Andrey Maidansky

The Concept of Truth in Ilyenkov’s Dialectical Logic

Logic in Central and Eastern Europe: History, Science, and Discourse.
New York: University Press of America, 2012, p. 573-582

ABSTRACT. Marxist philosopher E.V. Ilyenkov argued that truth is the process of ascending to the concrete knowledge of thing by way of resolving objective contradictions, and attacked the formal, nominalistic conception of truth as correspondence of knowledge with its object.

Evald Vasilievich Ilyenkov (1924–1979) went down in history of logic in the 20th century as one of few experts, who continued elaborating on the objective logic — logic that considered nature and order of things explored by human mind.

The classical, Aristotelian-scholastic logic disregarded the difference between objects of thought. It only watched over the verbal (or any other symbolic) expression of thought to accord with itself, and so the law of identity and the ban on contradiction became its supreme requirements. That logic entrusted the task of investigating the general order of nature to metaphysics. The latter in turn made active use of methods and recommendations of formal logic, whereupon the order of nature appeared to metaphysicians in the form of a pyramid of genus and species abstractions like famous Arbor Porphyriana.

In the time of Galileo and Descartes it becomes clear that formal logic is unable to serve as efficient method of scientific inquiry, because this logic applies an equal yardstick to things which are completely different by their nature. It is then that the search of new logic starts, the logic capable to furnish a real aid in the work of cognizing nature.

In his Dialectical Logic [5], [6] Ilyenkov traces the history of forming of this concrete “logic of action.” He finds its root already in Metaphysics. According to Ilyenkov, Metaphysics, but not Organon, reveals the ultimate, “objective” Aristotle’s logic. Its guiding principle is a postulate of identity of thought and being: such “involvement” (μεταληψις) of thought in its object, by virtue of which “thought shares the nature of the object of thought” (Metaphysics XII, 1072 b 20).

Potential of that logical principle should be exposed most entirely by Spinoza, the favourite philosopher of Ilyenkov. Already the first draft of Spinoza’s philosophy in a very drastic manner postulated the objective character of thought:

So it is never we who affirm or deny something of the thing; it is the thing itself that affirms or denies something of itself in us [8, vol. 1, p. 124].

True cognition demands that we be “immersed in the material,” and “to surrender ourselves to the life of the object” (sich dem Leben des Gegenstandes zu übergeben), as Hegel said afterwards [9, S. 40]. And later, the early Marx called reason “the universal moderation of mind,” which treats every thing in compliance with the essential character of that thing. 1

Ilyenkov continues this historical tradition in the science of logic. The constitution of thought is determined not by some particular structure of brain or of my ego, but completely by the objects that we are thinking about, he postulates. A man is sapiens insofar as he acts according to the “logic of things.”

“Thinking” [...] is nothing else than ability (“faculty”) of treating every single thing sensibly, i.e. in compliance with its own nature [11, p. 86].

Reason has no any private, “egoistical” logic. Reason is as universal as the nature itself. Perfect description of the schematics of thought is equivalent to plotting the exact model of the Universe which is the object of thought.

The conformity of idea with object is called usually the “truth.” Spinoza, however, considered this conformity to be only denominatio extrinseca of truth [8, vol. 2, p. 447]. The habitual definition of truth as adaequatio intellectus et rei expresses the nature of truth as little as Plato’s “two-footed animal without feathers” expresses the nature of human being. “A true idea must agree with its object” is a mere axiom for Spinoza [8, vol. 1, p. 410]. This feature is certainly belongs to any true idea, but it is not the “agreement” that makes it true. And false ideas do agree with some real object as well.

Spinoza seeks a criterion of truth inside thought itself. The genuine truth needs not to be collated with a thing, it verifies itself: veritas sui sit norma. If some architect makes an idea of building in due order, his thought is true regardless of the fact, whether the building be raised or not. On the other hand, if someone states, for example, that Peter exists, and nevertheless does not know that Peter exists, that thought is not true, even though Peter really exists [8, p. 31]. Hence, there is something real inside thought itself that differs true ideas from the false ones. That “objective essence” of idea Spinoza calls “certainty”. 2

The theme of immanent certainty of knowledge, that removes the unsolvable, nay, inept task of conforming knowledge with its object, is advanced perfectly by Ilyenkov.

