Losev, Aleksei

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Aleksei Losev (1893 – 1988)

A “philosopher of name, number, and myth,” in his own words, Aleksei Fyodorovich Losev is an outstanding Russian thinker, philologist, classicist, translator, commentator, and writer (qtd. Takho-Godi, “Losev – filosofiia imeni, chisla, mifa”). The scope of his interests includes philosophy, philology, aesthetics, religion, myth, mathematics, and music. A Renaissance figure in modern Russian culture, Losev inherited, developed, and enriched the classical traditions of Russian thought and preserved them for future generations. His publications now number nearly nine hundred works, including dozens of monographs and major papers; this number continues to grow, due to new publications from his archive.

Losev was born on September 23, 1893 in Novocherkassk, the capital city of the Don Cossacks in Southern Russia. He was raised by his mother, Nataliia Alekseevna, who devoted her life to his upbringing, and by his grandfather, Aleksei Poliakov, an Orthodox priest. Young Aleksei studied at the Novocherkassk Classical Gymnasium, where he became interested in philosophy and classical philology, and got acquainted with the works of Vladimir Solovyov, who made an immense impact on Losev’s intellectual development. He also studied music (violin) and was a devoted theater goer. From 1911-1915, Losev studied at the Historical-Philological Department of Moscow University and graduated from two departments: philosophy and classics. The tradition of classical education in Russia, with its emphasis on Ancient Greek and Latin, influenced generations of scholars, Losev in particular. For example, the exam in classical languages that Losev took with Moscow State University professors M. Pokrovsky and S. Sobolevsky, consisted in translating Sophocles from the classical ancient Greek into Latin, and then into Homer’s Greek. His meticulous attention to the details of ancient texts, based on his profound knowledge of Greek and Latin, became a signature of Losev’s work.

As a student, Losev became affiliated with the Vladimir Solovyov Religious-Philosophical Society and the university’s Psychological Society, where he met the Russian philosophical elite: Nikolai Berdiaev, Pavel Florensky, Sergei Bulgakov, Evgeny Trubetskoi, Semyon Frank, Viacheslav Ivanov. He began publishing in 1916, and by the 1920s was a professor of aesthetics and an academician at several institutions, including the State Institute of Musical Science, the State Academy of Artistic Science, and the Moscow Conservatory.

In 1922, Aleksei Losev married Valentina Mikhailovna Sokolova (the wedding ceremony performed by Father Pavel Florensky). She was a mathematician and astronomer who shared his passion for music and philosophy. Their mutual intellectual and spiritual pursuit resulted in their secretly taking monastic vows—a fact revealed only after Losev’s death.

Losev’s productivity in the 1920s resulted in the famous vosmiknizhie, an eight-volume set of books first published between 1927 and 1930: The Ancient Cosmos and Contemporary Science (Antichnyi kosmos i sovremennaia nauka, 1927), The Philosophy of the Name (Filosofiia imeni, 1927), Music as a Subject of Logic (Muzyka kak predmet logiki, 1927), The Dialectics of Artistic Form (Dialektika khudozhestvennoi formy, 1927), The Dialectics of Number in Plotinus (Dialektika chisla u Plotina, 1928), The Criticism of Platonism by Aristotle (Kritika platonisma u Aristotelia, 1929), Essays on Classical Symbolism and Mythology, Vol. 1 (Ocherki antichnogo simvolizma i mifolofii, 1930), and The Dialectics of Myth (Dialektika mifa, 1930). After the publication of The Dialectics of Myth, Losev was arrested on formal grounds related to censorship issues, although the true reason for the arrest was the investigators’ attempt to prove Losev’s involvement with Onomatodoxy (imiaslavie), a religious movement glorifying God’s name. Losev was sentenced to ten years of hard labor and sent to Belbaltlag (the White Sea – Baltic Canal camp of GULAG), where hundreds of thousands of people perished; his wife was arrested as well. Losev’s library and manuscripts were destroyed. The conditions of life in the camps left Losev almost blind. He was released in 1932. The Losevs returned to Moscow after Valentina Mikhailovna’s release, however Losev was prohibited from publishing his philosophical research and teaching at major universities. He taught at provincial institutions and kept up with his research, hoping that his work on ancient aesthetics would distract the attention of the authorities, but still was unable to publish (except for his translation of St. Nicolas of Cusa).

