Other relevant keywords: Aesthetics; Literature
Valentin Asmus (1894–1975)
Valentin Ferdinandovich Asmus was a philosopher, historian of philosophy, and teacher who played an important role in the development of Russian philosophy of the twentieth century. He specialized in the history of philosophy, logic, and aesthetics and was also a literary critic. He is the author of more than 200 publications (about 20 of them are monographs and textbooks) and a large number of entries for the Philosophical Encyclopedia (Filosofskaia entsiklopediia), the Great Soviet Encyclopedia (Bol’shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia), and the Literary Encyclopedia (Literaturnaia entsiklopediia). He was among the authors of the three-volume History of Philosophy (Istoriia filosofii,1941-1943), for which he was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1943. His works have been translated into a number of European languages. In 1958 he was elected a full member of the International Institute of Philosophy in Paris. Asmus was one of a few Russian philosophers who grew up in the pre-revolutionary era and had a long career under the Soviet regime, avoiding both arrest and exile.
Asmus was born in Kiev in 1894 and was baptized according to the laws of the Russian Empire of that time, since his mother Pelageia Ivanovna (born Tishchenko) was an Orthodox Russian woman. He spent his childhood years in the Donbass in the village of Konstantinovka, where his father—Ferdinand Heinrich Vilgelmovich Asmus, who came from a Russified German Lutheran family—was an employee of one of the factories built by the Belgian joint stock company. Asmus became interested in philosophy during his studies at the German St. Catherine Real School in Kiev (1903-1914). In 1914, his interest in the humanities led him to the Department of History and Philology at St. Vladimir University in Kiev, from which he graduated in 1919. Among his teachers were the prominent scholars Aleksei Giliarov, Vasily Zenkovsky, Evgeny Spektorsky, and Genrikh Yakubanis. Asmus detailed his сhildhood and university years in his memoir, published in 2010 in a volume dedicated to him in the series “Russian Philosophy of the Second Half of the 20th Century” (see: Valentin Ferdinandovich Asmus).
Asmus began publishing philosophical works as a student. In 1916, he published “On the Tasks of Music Criticism” (“O zadachah muzykal’noi kritiki”); in 1917 he was awarded the Tolstoy Prize for the essay “The Dependence of L. N. Tolstoy on Spinoza in His Religious Philosophical Views” (“Zavisimost’ L. N. Tolstogo ot Spinozy v ego religioznyh filosofskikh vozzreniiakh”). Asmus’ student years coincided with war and revolution. Kiev had been alternately occupied by red and white troops and in 1919, Asmus published an anti-Soviet article in the newspaper Life (Zhizn’) where he condemned the teachings of Marxism and the ideals of the Enlightenment. After graduation, Asmus taught philosophy and aesthetics at Kiev University. His hopes for the imminent liberation of Russia from the “Soviet captivity” expressed in his1919 article did not come true, and in his other works from the 1920s (and in later works) we do not find that critical stance towards Marxism, but instead find many references and quotations to the classical works of Marxism, as well as assessments and conclusions in the spirit of the Marxist approach. In Marxism, Asmus saw the expression and continuation of the fundamental traditions of classical philosophical thought. He pursued this line in his further lectures and writings. At the same time, Asmus managed to combine a series of other ideas with the succession of prevailing Soviet worldviews: a commitment to the development of culture as a whole; an aversion to the mechanistic approach to social, cultural and philosophical life; and a negative attitude toward the direct reduction of spiritual processes to economic relations.
In fact, the evolution of Asmus’ ideas, including his theoretical and methodological principals, was complicated. We must not lose sight of the time and ideological situation in which the philosopher lived and worked. In the Soviet Union, the discipline of philosophy served the interests of the Party. As a thinker who continued to pursue philosophy without leaving Soviet Russia, Asmus found it necessary to compromise more than once in accordance with the era, adhering to the scholarly templates and standards imposed upon him: the requirements to criticize “reactionary bourgeois philosophy,” and to root out and attack philosophical enemies. Soviet power did not deprive Asmus of his life (as it did many other prominent scholars), but it did deprive him of the opportunity for free and independent work.
