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Chapter Five— Icon and Logos, or Why Russian Philosophy Is Always Theology
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Chapter Five—
Icon and Logos, or Why Russian Philosophy Is Always Theology

Russia does not really have a philosophical tradition in the same sense that other European cultures do. If you were looking into the subject for the first time and went to one of the English-language anthologies of Russian thinkers, you would be amazed to see, first, that almost no one who lived before the late eighteenth century was represented and, second, that most of the writers who were represented were not philosophers at all. If you had ever had a course in Russian literature, you would be surprised to recognize in the anthology the names of a great many writers you had heard of as either novelists—Dostoevsky and Tolstoy have earned the distinction of being considered "thinkers"—or literary critics. There would be political writers and social critics (which in nineteenth-century Russia often mean the same thing as literary critics), and there would be religious thinkers. But almost none could be classified as philosophers in the same way we classify, say, Kant or Hegel as philosophers.

Historians, in their search for themes and patterns, have not yet been able to decide whether the characteristic style of Russian thought is secular, religious, or a maddening, Dostoevskian hesitation between the two. For that matter they have not been able to decide which writers to include in books on the history of Russian thought (or philosophy, when they insist on using the word). The Polish scholar Andrzej Walicki, for example, has written a book titled A History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism, which, though it certainly includes sections on the important religious thinkers of the nineteenth and early


twentieth centuries, leaves the reader with the impression that the greatest contribution of Russian thought was in the area of social and political criticism.[1] The bulk of his discussion of the twentieth century is devoted to the evolution of political thought that results in Leninism. The reader would have a much different impression from reading another of the standard works on the subject, N. O. Lossky's History of Russian Philosophy .[2] Lossky was himself a religious man who emigrated to this country and spent the last years of his scholarly career at the Saint Vladimir Russian Orthodox Seminary of New York. Although he mentions most of the social and political thinkers that Walicki discusses, he devotes more than half his book to mystical and religious thinkers of the early twentieth century. One is likely to come away from Lossky's book with the idea that the religious current in Russian thought is central and the political current an aberration.

Of course, it would be foolish to pretend that either current, the religious or the secular, exists to the exclusion of the other. Russian culture contains a great many dualisms, and this is one of them. But it distorts matters to decide with Walicki that the early twentieth century in Russia is largely the affair of Marxism simply because Marxism triumphed in the end. As it happens, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were an extraordinarily rich period for religious thought in Russia. Naturally, few of the strictly religious ideas of this period caught on or had any obvious lasting effect in postrevolutionary Soviet culture, and many of the most important writers of this era, like Lossky, emigrated to the West shortly after the revolution. Nonetheless, this is precisely the period when a great creative upheaval took place in Russian culture, the brief interlude of freedom that produced many influential works in Russian arts and letters. It is the period of the transformation that Eagleton speaks of, a period that yields an uncanny number of isms in an amazingly short time: symbolism, Acmeism, Futurism, Formalism, and on and on. It is also the period that produced the young Roman Jakobson.

My own view is that the religious current in Russian thought is far more determining than the secular, political current, at least as concerns later developments in literary aesthetics in the West. There is no doubt that Marxism triumphed politically in Russia, even if we countenance the argument that Soviet Marxism is merely another form of religious faith. But the mass emigration of intellectuals who found by the late 1920s or earlier that the new regime had no place for them—and Jakobson was among these—brought to the West the legacy of centuries of religious thought, often in covert form.



A critical moment for Russian culture occurred before there was any such thing as Russia and more than two centuries before the country that later became Russia converted to Christianity. It has to do with the church father Saint John of Damascus, who led the theological battle in the eighth century against the forces of iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire. Images representing religious figures had been in use among Christians for some time before the days of Saint John, but there had been opposition to them among certain believers on the grounds that worshiping them meant worshiping false gods. Iconoclasm gained political force by the eighth century, and in 754 Emperor Constantine V convened a church council in Constantinople at which the veneration of icons was declared both heretical and illegal.

John of Damascus was a theologian who devoted much of his life to defending icons against the iconoclasts. Since he lived first in Syria and then in Palestine, under the protection of a Moslem caliph, he was free to write in defense of icons at a time when Christians elsewhere were having difficulty embracing that position. When the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea was convened in 787 to condemn iconoclasm and reverse the position of the Council of 754, church authorities used many of the arguments that John had presented in his defense of icons.

The case for the defense of icons rests on the analogy between icons and the Incarnation. God is invisible, immaterial, immeasurable. By the Incarnation, however, God became visible in his Son and thereby partook of the flesh and blood of corporeal beings.[3] This meant that through Christ men were able to have a limited understanding of the intangible, since visible things serve as corporeal models of the invisible (DI, p. 20). The Son is therefore an image (eikon in Greek) of the invisible God, since an image is defined as the result of God's having become visible by partaking of flesh and blood (DI, p. 19; PG, 94:1240c). Images, or icons, thus stand in the same relation to God as does the Word made flesh, or Christ. "I do not draw an image of the immortal Godhead, but I paint the image of God who became visible in the flesh, for if it is impossible to make a representation of a spirit, how much more impossible is it to depict the God who gives life to the spirit?" (DI, p. 16). To refuse to bow before images is the same as refusing to bow before the Son of God (DI, p. 28).

