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Shpet, Gustav Gustavovich (1879–1937)


In his most important phenomenological work, Iavlenie i smysl (Appearance and sense, 1914), Gustav Shpet took up Edmund Husserl's idea of pure phenomenology and developed it in the direction of a "phenomenology of hermeneutical reason." In this theoretical framework he formulated, between 1914 and 1918, hermeneutic and semiotic problems, which in the 1920s he elaborated more specifically within the fields of philosophy of language and theory of art. In doing so, he was combining Husserl's conceptions with ideas from other philosophical movements, particularly Wilhelm Dilthey's hermeneutics and Wilhelm von Humboldt's philosophy of language.

Shpet's reception and transformation of phenomenology must be seen in the context of Russian intellectual and cultural life during the first two decades of the twentieth century. The Platonic "Moscow Metaphysical School" (which included Vladimir Solov'ëv and Sergei Trubetskoi) provided the intellectual atmosphere in which Shpet's turn to Husserl's phenomonology took place. His ideas on theories of language and signs are close to those of contemporary Russian formalism. His phenomenological and structural theories influcenced Prague structuralism through the "Moscow Linguistic Circle," and his work is seen as a precursor to Soviet semiotics.

Shpet's Life

Gustav Shpet was born in 1879 in Kiev. He studied there at Vladimir University from 1901 to 1905, completing his studies with a monograph entitled Problema prichinnosti u Iuma i Kanta (The problem of causality in Hume and Kant). In 1907 he moved to Moscow, and taught at Moscow University from 1910. During a stay in Göttingen (19121913), where he studied with Husserl, he turned to Husserl's transcendental phenomenology. His first phenomenological publication, Iavlenie i smysl (Appearance and meaning, 1914) marked the beginning of a productive reception of Husserl's phenomenology in Russia. In 1916 he defended his master's thesis Istoriia kak problema logiki (History as a problem of logic, Part I). In 1918 he finished Germenevtika i eë problemy (Hermeneutics and its problems), in which he discussed the problems of hermeneutics as they have been developed throughout history from antiquity (especially in Origen and Augustine) to modern times, thereby at the same time elaborating the basic outline of his "hermeneutical philosophy"a philosophy that is caught in the field of tension exerted, on the one side, by Husserl's "Phenomenology of Reason" and, on the other, by Dilthey's "Philosophy of Life."

After the Revolution of 1917, Shpet was active in various fields of cultural and intellectual life. He received a professorship of philosophy at Moscow University. In 1920 he joined the "Moscow Linguistic Circle" (MLK), a center of Russian formalism, and in 1921 he was appointed director of the Institute for Scientific Philosophy, a new research institute at Moscow University. Expelled from the university in 1923 for political reasons, he concentrated his activities on the State Academy of the Arts (GAKhN), where he served as vice president until 1929, and where he temporarily chaired the Department of Philosophy. His most important contributions to the theory of art and language are his Ėsteticheskie fragmenty (Aesthetic fragments), published in 1922 and 1923 in Petrograd, and Vnutrenniaia forma slova (The internal form of the word) (1927).

Ėsteticheskie fragmenty includes a phenomenology of "living discourse" and an analysis of those rules that determine the constitution of meaning in poetic discourse. These phenomenological and structural analyses of language, which aim to construct a poetics, were further developed through a critical assessment of Wilhelm von Humboldt's philosophy of language in Shpet's last substantial work, The Internal Form of the Word (1927). Following a "cleansing" of the GAKhN in 1929, Shpet was forced to retire from his academic post, and he subsequently worked as a translator, editor, and critic. It was during this period that he translated Dickens, Byron, and Shakespeare into Russian. In March 1935 he was arrested by the NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs) and was charged with having led an anti-Soviet group during his time at the GAKhN in the 1920s. After a lengthy detention, he was exiled for five years to Eniseisk, and later to Tomsk. There, in 1937, he finished his Russian translation of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. In October of that year he was arrested and shot by the NKVD.

