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Dovieszewski_Neoplatonic Tendencies in Russian Philosophy

Dovieszewski_Neoplatonic Tendencies in Russian Philosophy

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Neoplatonic tendencies in Russian philosophy
Janusz Dobieszewski
Published online: 6 February 2010
Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010
The Absolute is a basic and fundamental issue for philosophy as such. Ipresent different concepts of the Absolute (substantialism, energetism, escapism,methodologism). We can say that contemporary European philosophy “orphaned”the neo-Platonic tradition. Thereafter Russian philosophy developed in an intensiveand turbulent as well as relatively uniform fashion, in view of the well-establishedNeo-Platonist context. This makes Russian philosophy not only part of a lastinguniversally acknowledged tradition; not only has Russian philosophy continued todevelop currents of thought abandoned by modern European philosophiers, but it isalso heir to a philosophical tradition of particular quality and value in the universalhistory of thought.
Neo-Platonism · Absolute · Unity · Mysticism · Russian philosophy ·East–WestThe essence of Russian philosophy is its focus on the Absolute, approached in a greatvariety of ways, from materialistic to virtually fideistic views, though alwaysconceived dynamically. An example from early ancient philosophy is the philosophyof Heraclitus, whereas its counterpart in later ancient philosophy is the thought of Plotinus; subsequently this vision of the Absolute appeared at various stages of European philosophy, attaining a somewhat pathetic albeit subtle maturity in thesystemsandsub-systemspropoundedbyHegelandSchelling,generallyconsideredtobe the inspiring force of Russian philosophy.Thus, the issue of the Absolute is not unknown to Western philosophical traditionand has even played a major role therein. In a very general sense, which we will
J. Dobieszewski (
)Institute of Philosophy, University of Warsaw, 3, Krakowskie Przedmies´cie Street, 00-927 Warsaw,Polande-mail: dobieszewski@uw.edu.pl
Stud East Eur Thought (2010) 62:3–10DOI 10.1007/s11212-010-9103-1
refer to at the outset of this essay, the Absolute is a basic and fundamental issue forphilosophy as such. In this sense it includes the being of the Eleatics, Democritus’atoms, Plato’s Ideas, and even Thaleswater.
Here the Absolute’s divinity,consciousness or personality is in a sense the effect of philosophical development,never problem-free and never permitting total denial of the naı¨ve early Absolutetheories.The Absolute concept we are interested in is very general (one may even saysuperficial), nonetheless it can be explained with relative precision, and thisexplanation is at once an explanation of the psychological and rational sources—inother words the theoretical and historical base—of philosophical thought. The factis that the source of man’s philosophical and rational relations with the world is anawareness—Aristotle speaks of wonder whereas Shestov speaks of dismay—of theplenitude of the world’s things and phenomena (in other words its diversity,including temporal diversity, yielding transcience) and which indeed expresses theworld’s abundance but can also give rise to feelings of incomprehension, chaos, anddespair, which humans are reluctant to accept. Man has the disposition to ascribeunity, constancy (not necessarily in the passive-substantial sense but in laws, norms,and regulations), wholeness and meaning to the world. This disposition seems to bethe very essence of thought and in a way that preserves spontaneity and commonsense characterizes human activity
human. Philosophy attempts to seek thisworld unity (a plane in whose light the world would appear as one) in a deliberate,methodical and critical way. The Absolute might well be the concept by means of which unity or sense is ascribed to the world as a whole (or our visions of a unitedworld) as objectively as possible.As earlier reflections and philosophical history show, world unity can bediscussed on two planes, each of them offering two opposing approaches. On thefirst plane, world unity is discussed from the perspective of the uniting factor’s“positioningin the material world. The question is whether it is source, foundation,precondition, outer frame, or transcendence in relation to empirically given things,or an immanent mystic bond combining all these roles? Thales’ water, Democritus’atoms and Aristotle’s Prime Mover, where the uniting factor is evidently somethingprimary and originary, are the most obvious (though temporary) examples of thefirst—‘substantialist’—approach which has dominated Western culture. On theother hand Heraclitus’
and the various pantheistic divinities present in theOriental mystic tradition—especially Hindu—are examples of the second approach,which we may call “energistic.”However, one can also view world unity on another plane, where the questionconcerns the analogical character of the unifying factor in relation to the phenomenalworld: does this factor differ fundamentally from the phenomenal world in themetaphysical sense (as transcendent, albeit in a somewhat different sense thanabove)? Or in the extreme case does it discredit the phenomenal world? Or else isit an energizing force bringing order to phenomenal reality (from within,immanently, though again in a meaning different from that above) and in this sense
This understanding of the Absolute is by no means usurpatory or superficial. It is used by Hegel,specifically in relation to Thales (Hegel1994, p. 243).4 J. Dobieszewski
commensurable with this order (and in the extreme case even instrumental in regardto empirical reality.)? A good example of the first approach (which we may call“escapist”) is the nirvanic tradition of Eastern mystical philosophy—although someof its aspects also appear in the Western tradition (e.g., in Gnostic and Christianmystical theories and practices); the second approach, which we may call“methodological,” is best exemplified by the vast majority of European philosophies,which accept the uniting factor’s ties to the richness of the material world.
Let usnote that according to this classification immanence would characterize Easternculture in the first case and transcendence in the second (in sum energistic-escapist),while Western culture on the contrary would be transcendent in the first case andimmanent in the second (thus substantialist-methodological). Such would be thegeneral and simplified version of the model. In reality, however, philosophy’sposition with regard to this classification is more complicated, with almost everyphilosophical project participating simultaneously in both classificatory models andtypically going beyond the initial ‘East–West’ divide. Departing this initial stagemore than suits the reciprocal historical and spiritual influence of the cultural worldsof the East and the West. Especially when we consider the impact of eastern cultureon the West, we see that it begins at least with Plato, continuing through gnosis, theformation of Christian thought, sundry Christian and non-Christian mysticisms, upto, say, Schopenhauer. Therefore, the categories under discussion here—substan-tialism, energetism, escapism, methodologism—would be difficult to applyconclusively to specific philosophical systems or schools, although they do refer tosome of these systems’ quite real aspects and tendencies and are a good starting-pointfor further, more ordered investigations—a task we will attempt to tackle below.Let us begin with a few examples. In light of the above classification thephilosophies of, say, the Ionians, Democritus, Aristotle or Descartes understoodworld unity as deriving from a source preceding the empirical world but with aunifying factor commensurable with the phenomenal world (to use our terminology,these were substantialist and methodologistic philosophies). It was on the contrarytypical for the spirit of the East to view unity as an inner bond connecting all things,though a bond far different from the world of phenomenal diversity (thesephilosophies were energistic and escapist). However, it would not have beendifficult to find voices claiming that world unity is a force penetrating all things andat the same time one in kind with the things it penetrated. Such a philosophy—energistic and methodological—could be represented by Heraclitus, the Stoics, andEuropean pantheistic schools; whereas the exact opposite—recognition of theunifying factor’s priority and simultaneously its distinct separateness from thephenomenal world—could be associated with the Eleatics, Schopenhauer, andNietzsche.Of particular interest would have been philosophies falling outside the foregoingclassificatory models. In the first place, Plato, a ‘transcendent’ thinker as regards“positioning” the unifying factor, though whose philosophy wavers constantly
An important inspiration for these classifications is the study by Igor Evlampiev,
(2000), especially vol. 1, pp. 9–11.Neoplatonic tendencies in Russian philosophy 5

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