Saturday, October 17, 2009

"A History of Russian Thought" Andrzej Walicki

Off the top of your head, think of five Western philosophers. Now think of five Russian philosophers.

For most general readers in the English speaking world, Russian philosophers are less known than Western ones. Unfairly, Russian philosophy has been largely overlooked by the West. Walicki’s book, first published in Polish in 1973 and now an established classic in the field, is the most comprehensive and detailed one-volume survey of the terrain.

The reasons for the West’s neglect of Russian history are many. First, philosophy as a discipline developed in Russia rather later than it did in the West, due to the anti-dialogic nature of classic Orthodoxy, and Russian culture’s separation from the Greco/Roman traditions of dialectical/juristic thought. Second, Russian philosophy usually concerned itself with issues which were not always regarded as core philosophical issues as such by the West. Consequently, when Russian thought was carried to the West by émigrés, the West often regarded it as outdated or eccentric and turned away its interest. This was to the detriment of the entire development of Western philosophy.

Third, is the relative influence of two philosophers from the West: Plato, and Hegel. Plato’s influence pervades Western thought so much that A.N. Whitehead was able to quip that Western philosophy is just a series of footnotes to Plato. However, (aside from the unwitting Neoplatonism inherent in most Orthodox thinking) the traditional central (Platonic) concerns of classical Western thought: ontology, epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, logic etc are usually side issues for Russian thinkers, who are concerned with other things. What Plato is to Western philosophy, Hegel is to Russian. Hegel had a huge influence on the generation of Russian thinkers who really set the terms of the subsequent debate in Russian thought. All the classic Russian questions: Where are we going, Who are we? When will the great day come? are the classic questions of Hegel’s philosophy of history; and Russian thinkers after the 1840s had to define their positions in relation to issues first raised by Hegel.

Fourth, Russian philosophical polemic, lacking a professional platform of its own, was often conducted in close conjunction with other discourses, particularly those of literary criticism, literary fiction, journalism, and open or private letters. Moreover, it is difficult to unequivocally label key Russian thinkers as ‘Philosophers’ the way one can label key Western thinkers as such. Herzen was as much a publicist and journalist, Belinsky as much a literary critic, and Bakunin as much a practical revolutionary as the philosophers they undoubtedly were; and the two giants of Russian literature, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, had as much an impact on subsequent Russian thought as they did on literature. Perhaps the categories ‘philosopher’ and ‘philosophy’ in their Western manifestations are simply too narrow to encompass the activities of these Russian thinkers.

Finally, the Bolshevik Revolution and its official adoption of Marxist/Lenin thought has obscured from our present sight many of the great Russian thinkers of the 19th and 18th centuries. The Soviets appropriated some of these philosophers and distorted their ideas in order to bring them into line with the official state ideology. Those whose views could not be made to fit were simply repressed and excluded from the discourse.

Russian thought may very broadly be described as having four main characteristics: its relationship with church and state authority, its preoccupation with the nature of history, its propensity to synthesize conflicting or opposing points of view, and its emphasis on the subjectivity of the individual.

Throughout Russian history, its philosophy had a vexed relationship with the church and state authorities. Philosophy leads men to contemplate the overthrow of kingdoms, wrote the Old Believer Liubopytny in the early 19th century. After the Pugachev Rebellion of the 1770s and the French Revolution, Catherine The Great, who had formerly encouraged philosophy to the extent of inviting Diderot to Russia, turned against it, and had all the busts of the Enlightenment philosophers removed from the Hermitage, and the key Russian philosophers of the time exiled or imprisoned. During the reign of Nicholas I, philosophy as a professional academic discipline was banned. The ban was only lifted in 1863, and the first academic journal devoted to philosophy was only founded in 1885. While it is true, as Philostratus says, that Despotic governments are the test of philosophers, the relationship between philosophy and autocracy in Russia exercised an ineluctable influence on the development of the discipline.

