Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Russian philosophy


Russian philosophy

Russian thought is best approached without fixed preconceptions about the nature and proper boundaries of philosophy. Conditions of extreme political oppression and economic backwardness are not conducive to the flowering of philosophy as a purely theoretical discipline; academic philosophy was hence a latecomer on the Russian scene, and those (such as the Neo-Kantians of the end of the nineteenth century: see Neo-Kantianism, Russian) who devoted themselves to questions of ontology and epistemology were widely condemned for their failure to address the country’s pressing social problems. Since Peter the Great’s project of Westernization, Russian philosophy has been primarily the creation of writers and critics who derived their ideals and values from European sources and focused on ethics, social theory and the philosophy of history, in the belief that (as Marx put it in his ‘Theses on Feuerbach’) philosophers had hitherto merely interpreted the world: the task was now to change it. This passionate social commitment generated much doctrinaire fanaticism, but it also inspired the iconoclastic tendency made philosophically respectable by Nietzsche: the revaluation of values from an ironic outsider’s perspective. The principal contribution of Russian thinkers to world culture has so far consisted not in systems, but in experiments in the theory and practice of human emancipation. Some of these led to the Russian Revolution, while others furnished remarkably accurate predictions of the nature of utopia in power. Like Dostoevskii’s character Shigalëv who, starting from the ideal of absolute freedom, arrived by a strict logical progression at the necessity of absolute despotism, Russian philosophers have specialized in thinking through (and sometimes acting out) the practical implications of the most seductive visions of liberty that Europe has produced over the last 200 hundred years.

1 The development of Russian philosophy

What Berdiaev called the ‘Russian Idea’ – the eschatological quest that is the most distinctive feature of Russian philosophy – can be explained in terms of Russian history. The Mongol yoke from the twelfth to the fourteenth century cut Russia off from Byzantium (from which it had received Christianity) and from Europe: it had no part in the ferment of the Renaissance. Its rise as a unified state under the Moscow Tsardom followed closely on the fall of the Orthodox Byzantine Empire, and the emerging sense of Russian national identity incorporated a messianic element in the form of the monk Philotheus’ theory of Moscow as the ‘Third Rome’, successor to Rome and Constantinople as guardian of Christ’s truth in its purity (see Medieval philosophy, Russian). ‘There will not be a fourth’, ran the prophecy: the Russian Empire would last until the end of the world. Russian thought remained dominated by the Greek patristic tradition until the eighteenth century, when the Kievan thinker Skovoroda (sometimes described as Russia’s first philosopher) developed a religious vision based on a synthesis of ancient and patristic thought. He had no following; by the mid-century Russia’s intellectual centre was St Petersburg, where Catherine the Great, building on the achievements of her predecessor Peter, sought to promote a Western secular culture among the educated elite with the aid of French Enlightenment ideas. But representatives of the ‘Russian Enlightenment’ were severely punished when they dared to cite the philosophes’ concepts of rationality and justice in criticism of the political status quo (see Enlightenment, Russian). The persecution of advanced ideas (which served to strengthen the nascent intelligentsia’s self-image as the cultural and moral leaders of their society) reached its height under Nicolas I (1825–55), when philosophy departments were closed in the universities, and thought went underground. Western ideas were the subject of intense debate in small informal circles of students, writers and critics, the most famous of which in Moscow and St Petersburg furnished the philosophical education of such intellectual leaders as the future socialists Herzen and Bakunin, the novelist and liberal Ivan Turgenev, the literary critic Belinskii (from whose ‘social criticism’ Soviet Socialist Realism claimed descent), and the future Slavophile religious philosophers Kireevskii and Khomiakov (see Slavophilism). As a critic has noted: ‘In the West there is theology and there is philosophy; Russian thought, however, is a third concept’; one which (in the tsarist intellectual underground as in its Soviet successor) embraced novelists, poets, critics, religious and political thinkers – all bound together by their commitment to the goals of freedom and justice.