In 1941, when the war broke out, Losev’s apartment was destroyed during a bombardment and he again lost almost his entire library. Soon after receiving his doctoral degree, Losev was charged with idealism and fired from Moscow State University. From that time and until his retirement, he taught at the Moscow State Pedagogical Institute. He was able to begin publishing again only in 1953, after Stalin’s death. Before her death in 1954, Valentina Mikhailovna blessed Losev to marry Aza Alibekovna Takho-Godi, a former graduate student who lived in the Losev house. During the last decades of his life, despite being legally blind and with the assistance of his students, Losev authored a few hundred works, including monographs, scholarly papers, textbook chapters, and essays. One of the most outstanding events of this later period was the publication of his eight-volume History of Ancient Aesthetics (Istoriia antichnoi estetiki, 1963-88), with its systematic analysis of the entirety of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and aesthetics. Despite growing notoriety for his work, Losev’s relations with officials remained strained, and he was still considered an “idealist.” Only as the Soviet system was nearing its end did Losev received government recognition: the Order of the Red Banner of Labor awarded in 1983, on the occasion of Losev’s ninetieth birthday, and the USSR State Award in philosophy in 1985.

Aleksei Fyodorovich Losev died in 1988, at the age of 94. The House of A.F. Losev, the house in Moscow where he lived the last fifty years of his life, now hosts a library for the history of Russian philosophy and culture. He inspired generations of young Russian thinkers. His legacy still remains to be fully explored, but is now the subject of study all over the world.

 

System and Method: Phenomenology, Dialectics, and Phenomenological-Dialectical Method

Losev creates an original phenomenological-dialectical system which is simultaneously rooted in the Russian, Eastern Orthodox, Platonic, and Neoplatonic traditions, as well as in German Idealism. It is his attempt at creating a philosophical system—much in the same way we think about the large systems of German Idealism. When characterizing Losev’s idiosyncratic philosophical position and the great number of sources that influenced his worldview, we should not forget that he always followed his philosophical system, outlines of which were formulated already in the very early period of his work. Although his style and terminology changed over time, Losev’s philosophical system demonstrated a unity of methods and analytical approaches.

Losev’s interest and encyclopedic knowledge of both early sources (detailed knowledge of ancient Greek, Latin, and Renaissance texts) and modern philosophy (in particular, German Idealism, Neo-Kantianism, and phenomenology)—and, of course, contemporary Russian thought—does not imply that he should be identified with any of these traditions. Rather, following Losev’s own way of defining concepts apophatically (a method adopted by Losev from apophatic, or “negative” theology, which attempts to express the essence of God and the Divine by eliminating all characteristics that are not to be said or attributed), it is easier to say what Losev’s position is not. Despite attempts to categorize Losev’s position, he escapes any labeling of this kind, thus answering to the question of self-identification:

What to do with me, if I do not consider myself either an idealist, or a materialist, or a Platonist, or a Kantian, or a Husserlian, or a rationalist, or a mystic, or a sheer dialectician, or a metaphysician, if even all those contrasts seem naïve to me? But if a label or a sign is absolutely needed, then, unfortunately, I can only say this: I am Losev! (Losev, Istoriia esteticheskikh uchenii 251)

The Western direction of Losev’s thought comes from classical German Idealism, to which he adds his understanding of Husserl’s phenomenology, expanding it to symbolism and mythology and thereby making it closer to a type of Neo-Platonism. Losev was familiar with Husserl’s works, in particular, with Logical Investigations and Ideas I, and attended seminars by Gustav Shpet, the main Russian Husserlian of the time. However, Losev’s own understanding of phenomenology as a discipline describing reality, with its principal orientation toward meaning and being, can be traced back to Hegel, rather than Husserl. Losev’s orientation in this regard is also the point where phenomenology and Neo-Kantianism intersect, in Losev’s understanding of both traditions, as well as where they intersect with Russian symbolism. “Phenomenology is a pre-theoretical description and formulation of all possible types and degrees of meaning that are enclosed in the word, on the basis of their adequate seeing, that is, seeing them in their eidos” (Losev, Filosofiia imeni 172). He continues:

Phenomenology is not a theory or science… Phenomenology is viewing and seeing meaning, as it exists by itself, and therefore it is totally a meaningful picture of the object… phenomenology sets itself only one task: to give a meaningful picture of the object itself, describing it with such a method that is required by the object itself… Phenomenology is eidetic seeing of the object in its eidos. (173)

Scholars have noted an interesting feature of Losev’s reception of Husserl’s phenomenology:

despite all the agreement with Husserl’s phenomenological method, especially with his teaching about the manifestation of the essence [Wesensshau], Losev’s “phenomenological creed” is missing one essential aspect of Husserl’s philosophy: the carrying out of the transcendental-phenomenological reduction. In this, the “general thesis of a naturalistic approach” is excluded, by virtue of which there exists an awareness of our real environment as continuously-present / existing [daseiende] “reality.” (Haardt 227, qtd. Bychkov 47)

Although Losev’s distance from analyzing some forms of reality can be considered “bracketing,” the phenomenological reduction (epoché) in Husserl’s variant is notably missing from Losev’s account.

