Zilberman, David B.

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David B. Zilberman (1938–1977)

David Beniaminovich Zilberman was a social thinker, Indologist, and philosopher who grew up in Odessa, lived and worked in Moscow, and eventually emigrated to the USA in 1973 in search of better conditions for his intellectual career. The short period he spent in Moscow, between 1968–1972 while completing his postgraduate studies, coincided with the period of the late “Thaw,” when the Moscow community of philosophers and social researchers was at its height. Among Moscow intellectuals of his generation he earned a reputation as an outstanding thinker.

David Zilberman grew up in a family of secular Jews in Ukraine. Since early youth he demonstrated a strong interest in philosophy and other humanistic disciplines. Due to his Jewish ethnicity, Zilberman was refused admission to State University in Odessa. He entered the Odessa Hydro-meteorological Institute and, after graduation in 1962, was assigned by the state to spend three years in Ashkhabad (Turkmen SSR, present-day Turkmenistan) working as an aviation meteorologist. During that period he began systematic studies in Classical Indian philosophy and the history of philosophy. He learned several languages, mastered English and Sanskrit, and was able to make a living as a translator.

In Moscow, Zilberman became associated with the sociologist Yuri Levada, joining the group of talented young scholars (unofficially known as the “Levada group”) at the Institute for Concrete Sociological Research (IKSI) in Moscow. The topic of his kandidatskaia (Ph.D. dissertation) was a study of research approaches to tradition in western sociology, and in this dissertation he also presented a new typology of traditions. His theory of tradition stands apart from any other approaches developed in the Soviet social sciences at that time. It is grounded in his personal experience of reading and comprehending ancient texts. He also applied the theory of activity developed by the Moscow Methodological Circle, an intellectual group led by philosopher Georgy Shchedrovitsky.

In 1973, due to worsening conditions for intellectual life and emerging possibilities to emigrate, David Zilberman and his family left the USSR for the USA. He was able to enter academic life quickly after arrival. He taught at Hunter College, the University of Chicago, and Brandeis University. On July 25, 1977, Zilberman was killed in an accident while bicycling home from his university. His main research projects were left unfinished and his most important works were published posthumously.

David Zilberman’s primary professional interest was the philosophy of Classical India. The uniqueness of his approach arises from the unusual combination of his strong personal interest in the inner logic of Classic Indian philosophy (Hinduism), his expert knowledge of the theoretical problems of social anthropology, and his deep personal interest in philosophy as such, based on the personal experience of philosophizing. He wanted not only to know what philosophers of the past thought, but how they engaged in thinking. “Philosophical thinking” was for him a form of life. Eventually he developed a highly unconventional vision of philosophy as a creative activity that produces intellectual realities by a specially organized mode of thinking. Zilberman identified Shankara’s theory of knowledge as his primary philosophical influence.

In the following, I shall overview the rich domain of David Zilberman’s ideas in four steps: his understanding of tradition, his modal methodology, his “philosophology” (meta-philosophy), and his concept of the Russian/Soviet cultural tradition. He also developed a theory of analogy, which will not be discussed here (see Analogy, 2006).


Tradition and Modality

During his Moscow period, Zilberman developed a particular vision of the structural design of Classic Indian philosophy, separated into six traditional lineages (darshanas). Each of them was grounded in a foundational text (sutra). In Classical Hindu society, there were lineages of intellectuals who were preoccupied with refined commentaries on this sutra. This lineage was called a darshana. Those thinkers who belonged to a certain darshana were engaged in constant dialogues with representatives of the other darshanas, and the metaphysics of Vedanta served as a common denominator for all of them. For Zilberman, Indian philosophers of Classical India were the highest examples of professional intellectuals.

The main question of departure for Zilberman’s work was this: How is a proper understanding of tradition  possible? For him, to understand a tradition is to be able to reproduce it as system of activity (deiatelnost’), which effectively would mean thinking according to the tradition. Zilberman’s primary objective was to reinstate the status of tradition (rather than culture) as the primary object of sociological study. Yet, his own ambition went much further than methodological innovation in theoretical sociology. For him, understanding tradition was a matter of personal, existential interest. He needed a method that would provide him with the proper instruments for understanding the distant intellectual tradition that he loved. For Zilberman, the true objective of studying a tradition is learning how to think and behave according to the tradition. It is an ultimate entering into the reality of that tradition and learning how to live in the world created by it.

