The Problem of the Ideal:

by David Dubrovsky

The problem of the ideal has always been the pivot of philosophical knowledge and the main scene of theoretical struggle between materialism and idealism.

From the standpoint of logic the category of the ideal is directly linked with that of the material, and this alone is bound to make it crucial in materialist philosophy. The content of the category of the ideal is determined by the way dialectical materialism solves the basic question of philosophy. The ideal does not exist by itself, it is of necessity related to the material as its reflection, as kind of a mental projection objectified by man through his practical activity. Representing the essential characteristic of consciousness, creative spirit and practical activity of a social individual, the ideal has a world‑view character and performs methodological functions. Their theoretical analysis is an important prerequisite not only for philosophical research, but also for inquiries into a broad range of concrete scientific problems.

The investigation of the problem of the ideal is bound up with the solution of a number of key problems in dialectical and historical materialism, ethics, aesthetics and scientific atheism. In turn, progress in various fields of philosophical knowledge largely depends on the results of research into the problem of the ideal which entails serious theoretical difficulties.

The complex character of the problem of the ideal, multifaceted as it is, presupposes interdependence of its different aspects and its study as an integral whole. Presumably, there are two principal areas of research into the nature of the ideal which appear to have very little relevance to each other. One of them mainly covers the questions of dialectical materialism connected with the understanding of consciousness as a function of the highly developed organic matter and as the highest form of reflection. Here attention is focused on the classic problems of the relationship between the spiritual and the material, consciousness and brain processes, the genesis of the mental, and the interrelation of thought and language. Their solution calls for the explanation of the essence of the ideal in epistemological and ontological terms on the basis of general scientific knowledge and also data provided by psychology, psychiatry and contiguous disciplines. It is along these lines that the problem of the ideal has been investigated by a number of Marxist philosophers (particularly, by V. S. Tyukhtin, V. N. Sagatovsky and S. Petrov).[*]

The other area of research is mainly confined to the questions of historical materialism. They are connected, first and foremost, with the explanation of nature and functions of social consciousness, cultural values and spiritual production. In this field the ideal is treated in terms of social practice, the dialectic of objectification and deobjectification. This was the line followed by E. V. Ilyenkov, [2] V. S. Barulin [3] and other researchers.

It stands to reason that the two indicated areas of investigation into the problem of the ideal do not by any means encompass all its aspects. Besides, their delimitation is largely conventional, its purpose being to highlight the difference of the two traditional approaches to the problem of the ideal as they exist in Soviet literature—one of them oriented predominantly on natural sciences, and the other, on humanities. This situation is indicative of a certain general estrangement between the notions of natural and social sciences which has resulted in a heterogeneity of theoretical principles underlying the two approaches to the problem in interest.

Actually, however, the natural‑scientific and socio‑cultural aspects of the problem of the ideal are essentially interdependent and the achievement of conceptual unity in their study is hampered, among other things, by the old dichotomy of the biological (natural) and the social. To be sure, such dichotomy remains valid in the study of many theoretical problems, for instance, in the correlation between social life and the life of plants and animals, the social traits of an individual and his genetic peculiarities, etc. but it becomes senseless in the approach to a great number of other theoretical problems which are advanced by the latest achievements of science and centre upon man, his consciousness and activity. For instance, proceeding from the dichotomy of the biological and the social a researcher must treat a new artistic idea produced by a poet (and objectified by him in writing) as a social phenomenon, viewing the brain neurodynamic equivalent of this idea, as well as the neurosomatic mechanism of the process of speech formation as biological (natural) phenomena. Yet such dichotomy would be absolutely unwarrantable since both the artistic idea and its neurodynamic equivalent are inseparable in time. They make a single information process which cannot be split into two phenomena. Despite the fact that the brain neurodynamic equivalent ought to be described in the language of natural science, it is no less social by nature than the corresponding idea described in the language of social science. In like manner, a chain of motor acts instrumental in the objectification of an idea can be described in principle in the language of psychophysiology, but this in no way deprives it of its essentially social nature.

