Losev, Aleksei Fëdorovich (1893–1988)

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Aleksei Fëdorovich Losev was a Russian philosopher and classicist and the author of numerous works on ancient and early modern aesthetics, language, symbolism, myth, and music aesthetics. A native of Novocherkassk, he graduated from Moscow University in 1917 with degrees in philosophy and classical philology and later taught at the University of Nizhnii Novgorod and Moscow Conservatory. Before they ceased to exist in 1922 he attended the meetings of the Vladimir Sergeevich Solov'ëv (Solovyov) Religious-Philosophical Society and Nikolai Aleksandrovich Berdyaev's Free Academy of Spiritual Culture, where he met the leading figures of the so-called religious-philosophical renaissance.

During the 1920s Losev forged his own version of Christian neoplatonism for which he drew on ancient Platonists, Greek church fathers, German idealism (especially Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel), Russian religious-philosophical thought, and Edmund Husserl. The later, largely forced, assimilation of Marxism was neither purely cosmetic nor did it cause any fundamental shift in his outlook. Losev accepted the valuable aspects of Marxism but eschewed its limitations. In 1929 he secretly took monastic vows. Between 1927 and 1930 he published eight volumes on ancient philosophy, philosophy of language, mathematics, music aesthetics, and philosophy of myth. The last book in this series, Dialektika mifa (The dialectics of myth; 1930), became the cause of Losev's arrest and sentence of ten years in labor camps. He was freed, almost totally blind, in 1933 and for the next twenty years he was not allowed to publish his own work or teach philosophy. After teaching part time at provincial universities he became a professor at Moscow University in 1942 and was even awarded a doctorate in classical philology. The appointment was soon withdrawn, however, on charges of idealism and Losev was transferred to Moscow State Pedagogical Institute, where he remained until retirement. He resumed publishing in 1953 and eventually established himself, against considerable official resistance, as one of the most respected authors on ancient philosophy and culture in the Soviet Union. By the end of his life Losev's oeuvre included more than 30 monographs and 400 scholarly publications. Posthumous editions have increased this number almost twofold. The crowning achievement of his life's labor was an eight-volume study on ancient aestheticsan original interpretation of antiquity without precedent, in scope and size, in world classical scholarship.

Losev's output over his lifetime is marked by a remarkable continuity. The themes of antiquity, language, symbol, myth, mathematics, and music remained constant from his earliest to his last publications. His vast oeuvre, however, still requires much study and any judgment of it must remain provisional at this stage.


Losev elaborated his phenomenological-dialectical method in the 1920s and later only supplemented it by new influences, among which Marxism and structuralism were perhaps most notable. In Marxism Losev found support for his conviction about a meaningful link between socioeconomic and intellectual processes but, in contrast to Marxism, he did not reduce the latter to the former. He considered the eidos of classical phenomenology, which he described as "the integral semantic face (smyslovoi lik ) of a thing" (1927a, p. 53), too static and supplemented it by establishing dynamic dialectical relations among its constituent parts. Like Hegel, Losev understood dialectics as the rhythm of both thinking and objective reality, but his own version of dialectics was derived largely from ancient and Christian neoplatonist sources.

Losev had a penchant for developing multilayered analytic structures of the phenomena that he studied. Often, the key element in these conceptual constructions is what he calls the dialectical tetraktis: the development of meaning via the four steps of unity, multiplicity, the ideal synthesis of the two, and, finally, the fact in which this synthesis is realized.

Throughout his life Losev argued strenuously against the dogmatic one-sidedness of both materialism and idealism and strove to position himself above these abstract divisions.


Central to Losev's entire outlook was the philosophy of language articulated in Filosofiia imeni (Philosophy of the name; 1927b). Losev's view was informed by onomatodoxy (imiaslavie ), a trend in Orthodox theology centered on the veneration of God's name. He understood language in terms of ontological symbolism, that is, as access to the reality of being. "The name," he argued, "is life. The mystery of the word consists precisely in that it is the tool of our intimate and conscious encounter with the inner life of things. The world is created and is held together by the name and the word" (1993, pp. 617, 642, 746). The name, according to Losev, embraces being in its entirety, from the meonic formlessness of pure matter, to the rational, eidetic formation of all natural and social phenomena, to the suprarational regions of thinking where it passes into "noetic ecstasy" (pp. 676677). Losev's meticulous gradations of this phenomenological-neoplatonist terrain are held together by a dialectical hierarchy of various "moments" in the structure of words. Later in life Losev attentively studied structuralism with which the eidetic aspect of his analysis of language had much in common. He consistently objected, however, to all nondialectical treatments of language, be they positivist, neo-Kantian, or structuralist.


