Preferred Citation: Cassedy, Steven. Flight from Eden: The Origins of Modern Literary Criticism and Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.

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


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"?

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

Preferred Citation: Cassedy, Steven. Flight from Eden: The Origins of Modern Literary Criticism and Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.