Articles / Philosophy / Remarks on the ‘Metaphysical Situation’




Kontinent 1, ANDRE DEUTSCH, London, 1976


This is a short article – no more than an impression. And by no means the first. More likely the last. Not because the things I am about to discuss will change so much as to become unrecognisable, but rather because one changes oneself, and soon I shall not be able to see them with the same eyes. A friend of mine living in England once asked me: ‘Do you think that the metaphysical ideas current in Russia today are really important?’ I replied: ‘No, of course not.’ But the very fact that metaphysical ideas are to be found at all in Russia today is extremely interesting. After all, in earlier years, when one would have thought many of the external conditions were much more favourable, there was no metaphysical thinking going on, or very little (as in the short quarter century after Solovyev”). Yet today there is a strange profusion of it. The forms of this thinking are highly eccentric and ephemeral. Metaphysics is not taught in universities, no work is done on it at research institutes, learned societies do not debate it, scholarly journals do not devote articles to it, and metaphysicians give no talks on radio and television. Yet it would be quite wrong to say that Russian metaphysics lives underground. Not at all! Its element is neither above nor below ground. Like much else in Russia, it exists in some curious ‘no man’s land’ of Russia’s spiritual and intellectual life.

One old man I know has lectured all his life on electronics at some institute, and at the same time has been conducting an unending series of seminars at his home on ‘Plato, Hegel, Christianity and our life’. Moreover, these were no mere firesidef chats. The seminars began in 1949 and ran with only one interruption (when one of its main organisers fell seriously ill) till 1971. It did not even suspend its activities over summer holidays. After the death of its founder it turned out that the seminar’s records amounted to about thirty thousand printed pages. Another ‘leading metaphysician’ (still alive, thank God) teaches Marxist philosophy (dialectical and historical materialism) at one of the industrial institutes. Having given a routine lecture on, say, ‘The Primacy of Matter and the Secondary Nature of Consciousness’, he would make for a chemist friend’s dacha and there give a lecture on ‘The Illusory Nature of the Material World and the Reality of Conscious Being’. A third example is an artist living near Moscow who for twenty years has conducted a seminar on ‘Occultism and Godmanhood’.

These occasions are all quite unofficial. But there are other kinds too. Once I was rung up by the trade union committee of an aircraft-building institute and was asked to give a lecture on the philosophy of Buddhism. Just before the start of the lecture (about two hundred scientists, engineers and technicians had gathered for it), a member of the trade union committee came up to me (as I discovered afterwards, he was secretary of the primary party organisation) and said, ‘Please, Alexander, do tell us about things that we can’t read anywhere. We are fed up with all that .. .’ (there followed an unprintable epithet which aptly summed up the state of affairs in official philosophy). Or to take another example (a clear case of ‘no man’s land’): after a general lecture on India of a kind which the authorities of my institute sometimes asked me to give, the organisers (I think it was at one of the Moscow chemical works) plied me with food and drink and for four whole hours literally interrogated me about how it was possible to ‘reconcile’ (a favourite modern – and not only modern – expression which perfectly characterises ‘no man’s land’) religion with positive scientific knowledge.

However that may be, metaphysicians are talking and writing. They are talking not so much at seminars as among their metaphysician friends. They are writing not for publication, but simply in order not to forget their thoughts. And it must not on any account be supposed that for them metaphysics ‘satisfies intellectual hunger’ or ‘fills up life’s emptiness’. These are people who are intellectually already extremely active, and their lives are only too full without metaphysics. Pure speculation and free philosophising is their destiny, and it leads them away from the conformism of the majority, as well as from the oppositional activity of the minority. Here I should like to outline just a few of the ideas which are exercising Russian (the word indicates a country only: metaphysics knows no nation!) and especially Moscow metaphysicians today.

The problem which has meant most to them in recent years is that of gaining a full understanding of their own situation. But what, one may ask, does the word ‘situation’ mean, if nothing is happening in metaphysics, if there is no development, no process. (Incidentally, this approach reflects perfectly the transitional nature, the ephemerality, of the life of the Russian metaphysician, although perhaps, as my English friend remarked, it is precisely these everyday ‘circumstantial’ peculiarities of Russian existence which stimulate metaphysical thought, and but for them the electrical engineer would happily stick to his electrical engineering, like everyone else, the chemist would remain a chemist, and the professor of Marxism would give lectures on metaphysics without being any kind of metaphysician in real life, although then his other, ‘nonmetaphysical’, life would be not ephemeral but solidly based on reality.)

