Dostoevsky the Thinker: A Philosophical Study by James P. Scanlan (Cornell University Press) For all his distance from formal philosophy, Fyodor Dostoevsky was one of the most philosophical of writers. In works from fictional masterpieces to little‑known nonfiction prose, he grappled with the ultimate questions about the nature of humankind. His novels are peopled by characters who dramatize the fierce debates that preoccupied the Russian intelligentsia during the second half of the nineteenth century.
What was the philosophy of Dostoevsky? How does reading this literary giant from a new perspective add to our understanding of him and of Russian culture? In this remarkable book, a leading authority on Russian thought presents the first comprehensive account of Dostoevsky's philosophical outlook.
Drawing on the writer's novels and, more so than other scholars, on his essays, letters, and notebooks, James I? Scanlan examines Dostoevsky's beliefs. The nonfiction pieces make possible new interpretations of some of the author's most controversial works of fiction, including Notes from Underground.
Dostoevsky's thought, Scanlan explains, was shaped above all by its anthropocentrism, its struggle to define the essence of humanity. All of the subjects the writer addressed‑including religion, ethics, aesthetics, history, the state, and`the Russian nation‑provided clues to the mystery of what it means to be human. Scanlan demonstrates conclusively that Dostoevsky's philosophical views were more solidly grounded and systematic than have been imagined and cannot be dismissed as the notions of an irrationalist.
Scanlan also discusses the flaws and weaknesses in Dostoevsky's thought, in particular his controversial notion that Russia is the one "God‑beating" nation. This belief‑that Russia has a messianic role to play in world historyhas gained renewed popularity among its citizens, for whom Dostoevsky has long been regarded as a thinker of supreme importance.
Author conclusion: Dostoevsky's profile as a philosophical thinker was shaped by his opposition to the ideas of the Russian Westernists, especially the more radical, "Nihilist" Westernists whose militant atheism and revolutionary socialism goaded him into formulating and defending his own fundamental beliefs. Had he not found the ideas of Chernyshevsky, Dobrolyubov, and Pisarev so abhorrent, it is unlikely that he would have dwelled so intently on the philosophical questions he took up, or argued so vigorously for his own answers. We have the Nihilists to thank for the themes of much of his writing‑not only the notebooks, letters, and essays that have loomed so large in this study but also most of his great fiction, including Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov.
We also have them to thank for the dialectical method of his philosophizing, by which I mean its dynamic counterposing of competing views. Ever concemed with combating the ideas of others, Dostoevsky always kept his sights on the opposite of what he believed and sought to establish his own positions by demonstrating the failure of their antitheses, as in his frequent recourse to the rhetorical and logical device of reductio ad absurdum. In that way his philosophical thinking was inherently polyphonic and dialogical, to use Bakhtin's terms. The character of Dostoevsky's post‑Siberian novels was no matter of accident or purely stylistic preference: the dialogical novels were a natural complement to his dialectical approach to the problems of philosophy.
This does not mean that he had no independent philosophical impulse. This study has been built on the premise that Dostoevsky's searchings were prompted by a concern to solve what in his youth he called "the mystery of man"‑a concern that took him into many dimensions of human existence: spiritual, psychological, ethical, aesthetic, social, and national. Yet in each of these areas Dostoevsky had as a foil what he considered to be the erroneous and degrading view of humanity preached by his philosophical opponents in Russia; in each area, his arguments were directed toward overcoming the limitations that he believed his opponents, and especially those he labeled "Nihilists," imposed on man. What is creative in Dostoevsky's philosophical thought arises largely in his persistent efforts to disclose the shortcomings of other Russian thinkers, rather than in a detached attempt to construct a grand synthetic picture of human nature in isolation from the issues of his time and place. Such a picture does emerge, but it is revealed progressively by reference at every moment to the contrasting views of fellow countrymen, right down to the answers to Gradovsky and Kavelin sketched in his last notebooks.
The Nihilists' errors, in his opinion, were many. Above all, they made the gross metaphysical mistake of overlooking the element of the divine in human nature, centered on man's possession of an immaterial, immortal soul. They erred in explaining human behavior as the mechanistic product of self‑interest, thus failing to see the supreme importance of free will in human life and wrongly asserting the primacy of material, physical needs. In the realm of ethics, they failed to recognize the voice of conscience as issuing the categorical imperative of altruism as formulated in Christian doctrine; they adopted instead a utilitarian approach to morality that endorsed the maxim that the end justifies the means, and in so doing they constricted the scope of moral responsibility and ignored the moral significance of suffering. In their aesthetic thinking they failed to recognize that human beings have needs for beauty and creativity; they misunderstood the nature of realism, the cognitive significance of art, and its true moral and social role. In social philosophy, their revolutionary socialist posture was a threat to both morality and human freedom and represented a gross misunderstanding of the noblest social ideal of humanity‑the Christian utopia of mutual love. Finally, they erred in adopting a purely universalist conception of man that ignored the role of national differences in shaping the history and the future prospects of humanity.
The positive picture undergirding Dostoevsky's critical attacks is dominated by the image of a free moral creature with two conflicting "natures"‑a materialistic, selfish nature moved by what he called the "law of personality" and a spiritual, altruistic nature cognizant of the moral demand to obey the law of love. It is the struggle between these antithetical natures that forms the background for virtually all of Dostoevsky's discussions of the life of man, whatever sphere of that life is in question; that struggle sets the parameters of his resolution of particular philosophical problems. Man's spiritual nature points the way to the identification and realization of ethical, aesthetic, and social values; his material nature, expressed above all in egoism, is the obstacle to a satisfying present and a better future.
