previous sub-section
Chapter Five— Icon and Logos, or Why Russian Philosophy Is Always Theology
next chapter

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.


previous sub-section
Chapter Five— Icon and Logos, or Why Russian Philosophy Is Always Theology
next chapter