“The russian spinozists”: Andrey Maidansky
ABSTRACT. The article deals with the history of Russian Spinozism in the 20th century, focusing attention on three interpretations of Spinoza’s philosophy – by Varvara Polovtsova, Lev Vygotsky, and Evald Ilyenkov. Polovtsova profoundly explored Spinoza’s logical method and contributed an excellent translation of his treatise De intellectus emendatione. Later Vygotsky and Ilyenkov applied Spinoza’s method to create activity theory, an explanation of the laws and genesis of the human mind.
KEY WORDS: philosophy of Spinoza, Spinozism, Polovtsova, Vygotsky, Ilyenkov, Russian Marxism, activity theory, logical method
When looking over the legion of interpretations which have escorted Spinoza’s philosophy in the course of the past three centuries, one immediately recalls an ironic phrase of the scholastics: auctoritas nasum cereum habet. It seems that Spinoza’s teaching has been interpreted in all possible ways. It was already Hegel who had sufficient reason to complain that Spinoza’s doctrine had been too often judged in a rough and ready manner.1 In Russia of XIX century this ordinary state of affairs was complicated by a generally hostile attitude towards the philosophy of Spinoza. Though his doctrine appeared at the epicenter of impassioned polemics with the participation of leading Russian philosophers – Vladimir Solov’ëv, Alexander Vvedenskij, Lev Shestov, Semën Frank, – not one of them declared his devotion to Spinoza’s teaching. Only somewhat later would V. Polovtsova, L. Vygotskij and E. Il’enkov devote themselves to continue his inquisitio veri. They had to go against the general current of Russian philosophy, although at times the latter was becoming more sympathetic to Spinoza’s (or rather to alleged Spinozistic) ideas. I do not intend here to survey the various Spinozistic tendencies in Russian philosophy; I would like to explore somewhat of its Spinozistic “mainstream.”
Varvara Nikolaevna Polovtsóva was born in Moscow, in 1877. On graduating from the St.-Petersburg female gymnasium she continued her education in Germany, at the philosophy faculties of Heidelberg, Tübingen and, finally, of Bonn. There on the 20th of January 1909, she received her Doctor’s degree. Her dissertation, entitled Untersuchungen auf dem Gebiete der Reizerscheinungen bei den Pflanzen, was awarded the highest mark, eximium, and in part was soon published in Jena. The original was lost duringWorld War II, when the Rhein University was destroyed.
At that time Spinoza became the most widely discussed philosopher in Russia, with the exception, perhaps, of Hegel. Translations of his works were published in St.-Petersburg, Moscow, Warsaw, Kazan’ and Odessa. Extensive volumes about Spinoza’s philosophy, including translations from German and French, appeared one after another. However, Russian philosophers perceived Spinoza’s doctrine rather critically: religious thinkers were displeased with it because of the identification of God and Nature; Kantians rejected it for “reducing all real relations to logical ones”; some commentators reproached him with fatalism, with using a geometrical method inappropriate for philosophy, and so on.
It was Vladimir Solov’ëv alone who dared to defend Spinoza, admitting that “Spinoza had been my first love in philosophy” and expressing a wish to “pay back at least a part of the old debt.” But Solov’ëv’s apologia of Spinoza was restricted, in deed, to the assertion that he had “set up his whole philosophical system” on the notion of an absolute Deity, common to all mature religious doctrines. In conclusion Solov’ëv added his voice to the chorus of critics, stating that it is the subject of cognition, missed by Spinoza, that stands between the world of phenomena and substance; and, what is even more important, “in Spinoza’s system there is as little space for the god of history as in the Eleatic system.”
Studies in East European Thought 55: 199–216, 2003.
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