Dostoevskij and the Question of Scientific Method

Anna Kaladiouk, Keene State College

Discussions of Dostoevskij’s engagement with modern science frequently focus on the novelist’s dissatisfaction with its positivistic ethos and his rejection of all forms of scientism, generally understood as an attempt to apply new scientific theories to the social, moral and spiritual realms of human existence. In a recent essay, Michael D. Gordin has pointed out the need for a still more detailed investigation into the specifics of Dostoevskij’s position, one that would recognize the complexity and explore the nuances of his relationship with contemporary science. The concerns of the present essay are shaped in response to this challenge.

            The paper considers the chapters on Ivan’s “Rebellion” and his interview with the devil in The Brothers Karamazov, as well as portions of The Diary of a Writer and notebook entries from various periods, against the background of contemporary discussions of scientific method. That Dostoevskij was aware of the problem of method is apparent both from the nature of publications he included in his own periodicals Vremia and Epokha (eg. Straxov’s translations and reviews of works by Büchner and Taine, essays on philosophical subjects by Vladislavlev and Fuks), and from the titles he had in his personal library (eg. Vladislavlev’s Logika, Taine’s Ob ume i poznanii). Dostoevskij was also likely to be familiar with such works as Gercen’s Pis’ma ob izuchenii prirody and Straxov’s O metode estestvennyx nauk and “O prostyx telax” that were also concerned with the question of the scientific method.

            Placing the novel against the background of these texts, the paper asks after the relationship between Ivan’s rebellion and his method of cognition. Ivan appears to emphasize the significance of empirical evidence available to the observation of his “Euclidean” earthly mind while giving less regard to the concept of the a priori. His frustration with the notion of the fourth dimension (and by analogy with God and his creation) testifies to the difficulty he experiences in the face of hypothesized notions that find no confirmation in the observable reality. Reading Ivan’s catalogue of injustices in “Rebellion” in terms of his empiricist preoccupation with facts (“faktiki”), the paper interprets his vision of the devil as further evidence of the kind of “two-dimensional empiricism” that in the absence of theory is, according to Engels, the shortest path from natural science to mysticism. Ultimately, by drawing a comparison between Ivan’s invocation of geometry in the context of his rejection of God’s world and Descartes’ use of geometrical analogies in his proof of God’s existence, the paper introduces the question of Dostoevskij’s engagement with Descartes’ thought. It suggests that despite his opposition to Descartes’ mechanistic vision of the universe (Knapp), Dostoevskij might have been more receptive to some other aspects of Cartesian philosophy and method.