Other relevant keywords: Form, Phenomenology, Literature, Film, Symbol, the Absurd, History of philosophy
Merab Mamardashvili (1930-1990)
Merab Konstantinovich Mamardashvili was born in the Georgian city of Gori, known mainly as the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, but spent much of his career as philosopher in Moscow. Between 1966 and his death in 1990, he taught and worked at some of the most prestigious institutions in the Russian capital, including Moscow State University, the institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences. The conversational and encyclopedic style of his lectures, as well as the often Western European-focus of their content, earned him a nearly unparalleled popularity among the Moscow intelligentsia in those decades. He became a model for free thinking in the late Soviet period, and would later become known as the “Georgian Socrates” of Soviet philosophy. Yet, his public popularity was met with resistance from Soviet authorities: he was dismissed from many of his teaching posts, fired from the editorial board of the journal Problems of Philosophy (Voprosy filosofii), forbidden from traveling abroad for two decades, and eventually repatriated back to Georgia, though he returned to Moscow regularly for teaching appointments. Mamardashvili died of heart complications at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport in 1990, while on a return journey from Europe to Georgia.
Mamardashvili’s name is unknown outside the former Soviet Union, except among a small contingent of Slavic Studies scholars and philosophers specializing in Russian/Soviet thought. To much of the Russian-speaking world, however, he was “one of the most prolific philosophers of the twentieth century” (“Filosof Mamardashvili o Gruzii”). He was part of a gifted generation of philosophers that came of intellectual age at Moscow State University in the early 1950s, including Georgy Shchedrovitsky, Alexander Zinoviev, and Boris Grushin. Though they were trained in the Soviet traditions of Marxism-Leninism and dialectical materialism, these young philosophers entered the profession in the years immediately following Stalin’s death seeking to breathe new life into Marx, logic, and the history of philosophy. In 1953, they organized an informal discussion group called the Moscow Logic Circle, which in its later iteration would become more widely known as the Moscow Methodological Circle. Mamardashvili broke from the MMC for “internal political” reasons (Mamardashvili, “Nachalo vsegda istorichno, to est’ sluchaino” 45) and as Viktoriia Faibyshenko observed, he then worked to “almost completely rid his prose of the constant reproduction of those semantic formulas and links that defined the ‘dialectical’ method of philosophizing” (268). He never did make a full break with Marx, however, as even in Mamardashvili’s mature works we can find defining terms and categories—most notably, the emphasis on consciousness, phenomenon, form, the social, and the relationship between being and knowledge—from those early established Marxist foundations.
Mamardashvili published four books in his lifetime: in 1968 he published his doctoral dissertation, Forms and Content of Thought (Formy i soderzhanie myshleniia); in 1982 he published Symbol and Consciousness (Simvol i soznanie) with philosopher Alexander Piatigorsky, which was based on philosophical conversations the two had in the early 1970s; in 1984 he published Classical and Nonclassical Ideals of Rationality (Klassicheskii i neklassicheskii idealy ratsional’nosti), based on a series of lectures he gave at the University of Latvia in 1980; in 1990 he published a collection of essays and interviews under the title How I Understand Philosophy (Kak ia ponimaiu filosofiiu). His other publications number around forty works in a variety of genres, including academic articles, book reviews, conference presentations, encyclopedia entries, and essays, as well as a number of interviews given for print and television.
The majority of the work we have under Mamardashvili’s name has made its way to us today not as articles or books written for publication, but as transcriptions of his university lectures, which he preferred to call “conversations” (besedy) or “variations” (variatsii). These are the philosophical achievements for which he is most known today, and which earned him near celebrity status among the Soviet intelligentsia in the 1970s and 1980s. There have been over ten documentary films made about his life, and his name regularly appears in the memoirs of writers, filmmakers, journalists, and politicians who were influenced by him in the late Soviet period. What is more, the conversational and centrifugal style of Mamardashvili’s writing has made his work a rich starting point for a wide range of philosophical inquiry in the decades since his death. Mamardashvili’s life and ideas have served as a starting point for scholarly analysis on the philosophy of culture (Van der Zweerde), philosophy of action (Veksler and Kobaladze), the history of Soviet philosophy and dialectical materialism (Faibyshenko), philosophy of mind (Gasparian), existentialism (Solov’ev), phenomenology (Motroshilova), poststructuralism (Vladiv-Glover), religious studies (Nizhnikov), the question of human identity (Steila), and a host of other topics. One area of inquiry in the analysis of Mamardashvili’s life and work has been the question of humanism, and to what extent we can align his philosophical position with either European or Soviet visions of humanism in the late Soviet period.
