BETWEEN FOREIGN AND OWN, BETWEEN THE OWL AND THE DONKEY. PHILOSOPHERS AND METAMORPHOSES
author: Iassen Zahariev.
title: Minerva’s Donkey.
Sofia: New Bulgarian University, 2011, 236 pp.
According to a popular notion, philosophy in Bulgaria today is characterized primarily by the fact that it was highly ideologized for a long time and will take a long time to break with ideology. On the other hand, in Bulgaria history of philosophy holds a stronger position than original philosophical research. Here we are interested more in the second proposition, and especially in whether it is true also for the sphere of history of Bulgarian philosophy: for if it is, this means that Bulgarian philosophy does not exist in a sufficiently scientific form and therefore cannot really have a history of its own. This relationship is among the main subjects under investigation in Iassen Zahariev’s book. Minerva’s Donkey (New Bulgarian University Press, 2011) offers on its approximately 230 pages a total of thirteen studies. The first part is methodological, while the second (in eleven chapters) deals with particular Bulgarian philosophers and philosophical phenomena arranged in chronological order: from the National Revival (with a focus on Sophronius of Vratsa, Petar Beron, and Ivan Seliminski) to the contributions of Ivan Georgov, Ivan Gyuzelev, Dimitar Mihalchev (three chapters are devoted to him), Spiridon Kazandzhiev, philosophers of science, philosophical associations, philosophical forums (in the traditional, pre-digital sense of the word), Ivan Sarailiev’s lunar diary. The impossibility – in the positive sense – of producing a purely Bulgarian history of philosophy is suggested in the very title of the book. It refers (as does the picture on the cover) first to the goddess of wisdom and her sacred bird, the owl, but also to the plot of a Latin novel about metamorphoses, Asinus aureus or The Golden Donkey (better known as The Golden Ass) by Apuleius. Beyond the title page, it turns out that the question of the intertwined ‘genre’ boundaries and the scope of Bulgarian philosophy is one of the main concerns of the book. But the associations suggested by the above-mentioned hybrid language-play are even more diverse: they also point, for example, to the hybrid and metamorphotic character of philosophical thought itself. In addition, the Greco-Roman element in the title does not merely build a metaphor; it seems to imply also the author’s view, expressed explicitly several times in the book, that philosophy in the narrow sense of the word is a European achievement.
If we return to the question of whether a history of Bulgarian philosophy is possible, then we must say that Iassen Zahariev attempts first to specify precisely the object of his study. As noted in one of the first introductory sentences, despite the growing number of studies on this subject in the first decade of the twenty-first century, there is still ‘an absence of deeper reflection on the substantive scope of this tradition’ (p. 7). Further on, the author notes that his motive for writing this book was ‘the need for a concept of the tradition’ (p. 13). At issue here is the Bulgarian philosophical tradition, but the book also seeks to determine what is the most accurate phrase: ‘Bulgarian philosophy’, ‘philosophy in Bulgaria’, ‘Bulgarian philosophical thought’, ‘Bulgarian philosophical culture’ or ‘Bulgarian philosophical tradition’. Although the last variant is part of the subtitle of the book, Transformations in the Bulgarian Philosophical Tradition from the National Revival to the End of the Twentieth Century, Iassen Zahariev seems to invite us to think more about ‘philosophy in Bulgaria’. Thus, one of his theses is revealed at the end of the preface – namely, that philosophy in Bulgaria is a ‘synthesis of local dispositions and foreign influence’ (p. 8). Although this thesis sounds banal at first sight, the exposition shows that it is very true, with different degrees of positive or negative connotations: ‘The history of the transformation of this “foreign” into “own” is, to my mind, the true subject of the history of philosophy in Bulgaria’ (p. 51). Thus, for instance, when comparing the contributions of Petar Beron and Ivan Seliminski, Iassen Zahariev says that Beron was concerned more with natural philosophy and Seliminski much more with ‘western philosophy in the classical sense of the word’; but then, Seliminski did not try to integrate his philosophical knowledge into Bulgarian culture and therefore his significance is less even than that of Sophronius (pp. 63-64).
The question of the transition from foreign to own is presented both synoptically and metaphorically at the beginning of the chapter devoted to Ivan Georgov (whose main contribution is defined by Zahariev as being precisely in the sphere of history of philosophy even though Georgov’s work remained ‘objectivistic’). Using photographic terms, here the author outlines the main stages of the transformation in question:
Hence, several main moments can be identified in the whole process: (1) Subject: western philosophy; (2) Exposure: representatives of Bulgarian culture study philosophy and attain some knowledge (idea, image) of the latter; (3) Development and printing: philosophy is ‘translated’ into Bulgarian culture, and finally (4) Representation in its capacity as such, a projection of the original image: philosophy in Bulgaria. Photographers know that in this scheme, the end product is something quite unpredictable. (pp. 78-79)
Although the book does not seek to identify a linear growth in Bulgarian philosophy, some development is nevertheless to be found. If we again use photographic metaphors, we may say that the different philosophers applied different ‘photographic techniques’: for example, Gyuzelev created the first comprehensive philosophical theory; Mihalchev and Kazandzhiev differed by the indicator of non/abidance by a concrete system.
