Ralph Dumain

Running thoughts on Merab Mamardashvili

 “Universally developed individuals, whose social relations, as their own communal relations, are hence also subordinated to their own communal control, are no product of nature, but of history. The degree and the universality of the development of wealth where this individuality becomes possible supposes production on the basis of exchange values as a prior condition, whose universality produces not only the alienation of the individual from himself and from others, but also the universality and the comprehensiveness of his relations and capacities. In earlier stages of development the single individual seems to be developed more fully, because he has not yet worked out his relationships in their fullness, or erected them as independent social powers and relations opposite himself. It is as ridiculous to yearn for a return to that original fullness as it is to believe that with this complete emptiness history has come to a standstill. The bourgeois viewpoint has never advanced beyond this antithesis between itself and this romantic viewpoint, and therefore the latter will accompany it as legitimate antithesis up to its blessed end.)”

— Karl Marx, Grundrisse

Mamardashvili suffered from persecution by the Soviet regime, but unlike Ilyenkov and many others, he was resolutely non-Marxist (though he did edit World Marxist Review or its equivalent). Mamardashvili’s emphasis on philosophizing itself (as compared to philosophy as an end product) electrified his students, as this approach countered the formulaic rigidity of imposed ideological discourse, and so turned thinking from dead thoughts to a live process.

(By contrast, Marxists from capitalist countries, who had to fight the indoctrination of their societies, would get perplexed that so many intellectuals in the Soviet bloc would not take them or any talk of Marxism seriously, especially during glasnost and after when the old restrictions were relaxed. )

It is, of course, a problem addressed in other social circumstances by other schools of thought and the arts, surrealism, negative dialectics, etc. Such zigzags are inevitable and never-ending.

The following article (excerpt provided) helps to explain Mamardashvili’s popularity in the USSR.

On Merab Mamardashvili (from “Where Does Meaning Come From?”) by Mara Stafecka

Note that whatever else can be said about him, Mamardashvili emphasizes philosophizing over philosophies, the act and process of generating thought, and unfreezing it from the rigidity within which ideology imprisons it, and not just ideology as doctrines, but ideology as habituation and psychological constriction. Adorno's negative dialectics (determinate negation) aims at this too, as critical philosophizing rather than the affirmative promulgation of philosophies.

I do not believe that this approach is comprehensive or completely adequate to the task, but it is the other half of what philosophy is, and it needs to be incorporated into an adequate perspective.

I have written elswhere about the achievements and limitations to be ascertained in a salvage operation of Soviet philosophy. This article, some of which points I have criticized elsewhere, is illustrative of my interest:

Zilberman, David B. “The Post-Sociological Society,” Studies in Soviet Thought, 18 (1978) 261-328.

Here we can learn that the internal intellectual life of the USSR was more complex than customarily portrayed in the anglophone world—by both its opponents and apologists. It also makes perfect sense that an abstract investigation into scientific methodology, dialectics, systems theory, philosophy of science, and eventually semiotics, would be the areas in which Soviet theorizing would resuscitate in the post-Stalin environment, both among complete and partial conformists as well as dissidents, and also, another reason why Soviet achievements should not be forgotten and should not be accepted as having occurred despite Marxism rather than in conjunction with it. And the attempts also to do an end run-around Marxism make sense in relationship to the reification of intellectual life under repression, as we see, for example, with Bakhtin and Mamardashvili. One can sense that the restrictive conditions under which these philosophical efforts were undertaken left an imprint even on the most creative, resistant countercurrents (on Ilyenkov as a great Marxist philosopher), which should not stifle efforts to develop further.

