Gulyga, Arseny

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Other relevant keywords: aesthetics, German philosophy, Russian philosophy


Arseny Gulyga (1921-1996)

Arseny Vladimirovich Gulyga is one of a few Soviet philosophers known not only in the Soviet Union, but also abroad. He specialized in the history of philosophy and composed a number of philosophical portraits in the genre of intellectual biography, including on Hegel (1970), Kant (1977), Schelling (1982), and Schopenhauer (published posthumously in 2003). For his readers, these works served as “soft” introductions to the complex philosophies of important thinkers, and during his lifetime his work was translated into German, English, French, Chinese, and Japanese. Gulyga’s international success is likely due to the fact that he filled a lacuna that existed in the field of philosophical education: namely, the lack of popular and accessible interpretations of philosophical theories written for a broad audience, and in particular for young people. Nowadays there are numerous such “introductions” in the field of philosophy, but in the 1970s and 80s philosophers were primarily engaged in either scholarly research, as in the West, or in ideology, as in the Soviet Union.

Arseny Gulyga was born in Czechoslovakia in 1921. His father was a metallurgical engineer who had emigrated from Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. After the end of the Civil War, the family returned to Russia by invitation of Sergo Ordzhonokidze, a Georgian Bolshevik and later Politburo member. However, Gulyga’s father was arrested in 1937 and executed in 1938, an event that had a significant influence on the remainder of Arseny Gulyga’s personal and professional life. It was only in 1940 that he was able to enroll in the Philosophy Department at the Moscow Institute of History, Philosophy, and Literature; his studies were then interrupted by the Second World War. He initially served in the war as a platoon commander on the Volkhov Front, and later as a translator at regiment headquarters and as an organizer of German anti-fascists operations. He was seriously wounded during the war and was awarded several orders and medals for his service. When the war ended he was in Koenigsberg, at the rank of captain. Gulyga went on to work in the Department of Culture in the Berlin Military Administration as a culture officer (Kulturoffizier) for theaters. He also took part in the denazification of representatives of German culture and, after returning home to Russia, worked for the military newspaper Trevoga.

In 1945, Gulyga graduated from the Philosophy Department of Moscow State University. In 1955, he was demobilized from the Soviet Army. He studied at the graduate school of the Institute of the History of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and defended his dissertation on the topic of the formation of the United Socialist Party in Germany. His early publications were devoted to problems of the American occupation of the Far East during the Russian Civil War. In the field of philosophy, his doctoral dissertation was titled “German Materialism at the End of the 18th Century” (“Nemetskii materializm v kontse XVIII veka”). Gulyga spent more than forty years working at the Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (Moscow): between 1956 and his death in 1996, not including a two-year fellowship he accepted at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin between 1991-1993. He detailed his academic experiences at the Institute of Philosophy in his memoir, “A Half a Century on Volkhonka” (“Polveka na Volkhonke”), which was published in the journal Molodaia Gvardiia in 1997.


The History of Philosophy as Biography

Gulyga’s interest in the genre of philosophical biography can be explained by two philosophical positions he held: on the one hand, he is convinced that philosophy can only exist as the history of philosophy; on the other hand, he believes that philosophy is not a realm of pure and autonomous ideas but, like art, is an individual performance (“Wir leben im Zeitalter des Kosmismus” 875). Therefore, in his work he tries to engage important ideas by describing their genesis moments; for example, in his biography of Kant, he writes that “Kant has no other biography than the history of his thought” (Kant 5). This principle of identifying the life of a philosopher with his or her thought underlies all Gulyga’s biographies. The result of such an approach is that philosophical ideas are placed against a broader cultural background and become dependent upon the personal histories of their creators.

The reception of Gulyga’s works was ambivalent: critical among academics, and affirmative among the broad reading public. Vladimir Zeman, a contemporary reviewer of Gulyga’s book on Kant, rightly points out that “when we consider him as a historian of philosophy, Gulyga does not generally show any obvious interpretative bias. His conception of his task allows him to concentrate on presentation rather than on in-depth analysis or on the evaluation of Kant’s philosophical position” (172). In spite of the deficiencies of his method, Gulyga’s publications were significant events in Soviet philosophy, since they were able to mitigate the official, anonymous, and teleological jargon of Marxism-Leninism. His work offered an alternative understanding of philosophy as a personal process of creation and as a process of developing concepts and solving problems.