“Knowledge,” which has to be specially correlated with object, is not at all knowledge as such, but is only an illusion, only a surrogate of knowledge. [...] By that there takes place not mastering of an object (for knowledge can consist in nothing else), but only adoption of phrases about the object, just the adoption of verbal shell of knowledge instead of knowledge.

Here is hidden the root of that illusion, which underlies the distinctive and fundamentally inept, irrational problem of “correlating” knowledge with object. This problem, by its very nature, does not have and cannot have a reasonable solution [11, p. 80–81].

Not for the reason that object in itself could not be perceived by the cognizing subject, as Kant supposed it, but for the reason that “knowledge,” which requires the special operation of correlating it with an object, is sham knowledge, or pseudo-knowledge of the object. Knowledge of the given object in word only, not in action.

That is the fateful difference. People much rarer grasp and know object than it seems to them. Most often man sees in an object only what he learned from words of other people, for at bottom he does not deal with the object as is [84, p. 84].

If one knows what is table, he does not need to verify his concept of table by facts of experience. It is quite another matter if one has got to know the meaning of word “table,” but has no concept of table meanwhile. In that case the verification problem actually appears.

The principal difference between verbal and conceptual, or formal and objective, knowledge was proclaimed insistently by the same Spinoza. A gulf between thing itself and its concept seems impassable only to those people who name “concept” a mere verbal expression of thought, having no concept of concept as such, viz. “of the concept which the soul has of the thing, without or apart from words” [8, p. 124]. 3 Perception from hearsay (ex auditu) Spinoza rates as the lowest and most inadequate form of acquiring knowledge. And confusion of words with concepts is treated as a cause of the gravest mistakes and of meaningless logomachies.

In logic this confusion inevitably leads to scepticism with its assertions about inability of finding truth and of acquiring concepts of “things in themselves” (actually, such “concept” is only pseudo-concept — a plain verbal abstract, which the nominalistic logic sets up for concept). Ilyenkov wrote on this theme a lot, starting with his first book, 4 where the paragraph “On the relation of the notion to the concept” is devoted specially to the criticism of the abstract hybrid of word and thought. Formal logic calls it “concept,” Ilyenkov uses the term “notion” (представление, a Russian calque of Hegelian Vorstellung), precisely distinguishing it from the “concept” in proper sense.

In place of concepts, formal logic takes words (“terms” and “predicates”) and sentences (“propositions”), compiled from words. And facts of experience are viewed as objects, to which those “concepts” must correspond. On the ground of such formal conception of truth, as a “verified proposition,” the logical positivism arose, including its “postpositivist” self-criticism.

In the eyes of Ilyenkov, propositions and facts are cut from the same cloth: they both are empirical abstractions. And any abstract is worth anything only in the case when the concrete understanding of the matter lays behind and shows itself through it. Verity of a proposition is conditioned not by its accordance with facts, but solely by the quality of concept, represented in that proposition and in that facts.

New facts, new sensual data do not leave an imprint on a “tabula rasa” of empty consciousness, but they are perceived always into the developed consciousness, at once being refracted through the whole system of previously accumulated knowledge, through all system of concepts and categories. Thereby, the developed system of concepts behaves as respectively independent sphere towards each new sensually perceived fact. Activity of this sphere becomes apparent already in the very selection of facts, let alone their theoretical interpretation [10, p. 187].

Exposition of facts can be more or less exact, but truth is something much more than simple exactness. Like propositions, facts can be “clever” or “odd”: some facts have the universal theoretical meaning, others are shallow and useless for understanding of the object. 5 The “clever” fact is a microconcept.

In science facts are theoretically-charged: something that one theory considers as a fact, another theory interprets as a pure illusion (e.g. the “force of gravity” in Newton’s mechanics and in general relativity theory). Therefore, no fact can be an impartial judge in the controversy of theories.

