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State of the Field: Intellectual History


Russian Thinkers from the Other Shore: History of Ideas Today

The editors have invited Boris Wolfson (Amherst College) to serve as Guest Editor for the newest State of the Field column (see previous columns on poetry in the October 2009 issue and film studies in the April 2009 issue). Two prominent scholars of the Russian intellectual tradition, Robert Bird (The University of Chicago) and Thomas Seifrid (University of Southern California), offer reports on the latest developments in the study of Russian philosophy and intellectual history. Their essays are as concise and informative as the field they survey is heterogeneous and often unwieldy. What discoveries have been made over the past decade, and what patterns seem to have emerged, in studying topics that range from the fate of phenomenology in Russian culture to Orthodox Christian theology? What links (and tensions) might exist between the work of Western historians of Russian thought, on the one hand, and those who see themselves as practicing philosophers in Russia today, on the other? What issues deserve scholars’ special attention in the immediate future? These statements offer both broad retrospective overviews and an intriguing preview of coming attractions.

Robert Bird
The University of Chicago


In the last twenty years the shape of Russian intellectual history (a.k.a. Russian philosophy, a.k.a Russian thought) has changed drastically and irrevocably, and not only in Russia, where scholars rediscovered entire traditions of philosophical and political writing and began, in fits and starts, to pen in the contours of a firmly post-Soviet intellectual landscape. The high-water mark of Russian thought in the Anglophonic world was reached with the convergence of two events in 2002: the invasion of the English-language stage by Belinsky, Herzen, Bakunin and company in Tom Stoppard’s major dramatic trilogy The Coast of Utopia, and the election as Archbishop of Canterbury of Rowan Williams, an accomplished student of Russian philosophy and theology. Pondering such events, one might even have been forgiven a dose of optimism. Would such optimism have been warranted?

Limiting our view to the Englishspeaking world, since 2002 there has been a great deal of interesting work done in a number of academic disciplines; with apologies to anyone left out, I would like to survey some of the most distinctive contributions. In the field of history one can name John Randolph’s House in the Garden: The Bakunin Family and the Romance of Russian Idealism (Cornell, 2007), which has shifted the terms of analysis on seemingly well-worn figures. Stuart Finkel’s On the Ideological Front: The Russian Intelligentsia and the Making of the Soviet Public Sphere (Yale, 2007) used the story of the forced exile of leading intellectuals in late 1922 to examine the broader change in intellectual landscape after 1917. The same story has been told in a racier form by Lesley Chamberlin in her Lenin’s Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Russian Intelligentsia (Atlantic, 2006). Chamberlin has also produced a popular, though highly idiosyncratic, overview of Russian intellectual history in Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia (Atlantic, 2004). Matt Miller’s dissertation on the YMCA in Russia (University of Minnesota, 2006) shows that we have much to look forward to. Gary Hamburg and Vladimir Wozniuk’s studies and translations have revealed new dimensions in the history of a Russian liberalism, far beyond the rigid schematics of Isaiah Berlin (the main source for Stoppard).

In literary studies scholars have been learning better to weave intellectual history with aesthetic analysis to reveal finer patterns than hitherto were evident. A notable new study of a well-known philosopher-poet is Judith Kornblatt Deutsch’s Divine Sophia: The Wisdom Writings of Vladimir Solovyov (Cornell, 2008). Gradually we are beginning to understand better how aesthetic criticism drew on and contributed to philosophical discourse. Naturally, the Dostoevsky and Bakhtin industries continue apace. In recent studies Bakhtin has ceded some of the limelight to other members of what is still referred to as his circle. Bakhtin’s coattails have also brought back into attention some of his major sources, such as Max Scheler (in Alina Wyman’s dissertation) and phenomenologists like Gustav Shpet. In the wake of Joseph Frank’s inimitable biography, completed in 2002 (and now out in a single-volume abridgement), recent years have seen a veritable flood of new work on Dostoevsky’s intellectual and religious dimensions, including James Scanlan’s Dostoevsky the Thinker (2002), Steven Cassedy’s Dostoevsky’s Religion (Stanford, 2005), Susan McReynold’s Redemption and the Merchant God: Dostoevsky’s Economy of Salvation and Antisemitism (Northwestern, 2008), Rowan Williams’ Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (2008), and special issues of Studies in East European Thought and Dostoevsky Studies. Tolstoy continues to grow as a thinker, for instance in the books of Donna Orwin, and one expects major new work on Tolstoy during his jubilee year (including a study by James Scanlan).

