Nalimov, Vasily

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Vasily Nalimov (1910-1997)

Vasily Vasilievich Nalimov represents a very particular branch of philosophical neo-rationalism that relies on probabilistic methods in the natural and social sciences and applies them to the study of language and consciousness. Trained in sciences, Nalimov was a professor of statistics and headed Moscow State University’s Laboratory of Mathematical Experimentation. His main interests lay in the field of mathematical models of language and living organisms; however, Nalimov was concerned not so much with particular issues in mathematics as with its interplay with philosophy. His probabilistic theory of the universe converges closely with views developed in Eastern mysticism. A hallmark of Nalimov’s thought is his interest in the esoteric subtexts of rigorous scientific investigation.

Nalimov is among those rare Russian thinkers whose work has been well represented in English translation. His main publications in English translation are In the Labyrinths of Language (1981); Faces of Science (1981); Realms of the Unconscious (1982); and Space, Time, and Life (1985). All were edited by Robert G. Colodny (1915–97), a specialist in the history of science and European history.


Philosophy of Language

In Russia, Nalimov’s best-known and most influential book remains The Probabilistic Model of Language (Veroiatnostnaia model’ iazyka, 1974). The author’s central concern is the relationship of language and consciousness. “The great interest of philosophers in language problems can be easily explained: the study of language is a way of studying thinking” (Nalimov, In the Labyrinths of Language xv). In this way, epistemology has the opportunity to become a “hard” science, insofar as language is susceptible to mathematical exploration. However, according to Nalimov, there is essentially only one branch of mathematics that can be applied to language: the theory of probability, especially Bayesian modeling in mathematical statistics. From this viewpoint, a semiotic system is not a deterministic mechanism, but rather encompasses a broad range of statistical probabilities. Every sign can have an infinite number of meanings, but some meanings are more probable than others: standard dictionary definitions are the most probable; figurative, metaphorical usages are at the opposite pole.

Nalimov suggests classifying languages on a scale ranging from “hard” to “soft,” depending on the probability of determinant meaning embodied therein.  Scientific terminology is “hard” inasmuch as each term has a fixed, conventional meaning, which suggests only one interpretation. On this scale, poetry occupies the opposite pole; with its multitude of possible interpretations, its designations are “soft.”  Since “[t]he semantic field of word meanings is infinitely divisible,” deeper penetration into this field reveals that there are no discrete meanings, only the fluctuation of possible meanings—pure semantic potentiality, or what Nalimov calls “semantic vacuum” (In the Labyrinths of Language 179). Departing from the mathematical apparatus of the theory of probability, Nalimov describes meaning as a “wave-like” continuum that no “discrete” concept can match. He reinterprets all verbal units of natural languages in terms of their ultimate “fuzziness,” which can be related to the Derridean notion of “trace.” “Statements made in a discrete language are constantly interpreted on a continuous level” (197).


Universe and Evolution

Nalimov analyzes nature and language using similar methods, since both present “continuous fields of probabilities” misconstrued in the sciences and humanities (respectively) as discrete configurations: “[B]oth the concept of discrete subatomic particles in physics and that of discrete words of our language are but a conventional denotation” (87). Much of Nalimov’s work deals with the methodology of contemporary sciences and is aimed at synthesizing various disciplines based on “probabilistic ontology.” Thus, for instance, he seeks an analogue in the field of biology, of the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics, and thereby advanced the idea of “interspecific uncertainty”: that is, the deformities of organisms that express the transgression of a species’ boundaries (Space, Time, and Life 90).

On a grander scale, and one of great philosophical potential, is Nalimov’s idea that probabilistic models prompt us to see the universe as a magnificent play of chance, and to revive Taoist and Zen-Buddhist paradoxes of a primordial, all-definitive unity as “something blurred and indistinct,” or even as the “non-existence of the entity in its spontaneously unpackable unpackability” (95). On the basis of probabilistic methods, Nalimov comes to a myth-like view of the world as pure spontaneity, to which no “discrete” scientific concept can be properly applied. Nalimov generally rejects not only the Newtonian, but also the monotheistic universe; the very idea of creationism mechanistically opposes creator to creation. He finds traditional evolutionism likewise deficient, still too bound up with the creationist model, albeit diluting its rigid determinism with the play of chance. Amid his explanations, still more questions arise, which Nalimov himself does not hesitate to leave unanswered: “What do we know of the ontology of chance? Where is the random generator located? … Are we not trying to wed the Old Testament Demiurge with the dancing Shiva by softening the Laws with Chance?” (94).

