Between literature and philosophy

Russian formalism and the Neo-kantians

Patrick Flack

pp. 87-96

Russian Formalism constitutes all at once a very obvious and a very con­fusing topic for a discussion of the interrelations of literature and phi­losophy in a Russian context. The Russian formalists’ obvious relevance here stems of course from their well-known attempt to frame literature as a specific, autonomous and clearly-defined object of inquiry, an attempt which entailed a strong rejection of the conflation of philosophical and literary discourses that can be seen as typical of 19th century Russian culture. By providing a decidedly negative answer to the question of lit­erature’s philosophical or reflexive functions, Russian Formalism even appears to have heralded the irruption in Russia of a new, “Western” viewpoint that considers literature and philosophy as two separate and clearly distinct types of discourse. Confusingly, however, Russian for­malism also seems to have failed both in successfully establishing the autonomy of literature and in clarifying the latter’s new relation to phi­losophy. On the one hand, the formalists’ early definitions of literature as an exclusively aesthetic or poetic phenomenon were soon challenged and had to be very thoroughly adapted and expanded in order to take into account the ideological, social, historical and moral components they had initially sought to expunge. On the other hand, the formalists’ explicit refusal to discuss the epistemological and philosophical implications of their own theorizing in systematic terms prevented them from articulating a clear explanation of their implicit view of philosophy as a reflexive, methodological tool. As a result, instead of providing a new categorisation of literary and phi­losophical discourses, Russian Formalism seems to have led both catego­ries to implode and dissolve.

The most common reaction to this unfortunate state of affairs has been to dismiss Russian Formalism as a mostly failed, if insightful and stimulat­ing experiment that did not quite have the theoretical means of its radical am­bitions (e.g. Erlich 1955, Selden 1995). Although quite a few of the insights and concepts of Russian Formalism have remained influential over the years and have been recy­cled individually in contemporary narratology, versification or literary history, its general vision of literature has on the whole been thoroughly rejected for its lack of conceptual foundations and clarity. This generally disparaging judgment has tended to be corroborated moreover by the nowadays widespread tendency to question both the possibility of providing a defi­nition of literature as such and the sustainability of literary theory as a clearly delimited, independent discipline (Tihanov 2004, Butler et al. 2000). To be sure, more charitable in­terpretations of the formalist legacy are nonetheless to be found, one can think in particular of Aage Hansen-Löve’s inevitable Der russische For­malismus (1978), or of Jan Levčenko’s recent Drugaja nauka (2012). In these cases, the breakdown of the formalists’ autonomising conception of literature and their resulting return to a more integral, philosophical per­spective are not seen as implying the confusion or dissolution of the cate­gories of literature and philosophy. Rather, both authors point to the originality of the formalists’ later approach in which, by taking on an explicitly existential dimension, literature does assume a general philoso­phical or reflexive function, but on its own terms, as a mean of aesthetic realisation of the world (cf. Hansen-Löve 1978:570-586). A lingering problem of this aesthetico-existen­tial vision of literature, of course, is that it was never founded systemati­cally by the formalists and therefore only features as a sort of semi-scien­tific model, whose problematic epistemological status is comparable to other Russian or Soviet “ideological” theories of the time such as Marrism and Eurasism.

With these couple of very brief observations in mind, one might be tempted at this point to envisage Russian Formalism as a naïve, un­founded and bungled attempt to introduce a Western separation of litera­ture and philosophy in a Russian context, which was promptly re­versed into an original but typically Russian “mixed” or hybrid brand of dis­course. In effect, it would seem that Russian Formalism in its more mature manifestations (i.e. from the mid 1920s onwards) might be best understood as a slightly updated manifestation of the specific Rus­sian way of considering literature and philosophy as closely interrelated medi­ums of self-reflexivity. As such, one might even want to consider For­malism as the vector of a Russian cultural specificity and a witness of its different path within Modernity. In such a case, Formalism’s concep­tual significance should of course be evaluated primarily against its spe­cific Russian background and its conceptual relevance probably restricted to the Russian cultural sphere. As has been shown by Patrick Sériot in rela­tion to the role of eurasist ideas in the work of the so-called “Russians of Prague” (Jakobson, Trubeckoj, Savickij), such a specific approach, by treating the ideological component of a given theory seriously and con­textually, can definitely yield insights that a conceptually stricter and nominally more “universal”, Western scientific point of view is almost certain to overlook (Sériot 1999).

