August 24, 2017 – Fort Russ News –
Op-ed by Padraig Joseph McGrath – “The Irish Crimean”
The ordinary Russian’s normative grasp of himself is exquisitely sophisticated.
A few days ago, on my way home from work, I ran into my friend Edward on the street. We went for a few glasses of Crimean port-wine, and then we went for a coffee. He said “During the 1990’s, Russian people realized that, without ontology, it is impossible to live….”
I had a sense of what he meant – that in order to maintain a viable model of social morality, a community’s collective worldview has to be grounded in something. What is sometimes referred to as “postmodernism” may be intellectually honest or intellectually dishonest, depending on the practitioner in question, but either way, it undermines the social contract. Edward’s own background is Jewish, but he admires the cultural and intellectual achievements of the Orthodox church, and what he sees as its key role in restoring the self-belief of Russian society. That would be the paradigmatic example of what he meant by “ontology.”
As Edward spoke, I was thinking, but don’t all philosophies ultimately undermine the social contract? The development of tragedy and philosophy in immediately post-classical Greece stripped Greek customary morality bare. Philosophy demanded a universalist basis for ethics, and nobody could articulate any such basis for Greek customary morality – it collapsed under the weight of this demand. Philosophy was one of the critical activities which ultimately undermined and destroyed classical Greek civic culture. 200 years after the rise of philosophy, most Greek city-states were mired in corruption. Nobody could articulate a rational basis for refusing kick-backs, and that was important because, for the first time, rational bases for things were being demanded.
Edward’s remark reminded me of something I had been thinking about intermittently – that in Russian group-consciousness, in Russian thought about society and morality, there is a self-aware tension between two contradictory impulses. We could label these impulses “the transcendentalist impulse” and “the historicist impulse.”
The transcendentalist impulse is evident in a whole range of manifestations of Russian culture and Russian self-consciousness. We can see it in the work of Leo Tolstoy. We can see it in the heroic stoicism which Russians have displayed during their periods of most dire social crisis, and their resulting capacity for self-sacrifice. It’s there in front of you every time you step inside an Orthodox church. Of all of the variants of Christianity still to be found in the world today, the one with the most transcendental conception of God is Orthodox Christianity.
However, this transcendentalist impulse operates in continuous tension with the historicist impulse. Ultimately, Russians see collective historical experience as the acid-test of a worldview’s validity. That is to say, their epistemological criteria for evaluating views of the world are explicitly NOT transcendental. At the risk of a reductive transcription, this is something akin to what American philosophers refer to as “pragmatism” – the belief that the truth is that which works.
For example, take the relationship which many Russians have simultaneously with Orthodox Christianity and Marxism as belief-systems. 57% of Russians identify as Orthodox Christians but, in many cases, their philosophical and political coordinates are still broadly Marxist. The common factor is ethical collectivism, but most Russians are still perfectly well aware that, prima facie at least, there are contradictions between these views of the world to which they often simultaneously adhere.
Russians who adhere simultaneously to both Christianity and Marxism as worldviews do so because, ultimately they do not attempt to justify either in terms of some set of transcendental criteria.
They take both worldviews as normative because both have been huge influences on their collective historical experience. Collective historical experience is their core epistemological criterion. By espousing both simultaneously, Russians implicitly commit themselves to the most material of all possible gods – the Hegelian-Feuerbachean-Marxist deification of the process of history itself (a curiously post-Protestant kind of god). By taking collective historical experience as that which confers normativity, their god suddenly becomes a historico-existential god rather than a transcendental one.
Ultimately, Russians who are sympathetic to both Marxism and Christianity see no need to resolve the (purely formal) contradiction – both are taken as normative because both were brought forth by “History” and because, on that basis, they form the basis for social glue, for collective experience and collective normative self-awareness. Russians’ collectivism leads them to the deification of history. Russia has its own internal culture-wars, like every other country, but Russians still tend to see the cat-fights between religious believers and atheists in the west as absurd, as the worst excesses of 18th century transcendentalist epistemology.
But make no mistake, the contradiction between these two impulses runs far deeper than the contradictions between two competing ideologies. It is a contradiction between a metaphysics of the sublime and a metaphysics of history. It is, in another form, the eternal tension which lies at the heart of Christianity itself – the interplay/tension between the transcendental father and the immanent son, the tension that inheres within a religious faith which posits a deity who becomes fully spiritual only insofar as he is kenotic, only insofar as he de-transcendentalizes himself. But for Russians this contradiction, homologous with a paradigmatically Christian metaphysics, collapses insofar as it is ultimately sustained by historicity itself. Ultimately, it is Russians’ faith in the god of immanent history which enables them to live out their transcendentalist impulse. In short, many Russians justify a Christian faith through a Marxist-historicist epistemology, thus dissolving the purely formal contradiction between the two. It is a classically Hegelian “negation of negation.” But this means that both impulses are self-ironizing.
It is the self-awareness in relation to these contradictions, and therefore the implicit understanding that they do not need to be resolved, which creates the cognitive space in which to be Russian. Self-knowingly levitating in this vacuum between ontology (the transcendental) and anti-ontology (“history is ultimately the acid-test of everything”), the Russian finds the space for their spirituality and their self-awareness to come into their own.
I mentioned “postmodernism” at the beginning. Does this tolerance for (at least formal) self-contradiction, which is ultimately constitutive of their group-consciousness, make the Russians postmodernists? If so, then they have managed to do what no other group of postmodernists anywhere has ever managed to do – to use postmodernism as the basis for a social contract which actually works.
Padraig McGrath was born in the Republic of Ireland in 1973. He has lived in Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic, and has published journalism and commentary on social and philosophical issues for a number of media for 15 years. He moved to Simferopol, Crimea in December 2013, 3 months before Crimea’s re-unification with Russia, and still lives there.