In his vision, there are three phenomenological levels of cultural reality. These same levels comprise the structure of any tradition, be it a “big” socio-cultural tradition (he names these “cultural types”) or any individual philosophical tradition. Moreover, these levels are no less than modes of being. The first of them is the level of reality “as such,” an absolute reality. There is no way for the absolute reality to become the object of investigation or criticism. This level implies the perception of cultural entities as “natural”. In The Birth of Meaning in the Hindu Thought (1988), when speaking about this “level of absolute truth (or reality) and its being accepted by a particular system of thought as its tenet,” Zilberman states that “this truth is non-contestable and does not admit refutation or empirical falsification” (34). It is not possible for someone who belongs to this tradition to be skeptical towards its absolute truths.

Another level is the level of conditional reality, or “phenomenations.” Here, everything is alterable. “The experience of thinking at this level can be sublated (or falsified) by some other piece of experience” (The Birth of Meaning in the Hindu Thought 308). Zilberman identifies the level of cultural “phenomenation” as the dimension of the “texture of the tradition” (308). This texture is woven by the everyday interactions of people belonging to the tradition. All facts found at this level are meaningful as soon as they are grounded (or “caused”) by facts at the level of absolute reality. This does not mean that those who belong to the tradition are always aware of this causation; only professionals in dealing with meanings are aware of it. But for everyone, these truths are conventional and thereby might be substituted by any new experience. This is what makes it possible for a philosophy to develop inside of a tradition without dismissing its absolute truths from the first level: they remain untouched.

The third level is absolute irreality. Anything that cannot be perceived or thought within the framework of a particular tradition is related to this level. “This is the level of absolute untruth, which neither can nor cannot be contestable, or falsifiable” (The Birth of Meaning in the Hindu Thought 35). This is where the absurd resides. For Zilberman, every tradition has at its core its own absurdity, its own “round squares” (35). These absurdities serve as sources of various illusions. In his view, every tradition has this dimension of absolute untruth, which establishes limits of effective understanding. This unthinkability of certain content explains why some content belonging to one tradition will not be accessible to another tradition: the latter apprehends the content of the further as “absurd” due to its modal structure. However, when all traditions interact, each transcend its own inner limits, and thus they may act alltogether to establish the world of universal understanding. In this case, nothing is left unrecognized. Zilberman believed that a state of genuine universality can be achieved, and even must be achieved, by the philosopher. Such universality is the supreme aim of philosophical activity. The philosopher should engage in dialogic interaction with all other traditions, thereby gaining universal understanding.

Every tradition can be described on the basis of this triad. The level of absolute truth justifies those truths residing on the level of phenomenations of culture, while the level of the absurd comprises the remaining truths or ideas. This level is identified analytically though an analysis of a tradition from the outside (i.e., communicating with it from within another tradition). This fundamental structure of tradition can be notated as a three-part formula. Zilberman called it “basic modal composition.” He expressed it in the following formula (let’s signify the level of absolute truth as A, the level of phenomenation as B, and the level of absolute irreality as C):

A → B 

We can simplify this to A → B, or even (A)B. The arrow signifies inner dynamic relations between members of the composition. This formalization is used in most of his later works. Zilberman believed that the application of his composition formula would provide any further analysis of traditions with a formalization similar to those formulas used in semiotics.

For Zilberman, these three levels are produced by three possible ways of perceiving cultural facts. Taken together, these facts constitute three possible manners for constructive activities of thinking. He called these types “modalities.” The idea of “modality” was the principal category of his work. This is why he called his approach a “modal methodology.” His modalities have nothing in common with those in modal logic. Rather, Zilberman had in mind modes of Medieval logic: they are states of being.

