The Word Made Self: Russian Writings on Language, 1860-1930

Article excerpt

Thomas Seifrid. The Word Made Self: Russian Writings on Language, 1860-1930. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2005. 240 pp. Bibliography. Index. $47.50, cloth.

This book traces the development of writing about language in Russia in the years leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution and into the first decade or so of the Soviet period. Its principal thesis is that the seminal figure in Russian thought in this field was the Ukrainian linguist A. A. Potebnia (1835-1891). A pupil of Sreznevskii, Potebnia was greatly influenced by German idealism, particularly that of J. G. Herder and Wilhelm von Humboldt, which in the West spawned the linguistic relativism of Whorf and Sapir. Seifrid argues - convincingly enough for this reader - that what shaped Potebnia's response to these ideas and that of the people following on behind him was neo-Platonism as it had been transmitted through the Hellenistic and Orthodox traditions, in which the prologue to John's Gospel is the key, unifying text.

In Potebnia, language is envisioned as behaving like a "self," which in the psychology of the day was seen as fluid, indeterminate, mutable and evolving, rather than fixed, rigid, hierarchical and mechanistic (p. 53). This "psychologism" was certainly in vogue at the end of the nineteenth century, but mainstream linguists like Baudouin de Courtenay and the later Structuralists turned decisively against it. Not surprisingly, therefore, Potebnia was not a major influence in the development of linguistics in his homeland. Rather, he left his mark on later generations as someone interested in the role of language in the creative process. The considerable impact of Potebnia's ideas on Russian thought of the turn of the century, especially among the pioneers of Russian literary Modernism, is the central theme of this book (Chapter 2). The first direct influence was on his pupils in the Khar'kov (Khar'kiv) School (for example, D. V. Ovsianniko-Kulikovskii and A. P. Pogodin), then in very different and complex ways among the Symbolists (e.g., Belyi), Futurists (e.g., Khlebnikov), Acmeists (e.g., Osip Mandel'shtam) and - despite Shklovskii's explicit criticisms of Potebnia's views on language and art - even the Formalists (among them Plotnikov).

The rejection of materialism and positivism put the self and personality in the forefront of Russian philosophical thought from the end of the nineteenth century onwards. This idealism is much in evidence in the revival of metaphysics in such thinkers as Berdiaev, Frank, Losskii, and on down to Florenskii and Sergei Bulgakov. At the same time, Russian idealist philosophy shares with the broad mainstream of twentieth-century philosophy a conscious orientation on problems of language (Chapter 3). Key here-especially in Florenskii - is the relationship between etymology and true meaning, another theme extensively developed by Potebnia with roots going right back to Plato. …