Evert van der Zweerde & Ralph Dumain:
Correspondence on autodidacts & Soviet philosophical culture

Date: Wed, 29 Oct 2003
From: Evert van der Zweerde

Dear Mr. Dumain,

By accident, I found your extensive rendering of my book. I feel very much honored by this. As you rightly state, my book is horribly expensive, and accessible in libraries only. Much to my regret, as a matter of fact. This, however, is not a bad habit of Dutch philosophers, but the strictly commercial policy of the publisher, who wants still to make profit on a book that appears in a small edition only. For my part, I never saw a penny of it—nor do I mind, for that matter, since I am being paid as a university lecturer, and writing this book was part of my job.

That said, your review does bring to my mind another point, which I do pay attention to in my analysis -and which, in more than one respect, is vital for a proper understanding of the development of philosophical culture in (Soviet) Russia—, namely: the role of amateurs and autodidacts. My analytical model of philosophical culture does, in fact, hold a place for them, since it does not limit itself to academic culture. If, as I hope, I will one day have a chance to revise and expand this model, I shall bear in mind your remarks.

Also, I agree completely that the habit of academic philosophy to “keep amateurs out” is a bad one, and this applies to the humanities more clearly than to science: in science it is a problem, too, but there you might argue that in many cases there is a level of factuality and a degree of experiment that is almost impossible to achieve outside academia. In the case of philosophy, however, all one basically needs is access to what I have labelled the “material basis”—texts, most of all—, and of course a clear and critical mind. Although I do think that discussion and debate is essential to philosophy as well, and these, while often rare within academia, tend to be even rarer outside it. The amateur philosophers that I know, at any rate, often tend to be people who, to put it bluntly, have been sitting alone over their books too long and have lost contact with a living philosophical culture and its ongoing debate. But, I repeat, the picture is a mixed one. Well, I hope that you receive these few lines, and let me repeat, in any case, that I very much appreciate the attention you have paid to my book.

Yours sincerely,
Evert van der Zweerde

Date: Thu, 30 Oct 2003
To: Evert van der Zweerde
From: Ralph Dumain

“To live outside the law you must be honest.” — Bob Dylan

What a delightful surprise to receive a communication from you.

I agree with your perspective.  There are clearly limitations to academia in the humanities and social sciences, based on my experience with grad students and professors in certain areas.  Original thinking, uninhibited discussion, and intellectual integrity are often absent.  However, I do not romanticize autodidacts.  I would like to develop a theory of the autodidact, something which I have not seen in the English-speaking world.  Indeed, though one can do intellectual work outside of academia with access to texts, there is the question of contact with others as a necessary part of developing one’s own ideas.  One must practice anything to get good at it, in this case externalizing one’s ideas.  There is always the problem of becoming isolated and thereby becoming self-enclosed and unable to concretize one’s thoughts and bring oneself more or less up to date with live problems.  I’ve experienced all of these things and observed them in others, so I’m conscious of the issues.

However, popularization is also a vital need, and it can serve the additional function of taking ideas out of one rarified context and making them live in a very different one, instead of just footnoting primary texts without thinking through ideas and applying them afresh.  There are also the somewhat artificial divisions between intellectual traditions, that only partially talk to one another if at all.  Sometimes an outsider may more easily cross these boundaries and learn to compare the dynamics of traditions that are otherwise isolated from one another.

The needs of popularization must be served without the bad faith that comes from guilt over feeling that one’s interests are not socially “relevant” or relevant to everyday life.  Ideas are always useful if they are good ideas and explain things; ideas seem trivial when they seem to be indulgences that illuminate little.  In the popular philosophy magazines in English (which mainly come out of Britain), there is sometimes an anxiety about making philosophy socially relevant.  But this should be done without cheating the public.  My point of departure is the division of labor; if specialists know something the general public does not, then it is necessary to understand the consequences of this split and of not being able to take advantage of the intellectual capital one’s society has created.  I addressed this problem in a paper I wrote for a popular philosophy discussion group here:

How to Integrate Philosophy and Everyday Life: To Think Philosophically in Life, Or Reproduce the Fragmentation of Knowledge?

