Saturday, August 30, 2014

Vesa Oittinen, Evald Ilyenkov's Philosophy Revisited

Vesa Oittinen, Evald Ilyenkov's Philosophy Revisited

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On behalf of the Department of Philosophy, University of Helsinki, it is a great honour for me to open the Symposium on Evald Ilyenkov. The Symposium is a joint project of the Department of Philosophy (Faculty of Arts), the Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research (Faculty of Education), and the Alexander Institute. It is thus a multidisciplinary enterprise in a positive sense. The main effort in planning and organizing the Symposiurn has been made by Dr. Vesa Oittinen to whom we are all most grateful.

Evald Ilyenkov was born in Smolensk in 1924. He started his studies at the Institute of History, Philosophy and Literature in the University of Moscow. After the World War he continued his studies and defended in 1953 his candidate thesis on the questions of dialectical logic in Marx's economic works. From 1953 to his untimely death in 1979 he worked at the Institute of Philosophy in the Academy of Science of the Soviet Union.

Ilyenkov's study of the dialectics of abstract and concrete in Marx's Capital appeared in 1960. Combining his interest in the history of philosophy with contemporary debates, he published in 1968 his doctoral dissertation on “the question of the nature of thought”.
Ilyenkov's book on Dialectical Logic appeared in Russian in 1974, and as an English translation in 1977. In this work, he tried to combine the Marxist‑Leninist theory of knowledge with methodological questions about special scientific disciplines. In his posthumous work, he discussed Lenin's conception of materialist dialectics.

Ilyenkov's works had a profound impact on Soviet philosophy and his studies influenced also a generation of Western Marxism. Today Ilyenkov would be 75 years old. His voluntary death already for twenty years ago prevented him from seeing the decline of Soviet Union, followed in the Western Marxism by the flight back to historical studies in Hegel and eventually to disappointed postmodernism. I will not make any guess at the judgment that Ilyenkov might have given about the present state of the world. But during this conference we shall hear several assessments of the significance of his work and its continuing relevance. I am very impressed by the programme which includes papers both by Ilyenkov's close friends, his followers in the study of human actions, and his admirers in contemporary theories of language, semiotics, and aesthetics.
Coming myself from the Anglo‑Saxon tradition of analytic philosophy, I should like to make a personal remark. In the late 1970s I read an English translation of Ilyenkov's article The Concept of the Ideal, which I found strikingly similar to Karl Popper's conception of the World 3 of human social constructions. In 1981 I read a Finnish translation of Ilyenkov's essay on the genesis of human personality through concrete action and interaction with the material and social environments. Both articles defend very interesting views which are materialistic in an enlightened way but at the same time critical of vulgar interpretations of materialism. Ilyenkov's views on the development of human personality continued the great tradition of cognitive psychology in the Soviet Union. One can understand that his independent views gave emphasis and a voice to ideas that were not very fashionable in the Soviet philosophy in the 1970s but make him a most interesting object of study among contemporary philosophers and psychologists.

More generally, when the new Millennium is starting, it will be worthwhile and rewarding to assess and re‑evaluate the achievements of philosophers and psychologists who worked in the tradition of Marxist dialectics both in the Soviet Union and other countries. It is no doubt that their publications contain parts that strike us as dogmatic errors. But just like in the study of medieval philosophy, we are now able to distinguish the genuine philosophical ideas from the particular theologically or politically correct form in which they were dressed in the historical context. The symposium on Evald Ilyenkov is an example of such efforts of reconsidering the history of contemporary philosophy.

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