However, phenomenology alone, as a primarily descriptive method to be applied to characterizing an already constructed world, is not enough for Losev. The intentionality of consciousness helps grasp the picture of the object but it does not explain the nature of its structure, or the structure of its eidos. Moreover, phenomenology is not an ideal method for dealing with antinomies and controversies, which are plentiful in real-life experience. Therefore, phenomenology should be combined with dialectics, as a primarily explanatory method. Losev, at least at the time of writing his Philosophy of Name, takes dialectics as a tool that can explain things meaningfully, unlike other disciplines, including metaphysics, psychology, and formal logic, which can also provide explanations, but their explanations usually remain within the limits of “naturalistic explaining.” These disciplines might offer psychological or metaphysical explanations as well, but Losev is looking for an explanation that will aim at the sphere of meaning. He finds this explanation in dialectics, understanding it as a logic that “must be beyond the laws of identity and contradiction, that is, it must be a logic of contradiction” (Filosofiia Imeni 32). Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics has to “cleanse from the point of view of a logic of contradiction all those problems that metaphysics used to deal with, and … has to provide with a logical construction of the antinomic-synthetic formation of the things of real experience” (Ibid.) Contrary to phenomenology, dialectics has to

not only give a description of separately given moments of meaning …but also to explain meaning in all its meaningful connections… One category should be explained by another, so that it would be seen how one category generates another, and all of them together generate each other, not naturalistically but eidetically, categorically, still remaining in the sphere of meaning. (Ibid.)

From his early works and until his late period, Losev continued to exercise his dialectical way of seeing the world. Dialectics is a key term in the titles of many of Losev’s monographs and papers, and this is not accidental. Losev’s vision is organically dialectical, in his own understanding of the concept. Losev outlines the dialectical in his entire body of work, but he remains loyal to the main definition that we find already in The Philosophy of Name:

Dialectics is the only method capable of grasping the living reality as a whole … First … true dialectics is always the immediate knowledge … Second, dialectics is the authentic and solely possible philosophical realism … [Third] dialectics is abstract. But then, how can it be an immediate foundation of life? [Because] dialectics is the rhythm of life … Fourth, dialectics stands on the point of view of absolute empiricism. Dialectics is both absolute empiricism and absolute rationalism, and you will understand its truth only when you take those two contradictory claims synthetically, as something integral. (Filosofiia Imeni 32-40).

In conformity with his philosophical system, Losev defines his method as phenomenological-dialectical—according to his own understanding of both phenomenology and dialectics. We can find the application of the method in Losev’s analysis of the main categories of his system, including name, number, symbol, myth, and artistic form.

The Eastern direction of Losev’s approach starts with Russian Neo-Platonism, particularly in the version inherited from Vladimir Solovyov. In his further developing of this tradition, Losev seeks to defend and reconcile some controversies in imiaslavie (Onomatodoxy, or “glorifying the name”). Imiaslavie was a teaching in Russian Orthodox theology in the beginning of the 20th century and arise formally from On the Caucasus Mountains (Na gorakh Kavkaza), a book authored by the schema-monk Hilarion. The book discusses the mystic experience during a special prayer when the name of Christ is mentioned many times. Within hesychasm, a mystical tradition of contemplative “smart” prayer, it was regarded as a living, intimate conversation with God. Hilarion claims, though not dogmatically, that God is present in His name. The book ignited a theological dispute among Mount Athos’ monks who debated whether God’s name contains God’s essence or God’s energy, or whether it is a purely human nomination. The supporters of imiaslavie argued that God is present in His name; their adversaries, proponents of imiabortchestvo (“onomatoclasm,” “fighting the name”) insisted on the opposite. Imiaslavie was condemned by the Russian Orthodox Church, however the theological question was not resolved. The discussion of name, its energy, and its ontological meaning was continued by Russian philosophers. The doctrine that resulted from the philosophical reinterpretation of imiaslavie in 1910-1920s in Russian philosophy was later called “philosophy of name.”