The result was, unfortunately, that the other amateur philosophers in the group, some much better educated than I, did not understand what I was getting at, and I was accused of being an elitist.

I returned your book to the library long ago, so I can’t check up on it now.  I don’t recall the place you gave to amateurs and autodidacts in your book.  Perhaps you could remind me, or perhaps you have published other writings in which you elaborate this aspect of your model of philosophical culture.  I shall be very interested to learn more.  (I’ve read works on the philosophy of the history of philosophy, but I don’t recall seeing the concept of a “philosophical culture” explicitly addressed.)

I have two questions for you with respect to the USSR.  I am not a specialist on intellectual life in the former USSR.  During the perestrojka period, though, I attended some lectures from visiting scholars and learned for the first time about underground “universities” in Moscow or Leningrad, where one would go to teach or learn free of official constraints.  [*] I have never read anything about this in print.  I imagine though, that underground intellectual culture would be a vital part of intellectual (philosophical?) life in the USSR given the rigid nature of the regime.  Perhaps you have this in mind with respect to your model?

My second question: from one visiting scholar I got the impression that there was a philosophical culture of sorts separate from the official one you and others describe, not part of “Philosophy” per se, but specialized work on history and philosophy of mathematics and the sciences that took place maybe in scientific institutes rather than philosophy departments, and thus completely separate from official philosophy and hence Marxism-Leninism.  I am not sure about this, though.  Does this sound familiar to you at all?

Coincidentally, while recovering from a bad cold or flu this past week, I read all or parts of the books in English by Oizerman, just to catch up on something a little different from what I’ve been reading lately.  I’ve written up little reports about the book by Oizerman & Bogomolov, which I may edit together for a more connected essay.  What I noticed about this, and about other books by Oizerman, is that the coverage is very interesting from the ancient Greeks to Hegel to the critique of Hegel, but there is nothing substantive about philosophy afterward, except for general assertions about the superiority of Marxism and some valid general critiques about the limitations of neopositivism and irrationalism.  While I find Oizerman’s general perspective about philosophical progress and the logic of its historical development useful up to a point, analysis of the development of specific trends that emerged after the time of Hegel and Marx lacks the concreteness needed to understand the development and tensions within and between philosophical traditions in a fragmented, specialized world.  I’ve not yet seen the Soviets say anything interesting about the Frankfurt School, for example, except for a few pejorative remarks.


Date: Thu, 30 Oct 2003
To: Evert van der Zweerde
From: Ralph Dumain
Subject: FWD: Principles of the theory of historical process in philosophy (1), (4)

Oizerman, T.I.; Bogomolov, A. S.; translated by H. Campbell Creighton. Principles of the theory of historical process in philosophy. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1986.

[This e-mail consisted alsmost entirely of extracts from my book review: Principles of the Theory of Historical Process in Philosophy by T.I Oizerman & A.S. Bogomolov, review by R. Dumain.]


Because of my recent interest in the peculiarities of the history of schools of thought (intellectual traditions) and their (non-)interaction with one another, I see room for improvement here, which I will detail in a subsequent post if I can find the time.



“The goal of Stalinism is to make yourself anonymous.”
         — R. Dumain to Jim Murray, 6/28/03

Date: Fri, 31 Oct 2003

[He sent an obviously erroneously empty e-mail, to which I responded.]