Afterwards it was perfectly demonstrated by Imre Lakatos – the only “philosophers of science,” about whom Ilyenkov talked with respect. Experimental facts can neither verify, nor falsify scientific theory, for theory is deduced not at all from such facts. On the contrary, scientific theory must generate facts — discover or predict formerly unknown phenomena, as Lakatos insisted.

For Ilyenkov, though, it was a matter not so much of novelty of fact, as a matter of its theoretical relevance. How a fact could promote the theory that is the main point. Some facts help us to penetrate into the nature of object, other facts just interfere with investigating this nature, drawing our thought away, switching it to particulars and accidentals. Even if a proposition most strictly corresponds with a fact, but the fact itself is “foreign,” inessential to the object of thought, then, within objective logic, the “truth value” of such proposition goes to zero, or rather might be a minus quantity, since it impedes cognizing the object.

To cut off the collateral facts and propositions, which are caused by interaction of the given thing with things of another nature, from the essential ones by scalpel of abstraction — here is an every time concrete mission of cognition. Concepts, that are being evolved in the course of carrying out that mission, Ilyenkov calls the “concrete abstractions.”

Any concept (if it is actually developed concept, and not mere verbally fixed general notion) is a concrete abstraction, however “contradictory” this phrase may sound from the standpoint of old logic. Such concept always expresses “thing,” i.e. sensually ascertained fact, from the side of a “property” which characterizes this thing as the element of certain concrete system of interacting things (facts). [...] Being regarded out of any concrete system of its interrelations with other things is abstraction too, not a whit better abstraction than a “relation” or “property,” being regarded as a special object, separated from things as its material subjects [2, p. 208].

Formal abstraction seizes only likeness, general features of things, whereas concept holds a unique, concrete relation of things as moment of a single whole or a “totality,” as Hegel used to say. At first scattered, facts as if “accrete” into one concrete whole (like falling apple, sea flowing and planetary motion have accreted into the concept of “universal gravitation”). The truth is the whole — “Das Wahre ist das Ganze.” Concreteness appears to be the objective and at once “intrinsic,” immanent criterion of the truth of thought.

Abstract and concrete, like all other categories of dialectical logic, act at the same time as forms of both thought and reality. Ilyenkov rebelled against treating of “abstract” as something mental, refined general, and “concrete” as a singular, sensually perceived thing. In dialectical logic “abstract” means “undeveloped, unilateral” and “isolated, extorted from a whole.” The ascent from abstract to concrete is a form of historical self-development of every “organic whole” and, at the same time, the method of theoretical cognition of such objective totalities.

The history of any concrete thing starts with practical isolating from its predecessor, with striving (Spinoza’s conatus) to realise, as full and various as possible, the potential, contained in its very nature (substance). As the real concretization of object is going on, the latter reveals itself for adequate cognition. The truth is the knowledge of concrete, the comprehension of a historically developed whole as a “unity of the diverse.”

The first dissertation (1953) and the first book by Ilyenkov are devoted to the method and forms of such, both logical and historical, “ascent to the concrete,” namely to the truth. Final chapter of the book is headed “Concrete as contradiction in its advancement.” The truth is the resolved, “sublated” contradiction, – this is the most concrete logical definition of truth, unlike its abstract, formal definition as correspondence of thought with object. Dialectical logic is a method of resolving of objective contradictions.

Formal logic deals with the contradictions, which is due to negligence or careless handling with concepts. It is required to get rid of such contradictions. But not only concepts can mutually negate and destroy one another. The real “subjects,” things itself do so as well.

While the formal, alleged contradiction must be eliminated from thought, the real contradiction must be resolved.

When stumbling onto contradiction, we ought to sort out at first, what exactly faces us now — it is an effect of erroneous reasoning or a description of the real state of affairs. First we need to check out the former of these two versions. Mind turns back and starts checking sequentially, step by step, every its action right up to the statement of problem. If such an examination has not detected error, then we are up against the real, true contradiction. Now mind has to examine not the general form of the own operations and propositions, but the very thing as it is. The contradiction is out of mind, inside that thing. And the thing itself is required to give us a hint how to solve the problem that is fixed in the logical form of contradiction.