Russian philosophers preoccupied with the power of language and the nature of the word—in particular, Pavel Florensky, Sergei Bulgakov, and Aleksei Losev—approached the debate antinomically. Losev used antinomics as a methodological principle in many of his works, in particular, in The Dialectics of Myth and The Dialectics of Artistic Form. Whenever he needs to define a concept, he constructs a system of dialectic antinomies to apophatically discard everything what the concept is not, coming to a conclusion about the content of the concept through a phenomenologico-dialectical revealing of its formula. This is especially apparent in his treatment of the main principles of imiaslavie. Losev follows in the foosteps of Florensky when he transfers the dogmatic theological assertion that the Name of God is God Himself into the philosophical domain. The principles formulated in Florensky’s “Imiaslavie as a Philosophical Premise” argues the antinomical conclusion that “the Name of God is God, but God Himself is not His Name.” This is how Losev summarizes his theses about the discussion:

  1. God’s name is an energy of God’s essence.
  2. God’s name, as an energy of God’s essence, is inseparable from the essence itself and therefore is God Himself.
  3. (on the symbolic nature of God’s names) God’s name is God Himself, but God himself is not His name…
  4. God’s name is not just a sound and requires worshipping.
  5. In God’s name there is a meeting of man and God … the pronounced name is a point of meeting of divine and human energies. (Florensky 15-17)

Losev was greatly sympathetic with the main principles of this religious movement, but also believed that it was not free from naivety and that it lacked systematicity. Losev understands imiaslavie as a type of symbolism and contrasts it to “naturalism,” due to the extreme importance that the name (the “imia” in “imiaslavie”) bears qua an expression of the essence. Losev’s continued work in this direction results in creating a communicative theory of energetic symbolism. Synthetic by nature, this theory departs from Neo-Platonic dialectics and combines it with the Western methodology described above.

 

Name and Myth

To illustrate how Losev’s system and method work, let us take a look at one of his major books: The Philosophy of Name. Together with other Losev’s early essays from the vosmiknizhie, The Philosophy of Name explores the powers of his phenomenological-dialectical method. The Philosophy of Name (written in 1923; published in 1927) is the most Husserlian work in this early eight-work corpus and is quite challenging for the reader, but this is not because of Losev being too “scholastic.” Losev builds up an elaborate “antinomics,” or a multilevel system of antinomies, of name, inviting his reader to follow him in his intricate examination of the dynamic development of the structure of the word/name, from its “pre-objective structure” to its “object-structure,” and then to their synthesis. Losev takes his reader through sixty-seven “moments” of analysis as he tracks the evolution of the word. He (1) explores the initial potential of the word, starting with the easy part of the physical appearance of the word (phoneme, morpheme, sememe); (2) proceeds to eidos (“the concrete ideal meaning”); (3) continues through its dissolution in the meon (“inobytie”); and, through the logos and its inverse becoming, (4) comes to an understanding the word as symbol in its full “intelligence.”

This analysis leads to the following definition of name:

Name is a meaningful, expressed (or implied) energy of the essence in the mode of the intelligent self-relatedness, given as an arena of communication of the fact (the meonized meaning) with the eidos (the meaning in itself), or given as a meaningful meeting of the subject with its object; in short: name is an energetically expressed meaningfully-symbolic element of myth, that has given the meaning to one or another meon and thus brought it to a meeting with itself; even shorter: name is an energetically expressed meaningfully-symbolic and magic element of myth. (Filosofiia imeni 150)

This is why name always express the essence of a thing, and the process of naming makes the world meaningful. To summarize Losev’s sixty-seven-moment analysis, we can say that symbolically realized intelligence is myth, and a symbolically realized myth is person. The synthesis of body and meaning realized in the person is the name, or the absolute living being.

It is not accidental that Losev brings together the categories of name, person, symbol, and myth. In his system, they are always interrelated and usually mutually defined. For example, this is how myth is defined in The Dialectics of Myth, the last work from the vosmiknizhie, and its definition has very little to do with a conventional approach to myth and mythology. Exercising his apophatic approach in defining categories, Losev systematically eliminates what myth is not: (1) a figment, fiction or fantastical invention; (2) ideal being; (3) a scientific construction, and not even a primitively-scientific construction; (4) a metaphysical construction; (5) a scheme or allegory; (6) a poetic work; (7) a specifically religious product; (8) a tenet; (9) a historic event as such. Accordingly, mythology is not to be identified with science, metaphysics, art, religion, or history.