Finally, Nalimov offers his own formulation: “evolutionism as spontaneity,” the goals of which cannot be detached from the very process of evolution. He summarizes this concept in the following way:

Indeed, making use of a probabilistic ontology, we revive the ancient myth…. My attitude toward a Cartesian-Newtonian mechanistic background on which evolutionary ideas keep developing is, indeed, acutely critical. But the major point is the positive aspect, the possibility to show the legitimacy of the probabilistic, or, actually, geometric ontology of the World, whose motive power is not a law, but a spontaneity…. Spontaneity becomes the fundamental principle of the World. We cannot reduce the nature of spontaneity to other scientific notions. (97)


Probabalistic Ontology

For Nalimov, probability is not just the result of incomplete human knowledge of the world, but the essence of the world itself: “We mean the probabilistic ontology of the probabilistic world, not the probabilistic epistemology of a deterministic world” (Realms of the Unconscious 6). There are no general laws, even in such areas as have been considered the most rigidly deterministic, such as the physical motion of atoms and particles; there are rather only certain probabilities of events, which may very approximately be described as laws. Probability in Nalimov’s view is related to potentiality—in his usage, an ontological concept presupposing that the primary foundation of the world is not something, but Nothing, which has only the potential of becoming. Nalimov utilizes the existing notion of physical vacuum—a space in which virtual particles constantly emerge and disappear—in order to elaborate the concept of semantic vacuum, where it is meanings that emerge and disappear. Even personality can be regarded, from this point of view, as one of the possible states of the semantic vacuum, as a “constant fluctuation of the probability distribution function determining a person’s individuality on the semantic field” (77).


Fuzziness and Nothingness

In his youth, Nalimov was close to the “mystical anarchism” movement, and in the late 1920s even joined the Order of the Knights Templar in Moscow, for which he was subsequently arrested and spent eighteen years (1936-53) in the Gulag (Nalimov, “On the History of Mystical Anarchism in Russia”; Moma, “Vasilii Nalimov kak gnostik”). Nalimov sees the Judaic notion of a personal and omnipotent God as the foundational flaw of the whole tradition of Western determinism and rationalism; he seeks an alternative in Christian apocrypha, in European gnostic wisdom, and in the ancient teachings of the East, such as Buddhism and Taoism, which are radically atheistic—that is, which depersonalize spiritual reality and interpret it as pure potentiality. A substantial portion of Nalimov’s writings are devoted to methods for entering the primordial Nothing, which may be identified on various levels as emptiness, the unconscious, or silence. All modes of approach to this fundamental (non)reality are based on what can be called the continuum of our conceptual and verbal activity, which cannot be reduced to discrete units of meaning. The idea that each word has a definite meaning, and each concept a definite referent, prevents us from penetrating the fluctuations of the semantic field, discoverable only through meditation and silence. Unlike rational thinking, meditation deals not with separate concepts but with the unceasing flow of consciousness and its dissolution into the fluctuations of the unconscious, no longer isolated from it. “A call for silence as the means of knowing oneself and the world … is an appeal for direct access to continuous thinking in its pure form. The technique of meditation is a skill to govern continuous thinking without resorting to language” (In the Labyrinths of Language, 182). Symbols and questioning are semiotic devices that penetrate the depth of the Nothing, since they have an unlimited range of probable meanings, and call every univocal assertion and judgement into question.