John's purpose was specifically to refute the iconoclasts' notion that venerating icons meant venerating false gods. The iconoclasts wanted to


prohibit the worship of icons because they regarded such worship as idolatry, and idolatry (eidololatreia ) implies the adoration (latreia, a form of respect due only to God) of idols (eidola) . Adoring idols thus meant considering them as gods, in the view of the iconoclasts. But venerating icons is different from idolatry, says John. For one thing, the form of respect is not the absolute adoration that should be reserved for God alone; it is, literally, a bowing down before (proskynesis ), a form of obeisance that one makes to people or things to whom honor is due. But more important is that images are not held to be gods. One cannot make an image of the invisible, immeasurable God, says John, and it is therefore absurd to suppose that in bowing down before an image one is bowing down before a god different from the one, immeasurable God.

The consequences of this doctrine are incalculable for Eastern Orthodox theology. The fundamental idea is the act of condescension or humiliation by which God became flesh in his Son. The Greek word for this act is kenosis, which means an emptying and refers to the way in which God emptied himself of his divinity to take on the form of man in his Son. The condescension is seen in many different realms of being and is thus essential to the broadness of the doctrine that John outlines. Christ is God made flesh and represents a humiliation of God the Father. Images are visible things, and "visible things are corporeal models which provide a vague understanding of intangible things"; so images, too, are a humiliation (p. 20). In fact, all creation is the result of the same kind of humiliation, and thus, says John, to prohibit the veneration of images is to assume that matter itself is despicable. But matter is not despicable, for it was created by God, as were men and their human practices (pp. 60—61):"You see that the law and everything it commanded and all our own practices are meant to sanctify the work of our hands, leading us through matter to the invisible God" (p. 67).

If the iconoclasts were afraid that Christians were worshiping inanimate objects with pictures drawn on them, John felt he could allay their fears by pointing out one of the most important facts of icon veneration: the honor given the image is transferred to the prototype, to what the image stands for (p. 40). God himself is never represented in icons; icon painters had at their disposal a limited number of subjects, usually Christ, the Mother of God, and a few saints. But by the doctrine of God's condescension an image of any of these subjects is an image of God incarnate, and so the prototype of an icon is ultimately the divinity. The essential thing about icon veneration is that the image is an incarnation and that one venerates the image not as God but as the image of


God incarnate (p. 40). "We see the invisible made visible through the visible representation," in the words of Simeon the Great, as John cites them (p. 104).

This is the doctrine that was adopted in the final definition (horos ) of the Council of Nicaea in 787, and it is the one that has been in force ever since. That definition begins by recognizing the two natures of Christ—one divine, one earthly. The two natures are united in one person, or hypostasis. We make iconographic representations, the council members said, "for the purpose of ascertaining the incarnation of God the Word."[4] "He who venerates the icon venerates the hypostasis of the person depicted on it."[5]

There is thus an implicit epistemology in this doctrine of icon veneration, if epistemology is the right word. The doctrine of prototypes means that the worshiper has to see the icon in a different way from that in which he or she sees other objects. An ordinary act of seeing an object is not accompanied in most people by an idealist sense that the object they are perceiving is not physically real, that it is merely an intuition of an object that can never really be known in itself. But the perception of the icon apparently must be accompanied by such a sense because the physical object, the piece of wood adorned with colors and lacquers forming a picture of the Mother of God, is understood as a mere facade for the grace that stands behind it. One has to look through the wood and paint into the invisible and immaterial, into something beyond that cannot be seen. The icon is like Christ: it has two natures united in one object. Christ's two natures meant that through him mere mortals could participate in the grace of God the Father, in a limited way, because they shared with Christ at least his physical nature. The icon performs the same service: it allows the worshiper a limited contact with the immeasurable through the intermediary of sensible matter. So icon veneration has a kind of idealism built into it that operates in the mind of the ordinary worshiper.

Plenty of things happened in the history of Russian Orthodoxy to insure that this doctrine would subsist and that it would be intuitively accepted by as many people as possible. For instance, the Orthodox church required that icon artists work anonymously. The main idea was that they were to work for God's glory, not their own. But the requirement was also founded on the belief that the icon artist contributed nothing of his own to his pictures. Every iconic image was meant to be an imitation of a previous image, which was itself an imitation of a previous image, and so on, back to an image based on an actual physical


view of the person represented. Icons were thus never designed to be appreciated for their beauty. The "aesthetic" posture of the viewer was discouraged by the prominent sense that the picture was authorless and not "real": it always pointed back either to a tradition or to an invisible prototype. The principles of icon theology were destined to become widely known as icons themselves became increasingly common. By the sixteenth century they were already frequently displayed in private homes, and thereafter they became a fixture.


In Christian theology the expression Word of God refers to the Second Person of the Trinity, or Christ. Christ is the Word (Logos) made Flesh. Icon and Logos are thus closely related concepts, since the nature of the icon derives from the Incarnation of the Word. Logos is a complicated term. In Greek it refers to a whole range of things, from spoken discourse in general, to narrative, to thought, to the New Testament Word of God. In theology the chief ambiguity of the Logos is between its sense as Son of God and the ordinary sense having to do with language. Theology, I said earlier, is God-talk, or God-word. In Russian it is bogoslovie, from bog, "god," and slovo, "word." The very term for the discipline is meaningfully ambiguous.

Because of the intimacy of the concepts icon and logos, because of the hesitation of logos, or word, between theological and other meanings, philosophy of language in Russia has generally been explicitly or implicitly a kind of theology. The late nineteenth century brought a revival of theological thought in Russia together with a surge in philosophical activity. But philosophy and theology were characteristically not entirely distinct in this period just as in others, and one result of the revival of both disciplines was the appearance in the early twentieth century of an Orthodox philosophy of language.

