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Fiction's Overcoat: Russian Literary Culture and the Question of Philosophy.

Fiction's Overcoat: Russian Literary Culture and the Question of Philosophy. By EDITH W. CLOWES. Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press. 2004. xvii+ 289 pp. 31.95 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 978-0-8014-4192-9.

The complex relationship between the relative paucity of Russian philosophy and the wealth of Russian philosophical literature and literary criticism has fascinated many commentators. In this interesting book Edith W. Clowes traces the emergence of Russian philosophical discourse in and through literary discourse and discourse on literature, centring on the 'birth' of Russian philosophy between the 1870s and 1920s. The central focus of the study falls on the work of Vladimir Solov'ev, Lev Shestov, Vasilii Rozanov, and Nikolai Berdiaev, with reflections on a prehistory in the works of Vissarion Belinskii and Nikolai Chernyshevskii and 'survival' in the works of Aleksei Losev, Andrei Platonov, and Boris Pasternak.

Clowes's thesis is that although Western, especially German, philosophical ideas were widely received in Russia, they did not initially lead to the development of a Russian philosophy since philosophical language found resistance among literary scholars and activists who sought to overcome the division between abstract philosophical and socio-ethical concerns. It was not until the later part of the nineteenth century that a truly philosophical discourse began to emerge, but it did so in the form of a peculiar variety of literary genres rather than systematic philosophical exposition. Appeals to non-rational, mystical, and personalist motifs opposed the abstract system-building of German idealists, and they were articulated in texts that maintained a profoundly ambivalent relationship with their German sources. These texts begin to flourish in the period before the Revolution, when the spiritual roots of this way of thinking and opportunities to publish such material came under pressure. Nevertheless, such philosophizing survived in the works of both philosophers such as Losev and writers such as Platonov and Pasternak, the latter of whom has eschewed a promising philosophical career as a member of the Marburg School of neo-Kantianism in favour of a career as a philosophical novelist.

This study has much to recommend it, not least the attention given to the generic features of Russian philosophical discourse and the way in which this never quite made the transition to systematic philosophy. The close scrutiny of particular texts will also greatly assist students of Russian philosophical and literary culture who follow. However, one constantly has the impression that counter-examples could be given. Gustav Shpet's attempts to popularize and develop phenomenology in Russia represent important strivings towards clarity and systematicity, although his work constantly fell victim to the combined effects of the German idealist penchant for abstraction and the tendency for mystical fuzziness among Russian 'philosophizers' that he tried, unsuccessfully, to overcome. Similarly, the reception of Lebensphilosophie, Volkerpsychologie, and, ultimately, of social theory in the periods discussed here remains largely unexplored. Thus, the new types of philosophical discourse that emerged in the work of the populists and, especially, in figures such as Georgii Plekhanov are not subjected to any serious examination, nor are grounds for their exclusion offered. This is especially curious given the proletarian commitments of Platonov. Furthermore, the emergence of mainstream philosophical journals such as Novye idei v filosofii and Voprosy filosofii i psikhologii is not discussed. Although the book's focus falls outside these areas, they nevertheless provide significant features of the environment in which the philosophical works discussed emerged and against which, to a significant extent, they defined themselves. This text, therefore, can be warmly welcomed and recommended, but it requires much supplementation.


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Author:Brandist, Craig
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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