Mikhail Epstein



In the book: Russian Postmodernism: New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1999, pp.158-162.


The phrase 'ecological approach' is frequently used today in a broad, even figurative sense. The principles of 'ecological thinking' extend far beyond environmental issues in their application to society and culture. What is usually meant by the expression "the ecology of culture," as used in the articles and public statements of the academician Dmitry Likhachev, the poet Andrei Voznesensky and other respected and renowned authors, is the preservation of books, paintings, icons, buildings and other cultural monuments of the past. This is an urgent and noble task, especially with a view to the long neglect and suppression of Russia's cultural heritage under the Soviet regime.

Culture, however, is not constituted by works already completed and by ancient monuments, the preservation of which is certainly our responsibility. There is also culture of thinkiung, of intellectual activity. Has the time come to extend the principles of 'ecological thinking' to the sphere of thinking itself? The world which we inhabit is not constituted solely by a living but also by a thinking environment. The noosphere (the sphere of reason), however, is just as polluted by the waste of intellectual production and ideological activity as is the biosphere by industrial waste. What then is this ecology of thinking?

The ecological approach is opposed to the instrumental approach, with its indifference to the fate of the object and willingness to sacrifice it in the name of external, utilitarian aims. For centuries, nature was perceived as but a means for the development of industry, enrichment of society and the self-agrandizement of man. But as we can see now, these very aims are inscribed into nature as a whole and are unattainable at the expense of its desruction, which would almost automatically entail the self-destruction of human life on earth. Similarly, we have been accustomed to evaluate intellectual processes in relation to their practical goal and result. "Where does this lead?" "What conclusion have we come to?" "Where can we go from here?" These are commonly accepted criteria for the evaluation of thought. Thinking is not treated as valuable in itself but as an auxiliary form of action, which of necessity has to be assimilated to something useful if extraneous. Hence the habit of coming to "conclusions," making "inferences" and "generalisations," abstracted from the very movement of thought in the form of its final product.

Inside systems of thought, the principle of homogeneity has reigned supreme. The enormous variety of phenomena is deduced from a single postulate, from the primacy of the "idea" or "matter," from the "senses" or "reason", the "will" or "knowledge", the "individual" or the "collective." One of the elements always plays the leading role, as the 'basis,' 'the first cause', while another is subordinated, ravaged, deprived of meaning, turned into a 'superstructure' or a prop, without an independent place in the constructed universe. Thought is viewed as instrumental and, turned into 'ideas,' becomes a tool for enslavement and mastery. Perhaps the 20th century will be remembered as the century of 'ideas,' since their inexorable logic reigned over all spheres of life, caught up in the network of causal relationships and held in check by the steel chains of premises and inferences. The ideas and the people who became their tools are responsible for the greatest tragedies of the 20th century: world and civil wars, death camps, atomic explosions, ecological catastrophes, political terror. This was the principle of subordination of one side of being to another or its annihilation by the other.

Gradually, however, as the end of the century approaches, the power of 'ideas' is decreasing. Humankind is coming to the realization that there are values even more important for humanity's self-preservation and development: love, life, nature, the fascination of the particular, the unrepeatable. Idio-syncrasies are taking the place of Ideo-logies. A new spiritual sphere is forming, a sphere of wisdom and love, of understanding and harmony among all living beings on Earth: it is the sphere of White Spirituality, encompassing all the colors of the spectrum in its purity (Sophiosphere).

'Ideas' are thus bound to return to the milieu of natural thinking and to dissolve in its organicity. The type of thought we have called "essayism" reasserts its value here. It is ideologically 'non-polluting' and 'waste-free' because it pursues no aims outside itself. There is a kind of thinking, similar to walking or dashing, which embodies a locomotive or gripping reflex and is of necessity directed towards a goal. Such thinking moves assiduously towards a conclusion, and a 'result' is its ultimate goal. But a "goal" (tsel' ) is merely a degenerate kind of a "whole" (tseloe ), as its one separate part assumes mastery over all others. Essayistic thinking is not purposeful, it does not aim at a certain target; rather, it is holistic.