Date: Wed, 31 Dec 2003
To: Evert van der Zweerde <evdzweerde@phil.kun.nl>
From: Ralph Dumain

Subject: Philosophical cultures

Yesterday at a conference of the American Philosophical Association I chanced to pick up a copy of the latest issue of Studies in East European Thought. I’m so glad I did, because I was inspired by your essay “Soviet Philosophy Revisited—Why Joseph Bochenski Was Right While Being Wrong.”  It made me realize, among other things, that what I have been doing this past year is very much dealing with the nature of philosophical cultures, both professional and amateur.  I’ve been looking at various traditions, such as the Frankfurt School and American Philosophy, analyzing the way they defined their issues and how they reacted to their own intellectual patrimony as well as their interaction or non-interaction with other schools of thought. Also, I was groping after a conceptualization which I recognize—or think I recognize—in your distinction in this article—which is the ideological organization of philosophical culture as distinct from its objective intellectual content.  I believe this is the same distinction I’ve been striving to name, for example, in my dissatisfication with the culture of analytical philosophy, which is based not on a dismissal of its contributions to knowledge, but on opposition to the systematic blindness it induces in the people socialized into it.  I have also been analyzing the realm of popular philosophy, which also frustrates me.  And my experience of this conference over the past few days has given me more to think about.  There is something incredibly exciting about this approach which demands further laboring and dissemination.

I performed a quick search of Philosopher’s Index this morning on the topic of “philosophical culture.”  From this I retrieved some references on Soviet philosophical culture, Bulgarian philosophical culture, one on Polish philosophical culture, several on Rorty’s “post-philosophical culture”, and some scattered references on the philosophical cultures of Mexico, Italy, and a few other countries.  Perhaps a different terminology prevails.  This search did not even pick up Randall Collins, whose book I have.

Your analysis in this article is very perceptive.  I have one problem with it, though.  You claim that the ideal of philosophy as a science is obsolete, and that there is no such thing as a cumulative body of philosophical knowledge (pp. 321-322).  I don’t see the basis for your view.  Of course, Soviet philosophy was simple-minded about this, and could not be objective about the development of philosophy after Hegel, as it dogmatically postulated Soviet Marxist-Leninism as the unique solution to all philosophical problems. Yet it seems to me that the strength of the Soviet position, notwithstanding its crudity, was in its assertion of philosophical progress tied with scientific progress.

I believe I already sent you my criticism of Principles of the Theory of Historical Process in Philosophy, which is now on my web site.  See also my review of Oizerman’s Problems of the History of Philosophy.

Oizerman also has a perspective on the progress of philosophical questions that opposes both the positivist and irrationalist views.  See the section on OIZERMAN ON WISDOM & PHILOSOPHY in my essay Wisdom and Abstract Thought.

As I argued in my reviews of Oizerman’s two books, Oizerman froze up and could not follow through on his own principles, and so did not look to recover the rational content of other contemporary philosophical trends, least of all non-Soviet Marxisms (which I would argue were more threatening to the regime than ‘bourgeois’ philosophy). If he had done this, he would have been able to delineate philosophical progress after Hegel more concretely, but he was locked into a monolithic conception of progress based on a single line of development.

I would appreciate an elaboration of your position regarding philosophy as a science and its (non)cumulative character.

I am now looking into what American philosopher John McCumber has to say about American philosophical culture and will have more to say about this.

Happy new year,

* I am pretty sure that one of the participants in this symposium was Alexey Georgievitch Barabashev, and it occurred at the Wilson Center in Washington DC in 1990 or 1991. Barabashev was there also to discuss the philosophy of science. I had individual conversations with him on that topic and on Soviet Marxist philosophy, which he knew and rejected. See also a list of papers by Alexey Barabashev at Research Gate.

Soviet Historiography of Philosophy: Review Essay by Ralph Dumain

New Year's Resolution: Exploring Philosophical Cultures (December 2003 - January 2004)

How to Integrate Philosophy and Everyday Life:
To Think Philosophically in Life, Or Reproduce the Fragmentation of Knowledge?
by R. Dumain

Wisdom and Abstract Thought by R. Dumain

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

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

Problems of the History of Philosophy (Contents) by Theodore Oizerman

Problem of Wisdom as a Real Problem” by Theodore Oizerman

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

The Main Trends in Philosophy (Contents) by T. I. Oizerman

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Professional and Popular Philosophy: Online Debates

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

Popularizing Philosophers: A Selected Bibliography

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

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