I have been particularly startled by the force in which Evald Ilyenkov interprets Marx and the response I've seen summarized by Ilyenkov's Western Popularizer David Bakhurst. The gist I'm trying to get at is what can be argue to be the limits of what is innate to humans and to present the basis on which attempts to place great faith in the possibility of explaining the human mind strictly through processes is misguided.
So for example, in reaction to the attempt to reconcile the two positions of biological versus social which tend to underpin the idea of it being innate to us or something we develop, he takes the strong stance that anything which can be considered human thought is a product of human activity and is innoculated into every person through a social means. Part of his forcefulness is the point that appeals to things merely being natural is an illusion of a pre-dialectical materialism which obscures the matter.
He is also part of a line of Marxist thinkers who tend to reject's Kant's view that concepts are something innate to humans but a socio-historical product of human activity representing it's activity in the world in ideal forms ie concepts/thought. For kant I believe, our concepts have no relation to the actual existing world but are merely perceptions placed over that reality and hence why we can't be about the truth of things in actuality as there is no ability to see things as they are in themselves. A difference in the epistemology here is the idea of man as social or considered as an abstract individual, where the aggregate of human culture is believed to be appropriated in varying degrees by human beings being raised in culture.
Because if such schemas are innate, concepts tend to have a mystifying and divine quality of how we have many of the capacities that we do.
Which is the weakness of it, when it comes to the origins, it will necessarily lead to an idealist position I suspect rather than being able to have a naturalist approach. Because it simply posits something without an adequate means to explain it's origins and thus the lacking of understanding then is filled in by idealism traditionally. Descartes simply posited God where as someone like Chomsky engages in referentialism(Mistakenly thinking that a name must refer to an existing entity) that doesn't explain anything with his language acquisition device.
The content of thought, if not inborn, must, then, be taken from life and must reflect the reality of human relations with the real world and the real relations between people themselves. Without such a coincidence of the mental (or "ideal") and the real, human existence would not be possible for two minutes, let alone two thousand years or two hundred thousand. In addition, as activity and the thinking it generates are social in essence - existing only in and through the concerted effort of the many individuals who make up the collective - neither human activity nor thinking can be a property of an individual considered naturalistically, ie apart from the social nexus. Thus, all ideal forms including language, are seen primarily as a property and product of the life-process of the whole community, and the essence of humanity located not in the individual person, still less the physical constitution of that person, but in "the ensemble of the social relations" (Marx, Theses: 14)
From the Marxist point of view, by cutting the relations between the mind and social activity, Chomsky makes it impossible to account for the content and origins of mental processes.
One can even accept with Kant and Chomsky that the data of experience are somehow organized prior to their representation to the subject" (Bakhurst, 1991: 196), while yet rejecting the possibility of innate ideas or Chomskyan biological programming. The work of llyenkov (eg 1977a,b), as Bakhurst (op.cit) shows, provides an elegant materialist solution to the problem in showing that "what lends the object of experience structure is not the mind of the individual subjects, but the forms of the activity of the community" (ibid: 197).The Kantian categories and concepts, Chomskyan innate ideas, are not, then, essentially properties of the subject, seen as the contemplating individual, but are "the forms of self-consciousness of social beings (understood as the historically developing 'ensembles of social relations')" which have to be "assimilated by the individual from without (and confronting him from the very beginning as 'external' schemas [patterns] of the movement of culture, independent of his consciousness and will" (ibid: 197). Thus, the individual human being comes to interpret the data of experience - one could even say to "filter it" - through the framework of meanings, categories and norms of the surrounding culture assimilated through joint action. This framework indeed transcends experience because it represents a distillation and summation of the historical experience of the community itself. But for that very reason, because it is not some arbitrary mental scheme imposed adventitiously on the data of sense, it allows the child to relate to the world and to others in a real, tried and tested, meaningful and purposive way. It is this system of social life, and not raw grey matter, which provides the basic socio-cultural and practical "rules" within which the child's creative imagination can take shape and work. Furthermore, the productive activity responsible for the human environment, if we accept the premisses of historical materialism, determines the social structure of the producing community itself. No biologically fixed conceptual scheme could allow us to operate and survive in such an environment. Thus, neither human thought, nor activity guided by thought, nor the social relations through which activity is effected could have a biologically determined character. In short, a human way of life would not be possible if the content and categories of thinking were genetically inherited.
