Ivan Kireevskii's Christian Rationality

In the view of one respected historian of Russian philosophy, Ivan Kireevskii’s was ‘the most powerful philosophic mind of the first half of the nineteenth century’ in Russia. Yet Kireevskii (1806-56) was not powerfully productive; so that, as the same historian notes, Kireevskii ‘wrote a series of sketches, but did not carry his projected works to conclusion’.[i] What Abbott Gleason – in his 1972 biographical study of the philosopher – termed Kireevskii’s ‘inertia’, or his ‘physical weakness and spiritual passivity’, points to characteristics of what has traditionally been called a ‘feminine’ personality. Gleason attaches to Kireevskii labels such as ‘fragile’, ‘sensitive’, and ‘prone to passivity and withdrawal’.[ii] Yet, importantly, such actionless inwardness also reflected the ambience of the intellectual milieu he inhabited in Russia in the early decades of the nineteenth-century.

Gleason stresses that Kireevskii was not always a Slavophile, and that he originally ‘admitted, at least by implication, that everything in Russia began with the great Tsar-Jacobin, Peter the Great’. Kireevskii could not begin by critiquing the rationalization of Russian society, because to start with he was ‘a Europeanized intellectual, who fully realized how much of Russia’s culture resulted from Peter’s rupture with the past’. This meant that – and rather than offering a political critique of bureaucratic absolutism – Kireevskii and his friends in the ‘Lovers of Wisdom’ (Liubomudry) circle in the 1820s involved themselves with the study of Hegelian philosophy, with German rationality, as a feature of their tendency towards apolitical inwardness. Gleason writes of ‘the passion, greater even than that of their German cousins, with which the Russians substituted philosophy for politics and other pursuits and satisfactions of the real world’. He quotes Alexandre Koyré’s estimation that ‘nothing is more characteristic of the mentality of the generation of the twenties […] than this “apoliticism”’.[iii]  

The political reality of Nicholas I’s regime impacted on Kireevskii in 1832, with the suppression of the journal the European – of which Kireevskii had been the editor – after just one issue. Gleason writes that ‘it is clear that the European marks the high-water mark of those elements in Kireevskii’s personality and intellectual makeup which […] tended to accept the modern world and Russian society as they were’. Now ‘the bureaucratic absolutism of Nicholas had […] crushed the most important enterprise of his life and dimmed his hopes for a gradual rapprochement between Russia and Europe’. I would suggest that it was precisely this personal experience of the workings of the autocratic rationality of state bureaucracy, which stimulated Kireevskii’s search for a more elevated or open form of reason. Gleason emphasizes that the closure of the European was ‘a crucial step in the formation of his Slavophile views’, and in the formation of ‘a whole new attitude toward religion, toward Orthodoxy, which became the basis for his new view of Russian culture’.[iv] Discussing the influence on Kireevskii at this stage of Aleksei Khomiakov’s views, Gleason notes how the latter’s Slavophilism was ‘inimical’ to ‘rationalism in general, whether political or intellectual, whether bourgeois or bureaucratic’. Moreover, the heightened inwardness of Kireevskii’s section of the intelligentsia in the 1820s was continuing into the 1830s, a decade (in Gleason’s words) ‘of repression – […] of mysticism, of withdrawal and passivity’. Thus Kireevskii’s Slavophilism was constituted by a sort of Schelling-tinged meta-rationalism. Kireevskii saw that (the later) Schelling had ‘overcome Hegelian “rationalism” by turning to the subliminal “feelings” and pre-cognitive experiences which underlie rational thought’: now Schelling’s critique was to be developed further using ideas garnered from the patristic Christianity to which Kireevskii was turning.[v]   

It is important to stress the political radicalism enabled by the Slavophiles’ attitude towards prevailing rationality. As Gleason points out, ‘their view of the relations which ought to obtain between state and society, their essential hostility to an activist, rationalizing, modern state, was nearly as repugnant to the Russian government as the eclectic radicalism of the Westerners.’ The government understood that ‘for all their “Russianness”, for all their religiosity and hostility to “Western” liberalism’, the Slavophiles were ‘really an oppositional force’. Kireevskii was now hostile to Peter the Great because Kireevskii identified the Romanov dynasty with political rationalism. Whilst in England and France rationalism had been ‘primarily the weapon of the ascendant bourgeoisie’, as Gleason notes, ‘in Russia, as in much of the rest of Europe’, rationalism had been ‘primarily […] an instrument of the centralizing monarchy’. Of course the Russian gentry itself ‘originated […] as the creature of the state’, being a product of Peter’s Table of Ranks, and so it was unsurprising that the gentry in general ‘did not perceive the threat of “Western rationalism”’. Only a marginal conservative intellectual such as Kireevskii could focus on rationalization as a key process underpinning the workings of the modern state. Hence Kireevskii became – as Gleason puts it – ‘more keenly aware than any Russian of his day of the great problems which the industrial revolution and the growth of the bureaucratic state were in the process of presenting’, and in this way anticipated the sociological approaches to modern dehumanization produced by later thinkers such as Ferdinand Tönnies, Max Weber and Theodor Adorno. For now, however, I want to focus back on the specifically Slavophile insights of Kireevskii’s that early-mid nineteenth-century Russia had (in Gleason’s words) ‘nearly lost its religiously based, communal social order’, and that ‘the political institutions which corresponded to it had been thoroughly perverted by the ruling dynasty’.[vi]   

