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Man between Sacrum and Profanum in Russian Philosophy in 20th Century

von Jaromír Feber (Autor:in) Helena Hrehová (Autor:in) Peter Rusnák (Autor:in)
©2019 Monographie 218 Seiten
Reihe: Spectrum Slovakia, Band 32


The title of monograph is meant to express the essential possibility to adopt different worldviews in the philosophical cognition of man. In the given part, we want to point out the alternatives of materialistic and religious approach that have found their dramatic expression in the Russian philosophical space. Individual anthropological ideas originated – be it explicitly or implicitly – as constituents and outcomes of the conflict between the two opposing worldview orientations. The Russian philosophical environment of the 20th century can be perceived as a historically realized philosophical experiment that explained the starting points, possibilities and impacts of both approaches. A reflection of the acquired historical experience can also help today’s person to consider various worldview alternatives in a more competent way. The experience of Russian philosophy confirms and concretizes the assumption that the worldview decision determines to a great extent the direction and character of the philosophical cognition of man.


  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • I. Materialistic and Religious Concept of Man in the Russian Philosophy of the 20th Century
  • Introduction
  • 1. Russian Philosophy of the 20th Century
  • 2. Materialistic Tradition in Russian Philosophy
  • 3. Man in the Materialistic Tradition of Russian Philosophy – General Foundations
  • 4. Materialistic Concept of Man – Man as the Sum of Social Relations
  • 5. Materialistic Concept of Man – Man as a Subject of Practice
  • 6. Materialistic Concept of Man – Origin of Man
  • 7. Materialistic Concept of Man – Man as a Subject of Reason
  • 8. Man in the Religious Tradition of Russian Philosophy – General Foundations
  • 9. Man in the Religious Tradition of Russian Philosophy – Classification and Basic Characterization of Individual Approaches
  • Literature
  • II. “Sacrum” and Its Stratification in Russian Tradition and Religious Philosophy of the 20th Century
  • Introduction
  • 1. Dimensional Preconditions of Awakening and Genesis of the Words Mystérion and Mystikos
  • 2. Sacredness in Thinking of the Russian Slavophiles of the 19th Century
  • 2. 1 Ivan Vasilyevich Kireyevsky (1806–1856)
  • 2. 2 Aleksey Stepanovich Khomyakov (1804–1860)
  • 2. 3 Konstantin Sergeyevich Aksakov (1817–1860)
  • 2. 4 Yuri Fyodorovich Samarin (1819–1876)
  • 3. View of Life “According to Moral Principles” in Philosophy of Pyotr Yakovlevich Chaadayev (1794–1856)
  • 4. Mystical Experience and Vision of Sofia in the Work of V. S. Solovyov (1853–1900)
  • 5. Religious Experience in the Ideas of Dmitry Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky (1865–1941)
  • 6. Mysteriousness of Person in Metaphysical Thinking of Lev Platonovich Karsavin (1882–1952)
  • 7. Soul and Sacredness According to Ivan Alexandrovich Ilyin (1882–1955)
  • 8. Vasilii Vasilevich Zenkovsky (1881–1962) and His Concerns about Secularization in the Field of Education
  • 9. Depth of Religious Experience and Mystical Fire in the Ideas of Nikolai Sergeevich Arseniev (1888–1977)
  • 10. Does the Reality of Sacrum Have a “Chance to Survive” in the Globalized Multicultural World?
  • Conclusion
  • Literature
  • III. The Sacred and the Profane in Russian Anthropology and Philosophy
  • Introduction
  • 1. Russian Philosophy in the Age of Avant-gardes
  • 2. Russian Anthropology in Specially Historical Period
  • 3. Two Points of Russian Philosophy of Man – Frank and Florensky
  • 4. Some Themes of the Russian Philosophical Thinking in the Silver Age
  • 5. Great Period of Russian Philosophy
  • 6. Frank´s and Florensky´s Philosophy between Polemic of Sacrum and Profanum in Russian Metaphysical Thinking
  • 7. The Ontological-Epistemological Consequence of Russian Metaphysical Thinking
  • Conclusion
  • Literature
  • About Authors