Once everything superfluous is excluded, Losev provides a few cataphatic (positive) considerations where myth is defined as (1) a miracle; (2) an image of person; (3) a personal history given in words; and finally is given its immanent dialectical formula of (4) “an unfolded magical name taken in its absolute being” (Dialektika mifa I-XI, XIII). As such, myth does not only belong to antiquity. Myth, mythology, and mythologization are present in modern societies as well, and Losev considers the failure to see this an act of prejudice or short-sightedness. Thus, for Losev, myth is not a fiction, fairy tale, or metaphor; there is nothing artificial in myth. It is miraculous and magical—but simultaneously very real, live, and corporeal.

 

Aesthetics

One of the greatest achievements of Losev’s late work is his exceptionally careful and colossal work, History of Ancient Aesthetics. The reader should not be misled by the title: by using the term “aesthetics,” Losev was trying to divert his censors’ attention from the fact that he was actually providing a systematic analysis of the entire philosophic and aesthetic history of Antiquity. This kind of integral study was possible for Losev because heconsidered the ancient worldview to be a unified whole and regarded ancient aesthetics, philosophy, and mythology as part of this unity.

Losev worked on History of Ancient Aesthetics for several decades. Among the forerunners of this publication are most of the works from Losev’s early vosmiknizhie. Losev’s idea to write a monumental work focusing specifically on the history of ancient aesthetics was based on a course he offered in the Moscow Conservatory. He prepared the manuscript and tried to publish its first part, but was unsuccessful. The manuscript was lost during the August 12, 1941 bombardment in Moscow.

Losev resumed his work on aesthetics at the end of the war, starting again from the very beginning. He published the first volume, The Early Classics, in 1963; later seven more volumes appeared, the last two volumes of which were each published as two books. If we were to add two more works that are thematically close to the cycle, The Aesthetics of Renaissance (Estetika Vozrozhdeniia, 1978) and The Hellenistic-Roman Aesthetics (Ellinisticheski-rimskaia estetika, 1979), then Losev’s work from this period would comprise a 10-volume edition, with more than eight thousand pages in total. The sheer volume of Losev’s work is unparalleled in the history of the humanities.

Losev’s view of ancient aesthetics is synthetic: he believes in the interweaving of philosophy, mythology, symbolism, art, science, religion, and morality. Aesthetics is not just a science of the beautiful; it is primarily a study of different expressive forms of being and spirit, a study of an external expressivity of the inner world. As such, aesthetic categories naturally include not only the beautiful, but also the ugly; the forms of expressivity include the tragic and the comic, the pathetic and the grotesque—in different degrees of perfection, from the highest to the lowest. Losev reconstructs the ancient world in its richness and originality, based on multiple facts from philosophical, historical, literary, linguistic, scientific, and artistic materials. For Russian (and not only Russian) readers, who did not know antiquity as part of their culture, Losev expresses the beauty of the ancient world in the development of its spirit and shows the unity of ancient culture, in its spiritual and material aspects. Moreover, since aesthetics for Losev is a study of symbol, expression, and expressivity, all external manifestations of the inner spirit—including not only different forms of art but also myth, language, and mathematics—are involved in an aesthetic discussion. This interpretation of the concept of aesthetics, which Losev outlined already in his early works, reflects an interest that would span his entire life.

Olga Lyanda-Geller, February 2019

 

Bibliography

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Aleksei Fedorovich Losev: bibliograficheskii ukazatel’. K 115 godovschine so dnia rozhdeniia. Ed. G.M. Mukhamedzhanova and T.V. Chepurenko. Biblioteka russkoi filosofii i kul’tury “Dom A.F. Loseva.” FAIR, 2008.

Bibikhin, Vladimir Veniaminovich. Aleksei Fyodorovich Losev. Sergei Sergeevich Averintsev. IFTI sv. Fomy, 2004.

Bychkov, Oleg. “Introduction.” The Dialectic of Artistic Form. Trans. Oleg V. Bychkov. Ed. Daniel L. Tate. Verlag Otto Sagner, 2013. pp. 1-130.

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Gogotishvili, L.A. Nepriamoe govorenie. Iazyki slavianskikh kul’tur, 2006.

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Losev, Aleksei. Antichnaia mifologiia v ee istoricheskom razvitii. Uchpedgiz, 1957.

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Losev, A. F. and V. M. Loseva. “Radost’ na veki”: Perepiska lagernykh vremyon. Russkii put’, 2005.

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Takho-Godi, E.A. and V.P. Troitskii. A.F. Losev – filosof i pisatel’. Nauka, 2003.

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