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Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhailovich (1895–1975)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-E001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 06, 2020, from

Article Summary

Bakhtin is generally regarded as the most influential twentieth-century Russian literary theorist. His writings on literature, language, ethics, authorship, carnival, time and the theory of culture have shaped thinking in criticism and the social sciences. His name is identified with the concept of dialogue, which he applied to language and numerous other aspects of culture and the psyche.

Bakhtin viewed literary genres as implicit worldviews, concrete renditions of a sense of experience. Strongly objecting to the idea that novelists simply weave narratives around received philosophical ideas, he argued that very often significant discoveries are made first by writers and are then ‘transcribed’, often with considerable loss, into abstract philosophy. For example, he regarded the novelists of the eighteenth century as explorers of a modern concept of historicity long before philosophers took up the topic. He argued that considerable wisdom could be achieved by probing the form, as well as the explicit content, of literary works. In literature as in life, however, much wisdom is never fully formalizable, although we may approximate some of it and gesture towards more. Such partial recuperation was, in Bakhtin’s view, the principal task of literary criticism.

Bakhtin’s favourite genre was the realist novel. In his view, novels contain the richest sense of language, psychology, temporality and ethics in Western thought. He revolutionized the study of novels by arguing that traditional poetics, which employed categories suitable to poetry and to drama, had been unable to appreciate just what is novelistic and especially valuable about novels. Seeking the essence of ‘prosaic intelligence’, he therefore formulated an alternative to poetics, which critics have called ‘prosaics’. This term also designates an important part of his worldview in approaching many other topics, especially language. Bakhtin stressed the prosaic, ordinary, unsystematic, events of the world as primary. In culture, order can never be presumed, but is always a ‘task’, the result of work that is never completed and always upset by everyday contingent events. Better than any other form of thought, great prose, especially realistic novels, captures this prosaic sense of life.

Believing in contingency and human freedom, Bakhtin described individual people, and cultural entities generally, as ‘unfinalizable’. Human beings always manifest ‘surprisingness’ and can never be reduced to a fully comprehensible system. Paraphrasing the implications of Dostoevskii’s novels, Bakhtin located humanness in the capacity of people ‘to render untrue any externalizing and finalizing definition of them. As long as a person is alive he lives by the fact that he is not yet finalized, that he has not uttered his ultimate word’ ([1929] 1984: 59; original emphasis). Ethically, the worst act is to treat people as if some ‘secondhand’ truth about them were exhaustible. Psychologically,

A man never coincides with himself. One cannot apply to him the formula of identity A≡A… the genuine life of the personality takes place at the point of non-coincidence between a man and himself… beyond the limits of all that he is as a material being … that can be spied upon, defined, predicted apart from its own will, ‘at second hand.’

([1929] 1984: 59)

Bakhtin therefore opposed all deterministic philosophies and all cultural theories that understate the messiness of things and the openness of time. He rigorously opposed Marxism and semiotics, although, strangely enough, in the West his work has been appropriated by both schools. Stating his own thought as a paraphrase of Dostoevskii, he wrote:

nothing conclusive has yet taken place in the world, the ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future.

([1929] 1984: 166)

Citing this article:
Morson, Gary Saul. Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhailovich (1895–1975), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-E001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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