Soloviev’s Actuality

Gorazd Kocijančič

In his foreword to the Italian (and my Slovene) translation of the essay “Spiritual Foundations of Life”, Olivier Clément wrote: “Soloviev is truly a theologian (or religious philosopher) of modernity, which he transforms into postmodernity”.
Since there is no doubt that, on the one side, Soloviev is the founder or at least one of the most prominent representatives of Russian religious philosophy who decisively outlined its further development and the breadth of issues it addresses, and that, on the other side, the contemporaneity of contemporary thought may be interpreted either as his (late) modernity or as postmodernity, the previously mentioned thesis brings us to the central topic of our discussion: “Russian religious philosophy and contemporary thought”.
This is, of course, not the proper occasion for reviewing or summarizing debates on postmodernity, which we have come to grow tired of. Nor is it my intention to enumerate all of Soloviev’s many themes that appear to be topical today.
What I would actually like to do is develop Clément’s intuition on a fundamental level and thereby stimulate an in-depth discussion on the foundations of the “actuality” of Soloviev’s thought.
The thought form of modernity is, irrespective of how one evaluates and interprets the concept of a subject which received its first philosophical foundation from Descartes and his followers, undoubtedly linked to a reevaluation of human thought. Evidence of the existence of thinking is given (created in later metamorphoses of subjectivism) in the act of thinking, and posited in the act of will[1]. The criterion of certainty is the certainty of my self-consciousness. “Even if I err, I am”; “I think, therefore I am”. This postulate has become a solid pillar in the “rationalist” philosophy of the new ages, whose evidence can be used to measure or even deduce the evidence of other “truths”.
Postmodern thought may basically be understood as a criticism of modern subjectivism, irrespective of whether it borrows postulates and conceptual instruments for its criticism from structuralism, psychoanalysis or from the return to “original” thought of Being.
What is Soloviev’s position with respect to these two thought forms? Some histories of philosophy, insofar as they mention this Russian philosopher at all, see him within the Christian interpretation of the metaphysics of German idealism, but also as someone completes the development of subjectivist metaphysics of the New Ages. Is Soloviev’s existent truth merely a version of thought captured in ontology? Does Christ’s “alétheia” in Soloviev’s thought approach the subjectivised “fundamentum inconussum” of western metaphysics?
At first glance, this thesis may seem quite plausible. Why? Because Soloviev’s thought reflects, to a considerable extent, a typical modern change in the understanding of a subject, which is evident even in the presentation of traditional Christian doctrines, where it radiates from a new relation established towards them by this philosopher and writer. In the entirety of his thinking, Soloviev is essentially a philosopher the new ages.
But does his understanding of cogito and thus his metaphysics of presence remain caught in the metaphysics of modernity, or does it reach essentially deeper and reveal a unique criticism of a subject, successfully combining genuine Christian tradition and anticipating thought themes of postmodernism?

To answer this question, we shall have to make a detour through the heights of abstract ontology.