In man, on the other hand, we encounter a diametrically opposite mode of inheritance. Man inherits part of the “species programme” of life-activity, but the greater part (and precisely the specifically human part) is geared into the “mechanisms” of his life by his mastering the objectified means of culture in intercourse with other people. He even develops his bodily needs and abilities in the process of mastering the historical ways and means of activity and intercourse, such as the need for communication, for prepared food, for “instruments” to consume it with, for objects that provide for the human functioning of his organs, creating the conditions for normal sleep, rest, labour, and so on. And, particularly important, the infinitely diverse and infinitely developing means of realising the inherited “programmes” of life-activity are acquired only in the form of the socially significant instruments of activity and intercourse created by the labour of previous generations.
Academician N. P. Dubinin writes: “The possibilities of human cultural growth are endless. This growth is not imprinted in the genes. It is quite obvious that if the children of contemporary parents were deprived from birth of the conditions of contemporary culture, they would remain at the level of our most remote ancestors who lived tens of thousands of years ago. Whereas the children of such “primitive people” placed in the conditions of contemporary culture would rise to the heights of contemporary man.” 
But this means that the very foundations of the life of man and that of the animals are diametrically opposed. In order to survive, the animal must carry in its body both its “programme” and the means of realising it. Man, on the other hand, must possess a human organic body capable of mastering as it goes along any historically developed “programme” and the means of its realisation. And for this reason the genetic fixation of any given mode of activity and intercourse (and biological evolution has no other means of ensuring survival of the species) would spell death for man.
This is why man cannot be assumed to have developed from the biological realm by purely quantitative evolutionary changes in the modes of life of his animal ancestors. The foundation and origin of the new process, the process of non-biological survival excludes biological means and fundamentally changes and subordinates them to itself. Here we are confronted with a clear contradiction between the need to use unprocessed, ready-made objects of nature as the ecological situation demands and the impossibility of genetically fixing the skills thus acquired, a contradiction that can be resolved only by the disappearance of the given species or the birth of a new way of inheriting the habits and skills of life-sustaining activity. And if we could assume that our animal ancestors “found” a way of fixing, preserving and transmitting from generation to generation the skills of “tool-using” action, then we could also assume that man might have appeared on our planet in this way. But, as we have seen, this departure would have been, to put it mildly, extremely unusual for the animal world. It would have to be a way that did not depend on the genetic “code” of the given species, that did not predetermine any link between the animal and one particular instrument or skill, and that was not expressed (objectified) either in the inherited structure of the organism or in any form of “instrument”.
However, such an unusual biological mechanism of heredity does exist. And we, human beings, have it. People inherit the modes of their life-activity by becoming involved in the already existing, fairly stable forms of intercourse and, in doing so, master the objectified means of intercourse (in particular, language).
The point being that we have a social inheritance that is based in the pre-existing relations of society we grow up into.
Ilyenkov follows Marx's epistemology in which the ideal and abstract forms of thought are but a stage in understanding the natural world and it's not the case that there is the sensuous world independent from the essential abstract sort, but that one abstracts the innessential and with the abstract essentials develops the concrete for thought by investigating the natural world through the essential abstract concepts/notions that develop through such study.
