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Florenskii, Pavel Aleksandrovich (1882–1937)


Pavel Aleksandrovich Florenskii was a Russian philosopher, theologian, art theoretician, and scientist-polymath. He was born January 22, 1882, of a Russian father and Armenian mother, and died on December 8, 1937. Florenskii lived in the Caucasus, mainly in Tiflis (Tbilissi), Georgia, until 1898, when he entered the Department of Physics and Mathematics of Moscow University. Endowed with many talents, he was invited to stay at the university after graduation for further studies in mathematics, but declined and instead entered Moscow Theological Academy in 1904. By then he was already known as an active member of the Russian Symbolist movement; he published poetry, essays, and philosophical articles, and he corresponded with Andrey Belya leading Symbolist poet and theoristregarding basic theoretical problems of Symbolism. In 1908 Florenskii graduated from the Academy and stayed there as a professor of philosophy. In 1911 he was ordained a priest. Between 1906 and 1914 he wrote his magnum opus, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, that became one of the principal texts of Russian religious philosophy. It is also a very unusual text, a modernist masterpiece that is at once a theological treatise (bearing the subtitle An Essay of Orthodox Theodicy ), an exposition of a new philosophical system, a cycle of lyrical letters to a friend (it is divided into "Letters," not chapters, with each letter accompanied by a period engraving with a motto), and an endless chain of digressive studies on all kinds of subjects. Essentially, An Essay of Orthodox Theodicy is an itinerary of a spiritual journey; and because the journey is undertaken by a philosopher, it includes the creation of a philosophy.

Florenskii's Early Philosophy: Sophiology

The philosophy that is expounded in the book is a system of metaphysics of All-Unity. In Russian philosophy this kind of metaphysics was introduced by Vladimir Solov'ev. Its basic concept represents a specific transrational principle of inner form that ensures a perfect unity of a manifold such that any part of the latter is identical to the whole. The principle is an ancient aporetic philosophical paradigm that originated in pre-Socratics, was later articulated in Neoplatonism, and then carefully elaborated by Nicolas of Cusa. It made its last appearance in Western metaphysics in Schelling's thought. Solov'ev's contribution to this philosophical tradition consisted in making the concept of All-Unity the guiding principle of a comprehensive philosophical system. The main new element introduced by Solov'ev was the linking of All-Unity with the biblical and Gnostic mythologem of Sophia, the Wisdom of God. As a result, Solov'ev's metaphysics of All-Unity was articulated as a metaphysics of Sophia (sophiology). Florenskii accepts the connection between Sophia and All-Unity but otherwise does not follow Solov'ev and hardly ever mentions him. The Pillar presents a new, different kind of sophiology.

One may single out two lines in the history of the mythological Sophia, both deriving from the Wisdom books of the Bible. One included Gnostic and later Western mystical doctrines, with Valentine, Heinrich Seuse, Jacob Boehme, and Emmanuel Swedenborg as the chief exponents; whereas the other, found in Eastern Christianity, manifested itself in cultic forms, such as consecration of churches to Sophia and icon-painting. Solov'ev drew upon the Western tradition, whereas Florenskii upon the Eastern one. Further elaboration, turning Wisdom of God into a metaphysical concept, is also independent of Solov'ev. The association of All-Unity with Sophia is based on the fact that, ontologically, they both are intermediate realities between God and the empirical world. Such reality was traditionally conceived as "the world in God" or, according to Greek patristic writings, the system of divine logoi (ideas, designs) of all created things.

Florenskii made this conception of Christian Platonism still more Christian by linking each human person to God's love of this person. This love further coincides with the divine logos or God's idea of this person, and represents a monad of Liebnitzian type; thus there is a noumenal love-idea-monad corresponding to each person and implementing his or her connection to God. Love also connects all these love-idea-monads with one another, and taken together, they form a loving and eo ipso living being. Sophia is this noumenal, meta-empirical, living and loving being. Analyzing love, Florenskii finds that it means a certain kind of identity of lovers, their "consubstantiality in God." Thus any two monads belonging to Sophia are consubstantial by virtue of their love, which implies that all parts of Sophia are identical both to one another and to the whole, while at the same time retaining their individual differences. This means in turn that Sophia is the perfect unity of a manifoldthat is, All-Unity.

The concept of Sophia as a noumenal loving being and community of monads connected by love forms the basis of the Platonist ontology in Florenskii's early philosophy. Florenskii's epistemology is also Platonist at this stage. The key to the epistemology of The Pillar is given in the epigraph of the book, which is a quotation from St. Gregory of Nyssa: "Knowledge is achieved by love." As in Florenskii's ontology, the main principle here is love: Cognition is a kind of communion of the knower and the known, it implies building up their unity and consubstantiality, and this implies, in turn, that genuine cognition is achieved only in love and by love. Such treatment, integrating epistemology into ontology, is opposite to the mainstream of Western metaphysics and especially to Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy that insisted on the primacy of epistemology and subsumed ontology under it. Accentuating this opposition to the extreme, Florenskii depicts the entire history of European thought as a dramatic conflict between Platonism and Kantianism.

