MERAB MAMARDASHVILI, OR, ON THE LIMITS OF INTELLECTUAL DISSIDENCE IN THE SOVIET ERA*
author: Emil Grigorov
title: The Drama of Cogito: A Contemporary Version. An Essay on the Philosophy of Merab Mamardashvili.
Sofia: St Kliment Ohridski University Press, 2009, pp.126.
Since his death, and in the conditions of democratization in Russia, Merab Mamardashvili has become an object of special interest. He is no doubt one of the most widely discussed philosophers today. There is an extensive body of literature on his intellectual legacy, even a ‘war’ of interpretations as various currents in post-Soviet Russian thought are trying to use Mamardashvili to transfer symbolic capital onto their own past or onto their present aspirations. The philosophers from the 1960s generation, which has more or less remained attached to the spirit of the Khrushchev Thaw and Gorbachev’s Perestroika, focus on his qualities as a brilliant dialectician, while the authors seeking a bridge to pre-revolutionary traditions see him as the necessary continuator of Russian religious existentialism.
Against this background, Emil Grigorov’s book, building upon the existing variety of interpretations, successfully defends a position of its own. It covers the life and creative path of the Georgian-born Russian philosopher, divided into three consecutive and closely interlinked periods. The unifying element or internal link is the theme of cogito, of the ‘thinking subject’. Grigorov does not limit himself to the context of Soviet philosophy, he places Mamardashvili’s quests in the context also of philosophical figures and philosophical schools especially concerned with the problems of consciousness: Descartes, Kant, Marx, Solovyov, Sartre, Althusser, and Bourdieu, among others.
The method used by Grigorov can generally be defined as being that of a history of cultural forms and history of mentalities, based on the historical reconstruction of definite philosophical concepts: the use of Marx and Marxism in the political and ideological context of the Soviet era, the fate of the Marxist legacy as well as the converted socio-political reconsideration of the Soviet regime in its different historical reincarnations. This book can be understood in its entirety above all by people who have lived in the context that gave rise to the Mamardashvili phenomenon. From this perspective, its writing is an important and praiseworthy initiative which contributes to the mutual familiarization and understanding of different systems of thought and which unquestionably expands knowledge of intellectual life at the time of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The book gives a perfectly accurate and clear idea of the path passed by Mamardashvili, and of the contextual and internal-subjective reasons for the changes in his views. To a large extent, the philosopher is shown as being a product of his time, and his personal drama as an individual and as a philosophizing subject is a reflection of the big drama of the time and place he lived in.
Grigorov’s main thesis is that the problem that appears to be central in Mamardashvili’s work – the ‘problem of personality in its capacity as an ontological reality, that is, as a concrete being that has a place in the world’ – is based on the philosopher’s attempt to connect Marxist critique of ideology with the transcendental tradition of Western philosophy. Still, it does not become clear whether this means that the Marxist legacy broke away from its Soviet-applied use and returned to the bosom of the Western philosophical tradition or that the emphasis on its critical potential should point us towards looking for a new philosophical synthesis – an undertaking that takes into account the experience of the philosopher who was formed and who lived in the conditions of the Soviet regime.
The historical reconstruction of Mamardashvili’s philosophical path delineates three important steps in the development of Soviet philosophy itself in its move away from its officially assigned applied politico-ideological discourse. This process is projected on two planes: elucidation and formulation of Mamardashvili’s philosophical position (embodied, in the spirit of the classical tradition, in the aphorism ‘the position of the conscious person in the world’), and making sense of his intellectual strategy in the face of the Soviet politico-ideological order. In this aspect, philosophy is revealed as a cunning of reason, insofar as, being a highly specialized area of knowledge, it remained difficult to understand and to access for the official ideologues; at the same time, being a coded language, it enabled philosophers to send dissenting messages. This brings us to the problem of dissidence in the Soviet Union and to the question: Was Mamardashvili a dissident? And if he was, as Grigorov definitely considers him to have been despite his comparatively good official status under the Soviet regime, then in what sense was he a dissident? Here arises the interesting question of the forms of dissidence. Open political opposition is reviewed side by side with ‘the aspiration of the conscious person to live an authentic life of consciousness in the conditions of total ideocracy’. From this perspective, the book expands and problematizes the concept of dissidence.
The Drama of Cogito: A Contemporary Version does not claim to offer a conclusive interpretation of Mamardashvili’s philosophical legacy. In his effort to be maximally true to his primary source and to identify the positive elements in each of the three periods in the development of Mamardashvili’s philosophical concept, Emil Grigorov occasionally remains too ‘attached’ to his object of research – although I wouldn’t go as far as saying that he identifies himself with the latter, he nevertheless takes the position of an extremely benevolent interpreter. I will give several examples in support of this proposition, but before that I want to clearly say that I appreciate the carefully developed arguments of the author who is convinced and convincing in defending his position. On the other hand, the debatable field opened up by the book provokes polemic attitudes from the explication of which the debate would only stand to gain.