Naftali Prat, a Russian scholar now living in Israel, has investigated this often-neglected episode in the history of the early modern era in an article titled "Orthodox Philosophy of Language in Russia."[6] Prat identifies several sources of this trend: Platonism as it traditionally dominates Orthodox theology, German idealism, Husserlian phenomenology, and Russian poets. The dominant source, however, is Platonism, and Platonism implies the doctrine of the logos. Prat shows that logos in this tradition has to do with the unity of thought and language and the


notion of adequately expressing a thought by means of the word. In the Russian philosophico-theological tradition the message of Plato's Cratylus is not the conventionality of language but rather that part of the name that is given by nature. Names express the essence of named objects through the eidos, or idea, of that object, Prat says (p. 3). In a strictly religious arena, in the early years of the twentieth century, language and the nature of names were the subject of an intense debate. At issue was the doctrine of imjaslavie, or glorification of the name, according to which God is immediately present in his name. Prat believes that the dispute over this Christian Platonic doctrine gave the "decisive impulse" to establishing an Orthodox philosophy of language in this century (p. 2).

If the logical origin of icons is in the doctrine of the logos, then it is not surprising that the two concepts should have analogous natures or that the logos should suggest an epistemology similar to the one we saw in the icon. The icon contains its reference to an invisible prototype. The logos contains its invisible essence or idea, whether by "logos" we mean the Second Person of the Trinity or simply a name. Icon and logos require a similar act of seeing, one that goes beyond the physical object toward an immaterial essence, idea, or grace, and thus they come together in the notion of idealism. Neither concept can exist without the ultimately Platonic sense that the physical thing stands for, or points to, something purely ideal.

Early modern literary aesthetics in Russia is completely dominated by this kind of thinking. I have not been able to find any important thinkers of that age that escape it. Even the most "scientific" writers, like Jakobson and his precursors the Formalists, perpetuate the idealist assumptions underlying Orthodox theology and language philosophy. Russian literary aesthetics in this period and the related disciplines that have fostered so much of our subsequent thinking about literary texts in the twentieth century are really an iconology, a logology, an Orthodox Christology, if only in disguise.

But sometimes it is not in disguise at all. We have an entirely false picture of the intellectual climate of turn-of-the-century Russia because all we ever hear about is the ostensibly secular and scientific thinkers that have been adopted by later twentieth-century schools of criticism. There is a whole range of immensely important and influential thinkers who unabashedly used the language of Orthodox theology. Some were genuinely religious; others were not (or were less so). Some continued to write until well after the revolution, although for those who had not


emigrated it became difficult toward the end of the 1920s to write anything that sounded like theology. If we take a look at what some of the more overtly religious writers were saying about art and language, then we can see that they did not form an obscure, deviant branch of philosophy in an otherwise secularized age. On the contrary, they are the ones that set out the terms of the discourse; the "secular" thinkers appropriated those terms. There is a great deal more coherence in this age than we might think. After all, was it merely an accidental combination of words that Shklovsky, the great Formalist, hit upon when he titled one of the central aesthetic proclamations of the day "The Resurrection of the Word"?

Vladimir Solov'ev

It makes sense that the best (some might say the first, or even the only) Russian philosopher of the nineteenth century should be as deeply a religious man as Vladimir Sergeevich Solov'ev (1853–1900). Like so many other Russian thinkers, Solov'ev was not only religious but fundamentally ambivalent about Russian Christianity, flirting at various stages of his life with Orthodoxy's two greatest temptations, atheism and Catholicism. He was staggeringly precocious, beginning his mature writing career when he was in his twenties. He was astonishingly versatile, writing philosophy, poetry, and humorous theatre. And he was enormously influential: the whole symbolist movement in Russian letters finds the source for much of its essential thinking in him.

The root of Solov'ev's thought is the same as for John of Damascus and the same as for the entire Russian kenotic tradition. It all goes back to Christ, the Word incarnate: two natures, one person. Solov'ev's Lectures on Godmanhood, which he began writing at the age of twentyfour and which contain many of the principles he was to write about for the rest of his career, take their point of departure in the notion of Christ's—and consequently man's—dual nature.[7] Duality underlies everything for Solov'ev, who is an idealist in virtually every sense of the term. There is God and his creation; God and man; Christ's divinity and Christ's humanity; the world of ideas and the world of matter; the absolute, permanent, objective idea in the individual and the purely subjective, personal idea; and on and on.

History is the dynamic process of the unfolding of the world spirit, which Solov'ev defines as the "tendency toward the incarnation of the


Godhead in the world" (SS, 3:145). The Incarnation of the Word is the last link in a long chain of physical and historical incarnations. It is the crowning event in history because through it Christ abdicates his divine glory, thus simultaneously divinizing his humanity and humanizing his divinity. With the Incarnation it is no longer a question of simply a transcendent God: we now have the God-Logos, the personal incarnation of God. The Incarnation points up the duality of man's own nature and makes possible Solov'ev's dream of Godmanhood, by which he means an assertion of the divine and absolute that inheres in each of us (as it did in Christ through the miracle of the Incarnation). Solov'ev's dualism is thus not the dualism of radically separate entities; the whole point of Lectures on Godmanhood and the underlying doctrine of the Incarnation is to show the original unity and the continuity of God and nature. God inheres in nature; the ideal inheres in the material.