My intention here will not be to deny the merits of such “Russian-cen­tric” interpretations of Russian Formalism. Unquestionably, there is a certain Rus­sian specificity to the formalists’ work, which is best explored and under­stood in reference to the parameters of the Russian cultural context and its intellectual history. I do wish to argue, however, that it is too easy to simply consider Formalism only as the typical product and standard-bearer of a distinctly Russian way of treating the relationship between literary, scientific and philosophical discourse. Such a view, I believe, is indeed much too quick in dismissing both Russian Formalism’s attachment to its initial, apparently “Western” programme and the conceptual potency of that pro­gramme itself. In effect, a closer look can reveal clear evidence that the collapse of the formalists’ autonomising definition of literature was not so much a function of their own shortcomings in introducing a new categorisation between literary and philosophical discourses than of a much larger crisis of the Western template upon which they based this attempt. As such, it even seems possible to interpret the formalists’ attempt, in the mid 1920s, to resolve the crisis of their autonomising conception of literature by reverting to a broader philosophical and existential perspective not as a clear-cut abandonment of their initial Western framework and as a return to a Russian tradition they had at first explicitly rejected, but as a bold new answer to the paradoxes and crisis of that Western perspective itself.

Obviously, a crucial premise of my argument here is that Russian For­malism’s attempt to redefine literature as an autonomous object of in­quiry was indeed underpinned by a definite Western epistemological model in the first place. The question of the presence of such an episte­mological template behind the formalists’ theories, however, has been debated before and the general consensus has been that Formalism sim­ply exhibits too little conceptual unity and coherence to provide sufficient credence for such a possibility (Steiner 1984:15-28, Medvedev 1994:97). In that spirit, the best attempts to pin down the essence of the formalists’ theoretical project have been con­fined to listing their main sources of philosophical influence: Aristotle, Bergson, Christiansen, Hegel, Hume, Husserl, Nietzsche and Wundt are the authors most frequently cited in this context (cf. Hansen-Löve 1978 for the broadest scope of sources). All these thinkers are undoubtedly relevant to a philosophical analysis of Formalism and can in many cases help elucidate either the origin or the specific function of some of the formalists’ particular ideas or aesthetic positions. But, true enough, none of these thinkers provided the formalists with a general con­ceptual framework, nor do they provide us with much help in elucidating or justifying their conception of literature as a coherent, theo­retically sound model. If in addition to these observations one recalls that the formalists refused to identify their theories with any given philoso­phical system or set of principles (cf. e.g. Eichenbaum 1922:39-40), my claim that a solid epistemological model or methodology was underpinning the formalist’s original venture might appear here to be rather far-fetched.

Before establishing exactly in what way Russian formalism might effec­tively have constituted a bold development of a Western theoretical model - an argument to which I unfortunately won’t actually have time to come to in this paper – the first task that requires to be carried out is thus to demonstrate that there was indeed a solid epistemo­logical underpinning to Russian Formalism. For my part, and despite all the above objections, I believe that there is a rather obvious candi­date for that role, namely the epistemological theories of the Neo-Kantians, Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert in particular.

Obviously, the connection between Russian formalism and Neo-Kantianism is not especially straightforward as the formalists never explicitly quoted the neo-Kantians. Many commentators, among them Erlich (1955), Hansen-Löve (1978) Pomorska (1968) or Thompson (1971) have however pointed out convergences between the two. Although he does not elaborate, Erlich considers it “inevitable” that the neo-kantian had an impact on the formalists (Erlich 1955:156). Not uncontroversially, Lev Trockij even states in Literature and revolution that the Russian formalists were “essentially neo-Kantians” (quoted in Erlich 1955:82). In other words, there seems to be enough evidence of a significant interaction between Neo-Kantians and Formalists to catch the eye of most of the prominent specialist of Russian formalism. As such, I believe that these historical ties warrant at the very least a detailed analysis. Much more, it seems to me that such an analysis has the potential to tell us a lot about Russian formalism’s methodological underpinning.

