Academic journal article Kritika

Russian Philosophy as a Defense of Human Dignity

Academic journal article Kritika

Russian Philosophy as a Defense of Human Dignity

Article excerpt

G. M. Hamburg and Randall A. Poole, eds., A History of Russian Philosophy, 1830-1930: Faith, Reason, and the Defense of Human Dignity. 440 pp. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN-13 978-0521884501, $131.00.

This new volume reflects the growing interest in Russian philosophy among scholars. Since the 1950s, a few reference books on the history of Russian philosophy have been published in the West. The best known was written by V. V. Zenkovskii and originally published in 1953-55. (1) A similar study by Nikolai Losskii dates back to 1952, though it was republished in Russian translation in 1991. (2) Slightly less known is Alexandre Papadopoulo's volume, published in 1995. (3) All these histories bear the mark of their historical context, whether the inevitable official Marxist philosophy imposed by the Soviet regime or its recent disappearance. They all cover philosophy of the 20th century in greater or lesser depth, but of course, much material was inaccessible to scholars until the 1990s. For example, when Losskii wrote in 1952 that Lev Karsavin lived in Vilnius, the latter was actually interned at the camp of Abez. Zenkovskii, for his part, was utterly unaware of Karsavin's life in Lithuania and did not even know of the existence of his Poem on Death, probably his main work expounding his philosophical system in a literary form. These restrictions based on the political situation in the past have now disappeared, and a great number of names have reemerged, as A History of Russian Philosophy demonstrates so clearly.

Contrary to other histories, which generally start in the 18th century, this new book covers the years from 1830 to 1930, a century that featured the establishment of an autonomous Russian philosophy. Numerous chapters demonstrate the crucial significance of 1922, the year when the banishment of the principal actors of intellectual life on the famous "philosophical steamboat" deprived Russia of nearly all its non-Marxist philosophers. Those who stayed in Russia often paid for it with their lives, and in any case they were deprived of their readership. Stuart Finkel's article on Nicholas Berdiaev and the emigration demonstrates concretely how Russian philosophy became a victim of these historical circumstances and likewise shows that the possibility of its disappearance shaped the outlooks of some Russian emigre thinkers.

The volume's introduction by G. M. Hamburg and Randall A. Poole demonstrates the need to rethink ways of studying the history of Russian thought in the post-Soviet era. The authors clearly identify all the things that were inevitably marginalized in the Soviet years and explain why this was the case. The key underlying concept proposed by the editors--the "defense of human dignity"--invests the volume with coherence. Because the book does not pretend to be an encyclopedia of Russian philosophy but instead aims to point out its main characteristics, the choice of "human dignity" provides an original approach that links the conception of the individual with different representations of society, humanity, and the universe. The volume's authors also emphasize the religious origins of Russian humanism, as well as the spiritual dimension of Russian philosophy, which was completely concealed during the Soviet period despite its central importance. Thus, for example, notions that testify to the Christocentric character of Russian thought--kenosis (God's self-sacrifice for man's sake) and theosis (the idea that man is not only created in the likeness of God but is also bound to become His likeness)--often emerge in the pages of this volume.

At the same time, the editors' insistence on this religious dimension raises questions about the relationship of Russian philosophy to its counterpart in the West. On the one hand, the concept of "human dignity" enables the editors to connect Russian philosophy with Western thought. Indeed, the authors appeal to the Greek patristic and theological notion of theosis to demonstrate the link between Western and Russian humanism. …

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