Dostoevsky the Thinker: A Philosophical Study

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For all his distance from formal philosophy, Fyodor Dostoevsky was one of the most philosophical of writers. In works from fictional masterpieces to little-known nonfiction prose, he grappled with the ultimate questions about the nature of humankind. His novels are peopled by characters who dramatize the fierce debates that preoccupied the Russian intelligentsia during the second half of the nineteenth century. What was the philosophy of Dostoevsky? How does reading this literary giant from a new perspective add to our understanding of him and of Russian culture?

In this remarkable book, a leading authority on Russian thought presents the first comprehensive account of Dostoevsky's philosophical outlook. Drawing on the writer's novels and, more so than other scholars, on his essays, letters, and notebooks, James P. Scanlan examines Dostoevsky's beliefs. The nonfiction pieces make possible new interpretations of some of the author's most controversial works of fiction, including Notes from Underground. Dostoevsky's thought, Scanlan explains, was shaped above all by its anthropocentrism, its struggle to define the essence of humanity. All of the subjects the writer addressed—including religion, ethics, aesthetics, history, the state, and the Russian nation—provided clues to the mystery of what it means to be human. Scanlan demonstrates conclusively that Dostoevsky's philosophical views were more solidly grounded and systematic than have been imagined and cannot be dismissed as the notions of an irrationalist.

Scanlan also discusses the flaws and weaknesses in Dostoevsky's thought, in particular his controversial notion that Russia is the one "God-bearing" nation. This belief—that Russia has a messianic role to play in world history—has gained renewed popularity among its citizens, for whom Dostoevsky has long been regarded as a thinker of supreme importance.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Scanlan studies Dostoevsky's nationalism, opposition to rational egotism, and beliefs about our eternal souls, moral agency, and aesthetic needs. Of course, Dostoevsky's philosophy was framed within a Christian world view, and Scanlan does excellent work discussing Dostoevsky's ideas in terms of his religious faith. Readers wanting to learn more about the thought of one of Russia's great writers will find this work essential."—Library Journal, May 2002

"The strength of Dostoevsky the Thinker is that it gives a clear exposure of a subject that has sometimes inspired what one can only call enthusiastic rambling."—Catriona Kelly, Times Literary Supplement, July 26, 2002

"This is a thoughtful, clearly written and well-researched study, full of excellent points, and finely wrought arguments. It will be essential reading for all those concerned with Dostoevskii's philosophical, religious views and the history of ideas in Russia."—Diane Oenning Thompson, University of Cambridge, Slavonic and East European Review, April 2003

"Scanlan . . . teases out logical arguments from both the literary and nonliterary works of his subject, the latter of which provide rich and previously little-known source material. . . . One of the premier scholars of Russian philosophy in the US, Scanlan has a general approach that is sober and urbane; he makes a spirited and convincing defense of Dostoevsky as an innovative thinker. The section of Dostoevsky's arguments for the existence of God is by itself worth the purchase price. Recommended for undergraduates."—D.C. Shaw, Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania. Choice Magazine, Dec. 2002.

"Scanlan's goals in Dostoevsky the Thinker are to show that Dostoevsky's discourse, in both private and published writings, is more consistent and reasoned that is often assumed. These goals are achieved in full awareness of the secondary place that Dostoevsky accords to logic and reason in his overall design of human access to knowledge and truth. The comparison and contrast of Dostoevsky's thought with other philosophical treatments are very welcome. . . . Much has been achieved in Dostoevsky the Thinker. We now have a consistent, careful account of what Dostoevsky the man thought on a number of philosophical issues in the context of Western and Russian thought. Scanlan has given us a stimulating book that will certainly revitalize debate about Dostoevsky's system of values."—Edith W. Clowes, University of Kansas. Russian Review, 62:1, January 2003.

"Through this valuable/precious book . . . , Professor Scanlan makes it clear to us that Dostoevsky's fundamental philosophical concern was Man and the destiny of humanity."—Bayan al-Kitab, October 2002.

"Dostoevsky the Thinker is beautifully written and thoroughly researched and organized so that the edifice of Dostoevsky's thought grows organically from chapter to chapter. Scanlan takes his subject seriously as a systematic thinker and a literary creator of genius. At the end we simply see the living Dostoevsky at the door."—Caryl Emerson, Princeton University

"Dostoevsky the Thinker offers a fresh and persuasive view of Dostoevsky's thought, which it treats with deserved respect and critical distance, neglecting neither Dostoevsky's coherence and seriousness, nor his 'intellectual untidiness.' Organized around an elegant set of categories, its argument is clear, accessible, and well-grounded in the extensive scholarship on Dostoevsky's thought. It merits the attention of any reader of Dostoevsky."—William Todd, Harvard University

"Dostoevsky was not only a novelist of ideas but an extremely influential and important journalistic commentator as well who wrote hundreds of pages expressing his ideas directly. James P. Scanlan does an admirable job of putting them together coherently, occasionally referring to the novels as well, even though justifiably critical of many of Dostoevsky's views. No one has accomplished such a task before, and the book is a major contribution to Dostoevsky studies as well as indispensable to all devotees of the writer."—Joseph Frank, Stanford University

Library Journal
Frank completes his work on Dostoevsky's life with this fifth volume, which covers the years 1871-81. In his final decade, Dostoevsky wrote A Raw Youth, Diary of a Writer, and his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. He also acquired the fame he had sought. Frank explores his relationships with fellow writers Turgenev and Tolstoy and his feelings about Russia. He also details his appearance at the Pushkin Festival a year before his death, where he proclaimed that Russia's destiny was universality obtained not by the sword but by a brotherly striving toward the reunification of humankind. A fitting conclusion to the previous award-winning volumes, this final volume in Frank's biography is simply magnificent. Both works offer a brilliant and necessary examination of the great Russian writer and Christian humanist. Ron Ratliff, Kansas State Univ., Manhattan Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801439940
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.22 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Table of Contents

Introduction: Dostoevsky as a Philosopher

1. Matter and Spirit

2. The Case against Rational Egoism

3.The Ethics of Altruism

4.AChristian Utopoa

5. "The Russian Idea"

Conclusion:Dostoevsky's Vision of Humanity


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