Monday 2 May 2005

About the Russian Special (2005)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXIII No. 1 Spring  2005


Introduction by Dmitry Olshansky

Russian philosophy appears as an independent tradition towards the end of nineteenth century. Before that time it largely reiterated foreign, that is to say, par excellence, philosophy drawn from the European tradition. It was not original; always attempting secondary applications of Kantianism, Hegelianism, Nietzsche and so on.

By the end of the nineteenth century, however, if there was no Russian original philosophy, there was a deep and a rich tradition of Russian literature and criticism. It seems that Russian writers were having deeper and more original thoughts than the professional Russian philosophers.

So the history of its development defines the peculiarities of Russian philosophy. For instance, despite widespread borrowings from the West, philosophy in Russia was not an academic science. Firstly, it was largely created by critics, publicists and writers (like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky), and not by natural scientists; and secondly, because the Russian 'enlightenment' continued through the first two decades of the Twentieth century, (Lenin's programme for the elimination of illiteracy is part of this enlightenment), philosophers actively aspired to write for general readers, indeed, the first university courses specifically on philosophy did not appear until the end of the nineteenth century.

And so philosophy books in Russia were written for common people and not for the researcher, in accord with Dostoevsky's famous words: "All real Russian people are philosophers". For this reason it has special interests in ethics and religious ideas (Solovyov's tradition), aesthetics and art criticism (Florensky, Losev, Bakhtin) and, most especially, in social philosophy (notably the vast area of Russian Marxism). There was little interest in ontology, theory of mind, logic and investigation of language. The truth, according to Russian thinkers, was not rational, but existential, therefore it should not be rationalised or 'cognized' - but lived. Pavel Florensky, in this way, traces back the derivation of the Russian word for "truth" from the verb "to be". To be true, means to exist, and to exist means to be true. In such a way, Florensky concludes that falsehood is just an illusion of a mind, it cannot truly exist.

Other thinkers have continued to develop this idea and supposed that that objective world constructed by rationalism as epitomised by Kant's a priori forms of perception is also not true.

At the beginning of Twentieth century, the thought that 'truth is out here' was the distinctive slogan of religious Russian philosophy. Lev Shestov, writing in The Conquest of the Self-Evident, believed that "we may perhaps have to admit that certainty is not a predicate of truth, or, to express it better, that certainty has absolutely nothing in common with truth". The Soviet philosopher*, Merab Mamardashvili, writing in How I Understand a Philosophy, offers an analogous non-acceptance of reality: 
"I always distaste of all surrounding order of life and there was none inner dependence on ideology and ideals that were created by that order".
Above all, many Russian thinkers were fond of Dostoevsky's existentialism. Frankly, it was the first serious and original philosophical resource for all further Russian philosophy. Of course, Dostoevsky himself was not philosopher, but investigation of his ideas has been prolific ground for philosophical writing in the Twentieth century. This fact alone shows that philosophy is always a commentary on the texts, or on the research of knowledge, rather than the producer of knowledge.

Philosophy, according to the Greek base, is not a wisdom, but a "love to a wisdom": Philosophers should not be wise, Socrates believed, but through a dialogue with other philosophers assist in the birth of truth. In just such a Socratic way, Shestov forewarns the philosopher against knowledge, and the seduction of the call to become experts.

Russian philosophy also borrowed from Dostoevsky a criticism of Western rationalism, and its habit of searching for general laws of being, indifferent to the person, creating alienation in objectification, research and work. This last problem was consonant with Marx's own appeal to workers to overcome the alienation of capitalism.
Paradoxically, Dostoevsky's religious ideas meshed together with Marx's atheism; these doctrines were coherent as part of the whole: revolutionary project continues a religious moralisation. Many Russian philosophers seek to combine socialism with religious Orthodoxy, and some of them even read Marx as religious thinker. For example, Bulgakhov supposed Marx to be on a religious missionary. Ultimately, because Russian philosophy has never been academic discipline, it is difficult to separate Russian philosophers from the other thinkers: psychologists like Vygotsky, philologists, linguists, economists, and lawyers. Russian writers remain great Russian philosophers too.

Today, the most important Russian thinkers are Makhail Bakhtin, Alexander Kojeve and Jury Lotman.

*The Editor adds, December 2011
Particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is important to note that Merab Mamardashvili is in fact a Georgian philosopher, sometimes called the Georgian Kant. In his philosophy he emphasises the importance of nationality, writing: 'A human being as man is activated from virtue, and as a son of one or another nationality, one can only truly comprehend his personality through his own dignity. To be a Georgian is not biological capacity - this is the will to be a Georgian. As to the will - it is a phenomenon of knightly virtue, and if I do not have it, no matter, how many times I am desired by the nation. I will be neither a man nor a Georgian.'

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