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Journal of the History of Ideas 63.3 (2002) 521-537

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Two Routes "to Concreteness" in the Work of the Bakhtin Circle

Craig Brandist

In 1918 the young Georg Lukács published an obituary of the last major Baden School neo-Kantian Emil Lask in which the latter's varied work was commended for being "underlain by an essential common drive [Drang]: the drive to concreteness." 1 This "drive" was especially problematic, however, in the work of thinkers overtly committed to neo-Kantianism, a doctrine that was in its own time a byword for abstruseness and academic abstraction. Just how concrete could a neo-Kantian idealism become without abandoning its core insistence that the world is "produced" by indwelling categories of mind? Lask pursued this problem with a thoroughness unmatched by any other German neo-Kantian, and in doing so he became an important influence on, among others, Lukács, Max Weber, and Martin Heidegger. This article discusses the prevalence of the same "drive" in the varied work of those Russian champions of neo-Kantianism, the Bakhtin Circle, where "concreteness" is invoked so frequently that it almost begins to take on the character of a mantra. The case of the Bakhtin Circle is especially illustrative because the "drive to concreteness," which all members of the Circle shared, resulted in a significant difference of opinion about the extent to which the central theses of neo-Kantianism can be salvaged. Like Lask, Bakhtin was particularly keen to maintain the core of neo-Kantian ideas, while Voloshinov and, following behind him, Medvedev, were much less averse to breaking with the central project of German idealism itself. In each case the Brentanian notion of intentionality, the doctrine that consciousness is always consciousness of something, plays a central role. Consciousness exists in acts directed towards objects, existent or otherwise, that are given to consciousness. Brentano and his followers were invariably anti-Kantian, and they were extremely hostile to the central tenet of neo-Kantian idealism, that objects of consciousness are "produced" from categories dwelling in a transcendental [End Page 521] "consciousness in general" (Bewusstsein überhaupt). While it is far from certain that Brentanian and Kantian principles are incompatible at every level, there is no doubt that any attempt to integrate the notion of intentionality into neo-Kantianism was going to threaten the basis of neo-Kantianism as such. 2 As Gabriel Motzkin notes, Lask's attempt to carry such a project through to its logical conclusion ultimately led to "the destruction of the neo-Kantian empire from within." 3 The Bakhtinian project led in precisely this direction, and this article examines the way in which the work of the Circle shows distinct and ultimately incompatible responses to the crisis of the "empire."

Revising neo-Kantianism: Ernst Cassirer and Emil Lask

The abstract, or what Bakhtin terms the "theoretist," character of neo-Kantianism derived from two fundamental and interrelated features. The first was a principled opposition to all distinctions between cognition and perception, and the second was an identification of subjectivity with the system of objectifying functions that have their true being in cultural documents. According to neo-Kantian principles, nothing is "given" and everything is posited in an act of subjective spontaneity: objects are constituted from transcendental categories dwelling in "pure consciousness." Summing up the philosophical project of Hermann Cohen, the leader of the Marburg School, Ernst Cassirer noted that "any appeal to a merely given should fall aside; in place of every supposed foundation in things there should enter the pure foundations of thinking, of willing, of artistic and religious consciousness." 4

Though seeking to broaden his own enquiry beyond the "trichotomy of the Kantian Critiques," Cassirer, the last major Marburg neo-Kantian, remained wedded to the neo-Kantian project of deriving the transcendental preconditions of the "formations" in which the "objective spirit ... consists and exists" and dealt only with a universal subject devoid of practical limitations. 5 Cassirer drew close to phenomenology in the 1920s, when he embarked on his great project The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, presenting...


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