To Be or Not to Be Formal?

On trends in the status of dialectical logic:
A brief study of Lefebvre, Ilyenkov and Wald

Claude M. J. Braun
Dept. of Psychology, University of Quebec in Montreal Montreal, P.Q., Canada H3C 3P8

With a Counterview by Lester Talkington:
On the Heuristic Role of Dialectical Logic

HENRI LEFEBVRE'S Dialectical Materialism was originally published in French in 1939. Evan V. Ilyenkov's Dialectical Logic was originally published in Russian in 1974. Henri Wald's Introduction to Dialectical Logic [1975] was presumably first published or at least composed in Romanian.

These three books are reviewed here in an attempt to assess the current situation with regards to dialectical logic. Is the construction of a substantive, powerful (i.e., compelling) system of dialectical logic possible? What is the status of dialectical logic with regard to ontology, epistemology, formal logic and other major sectors of philosophy? What are the major categories of dialectical logic? What are the agreements and disagreements between major Marxist thinkers on these issues? What new problems remain to be dealt with in regard to the future of dialectical logic?

Lenin [1915] wrote in Philosophical Notebooks: "Marx applied in Capital to a single science, logic, dialectics, and the theory of knowledge . . . three words are not needed, it is one and the same thing" [319], and "Logic is the science not of external forms of thought, but of the laws of development ‘of all material, natural and spiritual things'" [92‑93]. Lenin's concern here was to combat Hegel's subjectivism and mysticism. In refuting Hegel on "subjective logic" and the theory of concepts, he stated that the "question of truth" is: "Not psychology, not the phenomenology of mind, but logic" [175]. Awareness of the context of these statements, helps to understand that Lenin was not really interested in the status or fate of traditional formal logic and was looking ahead, optimistically, to an all‑encompassing dialectical materialism to be elaborated in the future.

Not surprisingly, this proposition by Lenin met with some resistance from professional logicians who virtually unanimously considered and continue to consider theirs the science of correct reasoning. Lenin did not make any suggestion as to what fate should be reserved for the old, yet undeniably noble, activity he no longer recognized as "logic." This, and other aspects of the proposal, left for the Marxist philosophical community a legacy of acute terminological controversy which has only become more acute with the passage of time. This is particularly evident in the Soviet Union today (for a survey of current Soviet discussions in philosophy, see Moran [1982] "On the interpretation of antinomies and dialectical contradictions").

WE BEGIN our survey of this legacy with the earliest published of the 3 treatises, that of Lefebvre, upon which we shall dwell quite briefly since only a few passages in the book are explicitly devoted to the topic of dialectical logic. In the late 30s, Lefebvre was concerned that under Stalin's influence formal logic was being dismissed as "invalid", its interface with dialectics therefore being ignored. He was also concerned that the interpretation (analysis, investigation) of thought (including the science of psychology) was being dismissed while only the laws of nature (and of society only within the narrow framework of economistic determinism) were of concern. Hence his treatise amounts to a defence of Marx's early writings against Stalinist dogmatism (and the mature Marx's and Lenin's "hypostatization" of dialectical logic) and of historical materialism against an overly schematic, rigid, simplified "dialectic of nature".

Here, Lefebvre's exposition parallels his interest in the concern of the young Marx with the young Hegel's Phenomenology which gives an impression less ominous (for Lefebvre) than his later concern (and Lenin's) with (or rediscovery of) the mature Hegel's Logic.

Lefebvre says that Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 "rejects dialectical logic only to accept the theory of alienation" [p. 65]. In short Lefebvre's plea was for a dialectical materialism which does not function as a doctrine or "dogma" but as an "investigation", an open‑ended "world view". For Lefebvre there could be no dialectical logic based on the traditional definition of logic. What then was the difference between formal and dialectical logic? Lefebvre's substantive contribution at this level was to elaborate what he considered the two central categories of dialectical logic, namely content versus form and concreteness versus abstraction:

(a) The materialist dialectic accords the primacy explicitly to the content. The primacy of the content over the form is, however, only one definition of materialism. Materialism asserts essentially that Being (discovered and experienced as content, without our aspiring to define it a priori and exhaust it) determines thought.

(b) The materialist dialectic is an analysis of the movement of this content, and a reconstruction of the total movement. It is thus a method of analysis for each degree and for each concrete totality—for each original historical situation. At the same time it is a synthetic method that sets itself the task of comprehending the total movement. It does not lead to axioms, constancies or permanencies, or to mere analogies, but to laws of development [p. 102].

