Bibler, Vladimir

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Vladimir Bibler (1918-2000)

Vladimir Solomonovich Bibler (1918-2000) was an outstanding philosopher of culture and intellectual history. Trained as a historian, he held the vocation of philosopher and founded a school of dialogue of cultures that attracted many followers from a variety of humanistic disciplines. He worked at the Department of Philosophy of the Moscow Mining Institute (1959-1963), the Institute of the History of Natural Science and Technology of the USSR Academy of Sciences (1963-1968), the Institute of General History of the USSR Academy of Sciences (1968-1980), the Institute of General and Pedagogical Psychology of the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences of the USSR (1980-1991), and the Russian State University for the Humanities (1991-2000).

Vladimir Bibler gave expression to his most creative and seminal ideas under the auspices of the legular seminar meetings he held at his Moscow apartment. He founded his seminar in the mid 1960s and directed it under unofficial (underground) conditions until 1991, when it achieved formal status, under the name “Arche,” at the Russian State University for the Humanities (Moscow). The meetings attracted a number of prominent scholars in Moscow, among them Aron Gurevich, Vadim Rabinovich, Leonid Batkin, and Anatoly Akhutin, whose own work in cultural studies and in the history of science echo some of Bibler’s methodological insights. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Bibler published only two short books, including Thinking as Creativity (Myshlenie kak tvorchestvo, 1975). His influence spread primarily through oral presentations and discussions.



Bibler considered himself an intellectual disciple of Mikhail Bakhtin, to whom he devoted a monograph entitled Mikhail Bakhtin or The Poetics of Culture (Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin ili poetika kul’tury, 1991). This term, “the poetics of culture,” is what Bibler uses to define Bakhtin’s philosophical contribution, as distinct from narrower applications of the word “poetics,” which is usually limited to one author, work, or literary movement (e.g., the “poetics of Symbolism” or “Shakespeare’s poetics”). Bibler argues that Bakhtin applies poetics to culture as a whole, something which can only be understood dialogically, and offers the next move: from poetics to logic, or, more precisely, to the dia–logic of culture. “Thus, the first definition (interpretation) of culture: culture is a specific form of communication and is the simultaneous existence of the people of past, present and future cultures (this is not a logical ‘circle’ but a genuine meaning of the definition)” (Bibler, Ot naukoucheniia – k logike kul’tury 292). Here Bibler seems to fall into a vicious circle by defining culture in terms of cultures, but for him this circular definition is not only adequate, but is the only possible definition. Culture is an all-encompassing phenomenon, which may be understood only from itself. Unlike particular aspects of cultural activity, such as literature or science, culture cannot be defined by being compared to something that is not culture. Hence, culture must be defined and derived from within, by means of internal differentiation and the communication of cultures through dialogue.

This “self-determination” of culture is the fundamental paradox upon which Bibler focuses his thinking. He finds a parallel to this paradox in Herman Kantor’s mathematical theory of sets. The paradox reads as follows: the set of all sets is, and at the same time is not, a member of its own class. In Bibler’s terms, the same paradox of self-inclusion and self-exclusion applies to the definition of culture, a phenomenon that is composed of all cultures and is at the same time culture itself, and must be accounted for as a set that contains itself as a member.

Thus, Bibler advances the concept of “a work of culture,” an effort that cannot be identified with a particular species of culture since it is comprises a dialogue among cultural disciplines. Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, Spengler’s The Decline of the West, the writings of Freud, and the novels of Thomas Mann are all examples of works of culture, not just of philosophy, history, psychology, or fiction. As cultural microcosms, they embrace the entirety of culture, but at the same time they exist within the frameworks of specific disciplines (psychology, literature, etc.).



One of the central categories in Bibler’s philosophy is the Greek arche, meaning “beginning,” “foundation,” “origin,” and “first principle.” Generally, philosophers have been dissatisfied with definitions of concepts that are based on the concepts themselves. For example, in tracing any phenomenon to its source, one is forced in turn to trace the source of the source and so on. One solution has been to impose a limit to such investigation by positing a foundation that takes absolute priority, such as Platonic ideas or the Cartesian cogito. Here arises the problem of self-determination, which is central to Bibler’s philosophy of arche and paradox. The arche must justify itself as both self-determining and self-determined. Bibler calls the logic of self-determination “dia-logic,” since it presupposes an inner dialogue within what is considered to be an arche, an absolute beginning. The principle of all principles cannot be posited except as a dialogue between principles. Thus, the Cartesian formula, cogito ergo sum, begs the question: what kind of ergo precedes the cogito?  That is to say, if existence is argued by the fact of thinking, by what fact is thinking itself substantiated? Bibler’s answer would be, cogito ergo cogito, which means that thinking may be substantiated by thinking itself, but only insofar as it is initiated as a self-dialogue, a dialogue of thinking with thinking.

