Thinking about the Unimaginable: Cartesian Traces in Dostoevsky’s Thought

Anna Kaladiouk, Keene State College

In the chapter “The Devil. Ivan Fyodorovich’s Nightmare” of The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan’s devil quotes Descartes’s famous aphorism Je pense, donc je suis. Despite this overt reference to Descartes, the question of Dostoevsky’s engagement with Cartesian thought has been rarely addressed in Dostoevsky scholarship. Notable exceptions are Liza Knapp’s study Annihilation of Inertia: Dostoevsky and Metaphysics and James Scanlan’s recent examination of Dostoevsky’s thought, Dostoevsky the Thinker. Whereas in Knapp’s analysis, Dostoevsky appears as a repudiator of Descartes’s mechanistic vision of the universe, Scanlan argues that in spite of his long-standing reputation as “an irrationalist in metaphysics,” Dostoevsky did in fact employ various rational arguments in discussing the matters of faith (Scanlan 55). As part of his demonstration, Scanlan points out the markedly Cartesian overtones of an 1876 notebook entry (20).

This paper continues examination begun by Scanlan. It probes the discourse of Ivan’s devil and a number of notebook entries for the traces of Cartesian rationalism. Although it is not clear how much direct knowledge of Descartes’s philosophy Dostoevsky might have had, he was certainly familiar with many of his ideas through the writings of Strakhov, Hertzen, Bernard and others.

Focusing on the role of reasoning and imagining in grappling with the concepts of infinity, eternity and God, I discuss Ivan’s failure to “understand about God” as related to his habits of thinking. According to the Cartesian Strakhov, materialists like Ivan experience difficulty in the face of abstract concepts because they fail to disengage thinking from imagining. As an abstract notion par excellence (in Strakhov’s words, “poniatiie po preimushchestvu” [445]), God is inaccessible through imagination but only through pure, self-controlling and self-determining thought. In Strakhov’s argument, which is grounded in Descartes’s thought, materialism and atheism are associated not with reasoning but with imagining.

The paper demonstrates that, like Strakhov, Dostoevsky, after Cartesian fashion, also accounts for atheists’ unbelief by reference to their excessive reliance on imagination. It reconsiders Dostoevsky’s views on the relationship between reason and faith, suggesting that along with the notion of religious faith as a willingness to “entertain the unthinkable” (Knapp 219), there exists in his writings an alternative conception of belief as an aptitude to think about the unimaginable.


Knapp, Liza. Annihilation of Inertia: Dostoevsky and Metaphysics. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1996.

Scanlan, James. Dostoevsky the Thinker. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Strakhov, Nikolai. Mir kak tseloe. Cherty iz nauki o prirode. St. Petersburg, 1872.