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Lesley Chamberlain

Lesley Chamberlain is the author of Motherland, a book about the history of Russian philosophy from the 19th century onwards, and has another book on the subject coming out soon. Rick Lewis asked her about her books and about Russia’s philosophical past.

What motivated you to write a book on the history of Russian philosophy?

I came to Russian philosophy via German literature, when I was fired by the use Thomas Mann made of the ‘Russian’ element. That led to an interest in the Russian intellectual tradition in its own right. Tracing the German philosophical sources for characteristic Russian attitudes and the metamorphosis of German aesthetic idealism in Russia opened up a whole field in the history of ideas. But I’d like to distinguish between ‘philosophy’ and ‘thought’ in the Russian context. For the best part of two centuries the subject studied in Russia and the West was ‘Russian social and political thought’, which effectively meant the utilitarian and egalitarian, activist tradition leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution. In my lifetime, which coincided with the Cold War, the Soviet Union insisted this was the only body of Russian thought that mattered; that alternatives had ceased to exist after 1917. Most Western scholars and university departments followed suit, because the most urgent political question in the world was how Communism was born and how Russia came to be Soviet. I formed a different view because was lucky enough to study with the nephew of one of Russia’s last significant religious philosophers, Semyon Frank, who died in 1950. My subject was born thirty years ago when I traced the work of Frank and his contemporaries back to their nineteenth-century inspiration in two great Russian-style philosophers, Aleksei Khomiakov and Vladimir Solovyov. I won’t say Motherland took that long to write, but it was difficult to shape. One factor was Cold War lack of interest, another was my philosophical inexperience, a third was my involvement in writing about Communist Russia and Eastern Europe as they now were. What brought me back to philosophy was a time spent improving my grasp of the classical Western tradition. Plato, Descartes, Hume and Kant made it plain to me that there was a Russian philosophy, distinct from Russian social and political thought, but that, seen from the West, it had such antagonistic, anti-rational characteristics that its practioners had to be defined as ‘philosophers in the Russian style’.

What is the main theme of Motherland? Would you say that your book focuses more on some strands of Russian thought than on others?

The main theme is this distinctiveness of Russian-style philosophy. However, Part 1, ‘The Making of the Intelligentsia’, constitutes the necessary detour before the essential book can begin. It seemed necessary to remind non-Russian readers of the best-known names in Russian political thought, like Belinsky and Herzen, Chernyshevsky and Plekhanov, and ultimately Lenin, before introducing the different, but related, subject of Russian philosophy. After the detour three main but overlapping themes are introduced: ‘the good man in Russia’, the fundamental Russian distrust of ‘reason’ and ‘the mystical turn’. Historical exposition of the main figures and their ideas is juxtaposed with critical engagement. I mentioned Khomiakov and Solovyov above. Let me add to these Solovyov’s contemporary Dostoevsky, and the host of interesting early-twentieth-century thinkers who followed: Frank, Berdyaev, Shestov, Sergei Bulgakov, Vysheslavtsev and others.

Merging the historical and the critical tasks was difficult. Had I been able to take a rudimentary knowledge of the ‘map’ of Russian philosophy for granted, I would have preferred to stress the two great areas in which Russian-style philosophy excels: knowledge and ethics. In Russia ethical issues always play their part in theories of knowledge. In the religious philosophers ethics concerns the relationship with the divine, and knowledge happens under divinely-given conditions. In Lenin’s so-called ‘philosophy’, to which I give a complete chapter, knowledge is completely subordinated to a political vision designed to rival the total answer of religion. One needs the whole philosophical picture to see what Lenin was doing.

Essentially Russian-style philosophy is a counter-enlightenment mindset which takes Pascal as its founding father and rejects the West’s choice of Descartes. The ethical-religious attitude to knowledge leaves Russia without a rational tradition to uphold standards of objectivity and impartiality. But there is also a rich positive heritage.

The general term Russian philosophy also includes academic philosophy of the late nineteenth century, but the real feel of the subject is given by thinkers like Dostoevsky and Solovyov. The result is ‘philosophy’ of great emotional and poetic appeal, but not a truth-seeking tool. This is why I talk about the two hundred years of Russian philosophy, from the end of the eighteenth century, as ‘an intellectual defeat but not a moral failure’. I add the rider that since this philosophical-ethical-poetic culture survived the Soviet period ‘underground’, it still influences intellectual life today.

What were the main influences on Russian philosophy in that period?

