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Pisarev, Dmitri Ivanovich (1840–1868)


Dmitri Ivanovich Pisarev, the Russian literary critic and social philosopher, was educated at St. Petersburg University (18561861). His studies were interrupted by a nervous breakdown requiring four months of institutionalization. At this time he twice attempted suicide. Pisarev was imprisoned from 1862 to 1866 for his outspoken criticism of the tsarist regime. He drowned while swimming in the Baltic Sea, under circumstances that suggest suicide, at the age of twenty-eight.

Pisarev called himself a "realist" and praised "fresh and healthy materialism," but his own philosophical position was a sense-datum empiricism. In his early writings on ethics and social philosophy, in the years 1859 to 1861, he advocated the "emancipation of the individual person" from social, intellectual, and moral constraints but particularly stressed the preservation of the wholeness of human personality in the face of the fragmenting pressures of functional specialization and the division of labor.

Among the constraints that the free individual must discard are those resulting from "the timidity of his thought, caste prejudices, the authority of tradition, the aspiration toward a common ideal" (Polnoye Sobraniye Sochineniy, Vol. I, Col. 339). Pisarev declared that common ideals have "just as little raison d'être as common eyeglasses or common boots made on the same last and to the same measure" (Col. 267). Eyes differ, feet differ, individuals differ; hence eyeglasses, boots, and ideals (for "every ideal has its author") should be individually fitted. Pisarev's moral relativism anticipated contemporary emotivist or noncognitivist doctrines in ethicsthe claim that moral judgments are expressions of individual taste or preference. "When it is a matter of judging port or sherry," Pisarev wrote, "we remain calm and cool, we reason simply and soundly , but when it is a question of lofty matters, we immediately get up on our stilts. We let our neighbor indulge his taste in hors d'oeuvres and desserts, but woe unto him if he expresses an independent opinion about morals" (Col. 266).

In his later writings Pisarev adopted a utilitarian ethics modified by the principle of "economy of intellectual energies." In the situation of cultural and intellectual deprivation of Russia at mid-century, he argued, the greatest-happiness principle precludes such luxuries as esoteric art that can be enjoyed "only by a few specialists" and abstruse science that is "in its very essence inaccessible to the masses" (Col. 366).

See also Empiricism; Ethics, History of; Noncognitivism; Russian Philosophy; Social and Political Philosophy; Utilitarianism.


works by pisarev

Polnoye Sobraniye Sochinenii (Complete works). St. Petersburg, 1894. Six volumes.

Selected Philosophical, Social and Political Essays. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1958.

works on pisarev

Coquart, Armand. Dmitri Pisarev (18401868) et l'idéologie du nihilisme russe. Paris: Institut d'études Slaves de l'Université de Paris, 1946.

Masaryk, Tomáš G. Die geistigen Strömungen in Russland. 2 vols. Jena, Germany, 1913. Translated by E. and C. Paul as The Spirit of Russia: Studies in History, Literature, and Philosophy. 2 vols., Vol. II, 5381. New York: Macmillan, 1955.

George L. Kline (1967)

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