In the 1830s these beleaguered individuals encountered German Idealism: an event of decisive significance for the future development of Russian thought. The teleological structures of idealist thought provided Russian intellectuals with a redemptive interpretation of their conflicts and struggles as a necessary stage in the dialectical movement of history towards a transcendent state of harmony. Idealism (notably in its Hegelian forms: see Hegelianism, Russian) left its mark on the vocabulary of subsequent Russian philosophy, but its principal legacy was the belief, shared by the vast majority of Russian thinkers, that an ‘integral worldview’, a coherent and unified vision of the historical process and its goal, was the essential framework both for personal moral development and social theorizing. The question of history’s goal became a matter for intense debate among the intelligentsia with the publication in 1836 of Chaadaev’s ‘Philosophical Letter’, which posed Russia’s relationship to the West as a central philosophical problem, maintaining that Russia’s historical separation from the culture of Western Christianity precluded its participation in the movement of history towards the establishment of a universal Christian society. Chaadaev’s version of the march of progress was much indebted to French Catholic conservatism, while the nationalist riposte to his ideas drew heavily on the Romantics’ critique of the Age of Reason and Schelling’s organic conception of nationhood: the Slavophiles held that Western culture was in a state of terminal moral and social decline, suffering from an excess of rationalism, which had led to social atomization and the fragmentation of the individual psyche (see Chaadaev, P.I.; Schellingianism, Russian). These divisions could be healed only by religious faith in its purest form, Russian Orthodoxy, whose spirit of organic ‘togetherness’, uncontaminated by Western rationalism, they presented as a model for Russian society and a beacon for mankind. They thereby laid the foundations of a distinctively Russian tradition of cultural and religious messianism which includes Dostoevskii’s political writings, the Pan-Slavist and Eurasian movements (see Dostoevskii, F.M.; Pan-Slavism and Eurasian movement), and the apocalyptic vision of Berdiaev, whose philosophy was highly popular among the Soviet underground.

Secular and Westernist thinkers tended to be scarcely less messianic in their response to Chaadaev’s pessimism. The first philosophers of Russian liberalism (see Liberalism, Russian) interpreted their country’s past and future development in the light of Hegel’s doctrine of the necessary movement of all human societies towards the incarnation of Reason in the modern constitutional state, while the Russian radical tradition was shaped successively by the eschatological visions of the French utopian socialists, the Young Hegelians and Karl Marx. Herzen defined the distinctive characteristic of Russian radical thought as the ‘implacable spirit of negation’ with which, unrestrained by the European’s deference to the past, it applied itself to the task of freeing mankind from the transcendent authorities invented by religion and philosophy; and the radical populist tradition that he founded argued that the ‘privilege of backwardness’, by permitting Russia to learn both from the achievements and the mistakes of the West, had placed it in the vanguard of mankind’s movement towards liberty.

Russian religious philosophers tended to see themselves as prophets, pointing the way to the regeneration of human societies through the spiritual transformation of individuals. Vladimir Solov’ëv (regarded by many Russians as their greatest philosopher) believed that his country’s mission was to bring into being the Kingdom of God on Earth in the form of a liberal theocracy, which would integrate knowledge and social practice and unite the human race under the spiritual rule of the Pope and the secular rule of the Russian tsar. His metaphysics of ‘All-Unity’ was a dominant force in the revival of religious and idealist philosophy in Russia in the early twentieth century, inspiring an entire generation of thinkers who sought to reinterpret Christian dogma in ways that emphasized the links of spiritual culture and religious faith with institutional and social reform, and progress in all other aspects of human endeavour. Among them were leading Russian émigré philosophers after 1917, such as Semën Frank, Bulgakov (who sought to create a new culture in which Orthodox Christianity would infuse every area of Russian life), Berdiaev (who was strongly influenced by the messianic motifs in Solov’ëv), and Hessen, who offered a Neo-Kantian and Westernist interpretation of the notion of ‘All-Unity’. A number of émigré philosophers (notably Il’in and Vysheslavtsev) interpreted Bolshevism as the expression of a spiritual crisis in modern industrialized cultures. Many blamed the Russian Revolution on infection from a culturally bankrupt West which (echoing the Slavophiles, Dostoevskii and Leont’ev) they presented as corrupted by rationalism, positivism, atheism and self-centred individualism (although few have gone as far as the fiercely polemical Losev who, up until his death in the Soviet Union in 1988, maintained that electric light expressed the spiritual emptiness of ‘Americanism and machine-production’). Most maintained a historiosophical optimism throughout the catastrophes of the first half of the twentieth century, which Berdiaev saw as a precondition for messianic regeneration, while Hessen believed that religious and cultural values would emerge triumphant from the carnage in a dialectical Aufhebung.