And dialectics consists in loud and clear formulating the “contradiction,” bringing it up to the highest possible acuity and lucidity, and at last in discovering of its real, concrete, objectively visual resolution. And it always occurs exactly by discovery of the novel fact, which is carrying out and, at the same time, concretely resolves the contradiction [11, p. 28].

Later Lakatos arrived at the same conclusion via a completely different road than Ilyenkov: an actual contradiction and discovery of novel facts — here are attributes of all genuinely scientific theories.

All the research programmes I admire have one characteristic in common. They all predict novel facts, facts which had been either undreamt of, or have indeed been contradicted by previous or rival programmes. 6

However, in Lakatos the novel fact only post festum certifies the heuristic power of a theory, as follows from his example with the prediction of Halley’s Comet return. The “research programme” did not become more veritable due to the comet appearance in the flight reference point many years after Halley’s death. And be his calculations wrong, Newton’s celestial mechanics should not be falsified. Theory brings forth facts, but is not being created by facts. There is no concrete, “organic” unity of theory with facts in Lakatos.

In Ilyenkov’s dialectical logic matters go differently. Fact here is regarded as a kind of key that unlocks the gates of truth. Search of the key fact, to a tag fitting the “lock” of contradiction, is a sole way of creating theory. Ilyenkov himself compares thought, having got into a real contradiction, with an open-circuit line. At one side positive charge is stored, and negative charge is at another side. We need to find a condition, owing to which the tension will be relieved. Let us close the circuit by a piece of glass or wood — current does not appear, the tension is keeping on. But once we do the same thing with a part of metal and...

Objective contradiction is sublated by way of finding, within empirical history of the object, such a fact or condition X, which necessarily forced this object to emerge, come into being. The very Nature is acting so, “synthesizing” more and more novel entities and phenomena. The dialectical thought retraces this evolution of the world, elucidating conditions of birth, in the throes of contradictions, of this or that new-fledged essence.

Whereas the unsolved contradiction destroys thing. Why do things perish, if not in consequence of overwhelming contradictions? Contradiction is a form of birth as well as a form of death. It is both a midwife and an executioner of all existed things. That is what contradiction for — to join and merge the opposites.

The ability to “withstand the tension of contradictions,” and to find concrete forms of resolving them, is considered by Ilyenkov as an indicator of intellectual culture, a “rate of wits,” so to say. A man who shuts his eyes to real contradictions, so as one falling into prostration or hysterics when meeting with such contradiction, by rights may be named as stupid.

The said is fair to the logicians, who claim to prohibit any contradictions within theoretical thought. They say that contradictions dwell only in speech, and real things are noncontradictory. Most curious is that this ban on contradictions in things themselves is declared on behalf of a science, which completely abstract itself away from the “material” content of judgements. Formal logic knows about the real things not more than arithmetic knows about the number of rabbits on the Earth. 7

This or that theory suffers defeat and falls into oblivion not because novel facts of experience falsify it (nowise — it is impossible), but owing to its inability to cope with contradictions so well as a rival theory does. “There is no refutation without a better theory,” as Lakatos said. But is it enough for theory to surpass rivals in predicting some novel facts to be regarded as a better theory? For Ilyenkov, this is not enough. The “better theory” is required to be more concrete than a former one. It does not simply moves the worse theory to the background, but inherit and absorb it, turning it into the abstract moment or the particular case of their common object. Only if the “research programme” should succeed in assimilating its precursors and direct rivals, it acquires the last and final proof.

Generally, truth arises in overcoming of errors. If we did not just renounce an error, but have cleared up its reason, thereby we have converted the error into the truth. Into the absolute truth at that, for the given error has been cancelled, or rather “sublated,” for good and all.

