Alexander Piatigorsky

Philosopher, writer, expert in oriental philosophy

“The value of philosophy is that no one needs it”

Before him, a stranger to his country and his time, a space opens where he can think and even think about thinking.Alexander Piatigorsky




To present Alexander Piatigorsky in the conventional format of biography would be not only an extremely difficult but also an entirely futile enterprise. Piatigorsky himself wrote about people without a “biography”, that is those who do not set themselves any goals and thus could not be said to march victoriously (or ingloriously) from one milestone of their life to another; those who do not bear on their weary shoulders the burden of their achievements or newly exposed and fossilised truths to be recorded in the annals of history. Such people Piatigorsky characterised as “freely passing” since at no point could they be pinned down or drawn over to a particular standpoint or world view to be exploited as its advocates. Piatigorsky himself can be reckoned among these “freely passing” individuals. So he lived his life and so he travelled, always light-handed, with two mantra books (which he knew off by heart anyway) and a packet of cigarettes in his pocket. His lightness was often taken for light-mindedness, and his fluidity of thought for scientific frivolity.

“If I knew that philosophy could be practically applied to our life in any way whatsoever – I would never have occupied myself with it. I would have found something completely impractical and directed my thinking towards that instead.”

At this point it is worth mentioning that Alexander Piatigorsky did not regard philosophy as a science at all. He spoke of the complete uselessness of this “subjectless” thinking which, unlike other applied sciences, can never be “applied” to life and which, again, unlike those sciences, does not have a language of its own (“language does not belong to philosophy as such, it belongs to the philosopher”). Piatigorsky once said: “If I knew that philosophy could be practically applied to our life in any way whatsoever – I would never have occupied myself with it. I would have found something completely impractical and directed my thinking towards that instead.” So what was it then that constituted that “un-applied” thinking of his? Where did he direct his thinking?

One can find the answer to this question but there is no prescription or instruction for how to turn that answer into a practical guide for attaining some special knowledge or truth. What Piatigorsky manifested with his thinking is impossible to comprehend whilst remaining in our worldly, psychological and unchanged state of mind. What interested Piatigorsky with his changed and thus inaccessible state of mind, was “thinking about thinking”.

One can think about the freedom of will, about honour and valour, about death and about anything at all that “falls” into the field of one’s conscienceness. But is it that interesting? Now, try thinking about how, in what way, in what infinite mode of reflection you are thinking about the freedom of will, honour and valour or about death. In other words try and think about the thinking process itself, which in its turn is thinking about this and that. Alexander Piatigorsky would say that no one as yet has developed a theory of thinking itself, i.e. of the thinking process which is itself free to think about anything at all. To rephrase all the above, let us put it in the words of Piatigorsky himself: [My philosophy is preoccupied with] “observations on thinking. To be more precise, with observations on anything at all as thinking. To be even more precise, whatever it is that my philosophy observes, it observes it as thinking”.

Piatigorsky believed that anything may constitute the object of thinking or, to put it differently, that philosophy does not have a set of objects inherent only in itself: we think about what we want and feel what we want (or what we are forced to feel). This is the first superfluous philosophical step which Alexander Piatigorsky calls “psychological”. It is a superfluous step because at this stage “I think” or “I reflect” have the same connotation as “I suffer” or “I enjoy” since our “thinking” is derived directly from the pleasure or suffering, fear or fascination that we experience. But already at the next stage, referred to by Piatigorsky as phenomenological, we must leave psychology and switch to the level of consciousness which can in no way be said to derive from our emotions and feelings.

Piatigorsky did not consider the ability to think as a given quality or condition innate in man. One can live easily without it. Thinking is not necessary which is why it can be said to be noble for, as Piatigorsky would say, “by definition, nothing that is compulsory can ever be noble”. But in most cases, almost always in fact, we put forth the necessary as an indispensable condition of our lives. “As soon as immediate affairs become important for a person, his life begins to lose its meaning”. Hence, Piatigorsky’s non-anthropocentrism and belief that the phenomenon of Man is only one of the manifestations of observed thinking. Other such manifestations exist too and Piatigorsky knew them but could not pass that knowledge onto us because he was the only one endowed with it, without the right of bequeathing it.

He was marked by another Knowledge, unknown to us, the Knowledge which cannot be handed down as inheritance nor from teacher to student. An eternal wall, Piatigorsky wrote, separates the living from the dead and only a few who are still alive are given the knowledge of what is behind that wall. This knowledge is accessible only to those who know that here it is inapplicable.

Philosophy is not a profession, it isn’t even a way of life, philosophy is you yourself: “it is not only what you think but also what you are”.

Philosophy is not a profession, it isn’t even a way of life, philosophy is you yourself: “it is not only what you think but also what you are”. A loaded statement, it would seem. But not in the case of Piatigorsky. In his case it was phenomenal lightness, joy and at the same time sharpness of thought; philosophical elegance, artistic charisma and intellectual charm. He had the ability to “charm with his thinking” as, arguably, no one else. He enchanted with the pleasure which he derived from thinking, with the intensity of living that thinking and the sheer energy of his mind which was enough for all but not everyone was up to it.

Different people would come to Piatigorsky, wishing to become his students. The principle of “choosing” students was not always clear to us who were around. Piatigorsky would look intensely at the one who came and then say: “so you are living in a certain way… But what good is it to you? It will only get worse …” The scariest thing, Piatigorsky would say, is to start thinking now: nottomorrow after lunch, not after tomorrow when you are done with your routine, but right now, immediately. But are you ready for that? And even if you are … “… if you have already chosen philosophy, there is no coming back to normal life. And if you are trying to come back, you will find not life but that which is much worse, much lower than life and that will be equal to death for you who made your choice”.