One of the important questions raised by the book is, ‘How was it possible to be a philosopher in the Soviet Union?’ This question is especially relevant with respect to the first and second periods in Mamardashvili’s evolution as well as, partly, the beginning of the third period. Emil Grigorov hints at the adequate context in which we should look for an answer: the imperative requirement of Stalin and of the post-Stalinists for total politicization of philosophy, for turning philosophy into an instrument of the revolutionary communist transformation of reality. Emil Grigorov shows sufficiently well how Mamardashvili and his colleagues from the Moscow Logic Circle deviated from this task, focusing on logic and on logico-epistemological problems. To them, this was a gesture of separation of philosophy from politics. Philosophical abstraction was perceived as a substituted form of thought aspiring towards autonomy. But Grigorov underestimates the fact that the position of an abstract philosopher in the Soviet Union came at a price and that the members of the Circle paid that price. Their critique of bourgeois philosophy formally deviated from the line of purely political condemnation of the latter, but was very zealous in proving its methodological fallaciousness. Their critique of Sartre’s existentialism, for instance, was one-sided and tendentious (especially as regards the condemnation of the claims of the individual, of the subject embodied in the figure of the intellectual), and was in real danger of being reduced to a purely psychological and even moral problem. What Mamardashvili did not say completely is added post factum by Grigorov who makes a direct, this time opposite to Marxist dogmatics, connection between the principles of existentialism and the erratic political behaviour of Sartre himself which is defined as immoral because of complicity with the Soviet regime. Philosophical arguments are refuted by means of moral judgment: something is not true because it is immoral. In this particular case it is not interesting whether Sartre behaved morally or immorally; what is more important is that this type of arguments bring Mamardashvili very close to the position of anti-intellectualism. This last is based on the strange reduction of the categories of pure reason (Kant) to ordinary instruments of professional thinkers who are detached from real-life practice as if what is at issue is not principles that are valid for every process of thinking. In Emil Grigorov, this potential anti-intellectualism is brought to the point of a strange approximation of the positions of the aspiring to be a creative Marxist Mamardashvili and the openly conservative anti-Marxist Paul Johnson.
The unusual for the 1960s Soviet Union thesis of Mamardashvili (interpreting Marx) about a materialistic philosophy of consciousness, of consciousness as an autonomous ontological reality, undoubtedly contained a subversive political potential insofar as it conflicted with the dominant vulgar social determinism. But on the other hand, for Mamardashvili, consciousness itself exists – and this is an important accent – only in the form of social being. This is also the basis of the critique levelled by Mamardashvili and his co-authors, M. Solovyov and E. Shviryov, in the extensive study ‘Classical and Contemporary Bourgeois Philosophy. An Attempt at an Epistemological Comparison’ (Voprosy filosofii, 12/1970, 23-38; 4/1971, 58-73; in Russian), against bourgeois classical philosophy, which is largely reduced to a philosophy of consciousness. This critique presents us with very interesting cases. For example, the critique of classical philosophy, in a gesture of theoretical displacement, turns into a critique of ‘humanitarian ideology’ and of ‘bourgeois consciousness’. I do not mean to say that the critique of classical philosophy is unfounded in principle; a number of arguments of the authors deserve attention. My objection is that their strong critique is situated at the abstract level of a metaphysics that is excessively generalized and that completely ignores its extremely important political implications in its capacity as a foundation of Western individualism and liberalism. At the same time, the substitution of the term ‘consciousness’ with the term ‘bourgeois consciousness’ semantically erroneously suggests precisely conclusions with politico-ideological implications that were convenient at the time.
The study in question also contains other such semantic disguises like, for example, the introduction of the term ‘social consciousness’ instead of the conventional term in Marxist-Leninist vocabulary, ‘class consciousness’. But those easily identifiable substitutions did not take Mamardashvili and his co-authors beyond the dominant paradigm in Soviet philosophy. In their coded struggle with the regime they remained within the framework of thinking of the regime. Their version of dialectic materialism did not consist in direct ideological condemnation of the so-called bourgeois philosophy (as a servant of capital) but in a principled critique of its abstract-theoretical foundations. This was done by demonstrating a high theoretical competence designed to win them the right not to be directly ideological. They became owners of a highly specialized philosophical knowledge that was inaccessible for the average Soviet fighter on the philosophical-ideological front, and this ensured them a relatively autonomous elitist status in the system. But they remained within the system not just because they declared themselves to be an alternative to bourgeois philosophy of consciousness but also because their position remained implicitly loyal to a fundamental Marxist principle: communitarianism. From this perspective, the evolution of another member of the Moscow Logic Circle is highly indicative – that of Alexander Zinoviev, especially after his return from exile to post-Soviet Russia.
