Interview with Mikhail Epstein

By | June 15, 2021

The below is an interview with the author of The Phoenix of Philosophy, Mikhail Epstein.

How would you describe your book in one sentence?

This book is about the intellectual movements in the late Soviet Union that helped to destroy the totalitarian system built on the Marxist philosophical foundation.

What drew you to writing about this subject?

All existing histories of Russian and Soviet philosophy end their coverage in the mid-twentieth century, which happens to be the time of my own birth (1950). This prompted me to move further, into the latter half of the twentieth century. I grew up and developed professionally in Moscow among the people of the older generation who made the philosophy of this epoch; I read their books and attended their lectures. I felt it my duty to appraise their legacy and explain how the most durable tyranny of the twentieth century, enforced by a Marxist philosophical utopia, was shattered by different kinds of philosophy: personalism and liberalism, structuralism, neorationalism, phenomenology and cultural studies. Rarely in the history of thought have philosophy and the humanities as a whole served as so liberating a force as in Russia from the 1950s through the 1980s. 

How long have you been researching it? How did you come to study it?

When I moved from the Soviet Union to the United States in 1990, I served for a year as a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (Washington DC), exploring the language of Soviet ideology. Then I decided to expand my research to include the full scope of late-Soviet intellectual movements. This extensive work, under its initial title Russian Philosophical and Humanistic Thought since 1950, was produced in 1992–4. At the time, I left this project unfinished, as I was carried away by other interests, publishing at the turn of the century such books as The Philosophy of the PossibleTranscultural Experiments, and Postmodernism in Russia. It took me another twenty years to reappraise the intellectual vigor and far-reaching repercussions of late-Soviet non-Marxist thought and to complete the book The Phoenix of Philosophy and its companion volume Ideas against Ideocracy (scheduled to appear later this year). I hope this analysis of the recent past may have some useful inferences even for our own time, when Marxism is gaining new adherents. 

What does your book focus on that hasn’t been explored elsewhere?

Extensive research has been done on the impact of Marxist philosophy on Russia’s October Revolution and the building of the Soviet state. But there has hardly been any research on the impact of late-Soviet philosophy on the collapse of the Soviet Union. This twentieth-century superpower was created as a “philosophical State,” and neither can its end be explained apart from certain philosophical premises. Such is the task of my book: to demonstrate the philosophical underpinnings of aunique historical event, the breakup of a monumental political regime built on Marxist foundations.

What initially drew you to studying philosophy?

In the Soviet Union, where I lived until the age of forty, the study and practices of philosophy were the most effective way of resistance to the system, which was itself based on philosophy (Marxism, materialism, and atheism). Independent philosophy was under suspicion as a potentially subversive activity. In this period, from the 1950s to the 1980s, to philosophize was an act of self-liberation via an awareness of the relativity of the dominant ideological discourse. “Give me whereon to stand,” said Archimedes, “and I will move the earth.” In my youth, standing on a certain philosophical ground allowed one to distance oneself from the existing system and to challenge it, at least intellectually. Thus my generation looked for alternativesto Marxist totalitarianism in the philosophy of Western and Russian idealists, existentialists, and religious thinkers. If you are deeply dissatisfied with the prevailing order of things, you need to rely on philosophy, because it offers the most radical alternatives.

Mikhail Epstein is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Cultural Theory and Russian Literature at Emory University, USA. From 2012–2015 he was Professor of Russian and Cultural Theory and Founding Director of the Centre for Humanities Innovation at Durham University, UK. His research interests include new directions in the humanities and methods of intellectual creativity, contemporary philosophy, postmodernism, Russian literature, and philosophy and religion of the 20th–21st centuries. He is the author of 39 books, including The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto (Bloomsbury, 2012), and more than 800 articles and essays. His work has been translated into 24 languages.

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