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One of the specific features of philosophical cognition is the constant returns and endless concretizations of several major themes that lie in the foundations of human culture. Without any doubt, such topics include “the human being” and the question “what is man?” is one of the basic questions of philosophy. This question, however, is not a question of the individual existence of an individual who perceives himself as a being that is unrepeatable and unique. Rather, it assumes a definition of what applies to all people, what is universal to humankind and what constitutes the generic essence. The theoretical reflection of the generic essence of human being can be explicitly expressed in an autonomous philosophical discipline, which is today named as philosophical anthropology.1 Or it may be an implicit part of a philosophical system, sometimes even its constitutive core. This very situation is visible in Russian philosophy, which is generally strongly anthropocentric. Man becomes the centerpiece of philosophical considerations. The ultimate purpose of building a philosophical system is to understand man, their place in the world and the perspectives of their life. Dealing with special ontological, gnozeological, logical and methodological problems ultimately should contribute to anthropological cognition.

If we perform a certain recapitulation of the philosophical cognition of man in the form as it developed in the Russian philosophy of the 20th century, then our efforts may have at least two main reasons. The first reason is historical. Russian philosophy is a part of the history of philosophy, and if the presentation of the history of philosophy is to be complete, it should also include this specific stage of its development, which is tied to the Russian language environment. In relation to our topic, the task of historical research would be to adequately interpret the partial concepts of man that originated in Russian philosophy, to point out their period conditionality or to compare them with concepts that dominated in the Western philosophy.

The second reason is factual. The experience of Russian philosophy can be a source of reflection on other perspectives of the cognition of man. ←9 | 10→Anthropological knowledge within philosophy is certainly far from being satisfactorily completed; rather it is at the very beginning. The exploration of the history of Russian philosophy could then be conceived not only as a goal but rather as a starting point for competent decision-making in terms of which kind of philosophy shall continue to develop in the next millennium and which, on the contrary, has either failed to prove its legitimacy or has already depleted its creative potential, and can therefore be left, with an easy conscience, in the original form for the study performed by historians of philosophy, as a mere proof of philosophical efforts, forming perhaps a necessary but only a transitional and partial step on the path of human cognition.

Both motives, the historical one and the factual, always necessarily overlap, yet one of them can still dominate. Our intention is to prioritize the factual motive in the following text. The consequence of this preference is that we do not have the ambition to systematically interpret the whole palette of anthropological concepts nor to analyze individual concepts in detail,2 rather we will try to draw attention to the fundamental worldview alternatives, and within them we will single out ideas that, according to our judgment, could become a topical part of a broad concept of philosophical anthropology.3

The title of our monograph – man between the profane and the sacral – is meant to express the essential possibility to adopt different worldviews in the philosophical cognition of man. In the given part, we want to point out the alternatives of materialistic and religious approaches that have found their dramatic expression in the Russian philosophical space. Individual anthropological ideas originated – be it explicitly or implicitly ←10 | 11→– as constituents and outcomes of the conflict between the two opposing worldview orientations. The Russian philosophical environment of the 20th century can be perceived as a historically realized philosophical experiment that explained the starting points, possibilities and impacts of both approaches. A reflection of the acquired historical experience can also help today’s person to consider various worldview alternatives in a more competent way. The experience of Russian philosophy confirms and concretizes the assumption that the worldview decision determines to a great extent the direction and character of the philosophical cognition of man.

A worldview conflict, of course, is not specific to Russian philosophy only; it has universal character. Even today’s philosophical cognition of man oscillates between the counterparts of secular and religious attitudes, and both approaches have their prominent proponents. Nowadays, E. Coreth, for example, represents the religious approach in philosophical anthropology. He himself summarizes his position in a laconic definition in which he expresses the spiritual substance of man: “Man is transcendence.”4 In his conception it means that man is a spiritual creature and “the substance of the spirit is constituted by transcendent relation to the absolute as an unlimited horizon of its self-completion.”5 And the absolute transcendental foundation of the world and man is, in harmony with the religious orientation, identified with God.

