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Mamardashvili, Merab Konstantinovich (1930–1990)


Merab Mamardashvili was born September 15, 1930, in Gori, Gerorgia and died November 25, 1990, in Moscow. He was a philosopher most of whose creative life passed in Moscow and Tbilisi, Georgia, in the period from the 1950s through the 1980s. He was an original thinker who received world recognition. His main spheres of inquiry were the philosophy of consciousness, the theory of transformed forms of consciousness; classical and non-classical forms of rationality; the phenomenology of life, love, and death; proof of the necessity of Cartesian, Kantian, and Husserlian themes as "elements" or dimensions of all philosophizing; problems of the existence, consciousness, and action of man under the conditions of socialism and of the Soviet regime; contemporary civilization and the "anthropological catastrophe."

Mamardashvili graduated from the philosophy department of Moscow University in 1954 and completed his graduate studies there in 1957. He was on the editorial staff of the journals Voprosy filosofii [Questions of philosophy] (19571961) and Problemy mira isotsializma [Problems of the world and of socialism] (19611966). He then worked in a number of institutes of the Academy of Sciences (the Institute of the International Workers Movement and the Institute of the History of Natural Science and of Technology); from 1968 to 1974, he was associate editor-in-chief of Voprosy filosofii. From 1980 to 1990, he lived in Tbilisi, where he worked in the Institute of Philosophy of the Georgian Academy of Sciences. From 1972, he was a professor of philosophy.

Having been formed in the period of the "thaw" in the 1950s and having by the 1960s become an original thinker, an opponent of socialism and of the political regime existing then in the USSR (although without being an open dissident), Mamardashvili was compelled to expound his ideas not so much in published works that were subject to censorship, as in lecture courses, which attracted hundreds of listeners. In view of his ability to expound the most complex and recondite philosophical ideas in oral form, he was called "the Georgian Socrates."

Some of Mamardashvili's lecture courses were given in France, Italy, and other countries: He was fluent in a number of foreign languages. His popularity and his recognition as a talented philosopher grew. But the opposition of the authorities, who persecuted him, also grew. That is why during his life he was able to publish only three books: Formy i soderzhanie myshleniia. K kritike gegelevskogo ucheniia o formakh poznaniia (Forms and Content of Thought. Toward a Critique of Hegel's Doctrine of the Forms of Knowledge ), Moscow, 1968; Klassicheskii i neklassicheskii idealy ratsional'nosti (Classical and Non-classical Ideals of Rationality ), Tbilisi, 1984; Kaki ia ponimaiu filosofiiu (How I Understand Philosophy ), Moscow, 1990; as well as articles in journals and collected works. There is a principal difficulty in assimilating and evaluating Mamardashvili's philosophical ideas: The tape recordings of his lectures that served as the basis of the works published under his name after his death were edited and modified by the editors and publishers. Because of this, these books are secondary sources whose status is ambiguous: They are integral parts of Mamardashvili's philosophical heritage, but at the same time a number of specialists view them as inauthentic.

Mamardashvili's Main Spheres of Inquiry and his Principal Ideas

Mamardashvili dealt in four major spheres in his lifetime. His principal ideas and concepts are outlined below and a general explanation is given for his contribution to philosophy.

i. analysis of consciousness and of the transformed forms of consciousness in the works of karl marx

For Mamardashvili, as well as for a number of other influential philosophers of Russia of the Soviet period, reference to Marx became a means of struggle with the dogmas of dialectical and historical materialism, as well as a means of grounding his own ideas. In Mamardashvili's exposition, the chief of these are: "The Marxian schemata give rise to the elements of a series of theories: to the elements of (1) a theoretical model of the social conditionedness of consciousness; (2) a theory of fetishism and of the symbolics of the social in consciousness; (3) a theory of ideology (the socio-philosophical critique of ideology developed by Marx was subsequently transformed into that which is now called the sociology of knowledge as an academic discipline); (4) a theory of science and of free spiritual production as particular forms of active consciousness; (5) a theory of consciousness as an instrument of man's personal development and of his responsibility in the sphere of culture and historical activity" (How I Understand Philosophy, Moscow, 1990, pp. 299300). Later Mamardashvili will say that he found his way to phenomenology not through Husserl but through Marx, who revealed "the phenomenological nature of consciousness, its quasi-objective character," butin contradiction to the phenomenology of the twentieth centuryalways disclosed "behind phenomena" their causal origin and "the social system of communion, which the phenomena of consciousness serve" (p. 303).