It should also be noted from the outset that Marx’s epistemology cannot be handled in traditional epistemological terms. In their article “Marxist Epistemology: The Critique of Economic Determinism”, Stephen A. Resnick and Richard D. Wolff indicate that traditional epistemology operates as if there are two separate realms: “independent subjects seeking knowledge of independent objects” (Resnick and Wolf, 45). In contrast to traditional epistemology, Marx does not see theory and reality as belonging to two distinct spheres. Rather there is a “circular process” in the production of theory where “theory begins and ends with concretes […] the concrete which determines theory is conceptualized as the ‘concrete real’ [the real concrete] and the concrete produced by thought is the ‘thought-concrete’ [concrete for thought]”( Resnick and Wolf, 43).
If I were to begin with the population, this would be a chaotic conception of the whole, and I would then, by means of further determination, move analytically towards ever more simple concepts, from the imagined concrete towards ever thinner abstractions until I had arrived at the simplest determinations. From there the journey would have to be retraced until I had arrived at the population again, but this time not as the chaotic conception of a whole, but as a rich totality of many determinations and relations.
It is in this regard that people unconscious to the origins of their presupposed content end up expressing one sided abstractions in an ideological fashion where the content they presuppose comes from the real world relations which they unconsciously fit into their arbitrary schemas and concepts.
This is only giving a new twist to the old favourite ideological method, also known as the a priori method, which consists in ascertaining the properties of an object, by logical deduction from the concept of the object, instead of from the object itself. First the concept of the object is fabricated from the object; then the spit is turned round, and the object is measured by its reflexion, the concept. The object is then to conform to the concept, not the concept to the object. With Herr Dühring the simplest elements, the ultimate abstractions he can reach, do service for the concept, which does not alter matters; these simplest elements are at best of a purely conceptual nature. The philosophy of reality, therefore, proves here again to be pure ideology, the deduction of reality not from itself but from a concept.
And when such an ideologist constructs morality and law from the concept, or the so-called simplest elements of “society”, instead of from the real social relations of the people round him, what material is then available for this construction? Material clearly of two kinds: first, the meagre residue of real content which may possibly survive in the abstractions from which he starts and, secondly, the content which our ideologist once more introduces from his own consciousness. And what does he find in his consciousness? For the most part, moral and juridical notions which are a more or less accurate expression (positive or negative, corroborative or antagonistic) of the social and political relations amidst which he lives; perhaps also ideas drawn from the literature on the subject; and, as a final possibility, some personal idiosyncrasies. Our ideologist may turn and twist as he likes, but the historical reality which he cast out at the door comes in again at the window, and while he thinks he is framing a doctrine of morals and law for all times and for all worlds, he is in fact only fashioning an image of the conservative or revolutionary tendencies of his day — an image which is distorted because it has been torn from its real basis and, like a reflection in a concave mirror, is standing on its head.
But in this emphasis that all that is human is based on the activity of humanity and is socially inoculated in every person raised within society doesn't deny the biological existence of the human being but frames it insufficient in itself to explain the human mind and consciousness although a prerequisite for it's existence and function.
The idea of the personality existing within our biology seems to be unclear and easily mistaken as the mistake of treating biological processes as synonymous with mental states/qualia. As if the content of the mind/consciousness is confined within the individual itself.
Even the most subtle investigators of the physiological substratum and its “mechanics” will never be able to explain the mysteries of the simplest mental act because physiological processes are not equivalent to even an elementary sensation or perception. The physiologist has studied the mechanism of temporary nerve connections, the processes of excitation, inhibition, and so on. He has explained how perception takes place physiologically, but his explanation does not cover the mental phenomenon itself. It does not explain the individual's vision of that which is perceived. The psychologist speaks of perception in quite a different key. For the psychologist perception takes place not “inside,” not in the nervous apparatus, but, strange though it may seem, “outside” it. Marx wrote: “The light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve (physiological – F. M.), but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself (mental – F. M.).” [Capital, Vol. I, chap. 1 s. 4.]