Losev's theory of the symbol was inspired by the thought of Pavel Aleksandrovich Florenskii and Viacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov, but it also absorbed other influences as it evolved from his early work, such as Antichnyi kosmos i sovremennaia nauka, to later writings, such as Problema simvola i realisticheskoe iskusstvo (The problem of symbol and realistic art, 1976). In the latter Losev analyses in detail the structure of symbol and argues that symbols are means of practical, creative "re-making of reality" (pp. 1517). In Losev's view a symbol is the perfect fusion of inner meaning and its external expression. It is this balance that distinguishes it from allegory, where the image outweighs the abstract idea, or from a scheme, where the idea is rich but its representation arid.


Losev regards myth as a necessary category of consciousness and defines it as "unfolded magical name" (2003, pp. 186187)a formula that highlights myth's verbal (narrative) form, personalistic nature, and the presence of the miraculous in it. As a story about reality it is distinct from poetry and art in general; as a prereflexive story about a miraculous reality, myth is distinct from science and metaphysics. Myths form the foundations of people's outlooks, Losev argues, and thus determine cultural and historical processes on the most fundamental level. He views the history of culture as a constant struggle among various mythologies, and one of his tasks is to uncover the inner logic of this process. "Whatever one's view of myth, any critique of mythology is always merely a profession of another, new mythology" (1927b, p. 771). According to Losev no historical epoch is free of mythology and, despite its hostility toward myth, modernity is emphatically mythological. Modern cosmology advances, he impugns, a vision of the world as an infinite dark void, ruled by a "blind, deaf, and dead" monster, that is, matter. Losev's other targets among modern myths include titanic Prometheanism that he critiqued at length in The Problem of Symbol and Realistic Art. The key notion in Losev's critique of modernity was what he called in Estetika Vozrozhdeniia (Renaissance aesthetics; 1978) "the absolutization of the human subject."

The reconciliation of myth and philosophy is Losev's goal in his essay "Absoliutnaia mifologiia = absoliutnaia dialektika" (Absolute mythology = absolute dialectics; 19291930, published in 2000). Taken by themselves, both myth and dialectics are limited and an adequate outlook can be based, Losev insists, only on their synthesis. Dialectics inevitably comes up against the ultimate limit of rational cognition, and in the suprarational realm beyond this boundary it should be fused with mythology (p. 275). In his early period Losev found the optimal candidates for such a synthesis in the mythology of Eastern (Orthodox) Christianity and Russian religious-philosophical thought.

Losev applied his theoretical ideas to numerous analyses of specific myths ranging from ancient Greco-Roman to modern mythology (Ocherki antichnogo simvolizma i mifologii [Essays on ancient symbolism and mythology; 1930]; Mifologiia grekov i rimlian [The mythology of the Greeks and Romans; 1930s, published in 1996]; and The Problem of Symbol and Realistic Art ).


In Istoriia antichnoi estetiki (History of ancient aesthetics; 19631994) Losev's point of departure is that all ancient philosophizing, from pre-Socratics to Proclus, is based "on the intuitions of a thing, rather than of personhood" (Istoria antichnoi filosofii v konspektivnom izlozhenii [History of ancient philosophy: a conspectus], p. 155). He emphasizes the link between the "material-thingly" (material'no-veshchestvennaia ) basis of thinking and ancient slave-owner economy but rather than a particular economic order the ultimate intuitive ground of ancient philosophy was "the sensible, material cosmos" (p. 15). From this impersonal absolute stems ancient fatalism that gradually evolves, via Stoics and other schools, toward providentialism. Ancient philosophy ends, Losev claims, when this original, astronomical intuition is replaced by the personalistic and historical vision of reality in Christianity. Losev argues for a dialectical view of this process, in which ancient philosophy grows out of specific mythological intuitions in the late archaic and early classical period, and in the end returns to embrace and justify this original mythology on rational groundsonly to yield to a new mythology and a philosophy that evolves on its basis.