In any event, ‘situation’ means essentially one thing to the metaphysicians with whom I have frequently discussed it (despite all the shades of interpretation they give to it): the processes and developments which can take place in people who are drawn by metaphysical ideas and concepts, who find themselves inside the gravitational field of the impersonal conscious force. (I mean, of course, a field wholly impervious to the individual or social characteristics of those who are ‘drawn into’ it from outside.) The Moscow psychologist M., who has been working recently on metaphysics (and phenomenology) put it like this (in one of his unpublished articles): ‘The impersonal conscious force always affects the mentality, the psychological make-up, the memory, thinking and behaviour of those who are ‘drawn into’ its gravitational field. And the deeper they are inside that field, the more precisely their language grasps it, and the more strongly that impersonal force affects them.’

Since the end of the 1960s it has been more and more clearly realised in Russia that metaphysics is absolutely alien to any kind of ‘natural’ specifications, that is, to peculiarities generated by the natural world. It knows no homeland, no country, no race and no nation, but its field of influence, as it has come and is coming into operation in people, is not only the space in which they live but also that in which they have lived. The origins of the ‘metaphysical situation’ lie in two very important historical (not metaphysical!) circumstances. Firstly: by the beginning of the nineteenth century in Russia philosophy had already been unnaturally (not to say perversely) divided into religious, that is, derived from an experience of prayer, meditation and theology growing out of tradition, and secular, that is, drawing continually from recent (and later on contemporary) European philosophy.”

I say ‘unnatural’ here not as an ethical evaluation. (Though it is part of my conception that any pure philosophical activity is already religious in nature, even in the non-specific sense of the word, and even in the unreduced understanding of the concept, and consequently I hold that any such division causes artificial spiritual discord among thinking people, and hence the fruitless expenditure of spiritual energy.) Secondly: from the time that western philosophy (whether metaphysical or any other kind – mostly ‘any other kind’, in fact) began to be regularly assimilated, that assimilation (however earnestly it might claim to be theoretical and concerned with the truth alone) was coloured by expediency, by the use of philosophy to solve the problems of the moment, and above all by expediency of a social and cultural type. Philosophy was always relevant (or irrelevant, which comes to the same thing) to something or other, or (at best) was held to have arisen as a result of something or other.

One moment it was a ‘justification of existing reality’, at another moment ‘a condemnation of existing reality’, at a third ‘a weapon in the struggle’ or ‘a grounds for compromise’. The negative aspect always held the upper hand over the positive, and everyone was constantly getting bogged down in quarrels and mutual recriminations, searching for each others’ mistakes and arguing the toss over who was right and who was wrong – all of this without really undertaking any profound personalised philosophical work. No sooner had someone become an adherent of some philosophical idea, than he would turn it into a means of group identity, into an instrument (or emblem) for counterposing the ‘we’ (not the’!’) of one group to the ‘they’ of another. The ‘philosophic fever’ would regularly grip Russia’s thinkers, quite independent of their talent or lack of it: the Hegelian ravings of Belinsky,” Herzen and Bakunin, the Feuerbachian cretinism of Chernyshevsky, the anti-Catholicism of Dostoyevsky and the ‘everyday didacticism’ of Tolstoy are in that sense reflections of one and the same profound lack of religious and metaphysical seriousness.

It is hardly surprising that in this atmosphere of absorption in socially expedient superficialities philosophically active people knew virtually nothing about the life and death of Seraphim of Sarov (Belinsky’s contemporary!) and did not begin to grasp the philosophical significance of Vladimir Solovyev. Who knows, perhaps these things were also the result of a certain lack of philosophical professionalism and of respect for that peculiar profession – for profession it is : the philosopher is not only he who wants to and can philosophise, but also he who (quite apart from wanting) can hardly do anything else.:j: Major changes in the metaphysical situation came about with the wave of cultural rebirth of the late 1890S to 1910S. The thinking of Rozanov, Bulgakov, Florensky, Berdyaev, Shestov and a few other religious thinkers was marked by an intensive philosophical re-evaluation and reconceptualisation of Christian ideas, by the restoration of philosophy to its natural religious underpinnings, by the transition to a truly free form of philosophising which rejected (at least in intention) social and cultural expediency, and by the search for new forms and structures through which to convey traditional ideas. What is especially important about them for our epoch (that is, for our situation) is that their works, being saturated with Russian Orthodox concepts, proved an excellent exemplar not only for the transmission of Orthodoxy, but for the imparting of religious ideas in general.

