Mikhail Epstein (Emory University)

 Symposion and Russian Filosofia

Symposion. A Journal of Russian Thought. Vol. 1, 1996, pp.3-6.


The name "Symposion" reflects this journal's interest in the Platonic and anti-Platonic currents of Russian thought that make it part of the Western intellectual tradition. As Alfred North Whitehead succinctly put it, all of Western philosophy is but a series of footnotes to Plato. If this is true, then Russian philosophy deserves a respectable place in the Western tradition, at the Platonic "feast" of ideas. Russian thought has carried on its "broad shoulders" (1) the weight of an ideocratic state, sacrificing itself both to its construction and to its ultimate destruction. Russian philosophy spilled vast rivers of ink and blood "pro" and "contra" those crucial sections of Plato's "Laws" and "The Republic" in which the nature of the ideal state, which is to be based on a philosophical idea and constructed in its name, is discussed.

 The reference to Plato's "Symposion" is also important because this dialogue presents the type of philosophy which shaped the Russian intellectual tradition. Philosophy, in this tradition, is not an exact science, not a form of general knowledge; it is neither a study of the possibilities and limits of knowledge, nor of the semantics of this or that concept or term... Philo-sophia is the love of wisdom, the love of thought and thinking. Eros, Plato writes, is for the most part a philosopher; accordingly, the participants in the "Symposion" are "possessed by a philosophical fury," they are "bitten and wounded by the sting of philosophical discourse." (2) In philosophy the authority of "love" is as important as the authority of "wisdom," and "Symposion" shows the emergence and development of that kind of love which begins as a love of beautiful bodies and becomes a love of concepts and ideas, always faithful to love's all-encompassing nature.

 Why must we love concepts and not merely think them? Why must we love wisdom and not merely make use of it? This is perhaps philosophy's greatest mystery, and it is at the center of Russian thought, which aspires to the personification of "Sophia," conceiving of wisdom as a person in order more fully to reveal the "loving," "seductive" foundation of philosophy, its potential and even necessity of becoming an activity of loving understanding and action.

 Plato says that "the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love." (3) One of the most crucial tasks of post-totalitarian Russian philosophy is to distinguish within itself two types of "wholeness."

 Totality, that is to say the ability not only to analyze but to synthesize concepts by a total act of loving understanding;

 Totalitarity, that is to say the striving of thought to command reality through a system of categories embodied in a government or party ideocracy.

 The totality of love must be distinguished from the totalitarity of power, and Russian philosophy still has a way to go before assimilating all the nuances of this distinction. It must free itself from totalitarian temptations while at the same time master the ways of "total wisdom," which in Russian is synonymous with total purity (tselomudrie) (4), the chief characteristic of Sophia.

 How can one love an idea without becoming a slave to it? In "Symposion" wisdom feasts with those who love her; in "The Republic" she rules over slaves and servants. Can philosophy tread the narrow path separating one Plato from the other, "Symposion" from "The Republic"? Russia's entire historical course led from "Symposion" to "The Republic," from the love of ideas to enslavement to them. It is only now, with the utter rout of government ideocracy, that we can begin to make out the return path, leading back from "The Republic" to "Symposion," and the goal of the journal called "Symposion" is both to reflect and support this movement.

 Russia, as seen from the West, remains a more or less blank space on the map of contemporary intellectual life, the one exception being the city of "Bakhtin," located in the middle of a huge, barren continent. What's more, Bakhtin himself is understood completely outside of the Russian context, just as was Nikolai Berdyaev, who was quite popular in the West between the 1930s and 1950s. The very idea of "Russian philosophy" exists, in the West, only for a narrow band of Slavist specialists; it has no existence at all for Western philosophers, theologians, methodologists, intellectuals, or general humanists. For them, Russian philosophy is either an incomprehensible sound ("Did I hear you right?"), or a pseudonym for a kind of frenzied publicistic or essayistic writing, part literature and part sermon, a hodgepodge of fantasy, utopia, and criticism.

 Contemporary Western philosophy itself, however, has more and more abadoned the effort at methodological purity, with its claims of being independent of metaphor, imagery, fantasy, and poetry. The various "post" movements (postmodernism, poststructuralism, etc.) have revealed new approaches to the interpretation of that strange, heterogeneous, "total" discourse, which took shape in Russian thought. From the point of view of the rationalist school of the Western canon, Vladimir Solovyov is not so much a philosopher as a mystic and "sophiologist"; Vasily Rozanov is not a philosopher at all: his works are simply a linguistic game and a braiding of knots of thought as a gift to posterity. These judgments of "not so much" and "not at all" have been pronounced as verdicts on Russian attempts at philosophy.