The same semantic fuzziness can be found in abstract as opposed to figurative or realistic painting, since the former is aimed at the reproduction not of discrete objects, but rather of the continuous energy fields of relations between objects. In biology, Nalimov critiques existing taxonomic systems for classifying plants and animals, arguing that the recognized taxons are constructed and contingent concepts, since in reality a living entity exemplifies a form of transition from one taxon to the next; continuity and “uncertainty” are thus characteristic also of the variety of lifeforms: “In biology the most precisely given unit is the initial taxon, namely, a species. There is interspecific uncertainty. It may be very serious: there even exists a catalog for plant deformities…. Biology is more statistical than physics” (Nalimov, Space, Time, and Life 90). Probabilistic theory potentially revolutionizes all spheres of knowledge, including physics, biology, linguistics, and psychoanalysis, divorcing them from monotheistic and deterministic conceptions and reformulating them in terms of the fuzzy language that the foundational Nothing uses to describe itself.


Ultimate Reality

Thus, for Vasily Nalimov, like for Yuri Lotman, we observe the gradual transition from the methodological concepts of structuralism, with its claims to rigorous scientific knowledge in the humanities, toward a quintessentially humanistic approach to the sciences, where such “unscientific” concepts as freedom, indeterminacy, silence, and intuition can be applied. Nalimov even uses the notions of the “semantic universe” and the “semantic continuum,” which are quite close to Lotman’s concept of the “semiosphere,” encompassing as they do not only the variety of semiotic codes and languages, but also those “black holes” of meaning that lie between languages and render them mutually untranslatable (Nalimov, Realms of the Unconscious 291- 292).

Structuralism developed an atomistic approach to semiotic systems as composed from discrete units, each endowed with a definite meaning in the network of signs. Post-structuralism demonstrates the principal ambiguity of each sign, which manifests the qualities of a wave rather than a particle. This dilution and undulation of discrete units acquires, with Lotman, an historical dimension; with Nalimov, a probabilistic one, which is, in a sense, ahistorical, since it aspires to the pure potentiality of the vacuum—conceivable as a space without time. Lotman and Nalimov exemplify two polar orientations of early Russian theoretical post-structuralism that may be described roughly as Westernist and historical vs. Eastern and mystical. For Lotman, historical dynamics present the continuous aspect of the semiosphere, which generates arbitrariness and spontaneity as modes of the evolution—even the explosion—of semiotic systems. For Nalimov, history is, rather, a rationalization and analytical dissection of the continua simultaneously present in the probabilistic universe: “The incessant desire to split the continuum gives rise to conflicts which are the moving force of history” (292).

With Nalimov, the ultimate reality behind all historical divisions and conflicts is most eloquently described in the visions of great mystics, such as Buddha and Laozi, Jacob Boehme and Meister Eckhart. Nalimov’s works, though replete with mathematical formulas and probabilistic calculations, deliberately avoid teleological reasoning and instead utilize a variety of citations from the thinkers of different epochs, from Socrates and Confucius to Wittgenstein and Carnap. His thought is a mosaic of various insights into the nature of the Continuum; as part of this continuum themselves, these insights do not develop in time.

Thus, Nalimov exemplifies a curious paradox of Russian “scientific” philosophy: even proceeding from the most rigorous modes of knowledge, in this case mathematics or cybernetics, it evolves into the valorization of the suprarational reality of chance, and almost imperceptibly converges with its opposite: the philosophy of personality and freedom.

Mikhail Epstein, May 2019



Moma, Aleks. “Vasilii Nalimov kak gnostik.” Paper delivered at the OTO Conference (St. Petersburg, 2015), Accessed May 22, 2019.

Nalimov, Vasilii. In the Labyrinths of Language: A Mathematicians Journey. Ed. Robert G. Colodny. Isi Press, 1981.

—. “On the History of Mystical Anarchism in Russia.” The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies 20, 2001, pp. 85–98, Accessed May 22, 2019.

—. Realms of the Unconscious: The Enchanted Frontier. Ed. Robert G. Colodny. Trans. A. V. Yarkho. Isi Press, 1982.

—. Space, Time, and Life: The Probabalistic Pathways of Evolution. Ed. Robert G. Colodny. Isi Press, 1985.

—. Veroiatnostnaia model’ iazyka. Nauka, 1974.


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