A third disciplinary framework for Russian intellectual history is that of theology. The Association for Eastern Christian Studies has proven a vibrant venue for those with interests Russian Orthodoxy in all periods, though intellectual history as such has not been a central focus. Work in theology (both East and West) has been nourished by a steady stream of translations, most recently Boris Jakim’s editions of Sergei Bulgakov’s major books for Eerdmans.

Of intellectual history in the narrow sense, though, little has happened since Joan Delaney Grossman and Ruth Rischin’s volume William James in Russian Culture (Lexington, 2003). In 2009 the centenary of Vekhi was marked by a large international gathering at the University of Bristol, organized by Ruth Coates, which should result in a volume. In the next couple of years it should be joined by a collective volume on Gustav Shpet edited by Galin Tihanov for Purdue and an entire History of Russian Philosophy, 1830-1930, edited by Gary Hamburg and Randall A. Poole for Cambridge. It is safe to say that until Russian philosophy finds a disciplinary niche in departments of philosophy it will remain quite difficult to maintain a serious level of scholarship on it as an intellectual (as distinct from a historical or cultural) endeavor. Indeed, with the notable exception of James Scanlan and Philip Grier, there is a glaring lack of new work on Russian thought by scholars with formal philosophical training.

In this respect there remains a distinct difference in the discourses of Russian intellectual history in Russia and Germany. The generation that prepared the massive reclamation of sources in perestroika has matured into an authoritative community of philosophers, mainly grouped around the Institute of Philosophy in Moscow. Sergei Khoruzhii (also spelled Horujy) continues to develop his synergetic anthropology, while down the corridor Valerii Podoroga and his Ad Marginem gang re-conceive Russian intellectual traditions in the light of continental philosophy and critical theory. Some of this activity has trickled abroad. One of the leading voices in Germany’s vibrant forschungsgruppe “Russische philosophie” is Nikolai Plotnikov. Plotnikov has equally formidable achievements in Russia and in Germany, where he has recently completed a large research project on Russian concepts of personality (see selected results in Studies in East European Thought vol. 61, nos. 2-3, 2009). Truth be told, little of this would count as philosophy in the Anglophonic world, but it is a fascinating and vibrant micro-universe that repays close study, as shown by the dissertation work of Alyssa DeBlasio at Pitt.

Within Russia the emphasis remains squarely on the publication of primary sources in intellectual history. Scholars have often aspired to influence the political discourse through their historical studies. Under Yeltsin appeal was made to the liberal traditions of Christian democracy and Christian socialism personified by Semyon Frank, Sergei Bulgakov and Petr Struve. In the Putin years one was more likely to hear invocations of the Orthodox nationalist Ivan Il’in, whose collected works has to be one of the most impressive publishing ventures of the period, especially if one considers that it has been edited almost singlehandedly by Iurii Lisitsa. Il’in’s reburial in Moscow’s Don Monastery in 2005 (together with General Anton Denikin) was indeed a major public event, and the grave has been visited by Putin among other dignitaries. More recently President Dmitrii Medvedev has sponsored the publication of the records of the St Petersburg Religious- Philosophical Society of 1907-1917, to which he appended a brief foreword. Could the difference in Putin’s and Medvedev’s tastes in Russian philosophy mark a substantial divergence in their outlooks? Perhaps, but since the fall of Marxism-Leninism it is difficult to identify a single instance where Russian government policy has been directed by philosophical argument. From press reports it would seem that the government is more likely to be influenced by neo-Eurasianist Aleksandr Dugin and other members of the lunatic fringe.

Based on the preceding sketch, I would note a couple of glaring tasks on the docket of those of us with interests in Russian intellectual history. Most urgent is the need to focus on the philosophical content of Russian thought or, failing that, to derive original philosophical content by undertaking rigorous analysis of those presuppositions which have made it so uninteresting to Anglo-American philosophy. This might include, for instance, identifying specific spheres of thought which have proven dominant, such as aesthetics. Second, it is necessary to expand the available archive of Russian intellectual history to include periods that right now have become marginal, including the eighteenth century and, ironically, Marxism. In both cases intellectual historians can gain important new perspectives from the work of social historians of these periods. Indeed, insofar as Russian thought seems fated to remain perched uneasily between history and aesthetics, it seems important for historians and aesthetic theorists (including specialists in visual art as well as in literature) to continue learning from each other in understanding how intellectual projects both grow from and exceed their own times. In 1993 I attended the landmark conference on Russian philosophy at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I recall how, during the panel on Nikolai Fedorov, after the presentation of his fervent acolyte Svetlana Semyonova (who is still carrying the flame of true belief, by the way), a local philosopher stood up and asked whether this material, however fascinating, might more profitably be analyzed not as philosophy, but as something akin to Star Trek. Indeed, Russian thinkers have often presented rich material for analysis in a sort of cultural studies framework, as symptoms of psycho-social processes bubbling up to the surface from some nether region. The effervescence of interest over the last two decades has gone a long way to showing that the Russian intellectual tradition can still speak in other ways, but it remains without a home on the disciplinary map of Anglo-American scholarship.