To this is appended an interpretation of the concept of "the transformed forms of consciousness," which we already encounter in Marx, but to which Mamardashvili attributes a broader and more profound theoretical significance. According to Mamardashvili, the transformed forms are characterized by the fact that "the form of manifestation acquires an 'essential' significance, is particularized, and content is replaced in the phenomenon by another relation, which merges with the property of the material bearer (substrate) of the form itself (for example, in cases of symbolism) and takes the place of the real relations" ("Forma prevrashchennaia " [Transformed Form ] in Filosofskaia entsiklopediia [Philosophical Encyclopedia ], vol. 5, Moscow, 1970, p. 387). Examples of this are capitalized cost in the system of bourgeois economics (the case of an irrational transformed form); objective appearance: the movement of the sun and planets around the earth; the operation of sign forms of culture; memory and coding units in computers; and the symbolic processing of links of consciousness (according to Freud).

ii. existentialism and french marxism

It was early on that Mamardashvili began his polemic with existentialism and with French Marxism. He personally debated Sartre and Althusser. During the 1950s and 1960s, like these French authors whom he critically analyzed, Mamardashvili based his thought on Marx's conception, but he was also developing an original conception of society and man. At the center of Mamardashvili's positive analysis was a theory of personality and alienation which rejected Sartre's conception of nature, matter, and the material in socio-historical life: "Taking as his point of departure a phenomenological analysis, Sartre can see in the manifestations of social 'matter' (i.e., the fact of the existence in society of forces and relationships which are independent of individuals and their consciousness) only an extra-human and mysterious power, which bewitches people and their relationships and weaves together with them the thread of factual history" ("Kategoriia sotsial'nogo bytiia i metod ego analiza v ekzistentsializme Sartra " [The Category of Social Being and Its Method of Analysis in Sartre's Existentialism ] in Sovremennyi ekzistentializm [Contemporary Existentialism ], Moscow, 1966, p. 187).

iii. comparative analysis of rationality

Mamardashvili devoted a number of his works to a comparative analysis of the classical and non-classical types or ideals of rationality. He discerned the specific character of the classical type of rationality in the following features: (1) the concept of the "objective" in the "classical" type was identified with the external (the spatial), while the spatial was identified with the material, which had important philosophical and methodological consequences; (2) "from within the physical theory, which investigates natural phenomena and comes to a certain objective and intelligible picture of the world, we cannot (from within this theory itself) understand those means which we use to construct this picture" (The Classical and Non-classical Ideals of Rationality, p. 5). The understanding of the physical world is bought at the cost of a "lack of scientific understanding" of conscious phenomena (although, as living beings, we freely live and orient ourselves in this sphere). Other features include the principles of classical rationality: "the principle of the continuity of reproducible experience," "the self-identity of the subject" (p. 9); and reliance on the concept of "phenomenon"; de-anthropomorphization. Non-classical rationality arises under the influence of the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics; and in the social and humanitarian disciplines, it arises under the influence of the theory of Marx's ideology, Husserl's phenomenology, and Freud's psychoanalysis. The main principles and procedures of non-classical rationality are: (1) phenomenon instead of appearance, for "I return to the phenomemological level, which prohibits us from discussing something without first bringing to a stop the premises of our objectifying thought " (p. 50); (2) the refusal to accept the existence of some "preestablished world with ready-made laws and essences" (p. 64); (3) a complete and comprehensive understanding that consciousness is "one of the inalienable elements of the very object of investigation" (p. 79).

iv. interpretations of doctrines of prominent philosophers

The central place in Mamardashvili's philosophy is occupied by a particular interpretation of the doctrines of a number of prominent thinkers and cultural figures of the past (see the posthumous Kartezianskie razmyshleniia [Cartesian Meditations]; Kantianskie variatsii [Kantian Variations], Moscow, 1997; and Lektsii o Pruste [Lectures on Proust], Moscow, 1995). The originality of this interpretation consists in a free transition from an abstractly philosophical analysis of the doctrines of Descartes or Kant to an illumination of the socio-historical content as well as the trans-historical cultural, moral, aesthetic, and personal content contained in these doctrines. As a result, the philosophical consciousness is closely interwoven with the radical problems, contradictions, and crises of civilization, with orientations of the human personality that have meaning for life. This is realized, for example, in the historico-philosophical as well as socio-philosophical figure of the three "K's": "Kartesius" (Descartes), Kant, and Kafka.

