems approach), the authors make a resolute stand against "vulgar sociologism",


against the "objectivistic description of history", since from the Marxist point of view history is the "conscious realisation of human potentials in the historical process which thereby acquires a humanistic character" (ibid., pp. 285-286).

The concept of the ideal as an expression of man's capacity for action constitutes one of the necessary methodological principles demanding of the investigator to focus his attention on the process of becoming, on the historical development understood as the activity of living human beings. It applies not only to the emergence of new things, new social relations and events, but also to the emergence of new knowledge and new values.

If socio-historical phenomena are seen in retrospect, what has come into being must be "projected" as what is becoming. Wherever possible and feasible, analysis should be brought to the level of the creating individual who transforms, first on an ideal plane, then practically, all aspects of social life (things, communication structures, events).

History, according to Marx, is made by real men and they should be described "as both the authors and the actors of their own drama".44

This kind of analysis has demonstrated its great merits in a number of historiographic and culturological investigations revealing the emergence of new social formations from two interrelated standpoints: as the shaping of persons by objective social relations and events and as the shaping of these relations and events by the persons' activity.45

It is only in this two-dimensional analysis that the investigator can disclose the profound social dialectic of the material and the ideal and penetrate the processes of concrete historical transformations of the ideal into the material and vice versa interdependent like inhalation and exhalation and representing the constantly throbbing pulse of social life.

The category of the ideal thus denotes the fundamental property of man's capacity for action, the crucial feature of the manifestation of his "essential powers". This characteristic of the category of the ideal reveals itself in the analysis of the historical perspective of the social dialectic of the material and the ideal, when the essential power vectors are closed only in the future, beyond the horizon of the present materiality and


present events. Historical development opens up a broad panorama of new possibilities and new manifestations of the essential powers" pushing forward, as it were, the horizon of present social being further into the realm of the ideal as the project of the future, as its mental image, hope, prevision and anticipation.

The social dialectic of the material and the ideal rules out the interpretation of the ideal as existing outside the material, as the realm of spirit, i.e. its idealistic and dualistic conceptions. Yet it is also incompatible with the vulgar-materialist interpretations of the ideal giving but an illusion of conceptual comfort based on a gross oversimplification of patterns of conscious activity, coarse identification of the ideal with the material, and actual elimination of the category of the ideal together with the vital problems of man's conscious self-realisation--the purpose of human creative activity and the creation of human purpose.

The indissoluble unity of the ideal and the material, the mutual transition of the material and the ideal represent a theoretical expression of one of the strategic aspects of social life created by conscious activity of people. The indispensable prerequisite for a profound and sustained analysis of the social dialectic of the material and the ideal is a clear logical correlation of these two fundamental categories preserving in all contexts of such analysis the necessary measure of their logical contrariety which prevents quasidialectical looseness in their manipulation and a diffusion of their content. This diffusion, rather common in present-day publications, impairs the determinateness of the category of the ideal and inevitably leads to conceptual aberrations and attempts to skirt controversial issues and side-step the arising difficulties. The result is theoretical vagueness and "diplomatic evasiveness" in proposed solutions.

The category of the ideal must retain its fundamental meaning of subjective reality in all theoretical contexts. It is this specific content of the category of the ideal that expresses the distinguishing features of human consciousness as actual spiritual activity and as the individual's unique inner world, the distinguishing features of the conscious reflection and transformation of the external world and conscious activity itself. The category of the ideal reflects the free movement of the content of subjective reality when the capacity for action is still effective, when


action has not yet died down in the form of external objectification; in the process of such objectification the freedom of this movement gradually wanes and completely subsides in the "finished" object; together with it fades away the ideal, as it evolves into the material shackled in its object form and incorporated into the system of objective ties and relationships of the material world.