Soloviev expressed his views on the underlying modern philosophical intuition in several works, but probably nowhere as deeply as in Chapter XLIII (Difference between existent <suščago> and being <bitija> – Existent as the Absolute – Absolute and its Other) of his important essay, Criticism of Abstract Principles (Kritika otvlečennih načal)[2]
Chapter XLIII of this work begins with a general definition of the essence of philosophy: “The given subject of every philosophy is the real world: both external and internal. However, the world cannot be the subject of philosophy in the characteristic meaning of the word, with its specific forms, phenomena and empirical laws (in this sense it is merely a subject of positive science), but only in its generality. If specific phenomena and laws are different forms of being – and this they undoubtedly are –, then their generality is being itself, because all existent things have precisely that common generality, namely, that they exist: hence, being. For this reason we may assume that the fundamental subject of philosophy is “being”, that it must first all answer the question: what is genuine being as opposed to supposed or apparent being”?[3]
The issue of a subject’s certainty has its place within such ontological generality.
The presence, and thus the actuality of being (nastojašče bitije), which is another designation for its “genuineness”, is, in the history of modern philosophy with its diversity of systems and flows, “defined as nature, as a natural being (veščestvo), and then through consequential analysis, is reduced to perceptions”; in this way, genuine being “defines itself as perception (oščuščenie). On the other side, rationalistic idealism, through its consequential deduction, comes to define genuine being as a notion or pure thought”[4].
For Soloviev, this rationalistic idealism is founded on Descartes’ principle of cogito. Yet, in his opinion, the contradiction that gave rise to the dialectics of the New Ages negates its own starting position (here Soloviev follows Hegel’s and Schelling’s concepts of modern philosophy): “For consistent rationalism, a pure thought is not an intellectual act of the subject, as the subject itself does not admit to existing outside the thought or notion”[5]. In this way, “thought does not identify itself as any specific form of being of a subject, but as being as such, as the identity of the subjective and the objective.”[6]
It is in this radical development of modern logic, which is one-sided and eliminates its own contradiction and finally causes that “thought as such and perception as such, i.e. thought and perception in which nothing is thought and nothing is perceived, become words without content”, that the loss of meaning of being itself is founded: “Being itself is (has become) a bare word (pustoe slovo)”. Here we see echoes of Schelling’s later thought, which in a certain way inaugurated postmodern ontology. Nevertheless, Soloviev is not an epigone.
His solution to this loss of meaning of being, which he also sees as the loss of the original meaning of cogito, is original: this Russian philosopher first draws a clear line between being in the real, absolute meaning of the word, and its relative, conditional sense. As an example of such differentiation – which is of key importance for our reflection on his re-thinking of cogito – he exposes the double meaning of the expressions “I am” and “this thought is”, “this perception is”: “When I say ‘I am’, my thoughts and perceptions also enter into the predicate ‘is’, because I am, among other things, also a feeling and thinking being; in this way, thought and perception enter into the contents of being, they become specific forms of being or part of the predicate of a specific subject which I generally claim to exist.”[7]. The Russian philosopher thus immediately transcends the modern conception of certainty and truth, truth as certainty, which are at the very core of Cartesian philosophy: “When I say ‘I am’, I understand ‘am’, as opposed to ‘I’, as all the actual and possible ways of my being, thinking, perception, will, etc.” Truth – in the sense of universal[8] truth – cannot be discovered on the basis of “rationalistic”, egological axioms and their generality: “Will, thought, being exist only insofar as willing, thinking, existing exist; the vague understanding or incomplete application of this seemingly simple and obvious truth is the principal sin of all abstract philosophy”. Only “concrete” thought can approach the truth of cogito; the truth of a subject can be identified only by that which Berdjajev refers to as the most important intuition of Soloviev’s philosophy, that is, an insight into the “actually Existent, the being that precedes rational recognition.”[9]
Soloviev’s distinction between existent and being, which occupies a central position in the system, appears to be his ontologically “most interesting and most original idea” (Berdjajev) with significant consequences for understanding subjectivity. If being does not exist stricto sensu – neither in the sense of the weak relativization of no-non-, yet non-existent being –, then the subject in its concrete “I am” may be thought only because of its presence in the uni-versal Being.
(In light of this distinction, Heideggerian philosophy, which wants to place “being” in the field of (meta)ontology of finiteness, appears, for example, as the unfounded hypostasizing of an abstract predication, of our attitude towards the existent. Soloviev’s (meta)ontology of universality, which, if approached with the obsolete Heideggerian mind-set, may give the superficial impression that “being is forgotten here”, is in reality a drastic iconoclasm which addresses, with extreme sharpness, the issue of the saying of “being” without sacrificing the radical transcendence of the Existent).
For Soloviev, a subject is a subject of philosophy only in the sense of the above-mentioned participation, as “real knowledge in its generality, i.e. philosophy, does not view being as such as its true subject, but that to which being as such belongs (prinadležit), i.e. the unconditional-Existent or the Existent as the unconditional principle of every being”[10] And what is this mysterious Existent? The Russian philosopher replies apophatically, with negations: “If every being is essentially only a predicate, the Existent cannot manifest itself as being, since the existent cannot be the predicate of anything else. The existent is the subject or intrinsic principle of every existent thing, and thus differs from it in this sense. If, therefore, one were to presuppose that the Existent is being (the existent thing) itself, one would be affirming a certain being (existent thing) above all other existent things, which is unreasonable (nelepo). For this reason, the Cause of every existent thing cannot be identified as an existent thing, nor can it be designated as non-being. Non-being is usually understood as simple absence, privation of being, that is, nothing. In contrast, every being unconditionally belongs to the Existent, and consequently cannot be identified as non-being in this negative sense, or designated as nothing.” Soloviev affirms the thesis of Nichols of Cues, namely, that the Existent is the “power/possibility of being” (sila bitija)[11], but adds that “the Existent is in itself free of being” and therefore actually “possesses the possibility of being or governs it”. The Existent is “that which carries in itself the positive power/possibility of every being,”[12] as “it produces every existent thing.”[13]
What does this mean in our case?
The certainty of cogito is transformed into truth only through concrete reflection that is open to the participation of myself as existent in the universal Existent: “Our response to the question “what is truth” (istina) is: the truth is the existent or that which is. Yet although many existent things are said to be, a multitude of existent things cannot be truth… The Existent as truth is not plurality, but singularity (edinoe). Singularity as truth cannot have plurality outside itself, it cannot be merely a negative unity, but must be a positive unity, which means that plurality must not extent outside itself, but remain within itself, and thus be the unity of plurality.”[14] Consequently, the absolute Cause may be designated as “above-being” (sverhsuščii) or “above-possible” (sverhmoguščii)[15], which is manifested in the precogitational depths of ourselves, in the last pre-existent truth of the “subject”: “The Existent as such can and must be bestowed upon us not only in the multitude of its manifestations comprising our objective world, but in our own selves, as our own foundation, which we receive directly.”[16] The directness of self-reflection paradoxically allows us, at the very moment when “we renounce all determined forms of being, all perceptions and thoughts”, to find “in the depths of our souls, the Existent as such, that is, not such as it appears in being, but free, liberated of every being.”[17]
(Soloviev’s speculative deepening of the concept of the uni-versal Absolute – which he contemplates as “nothing and everything”, thus as “positive Nothing” that is contrary to Hegel’s identity of being and nothing, “negative nothing (otricatelnoe ničto)”[18] – shall not be discussed here).
I hope this brief discussion has illuminated the train of thought which sees the rethinking of the Cartesian cogito as a possibility for erasing the boundaries (Aufhebung) and integrating into the mystical-Christian foundations of the soul. The erasing of the boundary between the self and the richness of the Existent, combined with an insight into the radical split between “being” and thought, does not represent invincible dualism nor poor ecstatics, but makes us open to the mystery of thought communion with the Absolute. Acknowledging reality and experiencing the certainty of the existence of both inner and outer worlds are thus seen as openness to the mystery of the Uni-versal (Vse-edinooe).
We have arrived at the point where we may draw a conclusion. If postmodernity is understood as a regression to the period before the discovered and experienced modern subject, Soloviev’s thought appears worthless, caught in the modern metaphysics of subjectivity. If, however, one understands genuine postmodernity as the in-depth integration and transcendence of modern metaphysics, Clement’s above-mentioned designation of this philosopher will appear more than correct. Soloviev is undoubtedly the “theologian (or religious philosopher) of modernity, which he transforms into postmodernity”. Solovjev’s very reinterpretation of cogito anticipates the survival and transcendence of the subject od New Ages. The discovery of the Absolute stems from a more radical reflection on subjectivity itself, it is the result of the subject’s self-liberation, its liberation from its own self and its journey into the pre-selfic Foundation.
Precisely due to the depth of this intuition, the actuality of Soloviev’s philosophy is not a matter of epoch, but bears the stamp of a timeless actuality of the Existent which he reflects on.


