Soviet Philosophy and Then Some


Richard Marshall interviews David Bakhurst in 3:AM Magazine:

RM: What led you to develop a specific interest in Russian philosophy?

DB: Well, I was drawn to the philosophical intensity of Russian culture, which comes through so strikingly in its literature, poetry, and art, and in the impassioned writings of Russian political thinkers. Moreover, the Soviet Union was, in a sense, the living embodiment of a philosophical idea. At the same time, it was obvious that the Russian philosophical tradition was very unlike anything I was studying in philosophy at Keele. So I tried to find out more on the philosophical culture of the USSR, about which relatively little was known in the West. I was encouraged in this by the Professor of Russian at Keele, Eugene Lampert, who was a fascinating figure. He was an intellectual historian, who’d written a couple of marvelous books on 19th century Russian political thinkers, and he was highly literate in philosophy. He’d translated Berdyaev, for example.

Anyway, I soon found that the Western literature on Soviet Philosophy was for the most part dismal. The Russian literature, so far as I could understand it, was obviously subject to censorship, so it was difficult to know how to approach it from an outsider’s perspective. I concluded, therefore, that I should go to Russia and talk to philosophers. Keele gave me a small bursary to travel to Moscow in the summer of 1980. I signed up for a language course with the intention of using my spare time to investigate Russian philosophy. My efforts to meet philosophers through official channels proved unrewarding—unsurprisingly in those Cold War days. But just before I was due to leave Russia I had an amazing stroke of good fortune.

In the Progress Publishers bookstore I came across a copy of Felix Mikhailov’s The Riddle of the Self, newly translated into English. I was really impressed. It was quite unlike the doctrinaire tomes of dialectical and historical materialism I’d be trying to plough through. It was an intelligent, witty, and engagingly-written introduction to a range philosophical questions that were familiar to me—questions about the justification of knowledge, concept formation, self-consciousness, other minds, and so on.