Essayistic thinking can be compared to breathing: thought breathes the Ego out into the world and breathes the world back into the Ego. One is revealed within the other, not deduced from the other as in a causal relationship. Each phenomenon is autonomous and significant in its own right and, at the same time, is the image or representation of other phenomenon. No relationship of mastery is established between them, but a relationship of correspondence and mutual belonging. The essay shows how the object exists in the world and how the world exists in the object. This quality of reversibility and of dual direction, which is innate to breathing, is engraved in the very noun 'essay': it is a word that in Russian (esse) reads the same backwards and forwards.

Proof and refutation are alien to essayistic thought, regarding them as tendentious and intellectually self-interested. Where thought is exploited in the name of an 'idea,' where it yields a 'surplus value' in the form of a rigid priority of one concept or referent over another, essayistic thought is absent. Like breathing, the essay cannot be unidirectional. If it stops at the entrance or the exit with a "Hurray for...!" or a "Down with...!", death ensues. Lao-tse said that "truthful words resemble their opposites," while Borges remarked that every significant book also contains an "anti-book." These remarks apply to the essay, in which thought develops along opposite pathways, covering the entire field of possibilities.

The time therefore has come to admit that an instrumental attitude towards thought, as well as towards nature, is a threat to the existence of man as a thinking being, as homo sapiens. The ECOLOGY of THINKING is a new humanistic discipline, born of an epoch of the maturing of the mind, in which the latter can no longer be satisfied with an instrumental role in the construction of life but manifests itself as an autonomous whole. The purpose of thinking is the progress of thinking itself. Not long ago, this would have sounded like heresy. But the bitter lesson of using nature 'instrumentally' has taught us differently. What is the goal of this forest, this river, this blade of grass? Its goal is the same as that of a human being —it is the end in itself. Thought itself becomes manifest as a self-valuable need and pure joy of the human mind, as innate as breathing. Marcus Aurelius aptly remarked: "No longer let thy breathing only act in concert with the air that surounds thee, but let thy intelligence also now be in harmony with the intelligence which embraces all things. For the intelligent power is no less diffused in all parts and pervades all things for him who is willing to draw it to him than the aerial power for him who is able to respire it. "

Who, then, should be better qualified than we, citizens of the ideocratic State, who have suffered the disruptive power of mutated, 'conscripted' forms of consciousness, to become the pioneer-ecologists of the noosphere and guardians of its purity?

Moscow, 1982


In fact, this was the primary meaning of the word "culture" after it extended beyond "tending of natural growth" to a process of human development. Thus Thomas More: "to the culture and profit of their minds"; Bacon: "the culture and manurance of minds" (1605); Hobbes: "a culture of their minds" (1651). See Raymond Williams. Keywords. A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p.77.

"Noosphere" is a term coined by the French Catholic thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) and used in contemporary thought to designate the totality of artificial constructions and accomodations on the Earth, manifesting the capacity of human reason to work as a new geological factor in the transformation of our planet. The noosphere includes human reason in the diversity of all its spiritual and material dimensions and productions.

The Greek adjective idios means "one's own" or "private."

If "noosphere" refers to Earth's reason, then "sophiosphere," to Earth's wisdom.

Compare with metabole as a poetic trope, desribed in the section "Literary Manifestoes."

For a detailed desciption of the economy of ideological discourse, see the chapter "Relativistic Patterns in Totalitarian Thinking: the Linguistic Games of Soviet Ideology," in Mikhail Epstein, After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture, Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1995, pp. 101-163 (especially pp. 157-163).

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (VIII, 54), trans. George Long. in The Harvard Classics, ed. by Charles W. Eliot , 55th pr. (New York: P. F. Collier&Son Corporation, 1963), vol. 2, p. 263.

This manifesto, as well as two others from this section, "The Age of Universalism" and "The Paradox of Acceleration," were first published in Russian in Mikhail Epshtein, Paradoksy novizny..., pp. 382-388, 402-405.


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