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Gustav Shpet: Russian Philosopher of the Human Level of Being
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Gustav Gustavovich Shpet (1879–1937) has a reputation for being a very demanding but equally rewarding thinker, a “philosopher’s philosopher” if ever there were one. That reputation is confirmed by these two excellent volumes, which are written for specialists well versed in European intellectual history and philosophy. Various contributors explicate the theoretical foundations of Shpet’s system, which are in the sometimes esoteric realms of phenomenology (immanent analysis of pure consciousness through reduction to its essential ideas), hermeneutics (which understands human beings as uniquely cultural beings—that is, as creators and conveyors of meaning through the use of signs, especially words), the philosophy of language (which approaches the “word” as the distinctive human capacity), and, at the most general level, ontology (the philosophical discipline concerned with the study of being). Yet despite the complex theoretical grounding, the burden of both volumes is to demonstrate Shpet’s broad relevance to—and deep power to inform—some of the central problems of philosophy, history, and the humanities. Taken together, these volumes thus mark a new stage in Shpet scholarship, a shift from earlier representations of him as primarily a Russian phenomenologist (indebted especially to Edmund Husserl, the principal founder of phenomenology) to appreciation and assessment of his staggering overall significance for the humanities, or for what Wilhelm Dilthey (whose ideas had a major impact on him1) termed the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften). As S. S. Khoruzhii (Horujy) writes in Gustav Shpet i ego filosofskoe nasledie, “The Shpet phenomenon is one of those great individual projects of the synthesis of human knowledge created in his time,” an era that also produced (as Horujy notes) the comparable figure of Ernst Cassirer.2

Shpet’s first major work was Iavlenie i smysl (Appearance and Sense [1914]). It is a masterful exposition of Husserl’s Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie (Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology and a Phenomenological Philosophy, known as Ideas I [1913]); in it Shpet already outlines a hermeneutical revision of phenomenology. Over the next 14 years, he wrote a series of important books, including Istoriia kak problema logiki (History as a Problem of Logic [1916]), Germenevtika i ee problemy (Hermeneutics and Its Problems [1918]),3Esteticheskie fragmenty (Aesthetic Fragments [1922-23]), Vvedenie v etnicheskuiu psikhologiiu (Introduction to Ethnic Psychology [1927]), and Vnutrenniaia forma slova (etiudy i variatsii na temy Gumbol´ta) (The Inner Form of the Word: Studies and Variations on Humboldt’s Themes [1927]).4 These highly theoretical works advance a system that Alexander Haardt calls “hermeneutical phenomenology” or a “phenomenology of hermeneutical reason” (after 1914 it developed more in the direction of hermeneutics than of phenomenology). Its “leading idea is the correlation of signs (as combinations of expression and meaning) and sign-interpreting consciousness.”5 His system took shape under the influence not only of Husserl (with whom Shpet studied in Göttingen in 1912–13 and who considered Shpet one of his most remarkable students) but also of Hegel, Humboldt, and Dilthey, among others. For this reason, George L. Kline has called him a “Russian neo-Husserlian,” a characterization adopted (explicitly or implicitly) by most contributors to the volumes under review.6

Shpet hoped that his phenomenological hermeneutics could provide a philosophical method or theory to integrate the various fields of human knowledge. Like Dilthey, perhaps the best designation for him is philosopher of the human sciences. Fittingly, T. G. Shchedrina, one of the leading Russian Shpet scholars, opens Gustav Shpet i ego filosofskoe nasledie with an inviting chapter on “Shpet and Contemporary Problems of the Philosophy of the Human Sciences.”7 In it she draws on her prodigious archival research, which has fundamentally deepened our understanding of Shpet, to further elucidate his project of penetrating into the very ideal or “inner form” of rationality.8 Other contributors to the Russian collection who focus on Shpet as philosopher of the human sciences include B. I. Pruzhinin, V. V. Feshchenko, G. L. Tul´chinskii, and E. A. Naiman.

As a whole, these two volumes present Shpet’s philosophy as ultimately an effort to understand what it means to be human: to understand human being (or the human mode of being) as a distinct level of...

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