Mamardashvili spent the period between 1961 and 1966 living in Prague, where he worked as an editor at the influential communist periodical Problems of Peace and Socialism (Problemy mira i sotsialisma), also known by the title of its English-language edition, The World Marxist Review. These were the years leading up to the Prague Spring, when Alexander Dubček announced the liberalizing reforms in Czechoslovakia that were means to usher in a new form of “socialism with a human face.” Mamardashvili’s position at Problems of Peace and Socialism allowed him the formative opportunity to travel around Western Europe, mingle with European intellectuals, and access cultural texts that would have been inaccessible to him in Russia. In Prague he grew accustomed to the habits, privileges, and “illicit joys” of life outside the Soviet Union (qtd. Bellefroid). By the time he returned to Moscow, he was fluent in French and English and could read Spanish and German, in addition to his native proficiency in both Georgian and Russian.
After an unsanctioned trip to France in 1966, during which he befriended philosopher Louis Althusser, Mamardashvili was forbidden from leaving the Soviet Union for two decades. He entered into a period he called “internal emigration,” where he rejected national, political, and geographical affiliations in favor of a broader humanist identification with the process of thought (myshlenie) itself: with the philosophical commitment to thought as the capacity that unites human beings, and serves as the path to enlightenment in an age of impending “anthropological catastrophe” (Mamardashvili, “Soznanie i tsivilizatsiia” 8). At risk in this anthropological disaster was the very status of the human being, and much of Mamardashvili’s writing in this vein was directed at analyzing the functions and roles of human thought.
In the Platonic tradition, Mamardashvili saw the human being as always becoming; being human is “an extended effort,” he wrote, and that effort had both upward and Europe-leaning aspirations (“Evropeiskaia otvetstvennost’” 42). As Miglena Nikolchina has distilled it, for Mamardashvili “Europe is shorthand for human being” (86). The concept of Europe for Mamardashvili was not a geographical place so much as it was an aspirational concept for an ideal of transnational ethical and cultural achievement. For Mamardashvili, thus, the look toward European values went hand in hand with inclinations toward a particular kind of humanity that was inaccessible within the borders of the Soviet Union and especially in Russia. When he later became involved in domestic politics surrounding the 1990 Georgian presidential election, Mamardashvili argued for a humanistic stance in which he defended not nationalistic movements but the “value of humanity” (chelovecheskoe dostoinstvo). He wrote: “I’m not struggling for the Georgian language—that battle has been won, but what is being said in the Georgian language” (“Veriu v zdravyi smysl”; trans. from Van der Zweerde 179).
Nevertheless, Mamardashvili’s a-national notion of humanism did contain a strong Euro-centric force. To his fellow Georgians, he argued that the most important decisions are made in the major cities of Europe, and the path for Georgians to exercise and uphold their “value of humanity” is to set for themselves models and precedents that move them in line with European values. In the same work where Mamardashvili reproached national passions, he argued that “the path starts in the Georgian town of Chkhorotsqu and ends in Paris” (“Veriu v zdravyi smysl”).
Mamardashvili’s humanism cannot be equated with a notion of civic or political engagement. In the final years of his life he became noticeably more interested in political questions and began giving interviews on Georgian and Soviet politics, mostly in conjunction with the new freedoms of the perestroika era and the growing nationalist movement in Georgia. Nonetheless, as Van der Zweerde notes, Mamardashvili never proposed or attempted any concrete reforms for the Georgian or Russian political system, socialist or otherwise (182). Both his self-imposed “internal emigration” and his view of the role of the philosopher as one who rises above national and political concerns demanded this kind of detachment. He had set for himself the task of philosophy: to answer not to politics, nationalism or patriotism, but to the love of wisdom alone.
Nikolchina has argued for a different vision of Mamardashvili’s position vis-à-vis humanism, whereby the Mamardashvili’s early work can be classified as “rigorous antihumanist Marxian analysis,” while in his later work “the problem of ‘man’ … would then appear out of a return to the young Marx and then abandon Marx altogether for a “metaphysical turn”—the ‘belated flowers of metaphysics’” (96). Viktoriia Faibyshenko has argued a different view, that Mamardashvili’s shifting relationship with Marx demonstrated development and discipline (in particular where language use was concerned), but never indicated any methodological break. Indeed, Mamardashvili rejected many of the formulas of Soviet thought and habitus in his lectures and writing as the decades went on, but he never did reject Marx. And though he would insist until the end of his career that he had never been a Marxist, we can trace Mamardashvili’s polemics on Marxist-inspired topics from his earlier through his later writings. Marx remained for Mamardashvili the methodological starting point of philosophical inquiry, from which he then branched out into philosophy of mind, social theory, phenomenology, and literary-cultural interpretation. If we take the example of one such Marxian idea, we see how the concept of the inverted/converted form (verwandelte Form; forma prevrashchennaia) develops from the analytical foundation of his 1972 Polish-language article “Przeksztlcone formy” (trans. in 2017 for Stasis as “Converted Forms”; published in Russian only in 1990) to his 1988 lecture “Consciousness and Civilization” (“Soznanie i tsivilizatsiia”), where the inverted form became a social metaphor for an entire realm of post-apocalyptic, logical possibility—a regressive world, in which human-like inhabitants “can do nothing but imitate death” (17).