The reason for our short digression into methodological questions of the unification of categorial structures developed by social and natural sciences is merely to emphasise the need for an integrated approach to the problem of the ideal, i.e., first and foremost, for a conceptual unity of its "natural" and socio‑cultural aspects. Such a unity appears to be absolutely indispensable for a harmonious, integrated conception of the ideal. Other important requisites for success in investigation into the problem in interest consist in due regard for the dialectical unity of such aspects of the ideal as social‑normative and personal‑existential, reflective‑reproductive and creative‑constitutive, truth‑oriented and axiological, conceptual and formal (structural).

Lastly, theoretical analysis of all the principal aspects of the problem of the ideal presupposes broad use of the latest scientific achievements, particularly in such fields as psychology, psychiatry, neurophysiology, cybernetics, semeiology, and of course, humanities, which calls for research into the methods of and limits to the interpretation of the category of the ideal with the help of special and general scientific categories.

To be sure, one would be wise to avoid the two extremes which can sometimes be met with in relevant literature: on the one hand, the underestimation of the specificity of philosophical knowledge not infrequently leading to the confusion of philosophical categories with general scientific notions and resulting in the oversimplification of philosophical problems; on the other hand, the divorce between philosophical categories and both general and special scientific notions resulting in a denial of the very possibility, let alone usefulness, of interpreting philosophical concepts in terms of natural science. In relation to the problem of the ideal the latter extreme springs from the conviction that the results of concrete scientific investigations do not carry any weight with philosophical research and have no stimulating or corrective influence on the growth of philosophical knowledge. Such a view can hardly be regarded as tenable as it tends to fix a gulf between philosophy, on the one hand, and science and social practice, on the other hand, and leads to nothing but scholasticism.

General scientific and metascientific concepts serve as an important intermediary between philosophical categories and special scientific notions. Such concepts provide a link whereby philosophy as a special type of world‑view exercises methodological and euristic influence on concrete scientific investigations and is in turn affected by their results. For this reason general scientific concepts can be used for interpretation (and, consequently, for specification) of philosophical categories which, in turn, adds to their methodological value in modern science. The above is fully applicable to the category of the ideal which sometimes readily lends itself to interpretation through the notion of information. Such interpretation, as we have earlier tried to show, [4] makes it possible to get a better insight into one of the aspects of the multifaceted category of the ideal without detracting from its philosophical specificity, thereby enhancing its instrumental value in the investigation of the "mind‑brain" problem.

It is our view that such interpretation will also be helpful in the analysis of social consciousness, social activity, the specificity of being and the role of cultural values. General scientific notions and concepts are notable for high integrative potential wherefore their use in studying the problem of the ideal not only makes it possible to profit by the achievements of special sciences, but also provides a basis for an integrated approach to this fundamental philosophical issue.

This monograph represents an attempt at such an integrated approach. Put another way, it makes out a case for the ideal as a unitary whole of its principal aspects related to both dialectical and historical materialism.


*   This also applies to my earlier works since my interests were largely centred upon the problem of consciousness and the brain. [1]

1  D. I. Dubrovsky, "On the Nature of the Ideal", Voprosy filosofii, 1971, No. 4; idem, Psychic Phenomena and the Brain, Moscow, 1971; idem, Information, Consciousness, Brain, Moscow, 1980 (all in Russian). [—> main text]

2  E. V. llyenkov, "The Ideal", in: Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 2, Moscow, 1962; idem, "The Problem of the Ideal", Voprosy filosofii, 1979, Nos. 6 and 7. [—> main text]

3  V. S. Barulin, The Relation of the Material and the Ideal in Society as a Problem of Historical Materialism, Barnaul, 1970; idem, "Notes on Principles of Reflection of Reality in Categories of Social Being and Social Consciousness", in: Social Consciousness (Some Theoretical Problems), Barnaul, 1975; idem, "The Role of Categories of Social Being and Social Consciousness in the System of Categories of Historical Materialism", in Methodological Problems of Historical Materialism, Barnaul, 1976; idem, The Correlation of the Material and the Ideal in Society, Moscow, 1977 (all in Russian). [—> main text]

4  D. I. Dubrovsky, Information, Consciousness, Brain, Part 2. [—> main text]

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. Introduction, pp. 7-11.

The Problem of the Ideal: Contents

The Problem of the Ideal (Extracts) by David Dubrovsky

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

The Problem of the Ideal by David Dubrovsky
(Offsite, entire text of book)

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