He thought that the same modal composition is recognizable in the shape of an individual mind as within the framework of a tradition, and even in a single given intellectual act. A thought, disclosed by this composition, in turn discloses a fundamental inner process that takes place both in traditions and in their manifestations. Instead of thinking in the dual oppositions so typical of Western thought, Zilberman develops triadic thinking. He believed there are only three modalities. Thus, only six variants of basic modal compositions are possible. Moreover, he believed that each of these compositions has at some point been embodied in a historically known cultural tradition, becoming the core of that tradition. This does not mean that all minds are shaped by a tradition identically. Rather, it means that it is possible to discover these structures in the core of the great intellectual traditions of the past and present. They govern the minds of people belonging to them, hence they influence the development of societies shaped by any of the six cultural types. It is important to note that Zilberman did not study the emergence or development of tradition from a historical point of view. He was interested in traditions only as concrete cases where certain modal combination were realized.


Modal Methodology

Zilberman believed that the thinking of other philosophers is reproduced in their texts, whereby a thinker intentionally turns the content of a text into the subject matter of thinking. This specific activity is not a process of study (cognition) or of “understanding” (grasping) the ideas of the text. Rather, Zilberman thought that pieces of content could be turned into entities that “exist” and, thereby, order the thinking of a particular philosopher/author. An entire text, a part of a text (a sentence), or even a single statement could be modalized. As a modal methodologist, Zilberman would read a philosophical text, identify acts of thinking embodied in the text, and then reproduce them, reinforcing their modal basis. His comments in the form of modal formulas comprise a significant part of his legacy.

In his work, Zilberman identified structural similarities among intellectual methods and matched them with anthropological corollaries in the theory of activity (deiatelnost’) developed by the Moscow Methodological Circle. Georgy Shchedrovitsky and other members of the Circle would discuss the leadership of philosophers in various social activities. This view of philosophy contributed to Zilberman’s distinctive vision of philosophy as a specialized and professionalized intellectual activity, with the principle task of producing intellectual entities. For Zilberman, these entities exist only in the process of thinking. However, the thinking of professional intellectuals influences the whole of society because they produce norms and meanings of social activity. He found that Hindu thinkers used a particular technology of mindful operations similar to contemporary scientific methodologies. In Classical India, these operations were exclusive to the Brahmins and their practice of yoga. In his own words: “few realize that yoga is also the name for a systematic method of thinking of almost the same kind as the one typically used in modern science since Galileo” (The Birth of Meaning in the Hindu Thought 10). This meant that, for Zilberman, any proper study of Indian philosophy must be grounded in an analysis of the mental activities executed by the philosopher. It also meant that it was possible to successfully apply this methodology to contemporary philosophy of science.

David Zilberman often said that Western philosophers were primarily engaged in the study of the world (mind, Being, etc.). This orientation eventually forced them to subdue philosophy to science. On the contrary, Ancient Indian philosophers did not study the world, but texts. This was their only professional task, as the modal structure of their tradition predisposed them towards this approach to philosophy. Thus, he considered his modal methodology to be a re-invention of the methodological structure of ancient Indian thought.

He discerned three traditional types of action that he then identified with different manners of dealing with elements of culture. The entire universe of elements of a culture available to the subject (whereby a “subject” might be a thinker, a philosophical school, or an entire tradition) are formed by these types of activities of mind. He called these types of activities, as well as their products, “modalities.” Everywhere in the realm of thinking, the fundamental principles of modal thinking, or modalization are the same.

First, there is deontic modality, which implies an action that requires no accompanying reflection and comprises pure norms. In his own explanation, Zilberman says that thinking or behaving in this modality is like taking part in an archery tournament and seeing a target with the words “Shoot me”: the action leaves no room for thoughtful consideration. Thus, deontic modality, in its purest realization, is an action, not even a thought. This is a norm to be executed immediately. Thus, if at level (A) there is a text in the deontic modality, the text in a given tradition will become the source of norms that govern every aspect of social activity. This is a modality of instructions and regulations. It establishes a “Universe of power.” If the modal composition of a tradition has deontic modality at the level of the absolute truth of its modal composition, it drives the tradition to develop cultures of unconstrained power.