2 Major themes in Russian philosophy

The main impetus of Russian philosophy has always been towards the future, as its representatives strained to discern the features of the ‘new man’ (the term favoured by the left from the 1860s, with the addition of the adjective ‘Soviet’ after 1917), or the ‘integral personality’, as Slavophiles and neo-idealists preferred to describe the individual who would one day be free from the cognitive and moral defects that had hitherto prevented mankind from realizing its potential. The nature of these flaws and the specifications of the regenerated human being were the subject of bitter disputes between rival movements. Even on the left, models of the ‘new man’ varied widely, from the narrow rationalist who was the ideal of the ‘nihilists’ of the 1860s (see Nihilism, Russian; Russian Materialism: ‘the 1860s’) and subsequently of Lenin and Plekhanov, to Bakunin’s eternal rebel, who would embody the spontaneous spirit of freedom in defiance of all established authorities and orders. At the end of the nineteenth century, in the cultural ferment produced by new movements in philosophy and the arts emanating from the West, radical thinkers began en masse to renounce their predominantly rationalist models of the individual and society (see Russian Religious-Philosophical Renaissance). Nietzsche’s Superman had a pervasive influence on the ensuing ‘revaluation of values’, undertaken with the aim of formulating moral and social ideals that would embrace the manysidedness of human creativity (see Nietzsche: impact on Russian thought). Some radical philosophers (such as Berdiaev and Frank), in the process of moving from Marxism to neo-idealism, sought to reconcile Nietzsche’s aesthetic immoralism with Christian ethics, while the ‘Empiriocriticist’ group of Bolsheviks attempted to inject Russian Marxist philosophy with an element of heroic voluntarism by synthesizing it with Nietzschean self-affirmation and the pragmatism of Ernst Mach (see Russian Empiriocriticism). Nietzschean influences combined with the mechanistic scientism of Soviet Marxism in the Soviet model of the ‘new man’ (whose qualities Lysenko’s genetics suggested could be inherited by successive generations). In the post-Stalin ‘thaw’ some Soviet philosophers, including Il’enkov and Mamardashvili, began a critical rereading of Marx’s texts from an anthropocentric standpoint which emphasized the unpredictable and limitless potential of human consciousness (see Marxist philosophy, Russian and Soviet).

This open-ended view of progress (officially encouraged in the Gorbachev period) is uncommon in Russian philosophy, where epistemological scepticism is more often to be encountered in uneasy combinations with eschatological faith. Like other rootless groups, Russian intellectuals were drawn to compensating certainties that seemed capable of resisting their corrosive critique. The radical humanism of much Russian thought placed it at the forefront of the developing critical insistence on the context-dependent nature of truth; but many thinkers who attacked the claims of systems and dogmas to encompass and explain the experience and creative needs of living individuals in specific historical contexts, nevertheless retained a belief in a final, ideal state of being in which the fragmentation of knowledge would be overcome and all human purposes would coincide: a condition for whose principles some looked to science, others to religious revelation. The nihilists, who rejected metaphysics and all that could not be proven by rational and empirical methods, fervently believed that progress would inevitably lead to the restoration of a natural state of harmony between the individual and society. The empiriocriticist movement within Russian Marxism opposed the idolatry of formulas with the claim that experience and practice were the sole criteria of truth, but the group’s leading philosopher, Bogdanov, looked forward to a metascience that would unify the fragmented world of knowledge by reducing ‘all the discontinuities of our experience to a principle of continuity’, predicting that under communism, when all would share the same modes of organizing experience, the phenomenon of individuals with separate mental worlds would cease to exist. Solov’ëv’s pervasive influence on subsequent Russian religious idealism owed much to the charms of his vision of ‘integral knowledge’ and ‘integral life’ in an ‘integral society’. Religious and socialist motifs were combined in some visions of an earthly paradise, such as Bulgakov’s ‘Christian Socialism’, or Gorkii’s and Lunarcharskii’s creed of ‘God-building’, which called for worship of the collective humanity of the socialist future. In the revolutionary ferment of the first two decades of the twentieth century many religious and radical philosophers, together with Symbolist writers and poets, envisaged the leap to the harmonious future in apocalyptic terms: the novelist and critic Merezhkovskii prophesied the coming of a ‘New Christianity’ which would unite Christian faith with pagan self-affirmation in a morality beyond good and evil (see Nietzsche: impact on Russian thought §1; Russian Religious-Philosophical Renaissance §§3–4). In the aftermath of 1917 some thinkers (notably Berdiaev and members of the Eurasian movement) found consolation in apocalyptic fantasies of a new light from the East shining on the ruins of European culture.