It cannot be denied that transcendence is an essential element of human being, but this universal ontological constitution of man can be interpreted in different ways. For example, in the philosophical anthropology of H. Plesner its interpretation lies in the form of anthropological law of the “utopian habitat”. Plesner denotes the exceptional ontological status of man in the world by the term “eccentric positionality”. By getting released from the natural environment and opening up to the world, man has lost his certainty; they do not know where they belong, where their place is and what constitutes the meaning of life as the basic goal of their earthly pursuit. Man endeavors to overcome the absence of a solid anchorage in a given natural habitat by faith on the basis of which they project the above-mentioned “utopian habitat”. In it they find firm ground. The human search for the absolute foundation of the world as a counterbalance to uncertainty stemming from the nothingness of the passing and changing world is conceived as the a priori basis of all religiosity.6

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It is obvious that the religious interpretation of the basic ontological constitution is different. The human ability to transcend natural environment is not a consequence of evolutional development, in the course of which man becomes more and more distant from nature (both external and internal), until they reach the ability of distance that allows them to transcend the natural world in terms of values. From the religious point of view, this fundamental freedom is not a product of evolution but, on the contrary, its necessary condition and prerequisite. The search for God as an absolute fundamental does not mean his subsequent intentional construction, but a search for him within ourselves as a necessary a priori basis of human existence that would not even be possible without the presence of God.

Nevertheless, it is right to point out that the religious approach is, at the theoretical level, promoted especially within theology, which does not ask the question “what is man?” in a general manner as philosophy does, but asks a special question: “What is man in the light of the Christian faith?”7 V. Boublík in his Theological anthropology clearly defines the theological approach in comparison with the philosophical and scientific ones: “The interpretation of man in the light of Christ’s mystery distinguishes theological anthropology from all the other sciences which try to get to know man and their definition. But it does not seek to replace these sciences, it only reveals secrets inaccessible to human reason. … It lets itself to be led by the Word of God, which alone can bring us to the mysterious content of the events of Christ’s life. However, God’s word in theological anthropology is not a ‘doctrine’, but a revelation revealing Christ and the secret of his ‘body.’”8

Today, the founder of sociobiology – E. Wilson – is building his anthropology in sharp contrast to religious interpretations. He represents a profoundly materialistic approach in the form of naturalism. Naturalism derives man from nature and refuses to ascribe to the many qualities that would transcend the natural world. Naturalism is justifiably criticized for its demonstrable reductionism because it refuses to admit that man possesses also qualities9 that transcend nature, do not exist in nature ←12 | 13→and therefore animals, as purely natural creatures, are not endowed with them.10 Wilson, on the other hand, tries to refute the myths of human extraordinariness and builds anthropology in which he demonstrates that “the biological principles that work so well in animals can be in general successfully spread to social sciences.”11 By combining Darwinism and genetics, he creates a biological theory that has an ambition to become a universal (i.e. philosophical) anthropology.12

Even from this small reminder of several representatives of opposing anthropological orientations, it is evident that also today religious and materialistic approaches meet up within the subject field of philosophical understanding of man. However, in their escalated forms, they leave the field of philosophy. The religious approach can, through theology, transform into the sphere of institutionalized religion (which derives cognition primarily from the Word revealed by God, i.e. the Bible), and the materialistic approach can, through naturalism, transform itself into the realm of natural sciences.13 For Russian philosophy, however, it is characteristic that it is not a conflict between theology and naturalism or a conflict between religion and science, but a clash of two worldview orientations within philosophy itself. On the one hand, religiously oriented philosophy does not consider belief in revelation to be the primary source of human cognition (as in religion and theology), but this role belongs to human reason – that is why it is philosophy. On the other hand, materialistically oriented philosophy does not reduce human cognition to generalization of the natural ←13 | 14→sciences knowledge, as is the case in naturalism, but it has a strong focus on humanities and social sciences.

