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Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhailovich (1895–1975)


Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin was a Russian philosopher, philologist, and historian of culture. In opposition to rationalism and, in general, to the modern European (monologic) epistemology, he grounded a personalistic understanding of being as the co-being (event) of interrelations of "I" and the "other" (thou) and developed a corresponding dialogic (and/or polyphonic) approach in the capacity of the uniquely adequate method of the particular humanitarian sciences andmore broadlyof philosophical thought.

The Works

Bakhtin wrote his main works in the period from the 1920s to the beginning of the 1950s, but because of the political conditions of the time, biographical reasons, and the peculiarities of the texts themselves (some of them consisting of unfinished archival manuscripts), they were published (except in one case) either in the final years of the author's life or after his death.

Bakhtin was born in Orel, south of Moscow, and in the second decade of the twentieth century he studied at the historico-philological and philosophy departments first at Novorossisk University and then at Petersburg University. After the Communist Revolution of 1917 he lived in Nevel and Vitebsk, where a circle of like-minded intellectuals was formed (M. I. Kagan, L. V. Pumpiansky, V. N. Voloshinov, P. N. Medvedev et al.). Here, at the beginning of the 1920s, Bakhtin wrote early drafts of philosophical works that remained unfinished, including "K filosofii postupka " (Toward a philosophy of the act), first published in 1986, and "Avtor i geroi v esteticheskoi deiatel'nosti " (The author and the hero in aesthetic activity), first published in 1979. In 1924 Bakhtin returned to Leningrad, and that same year he wrote the antiformalist essay "K voprosam metodologii estetiki slovesnogo tvorchestva " ("On Questions of the methodology of the aesthetics of verbal creation"), first published in 1975.

Bakhtin's first published book (and until the beginning of the 1960s it remained his only published book) was Problemy tvorchestva Dostoevskogo (Problems of Dostoevsky's creative works), which appeared in 1929. There exists the assumption (not shared by all scholars or not shared by scholars to an equal degree) that certain other books and essays published in the 1920s and attributed to other authors were to some degree written by Bakhtin. These works include Freidizm: Kriticheskii ocherk (Freudism: A critical essay), published in 1927, and Marksizm i filosofiia iazyka (Marxism and the philosophy of language), published in 1929, both attributed to V. N. Voloshinov, as well as P. N. Medvedev's Formal'ni method v literaturovedenii (Formal method in the study of literature), 1928.

In 1928 Bakhtin was arrested in connection with the affair of the illegal religious organization "Voskresenie." He was sentenced to five years in a concentration camp, but owing to the state of his health this sentence was replaced by a five-year exile in Kazakhstan. (Bakhtin suffered from chronic osteomyelitis, which in 1938 necessitated the amputation of one of his legs.) In accordance with this sentence, after returning from exile, he was prohibited from residing in large cities; and he was thus compelled to move from place to place. In 1945 he obtained a position in Saransk, at the Mordovia Pedagogical Institute, where he first worked as an instructor and then as department chairman. In the 1930s and 1940s he wrote a large study of Rabelais (which in 1946 he defended as his doctoral dissertation). In those years he also wrote a large cycle of works, published only in the 1970s, on the specific characteristics and genesis of the genre of the novel.

Bakhtin retired in 1961. By the middle of the 1960s his name could again be found in official scholarly publications. The second, revised edition of his book on Dostoevsky, Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo (Problems of Dostoevsky's poetics) appeared in 1963; and the book based on his dissertation, Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable i narodnaia kul'tura srednevekov'ia i Renessansa (The work of Francois Rabelais and folk culture of the Middle Ages and Rennaissance), appeared in 1965. Bakhtin's ideas become known, particularly in Europe and the United Statesfirst primarily among structuralists, and then, as the archive was published, among scholars with diverse philosophical and philological orientations. At the end of the 1960s Bakhtin moved first to a suburb of Moscow, and then at the beginning of the 1970s to Moscow itself, where he resided until his death.

The Influence of Bakhtin

Bakhtin was initially subject to the diverse influences, on the one hand, of the development of the problem of the interrelations of "I" and the "other" in German philosophy (Feuerbach, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, the neo-Kantians Cohen and Natorp) and on the other hand of Russian symbolism (in the version favored by Viacheslav Ivanov, who interpreted the interrelation of "I" and the "other" as a reduced transformation of the interrelations of "I" and "Thou" in the religious mysticism of communion with God). From the status of significant but particular problems of transcendental ethics and aesthetics or positivistic psychology and sociology, Bakhtin translated the interrelation between "I" and the "other" into a fundamental ontological structure of universal character, which determines both the forms of life's being and the forms of thought, language, and cultural meaning as such. In parallel with the legitimate goal, given such an approach, of identifying the universal archetypal forms of the interrelation of "I" and the "other," Bakhtin also posed the problem of exposing the various kinds of distortions of these archetypal forms in the historical types of culture.

Bakhtin did not leave an integral and consistently developed conception. Instead, he formulated several particular theories that are linked by a single personalistic-dialogic teleology but which are sometimes divergent in their outer conceptual contours (in particular, the conceptions of polyphony and carnival). In his early unfinished work "Toward a Philosophy of the Act," Bakhtin sketches out the project of a moral philosophy in which he grounds the constitutive role of the interrelations of "I" and the "other" for the structure of being. (Being is understood here as the co-being of two personal consciousnessesas the minimum of the "co-being of being"; in order to accomplish the true co-being of the being of "I," which admits the validity of the ethical imperative, one must, according to this project, subject oneself to absolute self-exclusion from the values of the currently given being in favor of imparting these values to the "other.")

