Thomas Nemeth: The Later Solov’ëv: Philosophy in Imperial Russia, Springer, 2019

The Later Solov’ëv: Philosophy in Imperial Russia Couverture du livre The Later Solov’ëv: Philosophy in Imperial Russia
Thomas Nemeth
Springer
2019
Hardback $99.99
VII, 317

Alexandre Kojève: The Religious Metaphysics of Vladimir Solovyov

The Religious Metaphysics of Vladimir Solovyov Couverture du livre The Religious Metaphysics of Vladimir Solovyov
Alexandre Kojève
Palgrave Macmillan
2018
Hardback $69.99
VII, 81

Reviewed by: Thomas Nemeth (USA)

Kojève’s slim volume, a translation of a two-part article that originally appeared in 1934/35, while its author was conducting his famous seminars on Hegel in Paris, is itself an “adaptation,” as the translators’ put it, of a 1926 dissertation submitted as a dissertation in Heidelberg under the supervision of Karl Jaspers. This French-language article “La métaphysique religieuse de Vladimir Soloviev” was not Kojève’s first presentation of Solovyov’s ideas. He had previously published in 1930 a short piece entitled “Die Geschichtsphilosophie Wladimir Solowjews,” presumably also culled from his dissertation. Kojève was also not the first Russian to submit a dissertation to a German university on Solovyov. Fedor Stepun had already in 1910 – only a decade after Solovyov’s death – submitted a dissertation also with the title Die Geschichtsphilosophie Wladimir Solowjews to Heidelberg University.

Alexandre Kojève’s name needs little introduction to Western audiences familiar with secondary literature on Hegel. The notes from Kojève’s Parisian lectures at the École Pratique des Hautes Études on the Phenomenology of Spirit have long been available to English-speaking philosophy students. Kojève, born Aleksandr Kozhevnikov in Russia in 1902, had by all accounts a unique personality. In the same year that he completed his dissertation, he moved to Paris, where another well-known Russian émigré scholar/philosopher Alexandre Koyré happened to have established himself as early as 1912 after Husserl had rejected his dissertation. (Despite this, Koyré remained on quite friendly terms with his former mentor, who attended Koyré’s dissertation defense in Paris.) Later in life after World War II, Kojève worked in the French Ministry of Economics and from there was instrumental in establishing the European Common Market. Although a Marxist, at least of sorts, he was invited to Berlin in 1967 by radical students to whom he allegedly advised that they should turn their attention instead to learning ancient Greek!

Kojève’s book can be read from two distinct viewpoints. We can, on the one hand, comb the text for Kojève’s own positions at the time of its writing. Bearing in mind his later emphasis on the Hegelian dialectic and in particular on the master-slave riposte Kojève made famous in his reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology, we can attempt to see its anticipation here. Indeed, there are good grounds for doing just that, and we find within the pages of this book a considerable discussion of the Absolute vis-à-vis the Other. Within the framework of Kojève’s concern, this is both understandable and cannot be held to be inappropriate or incorrect. Kojève’s familiarity with Schelling and Hegel as well as with the German mystical tradition is clearly evident throughout his text. Whether Kojève’s emphasis on Solovyov’s debt to those German writers is excessive or not is for the reader to determine. No one has seriously questioned, however, that Solovyov owed a great debt to Hegel and the later Schelling, even though specific references to the latter in Solovyov’s writings are virtually non-existent.

On the other hand, one can read Kojève’s book apart from its author’s later writings, taking it as what it purports to be, namely, a secondary text on Vladimir Solovyov, which is how we shall approach the book here. Solovyov is likely to be a name less familiar to an English-speaking philosophical audience. Although generally regarded as the greatest Russian philosopher of the nineteenth century, his works are almost invariably classified as belonging to religious philosophy. We find in them, especially his early writings, hardly a trace of the concerns that would rivet either the budding German neo-Kantian movement or the logic of such figures as Bolzano, Frege, or Husserl. Solovyov, instead, was deeply religious in that his beliefs were carried over into his philosophical investigations, something that cannot be said about the other figures mentioned. Solovyov did seek to express his religious faith in the form of a philosophy employing his knowledge of both the history of philosophy and philosophical terminology, suitably adapted of course. Thus, a reader coming with contemporary analytic sensibilities will look in askance at such claims as that ideal Humanity, the Soul of the World (note the capitalizations) is an individual, free, and independent being (58). Kojève, especially in his later pages, is particularly prone to such statements without comment, let alone critical assessment. Solovyov, certainly, writes in such a manner. However, should a twentieth-century philosopher let such a claim pass freely? There are countless additional statements that Kojève affirms as Solovyov’s position and that the former fails to question or to clarify. To be sure, he offers a masterful paraphrase, but it is just that and no more than that.