Another modality is apodictic. It is correlates with knowledge, i.e. mental content that is given in contemplation and requires no immediate action. This is akin to being at an archery tournament where an archer sees two targets: “In any case the archer will shoot. But now the meaning of the archer’s action belongs to the second level, since it is conditioned. Speaking in general, this second modalization can be described as God’s position to the world which He created” (The Birth of Meaning in the Hindu Thought, 43). Thoughts taken in this modality are subject to meditation and deliberation, not execution.

The third possible modality is hypothetical. It represents everything that has no necessity to exist or even appear. “Values” are examples of this hypothetical modality. Zilberman defined “values” in a strictly sociological manner, as purely situational explanations of an action that differ depending on the situation. Just as a sign has no “inner” essence but exists only to signify something else, so does hypothetical modality exist only in relation to something else. It can be neither true nor untrue. If the level of absolute truth (A) is preoccupied by an entity taken in V modality, then it implies a positive attitude toward reality that dissipates into innumerable facts but with nothing to rely on as the Truth.

Zilberman marked these modalizations as N (Norms), I (Ideas), and V (Values), respectively. According to basic modal composition, they constitute combinations like N → I (with V as the denominator (C), thereby making it unthinkable); N → V (with I = C); etc. Zilberman identified each of these six compositions with a School of Classic Indian thought (darshanas):

I → N Vedanta,
N → I Mimansa,
N → V Samkhya,
V → N Yoga,
V → I Nyaya,
I → V Vaisesika.

All embodiments of any given cultural tradition exist within one of these three modalities. Thus, an outsider unable to execute thinking according to the proper modality will find it impossible to understand the tradition properly.

Zilberman also believed that this same process of combination was present in world history, where a certain modal combination happened to emerge as a certain cultural type. Cultural types are not the same as cultural traditions (although sometimes the reader is tempted to think so). Zilberman correlates these types with particular philosophical practices. It is easy to see that he recognized, in these types, realizations of particular philosophy activities (from the vantage point of his modal methodology). These types demonstrate what happens when a society is governed by a certain modal type of thinking. In The Birth of Meaning in the Hindu Thought, Zilberman correlates every type of cultural tradition (named by its historical example) with a modal combination and a cultural type of thinking (317):

Indian type of cultural tradition: I → N: Methodological thinking involved
Tibetan type of cultural tradition: N→ I: Conceptual thinking involved
Chinese type of cultural tradition: N → V: Projective thinking involved
Japanese type of cultural tradition: V → N: Phenomenological thinking involved
Hellenic type of cultural tradition: V → I: Axiomatic thinking involved
Western type of cultural tradition: I → V: Axiological thinking involved.

Thus, for example, in a society where “Methodological” thinking (I → N) dominates, the Indian type of Culture tradition would evolve; a society where “Axiomatic” thinking (V → I) dominates would eventually develop into the “Hellenic” cultural type, etc. If different societies have developed on the basis of the same type of cultural tradition, they should then demonstrate similarities—discernible by modal analysis. For instance, Zilberman saw Ancient Jewish society and contemporary Soviet society as embodiments of the same “conceptual” thinking (i.e. modal type). Thus, he identified them as incarnations of the same cultural tradition, regardless of the unquestionable historical differences between them.


Modal Commentaries

Zilberman’s modal methodology offered him the possibility to analyze any type of cultural dynamic, be it the historical development of a cultural tradition, the development of an intellectual school, or the thinking of an individual thinker. He switches easily back and forth between broad traditions and concrete pieces of writing, even in a single statement. For him, the activity of modalization permeates all cultural activities.