Translated by Suzana Stančič

[1] See chapter “Thinking as willing in Descartes’ later thought”, in: M.A. Gillespie: Nihilism before Nietzsche, Chicago/London 1995, p. 38.

[2] The section below presents, with minor changes, some thoughts from my essay entitled “I Think, Therefore All is Universal”, published in TD (26, no. 5/6, 1997, p. 80-85) and revised in the Proceedings of the international symposium organized upon the publication of the Serbian translation of selected works by Soloviev (Cetinje 2000, translated by Pavle Rak).

[3] Vladimir Sergejevič Solovjev, Sobranie sočinenii, Bruxelles 1966, 2nd volume, p. 302.

[4] Page 303.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Page 304.

[8] For a more detailed history and meaning of the notion of universality within the broader framework of Russian religious philosophy, see D. Kalezić: Ruska filozofija svejedinstva. Istorija i teorija (Russian Philosophy of Universality. History and Theory), Belgrade 1983, p. 15. Already Prince E. Trubeckoj (Mirosozercanie V. Solovieva I, Moscow 1913, p. 106-107) saw the “birthplace and basis” of Soloviev’s entire philosophy in the notion of universality as developed in his Criticism of Abstract Principles.

[9] Ibid, p. 155.

[10] Ibid., p. 305.

[11] Ibid., p. 306.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., p. 282; see also: P. Florenski: Stolp I utverženie istini II, Moscow 1990, p. 610-613.

[15] Filozofskija načala celnago znanija, Volume I, p. 307.

[16] Kritika otvlečennih načal, p. 307.

[17] Ibid., p. 307-308.

[18] Ibid., p. 309, Note 99.


(Translated by Suzana Stančič)