We see, then, that Kojève is correct in seeing the starting point and the center of gravity of Solovyov’s thought lies in metaphysics. What Kojève does not make sufficiently clear is that his characterization applies most poignantly to the early Solovyov, but, arguably to be sure, not to his later works. Indeed, Kojève focuses almost exclusively on the early Solovyov, though he does reference from time to time Solovyov’s 1889 Russia and the Universal Church, which appeared originally in French and in some proffered periodizations belongs to Solovyov’s middle period.

As with most Solovyov-scholars, Kojève sees Solovyov’s literary activity falling into three distinct periods. Doing so is in keeping with Solovyov’s own fixation on triadic schemes. Kojève in his earlier German-language essay on Solovyov’s philosophy of history from 1930 found that the first period featured a philosophy of history under the influence of the Slavophiles. During a second period a Catholic influence predominated, and the third period or standpoint, which was also the briefest, was represented by just one writing, the three conversations known in English translation as War, Progress and the End of History from 1900. This appeared just a short time before Solovyov’s death. We could object to Kojève’s particular delimitations, but we should keep in mind that his concern in this early essay was with Solovyov’s philosophy of history, not his metaphysical system. Unfortunately, Kojève was noticeably silent on just when this supposed “Catholic period” in Solovyov’s thought began, but presumably it extended until the writing of the 1900 piece.

In the book under review here, Kojève offered a different periodization for Solovyov’s philosophical works, presumably owing to the book’s different orientation – but, nevertheless still three and only three periods. Kojève finds that the first one serves as a historical and critical introduction to Solovyov’s metaphysical system, a system that he had already in his mental possession by this time. Kojève, unfortunately, fails to demarcate how long this period extended. But it surely includes Solovyov’s first major writing, viz., his magister’s thesis The Crisis of Western Philosophy, for he there declares, as Kojève notes, that a definitive metaphysical system would emerge on Russian soil in the near future. Kojève is somewhat misleading in stating that this system would, in Solovyov’s eyes, be his own. The metaphysical system Solovyov had in mind at the time of writing his Crisis text was that presented by the Eastern Church Fathers. Contrary to Kojève’s claim, Solovyov had neither a fully formed system at this early date nor would he ever if by that we mean Solovyov had already conceived all the details. For example, when he published his major systematic work the Critique of Abstract Principles he had not yet, nor would he ever, have a hammered out comprehensive philosophy of art. Kojève characterizes the second period of Solovyov’s activity to be the shortest, and during this time he presented an outline of his metaphysics. It is from the works of this period that Kojève will draw much of his discussion. The third period is the longest. However, since Solovyov apparently at this time lost much of his interest in theoretical questions and in metaphysics proper, it is of little concern to Kojève. Indeed, the latter has little to say about the works stemming from this last phase in Solovyov’s thinking. What is hard to countenance is Kojève’s dismissal of those works on the grounds that by 1890 – and thus just after the publication of Russia and the Universal Church – Solovyov had completed the elaboration of his metaphysics and would not make any changes to it important enough to mention. In light of the fact that Solovyov explicitly rewrote his ethics resulting in The Justification of the Moral Good and started a revision of his “theoretical philosophy” immediately after doing so, it is hard to assent to Kojève’s claim.