Shpet's Development toward Phenomenology

Representative of Shpet's notion of philosophy before his turn to phenomenology, as well as expectations he held for a reform of philosophy and psychology, is his article Odin put' psikhologii i kuda on vedët (One way of psychology and where it leads), published in 1912. The article criticizes experimental and explanatory psychology for having replaced "living and concrete facts" with "empty schemata and abstractions." Only a descriptive psychology that focuses on the pure data of consciousness would be able to fathom psychic life in its concreteness and totality. He saw the basis for this new direction in psychological theory in Wilhelm Dilthey's Ideas of a Descriptive and Analytical Psychology (1894). Shpet argued for a philosophy that would take into account the totality of psychic life: a "realistic metaphysics," whose task it would be to grasp "the real in its true essence and its totality." Shpet thought that such a philosophy, which draws on the evident facts of "inner experience," had been realized in important movements of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Russian philosophy. Philosophers of the "Moscow Metaphysical School" (especially Vladimir Solov'ëv and Sergei Trubetskoi) are cited as exponents of this trend in Russian thought.

Another, no less important, influence on Shpet's reception of Husserl was his interest in the logic of the historical sciences. During his stay in Göttingen (19121913) he discovered in Husserl's phenomenology the theory for which he had been searching, and his hermeneutical interest motivated him to try to develop Husserl's "Phenomenology of Reason," as outlined in Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology, volume 1 (1913), into a theory of hermeneutic reason that focuses on the problem of understanding signs. Although the ideas Shpet encountered in Göttingen primarily concerned transcendental phenomenologythe seminar on "Nature and Spirit," which Shpet attended with other influential phenomenologists like Roman Ingarden and Hans Lipps, certainly met his hermeneutical intereststhe ontological trend in the intellectual atmosphere among Husserl's fellow students in Göttingen also should be taken into account.

Shpet's Version of Phenomenology

Shpet's encounter with Husserl's phenomenology, in light of Shpet's expectation of a reform of philosophy and psychology, leads to a singular notion of phenomenology, which is documented in Iavlenie i smysl (Appearence and sense, 1914). On the one hand, Shpet tries to reconstruct Husserl's noetic-noematic studies within the framework of an ontological inquiry, based on the Neoplatonism of the Moscow Metaphysical School; on the other hand, he demonstrates the incompleteness of Husserl's analyses of intentional objects, as presented in Ideas, volume 1, and completes these analyses with his own. The "noematic sense" intended in acts of consciousness, as presented by Husserl, presupposes for Shpet a class of intentional experiences hardly dealt with in Ideas : acts of consciousness through understanding, which play a role in the constitution of all classes of concrete objects. The structure of these "hermeneutic acts" is illustrated by a range of phenomena that are of only minor importance in Ideas : the mode of appearance of items of practical use, the specific character of historical sources, and the understanding of linguistic utterances. Thus Husserl's "Phenomenology of Reason" provides a basis for historical cognition in scientific logic, leading eventually to a grounding of the humanities throughan analysis of their conceptual framework and methodology.

Shpet's ensuing works on hermeneutics, philosophy of language, and theory of art, published or written between 1916 and 1927, can be seen as a further development of his hermeneutical phenomenology, the primary idea of which is the correlation of signs (as a combination of expression and meaning) and sign-interpreting consciousness. Shpet also characterizes his project as a semiotic "Philosophy of Culture" in which language, art, myths, and manners are to be described as systems of signs. He develops the basic model of a sign out of Husserl's concept of linguistic expression, which acts as a prototype for all other forms of signs. The idea of a "purely logical grammar," which formulates laws for the grammatical meanings of natural languages, should be applied analogously to all other cultural systems.