The subsequent secular persecution of the Orthodox faith in the twenties and thirties, the official revival of Orthodoxy which replaced it in the forties, and finally the ‘religious liberalism’ of the fifties and early sixties had one very strange and completely unforeseen consequence (unforeseen not because it was impossible to foresee it, but because there was nobody to foresee it): serious thinking people began to discover from their own thought processes that any consistent philosophical activity leads inevitably to religious metaphysics. On one occasion Sh. indulged in the following comparison: ‘All individual denominational religions are the various instruments of the divine orchestra. Wouldn’t it be absurd if the violinist, instead of playing his instrument, started to beat the horn player over the head with his bow, insisting that all music was for the violin? Yet that is what people have been doing and are still doing.

And that is not the fault of the violin, but of the violinist, because he does not yet (or has ceased to) realise he is a musician. His playing has not yet reached the level of real musicianship.’ Various perceptions of this situation are possible, and most of them would be right. In the early sixties one close colleague of mine, R, a theoretical linguist, in reply to my question whether he was convinced of the existence of God, said: ‘For me precise positive knowledge is a matrix which cannot exist without at least one empty cell. That cell is God.’ What is noteworthy here is that R turned my question on its head: like a true scholar he was convinced, not that God exists, but that science cannot exist without Him, just as he (R) cannot exist without science. That demonstrates the metaphysical pluralism of R (who later became one of the leading semiotic theorists ). Many scholars of a positivist frame of mind began to evolve towards a metaphysical position unconsciously (simply through natural consistency in their thinking), and that nearly always came about through abandoning some single viewpoint, through a release from monism. In this sense one fact is particularly significant: scholars would often come to the concept of God as a result of a critical analysis of the language of their own concepts.

The major characteristic of contemporary metaphysical thinking in Russia is a peculiar understanding of the problem of ‘self-identification’ as it stands in relation to the problem of ‘naming’ (‘self-identification’ meaning here the act of identifying oneself with a certain abstract position, while ‘naming’ refers to the ‘label’ for that position). ‘Naming’ exists on two levels: the ‘zero’ level, when no actual name is given at all, and the ‘mystical’ level, when one is given one’s name not merely as one among many, but by the Divine Power and as one individual and irreplaceable you. It must be said that my attitude to ‘naming’ (on both the ‘zero’ and ‘mystical’ levels) was formed under the very strong influence of Sh. and P. It was while conversing with them (each separately) that I became aware of the possibility of reducing the very concept of ‘naming’ to certain elementary constituents of consciousness.

Thus, talking of naming on the mystical level Sh. said: ‘God’s naming a personality by its own name means that that personality is not and cannot be aware of itself (or identify itself) as a separate personality, as an “I”, for as a personality or individual it is already conatively dissolved in the Divine Purpose and Will, and knows that its “I” does not exist.’ P. said, ‘For me names like Socrates, Descartes and Kant are simply symbols or names of the impersonal Conscious Force which, continually swirling, eddying and sparkling, crystallises itself at the points in space and time which we call Socrates, Descartes and Kant.’ About a year ago the linguist T., after an hour’s conversation on Buddhist metaphysics, said to me, ‘I am an Orthodox believer, but only from a non-existent, abstract standpoint. Or, to put it another way, if the head of my institute were to ask me what I believe, then I should tell him that I am an Orthodox believer, but if a priest were to ask me, then I should have to tell him simply that I am baptised, for I must assume that a priest possesses (whether he actually does or not I cannot know) a level of religious and mystical insight from which I am clearly an unbeliever’. Interpreting that statement in the light of theology, Sh. replied with a paraphrase from Nikita Stiphates (a late Byzantine saint): ‘They are none of them baptised, but are catechumen’, having in mind merely the symbolic form and not the mystical communion indicated by the words ‘believer’, ‘baptised’, in so far as they are not submitted to verification by metaphysical thought.