In his memoirs, “A Half a Century on Volkhonka,” and elsewhere, Gulyga claims: “The Institute of Philosophy has existed for over fifty years. What is the best that our institute has achieved? It is the series “The Philosophical Heritage” (“Filosofskoe nasledie”). Over 100 volumes have been published, whereby everything else is temporary” (“Wir leben im Zeitalter des Kosmismus,” 875). These words are not merely a critical statement; rather, in them we can see Gulyga’s scholarly orientation and his strategic vision of philosophy. He is convinced that the significance of philosophy is connected to its capability to adapt the ideas developed by previous generations (876). The basic task of philosophy consists in understanding, clarifying, and developing existing concepts and theories (877-78). It is for this reason that he defines the primary goal of philosophical activity as the “popularization, dissemination, and realization of philosophical world heritage” (878).

Within the history of Soviet philosophy, Gulyga’s thought can be described in enlightenment terms. Indeed, his major contribution is his work in eighteenth and nineteenth century German philosophy, as well as his role in the rediscovery of Russian religious philosophy that took place during the final years of the Soviet period. He took great care to advance Soviet philosophical education in a variety of ways, including through research, editing and publishing primary sources material, and organizing cultural societies.

In 1963, Gulyga founded the well-known series “Philosophical Heritage,” which he co-edited. Under Gulyga’s editorship, the works of Herder, Kant, Lessing, Hegel, Schiller, Schelling, Goethe, and many others were published. In the early 1980s, in particular, the series published forgotten Russian authors for the public, including works by Vladimir Solovyov, Nikolai Berdiaev, Vasily Rozanov, and Nikolai Karamzin. In the late 1970s, he organized a seminar on problems of Russian culture at the Institute of Philosophy. He worked as the deputy editor of the “Philosophical Heritage” series until 1982, when he was expelled from the board for editing the works of Russian cosmist Nikolai Fyodorov, who was branded as a religious obscurantist, necrophile, mystic, and racist (Andreeva). At the beginning of perestroika, he established the Dostoevsky Literary and Philosophical Society, which became the center that promoted public interest in the study of the Russian national philosophical tradition.

Two areas of world philosophy, namely German and Russian philosophy, attracted Gulyga’s attention. He considers these traditions to be interconnected and assumes their mutual influence on each other. His methodological premise is that “there is only one world of human culture and only one world philosophy” (“Wir leben im Zeitalter des Kosmismus” 874). Moreover, he represents the view that “original Russian philosophy is a direct continuation of classical German philosophy” (874). It is for this reason that he tries to explicate connections between Kant and Solovyov, insofar as they acknowledged the primacy of practical philosophy. He believes that “it is impossible to understand Russian philosophy without Schelling” (871) and saw in the Slavophile’s concept of sobornost’—or a spiritual community of people living together—an allusion to Hegel’s concept of the “concrete-general” (das Konkret-Allgemeine). His seminar dedicated to philosophical problems of historical scholarship became a platform for discussing the methodological problems of the history of philosophy, a seminar he began at the Institute of Philosophy in 1963 and led for about a decade.


A Marxist Approach to the History of Philosophy

Gulyga was without a doubt a Marxist historian of philosophy, and his work interprets philosophical positions through the lens of dialectical materialism. This concerns his studies in the field of German classical philosophy in particular, for instance his emphasis on the dialectical moments in Kant’s philosophy: “Kant posed the problem of dialectics” (Nemetskaia klassicheskaia filosofiia 58). When explaining the concept of the categorical imperative, Gulyga gives a sociological explanation: “The day-to-day experience of the society of Kant’s day is opposed to morality; it destroys a person spiritually, rather than educates her” (66). He criticizes the “early” Fichte for his idealism: “In Fichte’s philosophy, there is no authentic object, and this is why the material activity of society exists beyond it” (135). He interpretes young Schelling as a “materialist and atheist” (171). In his opinion, “as compared with Hegel, Schelling, however, has one advantage: in his work, the earthly corps of dialectics are visible, as are its connection with natural science” (176). He summs up the development of German idealism as follows: “The dialectics of idealism was born in the writing of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, but it was necessary to grow and systematize it. The solution to this problem fell to Hegel” (208). On the Phenomenology of Spirit, he writes that “the master–slave dialectic in Hegel, to a certain extent, anticipates Marx’s analysis of the alienation of labor in capitalist society” (222). He claims that Feuerbach “has prepared a construction site for materialistic dialectics” (293) and that “Feuerbach’s main achievement is atheism” (294).

