Mikhailovskii, Nikolai Konstantinovich (1842–1904)

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Nikolai Konstantinovich Mikhailovskii (Mikhailovsky), the Russian philosopher, social thinker, and literary critic, was a theorist of Russian Populism and an exponent of a form of positivism first advanced by his contemporary, Pëtr Lavrov. Mikhailovskii was born near Meshchovsk, Russia, the son of a landowner of moderate means. After his parents' death, he was enrolled in the St. Petersburg Mining Institute in 1856. Expelled in 1861 for leading student protests against the government, he became a writer on social and literary topics for progressive St. Petersburg reviews. From 1869 to 1884 he edited Otechestvennyye zapiski (Annals of the fatherland), at that time the chief organ of Russian radicalism. Mikhailovskii was periodically banished from the capital by the tsarist authorities, but he sufficiently tempered the expression of his views to avoid imprisonment and permanent exile. He remained an influential radical spokesman until his death in St. Petersburg.

Mikhailovskii's humanistic, democratic outlook took shape early in his career, under the influence of John Stuart Mill, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and the Russian thinkers Aleksandr Herzen and Vissarion Belinskii. The most direct and extensive philosophical influence on Mikhailovskii was that of Lavrov, whose combination of an antimetaphysical positivism with an emphasis on the "subjective," moral demands of the human consciousness provided Mikhailovskii with his basic philosophical orientation. In his numerous philosophical essays, chief of which is Chto takoe progress? (What is progress?; 18691870), Mikhailovskii strongly developed the ethical foundation and the individualism of this orientation and defended it against the views of Herbert Spencer, Auguste Comte, Charles Darwin, and later against those of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

In opposition to Spencer, Mikhailovskii argued that human progress cannot be understood "objectively," or nonteleologically, and that in general the phenomena of man's historical and social life can only be approached through a "subjective method" that takes into account the feelings and aims of the individual and makes moral evaluations. Mikhailovskii protested the stunting of the individual by the division of labor in modern industrial society, maintaining that the goal of progress should be a more homogeneous social order in which each individual would be able to develop his diverse abilities comprehensively and harmoniously. Against the social Darwinists he maintained that in human society a struggle for survival is neither inevitable nor desirable, and he asserted that as the division of labor was eliminated, economic competition would yield to cooperation. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Mikhailovskii was a leading exponent of Russian Populisma form of agrarian socialism that emphasized the obshchina, or peasant village commune.

Like Comte, Mikhailovskii viewed historical progress as occurring in three stages. Adhering to the "subjective method," however, he distinguished these stages by reference to their teleology. In the objectively anthropocentric stage man sees himself as the end or purpose of nature. In the eccentric stage he still finds ends in nature but no longer regards himself as their unique focus. In the subjectively anthropocentric stage man finally realizes that ends or purposes do not inhere in nature but are produced by him; the individual dispenses with supernaturalism and metaphysics of every sort and relies on his own active energies for the promotion of his moral ideals.

Mikhailovskii's doctrines, and in particular his emphasis on the autonomous moral individual, brought him into sharp conflict with nascent Russian Marxism. In the 1890s his critiques of Marxism were extensively attacked by both Georgii Plekhanov and V. I. Lenin.

See also Belinskii, Vissarion Grigor'evich; Comte, Auguste; Darwin, Charles Robert; Engels, Friedrich; Herzen, Aleksandr Ivanovich; Lavrov, Pëtr Lavrovich; Lenin, Vladimir Il'ich; Marx, Karl; Marxist Philosophy; Mill, John Stuart; Plekhanov, Georgii Valentinovich; Positivism; Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph; Russian Philosophy; Spencer, Herbert.


works by mikhailovskii

Dostoevsky, A Cruel Talent. Translated by Spencer Cadmus. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1978.

Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Complete works). 10 vols, edited by E. Kolosov. 4th ed. St. Petersburg, 19061914.

Selections from "What Is Progress?" and from other essays in Russian Philosophy, 3 vols. Edited by James M. Edie, James P. Scanlan, Mary-Barbara Zeldin, and George L. Kline. Chicago: Quadrangle, 1965.

Literaturnaia kritika i vospominaniia (Literary criticism and memoirs). Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1995.

works on mikhailovskii

Billington, James H. Mikhailovsky and Russian Populism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958.

Kanevskaya, M. N. K. Mikhailovsky's Criticism of Dostoevsky: The Cruel Critic. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.

Zen'kovskii, 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.

James P. Scanlan (1967)

Bibliography updated by Vladimir Marchenkov (2005)

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Mikhailovskii, Nikolai Konstantinovich (1842–1904)

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