This is how we get to Solov'ev's doctrine of beauty and art. Beauty in nature and beauty in art are not different in kind for Solov'ev. Art is not an imitation of nature or even a mere duplication of nature's work; it is rather a continuation of what is begun by nature. What is begun by nature is the same kind of incarnation we found in the Godman. Beauty in nature is "the transformation of matter through the incarnation in it of another, supramaterial principle," Solov'ev says in an essay called "Beauty in Nature."[8] Thus beauty in nature is ultimately the expression of a purely ideal content. It is the "incarnation of an idea" (SS, 6:43) or, as Solov'ev puts it later on in the essay, the "sensible incarnation of a certain absolutely objective, completely single idea" (SS, 6:73), A diamond, for example, is an object of beauty because it represents an almost perfect embodiment (incarnation) of an idea, namely the idea of illuminated stone. The beauty of a diamond resides neither exclusively in its substance (coal) nor exclusively in the light it reflects and refracts, but in both. The substance provides a means for embodying the supramaterial, ideal agent of light, and this very embodiment embodies the idea of illuminated stone.

In an essay titled "The General Meaning of Art" Solov'ev shows where nature leaves off and art picks up.[9] "The beauty of nature," he says, "is merely a veil cast over evil life and not a transfiguration of that life. Man, therefore, with his rational consciousness, must be not only the end of the process of nature but also the means by which an ideal principle can exert an inverse, deeper, and fuller influence on nature" (SS, 6:78). Man enhances and furthers the work of the ideal in nature by creating artworks, and this act of creation consists precisely in the


type of incarnation whose result we see in diamonds and other objects of natural beauty. Beauty always represents the incarnation of an idea. The artistic activity of man incarnates an idea by uniting "a spiritual content and a sensible expression"; thus, through the "mutual penetration" of this content and this idea, "a material phenomenon that has truly become beautiful, that is, that has truly incarnated in itself an idea, must become just as enduring and immortal as the idea itself" (SS, p. 82).

The repeated use of the word incarnate and its various related forms in this essay is sufficient to show the theological character of Solov'ev's thought. The root notion is always condescension or kenosis, which translates, in aesthetics, as any process by which something that is not physical gets expressed in something that is. The triple task of art, says Solov'ev, consists in "(1) the direct objectificarion of those deepest internal determinations and qualities of the living idea that cannot be expressed by nature, (2) the animation of natural beauty and, through this, (3) the immortalization of the individual phenomena of that beauty" (SS, 6:84). It is almost senseless to speak of an iconology in Solov'ev, if by iconology we refer to a separate science of icons. Everything is iconic for him. All creation is pervaded with the ideal, and almost everything would seem to invite the kind of perceptual act I just described. But artworks are even more iconic than other things because in them the work of the ideal has been enhanced by man. More than other things, presumably, artworks highlight their own iconicity.

Andrei Bely

Bely's most ambitious essay from his symbolist period is "The Emblematics of Meaning."[10] It is terribly long, maddeningly digressive, and absurdly disorganized. There is little likelihood that many of Bely's contemporaries (or successors, for that matter) bothered to read through and understand the whole thing, and so it is equally unlikely that one can speak of any direct impact the essay had on subsequent thought. And yet the essay contains perhaps the essence of Bely's whole doctrine. That essence is hinted at in the way the fields of language theory and theology usually overlap in Bely's thought. In "The Emblematics of Meaning," however, Bely has stepped back from language theory to confront a more general area, one that subsumes language theory. His concern in this essay is meaning, understood in its broadest sense. Mean-


ing is involved in virtually every realm of human endeavor, so Bely's essay of logical necessity takes account of not only language, art, and artistic language but also many other fields. His approach to meaning amounts to a kind of formalistic, secularized, twentieth-century version of Orthodox iconology.

There are two broad categories of meaning, as Bely sees it: symbolic meaning and emblematic meaning. Symbolic meaning is meaning presented in images; emblematic meaning is meaning presented in concepts. Symbolic meaning corresponds to creation, emblematic meaning to cognition. But the formal process by which both types of meaning are apprehended is identical, and since Bely could find no generic term to cover the two species symbolic and emblematic, he simply used the word emblematics in his title. "The Emblematics of Meaning" means that meaning is emblematic, which means that it comes into being by the formal process Bely defines in his essay.

Bely calls that formal process symbolization, by which he means something very similar to incarnation. Symbolization starts with an ideal quality and embodies (incarnates) that quality in some intelligible medium (an image or a concept). The result is a symbol or emblem. Bely was so pleased with his description of the logical origins of all meaning that he made a diagram of the various fields of human endeavor to show how they stack up in relation to one another. The diagram is a large triangle subdivided into many small triangles, each standing for a field of human knowledge (S, p. 639; SE, p. 145). The schema is hierarchical: the closer a field is to the ideal, which appears at the summit of the triangle, the farther up on the triangle it is located. The farther it is from the ideal, the lower down it appears. "Higher" fields are thus characterized by meanings with a greater ideal component, lower ones by meanings with a lower ideal component, which is to say that their meanings are more concrete. Any field on the triangle is in a sense derived from the one immediately above it by the same process of symbolization that yields all objects of meaning, and thus it stands in relation to that superior field as an object of meaning stands in relation to its ideal content. The higher field supplies the ideal for the lower field, and the lower field then "symbolizes" that ideal.

What is peculiar about Bely's system is how he appropriates the fundamental terms of Russian Orthodox iconology and logology but corrupts them by integrating into his system a set of godless philosophical concepts taken from some of the neo-Kantian thinkers then in vogue in Russia. I said earlier that the honor given to an icon is transferred to its


prototype, which must ultimately be understood as the divinity. What is the prototype for Bely? We can find it by looking at the summit of his triangle since the summit shows what is symbolized by everything beneath it. The highest small triangle on Bely's diagram bears the inscription Value . At the summit of this triangle, which is also the summit of the entire diagram, are the words Symbol Embodied (or Symbol Incarnate —there is no distinction in Russian).