In 1924 Asmus’ first monographic study appeared: Dialectical Materialism and Logic: An Essay on the Development of the Dialectical Method in Modern Philosophy from Kant to Lenin (Ocherk razvitiia dialekticheskogo metoda v noveishei filosofii ot Kanta do Lenina). Here we see the full expression of both Asmus’ talent and his compromise. As Nikolai Berdiaev wrote: “the author of this book possesses a high philosophical culture, he knows the history of philosophy, has a taste for philosophizing … however, he freely and truly philosophizes only when he forgets Marxism, and the Soviet authorities expect materialistic views from him” (Berdiaev 356).
During 1920s, an intense philosophical dispute broke out between the Mechanists and the Dialecticians, the latter of whom were supporters and followers of academician Abram Deborin. In 1926, Asmus intervened against mechanicist Aleksandr Varjas in an essay entitled “Сontroversial Questions of the History of Philosophy” (“Spornye voprosy istorii filosofii”), by sharply criticizing his attempts to deduce concepts and theories of modern philosophy from the production process and reduce all explanations of events and ideas to conditions (see: Steila 226-229). The dispute between Asmus and Varjas resonated. In 1927, Asmus moved from Kiev to Moscow and joined the philosophical school of Deborin, i.e., the Hegelian neo-Marxist school, which was left-communist in its orientations. Sergei Korsakov, a contemporary reviewer of Asmus’ intellectual biography, discusses Asmus’s relationship with the Deborinist school (Korsakov). For his collaboration with the Deborinists, Asmus later received the dangerous label of “Menshevist idealist” (men’shevistvuiushchii idealist), since the Mechanists argued that the Deborinists were neither Marxists nor materialists, and that they held a neutral position towards idealists (e.g., Aleksei Losev), and were therefore themselves idealists. Many Deborinsts were arrested in the early 1930s and the majority died in the GULAG. Asmus escaped such a fate.
In the 1920s-40s, Asmus collaborated with several academic journals, including Under the Banner of Marxism (Pod znamenem marksizma), Soviet Music (Sovetskaia muzyka), and The Banner (Znamia). He taught at the Institute of Red Professors; the Philosophical Section of the Communist Academy; Moscow Institute of History, Philosophy, and Literature (MIFLI); and Moscow State University. In the late 1920s – early 1930s he published several monographs: Kant’s Dialectics (Dialektika Kanta, 1929), Essays on the History of Dialectics and Modern Philosophy (Ocherki istorii dialektiki i novoi filosofii, 1930) and Marx and Bourgeois Historicism (Marks i burzhuaznyi istorizm, 1933). In the mid 1930s, Asmus was actively involved in the history and theory of aesthetics and in 1940 he defended his doctoral dissertation on classical Greek aesthetics.
In the 1950s-70s, Asmus continued to teach at MGU, and also became a research fellow at The Gorky Institute of World Literature of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (1956) and at the Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (1968). He published a number of monographs devoted to important thinkers and philosophical problems, including on Descartes (1956), Kant (1957, 1973), Democritus (1960), Rousseau (1962), German aesthetics of the eighteenth century (1962), the philosophy of mathematics (1963), ancient philosophy (1965), and Plato (1969). He taught many famous Russian philosophers and writers, as well as mingled with Boris Pasternak, Aleksandr Tvardovsky, Aleksei Losev, Heinrich Neuhaus, and other cultural figures. University authorities tried to condemn Asmus for the sympathetic speech he delivered at Pasternak’s funeral, but this initiative did not gain momentum and Asmus did not lose his job at MGU.
Asmus died in 1975 and was buried in the Peredelkino cemetery. The complex legacy of his life and work demonstrates that philosophical thought cannot be extinguished, and that even in the most difficult moments of its past, philosophy in Russia continued to exist.
History of Philosophy
Asmus was one of the most competent Marxist historians of philosophy in the USSR and a true connoisseur and preserver of the history of philosophy. Even in his early publications, he highlighted how “a world-view that opens up things into processes, and processes into tendencies, cannot be indifferent to the link between the present and the past” (“Spornye voprosy istorii filosofii” 206). Asmus’s works served as “soft” introductions to the complex philosophical views of important thinkers.
Asmus specialized primarily in the history of western philosophy, in particular classical German philosophy. Most of his work was devoted to specific historical problems (the development of the dialectical method, the problem of intuition) or figures (Kant, Descartes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Marx, Bergson). Asmus was especially committed to Kant and wrote several monographs on him. In 1973, his works on Kant were published together in a collection entitled Immanuel Kant, in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of the German thinker. In this work, Asmus examined the main components of Kant’s philosophy: his theory of knowledge, ethics, the study of expediency in organic nature and aesthetics, etc. Like his favorite philosopher Kant, Asmus was fond of astronomy and admired the starry sky above with his telescope.