Zilberman’s modal methodology is meant to be applied primarily to textual analysis. He applied his modal methodology mainly to understand classic philosophical texts, yet he also used “modal poetics” to understand texts that are rarely considered works of philosophy, like the Mahabharata (1984) or even poetry (for an analysis of modal methodology for textual analysis, see Gourko 2007). He loved to read and write commentaries, filled with modal formulas. He was fascinated by the culture of commentaries in Classical India; he saw it as a manifestation of the professionalism achieved by philosophers of that time. And yet, commentary is rarely intended as an original philosophical work. Producing commentaries provides the modal methodologist with a unique possibility to leave the philosophy he or she studies exactly in the same state as it had been before, without innovations, albeit with a commentary that discloses its inner modal structure. This final act of self-elimination demonstrates that modal methodology has nothing to do with obtaining new knowledge; it does not seek truth. On the contrary, its exclusive purpose is to gain a proper understanding of a text. In Zilberman’s view, modal methodology fulfills philosophy, not develops it. He took a sharp, ironic stance towards Modern philosophy, which voluntarily restricted itself to the role of an “emcee” who prepares the scene for Science as the true Actor (he made this comparison in a letter to Oleg Genisaretsky from January 7, 1975). This pathetic situation, as he saw it, could be remedied by modal methodology.


Philosophology and Summa Philosophiae

David Zilberman defined his goal as the modal transformation of all the main philosophical traditions of the West, or at least the creation of the possibility for such a transformation. As he stated in his latter papers and letters, the result would be the establishment of a new science: a philosophology. Modal methodology was intended to be its organon.

In Zilberman’s approach, a philosophy is always addressed to some other philosophy, and the mode of existence for any philosophy is to be “thought out” by another thinker. Thus, it is actually impossible for a single thinker to develop a “philosophy,” as any thinker necessarily addresses other thinkers. In his later works, Zilberman referred to Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea of dialogue. This process of constant interchange constitutes a reality of a certain kind, whereby philosophy is the ultimate subject of philosophy. Zilberman designed modal formalization as a toolkit for the analysis of philosophical thinking, be it in the context of a particular philosophical tradition or in the interactions among different traditions.

He considered every philosophical tradition to be a component of future universal system of philosophy. The modal reconfiguration of a given system, he argued, would eventually lead to the absolute accomplishment of its modal potential. It would mean the fulfillment of all relations that are possible in a system, according to its primary texts (if any), along with all operations that might be performed on the text according to the modal formula (modal type) of the tradition. Everything that might be invented in a particular tradition should be invented until it ceases to have inner creativity. When this happens, the tradition then achieves the condition of unconstrained modal amplification. Modal methodology is interested exactly in this stage, for it gives the methodologist full freedom to develop any modal combination. In this way, philosophy develops into a universe of limitless intellectual creation. Zilberman sometimes called this approach to philosophy “eschatological” (kontsevedenie, literally “end-studies”), or “summa philosophiae.” His visionary attitude resembles that of Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, whom Zilberman mentioned as an inspirational figure.


Russian/Soviet Cultural Type

David Zilberman left the USSR in 1973 because he saw no prospects for professional employment there. It was a period of intensive Jewish emigration, now called the “third wave of emigration.” In 1974–1977, Zilberman sought to provide a rational explanation for what he saw as the visible success of the Soviet State, governed by Marxism-based ideology. He developed his theory of the Russian-Soviet cultural tradition as an open opposition to Max Weber’s concept of “Westernization.” He argued that, since the fifteenth century, Russian society has been dominated by the “Conceptual” (or “Tibetan”) cultural type. Its modal formula dictated the transformation of Norms into Ideas (N → I), without the possibility of holding an evaluative attitude (V) toward them. This modal type was appropriated from Byzantium along with Orthodox Christian Mysticism in the form of Hesychasm (Ziberman’s vision of Hesychasm was influenced by Eugene Shiffers). The establishment of the Russian authoritarian state was predetermined by this very cultural type. The norms of social activity were lifted to the level of absolute reality, turning any voluntary judgment into the absurd. This is why, Zilberman argues, in Russia there eventually emerged a centralized, abusive state. Zilberman called this continual process the “Easternization” (contra “Westernization”), or Bysantinization of Russia.

