Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich (1821–1881)

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Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was a famed Russian writer whose works reflect an intense interest in philosophical questions about the human condition. With some justification, Dostoevsky's thought has been linked with existentialismit is unsystematic and sometimes paradoxical, and his fiction in particular is marked by a concern with the irrational in human behavior and with the burdens and blessings of free choice. In the full sweep of his writings, howeverwhich included essays, notebooks, diaries, and letters in addition to fictionDostoevsky gave expression to a comprehensive Christian philosophy that cannot be classed as either existentialism or irrationalism, despite his influence on thinkers of both of those schoolsthe European (Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus), as well as the Russian (Nikolai Berdyaev, Lev Shestov).

Metaphysics and Epistemology

Dostoevsky's conception of the human situation is rooted most fundamentally in a traditional Christian dualism: Reality is divided into material and spiritual realms, at the intersection of which stands humanity. Matter and spirit are binary opposites for Dostoevsky, mutually exclusive in essence and attributes. And yet humans partake of botha situation that generates metaphysical and epistemological puzzles.

As physical inhabitants of the material world, human beings are perishable entities, subject to laws of causal determination of the kind discovered by natural scientists. But as spiritual persons they are eternal and not fully determinable by natural causes. Dostoevsky's sympathies lay on the spiritual side, and accordingly the major part of his philosophizing was devoted to defending such idealist theses as the immortality of the soul (which he considered the basic tenet of Christian belief) and the doctrine of free will (the philosophical thesis with which he is most closely identified). At least six separate arguments for life after death can be found in his writings, beginning in 1864 in a lengthy diary entry on the death of his first wifea passage of utmost importance for his philosophical outlook (Scanlan 2002, pp. 1937). The significance of free will as a defining trait of humanity is memorably portrayed in his most pointedly philosophical workNotes from Underground (1864)in which he attacks the determinism of Nikolai Chernyshevsky and other Russian materialists, contending that human choices are radically unpredictable because people are capable of deliberately falsifying any prediction made. As Gary Saul Morson (1998) points out, the notion of an indeterminate future is central to Dostoevsky's narrative style as well as to his philosophical outlook.

The epistemological puzzle created by humanity's hybrid nature is how a spiritual soul mired in a material world, dependent on a physical brain and sensory apparatus, can fully understand either realm. At times Dostoevsky despaired of the mind's ability to comprehend reality at all, but more typically he stressed the partiality and tentativeness of human knowledge and the inability of science to fathom the human essence. He regarded reason as a limited capacity, denying that it could present conclusive proofs of such beliefs as personal immortality and the existence of God; at the same time, he accepted reason as consistent with and providing some support for those beliefs, as his own discursive arguments for them attest. In the voice of Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov (18791880) he also accepted mystical experience as a limited source of knowledge of reality: "Much on earth is concealed from us, but in place of it we have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world" (p. 320). Even this mysterious sense, however, tells us nothing more than that there is a "full synthesis of all being," which in the 1864 diary entry he identified with God (Proffer, vol. 1, 1973, p. 40). He did not reject the theistic notion of God as a person who created and rules the world, but he based that notion not on reason or mystical experience but solely on faith grounded in love.


Dostoevsky's ethical thinking was dominated by his opposition to egoism and defense of altruism as expressed in Christ's commandment to "love thy neighbor as thyself." His first major attack on egoism came in Notes from Underground, in the form of a devastating critique of the ethical theory (a form of enlightened egoism) espoused by Chernyshevsky and his followers. In the diary entry on the death of his first wife, Dostoevsky formulated the opposition between the Christian law of love and the egoistic force in human nature that opposed it, which he dubbed the law of personality. The struggle between these two laws, both rooted in the complex material-spiritual nature of humanity, remained central to Dostoevsky's writingsfiction and nonfiction alikethroughout his career. Despite his emphasis on free choice he did not regard freedom as the highest human value; freedom is limited morally by the Christian law of love.