Thomas Seifrid
University of Southern California


To summarize succinctly what is going on in the field of Russian philosophy (or rather the study of Russian philosophy) is difficult because the field itself is somewhat anomalous. Very few, if any, Russian thinkers make it onto the syllabi of courses taught in philosophy departments in American universities, which almost exclusively emphasize Anglo-American analytical philosophy and relegate much of the rest, including otherwise important thinkers such as Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Cioran, et al., to the quarantine of “continental philosophy.” To some extent Russian culture has only itself to blame for this neglect, given that for extended periods in the mid-nineteenth and midtwentieth centuries philosophy, as an academic discipline, was either wholly banned or so severely constrained that it might as well have been. Yet Russia is not without a tradition of professional philosophy, in the sense of a discipline distinct from theology, political thought, nationalist theorizing, or literary and cultural theory—all of which from time to time arguably encroach on the philosophical field in Russia. Depending on whether one limits the focus to academic philosophy or broadens it to encompass these neighboring domains, the field of Russian philosophy can be regarded as either narrow or sprawlingly amorphous.

In recent years two noteworthy changes have taken place at the center of the diverse constellation of thinkers, disciplines, and movements that constitute Russian philosophy in the broader sense. The first is the waning of the impulse, once urgently felt in academic and governing circles, to study Russian intellectual history in order to discern the causes of Bolshevism, Stalinism, and the Soviet phenomenon in general. Important studies of such figures as Herzen, Bakunin, Trotsky, and Lenin, and such intellectual currents as Marxism, continue to appear (with Polish scholarship predominating to a remarkable extent, as if to exorcise the demon that just let go of them) but they now are mostly of historical interest. The second noteworthy change is the revival of interest in the academic and religious philosophy that appeared in Russia from roughly the 1890s to the 1920s, on which there is a growing body of both Russian and western scholarship; and the closely-related revival in the post-Soviet era of philosophy as an academic profession in Russia (closely related because much of what energized the renewal of philosophy in Russia of the 1990s had to do with the rediscovery of the intellectual riches of the early decades of the century).

For introductory study of Russian philosophy in the nineteenth century, such venerable guides as N.O. Losskii’s Istoriia russkoi filosofii, V.V. Zenkovsky’s A History of Russian Philosophy, and Andrzej Walicki’s A History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism remain useful. When one comes to the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, however, the recent surge in interest has changed the scholarly landscape considerably, with the 1920s receiving particularly close attention. Steven Cassedy’s 1990 Flight from Eden: The Origins of Modern Literary Criticism and Theory, despite its focus on literary studies, opened the door to serious consideration of figures like Pavel Florenskii and Sergei Bulgakov in a philosophical rather than a strictly religious context. Alexander Haardt’s 1992 Husserl in Russland. Phänomenologie der Sprache und Kunst bei Gustav Špet und Aleksej Losev was a major event, one of the first western studies of the interaction in the Soviet 1920s between western thought and Russian philosophy. My own The Word Made Self. Russian Writings on Language, 1860- 1930 (2005) benefited enormously from these studies in its efforts to bring to light consistent philosophical interests across a range of intellectual disciplines in Russia. Gustav Shpet (1879-1937), arguably the most important academic philosopher in Russia in the pre-war period, has been the particular beneficiary of this revivalist trend. One of his most significant works, the phenomenological Appearance and Sense of 1914, appeared in English translation in 1991 and there is a volume of essays on his work forthcoming from Purdue University Press (Gustav Shpet’s Contributions to Philosophy and Cultural Theory, edited by Galin Tihanov). In Russia, meanwhile, the Shpet industry is running on all cylinders. The fifth volume of Tomsk University’s Shpetovskie chteniia appeared in 2008, and volume 6 of his complete works has recently been published. In France, a collection of conference papers devoted to Shpet appeared in 2008 (Gustave Chpet et son héritage aux sources russes du structuralisme et de la sémiotique, edited by Maryse Dennes). The post-Soviet era in general has seen a dramatic resurgence of interest in secular philosophy, with numerous conferences and journals like Logos, Nachala, Paralleli, and even the venerable Vorposy filosofii serving as the outlet for philosophical writing— not all of it restrospective in nature— of generally very high caliber. For an excellent overview of Soviet philosophy in general which pays valuable attention to post-war figures as well as the stars of the 1920s, and to figures who were not necessarily academic philosophers in the strict sense of the term (e.g. Lotman and his semiotics, Kolmogorov and his cybernetics), see V.A. Lektorskii, “O filosofii Rossii vtoroi poloviny XX veka,” Voprosy filosofii No.7 2009 (available online at http://vphil.ru/index. php?option=com_content&task=view& id=49&Itemid=52). In the U.S. one notes such evidence of active interest as James P. Scanlan’s Russian Thought After Communism: The Recovery of a Philosophical Heritage (M.E. Sharpe, 1994), the forthcoming volume from Cambridge University Press, A History of Russian Philosophy 1830–1930. Faith, Reason, and the Defense of Human Dignity (edited by G.M.Hamburg and Randall A. Poole, May 2010), another forthcoming volume from Cambridge UP, A History of Russian Thought (edited by William Leatherbarrow and Derek Offord, 2010); and the conference to be held at the University of Pittsburgh in May 2010 on “Marx, God, Derrida: Post-Communist Philosophy and the Contemporary Crisis of Meaning.”