Losev's philosophy of music combines Pythagoreanism and Romanticism, both refracted through his dialectical phenomenology. Eventually, he also explored Marxist themes, such as music and ideologyespecially in his philosophical prose of the early 1930s (published posthumously). The culmination of Losev's early philosophy of music was Muzyka kak predmet logiki (Music as the subject of logic; 1927), where music is defined as the expression of "the life of numbers." In its depth this life is a total "coincidence of opposites" and "extreme formlessness" that defies all categories of the understanding (1990, p. 209). At the same time a musical work possesses an "eidetic completeness" (p. 269). Fused with the chaos of "pure musical being," this mathematically determined fullness of form makes music "the eidos of the alogical" (p. 279). Losev further evokes Plotinus to define time as "the alogical becoming of the number" (p. 328) and links this idea with the temporal nature of music. The closing passages of the book are devoted to deriving from these insights such elements of musical form as melody, rhythm, harmony, and even timbre. Losev both used and further elaborated his philosophy of music in a number of essays, written in the course of his lifetime, on specific composers, such as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (18441908), Aleksandr Scriabin (18721915), and Richard Wagner (18131888).

Losev is one the key philosophersperhaps the key philosopherwho preserved the continuity of Russian religious-philosophical tradition in Russia against a concerted effort by the Soviet regime to destroy it. In the post-Soviet period Losev emerged as one of the central figures of twentieth-century Russian thoughta position confirmed by numerous editions of his works and his broad influence on the current philosophical discourse. The significance of his work, however, reaches far beyond the Russian context. While the strikingly broad reach of his thought makes the recognition of his contribution difficult, it also comprises highly valuable insights into the nature of thinking, history, personhood, and expression.

See also Berdyaev, Nikolai Aleksandrovich; Florenskii, Pavel Aleksandrovich; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Husserl, Edmund; Idealism; Ivanov, Viacheslav Ivanovich; Marxist Philosophy; Myth; Neoplatonism; Patristic Philosophy; Philosophy of Language; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Pre-Socratic Philosophy; Proclus; Russian Philosophy; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Solov'ëv (Solovyov), Vladimir Sergeevich.


works by losev

Antichnyi kosmos i sovremennaia nauka (The ancient cosmos and modern science). Moscow: Author, 1927a.

Filosofiia imeni (Philosophy of the name). Moscow: Author, 1927b.

Istoriia antichnoi estetiki (History of ancient aesthetics), Vol. 1. Moscow: Vysschaia shkola, 1963; Vols. 28. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 19691994.

Iz rannkikh proizvedenii (Early writings). Moscow: Pravda, 1990.

Bytie, Imia, Kosmos (Being, name, cosmos). Moscow: Mysl', Rossiiskii otkrytyi universitet, 1993.

Forma, Stil', Vyrazhenie (Form, style, expression). Moscow: Mysl', 1995.

The Dialectics of Myth. Translated by Vladimir Marchenkov. London: Routledge, 2003.

Istoriia antichnoi filosofii v konspektivnom izlozhenii (A history of ancient philosophy: a conspectus), Moscow: Mysl', 1989.

Problema simvola i realisticheskoe iskusstvo (The problem of the symbol and realistic art), Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1976.

works about losev

"Aleksej Fedorovich Losev: Philosophy and the Human Sciences." Studies in East European Thought 56 (23) (June 2004) (Special Issue).

Haardt, Alexander. "Aleksei Losev and the Phenomenology of Music." In Russian Thought after Communism: The Recovery of a Philosophical Heritage, edited by James P. Scanlan, 197205. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1994.

Haardt, Alexander. Husserl in Russland: Phänomenologie der Sprache und Kunst bei Gustav Spet und Aleksej Losev. Munich, Germany: Fink Verlag, 1993.

Jubara, Annett. Die Philosophie des Mythos von Aleksej Losev im Kontext "Russischer Philosophie" Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2000.

Vladimir Marchenkov (2005)