Skip to main content

Herzen, Aleksandr Ivanovich (1812–1870)


Alexander Ivanovich Herzen, the Russian editor, essayist, and social philosopher, was the illegitimate son of I. A. Iakovlev. Herzen was graduated from the faculty of physics and mathematics of Moscow University in 1834 and was promptly exiled to the provinces for radicalism (18351840, 18411843). He emigrated from Russia in 1847 and spent the remainder of his life in western Europe. In London he founded the first "free Russian journal," Kolokol (The Bell), in 1852. There, during the 1850s he published, in eight parts, his Byloe i dumy (My Past and Thoughts ), a brilliant personal memoir and history of nineteenth-century ideas.

Herzen's first essay in philosophy, "Diletantizm v Nauke" (Dilettantism in science), was published as a series of four articles in Otechestvennye zapiski (Notes of the fatherland) in 1843. Herzen used the term science (nauka ) in the broad sense of G. W. F. Hegel's Wissenschaft and focused his critique on four kinds of scientific dilettantes: naive dabblers; romanticizers of the past without interest in the problems of today; pedantic specialists who in their ivory towers write erudite books about erudite books; and the "Buddhists of science," or right Hegelians, who offer a purely speculative account of historical reality and make no effort to change it. Herzen opposed to all four kinds of dilettantism a "committed" philosophy of the act (filosofiia dela ) that seeks to reconcile abstract speculation with vital human needs. (Later, Herzen spoke of Hegel's dialectic as an "algebra of revolution.")

In "Pis'ma ob izuchenii prirody" (Letters on the study of nature), published as a series of eight articles in Otechestvennye Zapiski in 18451846, Herzen attempted to reconcile the opposed interests of natural science, which tends toward empiricism, and philosophy, which tends toward idealism. But empiricism and idealism are Hegelian "moments," incomplete and one-sided dialectical phases, each requiring the other. In the end Herzen stressed the rights of empiricism as closer than those of idealism to the real needs of living individuals.

In works written after 1847 Herzen outlined his defense of the existing individual against the collective encroachments of society, history, and progress. Nonhuman individuals are constantly sacrificed to supraindividual ends, as in the slow formation of a coral reef from the skeletons of millions of tiny sea creatures. "The polyps die," Herzen wrote, "not suspecting that they have served the progress of the reef" (Byloe i dumy, in Sobranie sochinenii [Collected works], Vol. X, p. 123). But men are not polyps; human individuals should not be sacrificed to build any coral reef of historical progress, however grandiose.

Herzen developed, in S togo berega (From the Other Shore ; Paris, 1850) and later works, a philosophy of contingency, emphasizing the "tousled improvisation" of history. Historical development does not exhibit the rational, purposive structure that Hegelians see in it; therefore, men are free to impose their own purposes on its "whirlwind of chances." "Outside us everything changes, everything vacillates. We are standing on the edge of a precipice and we see it crumbling. We shall find no haven but in ourselves, in the consciousness of our unlimited freedom, of our autocratic independence" (From the Other Shore, p. 128).

Herzen stressed the lived sense of freedom and attempted to reconcile this psychological fact with a deterministic theory. In a letter (written in French in 1868) to his son, who had defended a fashionable physiological reductionism, he called the idea of freedom a "phenomenological necessity," adding, "the conscious self cannot move or act without positing itself as free, that is to say as to having within certain limits the power to do or not to do. Without this belief, individuality dissolves and is lost" (Sobranie sochinenii, Vol. XX, pt. 1, p. 436).

Anticipating Fëdor Dostoevsky's "Legend of the Grand Inquisitor" (1880), Herzen in 1847 stated the theme of escape from freedom and the burden of moral responsibility. The love of moral freedom, in Herzen's words, is "purely Platonic and ideal," whereas the love of intellectual authority is a solid mariage de raison in which "dreams and poetry are sacrificed for domestic comfort [and] order" (ibid., Vol. II, p. 90).

Herzen formulated not only an extreme moral relativism"What was admirable behavior yesterday may be abominable today" (From the Other Shore, p. 141)but also an embryonic emotivism in ethics. Moral judgments are expressions of taste or preference on the model of "I like lobster"; there is no point in my arguing with someone who does not like lobster. According to Herzen, "there are no general rules, but [only] an improvisation of conduct, a tact, an aesthetics of human actions" (Sobranie sochinenii, Vol. XXIX, pt. 1, p. 148). On this, as on other points, Herzen anticipated Friedrich Nietzschewho may have read some of Herzen's works in translation.

See also Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich; Empiricism; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Idealism; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Russian Philosophy.


works by herzen

My Past and Thoughts. 6 vols. Translated by Constance Garnett. New York: Knopf, 19241927.

Sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh (Collected works in thirty volumes). Moscow, 19541964.

From the Other Shore and The Russian People and Socialism. Edited by Isaiah Berlin. New York: Braziller, 1956. Introduction by the editor.

Selected Philosophical Works. Translated by L. Navrozov. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956.

works on herzen

Malia, Martin. Alexander Herzen and the Birth of Russian Socialism: 18121855. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961.

Zenkovsky, V. V. Istoriia Russkoi Filosofii. 2 vols. Paris: YMCA Press, 19481950. Translated by George L. Kline as A History of Russian Philosophy, 2 vols., New York: Columbia University Press, 1953. See pp. 271298.

George L. Kline (1967)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Herzen, Aleksandr Ivanovich (1812–1870)." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . 19 Feb. 2019 <>.

"Herzen, Aleksandr Ivanovich (1812–1870)." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . (February 19, 2019).

"Herzen, Aleksandr Ivanovich (1812–1870)." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Retrieved February 19, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.