The category of the ideal denotes the possibility of reconstructions and new formations in the sphere of subjective reality free from the physical, spatio-temporal and informationial determinateness of the existing world of objects: indeed, in our imagination, daring thought, dreams and hopes we are capable of overstepping its bounds and manipulating it at will. What does it matter if this freedom of our Ego, wanton, arrogant and hypocritical with itself as it may be, brings forth chimeras, castles in the air, comforting illusions, false beliefs and maniacal ideas? Even if this subjective wantonness only occasionally has a flash of insight or runs across a true value, just the same it represents the essence of the restless creative human spirit, eternally seeking truth, beauty, goodness, justice and excellence (this latter feature provides a logical link from the ideal to an ideal as a model of perfection).

In all the above indicated aspects of its content the category of the ideal is logically opposed to the category of the material, yet it gives no cause for divorcing ideality from materiality and placing the former in the primordial realm of spirit after the manner of Plato or Hegel. What this opposition does imply is the need to penetrate deeper the specificity of the conscious creative activity of man as the primary source of all historical changes in order to get a more profound understanding of the objective reality of social processes and social life in general embodying the conscious and responsible activity of every individual and mankind as a whole.



2 Yu. A. Petrov, Logical Functions of the Categories of Dialectics, Moscow, 1972, pp. 21-22 (in Russian).

3 M.N. Rutkevich, Dialectical Materialism, Moscow, 1973, p. 67 (Russian).

4 S.T. Melyukhin, Matter in Its Unity, Infinity and Development, Moscow, 1966, p. 50 (in Russian).

5 I.S. Narsky, Dialectical Contrariety and the Logic of Cognition, Moscow, 1969 (in Russian).

6 V.I. Lenin, "Materialism and Empirio-Criticism", Collected Works, Vol. 14, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, pp. 260-261.

7 P.V. Kopnin, Dialectic as the Logic and Theory of Knowledge, Moscow, 1973, p. 53 (in Russian).

8 V.I. Lenin, "Materialism and Empirio-Criticism", p. 147.

9 Ibid., p. 245; see also: idem, "Conspectus of Hegel's Book The Science of Logic", Collected Works, Vol. 38, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1980, p. 114.

10 V.I. Lenin, "Materialism and Empirio-Criticism", p. 244.

11 Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1978, p. 29.

12 Karl Marx, "Economic Works. 1857-1861", in: K. Marx. F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 28, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1986, p. 29.

13 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, "The Holy Family or Critique of Critical Criticism", Collected Works, Vol. 4, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, pp. 82-83.

14 V.N. Kostyuk, Elements of Modal Logic, Kiev, 1978, p. 175 (in Russian).

43 V. Zh. Kelle, M. Ya. Kovalzon, Theory and History, Moscow, 1981 (in Russian).

44 K. Marx, "The Poverty of Philosophy", in: K. Marx. F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 6, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, p. 170.

45 See, for instance, E.V. Tarle, Napoleon, Moscow, 1941; idem, Talleyrand, Moscow, 1957; idem, The Babeuf Case. An Essay from the History of France, Moscow, 1981; S.L. Utchenko, Cicero and His Time, Moscow, 1972; idem, Julius Caesar, Moscow, 1976; A.Z. Manfred, Napoleon Bonaparte, Moscow, 1980; S.S. Averintsev, "European Cultural Tradition in the Period of Transition from the Period of the Antiquity to the Middle Ages", in: From the History of Culture in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Moscow, 1976 (all Russian).

SOURCE: Dubrovsky, David. The Problem of the Ideal: The Nature of Mind and Its Relationship to the Brain and Social Medium. Translated by Vladimir Stankevich. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1988. Chapter 1, section 2; chapter 8, section 4 (extract): pp. 17-23, 280-283.

[NOTE: Dubrovsky argues in this book against extending usage of the term "ideal" by other Soviet authors—and by me as well—to cover all the social products of culture and intellect abstracted out of their materiality. — RD]

The Problem of the Ideal: Contents

The Problem of the Ideal: Introduction

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)


The Problem of the Ideal by David Dubrovsky
[available through chapter 4.1]

David I. Dubrovsky and Merab Mamardashvili:
Adam’s Second Fall and the Advent of the Cyber-Leviathan

by Inti Yanes-Fernandez

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 31 October 2000

Site ©1999-2022 Ralph Dumain