Moreover, and it is even more fundamental, Russian materialistic philosophy, unlike naturalism, is characterized by a significant metaphysical and value overlap. Even though materialistic philosophy has distanced itself from metaphysics verbally, it rather means that the old metaphysics is to be replaced by a new metaphysics, the so-called dialectics. Dialectical philosophy in the function of metaphysics can be seen as a critical reflection of the often-concealed assumptions of culture which are, at the level of philosophical theory, explicated, rationalized and systematized, or on the contrary surpassed. Traditionally the subjects that are examined are the preconditions of human rationality, of history, society, human behavior, prerequisites of science, cognition, and thinking, and of human existence itself. Therefore, metaphysics is interested not in the factuality of the given phenomena themselves, but in how and why they are even possible, in how and why history, science, cognition, thinking, and even man are possible. Here, logically, the basic question arises: what is the most fundamental, i.e. the absolute premise in comparison to which all others are derived? And in which sphere should we search for it: in the sphere of being, natural or social, in the sphere of human consciousness, or a form of objective spirit? Philosophy, considered as metaphysics, focuses on the apprehension of an unconditional basis of reality; it is an attempt to grasp the absolute as a solid stable starting point allowing us to understand our changing, relative world. Similar questions were undoubtedly included in Russian dialecticalmaterialistic philosophy, which considers matter as the absolute foundation of the world.

Furthermore, philosophy in materialistic interpretation should not be just a cognition that generalizes the knowledge of science. It should not be only a plain statement about cognizable reality, but also an evaluation, i.e. a statement expressing a certain attitude, especially ethical and aesthetic.

Russian materialism thus does not have a naturalistic form. Naturalism is criticized as a vulgarized form of materialism. Even though man is consistently derived from the material world, the material world in its entirety is not identified with nature alone. Russian materialistic philosophy advocates the view that society is also a part of the material world, and it is society that forms the true substance of man. Man, as a social and cultural creature, transcends nature substantially, in the course of history their substance and life have been becoming increasingly distant from nature, and the socio-cultural reality has been gradually taking over the function of a decisive human determinant. This is also the reason of a certain in←14 | 15→tellectual attraction of materialistic philosophy in its Russian form. Many people believe that man is exceptional, especially by their ability to deny biological determinism, which is a necessary prerequisite for human moral existence. However, at the same time they often reject the belief in God, because it is often perceived as an opponent of science and a remnant of medieval ignorance. Russian materialistic philosophy may then appear to be a convenient compromise between religion and naturalism.

While Russian religious philosophy rejects any compromise with naturalism, it also realizes that in the conditions of the 20th century the religious approach must be partially rationalized, i.e. given a form that will be acceptable to a person living in a world dominated by science. This rationalization, however, by no means takes the form of some opportunism. It is not about saving faith by sacrificing its part in favor of rationality. At the same time, it is not about saving the purity of faith by separating it – in the field of theology – from the world of science, for it would only create a spiritual ghetto of no universal significance. Russian religious philosophy wants to save faith by demonstrating its rationality, by showing faith as a constitutive basis of reason, because this is the only way to justify its universal worldview ambitions. The tendency to demonstrate the rational character of faith has found its most appropriate expression in the metaphysics of all-unity.14

After a preliminary examination of the terrain of the philosophical cognition of man and indicating of the two major worldview approaches, which can become the basis of philosophical anthropology, we will move on to specific historical forms in the way they were realized in the 20th century in the Russian language environment. At least a brief outline of the situation in today’s philosophical anthropology was necessary because the cur←15 | 16→rent meaning of philosophical ideas that arose in the past is determined by the state of contemporary knowledge. This is an important criterion for selecting and determining the relevance of partial historical anthropological theories. However, it is also necessary to admit that if we had chosen a different context, and not the worldview one, as a criterion, other characters, ideas and concepts could have appeared in our interpretation.