Granted, thought is not a “mysterious abstract entity,” but what is it? If mind is “embodied” then what is it that is embodied? If mind is “part of” our interactions then what part is it? Did someone say that mind is not embodied? Did someone say that mind is not part of our life? Did someone say that mind is a “mysterious abstract entity"? If the problem of the distinction between mind and matter is evaded in this way, with claims like “mind is embodied” or “thought is material” so as to elide the distinction between thought and matter, then no real break from naïve analytical philosophy is possible. It is easy to ridicule and exaggerate the efforts of others, but not so easy to make the distinction oneself. Every adjective you like can be ascribed to thought: embodied, material, connected, bodily or whatever. What you think of is material. What you think with is material. But if you don’t recognise that your thought is fundamentally something different from what you’re thinking and what you’re thinking about, then either you’re crazy or you don’t understand the question.
This issue of trying to reduce the mental/mind to material processes is the result of the insufficiency of traditional materialism which ends up like idealism in language games trying to expand the category ontologically or 'supervene' onto other categories whilst not having found the essential relationship which underpins the distinction that explains both.
For instance, the philosophy of dialectical materialism, for the first time in history, was able to formulate and solve the problem of consciousness exactly because it approached this problem with a dialectical conception of contradiction. The old metaphysical materialism ran at this point into an obvious contradiction. On the one hand, the proposition advocated by any kind of materialism asserts that matter (objective reality) is primary, whereas consciousness is a reflection of this reality, that is, it is secondary. But, if one takes abstractly a single isolated fact of man’s goal-directed activity, the relation between consciousness and objectiveness is the reverse. The architect first builds a house in his consciousness and then brings objective reality (with the workers’ hands) in agreement with the ideal plan he has worked out. If one were to express this situation in philosophical categories, it would apparently contradict the general proposition of materialism, be in ‘logical contradiction’ to it. What is primary here is consciousness, the ideal plan of activity, while the sensual objective implementation of this plan is something secondary or derivative.
Materialists of the pre-Marxian epoch in philosophy could not, as we know, cope with this contradiction. As far as theoretical consciousness was concerned, they advocated the point of view of reflection, the proposition that being is primary and consciousness secondary. But, as soon as the debate switched to man’s goal-directed activity, metaphysical materialism was unable to make head or tail of the situation. It is not accidental that all materialists before Marx were pure idealists in the conception of the history of society. Here they accepted the diametrically opposed principle of explanation in no way connected with the principle of reflection. In the theories of the French Enlighteners, two unreconciled antimonic principles of explanation of human cognition and activity coexisted peacefully.
Marx and Engels showed that metaphysical materialism continually lapsed into this contradiction because it failed to see the real mediating link between objective reality and consciousness – it failed to grasp the role of practice. By discovering this mediating link between thing and consciousness, dialectical materialism solved the problem concretely, explaining the subject’s very activity from a single universal principle and thereby fully implementing the principle of materialism in the conception of history. The contradiction was in this way removed, concretely resolved, and explained as necessarily appearing.
This contradiction is eliminated in metaphysical materialism through abstract reduction of definitions of consciousness to definitions of matter. This ‘solution’, however, leaves the real problem untouched. The facts that were not included directly and abstractly into the sphere of application of the proposition on the primacy of matter (facts of man’s conscious activity) were not, of course, thereby eliminated from reality. They were merely eliminated from the consciousness of the materialist. As a result, materialism could not put an end to idealism even within its own theory.
For this reason, metaphysical materialism did not liquidate the real grounds on which, again and again, idealist conceptions of the relationship between matter and spirit emerged. Only the dialectical materialism of Marx, Engels, and Lenin proved capable of solving this contradiction, retaining the basic promise of any materialism but implementing this premise concretely in the understanding of the birth of consciousness from the practical sensual activity changing things. In this way, contradiction was shown to be a necessary expression of a real fact in its origin, rather than eliminated or declared to be false and invented. Idealism was thereby dislodged from its most solid shelter – speculation on facts concerning the subject’s activity in practice and cognition.