To begin with, one should point out that there exists a well-known con­nection between Neo-Kantianism and Western formalist aesthetic theo­ries such as those of Hanslick, Wöllflin or even Fiedler and Worringer. On a very general level, one can also mention the sheer importance of neo-Kantianism in German academic philosophy from the 1870s to the 1920s and its dominant role in defining the philosophical context from which, in the early twentieth century, phenomenology, structuralism and logical positivism all emerged. If one accepts the premise that the For­malists were extremely well-versed in German culture and that they bor­rowed numerous ideas from contemporary thinkers such as Wundt or Husserl, there is simply no reason to think that they should have ignored the neo-Kantians. Such an observation is strongly corroborated by the fact that, starting from 1905 at the latest, Neo-kantian ideas penetrated directly into Russia, thanks to numerous translations of the works of Cohen, Natorp, Windelband and Rickert on the one hand, and to the very significant amount of Russian students who went to Marburg, Heidelberg and Freiburg specifically to study with the neo-Kantian masters on the other hand (cf. Dmitrieva 2007:143 sq.). Amongst the most famous of these students was of course Boris Pasternak, who’s later implication with the Cubo-futurist avant-garde offers us the first if still tenuous glimpse of a direct contact be­tween Neo-Kantianism and Russian Formalism. The more significant point to be considered here is that by the time Russian formalism started its development, a real Neo-Kantian tradition had been firmly established in Russia and had gained definite traction both in academic and artistic milieus (cf. Dmitrieva 2007:212).

If one inspects this already promising background more carefully, the convergences between Neo-Kantianism and Formalism only become more evident. For one, the University of St-Petersburg, which almost all the members of OPOJAZ attended at some point, functioned as the aca­demic “bastion” of Neo-Kantianism in Russia: leading figures such as the philosopher Ivan Lapšin and, to a lesser extent, the historian Lappo-Danilevskij taught neo-Kantian ideas in their seminars. Admittedly, I have no direct evidence to offer here that any of the OPOJAZ members attended these seminars. It is well-known, however, that some of the Acmeists (Mandelstam, Achmatova) enjoyed for their part frequent con­tacts and discussions with these figures, a fact which certainly indicates the existence of contacts between neo-Kantian academic philosophy and the St-Petersburg avant-gardes (cf. Depretto 2000). What is more, Neo-Kantianism was probably the only movement at that time in Russia to restrict the scope of philosophy to that of a scientific method and thus to allow for the autonomisation of other discourses, be they religious, sociological or literary.

In that context, an even more compelling point of convergences between Neo-Kantianism and Formalism is the theoretical work of An­drej Belyj who, before turning to Steiner’s anthroposophy, was a keen Neo-Kantian. In Moscow, Belyj attended the discussion circles of the philosopher Boris Vogt (Focht), a disciple of the Marburg School and of Herrmann Cohen in particular. From 1904 to 1908, spurred on by Vogt’s criticisms of the unsystematic nature of his ideas on literature, Belyj ac­tively studied Neo-Kantian philosophy, producing in the process a num­ber of reviews of key works by Cohen and Natorp. Although the question still needs clarification, there is no doubt that his key theoretical book, Symbolism, was strongly informed by Neo-Kantian ideas. Symbolism and Belyj’s new theory of verse were of course of no little significance to the Russian formalists (cf. Hansen-Löve 1978:43-48).

Furthermore, in his critical review of Aleksandr Potebnja’s “Mysl’ i jazyk” (1913), Belyj offers one of the clearest view of the impact of neo-kantian epistemology on the elaboration of new discourses on poetry and literature in Russia. Whilst generally praising Potebnja’s neo-humboldtian conception of language, which thus serves as a kind of basis for his own theory, Belyj denounces Potebnja’s psychologism and explicitly suggests that it should be replaced by the transcendental philosophy of Heinrich Rickert. In short, neo-kantian ideas are effectively mobilised by Belyj to rid Potebnja’s conception of language of its dependency on an adjunct field, psychology, and to establish an autonomous theory of language, itself conceived as a specific phenomena. One of the crucial steps taken by Belyj in this process was to replace Potebnja’s psychologically oriented notion of “internal form”, with the Lotzean and Rickertian transcendental concept of “value”. Interestingly, Belyj repeats the same line of argument in the first part Symbolism, although his recourse to neo-Kantianism is already complexified there by his turn to a more mystical, anthroposophic worldview.