 Times, however, change, and it now turns out that philosophy is nothing more (and nothing less either) than a play of metaphors, a twining of linguistic knots, which linear rationalist philosophy is not in a position to untangle or straighten out. This is precisely the reason why Nietzsche, Bataille, and other "cursed" thinkers and "day-dreamers," whose thoughts can not be assimilated to "authentic," "scientific" philosophy, " remain thinkers, ever faithful to thought, never trying to pass it off as objective truth about the universe nor afraid of linking it to poetry, theology, and to the life inside and outside the self. In such a light, Solovyov and Rozanov, Leontiev and Florensky, Fyodorov and Fedotov, Berdyaev and Shestov, look different . . . Their thought simply took a different course from "strict" philosophy, they were "thought-weavers," inventors of philosophical words, mixers of genres and languages long before the age of postmodernsim, when such an approach became bon ton in the West.

 The challenge is not to apply new French or American methods to the analysis of Russian philosophy; it is to articulate, in contemporary language, Russia philosophy's own methods and to enter into a dialogue with contemporary Western thought. Russian experience with "total" philosophizing, the awareness of its attractions and dangers, can become one more source for the enriching and diversity of Western thought.

 Each national tradition has its own system of humanistic disciplines and its own criteria for determining what it considers philosophy. Literally transcribed, Russian philosophy is filosofia, and perhaps this word can become part of Western philosophical terminology to emphasize the variety of traditions constituting the intellectual heritage of the West: in this case, the distinction between the analytical-critical and the synthetic-constructive approach. The difference between philosophy and filosofia is roughly analogous to the difference between a scholarly symposium and a platonic symposion: the participants in the latter not only correctly discuss abstract ideas but "totally" give themselves over to them, with all their body, soul and mind.(5)

Filosofia is that philosophy that has not detached itself from total thinking, has not become a narrow specialty studying the conditions and possibilities of knowledge; instead, it tries to preserve the scale and shape of total wisdom, combining in various ways elements of criticism and fantasy, science and poetry, analysis and synthesis, historicism and utopia. Filosofia can and should learn from philosophy how to become more exact at distinguishing these elements — but not in order to sacrifice one of them; rather in order better to promote their unity in a non-totalitarian totality.

 The distinction between philosophy and filosofia applies not only along but across national traditions. In England, where the tradition of philosophy has held almost complete sway, some filosofers—such as G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis—have nevertheless appeared. As one goes deeper into the continent, filosofia begins to occupy a larger and larger place; in France there is Bataille, Bachelard, and Baudrillard; in Germany, Nietzsche and Heidegger. By the time we reach Russia the filosofers thoroughly dominate, although it does have its philosophers as well — neo-Kantians, positivists, phenomenologists, structuralists . . .

 The calling of this journal is to become a crossroads, a meeting place of filosofia and philosophy, as much within Russian culture itself as in Russia's cultural intercourse with the West. It is crucial to discover those new points of postmodern consciousness where the intellectual traditions and perspectives of Russia and the West come together. We must think jointly, bearing one another's burdens in resolving those problems for which no single tradition can offer an adequate framework.

February 29, 1996

 Authorized translation from Russian by Thomas Epstein.

1. In Ancient Greek "Plato" literally means "broad shouldered."

 2. Symposium, 204 ß, 218 a, ß

 3. Symposium, 193 a.

 4. Russian word "tselomudrie," "chastity" is composed of two roots meaning "wholeness" and "wisdom."

 5. See, on this score, the observation of Pavel Florensky: "Philosophy, as an academic discipline, never took root in Russia, just as it did not exist in the ancient world. Our philosophers have strived not so much to be intelligent as wise, not so much to be thinkers as sages. ( . . .) An ethical striving, a religious consciousness, an activity not only of the brain but of all the organs of the spirit; in a word, it is only life outside the study that seems to us of ultimate seriousness and completely worthy" (Sochineniia v 4 tt., t. 1, Moscow, izd. Mysl', 1994, s. 207).

SYMPOSION. A Journal of Russian Thought