Empiricism, as a theory of knowledge rests upon the false proposition that perception and sensation constitute the only material and source of knowledge. Marx as a materialist, of course, never denied that the material world, existing prior to and independently of consciousness, is the only source of sensation. But he knew that such a statement, if left at that point, could not provide the basis for a consistent materialism, but at best a mechanical form of materialism, which always left open a loop-hole for idealism. It is true that empiricism lay at the foundation of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century materialism in England and France. But at the same time this very empiricist point of view provided the basis for both the subjective idealism of Berkeley and the agnosticism of Hume.
But from Ilyenkov's western popularizer and a big reason he is even known in the west, David Bakhurst, argues that Ilyenkov's position as argued in regards to the development of blind-deaf children for a subtle thinker as he. Ilyenkov considered blind-deaf children to be without a consciousness or one so reduced that it was an almost pure state of a human being which proved that children's consciousness was socially developed.
The only thinker to attempt to argue the first point was Ilyenkov. But the case he develops (in 1970 and 1977a) is weak. Ilyenkov treats the blind-deaf child as a modern day enfant sauvage. He argues that the child’s initial state represents the condition of any human child prior to the influence of society. This shows, he maintains, (a) that the human mind is not a gift of nature, and (b) that our mental capacities do not develop spontaneously according to some biological program. He concludes, therefore, that Meshcheryakov’s work confirms that:
“All the specifically human mental functions without exception are in their genesis and in their essence “internalized” modes and forms of external, sensuous-objective activity of man as a social subject . . [and therefore] that in the composition of man’s higher mental functions neither is there nor can there be absolutely anything innate or genetically inherited, that the human mind in its entirety is the result of up-bringing in the broadest sense of the term - that is, it is passed from generation to generation not by a natural, but by an entirely artificial route.” (Ilyenkov 1970, p. 89, our emphasis)
It should be clear, however, that Meshcheryakov’s work cannot be presented as “experimental proof” of such a position. As Ilyenkov’s opponents immediately pointed out (e.g., Malinovsky, 1970), Meshcheryakov’s achievements are perfectly consistent with nativism about mental development and with empiricism about concept formation. For where Ilyenkov takes the “initial condition” of the blind-deaf child to reveal the biological endowment of the normal human mind, his nativist opponent sees there a paradigm case of abnormality, wherein the mind’s innate faculties are suppressed due to sensory deprivation. To make good Ilyenkov’s case would take a great deal more argument than he provides in his brief writings on Meshcheryakov.
Bahkurst explains his view as to why Ilyenkov would argue from such a weak position is due to the political circumstances surrounding Meshcheryakov's research and his efforts to try and advocate for him. He also elaborates on the position of Ilyenkov's critic.
Consciousness and Revolution in Soviet Philosophy
Let us call Malinovsky's innatism 'bioenvrionmental interactionism." Philosophers who endorse this position will offer an alternative interpretation of the results of Mecsheryakov's "experiment." First, they will propose a different explanation of the blind-deaf child's initial state. They will argue that the child's woeful condition is caused, not because the child "has no mind," but because the child's innate mental capacities cannot spontaneously develop in the absence of the primary senses, the child cannot begin to form concepts. Therefore, the child's mind remains frozen in a primitive condition (a condition no doubt exacerbated by the trauma of his or her isolation). Second, interactionists will redescribe the role of the pedegogue in the child's development. For them, the pedeogue's task is to secure that the necessary interaction between brain and environment take place despite the child's disabilities. This is achieved by establishing alternative ways of presenting the child with the information normally yielded by sight and hearing. To do so, however, is merely ot bring about the fulfillment of certain necessary conditions of mental development, It is not, as Ilyenkov suggests, to literally to "create" the child's mind.
So it seems that his critic also shares the sense that one has to develop it through interaction with people and the world simply through an alternative sensory means having lost two of their senses. But I feel like what needs to get to specifics is exactly what is posited as innate to the mind, it does seem sensible that much of our perception has biological/physical limits in terms of what we can experience through our senses. But in regards to the mind, it's not clear what can be said to be innate, things that are not reducible to sensory limitations.
