Wednesday, August 15, 2007

More Russian History

This is another very good article on Russian intellectual history (via arts and letters daily):

"Isaiah Berlin declared that Russia possessed "thinkers, but not eminent philosophers." Chamberlain rightly blames his singular prestige for the notion that all such thinkers amounted to mere "magi of the steppes." To be sure, she notes, Russian philosophy largely eschews systematic approaches. And Pyotr Chaadaev (1794-1856) famously deemed Russians "rather careless about what was true and what was false." But Russian philosophy also displays distinctive assets along its anti-Cartesian, pro-Pascalian path.

It's always engagé, fiercely concerned with the communal welfare of Russia, even as it favors the individual's personal dignity and autonomy. Russian philosophy's chief problem is "how to reconcile individuality with selflessness." It is notoriously nonacademic, doable by novelists, journalists, or priests. It ponders the "good" or "rounded" person, how he or she ought to live, and resembles a kind of moral calling or "springboard to immediate practical action" on the part of justice-seekers who believe in "adapting truth to hope." (Chamberlain argues that this bent continued till the end of the Soviet Union.) No wonder Czar Nicholas I ordered all philosophy departments shut down in 1826.

At its core, as in Dostoyevsky's novels, Russian philosophy skews counter-Enlightenment and idealist, looking like "a branch of German philosophy" in its infatuation with Kant and Hegel. It's highly skeptical of an instrumentalist, technocrat approach to life that scants emotion and spontaneity. (Berdyaev ordained rationalism "the original sin of almost all European philosophy.") In a peculiarly Russian way, it anticipates the ever-present possibility of chaos in human life. Moreover, it's congenitally unable to separate itself from Orthodox Christian mysticism, except when it swings the opposite way to Western, utopian, scientific reason (which played out in both the liberal humanism of Alexander Herzen and Lenin's ruthless police state). It is always impassioned about ideas, as in Belinsky's famous rebuke of Turgenev, reproduced in Tom Stoppard's play The Coast of Utopia: "We haven't yet solved the problem of God, and you want to eat!""

4 comments:

KUBLA KHAN said...

Have you read Camus' The Rebel? it is one of the most passionately, artistic and well written essay on revolt, rebellion. in it, there is a chapter called the grand inquisitors. as you know well, this is from karamazov. camus traces the history of western rebellion at least to a great extent to russian ideas, with Dostoevsky leading the front.

I agree with you entirely about the Russian preoccupation with morality, God etc.however, kantian, hegelian influences, while appearing different have not persuaded modern European philosophers to expund the same old Hegelian dialectic, leading to mass destruction and new holocausts. the marriage of Greek myth with pseudokantian philosophy has not led to any new solutions.
I prefer russian cogitations to neo-imperial philosophy though Russia has always been one big grand inquisitor. that is so sad.

Alok said...

yes i have read The Rebel. I agree it is a fantastic essay. Other than Karamazov I also liked his analysis of Milton's Satan and Marquis de Sade. It is a great book though I haven't read it in a long time.

these weren't exactly my views, i just excerpted these from the articles I linked too. but yes it does point out the basic anti-rational (anti-enlightenment) strain in German philosophy from which the Russians got all their inspiration. Also their obsessive preoccupation with abstractions, theories and ideas for their own sake, which led to so much tragedy and suffering...

The best expert on this german-russian history of ideas is Isaiah Berlin. His essays collected in Russian Thinkers, Against the Current and Enemies of Human Liberty are really worth reading.

KUBLA KHAN said...

yes, I have recently read the Berlin books you mentioned. they are neatly written. in the mainstream, people won't agree with Berlin. Voltaire, for instance is considered a giant of philosophy but how puny he is!

enlightenment....and irrationality perhaps go together. we are witnesses to recent carnages in Europe.And yet, non kantian, non Greek thought is considered sluggish. quote camus....( stress the word EVEN....Even oriental philosophers w'd sometimes say....he writes in his NOCES!)

Russian undercurrents are a mix of yes religion but also politics and disbelief. this produces riches and gives us a Karamazov.

btw....Tarkovsky.....i dont see many posts on him by yourself.....

I hope you dont mind my comments sometimes. "thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season."

Alok said...

no no comments are always welcome. many times they are more insightful than the post itself....

Tarkovsky... hmm yes haven't mentioned him much on the blog but I do like him a lot. Specially Solaris, Stalker and The Mirror. I think the only film that I haven't seen yet is The Sacrifice. But having said that my interests are more in psychology, specially those directors who are willing to venture into darker corners of human consciousness and subjectivity.

I also liked your post on Stalker a lot. Didn't comment because I had nothing special to say!