As the philosophical foundation for the law of love, Dostoevsky long relied on the idea that an inborn human conscience tells people authoritatively whether an action is right or wrong. Shortly before his death, however, he reluctantly admitted that conscience does not always speak univocally and that it may itself be evil; he concluded that morality has as its ultimate ground the religious faith that accepts the law of love as Christ proclaimed and lived it. Dostoevsky interpreted the law deontologically, as commanding or prohibiting actions as good or bad in themselves regardless of their results, thus rejecting utilitarianism. He vigorously opposed the idea, powerfully dramatized in both Crime and Punishment (1866) and Demons (187172) that an action abhorrent in itself may be justified by supposed future good consequences.

Two other recurring ethical themes in Dostoevsky's novels, particularly Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, are also directly related to his devotion to the Christian moral ideal. These are the notions of universal moral responsibility ("I am responsible not only for my actions but for those of everyone") and the moral value of suffering. If essentially the ethical ideal is to be Christlike, it means freely accepting responsibility for others and suffering for their good, as Christ in the atonement took upon himself the sins of all humanity.


Dostoevsky's philosophy of art was laid out most fully in a polemical essay entitled "Mr.bov and the Question of Art" (1861), directed against the so-called civic school of Russian criticism then represented most prominently by Nikolai Dobrolyubov. Just as Dostoevsky rejected utilitarian ethics, he had no sympathy for the view that art should be judged on the basis of its usefulness in promoting the satisfaction of basic human needs, such as the needs for food, shelter, and clothing.

Dostoevsky's argument against these critics was twofold. First, they failed to understand that human beings have aesthetic as well as material needsspecifically, a need for beauty, defined broadly in classical terms as "harmony and tranquility" (Magarshack 1997, p. 125), and a need to engage in creative activitya notion reminiscent of the play theory of art advanced by Konrad Lange and Karl Groos. Second, Dostoevsky contended that utilitarian reasoning is a poor tool for determining the value of art, regardless of what needs it serves, for such reasoning rests on predicting the future impact of a worksomething people cannot do with any confidence.

Dostoevsky did not deny that aesthetic values may have social and moral significance; beauty is not a narrowly aesthetic category for him. In The Idiot (1868) he describes Prince Myshkin as insisting that "beauty will save the world," presumably having in mind Beauty as producing harmony and tranquility in society (p. 382). But he vigorously denied that artists have a duty to engage in useful activity. Art, he argued, should be judged on the basis of its artistry, not its moral or social impact, and he defended the right of the artist to free scope for creativity.

Social Philosophy

A critic of Russian serfdom, Dostoevsky was drawn to European Enlightenment thinking in his youth and became active in clandestine revolutionary circles; in 1849 he was arrested and sentenced to nine years of imprisonment and exile in Siberia. He was never opposed in principle to the Russian imperial system of government, however, and upon his return to European Russia and the subsequent emancipation of the serfs in 1861 be became a champion of Russian autocracy and a severe critic of violent revolution, which he attacked most powerfully in the novel Demons. Through many journalistic articles, especially a long series entitled A Writer's Diary (1873, 18761881), he was an influential commentator on political, economic, and other social issues, writing from a Slavophile, nationalist perspective.

Dostoevsky's defense of autocracy was based on his conviction that the citizens of Russia willingly accepted a patriarchal hierarchy of social strata based on inequalities in talents and abilities. Such inequalities are not evils in Russia, he argued, because they are mutually acknowledged in an atmosphere of respect dictated by the Christian law of love. European political institutions designed to limit authority, he contended, were outgrowths of the history of the European states, which had their origin in the conquest of one people by another (such as the Gauls by the Franks) and were still characterized by hostility between rulers and ruled, unlike the harmony between the Tsar-father and his children that always existed in Russia. In Dostoevsky's idealized conception, an autocracy can be the freest state in the world, for its rulers need not fear their subjects.