In the third period of Mamardashvili’s path, Emil Grigorov focuses on the transition from what he calls ‘the Marx moment’ to ‘the Descartes moment’, but the relation between those two ‘moments’ is not sufficiently clarified in the book: did the latter dialectically eliminate the former or did it oppose it? In other words, did the principle of the ontological realization of autonomous consciousness replace or complement Marxist critical consciousness? In essence, in his third period Mamardashvili gradually changed his attitude towards classical bourgeois philosophy – even if someone might object to this proposition by pointing out that Mamardashvili in fact offered an unusual interpretation that actualized classical bourgeois philosophy. Here we are speaking of the already criticized in the first period consciousness which is conscious of its existence beyond all systems of established (imposed) identifications. In this sense, one can see in Mamardashvili’s position a certain distinction between factuality (experience) and consciousness (the experience of consciousness). But we should ask ourselves: If Mamardashvili proclaimed empiricism to be the archenemy of experience, then where would the experience of consciousness come from? And was it accidental that Mamardashvili arrived at the thesis of individual salvation? A second question also arises here: Could his late philosophical position have been an echo of the secondary religiosity of Soviet Marxism which professed collective salvation? I realize that there are no easy answers to those questions, for we are dealing with a largely metaphorical philosophical style that works freely with the relevant categories and that presupposes multiple interpretations. The second, hidden level of philosophical discourse in the Soviet public sphere unquestionably functioned as a converted political discourse. And Emil Grigorov is especially sensitive to that second aspect of philosophical discourse in the Soviet public sphere.
Thus, something like a circle is closed: Mamardashvili turns out to be close to Sartre whom he criticized in his first period. Mamardashvili criticized Sartre for the fact that his thought is ‘strongly dependent on the social figure of the intellectual who is the product of humanitarian ideology’. But now Mamardashvili’s own behaviour is rightfully defined by Emil Grigorov as an intellectual and social behaviour motivated by his determination that the cogito principle must not be corrupted, that is to say, that the world must not be thought of in terms of the externally imposed ideas of identification of the subject. In this sense, the drama of cogito, parallel with its identification as the drama of the Soviet person who fought to affirm his or her ‘I think’, can be understood also as the difficulty or even impossibility of the individual to rely on his or her own ontological status. External reality will always determine him or her in one way or another. Hence, isn’t it better to have to do with humanitarian ideology than with the vulgar social determinism of Soviet Marxism?
The very strong in Mamardashvili’s texts moment of converted political discourse makes it difficult to directly relate him to the properly philosophical debate of modernity. His philosophical discourse had old scores to settle with the system, in the course of which he also had to reinvent himself as an individual. That is also why Emil Grigorov very appropriately raises the already mentioned problem of the character of Mamardashvili’s dissidence. What was Mamardashvili’s status in the Soviet system? He was not a dissident in the conventional sense of the term; but neither was he a conformist. He was in a peculiar position close to that which Tocqueville calls the position of literary men and which Habermas defines by the term ‘literary public sphere’. He did not openly question the political system, but he questioned the status of the individual in this system and the officially established way of thinking and of philosophizing. He was an activist at the level of the politics of language: for him, non-freedom consists in the destruction of language, and the regime of the illiterate is defined as barbaric.
However, the most accurate way is that in which Mamardashvili himself defined his situation in the system: a situation of ‘the professional spy’. That is to say, someone who is comparatively successfully integrated into a hostile environment but who has preventively successfully merged with the latter, and who is beyond suspicion. This definition is much more accurate than the commonly used term ‘internal emigrant’, for at the level of professional life Mamardashvili remained significantly active, implicitly destabilizing the system from within. This position of his was shared by hundreds of individuals who worked in different spheres of society, even though not all of them stood out as much as Mamardashvili – but what they all had in common is that they situated themselves outside of the close to Bolshevik thinking paradigm of heroic behaviour. It is this that also explains Mamardashvili’s great popularity in Soviet intellectual circles. His present-day mythologization serves as a legitimating alibi for a whole intellectual generation. People who did not swim with the stream but neither did they swim against the stream – what they rather did was swim across the stream.
*This review was published in the Kultura weekly, No. 28/2010.
- Ivaylo Znepolski
- Emil Grigorov -The Drama of Cogito