1. Russian Philosophy of the 20th Century

At present, the term “Russian philosophy” is interpreted in two ways. In a broader definition, Russian philosophy includes all the philosophy that originated and gradually emerges in the Russian language environment. This is how Russian philosophy is conceived in the systematic work The History of Russian Philosophy,15 which maps the development of Russian philosophy from the 11th century to the present, and contains an interpretation of all the more significant philosophical directions which have found an expression in Russia. In a narrower definition, Russian philosophy includes only a specific form of philosophy that originated in Russia at the end of the 19th century and flourished in the first half of the 20th century. This narrow concept can be found in today already classic works in the field of the history of Russian philosophy: History of Russian Philosophy by V. V. Zenkovsky16 and History of Russian philosophy by N. O. Lossky.17 N. O. Lossky explicitly combines the formation of a specific Russian philosophy with the efforts to “systematically develop the Christian worldview.” 18 The narrower concept is more appropriate if we, in the historical approach, want to emphasize the authenticity of Russian philosophy as an original stage in the history of philosophy. In our text, however, we are inclined toward the wider concept because it allows us to better realize the comparative goal of our research.

Over the last century, Russian philosophy underwent a dramatic development. The first two decades had a very pluralistic character. For example, the classification given by the well-known Russian philosophy expert ←16 | 17→Boris Jakovenko in 1938 contains seven major streams of Russian philosophical thinking: spiritualism, materialism, idealism, realism, criticism, positivism and intuitivism, within which 213 sub-movements, schools and approaches were singled out on the basis of thorough research.19 At the same time, however, it is worth noting that Jakovenko was unable to make important generalizations as a result of his too detailed analysis. The reason is obvious – essential tendencies that have influenced the development of philosophical thinking and which can be topical also for current philosophy can be distinguished only with the benefit of hindsight.

Thanks to him, and with the knowledge of the further fate of philosophy in Russia, today we are able to carry out a generalizing synthesis. Among the hundreds of schools, Jakovenko did not recognize the determinant directions of Russian philosophical thinking, which at the beginning of the century did not necessarily appear as dominant and internally consistent to the contemporaries, nevertheless in the further development they proved to be crucial. At the beginning of the century, two main streams began to form in Russian philosophy: religious and materialistic (Marxist), which retained their philosophical importance. It is precisely the clash of the religious attitude with the materialistic one that appears to be philosophically determining and productive in the field of anthropological knowledge. The comparison of opposing worldview orientations in their sharp confrontation, which occurred in the Russian philosophical environment, is one of the reasons and perhaps the main one why it makes sense to deal with Russian philosophy. Both alternative philosophical streams had a period of ascension and general glorification, but currently they both are facing a rejecting criticism escalating into condemnation.

Although the Russian materialistic (Marxist) philosophy lost the status of official philosophy at the very end of the 20th century, it also freed itself from the degrading function of the “servant” of the Communist Party and, in its politically neutral form, it might prove its creative potential. In today’s Russian environment, Marxist philosophy is still an important force because the vast majority of philosophers derive from the Marxist tradition on which they themselves or at least their teachers have grown.20 Even ←17 | 18→though it does not develop as a separate and exclusive direction anymore (at least not in the academic environment), the Marxist approaches are still present in various forms in many recent philosophical researches (and also anthropological), and many philosophers even continue to support the position explicitly expressed, for example, by J. P. Sartre in his Critique of dialectical reason that Marxism is an invincible horizon of culture21 and that “the only true interpretation of human history is given by historical materialism.”22

In addition to admirers and followers, the evidence of the importance of Russian Marxist philosophy is given also by a number of critics and opponents. There was even a specialized science discipline, so-called Sovietology, which was established in the 20th century, and its subject matter was the criticism of Marxist thinking in the Soviet Union.23 A wide range of respected thinkers polemized with Marxist thinking, and as R. Bankowicz summarizes today: “A coherent treatise on the critical discussion about Marxism would therefore require the creation of a separate encyclopedia, and the question is whether such a versatile and complete presentation of the thing would even be practicable.”24 Furthermore, if we start with the assumption that the number of Marxist philosophers many times outnumbers their critics, then we come to the conclusion that this is a unique spiritual phenomenon that should not be neglected and underestimated.

