A Philosopher of Small Things

Shestov_060612_620pxA post for Morgan Meis. This one makes me happy; despite my intellectual proclivities, I have liked Lev Shestov (finding him less, er, high-pitched than Simone Weil) ever since I came across the piece on him (and Weil) by Milosz. David Sugarman in Tablet:

Lev Shestov, né Lev Isaakovich Schwarzmann, was born in 1866 into a prosperous merchant family in Kiev. His father was very knowledgeable about Jewish law and literature but was not religious or observant. Shestov married in 1896 and began his career as something of a man of letters in Russia, writing about Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov through the prism of Nietzsche’s philosophy. The tumult of the early decades of the 20th century, however, brought tragedy and instability into Shestov’s life: His son was killed serving in the Russian military, and the October Revolution in 1917 forced his family to flee the country. Shestov would spend the next few years in exile, journeying through Crimea and Switzerland, until 1921, when he would finally settle in France. He died in Paris in 1938.

Shestov’s first sustained work of original philosophy, The Apotheosis of Groundlessness (1905), explored what he termed the “groundlessness,” or irrationality and uncertainty, of man’s experience of the world. “We know nothing of the ultimate realities of our existence, nor shall we ever know anything,” he wrote. “Let that be agreed.” The world does not make sense, argues Shestov, and philosophy should not hope to find reason in it: “The business of philosophy is to teach man to live in uncertainty … it is not to reassure people, but to upset them.”

Shestov’s view that philosophy needed to proceed from an axiom of groundlessness, from an understanding of the human condition as essentially absurd and pointless, was argued in opposition to philosophers who emphasized reason—and the supposedly rational nature of human existence—above all else. Rational and logical thinking clearly help humans understand certain aspects of the world, Shestov acknowledged; “to discard logic completely would be extravagant,” he wrote. But Shestov also believed that rational thought was merely one human ability among many. If used in every sphere of life, he believed, reason would corrode man’s ability to connect to a more spiritual realm. Shestov thus advocated that faith and reason, theology and science, needed to be regarded as two distinct entities. “It seems to me,” Shestov wrote, “that it is enough to ask a man, ‘Does God exist?’ immediately to make it impossible for him to give any answer to this question.”