Kireevskii’s Slavophilism represents a Russian form of the Europe-wide intellectual reaction to the French Revolution. ‘The belief that the ills of the modern world were largely brought on by rationalism, secularism, and the flouting of tradition was central to the expressed views of most of the important theoreticians of romantic conservatism in Europe.’ In the face of the bourgeoisie’s ‘intellectual and political rationalism’ as well as ‘the “enlightened,” rationalizing despots’, Gleason adds, thinkers such as Franz Baader, Adam Műller and Friedrich Schlegel had opposed ‘the irrational, the historically sanctioned, the communal, the aristocratic’. Gleason focussed on how the intellectual historian Andrzej Walicki sees Kireevskii’s ‘integralism’ to be ‘part and parcel of a sweeping critique of revolutionary rationalism’ (Gleason). Indeed, ‘both Walicki and [Eberhard] Műller have stressed the similarities between Kireevskii’s “integralism” […] and that of Friedrich Schegel’.[vii] In his The Slavophile Controversy (1975), Walicki quotes Schlegel’s statements from his Philosophy of Life (1828) that philosophy’s main task is to reconstruct man’s ‘primary unity’ with the help of religious faith, and to separate the human soul from the ‘autocratic rule of reason’. The similarities between Schlegel’s and Kireevskii’s modes of ‘anti-rationalistic “integralism”’, Walicki maintains, derive from ‘the common desire of both philosophers to combat the “social atomization” of bourgeois liberal society from a conservative vantage-point’.[viii]

In another post I have already quoted Walicki on Kireevskii’s foregrounding of the opposition of ‘rationalism and pure Christianity’. Gleason too finds that ‘any analysis of Slavophilism must place […] the opposition between the abstract rationalism of the West and the integral Christian civilization of pre-Petrine Russia at the heart of the matter’. Resisting Khomiakov’s view that ‘the demise of patriarchal Russia’ was due to the historical ‘consolidation of the idea of the state’, Kireevskii – as Gleason observes – instead blamed specifically the Church Council of 1551 which, Kireevskii thought, introduced rationalism into the Orthodox Church and hence paved the way for religious formalism, the Schism and then Peter the Great’s revolutions. Gleason points out that the Council of 1551 is in fact often regarded as representing a key stage in the state’s domination over the Church anyway, and maintains that Kireevskii is ‘very vague as to precisely what the baneful effects of the Council were’. It is clear, however, how Kireevskii understood Western Christianity to have been infiltrated by Roman, formalist rationalism; he saw how Aristotelian logic underpinned scholasticism.[ix]

As Gleason summarizes, ‘Kireevskii’s respect for the traditional, the historical, and the “empirical” was brought to bear against the Roman spirit of Roman Catholicism – and Protestantism, its dialectical companion.’ Kireevskii’s fascination with ‘the problem of breaking through the constructions of the mind to reality itself’, or with ontological issues, of course lay behind this respect for the empirical.[x] His concern with ontology connects to his criticism of Hegel’s rationalism, or what his 1856 landmark article ‘On the Necessity and Possibility of New Principles in Philosophy’ called ‘one intellectual view based on the identity of reason and being’. Kireevskii thought that such a rationalism inhibited access to reality; he agreed with what Gleason describes as ‘the starting point for Schelling’s later philosophy’, his ‘growing conviction that “reality” could not be grasped by the purely intellectual – or “rational” – processes of traditional metaphysics’.[xi] For such idealist metaphysics proposes, in its ultimate Hegelian variant, that – as Kireevskii memorably writes – ‘the world’s whole being is a shadowy dialectic of my own reason, and reason is the self-consciousness of universal being’. But only ‘through the internal development of the understanding [within the] integral personality can we understand substantiality’. Kireevskii argues that we gain cognition of reality not by rationality alone, but instead with our whole being. ‘The chief condition for the preservation of cognitive intimacy with being is the connection of man’s cognitive processes to his whole spiritual sphere – i.e. wholeness of spirit.’ (V. Zenkovsky)[xii]