The relationship with authority consequently gave Russian thought its characteristic historical slant or focus. In contrast to Western philosophy, which can be thought of as having developed in a discrete tradition rather divorced from the real world, with new ideas sprouting off old ones, Russian thought has always concerned itself with the specifics of the hic et nunc of the country’s historical progress. The development of Russian thought was prompted more by the changing economic and politic conditions rather than by growth within the discipline itself. Indeed, a common criticism that Russian philosophers hurled at each other in their polemics was the assertion that their opponent’s ideas were too abstract, and not specific enough, not practical enough. Two things stand out: the creation of systematic, logically consistent historical schemes to a greater or lesser extent influenced by Hegel’s, such as Chaadev’s and Lavrov’s; and the personal investment of philosophers within those schemes. Belinsky in the 1840s and Plekhanov in the 1890s both suffered similar agonies of soul in realising that their commitment to a philosophical idea involved them in a paradoxical abandonment of that idea.

Belinsky initially followed Hegel in thinking that the historical process was inevitable and that one should become ‘reconciled to reality’ rather than struggle against it, as one struggles against fate. He later, famously, completely reversed his position, unable to bear the torments of knowing where this could ultimately lead. If I should succeed in climbing to the highest rung of the ladder of progress, even then I would ask you to render me an account of all the victims of life and history, all the victims of chance, superstition, the Inquisition, Phillip II and so forth. He added: I don’t want happiness, even as a gift, if I cannot be easy about the fate of all my brethren… Plekhanov initially followed the Populists in abhorring capitalism and in trying to bypass a capitalist stage of development by going straight to the people. However, after his encounter with Marxism, he realised that socialism could only come out of capitalism, and that therefore one should work to achieve capitalism first, the quicker to arrive at socialism. Plekhanov fought bitter battles with the Populists over this, and more than any other philosopher was responsible for bringing Marxism into the mainstream of Russian thought. Also, Tolstoy’s philosophy of history as put forward in the controversial ‘theoretical’ chapters in War and Peace makes much more sense when viewed in the light of the tradition of Russian philosophy’s preoccupation with the historical question, especially when it is set next to Lavrov’s, for example.

Dostoevsky wrote of the Russian character that quite often [it] discovers the point of unity and reconciliation in completely contrary and rival ideas of two different European nations, ideas that, unhappily, they can find no way of reconciling at home. Russian thought is marked by an ability to reconcile conflicting ideas, and to back away from the temptation of establishing (false) dichotomies. For example, Komiakov managed to resolve the freedom/unity dichotomy represented by Catholicism, which emphasizes unity at the expense of freedom, and Protestantism, which emphasizes freedom at the expense of unity, by stressing the freedom within the unity of Orthodoxy. Danilevsky was able to conjoin the anti-statist views of the Slavophiles with the Pan-Slavic calls for a federation of Slavic states by selecting only those elements of Slavophilism that fitted his political goals and rejecting the rest. Chicherin was able to synthesize autocracy with liberalism by drawing attention to Russia’s unique historical circumstances. Even the young Lenin was able to wriggle his way out of the subjectivist-objectivist dichotomy by saying that as the individual was the result of social factors and society was a collective of individuals, the dichotomy was meaningless.

Throughout Russian philosophy there was an emphasis of value on what we can but clumsily call the primacy of holistic individualism over the purely rational schematic. The key figure here is of course Herzen, who movingly and nobly claimed that the purpose of life is for living, the purpose of the singer is the song, and who categorically refuted the notion that present generations should be sacrificed for the happiness of future generations, and who adamantly rejected the religious idea that the immediate and transitory pleasures of life should be curtailed by the promise of an (illusory) eternal hereafter. The ‘struggle for individuality’ of Mikhailovsky and the ‘subjective sociology’ of Lavrov are both manifestations of the primacy of the individual over the schematic. Briefly, Lavrov asserted that objective knowledge in the social sciences was impossible due to the unspoken assumptions and ideologies of the observer; further, that the denial of the individual’s impact on history (as Hegel and Chaadaev had it) was a mistake; and further, that it was the right of individuals to see things from their own perspective and to protest against historical necessity where necessary. Another manifestation of this holistic individualism was the assertion that other forms of thought such as the visionary or the intuitive, the ‘integral personality’ of the Slavophiles, were also just as valid as the purely rational. Logical thinking, when separated from the other cognitive faculties is a natural attribute of the mind that has lost its own wholeness, wrote the Slavophile thinker Kireevsky. Even the anti-humanistic bureaucratism of Pobedonestsov and the cruel Jacobinistic tendencies of Tkachev are largely reactions against and indicative of the strength of subjectivism inherent in most of Russian thought.