To summarize, Lefebvre's position is that 1) the construction of a system of dialectical logic is futile and must be limited to a "dialectical materialist world­view" 2) this world‑view accords major status to "'concrete" thought and "content" of thought 3) formal logic is valid in that its role is to deal with "abstract" thought and thought "forms" 4) formal logic is subsumed within dialectical materialism.

LET US NOW turn our attention, still in chronological order, to Ilyenkov's treatise. The reader who up to now has been bewildered by the identification of dialectical logic by Marx and Lenin with the laws of development of all that exists maybe comforted to learn that this is interpreted by Ilyenkov to refer to the laws of the history of thought rather than of all that exists. This specification brings us partly back into standard philosophical lexicon even though Ilyenkov explicitly states that his position is an integral adoption of Marx's and Lenin's previously reported definition of dialectical logic.

Ilyenkov writes that logic consists of the determination of the "objective laws of subjective activity". These laws are the "congealed" structures of mankind's thought, not the individual or "specific" ones.

Logic as a science is not at all interested in the specific features of the thinking of the physicist or chemist; economist or linguist, but only in those universal (invariant) forms and laws within which the thinking of any person flows, and of any theoretician, including the logician by profession, who specifically thinks about thought . . . [otherwise logic would] ignore the historically formed division of labor between logic and psychology, depriving psychology of its subject matter [p. 314].

So here again we find a Marxist philosopher struggling with the difficult legacy bequeathed by Marx and Lenin.

What does Ilyenkov have to say about the relation of dialectical logic to formal logic? Dialectical logic, he writes, provides a means of resolving contradictions which leave formal logic impotent, this being due of course to dialectical logic's capability of conceptualizing movement, and more particularly development.

Which categories of dialectical logic does Ilyenkov consider to be central? At this level, we find that Ilyenkov takes up one of Lefebvre's central categories, namely that of concreteness which he carries further into a defense of realism against nominalism.

The stand of formal logic, oriented on finding the abstract, common element in every single representative of one class (all having one and the same name) yields nothing in this instance. The general in this sense cannot be found here, and cannot for the reason that there actually is no such thing, not in the form of attribute or determination actually common to all the individua, in the form of a resemblance proper to each of them taken separately.

It is quite clear that the concrete (empirically obvious) essence of the link uniting the various individua in some "one", in a common multitude or plurality, is by no means posited and expressed in an abstract attribute common to them, or in a determination that is equally proper to the one and the other. Rather such unity (or community) is created by the attribute that one individuum possesses and another does not. And the absence of a certain attribute binds one individuum to another much more strongly than its equal existence in both [pp. 349‑350].

The radical materialist rethinking of the achievements of logic (dialectics) carried through by Marx, Engels, and Lenin, was linked with affirmation of the objective reality or the universal, not at all in the spirit of Plato or Hegel, but rather in the sense of a law-governed connexion of material phenomena, in the sense of the law of their being joined together in the composition of some whole, in the context of a self-developing totality or aggregate, all the components of which were related as a matter of fact not by virtue of their possessing one and the same identical attribute, but by virtue of a unity of genesis, by virtue of their having one and the same common ancestor, or to put it more exactly, by virtue of their arising as diverse modifications of one and the same substance of a quite material character (i.e. independent of thought and word) [p. 354, emphasis added].

ANOTHER category which Ilyenkov considers central to dialectical logic is the materialist resolution of the mind‑body problem. In this respect Ilyenkov was convinced in 1969 and remains so today [Moran 1982, 104] that to identify thought with language is a major vice of idealism. Universal laws of thought cannot be reduced to language forms (grammar, syllogistic reasoning, etc.), and it is in this sense primarily that dialectical logic transcends and subsumes formal logic because it can and does deal with non‑language forms of thought. With respect to the materialist category of the ideal, Ilyenkov radically departs from Lefebvre's position (summarized above) of content as primary over form, precluding the possibility of a rigid system of dialectical logic). For Ilyenkov, a system of dialectical logic is indeed possible, though it does not yet exist.

The ideal is therefore nothing else than the form of things, but existing outside things, namely in man, in the form of his active practice, i.e., it is the socially determined form of the human being's activity . . . [p. 260].