Berdyaev once famously said that Russian philosophy continued the Platonic tradition of ideal Forms. The attraction to Idealism was stimulated by German Romantic philosophy – Schelling and Hegel – which built on Orthodox religious foundations. Hegel the philosopher of history and the inventor of the idealist dialectic is normally seen as the precursor in Russia of Marx, Marxism and dialectical materialism. But in Russian philosophy his attitude to knowledge matters more. Khomiakov wrote a landmark ‘letter on Hegel’ in the 1840s rejecting it.

The subject of knowledge for Hegel, as for Descartes, is the individual relying on her singular perception of the world and herself. To this the Russian philosopher objects that truth cannot be a product of the individual mind, for true knowledge is collective. The Russian objection is raised on both epistemological and ethical grounds. Khomiakov also rejects Hegel’s idea that knowledge grows out of the complex relations between the individual and society. The Russian preference, which chimes with a tradition of prejudice against the advanced, industrialised West and its corresponding culture, is for simple communal knowledge nourished by communal belonging. The alienation from society, which Hegel saw as a negative stage through which individual consciousness must travel, was deemed unnecessary.

Overall Hegel came to occupy in Russian philosophy the position of ‘rational’ figurehead and as such became the butt of ethical objections to a culture of reason. These were most famously uttered by the critic Vissarion Belinsky, in 1840; later Dostoevsky put them in the mouth of Ivan Karamazov. Belinsky said that if the rational world was such that children died for no reason then he for one ‘returned the ticket’. What I should add here, however, is that Russian philosophy and social thought tended to merge at the edges in this attack on Hegel, because both saw their role as contending with the repressive tsarist social order. While social thought looked to philosophical materialism (Feuerbach), socialism and ultimately Communism as the solution to injustice, philosophy looked to mystical metaphysics as the source of social hope. Philosophy and social thought offered moral authority in a world where legality was not respected. But since political authority could readily learn from this, philosophy was at the same time extremely wary of the way the tsarist regime could hijack ‘reason’ to maximise political acquiescence.

In other words, more than any argument from first principles, from any sources, it was the political environment in Russia which inclined philosophers to distrust all truth claims, to the point of mystical self-abandon. Motherland explains how foreign philosophical influences passingly helped build up in Russia a sense of reason as social glue, but more lastingly cast it as a ‘prison’ from which the truth of humanity must escape.

The influence of Schelling in Russia didn’t affect socialist politics, which is why it has been neglected for so long. As part of the mystical turn away from politics, however, Schelling provided the model for Solovyov to write Russia’s first systematic idealist philosophy in the 1870s. He offered a blueprint for how man’s position in a divinely-ordered cosmos could be expressed as a transcendental system of knowledge.

What do you think is the main thing of value that the Russian philosophy of that period can contribute to modern philosophy, either in Russia or in other countries?

Russian philosophy has two main points of interest for philosophers today. The first concerns ethical considerations brought to bear on knowledge, and the second is a long-standing distrust of ‘the Enlightenment project’ – or instrumental reason. Russian mystical thought of the early twentieth century often seems to recall Heidegger, and I have suggested that Rilke, a great Russophile in philosophy, may have acted as a conduit. Parallels also exist with Levinas’s ‘ethics as first philosophy’ and between the Christian existentialism of Berdyaev and Shestov and the existentialism of Sartre. Since certain Russian attitudes were ‘postmodern’ a century or more before their Western time, Western philosophers may be interested in comparing the Russian product with how a world-political moral environment impacted on Continental philosophy cumulatively after two world wars, and with the waning of Marxism, to create Derrida’s poststructuralism. In passing I also suggest how the Russian mystical tradition shaped Isaiah Berlin’s views on liberty and pluralism. Not all ways of ‘reasoning’ have their origins in rational traditions of thought.

I understand that you are working on another book, also connected with Russian philosophy. Could you tell us briefly what it will be about?

I hope to bring out a new edition of Motherland, destined for a Russian readership in the first instance, and focusing on the issues of knowledge and goodness. Meanwhile The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia, (Atlantic Books, February 2006), tells the story of how Lenin forcibly expelled the last of the ethico-religious philosophers abroad to help secure Soviet Russia as a one-party, materialist and effectively atheist state. Religious individualism was one of several world views declared incompatible with Marxist-Leninism, so that there were also many otherwise-minded agronomists and economists on ‘the philosophy steamer.’ The book tells the story of the political climate in which the victims were targeted, how the campaign worked, and what happened to them in exile. As to what Lenin’s gesture meant, I suggest it’s no coincidence that Russia evicted the last of its metaphysical thinkers at the same time as Western philosophy guided by Russell and Wittgenstein dismissed metaphysics as nonsense. The story of the banishment of metaphysics is integral to the history of the twentieth century.

• There is a review of Motherland: a Philosophical History of Russia here

Lesley Chamberlain’s website is at www.lesleychamberlain.co.uk

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