Perhaps the full range, breadth and character of Russian thought is best exemplified by looking at two philosophers in more detail, philosophers from opposite ends of the positivist-metaphysicist spectrum: the arch positivist Wyroubov, and the arch mystic Soloviev.

Wyroubov (1843 – 1913) was the main Russian disciple of Comte, and spent most of his life in France where he worked as a doctor and research chemist. He was the first editor of the complete works of Herzen after the latter’s death. For Wyroubov, the role of philosophy was to concern itself with making generalizations based on scientific facts. Questions of epistemology were largely questions of psychology not of philosophy, and philosophical doubt (I think therefore I am) he saw as an empty pastime. As Walicki succinctly puts it, for Wyroubov the problem of the criterion of truth was not a philosophical problem but belonged to the sphere of the natural sciences which had long established such a criterion; philosophy should therefore accept the scientific formula that the yardstick of truth was “the recurrence of a given phenomenon in identical circumstances, expressed in a formula known as a law” usually a mathematical or a chemical law. For Wyroubov, any philosophy worthy of the name must be based on a fundamental axiom that is capable of resisting critical reflection. Only on the firmest of foundations can thought structures be built, and such structures need not be more complex than necessary, in an echo of Occam’s Razor. Such clarity of thought would be useful now in the debates about the nature of truth that are part and parcel of our present argument between the Darwinists and the creationists.

Solvovyov (1853 – 1900) represents the apotheosis of everything that Wyroubov stood against. Not only did his philosophy lack a fundamental axiom that is capable of resisting critical reflection, but worse, it was based on a series of visions that he had of ‘the being of Sophia’. The first of these visions appeared to him in the British Museum, and the second in the desert near the Pyramids in Egypt. Solvovyov's view of history was characterised by a niftily comprehensive but ultimately fantastical symmetry that calls to mind Bertrand Russell’s warning: a philosophy which is not self-consistent cannot be true, but a philosophy which is self-consistent can very well be wholly false. Solvovyov held that (historical) evolution goes through three phases: unity, differentiation, reintegration (Hegel’s influence hardly needs pointing out here). There are three spheres of human activity: creativity, knowledge, social practice. During the period of unity these spheres are subject to religion. Walicki summarises: In the sphere of creativity, technology (the first or material grade) was fused with art (the second or formal grade) and mysticism (the highest or absolute grade) in an undifferentiated and mystical creativity…a ‘theurgy’. In the sphere of knowledge, positive science (the material grade ) was fused with abstract philosophy (the formal grade) and theology (the absolute grade) … a ‘theosophy’. In the realm of social practice, the economic society of producers (the material grade) was fused with the state (formal grade) and the church (the absolute grade) forming a ‘theocratic’ whole. In the second evolutionary phase….and so it goes on in a formal and perfect arrangement of triads until the day when Heaven shall be realised on Earth. It’s easy to imagine that Lenin had Solvovyov's (mad?) theory in mind when he sardonically rejected a belief in triads, in abstract dogmas and schemes that do not have to be proved by facts.

It perhaps says more than anything else can about the nature of Russian philosophy and its relationship with the wider culture and history, that Solvovyov's fantasies had far more of an impact – a huge impact- on subsequent thought, than Wyroubov’s clarity and precision, which was largely ignored, and is usually treated as an obscure offshoot from the main tree.

Walicki starts his survey with the impact of Enlightenment thought during the reign of Catherine the Great, and ends with the early writings of Lenin. His method is to give potted biographies of the main thinkers, briefly outline the salient points of their thought, tracing its development and vicissitudes, identify the main points of contact with other philosophers both inside the Russian tradition and in the Western tradition, and then engage in polemic with them. His especial strength lies in the lucid and sympathetic summaries of the various philosophies, giving the reader an excellent introduction to the important features of each. All credit to Stanford University Press for making this excellent and necessary book continuously available to an English speaking audience through the excellent translation of Hilda Andrews - Rusiecka. However, they need to drastically improve their editing process, as the index is somewhat inadequate, the academic apparatus is rather poor, and the text is marred by misprints, typos and sloppy punctuation on almost every other page.

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