While in the USSR, David Zilberman avoided studies of Marxism. However, in emigration he began to study the history of Western dialectics and read Marx attentively. He discovered that Soviet Marxism’s modal composition (N → I) coincided with the modal composition of that version of Christianity that had already been appropriated by Russia from Byzantium. This was, for him, a clear demonstration of the continuity between Russian Orthodoxy and Soviet Marxism as systems of social activity. Surely, he in no sense meant their continuity as ideological systems. Rather, modal analysis disclosed that they both belonged to the same cultural tradition. From Zilberman’s modal methodological point of view, the dialectical philosophy of Hegel and Marx was a modal analogue of the Indian Mimansa. This observation provided him with reasons to believe that everything he had already discovered about this cultural type also applies to Russian/Soviet society.

For Zilberman, any philosophy in the West is only an “opinion,” or an exercise in judgement. Thus, it is no wonder that Marxism developed in the West only as a critical philosophy, while in Russia Marxism found its true embodiment and permeated all levels of interaction, from everyday communication to official ideology. Zilberman’s explanation of the stability of Soviet society was based not on an analysis of culture or religion, but on his analysis of the Russian-Soviet cultural type.



At the time of his death, David Zilberman’s main works had not yet been published and his research was ongoing. The bilingualism of his work poses an additional challenge for the researcher. His papers and other related materials are now located in special collections at Boston University (the inventory of the collection is available online). On the basis of this collection, two books have been published posthumously as part of the Boston Studies in Philosophy of Thought series (1986 and 2006). Zilberman’s completed but undefended dissertation, On Understanding Cultural Tradition (K ponimaniiu kulturnoi traditsii) was published in Russia in 2015, and then in 2021 in English translation in India. Another source of insight into his ideas is the rich correspondence he maintained with friends, partly published by Vladimir Rokitiansky in 2001. In 2015, his younger sister Rachel (Raya), who emigrated to the USA after the collapse of the Soviet Union, wrote a biographical study based heavily on letters and other personal documents from the family archive. Helena Gourko, an American historian of science of Belorussian origin, edited publications of his works in English (2006) and Russian (2014), completed an extremely detailed study of modal methodology (2007), and undertook great efforts to establish his archival collection in cooperation with Zilberman’s wife, Elena Michnik-Zilberman. In Russia, Zilberman’s works have found their application primarily in studies of traditions and in meta-philosophy.

Mikhail Yu. Nemtsev, May 2022



Genisaretskii, O. I. and D. B. Zilberman. O vozmozhnosti filosofii; perepiska 1972–1977. Edited by V. R. Rokitianskii. Moscow: Put’, 2001.

Gourko, Elena. Modal’naia metodologiia Davida Zilbermana. Minsk: Ekonompress, 2007.

Zilberman, D. B. Analogy in Indian and Western Philosophical Thought. Edited by Helena Gourko and Robert S. Cohen. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. 243. NYC: Springer, 2006.

—. “Dissent in the Soviet Union.” Liberation, vol. 20, no. 6 (1977): 3–8. 

—.K ponimaniiu kulturnoi traditsii. Edited by Oleg Genisaretskii. Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2015. [English translation by Mikhail Yagupov (India: Motila Banarsidass Publishing, 2021)].

—.“Orthodox Ethic and the Matter of Communism.” Studies in Soviet Thought, vol. 17, no. 4 (1977), 341–419.

—.Pravslavnaia etika i materiia kommunizma [Russian version from 1977]. SPb: Ivan Limbakh Publishers, 2014.

—.“Semantic Shifts in Epic Composition (on the Modal Poetics of the Mahabharata). In Memory of M. M. Bakhtin.” Semiosis. Semiotics and the History of Culture. Michigan Slavic Contributions, no. 10 (1984): 267–299.

—.The Birth of Meaning in the Hindu Thought. Edited by Robert S. Cohen. Translated by Elena Gourko. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. 102. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1988 [Genezis znacheniia v filosofii iduizma (Moscow, 1998)].

—.“The Post-Sociological Society.” Studies in the Soviet Thought, vol. 18, no. 4 (1978): 261–328.

Zilberman, Raisa. O vozmozhnosti lubvi. Radost’ i gorech dlinoiu v zhizh’. Istoriia filosofa Davida Zilbermana. SPb: Aleteia, 2015.

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