Hermeneutics, Philosophy of Language, and Poetics

The concrete form of Shpet's phenomenology of hermeneutical reason in his philosophy of language and his poetics was also much influenced by Dilthey's "Philosophy of Life." In Shpet's hermeneutical philosophy, as outlined in Germenevtika i ee problemy (Hermeneutics and its problems) (1918), he worked with Schleiermacher's, Boeckh's and Dilthey's theories of understanding. Above all, he tried to deepen and refine Dilthey's late grounding of the humanitiesthen the culmination in the development of hermeneuticswith insights in the domain of semiotic theories, which he found not only in Husserl's first Logical Investigation on Expression and Meaning, but also in other semantic works of the Brentano School (particularly Anton Marty and Alexius Meinong). A combination of Husserl's semantics with Dilthey's hermeneutics would be an enrichment for both sides, as Shpet wrote at the end of the manuscript. The theory of understanding could find a new answer to the question of the mutual relation of the different methods of interpretation, whereas semantics would experience in this combination a "philosophically lively and concrete embodiment."

This actualization of Husserl's philosophical semantics, with a hermeneutical intention, has left its traces in Shpet's Ėsteticheskie fragmenty (19221923), with which he entered contemporary discussions on literary theory, as initiated by Russian formalism. He was particularly concerned with the definition of the specific character of poetical discourse as opposed to others, be they scientific, rhetorical, or everyday discourses. If one puts this question phenomenologically, one has to ask under what conditions a linguistic utterance appears as artistic or poetic to a listener or reader. Since a poetic utterance is experienced only as a contrast to everyday use of language, one must first analyze the reception of everyday language. Shpet follows this procedure in the second part of Ėsteticheskie fragmenty. The difference between understanding the message and understanding its author plays a pivotal role in Shpet's description of the various forms and aspects of linguistic consciousness.

In contrast to such a phenomenological analysis of lingusitic consciousness, Shpet presents a structural analysis of linguistic expression as "ontology of the word," which he, in turn, subsumed under a general theory of semiotics. In this confrontation between a phenomenological inquiry, which is confined to the side of experience, and an ontology, which focuses on the object, the ever-increasing influence of Husserl's early concept of phenomenology on Shpet becomes visible. In Shpet's "ontology of the word" a particular concept of structure is of central importance. "The structure is a concrete construction whose individual parts can vary in their extent and even in their quantity, but not a single part of the whole in potentia can be removed without destroying this whole." (19221923, II, 11). By "structure of the word" Shpet did not mean the morphological, syntactic, or stylistic constructionin short, not the arrangement of linguistic units "in the plane," but "the organic, depth-wise, as it were, arrangement of the wordfrom the sensually conceivable wording to the eidetic object." The structure of the word, therefore, consists of the relations between phonemes and meaning, as well as of those between the word's meaning and "object," where the latter is ideal and ontologically distinct from concrete individual things.

When Shpet spoke of the structure of the word, he took it in the wide sense of the Russian expression for "word" slovo, which can mean sentences or combinations of sentences in discourse, as well as literary texts and even natural language in its entirety. Shpet used it with all these different meanings, yet was mainly concerned with the "communicating word": meaningful discourse able to convey something to another person. Thus Shpet took up Plato's definition of predicative statements, as "the shortest and most simple logos " (Sophistēs 262c). Shpet described its structure as follows: in a simple predication the subject denotes a concrete, individual object; the predicate indicates a property belonging to this object. In denoting, speakers refer to a thing; in predication, they say something about it. What can be said about this thing, and conversely, which predications are possible, is determined by the species to which the thing belongs. Therefore the act of intending a species, which Shpet called also the "eidetic object," is indispensable for the construction of a meaningful sentence.

With these definitions Shpet outlined the "word's structure," which is common to everyday and scientific communication, as well as to rhetorical and poetic discourse. In order to explain how this general structure manifests itself in the artistic usage of words, sentences, and discourse, Shpet developed a theory of linguistic functions that stems from a critical assessment of Husserl's and Marty's philosophy of language. He started from three different functions of language, each fulfilled by a particular type of discourse. These three communicative functions are the factualthe expressive, and the poetic, the latter working through the creative formation of language. Depending on which of these three functions is dominant, discourse is either scientific (concerned with factual communication), rhetorical (concerned with influencing other people's emotions), or poetic (primarily concerned with the arrangement of linguistic expressions as such).

