Mihailo Marković on systematic philosophy in 1975

by Ralph Dumain

In re:

Marković, Mihailo. “Is Systematic Philosophy Possible Today?” in Contemporary Aspects of Philosophy, edited by Gilbert Ryle (Stocksfield, UK; Boston: Oriel Press, 1977), pp. 269-283. From Oxford International Symposium, Christ Church College, 29 September - 4 October 1975.

While this essay is not earth-shattering, there is value in fighting historical amnesia, given the selectivity of what gatekeepers deem historically important. What a shame that the Praxis School went down with Yugoslavia, though there is also a point at which all they had to say was said. Now we are stuck with that preening poseur Slavoj Žižek, who is much sexier for our time—an age of cynicism and decline—than his compatriots. Sigh.

There are two major points in this essay, which is largely directed against the conception of philosophy held by Soviet Marxism and most Marxist tendencies, but also against an uncritical acceptance of Marx’s early philosophical anthropology, and also with the limitations of the western philosophical schools in mind—logical positivism, phenomenology, et al.

The second major point, which I will discuss first, has to do with the relation between determinism, praxis, and the uncertainty of progress. There remains an open question as to which of human potentialities for better or worse will come out on top, depending on indeterminate contingencies. This is a reaction to the notion of a fundamental human nature seeking the overcoming of alienation, and self-realization. I would also say that Marx’s early formulation is Feuerbachian, reflecting—I gather—an oversimplified notion of the alienation of the best human qualities coalescing in religion. Well, Marković explains this better.  There are other essays from the Praxis philosophers on this theme, also on this site.

Of greater interest to me is the conception of philosophy itself. It was customary, even among the more scholarly Soviet philosophers, such as Theodore Oizerman, to take a relatively tolerant attitude in relation to philosophies prior to Marx, but then to present Marxism-Leninism as the resolution of all philosophical dilemmas. The general tendency was never limited to the Soviets, as other Marxist tendencies incorporated in political parties all had the same conception of Marxism as an all-embracing, complete-in-itself philosophy of everything, and would harshly criticize other Marxists who thought otherwise. On the other hand, the delimitation of neopositivist and analytical philosophers and logicians to a narrowed scope and methodological approach to the field might work for delimited areas of finely tuned logical enquiry, but filter out big picture considerations and options to discern its own biases. Wittgenstein and Popper are mentioned along with others for their limitations. Marković, however, is not narrowly confined in any of these camps.

To be systematic means to be concerned about totality, but that totality cannot be achieved simplistically. Marković abjures pluralism but advocates plurality, as the achievement of philosophical synthesis has a relation to advances in empirical knowledge but also to special investigations in various areas to which a variety of philosophical methods might be apropos. Ultimately, the dynamic and evolving nature of knowledge demands an historically oriented notion of philosophy rather than a static fixed albeit universal system.

This I think is a sound position. Marković seems to be more interested in developing Marxism than in other problems. It should be noted that his early work involved semantics: see A Dialectical Theory of Meaning. Like other East European philosophers (in Poland and Czechoslovakia), Marković benefited from the intersection of different philosophical cultures, where much overlooked creativity has transpired.

I have added this old essay to my web page Philosophy for the 21st Century: A Provincial Bibliography. My perspective is quite different from the way the contours of philosophy and the ‘greatest hits’ approach to 20th century philosophers have been framed, and so I include older essays relevant to rethinking an orientation towards the philosophical enterprise. That is, what should a general philosophical orientation comprise, from what perspective, and what sources are relevant to its problems and construction, regardless of which philosophers are considered to be the greatest or most influential?

The situation does not seem to have improved in the 40 years since Marković’s essay was composed.

19 February 2016, revised and supplemented 4 February 2017


Is Systematic Philosophy Possible Today?” by Mihailo Marković

Dialectical Theory of Meaning: Part One (Extracts) by Mihailo Marković

The Perspectives of Philosophy (1956) by Ivan Sviták

What Philosophers Do” (1975) by Adam Schaff

Problems of the History of Philosophy by Theodore Oizerman, review by Ralph Dumain

Principles of the Theory of Historical Process in Philosophy by T.I Oizerman & A.S. Bogomolov, review by R. Dumain

Philosophy for the 21st Century: A Provincial Bibliography

Wisdom, Philosophy & Everyday Life — Theoretical Perspectives: An Unconventional Guide

Philosophy of History of Philosophy & Historiography of Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

Metacritique, Philosophy, & the Logic of the Intellectual Marketplace
by R. Dumain

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Marx and Marxism Web Guide


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