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Kavelin, Konstantin Dmitrievich (1818–1885)


Konstantin Dmitrievich Kavelin, the Russian historian and philosopher, was educated at Moscow University, where he was later professor of history. Kavelin also taught at St. Petersburg University and was for a time tutor to the royal family. In addition to numerous historical works, he wrote essays in psychology, sociology, and ethics. During the 1870s he carried on an active polemic with Vladimir Solov'ëv, defending a positivist (or "semipositivist") position against Solov'ëv's criticisms. In politics Kavelin was a moderate liberal; in religion he remained devoutly Russian Orthodox.

Kavelin's main work in ethical theory, Zadachi etiki (Tasks [or problems] of ethics), appeared in 1844. In it he criticized the then fashionable one-sided "objectivism," which, he charged, blurred the distinction between inner intention and outward behavior, leading to the conclusion that intentions may be "unlawful" or volitions "criminal." From the neo-Kantian viewpoint that Kavelin adopted in this book, such a conclusion is absurd. Intentions and volitions, he insisted, are to be judged only "by their relationship to consciousness, to the understanding and inner conviction of the person in whom they occur" (Sobranie sochinenii [Collected works], Vol. III, col. 907).

When utilitarians equate virtue with utility and vice with social harm they are taking an "outsider's" view of moral experience, the view of a spectator rather than that of a moral agent. In fact, moral virtue may or may not be useful; this depends on the particular social system involved, and the latter is a nonmoral factor. Hence, social utility cannot provide a sound criterion of morality.

It is human individuality as a unique locus of value, Kavelin asserted, which provides such a criterion. However, this assertion raised serious problems for Kavelin's "scientific ethics," since, as he admitted, concrete individuality systematically eludes the abstract generalities of science. In the end, the "scientific ethics" that Kavelin had been laboring to construct coincided with Christian ethicsthe "last word in ethical wisdom" and "an incontrovertible truth of individual spiritual life" (Sobranie sochinenii [Collected works], Vol. III, Cols. 940941).

Kavelin's attempt to provide a scientific foundation for ethics, like the attempts of other nineteenth-century thinkers, must be judged a failure. However, Kavelin eloquently restated ideas derived from Vissarion Belinskii, Aleksandr Herzen, and the Russian Populists concerning the individual person and his sense of freedom and the role of convictions in morality. His was a genuine, if modest, philosophical contribution.

See also Belinskii, Vissarion Grigor'evich; Ethics, History of; Herzen, Aleksandr Ivanovich; Metaethics; Neo-Kantianism; Philosophy of History; Russian Philosophy; Solov'ëv (Solovyov), Vladimir Sergeevich; Utilitarianism.


Vol. III of Kavelin's four-volume Sobraniye sochinenii (Collected works; St. Petersburg: Stasiulevicha, 18981900) contains Kavelin's philosophical works, including Zadachi etiki, cols. 8971018.

For literature on Kavelin, see V. V. Zenkovsky, Istoriia Russkoi filosofii. 2 vols. (Paris: YMCA Press, 19481950). Translated by George L. Kline as A History of Russian Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1953), pp. 345348.

See also V. I. Prilenskii, Opyt issledovaniia mirovozzreniia rannikh russkikh liberalov (A study of early Russian liberals' world view). Moscow: Rossiiskaia akademiia nauk, Institut filosofii, 1995, pp. 149-205.

George L. Kline (1967)

Bibliography updated by Vladimir Marchenkov (2005)

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