In "The Author and the Hero in Aesthetic Activity," Bakhtin gives a typology of different historical forms of the interrelations between author and hero, interpreted as aesthetic transformations of life-interrelations between "I" and the "other" (the author suppresses the hero and the hero suppresses the author; the crisis of the author, the revolt of the hero, etc.). In analyzing the historical types of culture, Bakhtin sees in the majority of them diverse forms of mutual overcoming and suppression of "I" and the "other," which replace their simultaneous mutual outside-locatedness and connectedness in one co-being by surrogates either of their illusory mutual isolation or of their just as illusory unity (physiological, psychological, ideological, national, social). Bakhtin attributed the disharmony of the interrelations between "I" and the "other" to the predominant orientation of the corresponding types of culture toward a unified and universal consciousness (the rationalistic gnoseologism, or monologism, of the modern period). The crisis of the position of the author shaping the aesthetic co-being of being is advanced as the central aesthetic problem.

In Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Bakhtin develops a theory of polyphony as a particular variant (created by Dostoevsky) of the genre of the novel with a specific authorial position that overcomes the crisis, a position that presupposes polyphonic dialogic intersections of the voices of the characters in the absence of the domination of the author's voice (including the narrator and all his other functional variants), which enters into fully equal dialogic relations with the voices of the characters. In the cycle of essays about the novel written in the 1930s and 1940s, Bakhtin complements the polyphonic conception with a general theory of the language of the novel as based on a word with two voices (on the intersection of two personal voices in a formally single utterance); he expounds the theory of the chronotope: the ambivalent relation of the temporal and spatial characteristics of meaning as the inalienable premise of its artistic representation and reception. When united with the spatial-temporal characteristics of the axiological dimension, the chronotope grows for Bakhtin into the analogue of any (not only artistic) point of view concerning meaning in the capacity of a position determined with respect to co-being and person.

In the essay "Problema rechevykh zhanrov " (Problem of speech genres) and in the second, revised edition of the book on Dostoevsky, Bakhtin develops a conception of metalinguistics, extending the theory of two voices beyond the word of the novel into the entire sphere of the life of language. In the book on Rabelais, he develops the conception of carnival as a reflection of the ambivalence of the archetypal foundation of folk-comic culture (the fusion without mutual neutralization of serious and comic myths) and, genetically connected with this conception, the conception of cultural meaning that is always constituted by antinomic or, in one respect or another, opposed relations, including dialogic ones.

Bakhtin's fundamental works have been translated into many European and Oriental languages. International conferences devoted to Bakhtin are held regularly, and monographs, collections of articles, and issues of journals devoted to his work are regularly published. Bakhtin's ideas generate much discussion and controversy.

See also Bakhtin Circle, The; Cohen, Hermann; Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich; Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas; Ivanov, Viacheslav Ivanovich; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Natorp, Paul; Neo-Kantianism; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Rationalism; Russian Philosophy.


works about bakhtin

Clark, Katerina, and Michael Holquist. Mikhail Bakhtin. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1984.

Dialog. Karnaval. Khronotop [Dialogue. Carnival. Chronotope]. Vitebsk, Belarus, 19922004. A periodical quaterly devoted to Bakhtin.

Emerson, Caryl. The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Gogotishvili, L. A., and P. S. Gurevich, eds. M. M. Bakhtin kak filosof [M. M. Bakhtin as philosopher]. Moscow: Nauka, 1992. A collection of articles.

Isupov, K. G. Mikhail Bakhtin: Pro et contra. Anthology in two volumes. St. Petersburg: Russian Christian Institute for the Humanities, 2001, 2002.

works by bakhtin

Avtor i geroi v esteticheskoi deiatel'nosti [Author and hero in aesthetic activity]. In Sobranie sochinenii v 7 tomakh [Collected works in 7 volumes], 1996. Moscow: Russkie slovari, 2003. Translated by Vadim Liapunov as Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity. In Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, edited by Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990).

"Formy vremeni i khronotopa v romane" [Forms of time and chronotope in the novel]. In Voprosy literatury i estetiki [Questions of literature and aesthetics]. Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1975, pp. 234407. Translated by Caryl Emerson as Forms of Time and the Chronotope in the Novel. In The Dialogic Imagination, edited by Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981).

K filosofii postupka [Toward a philosophy of the act]. In Sobranie sochinenii v 7 tomakh [Collected works in 7 volumes], 1996. vol. 1. Moscow: Russkie slovari, 2003. Translated by Vadim Liapunov as Toward a Philosophy of the Act, edited by Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993).

Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo [Problems of Dostoevsky's poetics]. In Sobranie sochinenii v 7 tomakh [Collected works in 7 volumes], 1996. Moscow: Russkie slovari, 2002. Translated and edited by Caryl Emerson as Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable i narodnaia kul'tura srednevekov'ia i Renessansa [The work of François Rabelais and the popular culture of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance]. Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1965. Translated by Hélène Iswolsky as The Work of Francois Rabelais and Popular Culture of the Middle Ages. In Rabelais and His World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968).

Ludmila Gogotishvili (2005)

Translated by Boris Jakim

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