Gary Saul Morson has written insightfully about the way in which Dostoevsky's emphasis on free will commits him to an open future ‑a future in which what people do could always have been otherwise, because they could have chosen otherwise; in his novels, as Morson points out, there is no sense of an inexorable progression toward "a pregiven ending."1 Yet the very importance of free choice in Dostoevsky's worldview makes it easy to exaggerate. Existentialist philosophers and other commentators who focus narrowly on Notes from Underground are prone to regarding freedom as virtually the sole constituent of the human essence for Dostoevsky and as virtually unlimited in scope. In other words, they absolutize freedom in a way that goes well beyond what I believe were his intentions.
From the standpoint of natural "rootedness," neither good nor evil has the advantage in Dostoevsky's philosophical anthropology. Endemic in man's material nature is the preference of self over others; but endemic in his spiritual nature is the law of love: people are born with a moral conscience giving them not only an innate knowledge of the good but a recognition of its binding character. Thus altruism is as much a part of the human essence as egoism is, and the contest between the two for supremacy is the leitmotif of the great bulk of his writing, fiction and nonfiction alike. Far from holding that the evil in man necessarily overpowers the good, he suggests that in mankind's historical march there is progress toward the ideal of universal altruism, and in that sense he shares the Westemists' faith in the possibility of a triumph of good over evil.
Dostoevsky's critique of the superficiality of his opponents' conception of human evil stemmed not from a conviction that man is "fundamentally evil" but from what he considered their failure to see that the source of evil is man's inherent egoism. He found the reason for this failure in the very nature of "civilization" as it evolved in Western Europethat is, in the emergence of individuals from the anonymous, spontaneous mass and their isolation as separate entities confronting each other in a fragmented, anomic society. The Western cult of the person transformed the individual will from being a morally suspect phenomenon to being a prime value, held up as the ideal of human development. The curse of the West was that it not only misunder
stood good and evil but created a culture that systematically produced evil people. Western culture was in itself a prime source of immorality, of the affirmation of the will of every individual against all others, and at the same time a prime source of blindness to its own defects.
That Dostoevsky's antipathy toward the West became expressed in distinctions of moral worth among nations of people was unavoidable given his view that individualism was both characteristic of the West and the source of immorality. On the basis of that view, what in abstract terms began as a universalistic analysis of the existence of evil in all human beings, simply because of their dual nature, became transmuted into an analysis of the confrontation between a West inclined toward evil and a Russia inclined toward good. What appeared to be a generic human weakness became the national weakness of a culture founded on and nourishing an atomistic society of self‑interest. In Russia, not only is goodness more prevalent, but some people are very close to being perfect‑to having overcome the pull of egoism fully, for all practical purposes, thanks to the influence of a harmonious society and the loving faith
of Orthodoxy. Understandably, the conviction that some groups of people are systematically far closer to the ideal than others encourages thoughts about the possibility of finally implementing the ideal on earth, under the benign leadership of the morally advantaged.
Dostoevsky was in all things a moralist who often, as in his famous Pushkin speech, preached a universalistic gospel of mutual love and respect. But, because of his definition of evil as consisting in egoism and his description of the West as the land of self‑regarding individuals, his practical moral message was not humanitarian but nationalistic and divisive. His jingoism, whatever its emotional roots, was conceptually integrated with his understanding of egoism, evil, and Western culture. Of course, he had no good grounds for the moral distinction he drew between Russia and the West: as we saw in chapter 6, his case for Russian superiority was the feeblest in his intellectual arsenal.
Fortunately, Dostoevsky's "Russian idea," however integral to his thinking and however regrettably influential to this day, was not the living core or culmination of his philosophy. Conceptually, his nationalism is less fundamental than the universal values that he believed it served, less fundamental than his enduring dream of a community of perfect Christian brotherhood. If he mistakenly saw in Russia the salvation of humanity, he was mistaken about a means, not an end. Nationalism was one element in his lifelong quest to plumb the human mystery‑a quest the finer moments of which will endure far longer than "the Russian idea."
It is the fate of the unsystematic thinker to leave loose ends: many problems are not thought through, some are never even touched. What is remarkable about the case of Dostoevsky is that, for all his intellectual untidiness, not only did he think things through more fully, productively, and reasonably than did the supposedly systematic "rationalists" who were his ideological adversaries, but his treatment of the problems he discussed is rich and provocative enough to warrant continuing attention more than a century after his death.Russian Thought After Communism: The Recovery of a Philosophical Heritage edited by James P. Scanlan (M.E. Sharpe) is a useful survey of the resurgence of various forms of religious and ethnic styles of scholarship emerging in Russia today. Examines Russia's philosophical heritage from the point of view of its impact on Russian culture in the postcommunist world. Essays discuss the return of Russian thought to its pre-Soviet traditions, the suppression and reemergence of Russia's philosophical past, and particular historical periods, such as Russian philosophy of the 19th and early 20th centuries, non-Marxist emigre philosophers, and philosophers of the Soviet era. Includes biographical and bibliographical information on philosophers.
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