The filiation between Potebnja, Lotze, Rickert, Belyj and finally the Russian Formalists or the exact nature of the conceptual transfer from the idea of inner form to the idea of value (and then function) would certainly necessitate a more detailed study than the brief remarks I have just offered. In the context of this paper, however, I believe they are sufficient to establish the reality of the neo-kantian presence in the debates on poetic language. Much more than that, they already point us in the direction of the specific use the Russian formalists had for neo-kantian epistemology. That use is broadly the same one Belyj had for it, namely as a tool for rejecting psychology and psychologism and for legitimising the institution of a specific but nonetheless rigorous type of scientific inquiry into language and literature.

Yet another piece of his­torical evidence witnessing to the connections between neo-Kantians and formalists comes from the Danish philosopher Broder Christiansen, who was both one of the major sources of inspiration for the Russian formalists’ aesthetics and a student of Rickert, whose ideas he sought to adapt into a philosophy of life. Because of the pervasiveness of Neo-Kantianism in the late 19th and early 20th century, such examples of historical convergences with Russian Formalism could in fact probably be multiplied. For instance, there is a case for considering Saussure himself as being indebted to Neo-Kantian epistemology and it is interesting that Russian Neo-Kantians such as B. Jakovenko, S. Gessen and N. Alekseev were present in Prague in the 1920s and had frequent contacts with Jakobson and Trubeckoj (cf. Dennes 1997). But I will now end this brief overview of the historical context in order to make of few remarks as to the conceptual links between Neo-Kantianism and Russian Formalism.

The first thing about Neo-Kantianism which seems to have made it par­ticularly suitable for the Russian Formalists on a theoretical basis is its conceptual diversity and flexibility. As is well-known, there were a num­ber of very different Neo-Kantian “schools”, those of Marburg and of Baden being the most famous. Each of these schools, moreover, was led by a number of “masters”, Cohen, Natorp and Cassirer in Marburg, Win­delband and Rickert in Baden. Herrmann Cohen may well have enjoyed the status of an overall “leader”, but that role was that of a historical point of reference rather than the author of a doctrine that all his disciples had to follow strictly. In Natorp’s words, anyone who counted themselves as a student of Cohen, be that in the broader or narrower sense of the term, had to, I quote, “appropriate and propagate not a definite philosophy, but only a method of philosophising.” (Natorp 1912:195 [my translation]) At the most obvious level, this relaxed approach to the conceptual unity of Neo-Kantianism seems of course to echo the organisation of Russian Formalism itself, what with its two dis­tinct centres in Petersburg and Moscow and its abundance of methodo­logical perspectives, some more literary, some more linguistic. But it seems to me that this approach also allows for a much bolder hypothesis, namely that the formalists shared and adopted the Neo-Kantian “method of philosophising” and thus became, in an implicit, indirect way, “stu­dents of Cohen”. Because Neo-Kantianism as such did not present itself as a closed system or doctrinal metaphysics, the formalists could appro­priate it and make it their own without having to explicitly and con­sciously submit to a set of fixed principles. Interpreting the relation of Russian Formalism to Neo-Kantianism in this way conveniently resolves the paradox of having to justify attributing an epistemological framework to the formalists in the face of their rejection of all philosophical systems. Even better, this interpretation details how the formalists made use of that framework, namely not as a rigid metaphysics, but as a methodological set towards resolving given problems.

If one defines the relationship between Russian Formalism and Neo-Kantianism as one of methodology, the convergences between them be­come even clearer. Even a very simplified and superficial comparison of the main tenets of the Neo-Kantian’s “method of philosophising” and the “formal method” reveals striking similarities between the two. In effect, despite all their differences the Russian Formalists shared a small set of convictions that did not vary much either amongst them or over time. To put it very briefly, all the formalists forcefully opposed naively empirical, psychological or eclectic approaches to literature, seeking instead to in­stitute it as a unified, transcendental object of inquiry whilst specifying the conditions for an appropriate, scientific study of its particular con­tents. This is how Eichenbaum famously formulated the general aims of Formalism in 1924:

“What is at stake are not the methods of literary study but the principles upon which literary science should be constructed – its content, the basic object of study, and the problems that organise it as a specific science.” (Eichenbaum 1924:2-3 [translation Peter Steiner])