Kojève draws his discussion of Solovyov’s metaphysics from three early works in addition to the 1889 one. Although Kojève recognizes that there are obscurities, inaccuracies, contradictions, and shortcomings in Solovyov’s works, these are not often carefully indicated. Kojève also charges Solovyov’s thinking with being often abstract and superficial, more religious than philosophical. Yet, Kojève avoids philosophical, i.e., rational, and secular criticism of that thinking. As have many other commentators on these writings, Kojève sees a marked inspiration from Schelling in Solovyov’s constructions. Kojève goes so far as to say that Schelling served almost exclusively as Solovyov’s model and that the German Idealist’s philosophy lay at the root of nearly all of the Russian’s metaphysical ideas. What Kojève does not point out is the fundamental differences between Schelling and Solovyov. One of the most striking, of course, is that for the former the “positive” reconstruction of Christianity is merely the first step on the road to a philosophical metaphysics, whereas for Solovyov his elaborations are meant as an expression of the truth of Christianity. Solovyov had no intention of replacing Christianity with philosophy of any sort.

Notwithstanding the alleged influence of Schelling, we cannot be surprised that Kojève sees as well a dialectic of the “Other” in Solovyov’s metaphysics, although he finds that dialectic to be the most obscure and most abstract part of it. Those interested in Kojève’s thought for its own sake can surely find much of interest here. Most curious, though, is that instead of seeing Solovyov’s discussion as drawn from Hegel’s Phenomenology, Kojève sees it as a “simplified and impoverished paraphrase” of the relevant speculations found in Schelling, who, in turn, is largely indebted to Jakob Böhme (23). In a sense, we cannot truly be surprised. Others even more recently, such as Zdenek David, have recognized the influence of the German mystic Böhme on Solovyov and Russian religious philosophy in general. Solovyov may have first turned to Böhme through the former’s philosophy professor at Moscow University Pamfil Jurkevich and the spiritualist circle around Ivan Lapshin, a civil servant, orientalist, and father of the St. Petersburg philosophy professor Ivan Ivanovich Lapshin. Kojève, in turn, may have been alerted to this German source of Solovyov’s own metaphysics through the 1929 book on Böhme by his friend Koyré.

Kojève, of course, recognizes that there is a certain “kinship” between the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and Neoplatonic teachings, but he finds that kinship to be extremely vague. What kinship there is between the Christian doctrine and Neoplatonism can be easily explained through the influence of Neoplatonism on early Christianity, when the latter was still in its formative stages. Solovyov himself gave neither any direct indication nor any evidence of the source or sources of his own conception of the Christian Trinity. We have no basis to hold that Solovyov was directly influenced by Plotinus or any of his disciples here. For Kojève, Solovyov saw his own version of the Trinitarian doctrine arising from his idea of the Absolute independently of the Christian tradition to which he otherwise expressed such allegiance. Solovyov’s conviction in his originality in this matter is illusory and shows the extent to which Solovyov thought was permeated by dogmatism. He believed that thinking through his religious experience he could deduce all dogmatic truths including that of the Trinity. In Kojève’s eyes, the speculations of the German Idealists, rather than the Neoplatonists, served as Solovyov’s more immediate source (28).

What we have seen thus far forms a section of the book that Kojève calls “The Doctrine of God.” The next section, “The Doctrine of World” is frankly more metaphysical, if that is imaginable. Kojève provides a faithful recounting of Solovyov’s early metaphysical position, but without extended critical reflection on it from the standpoint of concrete, empirical substantiation. Solovyov’s conception of Divine Humanity is above all the “culmination and crown” of his religious metaphysics (31). Whereas we can affirm that it is the crown of that doctrine, it strains logic to hold that it, in the same breath, is also the starting point of Solovyov’s doctrine of the world. How it can be both the culmination and starting point is unclear unless we distinguish in some ill-defined manner Divine Humanity from the world. Solovyov, after all, has precious little to say about the world apart from humanity. Even more egregious, though, is Kojève’s assertion that Solovyov’s idea of Divine Humanity, being the “keystone” of his metaphysics, is, for that reason, the pivot of his entire philosophical system. Such an assertion may be true on the face of it for Solovyov’s early writings, but it needs demonstration when affirmed of the writings stemming from the last decade of Solovyov’s life.