The predominance of one of the three functions implies in each case a different mutual relation between the above-mentioned parts of the word structure. Whereas, for example, in everyday language the arrangement on the level of expression aims primarily at structuring the expressed meaning, and thereby at the communication of facts, in poetic discourse all levels gain a relative importance of their own. The rhythmic forms and syntactic peculiarities of this discourse should attract attention as such. At the same time, the meaning expressed in poetic discourse is more dependent on the external forms of language: whereas the meaning of a factualabove all scientificcommunication is not affected by each change of wording and syntactic arrangement.

From Husserl to Humboldt

By giving pure logic, which deals with the condition of the possibility of science, a phenomenological foundation, Husserl excluded important aspects of living discourse from his language analysis. Shpet's project was more extensive than Husserl's in that he analyzed scientific communication merely as one possible form alongside the poetic, rhetorical, and everyday discourses. This widening of the horizon entails a turning away from (not only a modification of) Husserl's concept of language. Shpet questioned, for example, one of the central presuppositions of Logical Investigations that scientific discourse can be marked off from living discourse. These two ways of speaking are only tendencies, as Shpet emphasized; they are not fully realized in any empirical speech sample. "Figurativeness is not only a trait of 'poetry' it is a general property of language, which belongs to scientific discourse as well." (19221923, III, 32).

The thesis of the irreducibility of figurative-ambivalent discourse has to do with Shpet's emphasis on the fact that thought is inseparably bound to language. With this concept of language as the "formative organ of thought," as outlined by Shpet in his interpretation of Humboldt in 1927, he turned away most clearly from Husserl's Logical Investigations, according to which "the fact of being expressed is arbitrary for the meaning."

See also Existentialism; Phenomenology.


works by shpet

Ėsteticheskie fragmenty IIII (Aesthetic fragments). Petrograd: Kolos, 19221923. Reprinted in Sochineniia (Works), 343472. Moscow: Pravda, 1989. Shpet's contribution to the theory of art and language.

"Germenevtika i eë problemy" (Hermeneutics and its problems, 1918). In Gustav Shpet: Mysl i Slovo: Izbrannye Trudy (Thought and word: selected works), edited by Tatiana Shchedrina. Moscow: Rosspen, 2005. Translated into German as Die Hermeneutik und ihre Probleme, edited by R. Daube-Schackat and A. Haardt. Freiburg, Munich: Alber, 1993. Critical presentation of the problems of hermeneutics as they have developed throughout history.

Iavlenie i smysl: Fenomenologiia kak osnovnaia nauka i eëe problemy (1914). 2nd ed. Tomsk: Vodolei, 1996. Translated as Appearance and Sense: Phenomenology as the Fundamental Science and Its Problems by T. Nemeth. Dordrecht, Boston, London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991. Shpet oulines his "phenomenology of hermeneutical reason."

Istoriia kak problema logiki (History as a problem of logic). Moscow, 1916. Shpet's master's thesis.

"Odin put' psikhologii i kuda on vedët" (One way of psychology and where it leads). In Filosofskii sbornik L. M. Lopatinu, 245264. Moscow, 1912. Representative of Shpet's notion of philosophy before his turn to phenomenology.

Problema prichinnosti u Iuma i Kanta (The problem of causality in Hume and Kant). Kiev: Universitet Sv. Vladimira, 1907. Shpet's first work, a monograph.

Vnutrenniaia forma slova (The internal form of the word). Moscow: GAKhN, 1927. 2nd ed. Ivanovo: Ivanovskii gosudarstvennyi universitet, 1999. A critical assessment of Humboldt's philosophy of language.

works about shpet

Haardt, A. Husserl in Rußland: Phänomenologie der Sprache und Kunst bei Gustav Špet und Alekseij Losev (Husserl in Russia: Phenomenology of language and art in Gustav Shpet and Aleksei Losev). Munich: Fink, 1993.

Shchedrina, T. G. "Ja pishu kak ėkho drugogo": Ocherki intellektual'noi biografii Gustava Shpeta ("I'm writing like an echo of other people": Studies on the Intellectual Biography of Gustav Shpet). Moscow: Progress-Tradiciia, 2004.

Alexander Haardt (2005)

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