The principle operating on this level may look like extreme rationalism, but to my mind it is, rather, another version of the ancient Buddhist concept (wholly mystical in nature – that is, accessible to cognition only in the experience of special states of consciousness) of the ’emptiness of all concepts’, and it reminds one also of the Christian concept of apophatic experience. But the principle does not necessarily spring from denominational religion. During a long discussion on the language of metaphysics, the well-known mathematical logician V. said: ‘You know what strikes me? Our anti-religious propaganda proclaims that “there is no God”. But you notice that no Christian text actually states that “there is a God”, but rather that “God is a Trinity”.’ He was pointing out that, metaphysically speaking the official atheist standpoint has no language, or, putting it in Buddhist terms, one could say that it has no language capable of being verified: its ‘language’ is merely a means of describing the atheist reaction to something which it calls religion.

In the last analysis, the statement ‘you believe in God, but I am an atheist’ is as metaphysically meaningless as the statement ‘you are an atheist but I believe in God’, for both convey a certain negativist outlook, which is wholly incompatible with free religious and metaphysical thinking. The last point is very important. The Russian metaphysical situation ‘cut its teeth’ at the same time (especially in Moscow) as a wave of conversions to Christianity, judaism, and Buddhism was taking place. To my mind this was no ‘coincidence’, but a common impulse which produced different effects on different human (personal) material. However, a denominational religion gives the individual who does not verify his own thinking much greater opportunity for labelling himself than does metaphysics. Quite recently, a Moscow physicist, A.V., after I had fruitlessly tried several times to tap a vein of metaphysical thinking in him, said to me, ‘You know, Alexander, it would be an excellent thing, if you, as a Buddhist, would explain to us Jews how you see the present position of the Jews in our country.’ My first reaction was: ‘But, good heavens, for me, as a Buddhist, there can be no such thing as a Russian, or a Jew, or even a country, let alone a position. And for them as Jews, how can anything exist but the Torah and the Lord’s Will? What can I tell them?’ But then I reflected: ‘But, my goodness! I am a Buddhist as much as they are Jews. We are drowning in the labels we attach to ourselves. Perhaps they do not realise that I am a Jew and they are Buddhists.?” But this is the whole point, that here we are dealing with an existential need to define our own identity, a need which can be reflected in religion.

It is this kind of reflection which, in the metaphysical situation existing in Moscow since the early sixties, has led to an ever sharper division of theoretical thinkers into methodologists, systematisers and pure metaphysicians, a division which (thank God!) has never received organisational form, but which has always had its absolutely clear personal motivation. Metaphysicians realise that naming is fatal, for it always turns into labelling at the expense of self-knowledge. They also realise that reflection (even in the early stages of religious insight) helps the individual to become, to turn himself into, a personality. P. expressed that idea very aptly in roughly the following words: ‘The ordinary person knows that he is Russian, Jewish, a believer or an atheist, but if he works unremittingly, then he will no longer know it, indeed cannot know it, like someone who for long has not heard what others are naming him (for he only reads his thinking, that is, his “work”).’ When T., at a methodological seminar, was called a ‘Russian individualist’, his reply amusingly (and correctly!) combined the Buddhist and phenomenological approaches.

What he said was: ‘I am a Russian, since a lot of people (yourselves included) call me that, and there is no reason why I should agree or disagree. But the term “individualist” has a double meaning. It can refer to a person who does not want to be confused with others (and certainly not with those who do the confusing), or, as Pomerants put it, the gentleman does not wish to be confused WIththe scum, that is, he wants to be an individual. Or the term can refer to his desire to be an individual in order to become a personality. Those are two quite different readings of the term.’ And when Sh. asserts that there is no such thing as ‘simple faith’ (since it is faith we are talking about) but that there is ‘liberating theological and doctrinal speculation’, that is virtually equivalent to Berdyaev’s ‘existential cry’ that there is only absolute freedom (in ‘self-knowledge’) and not freedom ‘from something’. The attitude of Russian metaphysicians to the problem of naming (I have not touched on the social implications of the problem here) probably shows more clearly than anything else the religious indeterminacy of the metaphysical situation in Russia. At the moment I feel this is a good thing: the less defined religious metaphysics is, the more its contact with present-day positivist science is objectively inevitable, provided that it develops consistently and correctly from its basic premises, of which the most important, to my mind, is the ‘absolute relativity of language’.

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