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Frank, Semën Liudvigovich (1877–1950)


Semën Liudvigovich Frank, the Russian philosopher and religious thinker, was trained in law at Moscow University (18941898) and in economies and philosophy at the universities of Berlin and Munich (18991902). As a student in Moscow he was a member of a Marxist group headed by P. B. Struve; his first published work was a critique of Karl Marx's theory of value (1900). Between 1902 and 1905 (during which years he moved back and forth between Moscow and Germany) he was a principal contributor to Struve's journal Osvobozhdenie (Liberation), published in Stuttgart.

Frank joined a number of other young ex-Marxist intellectualsamong them Struve, Nikolai Berdiaev, and Sergei Bulgakovin publishing three important symposium volumes: Problemy idealizma (Problems of Idealism; Moscow, 1903); Vekhi (Signposts; Moscow, 1909); and Iz glubiny (De profundis; Moscow, 1918). This last work was printed but because of Soviet censorship was never released.

In 1906 Frank settled in St. Petersburg; in 1912 he joined the Russian Orthodox Church and began to teach philosophy at St. Petersburg University. In 1915 (at St. Petersburg) he published, and in 1916 defended, his master's thesis, Predmet znaniia (The object of knowledge); in 1917 he published his doctoral dissertation, Dusha cheloveka: Opyt vvedeniia v filosofskuyu psikhologiyu (Man's soul: An introductory essay in philosophical psychology; Moscow), but was unable to defend it because of political events. From 1917 to 1921 Frank was professor of philosophy and dean of the newly organized faculty of history and philosophy at Saratov University. In 1921 he was named professor of philosophy at Moscow University. He was among the group of non-Marxist intellectuals expelled from the Soviet Union in the summer of 1922. He settled in Berlin, where he gave university lectures (in German) on Russian literature and culture. In 1937, forced to leave Germany, he moved to France. In 1945 he moved to London, where he died.

From Vladimir Solov'ëvand ultimately from PlotinusFrank took his central doctrine of positive "total-unity" (vseedinstvo ). His epistemological intuitivism was close to that of his older colleague Nikolai Losskii. His characteristic emphasis on the "metalogical unity" of the real, and its transcendence of the Aristotelian laws of thought, was drawn mainly from Nicholas of Cusa. Frank always identified himself as a Platonist.

Although Frank's thought exhibits many Hegelian strands, and although he regularly used terms like moment (das Moment ) in G. W. F. Hegel's special sense (as "dialectical phase" or "component of a totality"), he employed one crucial pair of terms in a very un-Hegelian way. To the absoluteness of real'nost' (reality) he opposed the relativity of deistvitel'nost', not "actuality" in the sense of Hegel's Wirklichkeit (the common meaning of deistvitel'nost' in Russian philosophy) but the merely empirical or factual. Frank distinguished between conceptualizable and objectifiable "factuality" and the nonconceptualizable, metalogical "dual-unity" (dvuedinstvo ) of "reality." The real is fully related and concrete; the factual is isolated and abstract: "Being is a total-unity, in which everything particular exists and is conceivable only in its relation to something else" (Nepostizhimoe [The unknowable], p. 51). We apprehend reality as a "mono-dual" coincidence of opposites, as both "distinct from all particular determinate contents" of knowledge and as "containing and permeating" every such content (Real'nost' i chelovek [Reality and man], pp. 9394). The real is both "transdefinite" and "transfinite"; and in both respects it eludes conceptualization. "Everything finite," Frank declared, "is given against a background of infinity. The knowable world is surrounded on all sides by the dark abyss of the unfathomable" (Nepostizhimoe, pp. 29, 35).

Frank agreed with René Descartes that, although the term finite is prior and positive in meaning, and the term infinite is derived from it by negation, "it is precisely the infinite as the 'fullness of all' that is given as primary and positive, while the concept of finitude is formed by negation of that fullness" (Real'nost' i chelovek, p. 57).

Forms, or "ideal elements," are determinate aspects of factuality. The totality of such determinations is grounded in what Frank, following Solov'ëv, called the primordial unity or total-unity of the real. Although reality is unfathomable, it is not hidden; rather, it is "entirely evident, being mysterious only in the sense that it is inexplicable, irreducible to anything else, and inaccessible to logically analytic thought. It is what Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called ein offenes Geheimnis " (Real'nost' i chelovek, p. 78). "Objective factuality" is something alienated and abstract, a "rationalized, i.e., logically crystallized, part of reality." Like a nut's shell, it forms a "hard and relatively distinct outer layer, produced by the inner saps and energies of a living organism" (pp. 106ff.).