Asmus was also a specialist in the field of ancient philosophy. In 1965 he published the first textbook on the history of ancient philosophy in the USSR. This textbook is written according to Soviet standards, and in it we find: the absence of a concrete approach, no references to contemporary western studies, and few if any citations. His subsequent works on Plato and Democritus were accessible interpretations of philosophical theories, written for a broad audience; as such, they did not add any new insights to understanding of the complex heritage of these figures. In his work on Plato, Asmus upheld the spirit of the Marxist-Leninist tradition when he revealed the idealistic dialectic of the ancient philosopher as “the predecessor of the idealistic dialectic of Hegel, its philosophical prototype” (“Platon” 206). Here we can see the “genetic” idea of the Soviet theory of history of philosophy at work: the aim to represent Marxist-Leninist philosophy as a theoretical summing-up of the history of philosophy, and which necessarily assumed the continuity of the historical-philosophical process. This continuity is guaranteed insofar as each new system does not simply negate the previous one but “overcomes” it and includes within itself its re-elaborated form (i.e., the idea that Hegel’s system included Platonism). Asmus often employed the logic of “the sustainable development of knowledge” in his works. In his book on Plato, for instance, the implementation of this logic left out the latest achievements in Plato studies; Asmus mentioned only Losev’s achievements as the authentic way of interpreting Plato, and in 1968 Asmus and Losev edited three volumes of Plato’s works together. What this logic offered both Asmus and philosophy during the Soviet era, however, was the ability to systematically study all aspects of different philosophical ideas and to present to readers a more or less unadulterated image of thinkers and their ideas.
In the USSR, the principle of Party-mindedness was a dominant force in philosophy. Soviet Marxism included the history of philosophy in the sphere of ideological struggle and endowed it with ideological functions. Soviet scholars were obliged to consider the history of philosophical thought in terms of the struggle between materialism and idealism, dialectics and metaphysics (which was understood as “anti-dialectics”), and they were expected to “root out” and criticize idealistic tendencies in the views of the philosophers of the past. Those who did not want to compromise their work in this way, like Vladimir Bibler, were extremely limited in their abilities to publish during the Soviet era. Although Asmus’ work includes the official jargon of Marxism-Leninism and the derogatory ritual phrases and judgments against “bourgeois philosophers” (especially in the 1930s), his publications and lectures were nonetheless significant events in Soviet philosophy. First of all, he criticized the prevailing sociological methodology of his day, and presented in opposition another methodology, one based on the immanent course of the historical-philosophical process and the role of social and political factors in this process. Secondly, due to attention he paid to the internal logic of the development of philosophy, Asmus sought to demonstrate the relatively independent status of historical and philosophical research. Finally, he based his studies on thorough examinations of primary sources, which served to protect the thinkers under analysis from imaginary accusations, clichés, and ideological distortions. Asmus’ professionalism in this regard was an act of courage under Soviet rule. In particular, one of the lectures Asmus delivered at the IRP in 1936 (lectures were diligently transcribed by stenographers and some are kept in the State Archive of the Russian Federation) was dedicated to the works of Nietzsche, a philosopher sharply criticized and even banned during the Soviet era (especially during the period of confrontation between Soviet Russia and Hitler’s Germany). As Yulia Sineokaya points out, Asmus “managed to analyze and comment on those principle propositions of Nietzsche’s doctrine that were inconsistent with fascist ideology” and, through a brilliant use of official rhetoric, “conveyed important meanings that would otherwise be fraught with the risk of repressions” (282-283). Asmus would repeat this thesis about the distortion of the teachings of the German classics in “The Fascist Falsification of Classical German Philosophy” (“Fashistskaia fal’sifikatsiia klassicheskoi nemetskoi filosofii,” 1942), where he took a strong critical position against National Socialism and its distortion of different philosophical conceptions.