Errors are quite another matter, they are never absolute. Each error rests on facts of experience, but those are just insufficient for the concrete understanding of the matter. When passing judgements or acting for the reason of unsuitable facts, mind slides into error.

Error, consequently, only began when a mode of action, which was limitedly true, was given a universal significance, when the relative was taken for the absolute [5, p. 42], [6, p. 58].

It is yet another lesson Ilyenkov takes in Spinoza, describing his distinction of truth and error as “profound” and “fundamentally true”.

Error emerges if we regard an abstract, particular knowledge of thing as the concrete concept of it. True idea, refuting false ones, does not cast them away as worthless, but assigns the real limits, within which the “sublated” ideas are to be perfectly right. Having showed the genuine limits for this or that fallacious point of view, we have worked over the abstract idea into the concrete one.

So Einstein, having outlined the limits of verity of Newton laws of motion and destroyed its claim to be the absolute truth, have not refuted these laws, but rather amended them, made their concept more concrete. One could say that it was Einstein who transformed Newtonian mechanics from the relative truth to the absolute truth.

Both truth and error express the objective reality, they are the polar forms of its expression in human thought. There is no any chap between thought and reality in Ilyenkov’s dialectical logic. Thought is considered as a pure ideal form of self-expression of the reality, as an attribute peculiar to reality itself.

But what is this reality as such? For Ilyenkov, it is a material practical activity of people, their “social historical practice,” changing the outer world and people themselves. The richer is the content of this reality, the more concrete, and therefore true, the human thought is.

Identifying (i.e. identity as an act, as acting, as a process, and not as a state of death) of thought and reality, which is being performed in practice and through practice, [3, p. 51]

that is, of course, not Spinozist or Hegelian, but strictly Marxist turn of thought. Practical activity, unlike sensual perception and “experience” (in a Kantian sense), deals not with “phenomena,” but with things as they are “in themselves.” It remakes things, in compliance with their own laws, according to human needs.

Material action subjectifies an external thing and objectifies the appropriate to it “phenomenon” of consciousness, representing it as a thing and, therefore, eliminating the difference between knowledge and thing. Knowledge appears to be the active form of expression of the nature of that very thing. For such a “practically true” 8 knowledge the problem of correspondence with object does not arise at all, for this knowledge is entirely being derived from the object, it is extracted from the latter by the human activity.

So far as one has got his knowledge not from hearsay, but in the process of active mastering of thing, the very thing becomes a source of certainty of knowledge and guarantees the verity of its idea.

If the reference point is a real action with object, accompanied with watching over the mode of action (“reflection”), then [...] knowledge appears in human mind exactly as knowledge of thing, and not as a specific entity, existing outside the thing, that needs to be “attached,” “applied” to that thing by taking some special actions [...]

To know the object — and cannot be able to correlate this knowledge (the knowledge of the object!) with the object?!

This paradoxical situation actually arises in the case, when the object is not known in fact, but something quite another is known. What is it? Phrases on the object. Words, terms, formulae, signs, symbols and their stable, established in scientific community combinations, which have been adopted instead of knowledge of the object. They all together form a specific, existing over reality and beyond reality object, as a peculiar world of ideal, abstract, ethereal “objects” [11, pp. 84, 86].

For instance, like Popper’s “third world,” populated by “linguistic entities” (cf. [4, p. 157]: “Theories, or propositions, or statements are the most important third-world linguistic entities”). The problem of correlation of knowledge with things emerges only if both of them are interpreted as two primordially different “worlds.” Reality (“world” number one) seems to be a transcendency or “the beyond” with respect to knowledge, and the reasonable being (“world” number two) is allotted a post of medium, correlating ideas with things. Truth is being sheltered between the “worlds,” like Epicurean gods. Small wonder that Popper considered truth to be a purely relative concept and altogether rejected existence of absolute truths. However, as Ilyenkov’s disciple S.N. Mareyev noticed, relative truth without of the absolute one is the same as the North Pole without the South one, i.e. nonsense.