Reality in its wholeness is graspable only in the integral intuition of "living knowledge" (zhivoe znanie ), of which conceptual knowledge is only a derivative product or superstructure: "All particular knowledge is partial knowledge of a whole."

The "I" of the Cartesian cogito is a "reality in which subject and object coincidea "self-revealing" and "self-transparent being-for-itself," accessible to "living knowledge." Sounding rather like Martin Heidegger, whose general position he repudiated, Frank wrote, "We are conscious of ourselves only as a self-revelation of [being] in us" (Nepostizhimoe, p. 93). He also offered a more emphatic version of Heidegger's doctrine of Mitsein : "No finished 'I' exists prior to the encounter with the 'thou.' It is in this encounter that the 'I' in a genuine sense first comes into being" (pp. 148, 154). Frank also suggested Heidegger's category of impersonal "itness" (das Man ): "The 'we' appears in the form of an 'it' which constitutes the basis and first source of objective being" (p. 177). Although there can be no "I" apart from its relation to a "thou," "every 'I' has a special root of its own, lying in secret depths inaccessible to others" and "the most essential part of me remains solitary and inexpressible." The more one is aware of oneself as a person, the more one withdraws into "metaphysical solitude," for "we are wholly open only to ourselves and to God" (Real'nost' i chelovek, pp. 127, 129).

In religiousand especially mysticalexperience, "I encounter God as a 'thou' for me, only in that ultimate and essentially solitary stratum of my 'I' in which I am inaccessible to everyone except myselfand God (as Kierkegaard rightly insisted). I encounter God in the utter solitude in which I encounter death" (pp. 215f.).

Like Solov'ëv, Frank generalized the notion of "Godmanhood" (Solov'ëv's term was Bogochelovechestvo ; Frank's somewhat more abstract term, Bogochelovechnost' ) beyond its Christian context. Its primary reference is not to the Incarnation, but to the basic ontological category of "divine-human reality." In Frank's words, "The dual-unity of Godmanhood is logically prior to the conceptions of both God and man" (p. 249).

See also Berdyaev, Nikolai Aleksandrovich; Bulgakov, Sergei Nikolaevich; Descartes, René; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hegelianism; Heidegger, Martin; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Losskii, Nikolai Onufrievich; Marx, Karl; Nicholas of Cusa; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Plotinus; Russian Philosophy; Solov'ëv (Solovyov), Vladimir Sergeevich.


works by frank

Man's Soul: An Introductory Essay in Philosophical Psychology. Translated by Boris Jakim. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1993.

Reality and Man: An Essay in the Metaphysics of Human Nature. Translated by Natalie Duddington. London: Faber and Faber, 1965.

The Spiritual Foundations of Society: An Introduction to Social Philosophy. Translated by Boris Jakim. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1987.

The Unknowable: An Ontological Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. Translated by Boris Jakim. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1983.

works on frank

Boll, M. M. The Social and Political Philosophy of Semen L. Frank: A Study in Prerevolutionary Twentieth-Century Russian Liberalism. Madison, WI: author, 1970.

Boobbyer, P. S. L. Frank: The Life and Work of a Russian Philosopher, 18771950. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1995.

Lossky, N. O. History of Russian Philosophy. New York: International Universities Press, 1951. Pp. 266292.

Nazarova, O. Ontologicehskoe obosnovanie intuitivizma v filosofii S. L. Franka (The ontological grounding of intuitivism in S. L. Frank's philosophy). Moscow: Ideia-Press, 2003.

Swoboda, P. The Philosophical Thought of S. L. Frank. Ph.D. Diss., University of Columbia, 1992.

Zenkovsky, V. V., Istoriya Russkoi Filosofii. 2 vols. Paris, 1948, 1950. Translated by G. L. Kline as A History of Russian Philosophy. 2 vols. London and New York: Columbia University Press, 1953. Pp. 852872.

Zenkovsky, V. V., ed., Sbornik Pamyati Semëna Lyudvigovicha Franka (A collection of essays in memory of Simon Ludvigovich Frank). Munich, 1954. Reminiscences and critical essays by Zenkovsky and others. Contains a bibliography of Frank's writings, compiled by L. A. Zander, on pp. 177192.


Frank, V. Bibliographie des oeuvres de Simon Frank. Paris: Institut d'études slaves, 1980.

George L. Kline (1967)

Bibliography updated by Vladimir Marchenkov (2005)

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