The science of logic was among Asmus’s scholarly interests beginning with his work at Kiev University, where in 1922 he gave a lecture pro venia legendi entitled “The Philosophical Problems of Logic” (“Filosofskie zadachi logiki”). Asmus was an adherent of classical logical thinking, but was also thoroughly engaged in the study of non-classical logic and supported the development of mathematical logic. In 1924, he published Dialectical Materialism and Logic (Dialektichiskii materialism i logika), which received a positive review from Nikolai Berdiaev. In the 1930s, he began to investigate the logical, methodological, and philosophical problems of the foundations of mathematics. The field of logic was under the strong pressure from Soviet ideology in those years, and therefore only a few enthusiasts were engaged in work in logic. In the second half of the 1920s, the leading positions in Soviet philosophy were occupied by the Deborinists; they began to develop the practice of dialectical logic, which opposed formal logic. This led to the cancellation of formal logic as a subject of study in Soviet schools and universities in the late 1920s. The revival of logic in the USSR as a field of research and a school subject began only in the first half of the 1940s, and Asmus was actively involved in this process. He began teaching at the newly created Department of Logic in the Philosophy Department at Moscow State University, where he led courses in the history of logic, formal logic, and the logic of relations; he also taught logic at the qualification courses for high school teachers and participated in discussions on the subject of logic in the late 1940s-early 50s. During WWII, Asmus prepared one of the first Soviet textbooks on philosophical (non-mathematical) logic, published in 1947. This textbook was accused of formalism, and its author criticized for illustrating logical patterns using “apolitical” examples. In 1948, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was published in the USSR in Russian translation, with an introduction by Asmus. He continued to develop problems of logic in his subsequent works: The Doctrine of Logic on Evidence and Refutation (Uchenie logiki o dokazatel’stve i oproverzhenii, 1954) and The Problem of Intuition in Philosophy and Mathematics (Problema intuitsii v filosofii i matematike, 1963).
Asmus began his teaching career at Kiev University following his graduation. In 1927, he began teaching regularly in Moscow: at the Institute of Red Professors, the Academy of Communist Education, MIFLI, MGU, and the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute. Multiple generations of Russian philosophers came of intellectual age at his lectures and seminars on the history of philosophy and logic. With his boundless erudition and deep understanding of his subject, knowledge of classical and European languages, and references to primary sources and quotations from the work of European philosophers (including those not yet translated into Russian and which were almost unknown or forbidden in Soviet Russia), Asmus stood out against the background of the Soviet philosophical professorship. According to the recollections of many of his students, he embodied a connection to modern European thought and served as an intellectual bridge between Soviet philosophy and the tradition of Russian philosophical culture that had been cut off by the revolution. Among his students were Arseny Gulyga, Teodor Oizerman, Zakhar Kamensky, Nelli Motroshilova, Piama Gaidenko, Gennady Maiorov, Vasily Sokolov, and other eminent scholars. For these thinkers, who came to philosophy at the end of Stalinism and the early years of the Thaw, the figure of Asmus acquired a special, symbolic importance, as the guardian of pre-revolutionary philosophical traditions. Asmus supported many graduate students in their desire to engage new topics and objects of study.
Asmus spent more than thirty years working at Moscow State University, both in the Philosophy and Philology faculties. In the 1940s-50s, he was professor in the Department of Logic in the faculty of Philosophy. In the late 1950s, Asmus was relocated to the Department of the History of Foreign Philosophy, where he continued his research and teaching in the history of philosophy, which he conducted until the end of his life. In the last years of Asmus’ life, when it became difficult for him to travel to the university, the students themselves traveled to attend his seminars at his house in Peredelkino, located outside Moscow.
Olga Kusenko, April 2019
Asmus, Valentin. “O velikom plenenii russkoj kul’tury.” Istoriko-filosofskii ezhegodnik, 2004, 2005, pp. 350-356.
—. Platon. Mysl’, 1975.
—. Sobranie sochinenii (v semi tomah). URSS, 2014.
—. “Spornye voprosy istorii filosofii.” Pod znamenem marksizma 7-8, 1926, pp. 206-225.
Berdiaev, Nikolai. Retsenziia na knigu: V. F. Asmus. ‘Ocherki istorii dialektiki v novoi filosofii.’” Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo, 1929.
Korsakov, Sergei. V. F. Asmus: korrektivy k obrazu. SFK-ofis, 2017.
Sineokaya, Yulia. “The Prohibited Nietzsche: Anti-nietzscheanism in Soviet Russia.” Studies in East European Thought 70 (4), 2018, pp. 273-288.
Steila, Daniela. “History of Philosophy in the Early Soviet Epoch.” Rivista di storia della Filosofia 2, 2018, pp. 217-234.
Valentin Ferdinandovich Asmus. Ed. V.A. Zhuchkov and I.I. Blauberg. ROSSPEN, 2010.