Herzen memorably ascribed such doctrinaire utopianism to the Russian tendency to march ‘in fearless ranks to the very limit and beyond it, in step with the dialectic, but out of step with the truth’. The most original and subversive Russian thinker, he was the first of a significant minority who directed the iconoclastic thrust of Russian philosophy against all forms, without exception, of messianic faith. Contending that there was no basis in experience for the belief in a purposeful universe on which the great optimistic systems of the nineteenth century were built, he urged his contemporaries to adapt their categories to the flow of life, to accept (and even welcome) the dominant role of contingency in human existence, on the grounds that individual freedom and responsibility were possible only in an unprogrammed world. Herzen’s critique of the claims of metaphysical systems to predict or regulate the course of history was echoed by the ‘subjective sociology’ developed by Mikhailovskii and Lavrov in opposition to the deterministic scientism of the dominant Russian radical tradition. Tolstoi pointed to the chanciness of life and history in order to demonstrate the inadequacy of all attempts to formulate general rules for human societies; Dostoevskii confronted the systematizers with the lived experience of human freedom as the ability to be unpredictable; in their symposium of 1909 (frequently cited in the West as a pioneering analysis of the psychology of political utopianism) the neo-idealists of the Signposts movement explored the ways in which obsession with an ideal future impoverishes and distorts perception of the historical present (see Signposts movement).

Under the Soviet system a few representatives of this anti-utopian tradition ingeniously evaded the pressure on philosophers (backed up by the doctrine of the ‘partyness’ of truth – see Partiinost’) to endorse the official myths of utopia in power. The history of the novel form was the vehicle for Bakhtin’s reflections on the ‘unfinalizability’ of human existence (see Bakhtin, M.M.); similar insights were expressed by the cultural-historical school of psychology established by Vygotskii, who drew on Marx to counter the mechanistic determinism of Soviet Marxist philosophy with a view of consciousness as a cultural artefact capable of self-transcendence and self-renewal. In the 1960s Soviet psychologists and philosophers such as Il’enkov helped to revive an interest in ethics with their emphasis on the individual as the centre of moral agency, while in its historical studies of culture as a system of semiotic signs, the Moscow-Tartu school brought a richly documented and undoctrinaire approach to important moral and political topics.

The insights of some of these individuals and movements into the attractions and delusions of utopian thought are lent added conviction by their own often spectacularly unsuccessful efforts to overcome what Nietzsche called ‘the craving for metaphysical comfort’. Tolstoi was torn all his life beween his pluralist vision and his need for dogmatic moral certainties, while Dostoevskii in his last years preached an astonishingly crude variety of religio-political messianism. The humanism of some later religious philosophers (including the Signposts authors Berdiaev and Bulgakov) is hard to reconcile with their eschatological impatience.

How to cite this article:
KELLY, AILEEN (1998). Russian philosophy. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved April 18, 2014, from

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