The term value comes from the epistemological system of Heinrich Rickert. Rickert had reformed the Kantian theory of knowledge by asserting that values are the true objects of ordinary acts of cognition (see above, p. 51). Values are apprehended by an act of the will because for Rickert ordinary cognition has come to be based on a kind of ethical affirmation of truth. In connecting the ethical element with the will, Rickert was simply following Kant, for whom the will is the faculty that comes into play in our decisions of right and wrong. But for Kant the will connects us with the realm of freedom, and freedom is a transcendental idea (like the idea of God or the idea of immortality), something we cannot "know," something metaphysical that is not accessible to ordinary knowledge. Oddly enough, however, Rickert was antimetaphysical and saw his theory of knowledge as entirely scientific. His whole system was meant to reject the Kantian notion that there is a suprasensible world existing beyond the world of appearances. In fact, the modern notion of value philosophy, something that had just come into fashion at the end of the nineteenth century, represented an effort to provide secular and relativistic answers to traditional ethical questions. So when Bely jumps on the value bandwagon, he is for all intents and purposes committing himself to an antireligious philosophy.

But the structure of Bely's system is the structure of Orthodox iconology, and Bely is not in the least troubled by the easy mingling of religious and nonreligious terms that characterizes his essay. The summit of the value triangle, I said, is labeled Symbol Embodied . Bely often refers to this supreme term simply as the Symbol (with a capital S to distinguish it from ordinary symbols). What he appears to mean by it is the prototype of all symbol-forming activity, together with the reminder that such activity is a type of incarnation (embodiment). The ultimate, prototypical principle of value, and thus of everything meaningful, is the Symbol. How does the Symbol come to be expressed? Bely uses the example of the three triangles situated immediately under the value triangle: metaphysics, theosophy, and theurgy. "The Symbol is expressed in symbolizations," he says, "and, in the present case, metaphysics, the-


osophy and theurgy are such symbolizations" (S, p. 101; SE, p. 160). What is symbolization? "The Symbol cannot be given without symbolization. This is why we embody it in an image. The image embodying the Symbol is called a symbol only in a more general sense of the word. God, for example, is such a symbol, when seen as an existing something" (S, p. 105; SE, p. 164).

Here we can see how closely bound Bely is to his theological tradition. Remember that "embody" translates the Russian word that is used for the theological sense of "incarnate." Symbolization is the same sort of thing as incarnation. The last sentence of the passage I just quoted should leave no doubt about the analogy. How does God come to be "seen as an existing something"? Through his creation, or through his Word—that is, through the condescension that occurs in the act of Incarnation. A few sentences after this one Bely says, "The reality created by God is a symbolic reality" (S, p. 106; SE, p. 164). Thus symbolization is like God's creation, which is like the Incarnation of the Word.

This brings us back to the epistemology of icon worship. Bely chooses to call his objects symbols instead of icons, but the posture of the perceiver is the same in both instances. Like the Christian worshiper venerating icons, the perceiver of symbols is always looking through a level of concretion to something invisible beyond, and Bely has seen fit to call that something value (or the Symbol Embodied). Symbols can be all sorts of things, associated with all sorts of fields of endeavor. If they are associated with art, then we have a theory of aesthetics that is clearly traced on the original of Orthodox iconology. Has Bely theologized aesthetics or aestheticized theology? It doesn't make much difference. Even if the result of his efforts is an entirely faithless and formalistic system—in the sense that Bely isn't claiming a personal belief in God or literally suggesting the presence of God as a prototype behind all objects of meaning—the structure of his thought is clearly theological. And when we apply it to aesthetics, the possibility for confusing aesthetic reception with faithful adoration is very great indeed.

Sergei Bulgakov

The twentieth-century thinker who most successfully blurred the boundary between language philosophy and theology was probably Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov (1871–1944). Bulgakov's impact on later generations in his own country is difficult to assess exactly, but it is certainly


not great. His most important work on language, Philosophy of the Name, was written in 1919 but not published until 1953, after his death.[11] Bulgakov was forced to emigrate in 1922 since his religious views were clearly out of step with the views of the new Soviet state. A chapter of Philosophy of the Name was published in German translation in 1930, but it could not have been widely available in the Soviet Union.[12] Bulgakov's importance lies not so much in the degree to which he may have influenced other thinkers, Russian or not, as in the way he exemplifies overtly a tendency that is often only covert in his contemporaries, namely the tendency to approach language philosophy as Orthodox logology.

Bulgakov is a Platonist in the grand tradition of Orthodox theology. "What is the Word?" is the title of the first chapter of Philosophy of the Name, and the answer has to do with essence. The essence of a word is its eidos, says Bulgakov. As usual, Bulgakov gives an Orthodox coloring to a Platonic notion. The idea or eidos of a word is the same as the "inner word," the "sense" of the word (FI, p. 21), and this gives rise to a peculiar property of words. "Logos," says Bulgakov, switching freely into the Platonic-theological idiom (and using the actual Greek letters, too), "has a double nature: in it the Word and the thought, the body and the sense, are inseparably and unamalgamatedly fused" (FI, p. 19). If we didn't know this was a book about words we might simply think Bulgakov was explaining the Orthodox doctrine of the Logos. The Logos is Christ, and Christ has two natures in one person. In Christ the fleshly and the divine are inseparably united, just as body and sense (which is the same as the inner essence or Platonic idea) are united in Bulgakov's word. Christ is the Word incarnate, and Bulgakov naturally resorts to the Orthodox concept of the Incarnation to describe things that initially appear to have to do only with language. Meanings, he says, are ideas that become incarnate by means of words (FI, p. 21).

