Vysheslavtsev, Boris Petrovich (1877–1954)

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Boris Petrovich Vysheslavtsev, the Russian philosopher and religious thinker, was born in Moscow. He studied at the University of Moscow under the Russian jurist and philosopher P. I. Novgorodtsev and later at the University of Marburg under the neo-Kantians Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp. Upon the publication in 1914 of his dissertation, Etika Fikhte (Fichte's ethics), he received a doctorate from the University of Moscow and in 1917 was made professor of philosophy at that institution. Expelled from the Soviet Union in 1922, he emigrated first to Berlin, then in 1924 to Paris, where he became a professor at the Orthodox Theological Institute and was associated with Nikolai Berdyaev in affairs of the Russian émigré press. Prior to World War II Vysheslavtsev was active in the ecumenical movement. From the time of the German occupation of France until his death he lived in Switzerland.

Vysheslavtsev's lifelong concern with the themes of irrationality and the absolute was already evident in his work on Johann Gottlieb Fichte. He there asserted that beyond the sphere of rationality or "system" lies the irrational sphere, infinite and incapable of being systematized. Through the antinomy of these spheres philosophy arrives at recognition of the Absolute as the infinity that transcends the universe and all oppositions, even the opposition between Georg Cantor's "actual" and "potential" infinities. Because the Absolute underlies every rational construction, it is irrational. It cannot be exhausted by any concept but is "the mysterious limitlessness which is revealed to intuition."

According to Vysheslavtsev, the essence of man's ethical and religious life consists in his relation to the Absolute. He explored this relation in subsequent works, principally Etika preobrazhennogo erosa (The ethics of transfigured Eros), emphasizing the irrational forces in man and interpreting Christian doctrine in the light of the depth psychology of Carl Jung and the French psychoanalyst Charles Baudouin. Vysheslavtsev argued that moral laws cannot guide human conduct successfully, because they are rational rules directed to the conscious will and are defeated by the "irrational antagonism" that stems from man's subconscious. For moral ideals to be significant and effective they must take possession of the subconscious, which they can do only if they are reached through the sublimation of subconscious impulses. Sublimation, operating through the imagination, transforms man's lower impulses into higher ones and turns his inherent, arbitrary freedom into moral freedom that seeks the good. Such sublimation is aided by divine grace and is possible only where the soul turns freely toward the Absolute. Christian ethics is not an ethics of law but "the ethics of sublimation."

In his later years Vysheslavtsev increasingly concerned himself with social problems and wrote a major work on modern industrial culture, Krizis industrial'noi Kul'tury (The crisis of industrial culture), and a trenchant philosophical critique of Soviet Marxism, Filosofskaia nishcheta marksizma (The philosophical poverty of Marxism).

See also Absolute, The; Berdyaev, Nikolai Aleksandrovich; Cantor, Georg; Cohen, Hermann; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Jung, Carl Gustav; Natorp, Paul; Rationality; Russian Philosophy.


works by vysheslavtsev

The Eternal in Russian Philosophy. Translated by Penelope V. Burt. Grand Rapids, MI, and Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 2002.

Etika Fikhte (Fichte's ethics). Moscow, 1914.

Etika preobrazhennogo erosa (The ethics of transfigured eros). Moscow: Respublika, 1994.

Khristianstvo i sotsial'nyi vopros (Christianity and the social question). Paris: YMCA Press, 1929.

Krizis industrial'noi kul'tury: marksizm, neosotsializm, neoliberalizm (The crisis of industrial culture: Marxism, neosocialism, neoliberalism). New York: Chalidze Publications, 1982.

Serdtse v Khristianskoy i Indiyskoy Mistike (The heart in Christian and Indian mysticism). Paris: YMCA Press, 1929.

Filosofskaia nishcheta marksizma (The philosophical poverty of Marxism). Frankfurt am Main: Posev, 1957.

Zwei Wege der Erlosung: Erlosung als Losung des tragischen Widerspruchs (Two paths of salvation: Salvation as resolution of the tragic contradiction). Zurich: Rhein-Verlag, 1937.

works on vysheslavtsev

Beliaev, M. M., et al. O Rossii i russkoi filosofskoi kul'ture: filosofy russkogo posleoktiabr'skogo zarubezh'ia (Russia and Russian philosophical culture: The philosophers of the Russian post-October emigration). Moscow: Nauka, 1990.

Kline, G. L. "A Philosophical Critique of Soviet Marxizm." Review of Metaphysics, 9 (1955) 1: 90105.

Redlikh, Roman, ed. Dialektika Vysheslavtseva (Vysheslavtsev's dialectic). Frankfurt am Main: Posev, 1973.

V. V. Zenkovsky. "B. P. Vysheslavtsev, kak Filosof" (B. P. Vysheslavtsev as philosopher). Novy Zhurnal, 15 (1955): 249261.

V. V. Zenkovsky. Istoriya Russkoy Filosofii. 2 vols. Paris, 19481950. Translated by G. L. Kline as A History of Russian Philosophy, 2 vols., New York and London, 1953.

James P. Scanlan (1967)

Bibliography updated by Vladimir Marchenkov (2005)