Florenskii's Late Philosophy: "Concrete Metaphysics"

The Pillar and Ground of the Truth made Florenskii famous, but it was a milestone rather than an exhaustive treatment of his ideas. In it he tried to follow strictly the Church doctrine and thus had to put aside many themes that were important for him, above all, his ideas of the symbol and its role. Florenskii considered symbol as a constitutive element and building block of reality, and invariably defined his outlook as symbolist. He began to develop this view already in his early texts and returned to it after the publication of The Pillar. He conceives and nearly completes a broad project of symbolistic philosophy called concrete metaphysics, a kind of all-embracing synthesis resulting in a detailed symbolist picture of Being and the Universe. Originally, symbol was conceived by Florenskii in the classical Platonic and Schellingian way, as an inseparable union of the phenomenal (sensuous) and noumenal (intelligible), joined in perfect mutual expression (the Schellingian Einbildung ).

In Florenskii's concrete metaphysics the concept of symbol acquired new featuresalong with his entire worldview that should now be described as Christian Neoplatonism. Firstly, the structure of symbol became layered, as a set of concentric spheres, with the one in the center corresponding to the perfect union of the symbol's phenomenal and noumenal components, whereas the outer spheres represented increasingly imperfect expressions of the noumenon in the phenomenon. Secondly, the inner mechanism of symbol was now seen as a dynamic union of phenomenal and noumenal energies. Energy became the basic new element in Florenskii's late philosophy, which he treated in unwavering Neoplatonist terms.

Concrete Metaphysics was intended to provide a systematic description of reality as formed by symbols of various kinds. In many aspects it resembles Ernst Cassirer's contemporaneous theory of symbolic forms. The description had to consist of studies devoted to definite kinds of symbols. Its basic criteria for distributing symbols into types or classes are anthropological and correspond to human perceptive modalities; the main classes of symbols analyzed by Florenskii are visual (spatial) and acoustic (verbal). The study of visual symbols includes, first of all, a specific model of the Cosmos. In this model, the physical Universe is complemented by a noumenal yet equally spatial world; contacts and transitions between the two worlds include death as well as phenomena of religious and mystical experience, and the boundary between the two worlds is regulated by the cult. Another vast domain of visual symbols is provided by the plastic arts. Florenskii made detailed studies of this domain; he developed a theory of reverse perspective used in icons and then more general theory of space as it figures in works of art; from 1921 to 1924 he expounded these theories in lecture courses in Vkhutemas, one of the main centers of the Russian avant-garde art of 1920s. As for the studies of acoustic symbols, they include mainly Florenskii's philosophy of language, a specific feature of which is the idea of occult energies present in the word. Other parts of Concrete Metaphysics that merit mention are the outlines of the philosophy of technics, based on the idea of the projection of human organs.

Florenskii's late philosophy is presented in numerous works, nearly all of which were created in the decade from 1914 to 1924. Many of the studies planned were not completed. After 1917 the Theological Academy was closed, and Florenskii started working in applied physics and engineering. As he never relinquished his Christian faith, he was persecuted, being arrested in 1928 and again in 1933. After the second arrest he was sent first to the Far East and then, in 1934, to the concentration camp in the Solovetsky islands in the White Sea. In 1937, in the campaign of mass murders, he was shot. Most of his works written after 1917 remained unpublished until the 1980s and 1990s; when they gradually became known, it was discovered that they contain pioneering ideas in many fieldsfor example, in semioticsand some bold previsions, such as the existence of the genetic code.

See also Metaphysics; Philosophy of Religion; Russian Philosophy; Sophia.


florenskii's works

Beyond Vision: Essays on the Perception of Art. Translated by Wendy Salmond. London: Reaktion, 2002.

Detyam moim. Vospominanya proshlykh dnei. Genealogicheskie issledovaniya. Iz solovetskikh pisem. Zaveshchanie. Moscow: Moskovskii rabochii, 1992.

Iconostasis. Translated by Donald Sheehan and Olga Andreev. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 1966.

The Pillar and Ground of the Truth. Translated by Boris Jakim. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Sobranie sochinenii. Filosofiya kul'ta (opyt pravoslavnoi antropoditsei). Moscow: Mysl', 2004.

Sobranie sochinenii. Stat'i i issledovaniya po istorii i filosofii iskusstva i arkheologii. Moscow: Mysl', 2000.

Sobranie sochinenii v chetyrekh tomakh, Tt.14. Moscow: Mysl', 19941998.

other works

Franz, Norbert, Michael Hagemeister, and Frank Haney, eds. Pavel FlorenskijTradition und Moderne: Beitraege zum Internationalen Symposium an der Universitaet Potsdam, 5. bis 9. April 2000. New York: Peter Lang, 2001.

Hagemeister, Michael, and Nina Kauchtschischwili, eds. P. A. Florenskii i kul'tura ego vremeni. Atti del Convegno Internazionale, Università degli Studi di Bergamo, 1014 gennaio 1988. Marburg, Germany: Blaue Hoerner Verlag, 1995.

Khoruzhii, Sergei S. Mirosozertsanie Florenskogo. Tomsk, Russia: Vodolei, 1999.

Sergey Horujy (2005)

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