Bulgakov's subject is ambiguous from the outset. By calling his book Philosophy of the Name, instead of, say, Philosophy of Language or even Philosophy of the Word, Bulgakov is placing himself squarely in the same theological tradition that generated so much speculation about God's presence in his name. When Bulgakov comes to talk about language in an apparently grammatical context, he plays on the possible confusion between linguistics and theology by using the Russian word for "name" as the central term in his discussion. He can do so because several of the Russian words for parts of speech contain the word "name" (imja ), instead of the word "word" (slovo ). The expression for


"noun" in Russian, for instance, means something like "essential name" or "being-name" (imja suscestvitel'noe[*] ).

The transition from word to Word and from word to name is thus an easy one for Bulgakov. So, for that matter, is the transition from word to icon. Bulgakov is one of the few thinkers of the era to give explicit formulation to the analogy of word and icon and to locate the source of the analogy in the doctrine of kenosis. "Every icon is a name that has taken root and sprouted," he says (FI, p. 182). God's name is a "verbal icon of the Godhead" (FI, p. 184). The name of God "reveals itself in the word, our human word made up of sound," and this human word, declares Bulgakov, is an icon (FI, p. 190). God comes to be present in his name and in the names of human language through precisely the same kenosis as allowed for the Incarnation of the Word of God in God's Son. There is an implicit hierarchy in Bulgakov's conception, not unlike the one we find in Bely. At the top is God, in the sense of the idea of God, who is present in his own name. Next there is Christ, the humiliated divinity. The name of Jesus reflects this status, Bulgakov says; it is the name of God, but with a human element. At the next level down we have the words of human language. God's name reveals itself in these words, as I said a moment ago. Each new type of name, from the name of God down to the names, or words, of human language, represents an additional stage of concretion, of condescension, just as it had in Bely's pyramid. All names or words ultimately have a prototype, as they do for Bely. For Bulgakov this prototype is God, not value, but that does not alter the basic model. The same epistemology is implicit in Bulgakov's scheme. In Bulgakov, as in Bely, the act of apprehending an object of meaning is the same as the act of worshiping an icon: it means looking through and beyond to something that cannot be apprehended by fleshly beings.

Earlier I said that iconic thinking was so pervasive in Russia that even the apparently scientific thinkers like Jakobson did not escape its clutches. Jakobson will have to be considered as part of the same tradition as the more overtly theological thinkers I have just been talking about. The most curious thing about Bulgakov in this regard is that he is part of the same European linguistic tradition as Jakobson and all other early twentieth-century linguists. In the notes and appendixes to Philosophy of the Name we find references to Humboldt, Max Müller, Heymann Steinthal, Michel Bréal, and a host of other nineteenth-century philologists and linguists. So it is not true that Bulgakov was a theologian and nothing more, approaching the study of language from the per-


spective of a tradition buried in the recesses of Orthodox church history. On the contrary, he was quite a modern man, almost as much of one, in fact, as Roman Jakobson. Nor is it true that Bulgakov took his modern linguistic heritage and gave it a surprising and ungainly twist to make it fit his theology. Bulgakov's view of language is not substantially different from the prevailing Russian view of language. The theology that appears to the Western mind to be artificially superimposed on modern linguistics fits in a way that is completely natural for the Russian tradition of language philosophy. The proof is that we find the theology in Jakobson, too.

Pavel Florensky

The last figure I will talk about in this context is undoubtedly one of the most amazing intellectuals ever to have lived. It's worth saying again how tragic it is that history in the twentieth century intervened to eclipse the careers and reputations of so many Russians who would otherwise have been celebrated for astonishing achievements even beyond what they were able to accomplish before being condemned to oblivion—or death. Pavel Florensky (1882–1937) was so many things that it would be hard to decide which to list as his principal occupation: theologian, priest, mathematician, scientist, inventor, or philosopher. He wrote on art, language, organic chemistry, mysticism, Kant, sculpture, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Aegean culture, arithmetic, idealism, iconography, electromagnetism, microscopy, carbolic acid, asbestos, Pythagorean numbers, Aleksandr Blok, ecclesiology, and an absurd variety of other topics. After the revolution he was one of the few intellectuals with conservative views to be permitted to remain professionally active in the country, at least for a time. His training in science made him useful in the early years of the Soviet Union, when he applied his expertise as an electrical engineer to various public-works projects. It is a testimony to the enforced, selective blindness of Soviet history that until recently the achievement for which Florensky was perhaps best remembered officially in his own country was his invention in 1927 of a noncoagulating machine oil.

Before the revolution, in a climate that was more receptive to the full range of Florensky's interests, he was not obliged to concern himself with asbestos and machine oil. His most important writing is a monstrously large book called The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, an attempt to elaborate an entire Orthodox metaphysics based on the ideas


of love and friendship.[13] Florensky was also a leading figure in the cult of Divine Wisdom, or Sophia, a movement initiated by Solov'ev. Sophia was seen as various things: a kind of supreme prototype in the universe, a fourth member of the Trinity, the church, God's love, and another expression for the Mother of God.