Alexander Piatigorsky spoke with anyone or almost anyone. Conversation was his nature, his love and obsession.

Could Socrates live without conversation? If a thought exists, it must manifest itself, come out and be revealed. [One American philosopher said]: “I will know it is the end of the world when I wake up in the morning and there is no conversation about philosophy”. Piatigorsky understood conversation as “unending”; as a dialogue that started a long time before us, travelled through us and will be continued long after we are gone. At the same time Piatigorsky always stressed that there is only one real conversation – it is that conversation which is worth much more than those who speak it, as external instruments to this unending phenomenon. It is that conversation which has no speakers and simply has the “spoken”. In the same way Piatigorsky spoke about thinking – it is not important who speaks, it is important what is being said. And we know – truthfully – how difficult it is to exclude oneself from dialogue, how difficult it is to admit that it wasn’t us who caught the thought but that it was us who were caught by thought that “ascended” onto us, its accidental and temporary possessors. (“…In the focus [of philosophy] lies not the man but thinking. Whose thinking it is, is largely inconsequential”)

“Joyful self-exclusion” is a phrase that belongs to Piatigorsky. The worst enemy is, of course, yourself. Alexander Piatigorsky managed to rid himself of this obtrusive enemy. He reached that point of freedom from self when he could reflect on his own, habitual, native, shackling thinking and “joyfully” exclude himself from it. Perhaps there exists no other type of freedom anyway.

“Man is given ethnos, language, fate. Any preset peculiarity of world outlook, national, social or any other, is the prison of others’ opinion from the very start. Man’s main enemy is his own cowardice and amorphousness, which make him so susceptible to living by others’ world outlook. The bloodiest murders known to history were executed not only by fanatical dictators but also by simple men, incapable of independent thinking.”

This article is written to present Alexander Piatigorsky to the reader who is not familiar with him – not from the public, formal side – but from behind the scenes, i.e. those who never knew him as the eccentric philosopher, the “accountant with a shamanic timbrel” (G. Amelin), the merry, lighthearted thinker and guru. There was something daemonic and mystifying about him in the cunning and humour which he exuded. Every encounter with him was entrancing and always immensely interesting. “The interesting persuades the listener, spectator and reader to let go of their convictions…”

Those who are curious about Piatigorsky’s biography may look him up in Wikipedia but they are not likely to find anything except basic facts of his life which are of little importance to those who really want to know him. Alexander Piatigorsky came into this world in 1929 in Moscow, the city of his first love, and departed from it in 2009 in London, the city which became his last love. Everything that took place between these two “events” is a series of trivial facts which passed by and did not really affect this fantastic man.

He was expelled from two schools for underachievement. After graduating from Moscow State University, he taught at a school in Stalingrad; then he was employed as junior research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow but was soon expelled for lack of subordination and public voicing of his views. He turned from institution to institution looking for a job but eventually was invited to leave the USSR by Moscow’s chief KGB agent. From 1974 he lived in London where he taught at the University of London. He wrote books and travelled the world with his lectures.

In London he found that which was so lacking in Moscow – anonymity and privacy (in Moscow he was fashionable, popular, and sought after). He liked to repeat that London is not a curious or inquisitive city and so is neutral to all its inhabitants. It welcomes everyone and towards everyone it is equally indifferent. It’s as though London is saying to us: “Do what you want or don’t, be what you want or don’t be altogether, go where you want – it is no matter, no one will notice anyway, especially me”. And that is precisely what Piatigorsky did as he fell in an unreciprocated love with London. He measured its streets lanes and squares with his sweeping footsteps; acquainted himself and became friends with its buildings. He could walk around for hours (from pub to pub) and talk, talk, talk…

“I was and remain a fanatic of the city and of urban architecture. The city is the natural habitat of my thinking… “

In one of his interviews concerning his novel An Ancient Man in the City, Alexander Piatigorsky said: “I was and remain a fanatic of the city and of urban architecture. The city is the natural habitat of my thinking… An ideal city is that which reveals its history to us. Such cities are common in England and in this sense England is a unique country, it cannot live without its history.” Accordingly we can say that London is a unique city where its history does not vanish or evaporate but is preserved in layers, which can be perceived all at once transcending time.

Among other routes chosen by Piatigorsky, there is one which is particularly interesting. Piatigorsky is guiding his guests along the route which was taken by Mikhail Ivanovich, the protagonist of his novel Remember a Strange Person, on his way to his lover. “Strange is he who does something with you which was not expected by your life but included in your fate… A truly strange man is he whose mere presence switches the others out of their epoch and context. And those few who desire such an intervention, themselves turn to the strange man looking for a “switcher”, so to speak.”

Writing this novel, Alexander Piatigorsky often walked that route – from Mikhail Ivanovich’s hotel to the house of his lover – following the shadow of that strange protagonist of his who left this world long ago… Just so now we walk the “routes” of Alexander Piatigorsky, barely catching up with his wide, sweeping pace. “There comes a moment when personality becomes singular in meaning, and that is the moment of death. Then all the diversity intrinsic to personality will be distilled down to that minimal point of self which is precisely what differentiates that personality from any other personality in the universe – as that one sign by which the angel of death recognises it and by which it will be known there by those who knew it here.”

I would like to end with another quotation from Piatigorsky:

“If man is laughing, the philosopher says, ‘He is laughing at his doom’. If he is crying: the philosopher says, ‘He is crying over his triumph’. If he scolds, scourges and curses someone, the philosopher will notice, ‘He knows his death’. Philosophy observes not life but the life of consciousness”.


A. Piatigorsky knew Ancient Greek, Latin, Sanscrit, Tamil, Pali, Tibetian languages and also German, Russian, French, Italian, English, Spanish and Swedish languages.

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