One can draw some parallels between Bibler’s concept of the self-determination of arche through self–dialogue with Derrida’s notion of the arche as an “always already.” It is well known that Derridean post-structuralism rejects any concept of an original or absolute beginning on the basis of the fact that the very proposition of beginning is a paradoxical, backward projection. Thus, Derrida attempts to eliminate the metaphysics of origins, but at the price of establishing another metaphysics, one that privileges the “trace,” the secondariness of a sign. Bibler’s concept avoids the trap of metaphysics by resorting to the dia-logical relationship between the self-determining and self-determined aspects of the beginning.

Thus, Bibler defines the initial or primary cogito as the dialogue between cogitoes. The implications of such a conception stretch beyond the limits of logic. For example, Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of the Ontological Argument ends up presupposing an Ultimate Reason that cannot be deduced from anything prior to itself. Atheists respond by arguing that such a limitation is arbitrary; if God created the universe, then who or what created God? For Bibler, neither approach is adequate for solving the problem. Instead of an arbitrary limitation or an unending progression, Bibler offers a concept of self-foundation that involves a dialogue. If Word, as the Gospel of John suggests, was in the beginning and the beginning was God, then the Word must have been dialogical in order to posit a world beyond itself.



Dia-logic is a mode of thinking that operates by what Bibler calls “transduction” (transduktsiia), as distinct from either logical deduction or induction.

The logical foundation (and the analogue) of the idea of self-determination is the necessary transformation of the logical principles of our thinking … Conventionally, this logical transformation and mutual substantiation of the principles of thinking we define as ‘transduction’ … (Ot naukoucheniia – k logike kul’tury 358)

If deduction is reasoning from the general to the particular and induction is the drawing of a general conclusion from a number of known facts, then transduction is the interaction between different or alternative modes of generality. Thus, various philosophers postulate different ontological principles, like the Leibnitzean “monad,” the Fichtean “I,” the Hegelian “absolute spirit,” or the Nietzschean “will to power,” generalizing about particular facts and then applying these general principles to the variety of specific phenomena. However, besides these inductive and deductive operations, transduction should be used as the correlation of all such general principles through their dialogic relationships. By transduction, then, the Marxist “mode of production” and Nietzschean “will to power” would be understood as two voices in a philosophical dialogue extending over centuries. Transduction is not the logical relationship of the general to the particular, because both of these categories are contained within one consciousness. All consciousnesses are dialogically equal and therefore cannot generalize about each other, since both induction and deduction are acts of objectification. Bibler writes:

Each Interlocutor, be it Plato in his Parmenides, or Aristotle in his Metaphysics, or Spinoza in his Ethics …, is absolutely unreducible, unsurpassable, capable of an infinite unfolding and deepening of his argumentation (substantiation of his beginning)—in response to the objections, actual and possible, of all past and future philosophers. And the more Interlocutors are there, the less the infinitely potential world is reducible to one definite logic… (312)

For Bibler, the task of the philosopher is no less daring than to set a new foundation for thinking, entering into dialogue with all existing systems of thought.

… Any philosopher begins his being of the world ‘anew,’ next to another philosopher, in response to him, and, at the same time, as if completely independently of him. As many philosophers as there are— of course, in the genuine and not in the ‘academic’ sense of the word—there are just as many ‘beginnings of existence,’ beginnings of thinking, and just as many times the world ‘begins for the first time.’” (“Byt’ filosofom”)


Being and Thinking

The multiplicity of logics in Bibler’s work concerns not only the relationship between various systems of thought, but also the relationship between thinking and non-thinking (being), and between culture and non-culture (nature). Bibler believes that the dialogue posited as the beginning of all beginnings allows one to explain how thinking posits the beginning of being and being posits the beginning of thinking, since dialogue is always addressing the other and thus evokes the coexistence of plural foundational elements. Being and thinking are mutually made possible through their dialogical position to each other. “…[B]eing is (?) the pre-supposition of thought (that is non-thought)…, thinking is (?) the pre-supposition of being, that is non-being. Here is contained the paradoxically of contemporary ontology” [punctuation in original] (Ot naukoucheniia – k logike kul’tury 396).