Concerning the formal definition of truth, as a correspondence of knowledge and thing, it sets only the meaning of the word “truth.” There is no concept, i.e. the concrete understanding of what is truth, in this definition. So, as such it is neither true, nor false, like any other entry of an explanatory dictionary. But those who took this nominal definition for concept of truth, received thereby false concept of truth. Or rather, he has no trace of any concept of truth excepting a false belief in its presence. Something like that happened to a king in Anderson’s tale — he strolled naked, but in the firm belief that he is clothed.

According to the dialectical logic, knowledge and things dwell in one single world, not in two different ones. They are two sides, two “attributes” — ideal and material — of the same substance, viz. of human activity. This is what Ilyenkov’s objective logic of action stands on, unlike the formal logic of word. The definition of truth in the dialectical logic runs as follows: truth is the process of ascending to the concrete knowledge of thing by way of resolving objective contradictions.



[1] K. Marx & F. Engels. Werke. Berlin: Dietz, 1956-1968.


[2] E.V. Ilyenkov / Э.В. Ильенков, Понимание абстрактного и конкретного в диалектике и формальной логике, в кн.: Диалектика и логика. Формы мышления. Москва: Издательство Академии наук, 1962.


[3] E.V. Ilyenkov / Э.В. Ильенков, Вопрос о тождестве мышления и бытия в домарксистской философии, в кн.: Диалектика — теория познания. Историко-философские очерки. Москва: Наука, 1964.


[4] К. Popper, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.


[5] E.V. Ilyenkov / Э.В. Ильенков, Диалектическая логика. Очерки истории и теории. М.: Политиздат, 1974


[6] E.V. Ilyenkov, Dialectical Logic, Moscow: Progress Publishers 1977.


[7] Диалектическое противоречие. Москва: Политиздат, 1979.


[8] The Collected Works of Spinoza, (ed. by E. Curley). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.

[9] G.W.F. Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes. Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1988.


[10] E.V. Ilyenkov / Э.В. Ильенков, Диалектика абстрактного и конкретного в научно-теоретическом мышлении. М.: РОССПЭН, 1997.


[11] E.V. Ilyenkov / Э.В. Ильенков, Школа должна учить мыслить. Москва — Воронеж, 2002.


[12] E.V. Ilyenkov, The Ideal in Human Activity. MIA Publications, 2009.

1 Cf. “Die allgemeine Bescheidenheit des Geistes ist die Vernunft, jene universelle Liberalität, die sich zu jeder Natur nach ihrem wesentlichen Charakter verhält” [1, Bd. 1, S. 7].
2 “Hinc patet, quod certitudo nihil sit praeter ipsam essentiam objectivam” ([8], § 33).
3 “Et profecto plerique errores in hoc solo consistunt, quod scilicet nomina rebus non recte applicamus.” Cf. Ethics, II, prop. 47, schol.: “And indeed, most errors consist only in our not rightly applying names to things... And most controversies have arisen from this, that men do not rightly explain their own mind, or interpret the mind of the other man badly” [8, p. 483].
4 Author’s version of manuscript, written in the middle of 1950s, was published only at the end of the past century [10].
5 “There is something surely akin to if not transcending tragedy in the fate that has overtaken the life work of that distinguished galaxy of nineteenth-century chemists, rightly revered by their contemporaries as representing the crown and perfection of accurate scientific measurement. Their hard won results, for the moment at least, appears as of as little interest and significance as the determination of the average weight of a collection of bottles, some of them full and some of them more or less empty” (F. Soddy, cited in I. Lakatos, Philosophical papers, 2 vols. Cambridge: University press, 1978. Vol. I, p. 54-55). Michael Polanyi makes a similar example with exact determination of atomic weights (Personal knowledge. Towards a post-critical philosophy. London: Routledge, 1962, p. 144).
6 I. Lakatos, Philosophical papers, vol. I, p. 5. Italics mine. — A.M.
7 Ilyenkov was one of the live wires of the violent controversy around the concept of contradiction in logic. See the volume [7] from a book series “What are philosophers working and debating about.”
8 The term of Marx: praktisch wahr [1, Bd. 13, S. 635].