- Purchase/rental options available:
Journal of the History of Philosophy 41.4 (2003) 568-569
[Access article in PDF]
James P. Scanlan. Dostoevsky the Thinker. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002. Pp. xiii + 251. Cloth, $29.95.
Important works on Dostoevsky's life and thought abound, but James Scanlan offers the first comprehensive treatment and evaluation of Dostoevsky as a philosophical thinker. Scanlan uses Dostoevsky's thousands of letters, essays, and "capacious notebooks" (3), as well as his literary work, to analyze systematically Dostoevsky's philosophical worldview and to argue for its coherence. Scanlan's commitment to careful scholarship is apparent throughout, including his translations of the texts. A philosopher himself, Scanlan contextualizes Dostoevsky's work in relation to traditional philosophers, including Descartes, Kant, and Kierkegaard. The result is a balanced, rich, and provocative treatment that also suggests new interpretations of some of Dostoevsky's literary works.
If Bakhtin is right to describe Dostoevsky's novels as "polyphonic," how does one ascertain their author's position? Scanlan grants the challenges of approaching Dostoevsky as a philosopher. Nineteenth-century Russian thinkers rarely identified with particular philosophical schools, and Dostoevsky never thought of himself as a philosopher. Yet Dostoevsky was intensely interested in philosophy, and Scanlan argues that Dostoevsky's characters serve as surrogates for competing philosophical positions. Scanlan also reminds readers of Dostoevsky's often-neglected nonfiction works and weaves masterfully the nonfiction and the literature to support his argument.
Echoing Bakhtin, Scanlan labels Dostoevsky's methodology "dialogical in style, monological in substance" (4). Doing so effectively rejects critical perspectives that suggest the author held contradictory positions. For Scanlan, Dostoevsky's dialectical method resulted from his preoccupation with combating others' ideas, implied by his frequent use of reductio ad absurdum arguments. Dostoevsky "sought to establish his own positions by demonstrating the failure of their antitheses" (231). Not only does Scanlan persuasively demonstrate the consistency of Dostoevsky's philosophical commitments, he also challenges the appropriation of Dostoevsky by existentialists as an "irrationalist," despite Dostoevsky's "convincing portrayals of human irrationality" and skepticism concerning rationality's powers (5).
Scanlan examines Dostoevsky's vision of Christianity that included a strict binary of matter and spirit, and a rejection of rational egoism and mechanism (termed "nihilism"). Dostoevsky's positive deontologism, his "law of love" (with Christ as exemplar) was, for Dostoevsky, necessary to overcome the "law of personality," and conscience grounded in Christian love was the basis for salvation. Scanlan persuasively argues that Dostoevsky, if irrationalist, belongs more with Kant than Kierkegaard in viewing rationality as limited but not to be rejected wholesale. Scanlan uses this analysis to ground a provocative new reading of Notes from Underground.
Scanlan also explores the connectedness of Dostoevsky's ethics and aesthetics in Dostoevsky's insistence that artists should create moral beauty beyond the purely aesthetic or cognitive. Much has been written about Dostoevsky's aesthetics, but Scanlan exposes its logical grounding in Dostoevsky's rejection of the subjective utilitarian aesthetics of Chernyshevsky and the radical materialism of Dobrolyubov. For Dostoevsky, the need for [End Page 568] beauty and creativity is intrinsic to human nature, and art serves an epistemological function that gestures toward reality, not as a "mindless photographer" (140) but as a cognitive vision penetrating "the core of his subject" (141). Dostoevsky also justified his use of the anomalous, noting that the exceptional might be "an avenue of access to the universal" (143).
Dostoevsky's "dream of a community of perfect Christian brotherhood and love" (160) grounds Scanlan's examination of Dostoevsky's sociopolitical philosophy and his rejection of the critical view that Dostoevsky's politics radically changed over time. Though Scanlan agrees with biographers that Dostoevsky despised the "moral blight" (169) of serfdom, he argues that Dostoevsky's vision of Christian society permitted social stratification so long as service to masters was voluntary, cooperative, and rational. This analysis makes clear the distance between Dostoevsky and Western liberal political theorists.
For Dostoevsky, society based on universal Christian love is the only acceptable "socialism," and the last part of Scanlan's work analyzes Dostoevsky's nationalism and its relation to his attacks on socialism. In addition to...