One could continue the list of such quotations. However, Gulyga’s analysis and systematization of German philosophy from the perspective of the origin of dialectic thought does not diminish the significance of his work in his book German Classical Philosophy (Nemetskaia klassicheskaia filosofiia, 1986). This book provides an impressive, vivid, and mostly balanced panorama of the development of German philosophy in the work of Herder, Schiller, Humboldt, Fichte, Schelling, Goethe, Hegel, and others, with particular emphasis on their polemic with Kant. It is rather difficult to follow the development of German philosophy in this period, but Gulyga’s approach is successful since it concentrates on significant thematic interactions that defined the philosophical work of the day. What is more, the book is rich in conceptual, historical, and literary allusions, as well as in anecdotes and facts about a panoply of figures from the 18th century. Last but not least, it is due to Gulyga that Kant—whom Lenin dismissed in his work Materialism and Empiriocriticism (Materializm i empiriokrititsizm, 1909) as an agnostic and dualist and who therefore became persona non grata in Soviet philosophy—found a place in the history of Soviet philosophy.

Gulyga began his academic career in the Soviet Union and ended it in post-Soviet Russia. These historical perturbations had a deep impact on his intellectual development. It would be adequate to characterize his experience according to Sergei Bulgakov’s famous expression, that it was a move from “Marxism to Idealism.” However, in Gulyga’s case, the development of his later thought did not involve a complete refusal of Marxist ideals but involved a critique of Marxism in regard to how it was realized in Soviet practice. Thus, Gulyga remained convinced that Marx was “a great thinker” and that “Marxist philosophy is part of a unified world philosophy” (“Wir leben im Zeitalter des Kosmismus,” 879). However, he considers the socialist practice of the Soviet Union to be a perverse deviation from authentic Marxism. He says, for instance, in one of his interviews: “The entire history of the Soviet Union was sooner an attempt to refute Marx than an attempt to realize his ideas” (ibid.).


Wisdom and Humanism in Gulyga’s Philosophy

Gulyga was a Marxist with his own, non-Marxist understanding of philosophy as wisdom. He says in one of his interviews: “Philosophy is not an academic science; it is, I would say, not a science at all. It is more than mere science: it is world wisdom.” (“Wir leben im Zeitalter des Kosmismus,” 875). This understanding of philosophy had an impact on his reception of philosophical theories. In all his intellectual biographies, he appears to conduct his analyses and evaluations according to the criterion of the truth-goodness-beauty triad, which he viewed as the elements of wisdom. For instance, he claims that “Fichte considers any philosophy, any science empty, if it does not serve the self-assertion of man” (Nemetskaia klassicheskaia filosofiia, 136). Or, as we read in one of his books: “the first and the last word of the mature Kant is about the individual. Kant’s criticism is largely born due to an interest in the life of the human being. The Copernican turn began with reflection on the destiny of man. The problem of freedom underlies the Critique of Pure Reason” (90). Thus, according to Gulyga, any theory is only valuable if it is able to improve conditio humana. As well, he seemed convinced of the superiority of ethics and aesthetics over theoretical philosophy. Rolf George, for instance, described his impression of Gulyga’s book on Kant as follows:

I have heard the book castigated as a propaganda effort. This allegation is absurd in the extreme. There are technical flaws, and occasional distant echoes of Official Philosophy, but this is above all an intelligent and humane book. If it is propaganda for anything, then it is for these virtues. (493)

Indeed, this view can be generally applied to all of Gulyga’s philosophical historical portraits, since his focus on wisdom gives his work a humanistic character.

Gulyga’s specific historical consciousness forms the basis for his understanding of the present age. He defines it as “postmodernity,” in contrast to the “modernity” of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In his terms, “modernity” means “everything that corresponds to the present time and is in a certain contrast to the old, to the past. Hence, the past is considered a prerequisite of the present. It is a lower, suspended step” (“Wir leben im Zeitalter des Kosmismus” 876). On the contrary, “postmodernity” refers to “the past not as a mere prerequisite, but as its own inseparable part. It is a fusion of what is and what was” (ibid.). This general attitude constitutes the methodological framework of his studies on the history of philosophy: he focused on the aspects of theories that he deemed suitable for further development and application in contemporary research contexts.