Bibler aims to explаin why science or philosophy can function as cultural phenomena that are irreducible to their narrow professional domains. Inasmuch as science is concerned with the exploration of the objective world and approaches it monologically, in terms of deduction and induction, it remains science per se. However, a science that considers itself a dynamic interrelation among various cognitive minds and models, as a dialogue of consciousnesses, becomes relevant as a domain of culture. In some of his works, Bibler applies this culturological approach to those great scientists, like Galileo or Kepler, whose ideas exceed a monological relationship to the world of nature and engage in the process of self-determination through dialogue with other logics.


Logic of Paradox and Culturology

Bibler’s philosophy was very influential in the formation of the Moscow culturological school that interpreted Bakhtin’s ideas on dialogue not so much in terms of poetics, but as the logic of culture. If Bakhtin worked almost exclusively with literary texts, Bibler applies dialogical principles to the natural sciences and philosophical and pedagogical systems. He never formalizes his ideas in terms of formal logic or structural semiotics, which sets him apart from Yuri Lotman and structuralism. At the same time, his analyses are more abstract and methodologically self-conscious than Bakhtin’s. Often it is difficult to find concrete examples to support or refute his ideas, as his work is meta-philosophical rather than addressed to specific cultural phenomena.

Bibler defines his own contribution to culturology as complementary to that of Bakhtin: in addition to dialogic poetics, he elaborates dialogical logic, which deals not with the voices of fictional characters, but with systems of thinking. Those logical principles, which are laid into the foundation of great philosophical systems and substantiate them, need substantiation. How can Plato justify his notion of idea, Aristotle his principles of form, and Descartes his concept of rationality? Either we admit to the tautological nature of these self-justifying principles, in which case our logical thinking will stop short as something unthinkable; or, we identify some new logic, which determines the interaction and interrelationship among these principles. According to Bibler’s dia-logic, primary principles can be substantiated not from themselves, which would be tautological, but from their dialogue with other principles.

Here we come across a logical paradox: the principle that determines the relationships among other principles is at the same time one of these principles, or the whole is one of its own parts. This paradox, decisive for Bibler’s thought, can be explained again by set theory, according to which “the set of all sets that are not their own elements cannot be its own element and cannot not be. It generates itself as its own element and thereby generates itself as a set which cannot be its own element” (“Iz ‘Zametok vprok'” 37). If the principle of dialogue is a set that contains all other sets that do not contain themselves, that means that it can and cannot contain the principle of dialogue as one of its elements. To say this another way, the culturologist is a representative of one specific culture, a participant in its dialogue with other cultures, and at the same time is the intellectual vehicle—“the set of all sets”—through which all of these cultures come to mutual recognition and interaction. In this case, what would the relationship of this culturologist be to his own cultural identity? This is the sphere of questioning in which Bibler posits his logic of paradox as a rupture in traditional logic. The culturologist, at the same time, is and is not a member of any specific culture, even that to which he belongs by birth and education.

The 20th century demonstrated the necessity for the communication (and not Hegelian ‘Aufhebung’) of unique, irreducible, but mutually dialogical cultures, each of which is universal and infinitely rich with potential meanings: the cultures of Antiquity, the Middle Ages, Modernity, the contemporary world, and of the West and East. What is necessary is the logic of thinking, as the logic of communication among such historical cultures, including potential cultures, has not yet been realized.” (37)

Furthermore, Bibler extends this dia-logic beyond culture itself to address the relationship of the dia-logic to non-culture. “Culture is not only where there are minimally two cultures: culture is more than itself through ‘pre-cultural, raw being’” (Ot naukoucheniia – k logike kul’tury 301). In the same way, thinking can be defined only in its relationship to the unthinkable. The paradox is that “one has to reproduce, invent this unthinkable (impossible for thinking), extra-conceptual being as extra-logical – precisely through the logic of thinking…” (391). If thinking completely absorbs and assimilates its object, it becomes tautological. Such is the deficiency of Hegel’s absolute idealism, which is unable to establish the being of the object as radically distinct from thinking, and thus replaces this object with thinking itself, rendering the entire historical process as the progressive self-consciousness of the Absolute Idea. Bibler criticizes Hegel for his monological mode of thinking, where the “beginning,” the initial concept, returns to itself at a higher level of self–awareness, moving through the stages of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, instead of acknowledging the plurality of beginnings. One can conclude that Marx’s reversal of Hegel is equally averse to a dia-logical model, since thinking proves to be only an instrument for the self-development of the material world, just as the world proves to be for Hegel an instrument for the self-development of thinking. Only by recognizing that neither thinking nor being are reducible to each other can we establish a truly dia-logical relationship between them.