The above-quoted subtitle is important also in that it sets a chronological framework which does not just serve to limit the subject-matter under study to a particular period; it also indicates that according to Iassen Zahariev, a philosophical tradition in Bulgaria should not be sought before the National Revival: because of the gap with regard to philosophical endeavours in Bulgarian mediaeval culture, but also in order to avoid ascribing – in a not entirely scientific way and often with nationalist overtones – authentic antiquity to various cultural phenomena. In addition, according to Zahariev the above-mentioned time limits can also be justified on the grounds of ‘absence of philosophical language in Bulgarian culture in the early and mid-nineteenth century’ (p. 65) – a proposition which we cannot fully agree with in substantive terms; as an approach, however, this linguistic argument is correct and it is applied systematically in the book. The methodological part also examines ‘the national factors in philosophizing’ – with regard to them, let us note that the observations made here allow us to rethink and investigate other Bulgarian ‘national’ achievements as well, thus pointing us in directions that definitely need to be explored. That is why Minerva’s Donkey is a book that is innovative also at a more general methodological, interdisciplinary level.
It is especially important (from Plato onwards) to speak both of philosophy and of philosophizing. Iassen Zahariev successfully follows, even on the formal plane, this dual approach throughout his study. On the formal plane because it is precisely here that we can point out as positive the collection of heterogeneous texts in a single volume: one longer and several later and shorter texts devoted both to the activity and works of individual philosophers and to different forms of collective doing of philosophy (for example, in the case of the philosophical associations). Thus, the book seems to offer not so much a long (which is impossible) and linear history of philosophy in Bulgaria as a broadened history that is synchronic rather than diachronic, with elements of typologization of the different forms and themes of philosophizing. The distinction between philosophy and philosophizing is indeed key, for it is precisely through it that one can discover what is ‘unique’ to a given philosophical tradition, that which is part of the intellectual life of the country where philosophizing takes place: ‘Kant and Rehmke [two philosophers who very strongly influenced Bulgarian philosophers of the first half of the twentieth century, all of whom were educated in Germany] have nothing to do with Bulgaria, but the way we philosophize in Bulgarian on Kant and Rehmke is already unique in itself’ (p. 31). Zahariev’s claim that the creation of the journal Filosofski Pregled/Philosophical Review (and its declared pluralistic platform) was Dimitar Mihalchev’s most important achievement (cf. pp. 126-127) can also be read as an implicit indication of the importance of philosophizing and of debates, be they oral or written. However, when generalizing the participation of Bulgarian philosophers in international forums, Zahariev points out the positive influence of such participation on their own prestige, but he also notes: ‘Once they receive access to them [the international forums], however, they do not identify themselves with their colleagues from Bulgaria and, hence, with their philosophical community’ (p. 213). This conclusion is comparatively pessimistic and shows that the opposite process is also possible, that is, the transformation of the own into foreign.
Again in connection with the interest in philosophizing, we must note as a contribution of the style of the chapters devoted to individual philosophers the author’s effort to construct comprehensive personal biographical sketches instead of discussing separate works or lectures – again because philosophy is an activity in a particular environment and depends on that environment. For example, Zahariev defines Mihalchev’s Form and Relation as ‘the most serious and comprehensive Bulgarian philosophical work until then because of two main reasons: it is written in Bulgarian and it defends original philosophical positions on the basis of which a critical analysis of the comprehensive development of knowledge is done’ (p. 122). This actually points to a positive aspect of the transformation of the foreign into own. As for original philosophical research, Zahariev’s key observation is that in the period under review Bulgarian philosophers were interested primarily in the theory of knowledge, as noted already about Ivan Georgov; but neither was Spiridon Kazandzhiev, to whom the last personal ‘sketch’ is devoted, an exception to this tendency. Was this accidental, could it be explained with concrete foreign influences on Bulgarian philosophers, or does it betray some tendency whereby philosophy in Bulgaria in this period did not only build its own history but also tried to ‘cognize’ cultural development in general and to provide epistemological instruments to the other sciences as well, at least to those in the sphere of the humanities?
Minerva’s Donkey is a fascinating and instructive read, not least because of the variety of trends, approaches, attitudes and philosophical questions outlined in the book. Here is yet another direction for reflection: what do the philosophical associations tell of Bulgarian intellectual life in general – they are many in number and somehow network-based, and their history is unclear. It is obvious that in Bulgaria even the philosophers who come from comparatively populous university courses construct a rather narrow professional community which fails to maintain an active community life on its own; a community that is highly volatile, with people constantly joining and leaving in order to communicate/dispute with others.
So far we have noted only separate ‘plots’ intertwined in Iassen Zahariev’s study. To completely understand and think them through, one also needs to read the complete book. Even at the beginning, the author explicitly declares that his intention is to offer a book that can be used also as a textbook for university courses on the subject-matter in question, and it can indeed serve as such – it is highly readable and engrossing, although the style is sufficiently scientific and pithy. Such a history of philosophy in Bulgaria can indeed introduce the reader to some past philosophizing and to invite him or her to understand it historically and to read the works discussed; it can also (hopefully) prompt its readers to join in different, existing or new, forms of philosophizing.
- Nevena Panova
- Iassen Zahariev – Minervas Donkey