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Likewise, the religious philosophy that we can regard in the early 20th century as an opponent of materialistic (Marxist) philosophy in Russia25 has not lost its meaning completely. Even today we can consider it a radical alternative to materialistic philosophy. For example, Pope John Paul II emphasized its importance when he wrote in his encyclical Fides et ratio: “We see the same fruitful relationship between philosophy and the word of God in the courageous research pursued by more recent thinkers, among whom I gladly mention, in a Western context, figures such as John Henry Newman, Antonio Rosmini, Jacques Maritain, Étienne Gilson and Edith Stein and, in an Eastern context, eminent scholars such as Vladimir S. Soloviev, Pavel A. Florensky, Petr Chaadaev and Vladimir N. Lossky.”26

The victory of the Socialist Revolution interrupted the development of the religious-philosophical tradition on the Russian soil27 because one of the goals of building the socialist society was to overcome religion in all its manifestations and to establish the spiritual culture on materialistic grounds. Strict atheism was a part of the materialistic worldview, which became an official state ideology. The suppression of religious orientation in philosophy and its replacement with Marxist philosophy, which was strictly atheistic, was the logical consequence of promoting atheism in society. In the five-volume History of Philosophy in the USSR, published between 1968 and 1988 (about 4200 pages in total), religious philosophy was given only a minor note in two sentences: “Religious-mystical idealism of ←19 | 20→Solovyov had a great influence on bourgeois philosophy. His most reactive ideas were accepted by the last defenders of Russian idealism – N. Berdyaev, S. Bulgakov, L. Karsavin, L. Lopatin, N. Lossky, P. Florensky, S. Frank, V. Ern and others.”28

The failure to build socialism has evoked social changes in Russia, including the abolition of the monopoly of materialistic (Marxist) philosophy. The space has opened up to philosophical plurality again. This meant a certain renewed interest in religious philosophy. In the 1990s, the works of Russian religious philosophers began to be re-published, thus creating a wider opportunity to study the sources and then try to understand and interpret this philosophical tradition in new conditions and, alternatively, follow it in a creative way.


ISBN (Paperback)
2021 (März)
Russian materialism Russian religious philosophy mankind reason faith
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 218 S.

Biographische Angaben

Jaromír Feber (Autor:in) Helena Hrehová (Autor:in) Peter Rusnák (Autor:in)

Jaromir Feber specializes in the subject of Russian philosophy, political philosophy and ethics, philosophy of history and integral anthropology. He studied at the University of Saint Petersburg, where he defended his dissertation thesis – interpretation of work of S. L. Frank, N. A. Berdyaev, A. A. Ermicev. He is the author of several studies, monographs about Náboženská filozofie S. L. Franka (2005), Metodologické poznámky nejen ke studiu ruské náboženské filozofie (2007), and co-author of several collective monographs. Now he is teaching in Department of Ethics, Faculty of Arts, University of Trnava. Helena Hrehova specializes (in Slovak professional milieu) in the history of Russian philosophical thinking and its consequences in the fields of philosophy, ethics, culture, social sphere, history and moral theology. As an expert on Russian religious thought (see previously published literature in medium of monograph), expert on the work of V. S. Solovyov, Vyseslavcev (she defended dissertation thesis at Pontificia Universitas Gregoriana in Rome in 1995 and published it in Italian in 1997 under the title Il personalismo etico in Eros trasfigurato di B. P. Vyseslavcev nel contesto della morale ortodossa russa), as well as S. L. Frank, P. Evdokimov, L. P. Karsavin, B. Arsenyev, A. Men, is guarantee of specialized and high professional level of the planned research. Peter Rusnák is teaching staff in the Department of Ethics, Faculty of Arts, University of Trnava. He specializes in the subject of history of moral philosophy, modern Russian thought, philosophy of education, environmental ethics and comparing ethical systems. He is the author of several studies, monographs Pravda, veda, symbol (2008), Čítanie z Heideggera (2013) and co-author of the collective monograph Fenomén krásy v slovanskom myslení (2011).


Titel: Man between Sacrum and Profanum in Russian Philosophy in 20th Century
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218 Seiten