Kojève is on firmer grounds in claiming that the presentation of Sophia in Solovyov’s metaphysics and that in his alleged mystical experience is enormous. Since the manuscript material related to Sophia has now been widely available for some years, the reader can easily confirm Kojève’s statement that many of the elements in the mysticism associated with Sophia have equivalents in Solovyov’s early metaphysics. Yet, Kojève correctly recognizes that the Sophia depicted in that metaphysical doctrine cannot be the image he supposedly saw as a vision while sitting in the British Museum’s library and which directed him to proceed forthwith to Egypt.

Kojève holds that whereas Solovyov purports to analyze the dialectical notion of the Absolute deductively to obtain his doctrine of God, the doctrine of World employs an empirical method. It is to Kojève’s credit to recognize that Solovyov does not adhere rigorously to these two respective methods in their respective domains. In fact, Kojève is, if anything, too polite. In both doctrines, the assumptions made are staggering in number. Solovyov sees the entire doctrine of God as merely a rational deduction from what is contained in a mystical intuition of divine love. He makes no allowance for those who are unable to intuit this Godly presence, and the premises for his a posteriori, inductive doctrine of the World are similarly not ones with which everyone would agree. The early Solovyov has God doing this and that spelled out in language just as questionably appropriate as the general idea being expressed. On what basis Solovyov determines that God imparts freedom to his creation and then separates Himself from that creation is anyone’s guess. Kojève, following in Solovyov’s footsteps, apparently feels no trepidation in using the word “freedom” in conjunction with the Soul of the world, but Kojève provides no non-circular definition of the term. Indeed, even an idea itself can be characterized as free! Again to Kojève’s credit, he recognizes that Solovyov is indebted to others, particularly to Schelling, which can come as a surprise to no one. Immersed as he was in the metaphysical aspects of German Idealism, Kojève finds Schelling behind Solovyov’s formulations, with the general ideas and structure being similar (71).

There is little here in Kojève’s work that we can easily characterize as phenomenological, focusing as it does on the early metaphysics of Solovyov. Kojève makes no attempt to provide a non-metaphysical reading. Certainly, Solovyov himself understood his position as definitely, even defiantly, religious. But what we, as readers, can ask is why this work at this time. The translators in their introduction admirably discuss the difficult writing style Kojève employed. To their credit, were it not for their comments the reader would likely not realize the points they make. The English is generally smooth and flows as gently as one could wish given the abstruse subject matter. Knowing something about Kojève’s writing style might tell us something about Kojève, but it does little for our knowledge of Kojève’s thoughts on Solovyov. It would have been helpful if the translators had situated this work within Kojève’s corpus and at least have compared the ideas presented with those found in his work on Solovyov in German. Perhaps that was not their intention. But if we look at this extended essay as an intended contribution to scholarship on Solovyov, we can ask what its relationship was at the time of its original appearance to other works on Solovyov in general but particularly to those in the French-speaking world.

Unfortunately, the translators also do not inform us why they singled out this work for their efforts. Is it outstanding in some special manner compared to others? Were it not for the fact that Kojève later became widely known for his Hegel-interpretation would they have translated it nonetheless? Most regrettably, the translators do not situate Kojève’s work within the body of Solovyov-scholarship in recent years. They take no account of the vast literature in either Russia or the West that has appeared particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Again, the question, then, arises: Why this work at this time? Is Kojève’s extended essay in some manner better than recent work on the same topic?

The translators’ references can be confusing or at least troublesome. Whereas the translators make the appropriate references to Solovyov’s works, these are to the now obsolete first edition of the collected works from the first decade of the 20th century instead of availing themselves of the far more accurate and detailed 21st century ongoing edition together with its detailed commentary. Additionally, the references given are always to the mentioned Russian edition even when an English-language translation exists. This poses an obstacle to anyone without knowledge of Russian but who wishes to pursue some idea further. It certainly would also have been helpful to mention the title of the individual work by Solovyov, rather than simply the volume and page number within the set of the collected works.

In conclusion, whereas the advanced student of Solovyov may find Kojève’s work unnecessary, those largely unacquainted with the ideas of the Russian religious philosopher will find this to be a splendid introduction as well as further evidence of the infiltration of German Idealism into Russia.