Bibler and Bakhtin

Bibler’s important contribution to culturology consists in his logical and philosophical explication of the problems that Bakhtin analyzed—primarily in the sphere of aesthetics, poetics, and linguistics. As compared with Bakhtin, Bibler puts a greater emphasis on the dialogue between logical principles and cultural systems, rather than personal consciousnesses. It is for this reason that he uses concepts and terms like “paradox,” “self-substantiation,” “set of sets,” and “the origin of thinking,” which do not necessarily involve verbal dialogue, but which can be related to a single theoretical consciousness. His project, however, is to demonstrate the dialogical nature of those logical categories, which are conventionally used without ever mentioning the concept of dialogue. In other words, Bibler’s ultimate purpose may be formulated in two complementary ways: he attempts to conceptualize dialogue in logical terms and to interpret dialogically logical concepts. His project is to bakhtinize Hegel and hegelize Bakhtin, a unique accomplishment in the history of contemporary thought.

Another clear distinction between Bibler’s and Bakhtin’s varieties of dialogism is the former’s concentration on the phenomenon of self-consciousness. If Bakhtin presupposes the necessity of an actual other, external to me, Bibler emphasizes the presence of this other within myself. In the act of self-consciousness, I am the other for myself. This once more introduces a Hegelian dimension into Bibler’s theory, though he insists on the dialogical relationship of oneself to oneself (as one’s own other), which is different from the Hegelian model of self-consciousness as ascension from thesis and antithesis to synthesis. However, since Bakthin’s requirement of the other as actually other is eliminated, there is the tendency in Bibler to slip out of a dialogical model into a model of self-reflection.

In the very definition of personality as the self-conscious I, to whom I relate, who is outside of me, who is whole and finished for me, the definition of another I, of Thou, is included, a Thou whose existence is coexistent with me, comprises what is more essential for me than my own being.” (“Iz ‘Zametok vprok'” 39)


Ethics and Pedagogy

This paradox of self-reflection, which posits the I as “self” and “other” in the same act of reflection, can be further displayed at the level of ethical paradoxes. For example, the most elementary moral commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” contains a paradox that prevents it from being fully implemented. If to protect a person who is threatened with murder, I have to commit murder, then there is no satisfactory moral way to resolve the situation. “However I act, my conscience will condemn me…” (“Iz ‘Zametok vprok'” 40). To commit a murder myself or to allow the murder of the other is equally transgressive, though we cannot escape the dilemma of making a choice. The paradox of morality demonstrates the impossibility of morality as such, as “pure” morality that clearly divides itself from immorality. Morality in relation to oneself proves to be immorality towards the other. Since “self” and “other” comprise a self-reflexive unity, one can conclude that morality consists in a permanent dialogue with immorality, in the same way that repentance presupposes an ongoing dialogue with one’s sins.

Many of Bibler’s ideas did not develop into completed books and articles, but were collected posthumously in two volumes titled Conceptions (Zamysly, 2002). Bibler, like Bakhtin, appreciated the genres of “the draft” and “the outline” as valuable in themselves; they contained openness, were addressed to a reader, and invited co–thinking. Another form of practical dialogism for Bibler was the educational process. The bulk of his later activity was devoted to “The School of the Dialogue of Cultures,” which he founded as a pedagogical extension of his philosophy. Many gifted educators from various regions of Russia participated in the programming and teaching of courses that spanned from elementary to advanced levels. Bibler suggested that children start off with the logic of antiquity and then medieval logic, moving up to the logic of the enlightenment: thus, individual development incorporates the history of human reason in its multiplicity of logics and cultures (see Bibler, “The Foundations of the School of the Dialogue of Culture Program”).

Mikhail Epstein, January 2018



Bibler, V.S. “Byt’ filosofom” Bibler i vokrug, Accessed February 16, 2018.

—. “Iz ‘Zametok vprok’,” Voprosy filosofii, no. 6, 1991, pp. 37 (1991), No.6, pp. 15-45.

—. Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin ili poetika kul’tury, Progress, 1991.

—. Ot naukoucheniia – k logike kul’tury. Dva filosofskikh vvedeniia v dvadtsat’ pervyi vek, Izdatel’stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1991.

—. “The Foundations of the School of the Dialogue of Cultures Program,” translated by Nora Seligman Favorov, Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, vol. 47, no. 1, January-February 2009, pp. 34–60.

—. Zamysly, RGGU, 2002.

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