We might read another kind of humanism, or at least anthropological focus, in Mamardashvili deep philosophical interest in intellectual biography. Descartes and Kant, in particular, were pillars of philosophical virtue who articulated in unprecedented ways the paradox of human experience and who embodied the highest forms of philosophical inquiry in their own lives and actions. From his romanticized vision of Descartes as historical and philosophical persona, Mamardashvili took the idea that everything begins with the act of free thought, and that we must filter all thought and experiences through our own “I.” He delivered the opening lecture of his Cartesian Meditations (Kartezianskie razmyshleniia) cycle in Moscow in 1981, which by one account drew a crowd of around 300 people. The next year, in 1982, he delivered his lecture cycle Kantian Variations at the Institute of General and Pedagogical Psychology at the Russian Academy of Sciences. From Kant, Mamardashvili took the idea of the fundamental role of consciousness in human experience, and the role of Kant’s transcendental argument in explaining the powers and limits of human understanding. Mamardashvili’s readings of Descartes and Kant were not without controversial conclusions, for instance his famous description of “the human being [as] a walking example of the thing in itself” (qtd. Motroshilova, Merab Mamardashvili, Filosofskoe razmyshlenie i lichnostnyi opyt 98).
Mamardashvili’s philosophy was above all concerned with the problem of individual consciousness and its relationship to the world, as well as to itself. Although most of his philosophical work was an attempt to describe and explain consciousness, he also believed that the study of consciousness can lead only to paradox and enigma. In 1989, for instance, he described how the study of consciousness leads us into “a sphere of paradox to which it is impossible to grow accustomed” (“Soznanie – eto paradoksal’nost’’” 85). In the same interview, when asked to define consciousness, he replied “I don’t know” three times in a row before trailing off (85). In her study of Mamardashvili in the context of analytic philosophy, Diana Gasparian describes Mamardashvili’s view of consciousness as the “equivalent of a ‘black box’: we can see what is at its input and what is at its output; however, if we address what is inside it, we fall into insolvable contradictions” (97). Mamardashvili is not content, however, to say that we have no way of knowing the reality of our consciousness experience. We may not have full access to “the box,” but we can certainly glimpse inside, he argued.
We should also keep in mind that Mamardashvili was working within the parameters of Soviet philosophy of mind, which placed the Soviet interpretation of Marxism as the starting point for all analyses of consciousness experience. According to the collectively authored Philosophical Encyclopedia (Filosofskaia entsiklopediia), published in Moscow in 1962, “the question of the relationship of consciousness to matter comprises the main question of philosophy” (Konstantinov 44). Consciousness is described as the means, or processes, by which the real (objective) world from nature is reflected in the self. Here the idea of the objective world includes not only the laws of physics, logic, and mathematics, but also the prevailing social structure that exerts its influence on the human mind. Stalin-era psychology argued for the unity of consciousness and the external sphere, in which there was a determining relationship between the external causes of the objective world and the internal makeup of human consciousness. If the consciousness of every individual is determined by “objective” external forces (e.g., social, economic, political), then human beings possesses no genuine autonomy, in the Kantian sense. This picture of consciousness leads us to the old Soviet (Marxist) proverb—“being determines consciousness”—that would have defined (at least officially) many approaches to teaching introductory philosophy in the era. For Mamardashvili the process of thought, as the language of consciousness, had a transcendental quality, and “the very fact that one can have a thought is a miracle” (Vil’niusskie lektsii 84).
