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Philosophy in Russia: From Herzen to Lenin and Berdyaev by Frederick C. Copleston SJ (Search/University of Notre Dame: $29.95; 445 pp.)

March 01, 1987|Geoffrey A. Hosking | Hosking is professor of Russian history at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London, and author of "The First Socialist Society: A History of the Soviet Union From Within" (Harvard University Press).

In the West, we imagine philosophers to be detached and dreamy figures in ivory towers. Not so in Russia. There, philosophy is both practical and socially committed. Russian thinkers have nearly all wanted their ideas to be directly useful to people, if possible to liberate them or to help create a better society for them to live in. Russians tend, indeed, to regard philosophy that does not have a "message" or a "purpose" as immoral.

In this, they are faithful, even the atheists among them, to the theology of the Orthodox Church, which holds that knowledge and reason exist not for their own sake, but as means to assist the transfiguration of earthly reality and the divinization of man. As Frederick C. Copleston says, "It is reasonable to see the radicals' moral idealism (as) a secularized form of the Christian ideals which they accused the Russian Orthodox Church of neglecting." For the same reason, "the religious thinkers too tended to be socially committed and to be deeply concerned with 'the problem of Russia,' though the sort of society that they desired was naturally different from that desired by atheistic revolutionaries."

This "impurity" of Russian philosophy tends to dismay philosophers from other cultures. They may even decline to regard it as philosophy at all. Copleston, however, who clearly knows what philosophy is, dismisses such reservations and sets out "to take a broad view of the relevant field and not to worry much about distinctions between the history of philosophy, the history of ideas, the history of social theory and religious thought."

As the distinguished author of a nine-volume survey of European philosophy from the pre-Socratics to Sartre, Copleston is eminently suited to the task. The present book, which is described as "a companion volume to the series," adopts the same general method as its predecessors: It devotes each chapter to a major philosopher or school of thinkers, considered in the light of the political circumstances of their time and of the philosophical traditions to which they belong. The exposition is cool, lucid and expertly professional in its judgments. Copleston cultivates a scrupulous objectivity, deploying criticisms which might be leveled against his thinkers, but also defending them against those criticisms. He is as fair to the atheist and socialist thinkers as he is to the religious ones, with whom, as a member of the Society of Jesus, he is presumably more in sympathy.

A recurrent, even obsessive, theme that newcomers to Russian thought may find disconcerting is the problem of Russia's relationship to the West (always spelled with a capital "W," and always treated as if it were one country). The problem was caused by the joint fact of Russia's having a Christian heritage like the West, but being cut off from it for centuries by the Mongol overlordship. Once it had re-established its independence, Russia was bound eventually to gravitate toward the European cultural and intellectual sphere. This it did in explosive fashion in the 18th Century, trying in a few hectic decades to catch up with the high Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the early Enlightenment, all of which it had missed. As late as the 1830s, Pyotr Chaadaev could still plausibly write of Russia as "a blank sheet of paper," a kind of vacuum in world history.

Later thinkers, of course, found plenty to fill the vacuum with, and even argued that it offered Russia special advantages--those of a youthful, vigorous civilization not yet undermined by the middle-age mercenariness and fractiousness of Europe. The Slavophiles of the 1840s placed these advantages in a metaphysical context: They asserted that Russians had preserved special qualities of communal awareness ( sobernost ), and had not forfeited their "integral knowledge" of the world and of God for the corrosive rationalism of the West.

It was on such philosophical foundations (though secularized) that the Populist revolutionaries and later the Marxists based their project of building a society more humane than anything the West could show. Of course, Marxism had its own philosophical foundations, mostly inherited from German Idealism. But since these had come by a different route to underlie Russian thought as well, there was not much difficulty in grafting Marxism in Russia, where, especially in the person of Lenin, it acquired a characteristically practical, goal-directed nature.

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