- The Early Solov’ëv and His Quest for Metaphysics by Thomas Nemeth
The life and thought of Vladimir Solov’ëv (1853–1900) have long fascinated students of Russian culture. Poet, philosopher, mystic, theologian, scholar, humorist, theosopher, ecclesiologist—a tale of Solov’ëv’s very considerable influence could be told by focusing on any single one of these terms. Attempting to encompass all of them at once in a grand summation of the significance of his life is a thoroughly daunting task. Perhaps it will never be accomplished to general satisfaction in a single work, which might partly explain the steadily expanding stream of articles and monographs in several languages devoted to the study of this remarkable figure.
Nemeth, perhaps wisely, declines any attempt to treat Solov’ëv’s life work as a whole, focusing instead on an exposition and evaluation of the earlier major philosophical works of the years 1874 through 1881. Not treated by Nemeth are the later, perhaps more measured, philosophical works of the 1890s.
Nemeth’s interest in these earlier works centers on their significance as the origin of a distinctively Russian tradition of philosophical writing (academic as well as extra-mural), and his painstaking critique of them throughout is implicitly (at times explicitly) a critique of the entire tradition that followed. In his view, the deficiencies of that later tradition justify a severely critical examination of its origins in Solov’ëv’s early works.
The procedure followed by Nemeth consists of a painstaking summary of whatever is known concerning the biographical circumstances, sources, motives, and development of each of the manuscripts examined, as well as the history of its reception and subsequent influence. The main lines of argument (where “arguments” can be identified) are meticulously followed out and subjected to exacting critique. The extensive scholarly research and labor required to accomplish all of this is manifest, and for this we are in his debt.
Nemeth’s critique is carried out in the name of a conception of “rationality” to which most readers would presumably assent. Most of us, I suspect, will be able to agree with what I take to be its basics: the idea that competent philosophical writing requires accurate quotations of passages from other philosophers, correct and insightful interpretations of their philosophical positions, precise definitions of univocally employed terms, deductively valid inferences, the elimination of ambiguity to the maximum extent possible, consistency of conclusions with all preceding premises and conclusions, judiciously restricted generalizations, and so forth. On these grounds alone, as many scholars have pointed out (beginning with a number of Solov’ëv’s contemporaries), there is clearly very much deserving of criticism in the works of Solov’ëv examined here, and Nemeth is well justified in pointing it out, step by step.
At the same time, there is a frequently recurring note of quite strong exasperation with Solov’ëv in Nemeth’s critique. Some level of exasperation is fully understandable. However, [End Page 513] Nemeth’s reactions were often seemingly pushed to an extreme by his reliance on a generally unreconstructed Neo-Kantian conception of philosophy, one that many contemporary philosophers now view as fundamentally outdated. It leads to a rejection of any and all metaphysics, the restriction of knowledge claims to strict grounding in sense experience, an implicitly (or explicitly) anti-religious scientism (xix), and a deeply skeptical attitude toward post-Kantian German Idealism in general, and Hegel’s philosophy in particular. Epithets applied to them here include “the worst excesses of German Idealism” (91), “Hegel’s infamous ‘Preface’” (131), “the specter . . . of Hegel’s Logic” (182), and others. (The quite arbitrary origins of this Neo-Kantian construction of the philosophical canon have recently been exposed by Kevin J. Harrelson in The Owl of Minerva 44:1–2.)
Nemeth tends to treat Kant’s dictum, “Thoughts without content are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind” (80), as a kind of touchstone of philosophical common sense. One would not guess that this dictum has been under renewed, heavy assault at...