But to get into what is the nature of the mind in it's lower mental states, it's most primitive we necessarily have to consider the development of consciousness, to establish both continuity with our ancestors that we shared with apes but also the discontinuity that allows us to be essentially human. I think Ilyenkov is correct in emphasizing labour/activity underpins the development of ourselves as human beings but such a potential for consciousness is based on innate faculties but that a potential in itself is insufficient for consciousness to the development we witness today, it is an absolute necessity but it is only the precondition.
One of the most engaging and original insights that are provided by Donald’s narrative of succeeding types of ‘culture’ – episodic, mimetic, mythic and theoretic – is the implication is has for understanding the structure of human consciousness.
“In essence my hypothesis is that the modern human mind has evolved from the primate mind through a series of adaptations each of which led to the emergence of a new representational system. Each successive new representational system has remained intact within our current mental architecture, so that the modern mind is a mosaic structure of cognitive vestiges from earlier stages of human emergence. Cognitive vestiges invoke the evolutionary principle of conservation of previous gains ... The modern representational structure of the human mind ... encompasses the gains of all our hominid ancestors, as well as those of certain apes. Far from being a diffuse tabula rasa, modern human cognitive architecture is highly differentiated and specialised.” (Donald 1991: 3)
Individual human consciousness, on the other hand, poses all sorts of intractable problems which require solution by empirical science, but which nonetheless seem to elude science. Donald is able to demonstrate how each of the developmental stages of hominid culture arises by a slight adaptation on the basis of the earlier culture. This suggests that an appropriate approach to understanding subjectivity within the various branches of science, is to theoretically reconstruct the individual on the assumption that the individual is constructed by the phylogeny Donald describes.
So what is suggested is a layered structure of the mind, as follows:
. an unself-conscious episodic mind able to perceive and remember concrete scenarios, and able to respond more or less appropriately in accordance with a wide variety of ‘scripts’;
. a mimetic mind able to analyse, recombine and reproduce scenarios, voluntarily and independently of context, analytically reflect on scenarios and respond to them appropriately;
. an oral-mythic mind able to relate and understand narratives and form an understanding of the world in terms of words and gestures of various kinds related in narrative;
. a theoretic mind able to use symbols and artefacts generally to structure their own consciousness and invent and produce artefacts to assimilate their mind to the material world;
. a material culture, existing independently of the individual, but providing symbolic resources for symbolic activity.
It is not possible to be precise on this matter; Donald offers a suggestion. Psychology and neuroscience is challenged to answer. If Donald’s narrative is tested out in the investigation of the psyche of modern human beings it may in turn need to be modified. It is based on a relatively restricted mass of palaeontological and archaeological evidence, and further investigation of modern human beings may cause the theory to be modified.
What is clear however, is that any approach to neuroscience or psychology which ignores the discontinuity between human beings and other animals and fails to take account of any defensible theory of human cognitive origins, whether that of Engels, Donald or someone else, is bound to fall into absurdity.
The key concept which comes out of at the end of Donald’s enquiry is the concept of ‘extended mind’ – the combination of material artefacts and mnemonic and computational devices with the internal cognitive apparatus of human beings who have been raised in the practice of using them. Human physiology, behaviour and consciousness cannot be reproduced by individual human beings alone; we are reliant for our every action on the world of artefacts, with its own intricate inherent system of relations. Theory is the ideal form of the structure of material culture. Every thought, memory, problem solution or communication, is effected by the mobilisation of the internal mind of individuals, and the external mind contained within human culture. Taken together, the internal and external mind is called ‘extended mind’. This is what Hegel called Geist, an entity in which the division between subjectivity and objectivity is relative and not absolute.
Humans are animals which have learnt to build and mobilise an extended mind. This has proved to be a powerful adaption. Individuals in this species stand in quite a different relation to the world around them than the individuals of any other extant species. Understanding of the psyche of the modern individual depends on understanding the process of development of a human being growing up in such a culture, and this will be the topic of the next chapter.