The point of departure for Florensky's thinking shows what a Platonist and essentialist he was. The basic truth for Florensky is the existence of two worlds, a visible one and an invisible one. The first chapter, or "letter," of The Pillar and Ground is called "Two Worlds," and Florensky's long essay on icons, "Iconostasis," begins with reflections on the division of the world into visible and invisible. I have referred repeatedly to kenosis, the condescension of God in the Incarnation. Florensky describes kenosis as the entering of God into flesh, of one "I" into another "I" (SU, p. 92). This then serves as an analogy for a number of fundamentally related concepts: love, too, is the entering of an "I" into another "I." The condescension of God into human flesh thus becomes an act of love linking the invisible with the visible. Human cognition bears a significant analogy to love and kenosis because it consists in "the real going-out of the cognizing [subject] from himself or—what is the same—the real entering of the cognizing [subject] into the cognized [object]—the real union of cognizing [subject] and cognized [object] " (SU, p. 73). This means that cognition has to do with truth, which is the subject of Florensky's big book. "The essential cognition of Truth," he says, "that is, a communion with Truth itself, is, consequently, a real entering into the depths of the Divine Triunity . . . Therefore, true cognition—the cognition of Truth—is possible only through the transubstantiation of man, through his deification, through the acquisition of love as Divine essence . . . In love and only in love is the actual cognition of Truth thinkable" (SU, p. 74). Love, truth, cognition, kenosis, and, by implication, the Incarnation are thus all profoundly linked together. All either actually or by analogy bridge the gap between the visible and the invisible worlds.

Florensky came to the attention of literary scholars in recent years because of his writing on language and art. Members of the Tartu school of structuralism and semiotics, a group of Soviet scholars working at the University of Tartu in Estonia, rediscovered Florensky's writings some twenty years ago and, in the early 1970s, published several of them with footnotes and commentary. One of these is titled "Iconostasis."[14] The iconostasis is a screen in Orthodox churches that separates the sanctuary


from the nave and is covered with icons arranged in prescribed, complicated patterns. The essay is about icons, and it gives one of the most extended and complete philosophical treatments of the subject in the history of Russian iconology. It was written in 1922 but never published until 1972.

Much of what Florensky says about icons fits the standard formulations. In some cases, however, he has come up with novel ways of thinking about icons and novel terms in which to conceptualize them. He starts out by pointing to the truth underlying the existence of icons, namely the existence of a visible and an invisible world. Florensky says that the iconostasis represents the border between these two worlds. Icons are not art, they do not represent things, and icon painters do not create anything. Instead, icons are the means by which the prototype "witnesses" itself. Florensky says that when he sees an icon of the Mother of God, "in my consciousness there is no representation: there is a board with paints on it, and there is the Mother of our Lord Herself" (SS, 1:226). The prototypes that icons give us (or whose "self-witnessing" they give us) are suprasensible ideas, eide (the plural of eidos ) (SS, 1:225). The true icon artist seeks "the artistically embodied truth of things" (SS, 1:236). This is natural since for Florensky the apprehension of truth already has to do with the notion of embodiment or incarnation. It makes sense that the icon should be the artistic incarnation of truth because the icon is by nature a kenotic object, standing on the border between the visible and the invisible, and its apprehension, to follow what Florensky had said in The Pillar and Ground, is an act similar to love or to the apprehension of truth. Icon painting is thus a metaphysics of being (SS, 1:296).

This analysis is not significantly different from what we see in other writings in the Orthodox theology of icons, except perhaps for Florensky's emphasis on the concrete reality of the prototype that we experience in an icon. Florensky shows the same Platonic essentialism as others who had written in this field before him. In fact, at one point in the essay, he even mentions the closeness of Platonic ontology to iconography (SS, 1:290).

When he turns to language the Platonic essentialism and a Humboldtian myth of origins persist in Florensky's conception, but with a twist that is entirely new. There are two important places where we can learn Florensky's thoughts on language. There is The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, which contains numerous etymological excursuses on various concepts. And there is a short article titled "The Construction of the


Word," which Florensky wrote sometime before 1922, but which was not published during his lifetime.[15]

In The Pillar and Ground Florensky shows a fondness for philological speculation that anticipates Heidegger. We find the same simple faith in the myth of original purity, the same sense that a primitive, essential core dwells in a word over the centuries and continues to have signifying force for the speakers of a particular nation. In his chapter on truth, for instance, Florensky examines the words for "truth" in a number of different languages and includes an analysis of the Greek word aletheia similar to Heidegger's celebrated treatment in his 1943 essay "Aletheia." We find, too, the same willingness to cross the boundary between sober scholarly accuracy and pure fancy in his etymological work. In fact, Florensky openly acknowledges and even justifies his transgressions in a footnote to one of his etymological analyses in The Pillar and Ground : "Philosophy creates language, not studies it." He then strangely cites as his authority Humboldt and the theory that language is a dynamic process (SU, p. 786).

"The Structure of the Word" contains a theory of language that is extraordinary for the way it combines the traditional romantic myth of origins with a more "modern," contextual theory. Florensky's point of departure is the observation that a basic antimony underlies language. Every word, he says, derives at once from a set of primary elements common to all speakers and from the mind and thoughts of the individual speaker. The word is thus both public and private. It contains elements that must not change from utterance to utterance in order for a community of speakers to have a fixed means of communication. At the same time, since the word is used in actual utterances, it contains elements that are peculiar to those utterances and to the speakers making them.

