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Philosophy in Russia

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Knowledge & Wisdom in the Globalizing World

In his opening address to the Russian Philosophy Congress, Victor Sadovnichiy spoke of sagacity and sophiology.

Philosophy has always played a significant role in culture. It has not only reflected its own epoch but also pointed ahead to future ways of human development. Its influence at the end of the Twentieth and the beginning of the Twenty-First Centuries has greatly increased. A philosophy boom has begun in Europe and America. Philosophy has really become a public phenomenon, and an important factor in public life. Philosophers are not isolated in their own professional community; politicians and society are paying attention to their arguments. Philosophical books are much discussed and appearances by outstanding thinkers cause interest comparable to the public excitement over pop stars’ concerts. All this occurs without the loss of a high professional level of philosophical discourse.

The growth of philosophy is connected with a whole range of factors. First of all, it has been caused by the increased interconnectedness of the world community. It is impossible to arrange a dialogue between different cultures and to explore ways of solving conflicts without philosophy.

The development of fundamental science appears to be another factor which has increased interest in philosophy. There were times when physicists, physiologists, and psychologists ran from philosophers, being sure they could do without their advice and recommendations. Nowadays people realize philosophy is necessary for untangling the difficulties facing quantum mechanics, the general theory of relativity, neurophysiology and other disciplines.

Here I would like to reflect on a topic which seems always to be essential for philosophy and science as a whole – namely the status of scientific knowledge in the modern world and its attitude to wisdom.

For ancient philosophers, wisdom was an ideal of knowledge; in fact the word philosophy translates as the ‘love of wisdom’. St Augustine later taught that there is a hierarchical relation between wisdom and knowledge: “The intellectual cognizance of eternal things belongs to wisdom, but the rational cognizance of temporal things to knowledge... and no one doubts but that the former is to be preferred to the latter.” [St Augustine On the Trinity Bk XII Ch.14]

In Russian philosophy, wisdom has always had a special value. It was inspired not only by reflection on various forms of scientific knowledge, but also by direct experience, by a feeling of the Divine Sofia walking in the world. From this source appeared sophiology as a specific and quite influential school in Russian philosophy. Almost all of the sophiologists were professors and private lecturers at Moscow State University: such as Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900), the brothers Trubetskie, Sergey Bulgakov (1871-1944), and Alexei Losev (1893-1988). But there were contrary positions as well. Moscow University professor G.G. Shpet considered sophiology to be a pseudophilosophy, far removed from reflection and pure knowledge.

In my opinion the two notions of ‘knowledge’ and of ‘wisdom’ are independent of one another, and neither is caused by the other. It is quite possible to discuss what knowledge is without using the concept ‘wisdom’. ‘Knowledge’ is more likely a rational concept. The quality and quantity of knowledge can be assessed. ‘Wisdom’, it seems to me, is closer to moral, everyday ideas. There is no way to measure wisdom. I don’t believe we can reduce intellectual development merely to the perpetual accumulation of separate pieces of knowledge.

Generally speaking, wisdom reflects the ‘wide experience’ of many generations, collected and checked over the millennia. Why aren’t there many people considered wise by public opinion? Probably the cause is that people seldom really think about the meaning of life, forming their own perspectives.

Of course, modern science has changed sharply since the days of Aristotle or even of Galileo. Science does not only belong to scientists. The progress of human civilization, wealth and culture appreciably depends on its successful development. The amount of knowledge has been constantly increasing. At the present time it covers literally hundreds of scientific specialties and sub-specialties. But although humans have discovered a great deal about the environment and about themselves, there are still no answers to the most significant questions. For it turns out that the most difficult knowledge for humans to acquire is knowledge of themselves. The hardest thing to learn about is the inner life of human beings. As the saying goes, every individual person is a unique inward world.

Speaking about knowledge, we should pay attention to the issue of scientific knowledge’s application. We all know the examples of creating and using nuclear, chemical, and bacteriological weapons. These are examples of the immoral use of scientific knowledge. But there are many opposite examples. It is necessary to increase food production by 2% annually in order to provide a growing world population with food. This target cannot be reached year after year by ordinary methods, which is why today intensive research is being done in genetic and chromosome engineering. Another example is connected with the development of medicine. Human genome research opens up new possibilities for the treatment of hereditary diseases.

I think it is appropriate to quote the words of the well-known Russian historian V.O. Kluchevskiy: “Science is often confused with knowledge. This is a mistake. Science means not only knowledge but also consciousness, i.e. ability to use it (knowledge)”. To me this sounds closer to wisdom. Scientific forecasting is no doubt a tricky thing, but mankind has only two ways to peer into the future – science and religion. As the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking has noted, belief in the validity of the expanding Universe and of Big Bang theory doesn’t contradict belief in a God-creator but it does specify time limits within which he must manage his task.

To conclude, I would like to return to the question of what human wisdom is. In contrast to knowledge, information, and education, wisdom in my opinion means the capability to absorb the previous generation’s experience. The further evolution of science is impossible without this. But it is necessary to acquire this experience in creative and critical ways. Nowadays it is important to understand that some processes of dangerous knowledge accumulation are going on in society. Step by step this dangerous knowledge acquires legitimacy and public acceptance. For the sake of fundamental science, and with it for the whole scientific community, it is important to make some kind of objection, based upon ethical principles such as steadiness and stability, convertibility and irreversibility. We need to highlight those sides of human life which testify to the threats and dangers springing from an unwillingness to see the world as it has become under human influence.

© Academician V.A. Sadovnichiy 2006

Academician Victor A. Sadovnichiy is Rector of Moscow State University.


Three Russian Philosophers

Three of the most important Russian philosophers of the late 19th and early 20th century were Vladimir Soloviev, Sergey Bulgakov and Nicolas Berdyaev. All three were in a sense religious philosophers, though all three wrote on a wide variety of topics within philosophy. For decades their works were banned, and Bulgakov and Berdyaev were forced into exile, but after the fall of Communism their books began to be published again in Russia.

Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900) was a philosopher, theologian essayist and poet. He promoted the value of the individual person (lichnost’) and the individual nation (narodnost’) while simultaneously opposing egoism and nationalism, which he saw as perversions of those ideals. He was the founder of sophiology, whose central idea was that creative efforts by humans will succeed because of the presence of God in the world through the ‘active principle’ of Divine Sophia or Wisdom. (In the Bible, in Proverbs 8, Wisdom/Sophia says “The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old.”) Soloviev visualised the Divine Sophia in feminine form., and in his later writings, tended to identify her with the Virgin Mary.

Sergey Bulgakov (1871-1944) wrote on the philosophy of economics, and was for a while a philosophical materialist and a socialist. German idealism led him to a more mystical position. He recovered his religious faith and was ordained as a priest. His religious and metaphysical ideas were a development of Soloviev’s sophiology. In 1935 these ideas led some within the Russian Orthodox Church to accuse him of heresy, fearing that in the Divine Sophia he was trying to introduce a fourth person into the Holy Trinity.

Nicolas Berdyaev (1874-1948) was a Christian existentialist. He proposed a philosophy of existence in which creativity and ‘meonic’ freedom had a central role. Meonic freedom is a freedom which exists before God and prior to all being. Berdyaev was very interested in the nature of time. He thought that ‘objective historical time’ could or would be overcome by ‘subjective, existential time’, which was linked to human creativity. He also criticised Marxism for valuing a remote future time (the time of a perfect communistic society) over the present, with disastrous results.

Rick Lewis

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