The Religious Turn and the Russian Idea

After perestroika, Gulyga became increasingly concerned with studies in the field of aesthetics. In 1987, he published the books What is Aesthetics? (Chto takoe estetika?) and The Principles of Aesthetics (Printsipy estetiki). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was intensively involved in re-conceptualising the notorious “Russian idea.” The major result of his activity in this regard is his book The Russian Idea and its Creators (Russkaia ideia i ee tvortsy, 1995). Gulyga says, ironically, that the collapse of the Soviet Union had one positive effect: namely, that it “led, first of all, to the return of the Russian idealist tradition,” which is capable of returning traditional Christian religious values to the Russian people (“Wir leben im Zeitalter des Kosmismus,” 871). For him, Solovyov, Dostoevsky, and Fedorov are the most important representatives of Russian philosophy. However, Gulyga believes that the disintegration of the former Soviet empire was an extremely negative event. His nostalgia for the “Great Russia” of the past found its expression, first of all, in his paper “The Formula of Russian Culture” (“Formula russkoi kul’tury,” 1992). In this article, he connects the political crisis of the USSR with a cultural crisis, which he defines as “the loss of a national self-awareness” (145). According to him, the idea of national unity could serve as a basis for political reunification. In contrast to the official Marxist-Leninist definition of the nation as distinguished by shared territorial, economic, and socialist content, Gulyga offers the concept of nation as a “commonality of sanctuaries” (143; 149). Within this perspective, Russian Orthodoxy comes forward as the “creator and keeper” (sozdatel’ i khranitel’) of the sacred (149).

According to Gulyga, the mission of Russian religious philosophy, as well as Orthodoxy, is to form national identity. This idea is clearly expressed in his last book, The Russian Idea and Its Creators. The key idea of this publication can be formulated as following: “The most important idea within practical philosophy is the fate of the homeland (rodina)” (18). For this reason, the book has attracted attention not only as an introduction to Russian religious philosophy from Dostoevsky to Losev, guided primarily by the question of “the eternal in Russian philosophy” (to use Boris Vysheslavtsev’s formulation), but also as an explication of Gulyga’s civic position, which was based on Christian orthodox values and traditional Slavophile-Cosmist axioms. One of the most valuable contributions of this book is the way it restored the equilibrium between two branches of the history of philosophy, the German and the Russian traditions, a task that Gulyga made the guiding force of his professional life. We can turn to the words of Mischka Dammaschke and Wladislaw Hedeler to summarize Gulyga’s role in the history of Soviet philosophy: “Throughout his life, Arseny Gulyga was a bridge builder between the Russian and German philosophical worlds of thought” (920).

Maja Soboleva, June 2018



Andreeva, Iskra S. “Filosofiia est’ tozhe poeziia: Arsenii Vladimirovich Gulyga (1921-1996).” Russkaia filosofiia vo vtoroi polovine XX veka. INION RAN, 1999, pp. 54-82.

Dammaschke, Mischka and Wladislaw Hedeler. “Nekrolog auf einen Philosophen – Arsenij Wladimirowitsch Gulyga (21.4.1921-10.7.1996).” Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, vol. 44, no. 5, 1996, pp. 917-20.

Gulyga, Arsenii. Chto takoe estetika?. Prosveshchenie, 1987.

—. “Formula russkoi kul’tury.” Nash sovremennik, no. 4, 1992, pp. 142-49.

—. Kant. Molodaia gvardiia, 1997.

—. Nemetskaia klassicheskaia filosofiia. Mysl, 1986.

—. “Polveka na Volkhonke.” Molodaia gvardiia, no. 4, 1997, pp: 160-220.

—. Printsipy estetiki. Politizdat, 1987.

—. Russkaia ideia i ee tvortsy. Soratnik, 1995.

—. “Wir leben im Zeitalter des Kosmismus.” Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, vol. 40, no. 8, 1992, pp. 870-81.

Rolf, George 1987. “The Lives of Kant.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 47, vo. 3, Mar., 1987, pp. 485-500.

Zeman, Vladimir. 1986. Arseniy Gulyga. Immanuel Kant. Studies in Soviet Thought 31 (2):170-174.


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