This key formalist requirement, calling for a spe­cific discipline which, on the one hand would meet objective criteria of scientificity whilst being freed from the distorting shackles of positivist and naturalist categories, and which, on the other hand would be specifi­cally adapted to the particular content of its basic object, this double re­quirement is clearly to be found in Neo-Kantian epistemology. Indeed, to a large extent the two criteria just mentioned were first explicitly formu­lated by the Neo-Kantians themselves and are precisely what character­ises and defines Neo-Kantian epistemology as a reaction all at once to materialism, positivism, psychologism and subjective idealism (all of which were the exact same foes against which Russian Formalism itself was reacting). Obviously, the Neo-Kantians objectives were much more general than those of the formalists. Whereas the former sought to found a whole theory of knowledge and legitimise what Rickert called the cul­tural sciences or “Kulturwissenschaften”, the latter were only interested in a theory of literature. It seems fair enough to say, though, that in their particular ambition to establish and legitimise a specific science of lit­erature the Formalists were following a typically Neo-Kantian impulse and were effectively dedicating themselves to one given part of Neo-Kantianism’s more general programme.

Clearly, these are only a few preliminary observations as to the historical and conceptual links between Russian Formalism and Neo-Kantianism. To all intents and purposes, one cannot say much more on their signifi­cance and repercussions without a far more extensive and detailed analy­sis of these ties and their evolution. In conclusion, I do wish however to offer two final remarks. The first of these concerns the fact that around the time of Natorp’s death in 1924, the domination of Neo-Kantianism in Europe and in Russia ended quite suddenly. This means, quite strikingly, that the significance of Neo-Kantianism receded in effect precisely at the moment when the Russian formalists had to confront major problems and paradoxes within their own theories. The Neo-Kantians, in other words, were thus in no position to provide new answers and the formalists had to turn to new inspirations. To a certain extent, the formalists found those answers in the Russian context, both in their sociological disputes with Marxism and in the traditions of the 19th century. One needs to point out, however, and this is my second remark, that the later work of the formal­ists did not constitute a wholesale abandonment of their preceding work, but amounted far more to a correction or an adaptation. This is especially true of Tynjanov’s work and his theory of literary evolution, but also holds for Šklovskij’s work on Tolstoj or even for Eichenbaum’s idea of literary life (literaturnyj byt). It is in view of this continuity that it is worth considering the formalists’ work of the later period not as a whole­sale rejection of their earlier Neo-Kantian methodology, but as an attempt to address the latter’s own crisis as a much too abstract and an-historical theory. Such a perspective, I would like to add, is all the more warranted because one can find clear traces of similar attempts in the West to go beyond the transcen­dental idealism of the Neo-Kantians and to afford more attention to the empirical and historical dimensions of experience. Husserl’s phenome­nology itself constitutes such an attempt, but one should also mention here the work of Hendrik Pos, a Dutch philosopher of language and stu­dent of Rickert whose thoughts on linguistics later made a strong impres­sion on Roman Jakobson among others (cf. Flack 2013).

In conclusion, I would simply like to come back to my introductory remark concerning Russian Formalism’s relevance with regard to the problem of the categorisation of literary and philosophical discourses in a Russian context. The few arguments offered here, it seems to me, show clearly that one cannot be content to dismiss the novelty of the formalists’ approach out of hand and that it needs to be analysed more carefully. Indeed, without a much more detailed assessment of Russian Formalism’s complex, often mostly implicit or latent ties with Neo-Kantianism and the later repercussions in the formalists’ theories of Neo-Kantian epistemology, many questions as to the status of the categories of “philosophy” and “literature” in the formalists’ vision of literary theory must remain unanswered. Because that analysis has not been provided yet, it remains very difficult to draw clear conclusions as to what exactly Russian Formalism has to tell us on the rup­tures and continuities in the relationship of literary and philosophical discourses in Russia. The fact that it was tied up so closely with the intellectual tradition that did most to redefine the role of philosophy as an epistemological tool at the service of other discourses and disciplines seems to indicate however that the formalists’ attempts at a methodological and categorical refoundation of literary discourse and theory were by far not as confused, ad hoc and condemned to failure as one would often have them to be.

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