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Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia

Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia

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by Lesley Chamberlain

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Editorial Reviews

Mark Lilla
At its best, Chamberlain's account sheds light on the complex cultural reaction set off when modern Western ideas wash up on the shores of cultures simultaneously ashamed of their social and scientific backwardness and convinced of their moral superiority. In the 19th century Russia was the small theater in which this drama played out; today, the theater is the entire world. The value of this book is that it offers a small window into the mental universe of underground men everywhere.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Delving fearlessly into her complex and understudied subject, Chamberlain provides a useful synthesis of 200 years of thought by nearly 40 Russian philosophers. Her philosopher-by-philosopher account portrays an important, if flawed, theoretical geography that has earned its place in the philosophical tradition, despite Russia's inferiority complex stemming from Nicholas I's closing of all philosophy departments in universities in 1826. Russian thinkers defined themselves against a Western perspective-Hegelian knowledge, Cartesian individualism, Adam Smith's political economy-that, in their view, simply could not comprehend the culture and society of Russia. Among these thinkers, Lenin is the most influential, and the book's argument can't help turning on his 1908 treatise, Materialism and Empirio-criticism. Yet in trying to provide a balanced view of all relevant figures, Chamberlain misses an opportunity to make Lenin's devastating philosophy the book's compelling center. The progression toward totalitarianism is subtle but clear in hindsight, a result of Russia's precarious position on the physical and moral outskirts of the Western world: "Russian disdain for the West, its sense of being morally superior, always contained the shadow of a fear that Russia was the inferior place." This useful reference and historical corrective should inspire further study into a neglected but rich intellectual landscape. (July)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
A searching intellectual history of modern Russia, "a culture without reason."Russia a land without reason? The idea was endorsed by none other than Isaiah Berlin, one of Russia's great minds and a confidant of the author's. Chamberlain (Lenin's Private War, August 2007, etc.) persuasively argues that while other nations, beginning in the 19th century, developed rich philosophical traditions devoted to liberal education and the cultivation of personal freedom, the Russian intelligentsia "realized that their first priority in spreading enlightenment in Russia must be to oust the autocracy." Speculative philosophy, aesthetics and other such things had their place in Russian scholarship, but they were valued less than politics, social structure and political change; because Russia was not connected to Western Catholicism, classical antiquity and the Renaissance had passed it by, leaving medieval Orthodoxy to fill the gap. Followers of sometime Orthodox, sometime Marxist philosophers such as Nikolai Lossky, Sergei Bulgakov and Nikolai Berdyaev might object that they were at once modern, political, conservative and devout, not so removed from Rousseau and Kant; cynics might even suggest that the whole Communist era was the product of too much philosophy, and not enough of it. Still, Chamberlain ably and lucidly follows her fruitful line of thought, working in notes on the individuality-mistrusting Dostoyevsky, who urged piety and obedience after one too many nights in the tsar's jails; V. I. Lenin, who saw to it that a brand of totalitarianism flourished to make of Russia a "unique, non-Western, community"; and Alexandre Koyre, who posited that it was precisely because Cartesian rationalismhad never taken root in Russia that such monstrous assaults on truth as Lysenkoism could have occurred. And as for today? Writes Chamberlain, the struggle between positive and negative liberty endures, existing "on the edge of a Western culture where we too no longer live in the centre."Provocative, and sure to inspire learned discussion, if not controversy.

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The Overlook Press
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Product dimensions:
6.44(w) x 9.23(h) x 1.26(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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