Because we need the tool of consciousness in order to think about the problem of consciousness at all, Mamardashvili continued by arguing that consciousness “refers to a kind of connection or relation of the individual to a reality that is above or beyond our everyday reality” (“Problema soznaniia i filosofskoe prizvanie” 42). Specifically, this further reality is the apprehension of the self from outside the self—the task towards which a healthy consciousness must always be directed but can never fully achieve. Exploring consciousness is difficult and rarely yields clear answers, and thus Mamardashvili regularly called the meta-theory of consciousness a struggle with consciousness. Mamardashvili also believed that “the things that happen inside us are the least accessible to us” (52). And although we cannot ever truly escape consciousness or, in turn, know consciousness or have a clear picture of our thoughts, we certainly can try, reflecting on our phenomenological position through rigorous philosophical inquiry. The philosophical inquiry he referred to takes the form of “positioning ourselves at the edge of the world” (Mamardashvili, Vvedenie v filosofiiu), becoming aware of what is external to us in order to become more aware of ourselves in turn. This is what Mamardashvili called “consciousness as witness” (“Problemy analiza soznaniia”). He saw himself as engaged in the “inner archeology” of the complex web of human consciousness, which reveals itself only incompletely, and only through rigorous self-contemplation; we must “search in ourselves and transcribe and grasp through ourselves,” as he explained (“Odinochestvo – moia professiia”).
In his lecture series Sketch of Contemporary European Philosophy (Ocherk sovremennoi evropeiskoi filosofii), Mamardashvili identified the three main areas of inquiry that philosophy must address. The first concerned the “spiritual and cultural-social makeup of the present [the 20th] century” (12). The second area investigated the structure and conditions of the philosophical act. The third highlighted “the ability to analyze a text,” and why textual analysis is necessary for the present age (12). This third area of inquiry points directly toward the question of culture: that sphere of human artistic creation and emotion, which both organizes the phenomena of human production and also makes “it possible for human beings to live together, otherwise they would devour one another” (268). Culture is the extra-ontological sphere in which human life takes place, as “we will never find the human being outside of culture and languages” and “we can never ascend above and against the flow of time to find the human being … out of the condition of culture” (Mamardashvili and Piatigorskii 186). Culture does not mean creativity (anti-culture, he argued, could hinder the creative process), but culture does combat chaos and barbarism.
Much like his conception of humanism, Mamardashvili’s vision of culture was rooted in his methodological work on consciousness. And like consciousness, Mamardashvili’s concept of culture was methodologically a-national at its core, since culture existed outside and above national concerns in the way that the structure of consciousness existed independent of national origin. At the same time, Mamardashvili had clear thoughts about desirable versus undesirable cultural norms. He spoke about deficiencies in Russian culture and Georgian cultural development and once again highlighted Europe—even if not explicitly as a geographical concept—as a center for cultural value and practice. He cultivated a cultural and sartorial lifestyle influenced by Western European fashion and customs, as far as it was possible in Soviet times; he also lamented the loss of a Greek notion of public life and debate in Tbilisi, where the neglected facades of apartment blocks were “bespattered with spittle—an exterior expression of the structure of one’s self perception and of what one allows and tolerates from one’s surroundings” (“Odinochestvo – moia professiia”).
Much of Mamardashvili’s work on the relationship between culture and consciousness took place in conversations in the 1970s with his friend and fellow philosopher Alexander Piatigorsky. On the one hand, Mamardashvili and Piatigorsky described how any existing culture can be described at the most fundamental level as a distinctive interrelation between symbolism and language use, whereby these two phenomena make up the system of any cultural representation. To speak of language they created the term iazykovost’, which refers to a kind of language use distinct from natural language. On the other hand, they highlighted a complex and inverse relationship between consciousness, culture, and cultural phenomena: “in one box of classification we must put consciousness, and in another box we must put the phenomena we call language and culture” (Mamardashvili and Piatigorskii, 186). Piatigorsky was a specialist in South Asian philosophy and his contribution to Symbol and Consciousness adds a broader, non-European dimension to Mamardashvili’s conception of culture. For instance, Mamardashvili and Piatigorsky discuss the impact of linguistic change on culture and consciousness in indigenous societies (though they give no specific examples) who lost their language because they lost their symbolic structures (190).
For Mamardashvili, cultural texts were often the starting point for analyses of consciousness, and he regularly used examples from poetry, fiction, and film to describe structures and forms of human conscious experience. The relationship between consciousness and cultural texts was one of mutual expression, whereby consciousness could be expressed in texts and texts could in turn replicate structures and experiences of (or absence of) consciousness. Mamardashvili’s lectures were rich with literary and cultural references, both from the Russian cultural canon and from European prose. His erudite and belletristic style, which appealed to what his audiences knew while simultaneously offering them access to “a kind of thought that was inaccessible to the majority of [the Soviet Union]” (Sokurov) might explain why Mamardashvili resonated so strongly with audiences in the late Soviet period.
Alyssa DeBlasio, December 2017
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