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September 3, 2004 by AK

Russian philosophy reviewed

Oliver Ready reviews Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia by Lesley Chamberlain. A “philosophic history,” as I understand, means a history of philosophic thought here.

“Lesley Chamberlain discusses why Western philosophy failed to take root in Russia,” the reviewer reports, leaving us to wonder what Western philosophy means and whether it really failed to radicate itself into the Russian soil. If Hegel is the ideal Western philosopher, Sartre is only un philosophe, not really a philosopher, and the Russian amateurs are decidedly beyond the pale. Philosophy is then reduced to a few narrow lanes of investigation that don’t seem particularly interesting anymore. But if those quirky pre- and post-Enlightement minds, from Pascal to Evola, are in, so should be most Russian philosophers.

In another review, Lord Skidelsky offers a more accurate assessment:

Indeed, the very notion of philosophy as an academic discipline, with its own technical jargon and standards of rigour, has never taken root in Russia.

The biggest problem with the book under review–and therefore with the need to read it–is that it apparently misses out on what matters the most:

In its totality, however, and particularly when it moves into the 20th century [emphasis mine–RD] , Motherland proves a messy and rather exasperating work.

But it’s in the 20th century that most of the thinkers that educated Russians now call Russian philosophers, flourished! Skidelsky claims that

Russian religious thought enjoyed a brief vogue in the west following Lenin’s banishment of its leading practitioners, but has since vanished into dusty libraries, probably never to re-emerge[,]

but they have not vanished at all; on the contrary, they are central to many a Russian intellectual’s understanding of the world. It is hard to imagine a well-educated Russian entirely ignorant of at least the very names like Bulgakov, Berdyaev, Frank, Lossky, Shestov, etc. A book on Russian philosophy that passes them over is like a history of English poetry missing Milton, Byron and Hardy.

Bonus link: The Disconsolation of Philosophy, pt. 1, by Aaron Haspel.


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