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Comparative Literature Studies 40.1 (2003) 37-53

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Toward An Ideal Universal Community:
Lotman's Revisiting of the Enlightenment and Romanticism

Lina Steiner

In 1988, three years before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yurii Lotman wrote an article entitled "Clio na rasput'e" ("Clio at the crossroads"). 1 Despite its modest size, this article not only summarizes the most important ideas developed in the course of many decades of research in semiotics and cultural theory, but also contains the seeds for a new systematic understanding of the role of consciousness in history that Lotman bequeathed to a new generation of scholars. Did he envision this new "science of history," which he expected to emerge at the end of the twentieth century, as a paradigm shift comparable to the one that occurred in the wake of the French Revolution and the great epistemological crisis at the end of the eighteenth century? What would be the relationship between this new understanding of history and the conception of history as evolution, which has dominated Western intellectual tradition since the Enlightenment? If the centrality of historicism as a paradigm of our self-understanding dates back to the mid-eighteenth century, to what extent does Lotman's thought contribute to or dissent from the Enlightenment project?

I suggest that Lotman's new systematic understanding of history in nuce can be understood as a revisiting of the Enlightenment, with the hope of restoring faith in the meaningfulness of human consciousness and history in an atmosphere of the postmodern demise of systematic thinking and its capitulation to ironic relativism. In this connection, Lotman's biographer B. F. Yegorov points out that in the last years of Lotman's life, which coincided with the crisis of Soviet culture and identity and were marked by a pronounced lack of any stable philosophical and ethical ground, the scholar grew more and more impatient with such anti-essentialist movements as [End Page 37] poststructuralism and deconstruction. 2 The link between Lotman's thought and the Enlightenment can hardly surprise those familiar with his biography. He was trained and first became well known as a scholar of late eighteenth-century literature and culture. In fact, the relationship between his studies in the Russian, French, and German culture of the eighteenth century and his semiotics and cultural theory ought to be seen as a continuity rather than as a break. Certain concepts and ideological positions that Lotman came across in his studies of the Enlightenment thinkers informed and defined his own cultural horizon and, in subtle ways, came to influence his ideas about semiosis as such. As Vladimir Alexandrov suggests in a recent article, Lotman's semiotic theory rests on such crucial premises of the Enlightenment as the belief in the autonomous and interested self, the valorization of novelty, and the view of history as progress. 3

In contrast to the clarity of his earlier intellectual position, Lotman's views expressed in the works written around the year 1988 seem to be somewhat more ambiguous, even at times confused and self-contradictory. However, the complexities and contradictions of the works from the last decade of Lotman's life must not be viewed merely as a quixotic attempt on the part of an aging scholar to attack contemporary scepticism with the weapons borrowed from a rather antiquated armory—the Enlightenment faith in human reason and inherent predisposition toward the good. Lotman's revisiting, in his last works, of the Enlightenment issue of the systematic understanding of history did not amount to an unconditional acceptance of the Enlightenment ideology. Rather, Lotman's late works indicate a very complex and multi-faceted critical rethinking of the philosophical doctrine that centered on the idea of perfectibility of human nature and society and emphasized the connection between individual action and historical mechanisms.

This essay attempts to point out some very intriguing moments in Lotman's late work, particularly in his last book Kul'tura i vzryv (Culture and Explosion), which complicate the perspective that underlies Lotman's better known works in semiotics and...


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