Dostoevsky's aversion to the Russian revolutionaries extended to their economic programsocialismbecause he considered it one of the great European evils threatening Russia's unique civilization. He called it, paradoxically, the height of egoism, because its appeal was to personal greed and the advancement of one's own rights against those of others. Above all, he saw socialism as destructive of human freedom: The revolutionary socialist, Dostoevsky argued, seeks the compulsory union of humanity by forcing economic change in the supposed interest of all. Notes from Underground, Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov all offer vivid treatments of this theme; the tale of the Grand Inquisitor in the latter novel is universally acclaimed as one of the most brilliant dramatic embodiments of philosophical ideas in world literature. Dostoevsky's remarkably prescient anticipation, in these and other works, of the aims and even the tactics of the twentieth-century Russian Bolsheviks has contributed to his reputation as a prophet.

Philosophy of History

Scattered throughout Dostoevsky's published and unpublished writings are fragments of a nationalistic theory of world history that, although generally consonant with his ethical and religious views, has provoked much controversy because of the messianic mission it ascribed to Russia (particularly in later writings such as A Writer's Diary ) and its seeming inconsistency with his conception of the future as radically undetermined and hence unpredictable.

In an early (18641865) notebook, Dostoevsky sketched three stages in the evolution of human society: (1) Primitive patriarchalism, in which humans live in unreflective community, lacking a concept of self; (2) Civilization, in which personal consciousness and egoism arise; community disintegrates and previously accepted patriarchal laws are questioned. This is a diseased condition, for it undermines faith in God and destroys the spontaneity of life; and (3) Christianity, in which there is a return to God, community, and spontaneity but on a conscious level: individuals voluntarily give themselves to others by accepting the law of love.

Dostoevsky's many discussions of national differences among peoples drew on this conception of levels of evolutionary progress. He believed that the Western European peoples, and even more the Jewish people wherever they resided, represented the diseased condition of egoism characteristic of the second stage of history. Russians, by contrast, as true Christians, are altruistic; furthermore they possess a unique trait he calls universal responsiveness, by virtue of which they comprehend and sympathize with the problems of all peoples of the world. The Russians, then, are the only nation firmly situated in the third stage of historyShatov in Demons calls them "the only 'god-bearing' nation" (p. 247)and it is their mission to raise others to that level by uniting them in a single loving community. As early as 1856 Dostoevsky had coined the expression the Russian idea for his nation's special role in world history. More than a century later, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the term gained new life as the rallying cry of Russian nationalists.

See also Berdyaev, Nikolai Aleksandrovich; Camus, Albert; Chernyshevskii, Nikolai Gavrilovich; Egoism and Altruism; Enlightenment; Existentialism; Materialism; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Russian Philosophy; Shestov, Lev Isaakovich.


primary works

The Brothers Karamazov: A Novel in Four Parts with Epilogue. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Classics, 1991.

Complete Letters. 5 vols, edited and translated by David Lowe and Ronald Meyer. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 19881991.

Crime and Punishment. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Classics, 1992.

Demons: A Novel in Three Parts. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

The Idiot. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Classics, 2003.

Notes from Underground. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Classics, 1994.

Complete Collected Works in Thirty Volumes. Leningrad, Russia: Nauka, 19721990.

A Writer's Diary. 2 vols. Translated by Kenneth Lantz. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 199394.

secondary works

Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhailovich. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, edited and translated by Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky. 5 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 19762002.

Knapp, Liza. The Annihilation of Inertia: Dostoevsky and Metaphysics. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996.

Kostalevsky, Marina. Dostoevsky and Soloviev: The Art of Integral Vision. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.

Lauth, Reinhard. Die Philosophie Dostojewskis in systematischer Darstellung ("Ich habe die Wahrheit Gesehen"). Munich, Germany: R. Piper, 1950.

Magarshack, David, ed. and tr. Dostoevsky's Occasional Writings. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1997.

Morson, Gary Saul. "Dostoevskii, Fëdor Mikhailovich (18211881)." In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward Craig, vol. 3, pp. 114119. London: Routledge, 1998.

Proffer, Carl R., ed. The Unpublished Dostoevsky: Diaries and Notebooks (186081) in Three Volumes. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 19731976.

Scanlan, James P. Dostoevsky the Thinker. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.

James P. Scanlan (2005)