Florensky then builds on this antinomy a theory of inner and outer form clearly derived from Potebnia, except that he performs a fascinating reversal of Potebnia's terms. Outer form, according to Florensky, is what he calls the body of the word. It is the word's unchanging composition, which serves common reason. Inner form, by contrast, is the very soul of the word. It is constantly changing, always being born anew, and it serves individual reason. Potebnia, remember, had equated the inner form of the word with its closest etymological meaning. Florensky retains both the idea of inner form and the idea of a closest etymological meaning, but he changes things around and associates the closest etymological meaning, what he calls the etymon, with outer form. That's be-


cause the etymon, which is the true flesh of the word, provides the constant element in a word, the element that does not appreciably change from one utterance to the next. Florensky uses the same terms as Potebnia to describe this changeless element in a word. It is the old etymological myth of origins. The etymon for Florensky is the word's "original [pervonacal'noe ][*] or truthful [istinnoe ] meaning."[16] Florensky gives an example of a word with its etymological derivation to illustrate what "primeval [pervobytnyj ] man" thought about the object designated by that word.[17] But Florensky's conclusion is entirely different from Potebnia's. For Florensky, the etymon is merely part of the outer form of the word, that is, the form that serves the needs of the community of speakers. It is not the soul of the word.

The soul of the word is its inner form. Florensky also calls this the "sememe." The sememe is what belongs to the particular speaker on the particular occasion of a particular utterance. "The sememe of a word constantly wavers," says Florensky, "it breathes, it is iridescent and has no independent meaning that exists separately from this speech of mine, spoken right here and now, in the whole context of lived experience and also in the present place of this speech."[18] The notion that speech is, at least on one level, linked with inner, private experience leads Florensky to the following bold observation: "Words are unrepeatable; in every instance they are spoken anew, that is, with a new sememe, and in the best case this will be a variation on an earlier theme. . . . Only the outer form of a word can be objectively one and the same thing in a conversation, but never the inner form."[19]

What do we make of an assertion like this? There is no doubt that the Platonist and essentialist impulse is there. The whole doctrine of inner form as it was modified by Potebnia was Platonic because it linked the essence of the word with something basically ahistorical. Florensky may have seen himself as returning to Humboldt's notion of inner form, which had to do with the dynamic nature of language and not with frozen, ahistorical meanings. But there is an important difference here, too. For Humboldt, the dynamic, generative nature of language had to do with a concept of nationhood. It was the Volk with all its generative cultural energy that was responsible for the constant process of renewal that languages undergo. With Florensky, however, the emphasis is on the individual utterance, on the implicit isolation and uniqueness of any act of speech. His use of the word context, the idea that speech can be understood only in relation to a total "lived" set of circumstances, is particularly striking since it anticipates all those lonely twentieth-cen-


tury postmodern theories of language, which see language as ultimately unstable because it is always "implicated" in a ceaselessly changing historical context. This contextuality is what Florensky appears to regard as essential in language. But the most Platonic and essentialist concept in Florensky's theory of language is associated for him with the aspect of language that is least essential, namely its outer form.

Earlier I said that Bulgakov was an important figure not because of any impact his writings had on his contemporaries or on future generations but because his thinking arises from the same tradition as the thinking of figures that did have an enormous impact on future generations in the West. This is true of Florensky, too. But with Florensky we can speak of a few actual points of contact with his contemporaries. Aage A. Hansen-Löve, for instance, in his huge book on the Formalist movement, asserts that an essay by Florensky on perspective in art was known to the Formalists, although he doesn't say to which Formalists it was known or what sort of response it drew from any of them.[20] Another scholar mentions Florensky as part of a history of Soviet semiotics, saying that Florensky and a few better-known writers contributed to the study of the relation between signs and extralinguistic reality.[21]

Most important of all, however, is the connection with Mikhail Bakhtin. In Bakhtin's theory of discourse all speech is part of a dialogue. The word never exists in isolation but gets its meaning from the context in which it is uttered. Thus for Bakhtin, too, words are unrepeatable, since contexts are unrepeatable. Bakhtin spent most of his life in obscurity or in internal exile in the Soviet Union, and his writings were not widely known even abroad until the 1970s. But he has since become popular in the academic literary establishment. As it happens, Florensky and Bakhtin were part of the same intellectual circle in the 1920s, and there are affinities between their ways of thinking that can perhaps be explained by the circumstance that Bakhtin was, to a surprising extent, a religious man in the Orthodox tradition. Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist, who have written the standard biography of Bakhtin, show the religious bases of his theory of language. There are two concepts, both deriving from the familiar doctrine of kenoticism. The first is something called sobornost ', which Clark and Holquist translate as "communality."[22] It refers to the brotherhood on earth of Christian worshipers, and it derives from the idea of the shared experience with Christ that was made possible by the kenosis. As Clark and Holquist explain, this idea serves as a foundation for Bakhtin's notion of the dialogic. Dialogic communication rests on the fundamental act by which one consciousness


recognizes another. All human interaction is an example of this kind of self-other relation. In his earliest work Bakhrin explicitly makes the connection between this model of human interaction and the idea of Christian community.

The second concept, Clark and Holquist say, is "a profound respect for the material realities of everyday experience."[23] Since the kenotic tradition emphasizes the Incarnation so strongly, it has always insisted on the miracle of creation itself as another instance of incarnation and thus has always revered the material world. This was the injunction of John of Damascus, who cautioned men not to despise matter. Bakhtin, as Clark and Holquist explain, was fascinated with the material dimension of language for precisely this reason. But he also reverted to the standard terms of Orthodox logology to describe the word, referring to the two-sided nature of the word and implicitly confusing "word" (a unit of human language) and "Word" (the Word of God that was made flesh).

It's easy to see the resemblance between this idea and the doctrine that Florensky has briefly elaborated in "The Construction of the Word." Bakhtin's communal conception of language would later develop into a full-fledged theory of linguistic contextuality, and that is exactly what Florensky proposes in his essay. And Bakhtin's point of departure is the recognition of the fundamental duality of language, a recognition that comes from the way the kenotic tradition views the relation between the visible and the invisible. That was Florensky's point of departure, too.


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