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Dostoevskii, Fëdor Mikhailovich (1821–81)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-E011-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 25, 2024, from

Article Summary

Dostoevskii, regarded as one of the world’s greatest novelists, is especially well known for his mastery of philosophical or ideological fiction. In his works, characters espouse intriguing ideas about theology, morality and psychology. Plots are shaped by conflicts of ideas and by the interaction of theories with the psychology of the people who espouse them. Indeed, Dostoevskii is usually considered one of the greatest psychologists in the history of Western thought, not only because of the accounts of the mind his characters and narrators elucidate in detail, but also because of the peculiar behaviour betraying the depths of their souls. Dostoevskii is particularly well known for his description of the irrational in its many modes.

Deeply engaged with the political and social problems of his day, Dostoevskii brought his understanding of individual and social psychology to bear on contemporary issues and gave them a lasting relevance. His predictions about the likely consequences of influential ideas, such as communism and the social theory of crime, have proven astonishingly accurate; he has often been regarded as something of a prophet of the twentieth century.

His reputation rests primarily on four long philosophical novels – Prestuplenie i nakazanie (Crime and Punishment) (1866), Idiot (The Idiot) (1868–9), Besy (The Possessed, also known as The Devils) (1871–2) and Brat’ia Karamazovy (The Brothers Karamazov) (1879–80) – and on one novella, Zapiski iz podpol’ia (Notes From Underground) (1864). In his day, Dostoevskii was as famous for his journalistic writing as for his fiction, and a few of his articles have remained classics, including ‘Mr. D–bov and the Question of Art’ (1861) – a critique of utilitarian aesthetics – and ‘Environment’ (1873).

Dostoevskii’s works have had major influence on Western and Russian philosophy. In Russia, his novels inspired numerous religious thinkers, including Sergei Bulgakov and Nikolai Berdiaev; existentialists, such as Lev Shestov; and literary and ethical theorists, most notably Mikhail Bakhtin. In the West, his influence has also been great. Here, too, his writings are repeatedly cited (along with Kierkegaard’s) as founding works of existentialism. Perhaps because of a misreading, they influenced Freud and Freudianism. Directly and through the medium of Bakhtin, his ideas have played a role in the rethinking of mind and language. And his rejection of utopianism and socialism has been repeatedly cited in twentieth-century political debates and theories.

Dostoevskii’s influence has been diverse and at times contradictory, in part because of the different genres in which his ideas are expressed. Not only the overall meanings of his novels but also the views of his characters, including those he meant to refute, have been attributed to him. Moreover, his essays sometimes express ideas at variance with his novels. Most recently, philosophical significance has been discovered not only in the content but also in the very form of his novels. Their odd plot structure has been shown to have implications for an understanding of authorship, responsibility and time.

Citing this article:
Morson, Gary Saul. Dostoevskii, Fëdor Mikhailovich (1821–81), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-E011-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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