It is clear that the ideal, i.e. the active form of social man's activity, is immediately embodied, or as it is now fashionable to say, is "coded", in the form of the neuro‑cerebral structures of the cortex of the brain, i.e. quite materially. But the material being of the ideal is not itself ideal but only the form of its expression in the organic body of the individual [p. 261].

Notice that emphasis here is placed on form over content, a necessary operation if one is to promote the project of building a system of laws, a doctrine of true universals, i.e., a dialectical logic as such. And this is indeed what Ilyenkov envisions.

HENRI WALD also believes in the possibility of a system of dialectical logic He defines dialectical logic as the "concrete history of thought about thought". Similarly to Lefebvre and Ilyenkov, he believes that dialectical logic subsumes formal logic, but only in a particular sense because, in his opinion, both have a specific and different subject matter. Dialectical logic deals with the most general laws of the "self-movement of correct thinking" [p. 113], whereas formal logic deals only with the "elementary relationship of concepts in correct thought" [p. 122]. In short here we observe even further distancing from the definition of dialectical logic bequeathed by Marx and Lenin.

The subject matter of dialectical logic is no longer stated to consist of all things nor even of all thought, but only of the "laws of development of correct" thought. This march toward definitional restraint may well be the necessary stepping stone towards the possibility of planning the construction of a system of dialectical logic. Indeed, Wald is the only one of the 3 authors reviewed here who specifically proposes and discusses laws of dialectical logic. Hegel's formulation of three dialectical laws (the struggle and interpenetration of opposites; the passage from qualitative to quantitative change; and the negation of negation) is not considered to define dialectical logic in a way which is acceptable for most Marxist commentators, including Lefebvre, Ilyenkov and Wald.

The most fundamental laws of formal logic, Wald writes approvingly, are 1) the law of identity, 2) of non‑contradiction, 3) of the excluded middle and 4) of sufficient reason. Taking up the formulation of a Romanian Marxist, A. Joja, he proposes that these correct laws understood materialistically in their development (both historical and ontogenic) reformulated as laws of dialectical logic are 1) the law of contradictory predication 2) of determinate negation and 3) of  the double negation [p. 102]. Wald further states that all three can be reduced to the first, and that the laws of formal logic enjoy only "relative validity" whereas the laws of dialectical logic enjoy "absolute validity" [p. 108], even though dialectical logic must "observe the laws of formal logic" [p. 115]. He states with more prudent terms than his predecessors that "by observing the laws of dialectical logic, thinking can detect the inner objective contradiction that governs self‑dynamics of things from lower to higher" [p. 122, emphasis added]. Nowhere in his book does Wald hypostatize "development". We find in Wald's 5th chapter a fascinating technical discussion of the laws of dialectical logic, including the issue of simultaneous contradiction, in the same respect, the necessity (implacability) of the laws of dialectics, etc. We will not review this discussion here because it would not suffer summarizing. A general impression though of Wald's discussion and of more recent discussion [Moran 1982], is that Marxist logicians everywhere recognize the law of contradiction as the key problem of dialectical logic, and have reached a level of high technical sophistication in these discussions, but no unanimity.

Problems remaining to be solved

The following are problems which have not been raised directly by the authors reviewed, but which, in the opinion of the reviewer, will necessarily emerge and will require resolution as a condition for the further development of dialectical logic.

1. Several contemporary Marxist authors agree with Wald's definition of dialectical logic [Konstantinov et al. 1974, 239; Rosenthal and Yudin 1967; Frolov 1984). Furthermore, contemporary authors are clearly manifesting parsimony in the use of Hegelian‑like metaphors in the treatment of the method of dialectics and its sub-discipline, dialectical logic. Nevertheless, a great deal of attention will have to be paid to the issue of terminology and other aspects of exposition such as the nature of examples provided. In particular, it should be realized that simple bi‑polar oppositions and their associated dialectical contradictions (therefore, objects of dialectical logic) analyzed by the Marxist forefathers are not and cannot be generalized as prototypes for all cognition! It is important therefore that a more exhaustive and balanced matrix of types of change and motion, based on all the modern sciences be considered as a base for the further improvement of Marxist dialectical philosophy. It is incredible, that to this day, most high ranking Marxist philosophers (and philosophical collectives) continue to use terms such as "development", "lower to higher", "external to internal" to define the object of dialectical logic, though in reality, those terms apply only in a metaphoric sense. This poetic mode of thinking about dialectical logic is definitely a problem to be overcome if a positive building phase is to be ushered in. If dialectical logic is the investigation of the laws of development of correct thought, as many contemporary authors propose, does this not imply: That correct thought unfolds as a living thing, i.e., contains the full prototype of its highest elaboration in its historical insemination, as a living thing develops according to the genotypic program? That there exists some kind of conventionally accepted criterion for determining what is correct thought in general? That progression of thought in general is an essential property of history in general?