In the interpretation of Descartes the central plane is occupied by the theme of cogito, which Mamardashvili calls "the phenomenon of all phenomena," as well as by the paths leading to cogito. The consciousness of ego cogito is interpreted, on the one hand, as a limit abstraction from all that is historically concrete, even from man, a limit abstraction which implies the "permissibility" and even the inevitability of transcendentalism (in the traditions of Descartes, Kant, and Husserl). On the other hand, this "improbable abstraction" is realized, after which it "becomes in a concealed manner the foundation" of our physical knowledge and of the formulation of physical laws, although it is scarcely the case that we are always conscious of the "accomplishment" of the abstraction. Here, the abstraction of the transcendental ego acquires social, personal, and moral foundations and consequences. What this means is that thought is free and thus "paths of coherent space must be laid for thought, i.e., paths of open discussion (glasnost ), mutual tolerance, formal legality" (Lektsii o Pruste, p. 115).

The second "K" (Kant) in Mamardashvili's interpretation indicates the conditions under which mana finite, mortal being, whose life could have become meaningless in the face of infinitycreates around himself a special world, a world which presupposes choice, evaluations, decisions; in other words, freedom. This is because everyone who is born not only enters the world of nature with its rigid causal connections, but also encounters and in part creates the world of "intelligible" objects. These latter, according to Mamardashvili, are "images of integralities," as if designs and projects of development.

The third "K" is a figurative reference to the "world of Kafka," i.e., to the penetration into the human world of certain "zombie-situations," attesting to the "degeneration" or "regressive variant" of the general K-principle: In opposition to Homo sapiens, n other words, to "man who knows good and evil," a "strange man," an indescribable man, enters the world of civilization. "Ridiculous, absurd, bizarre, dreamlike confusion and something otherworldly"that is how Mamardashvili describes the actions of Joseph K. in Kafka's Trial, and this also goes for the situation of the absurd in human society. With the accumulation of the potential of the absurd in human history, including contemporary history, the result can be the most dangerous chaos of civilization, a kind of anthropological catastrophe. "Terrifying idols of passion, soil, and blood cover the world, concealing the hidden paths of order; and it is very difficult to tear oneself away from these idols, and to enter onto the radiant paths of thought, order, and harmony" (p. 210).

See also Cartesianism; Descartes, René; Existentialism; Freud, Sigmund; Husserl, Edmund; Kafka, Franz; Kant, Immanuel; Marx, Karl; Quantum Mechanics; Rationality; Relativity Theory; Russian Philosophy; Sartre, Jean-Paul.


Kruglikov, V., ed. Kongenial'nost' mysli: O filosofe Merabe Mamardashvili (Congeniality of Thought: On the Philosopher Merab Mamardashvili ). Moscow, 1999.

Kruglikor, V., and J. Schokasov, eds. Vstrecha s Dekartom (Encounter with Descartes ). Moscow, 1996.

Mamardashvili, Merab. Estetika myshleniia (Aesthetics of Thought ). Moscow, 2000.

Mamardashvili, Merab. Méditationes cartésiennes. Solin, 1997.

Mamardashvili, Merab. Moi opyt netipichen (My Experience Is Atypical ). Moscow, 2000.

Mamardashvili, Merab. Soznanie i zivilisatija. Moscow, 2004.

Mamardashvili, Merab. Strela posnanija. Moscow, 2004.

Mamardashvili, Merab. Variationi Kantiane. Torino, 2003.

Motroshilova, Nelly. Raboty rasnych let. Izbrannye statji i esse. Moscow, 2005.

Nelly Motroshilova (2005)

Translated by Boris Jakim

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