Philosophical Notebooks

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Philosophical Notebooks


(in Russian, Filosofskie tetradi), a work by V. I. Lenin that sets forth some fundamental propositions of dialectics; it interprets dialectics as Marxist logic and Marxist theory of knowledge and interprets categories as the basic content of the theory of dialectics.

The Philosophical Notebooks consists of ten notebooks of summaries and excerpts from various works—by such authors as Marx and Engels, Hegel, Feuerbach, Aristotle, and F. Lassalle —compiled by Lenin between 1914 and 1916, as well as drafts of articles, including the fragment “On the Question of Dialectics,” which is the most extensive and important one. First published in 1929–30, the Philosophical Notebooks represent Lenin’s preparatory material for his projected work on the theory of materialist dialectics. The ideas expounded in the Notebooks served as the methodological basis for Lenin’s theory of imperialism; they were used by him in his articles on economics and politics, such as “The Collapse of the Second International,” “The Russian Brand of Sudekum,” “’Left-wing’ Communism—An Infantile Disorder,” “Once Again on the Trade Unions,” and “On the Significance of Militant Materialism.”

In compiling the Notebooks, Lenin was prompted by the need to further develop Marxist philosophy in view of existing circumstances: at the time, the theoreticians of the Second International, denying Marxism had a philosophical system of its own and, in particular, its own theory of knowledge, insisted on the close association between Marx’ economic doctrine and Kantianism.

In examining Hegel’s works, Lenin notes the inconsistency of Hegelian dialectics but at the same time stresses the need for critical mastery of such dialectics as a prerequisite for fully apprehending the essence of the Marxist method of thought. In Lenin’s words, it was Hegel who first divined “in the alternation [and] reciprocal dependence of all notions, in the identity of their opposites, in the transitions of one notion into another, in the eternal change [and] movement of notions . . . precisely this relation of things, of nature” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 29, p. 179). Setting aside Hegel’s mysticism—culminating in the deification of the “logical idea,” or thought—Lenin applied the Hegelian conception of development to the process of cognition. Dialectics is incomplete unless its movement is expressed in the logic of concepts—that is, it has true meaning only as the logic and theory of cognition, or knowledge.

The category of practice, which Hegel had introduced into logic from an idealist perspective, now assumes a special significance. Lenin regards objective activity as the foundation of logical thought—that is, categorical thought; it is such thought that reproduces the dialectics of the objective world. Therefore dialectics as a philosophical science is at the same time ontology (the study of being) and epistemology (the theory of knowledge); it is logic with content, and it can by no means be reduced to the overall scheme illustrated by “the sum-total of examples” (ibid., p. 316). To “agree” with the principle of development without extending it to logic and epistemology, in Lenin’s view, is to vulgarize and trivialize dialectics.

The law of the unity and struggle of opposites thus acquires special meaning as a law that can express self-movement within a conceptual system. Lenin uses various terms to define the connection between opposites within a single whole; these terms— unity, coincidence, identity, and equivalence—reveal the inter-penetration of opposites and the interchange between them. “Dialectics is the teaching which shows how opposites can be and how they happen to be (how they become) identical,—under what conditions they are identical, becoming transformed into one another,—why the human mind should grasp these opposites not as dead, rigid, but as living, conditional, mobile, becoming transformed into one another” (ibid., p. 98). Lenin makes the point that the study and exposition of dialectics in general must be based on the logic of Marx’ Das Kapital, which is the model for a dialectical-materialist analysis of reality.

Lenin advanced a thesis that was very important from the methodological point of view—namely, that the theory of dialectics must be the summation, condensation, and generalization of the entire history of knowledge, including the mental development of the human species and of the individual, the history of language, the physiology of the sense organs, the history of philosophy, and the history of all the individual branches of knowledge. Lenin had high regard for the Hegelian idea that the substantive content of scientific philosophy must be historico-philosophical development, freed of the contingencies of the historical mode; he stressed the aptness of the Hegelian image of a “circle of circles” for understanding how logical categories came into being and were employed in the history of knowledge and philosophy. In contrast to simple chronology and empirical assertion, the concept of a “circle of circles” brings out the contradictoriness, complexity, manysidedness, and spiral-like nature of the cognitive process. Analyzing Hegel’s dialectical scheme, or logic, Lenin notes that the general course of movement of human knowledge is necessarily reflected in the succession of the categories set forth.

Lenin considered it imperative to demonstrate the fundamental importance of the concept of matter, to explore it in depth, and to identify the various aspects, steps, stages, and points of junction in the process of cognition that “move in the direction from the subject to the object, being tested in practice and arriving through this test at truth” (ibid., p. 301). “On the one hand, knowledge of matter must be deepened to knowledge (to the concept) of substance in order to find the causes of phenomena. On the other hand, the actual cognition of the cause is the deepening of knowledge from the externality of phenomena to the substance” (ibid., pp. 142–43). Lenin emphasizes the active nature of consciousness as expressed in man’s transformation of nature and society, as well as in culture—culture being based on knowledge of the objective laws that govern the world. “Man’s consciousness not only reflects the objective world, but creates it” (ibid., p. 194).

In tracing the development of dialectics, Lenin reasons from a position of militant materialism, exposing the superstition and mysticism that are inherent in idealism and criticizing Hegel for falsifying the history of philosophy. As he formulates the principles that underlie the dialectical materialist critique of idealism, Lenin points out the inadequacy of alternative critical approaches to such doctrines as Kantianism and Machism—specifically, the critiques and evaluations proposed by Plekhanov and certain other Marxists. “Marxists criticised (at the beginning of the twentieth century) the Kantians and Humists more in the manner of Feuerbach (and Büchner) than of Hegel” (ibid., p. 161).

In his summary of The Holy Family by Marx and Engels, Lenin traces the authors’ course toward scientific socialism and identifies the principal stages in the development of their position: (1) their approach to “the concept of the social relations of production”; (2) their critique of philanthropic theories of socialism and recognition of the revolutionary role of the proletariat; and (3) their analysis of a specific current in French materialist thought that was a precursor of socialism.

Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks laid out a program of philosophical research that included the development of dialectics as an integral philosophical science, complete mastery of philosophy’s classical heritage, and a sharp and principled critique of bourgeois philosophy. The Notebooks played an enormous part in shaping the Marxist-Leninist philosophy, setting the course to be followed in Marxist philosophical scholarship.


O “Filosofskikh tetradiakh” V. I. Lenina. Moscow, 1959.
Suvorov, L. N. Voprosy dialektiki v “Filosofskikh tetradiakh” V. I. Lenina. Moscow, 1960.
Kasymzhanov, A. Kh. Kak chitat’ i izuchat’ “Filosofskie tetradi” V. I. Lenina. Moscow, 1968.
Kedrov, B. M. Iz laboratoriileninskoi mysli. Moscow, 1972.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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