Might it be suggested that there is no historical "development" of thought whatsoever? Might it be recalled that though criteria of truth have been adopted world‑wide in the scientific realm, this does not apply to thought of any non­-scientific sort? Is it too boorish to remind dialectical optimists that not all, and even not much, of the history of thought can be characterized as "progressive", "proceeding from lower to higher", "developing", and that regressive, higher‑to­lower and degenerative thought processes also require explanation?

2. Marx was quite clear and concise in recognizing his investigative method (enquiry) in Capital as abstract and his expository method (presentation) as concrete. In fact, the former is referred to as the descent into the abstract and the latter as the ascent to the concrete ("Afterword," second German edition of Capital). There are assuredly many aspects to this distinction but, for the purpose of this review, the one worth mentioning is that it is the presentation, the finished polished multi‑faceted synthesis of Marx's Capital, which is most commonly associated with dialectical logic at the expense of the more analytic, abstract, arid, investigative work so evident in the first 6 chapters of Capital.

Marx wrote of the ascent to the concrete that "it may appear as if we had before us a mere a priori construction". This, or an a posteriori tracing, an empty shell of the a priori construction, is indeed not only what the edifice of dialectical logic might look like, but what it might in fact be, if it is to be built on the basis of dogmatism rather than rational criteria. For if just anybody sets out, even with the best of intentions, to write the system of laws of the development of all correct thought, he/she will be soon intellectually lapidated, as was Auguste Comte when he published his positivistic anthropology of cognition composed of a 3‑rung historico­-developmental ladder (mysticism, theism and positivism). Comte's scheme, which was immediately ridiculed by his contemporary community of philosophers, including Marx, suffers from the typical tendency of positivism to hypostatize a linear concept of biological growth and historical evolution, logic and phylogeny, and logic and so called social "progress". Surely, contemporary Marxists will not be so naive in their own attempts to make sense of the history of thought. Furthermore, how far can we really be expected to get in such a venture?


Ilyenkov, Evan V. 1974 Dialectical Logic. Moscow: Progress 1977.

Frolov, Ivan T. 1984 A Dictionary of Philosophy. New York: International.

Konstantinov, F. V., et al. 1974 Fundamentals of Marxist‑Leninist Philosophy. Moscow: Progress.

Lefebvre, Henri 1939 Dialectical Materialism. 1961 Foreword by author. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1968.

Lenin, V. I. 1915 Philosophical Notebooks. Moscow: Progress 1972 (vol. 38 of Collected Works).

Marx, Karl 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. In Marx‑Engels Collected Works, vol. 3. New York: International 1975. pp. 229‑353.

Moran, Philip 1982 On the interpretation of antinomies and contradictions. In Dialectical Contradictions: Contemporary Marxist Discussions, E. Marquit, P. Moran & W. H. Truitt (Eds). Minneapolis: Marxist Educational Press, pp. 96‑126.

Rosenthal, M, & Yudin, P. 1967 Dictionary of Philosophy. Moscow: Progress.

Wald, Henri 1975 Introduction to Dialectical Logic. Amsterdam: Gruner.

SOURCE: Braun, Claude M. J. "On Trends in the Status of Dialectical Logic: A Brief Study of Lefebvre, Ilyenkov and Wald", Science and Nature, Nos. 9/10, 1989, pp. 2-8. "On the Heuristic Role of Dialectical Logic: The Counterview of Lester Talkington," pp. 9-12.

Note: Talkington's rebuttal is worthless mishmash and is not reproduced here. —RD

Science and Nature, Table of Contents, issues #1-10 (1978-1989)

Henri Lefebvre on Marx, Religion, Philosophy, Ideology & Politics

Henri Lefebvre on Praxis

On Charlie Chaplin by Henri Lefebvre

"Negativity" by Henri Wald

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

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