The subfield of Russian religious thought has also seen a flourish of renewed activity in recent years. Georgii Florovskii’s Puti russkogo bogosloviia and George Fedotov’s The Russian Religious Mind continue to provide solid historical background while the major figures of the turn of the century have finally begun to receive serious scholarly attention. Selected works of Vladimir Solov’ev have been translated into English, conferences have been devoted to him (e.g., “Vladimir Solov’ev: Reconciler and Polemicist” at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, 1998), and his religious thought has been closely examined in Judith Deutsch Kornblatt’s The Divine Sophia: The Wisdom Writings of Vladimir Solovyov (Cornell UP 2009). Nikolai Berdiaev, long the star of early twentieth-century Russian philosophy, continues to receive attention (e.g., a new biography, Nicolas Berdiaev, by Geneviève Johannet and N.A. Struve, YMCA-Press 2004) and the thought of Sergei Bulgakov has received particularly eloquent discussion in Catherine Evtuhov’s The Cross and the Sickle: Sergei Bulgakov and the Fate of Russian Religious Philosophy (Cornell UP 1997). Of more comprehensive scope are the collection of conference papers edited by Judith Deutsch Kornblatt and Richard Gustafson, Russian Religious Thought (U Wisconsin Press 1996) and the collection of essays edited by Mark Steinberg and Heather J. Coleman entitled Sacred Stories: Religion and Spirituality in Modern Russia (Indiana UP 2007). Although it diverges from the field of philosophy proper (widely diverges, some would say) the more exotic fruit of Russian nationalist and panslavist thought represented by such writers as Nikolai Danilevsky, in the nineteenth century, and Lev Gumilev, in the twentieth, stirs renewed interest in post-communist (and post-Yeltsin) Russia, while shifting geopolitical forces have reawakened western interest in the doctrine of Eurasianism (e.g., Marlène Laruelle’s 2008 Russian Eurasianism: an Ideology of Empire and Dmitry Shlapentokh’s 2007 Russia Between East and West: Scholarly Debates on Eurasianism).

Whether one should consider the thought of Mikhail Bakhtin philosophy in the narrow sense, and thus invite his elephantine presence into the parlor, or leave him outside in the realm of literary and cultural theory, is too complicated a question to answer in the present context. In the vast industry of Bakhtin studies, however, Galin Tihanov’s magisterial The Master and the Slave: Lukácz, Bakhtin and the Ideas of Their Time (Oxford UP 2000) stands out for its concentration on philosophical issues, as does work emanating from the Bakhtin Centre at the University of Sheffield (e.g., the collections Materializing Bakhtin: The Bakhtin Circle and Social Theory, edited by Craig Brandist and Galin Tihanov, Palgrave 2000; and The Bakhtin Circle: In the Master’s Absence, edited by Craig Brandist, David Shepherd, and Galin Tihanov, Manchester UP 2004). If one chooses to regard Russian literary theory in the twentieth century as occupying something similar to the place Russian novels did in the nineteenth—that of philosophy by other means—then such volumes as Routledge’s forthcoming Critical Theory in Russia and the West (edited by Alastair Renfrew and Galin Tihanov, 2010), Maxim Waldstein’s The Soviet Empire of Signs: A History of the Tartu School of Semiotics (Müller Verlag 2008), and Nina Perlina’s Ol’ga Freidenberg’s Works and Days (Slavica 2002) are evidence of ongoing scholarly interest in that intellectual current, as are the many publications of the Swiss scholar Patrick Seriot on Russian linguistics and literary theory.

(I would like to thank Alyssa De- Blasio of the University Pittsburgh and Galin Tihanov of the University of Manchester for their valuable input to this statement.)