As Gleason puts it, ‘Schelling’s attack on Hegel remained, for Kireevskii, the great attack on the stronghold of Western rationalism.’ The danger in stressing this fact – in stressing Kireevskii’s affinities with Schelling’s critique of Hegelian rationalism from a Christian perspective – however of course remains apparent: that we lock ourselves within a binary opposition of rationality to Christianity. In this situation it can be helpful to think about the diverging methodological approaches to Kireevskii’s writings taken by Walicki and Eberhard Műller, as noted by Gleason. Whilst Műller underlined Kireevskii’s relation to ‘the moment in the intellectual history of Europe when Hegelian “rationalism” ceased to satisfy the most searching and thoughtful men of the age’, Walicki – Gleason continues – instead ‘tends to see Kireevskii in terms of the “classic” European conservatism – largely German – which was so brilliantly anatomized by Karl Mannheim’. Gleason’s own brilliant strategy is to fuse Walicki and Műller’s perspectives, by venturing that ‘one can say that Schelling’s attack on what he considered to be Hegel’s rationalism is a further development of Adam Műller’s and Friedrich Schlegel’s criticism of the political and social theory of the Enlightenment’. Gleason thus sociologizes Schelling and Kireevskii’s shared project of ontological meta-rationalism, or at any rate places the project within social history as much as within intellectual history. ‘Schelling’s – and Kireevskii’s – search for a kind of Christian empiricism belongs to a specific moment in the history of European society, as well as to a specific moment in the history of European philosophy.’[xiii] Interestingly, when grounding Schelling and Kireevskii’s goal in wider historical currents in this way, Gleason invents a category – ‘Christian empiricism’ – which in itself subverts the binary opposition of rationality to Christianity.    

A closer examination of ‘On the Necessity and Possibility of New Principles in Philosophy’ reveals Kireevskii himself moving beyond a constricting opposition of rationality to Christianity – and in so doing justifying Zenkovsky’s assessment that, ‘even more than Chaadaev or Khomiakov’, Kireevskii ‘may be called a “Christian philosopher”’. Though Kireevskii was ‘a genuine philosopher who never at any point repressed the functioning of reason’, Zenkovsky maintained, Kireevskii’s ‘idea of reason as an organ of cognition was wholly defined in terms of the deepened conception of reason which had found expression in Christianity’. In his article he indeed saw religion strengthening rationality, noting ‘the main difference in Orthodox thinking’ to be that ‘it seeks not to arrange separate concepts according to the demands of faith, but rather to elevate reason itself above its usual level’. Conversely, Kireevskii argued that rationality bolsters Christianity:

‘Schelling did not deliberately turn to Christianity but came to it naturally through the profound and correct development of his rational self-consciousness. For the possibility of the consciousness of man’s basic relationship to God lies in the very core of human reason, and in its very nature.’

The view that rationality bolsters Christianity rests on a recognition of the limitations of rationality – on a humility stemming from an awareness of weakness. Kireevskii points out that if rational thought ‘saw itself as one of the instruments for the cognition of truth, and not as the only one, it would present its deductions as provisional and referent solely to its limited point of view’. Kireevskii valued acceptance of his own powerlessness as a philosopher. ‘If, however, philosophical reason realized its limitations, it would, through its development within these limitations, adopt another orientation capable of leading it to fuller knowledge.’[xiv]   


[i] V. V. Zenkovsky, A History of Russian Philosophy, trans. by George L. Kline, 2 vols (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967; first publ. 1953), I, p. 13.   

[ii] Abbott Gleason, European and Muscovite: Ivan Kireevsky and the Origins of Slavophilism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), pp. 91, 43, 287.   

[iii] Gleason, pp. 68, 69, 33; Koyré quoted from p. 39.

[iv] Gleason, pp. 94, 150, 151, 95, 96.  

[v] Gleason, pp. 151, 95; Russian Philosophy: Volume I, ed. by James M. Edie and others, 3 vols (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994; first publ. Quadrangle Books, 1965), pp. 167-68.

[vi] Gleason, pp. 5, 170, 169-70, 288, 291, 4-5.

[vii] Gleason, pp. 1, 169, 285.

[viii] The Slavophile Controversy: History of a Conservative Utopia in Nineteenth-Century Russian Thought, trans. by Hilda Andrews-Rusiecka (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), pp. 155 (quoting Schlegel), 154, 155.

[ix] Walicki, p. 168; Gleason, pp. 184, 168, 325 n. 31, 251.

[x] Gleason, pp. 242, 271.

[xi] ‘On the Necessity and Possibility of New Principles in Philosophy’, in ed. by James M. Edie and others, pp. 171-213 (p. 181); Gleason, p. 118.    

[xii] Kireevskii quoted from Zenkovsky, pp. 219, 220; Zenkovsky, p. 219.

[xiii] Gleason, pp. 329 n. 8, 291-92.

[xiv] Zenkovsky, p. 212; ed. by James M. Edie and others, pp. 198, 211, 207.


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