I gave a cursory look at this book of long-standing interest:

Pokrovsky, Nikita. Henry Thoreau, translated from the Russian by Sergei Syrovatkin. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1989. [Russian original 1983]

Pokrovsky links Thoreau to neo-Romanticism and the American counterculture of the 1960s/70s, and is unequivocally positive about the latter, which I do not recall being a characteristic Soviet inclination. I surmise this is due to real sympathy and the Soviet interest in criticizing American society. My overall impression is of a virtually unequivocally positive evaluation of Thoreau, for which I guess at two possible reasons. One is that in emphasizing the social critique and resistance to the prerogatives of the American ruling class, this would pass muster in the USSR. The other is that you never know what Soviet authors were really thinking, but many of them would use criticisms of oppressive foreign social orders (The USA, Mao's China) as a roundabout way of criticizing their own. Here Pokrovsky defends Thoreau’s individualism and its necessity to combat social injustice even as an isolated individual. I can tell that this is particularly important in the Soviet context where maintaining individual integrity was nearly impossible, hence the reverence accorded by so many Soviet intellectuals to Ilyenkov and the resolute non-Marxist Mamardashvili.

Segments written 3, 5, & 17 March 2021, 13 September & 16 October 2020; here with light editorial modification.

I think I may have to add Merab Mamardashvili to my projects on:

(1) solitude;
(2) the self and the universe of knowledge;
(3) philosophy & literature as genres

25 February 2017

Mamardashvili’s theory of consciousness is most peculiar. (But phenomenology never made sense to me either.) Apparently he rejects the notion of self-consciousness as the guarantor of accurate reflection. Among his concepts is "state of consciousness". What is understanding? Gasparyan [this must be Merab Mamardashvili’s Philosophy of Consciousness] makes this intriguing statement:

“If one were to extrapolate from these most basic observations work on consciousness in general, one could conclude that an understanding of the entire multitude of things which make our consciousness accessible does not, meanwhile, allow us in any way to understand how this understanding itself is constructed. It is not possible to devise an algorithm which would reveal the process of our understanding in such a way that not only could someone reproduce it, but we could as well, since, as was said before, re–reading of the Pythagorean theorem does not guarantee comprehension of that state of understanding which we experienced the other day.”

14 March 2017

From what I recall, Diana Gasparyan sent me her English monograph on Mamardashvili. The Russian version, as well as other documents, are available at academia.edu:

Диана ГАСПАРЯН. Философия сознания Мераба Мамардашвили. MОСКВА: «КАН Н+», 2013.

11 December 2021

On links with Soviet literature:

Dmitri Aleksandrovich Prigov & his Soviet Texts: A Bilingual Bacchanal, presentation by Globus Books, 3 March 2021

Note Mark Lipovetsky (@ 25:50- 28:00 min.) on the philosophy of dishwashing in Prigov and Mamardashvili’s state of catastrophe and the comedy of the impossibilty of tragedy. Lipovetsky further comments on Prigov’s engagement with philosophy (1:19:25 - 1:21:40): Prigov read through German classical philosophy to beginning of 20th century, also Russian philosophy. The name Mamardashvili is mentioned in passing. Prigov was inspired by Bakhtin.

Well, it looks like Mamardashvili’s influence extends into other realms of culture. Look at this recent book in English!

DeBlasio, Alyssa. The Filmmaker’s Philosopher: Merab Mamardashvili and Russian Cinema. Edinburgh University Press, 2019.

11 December 2021

Here is the English précis of an article originally written in Russian (to be translated), embedded in the linked document:

How Evald Vasilievich Argued with Merab Konstantinovich” by A.D. Maidansky

The article recounts the only – and remained virtually unknown – dispute on the issues of dialectics between Evald Ilyenkov and Merab Mamardashvili: concerning forms of thought and consciousness, methodology of theoretical cognition and the principle of identity of thought and being. Ilyenkov set out his objections in his review of Mamardashvili’s dissertation in 1961. In the dissertation, the epistemological ideas of Aleksander Zinoviev, the leader of the Moscow Logical Circle, are supported and developed. Criticizing Hegel for «confusion of the logical with the real», Mamardashvili implicitly objects to Ilyenkov as well. In the late Mamardashvili’s work, the dualism of the logical and the real would develop into a peculiar «ontology of consciousness».

11 December 2021

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