Mikhail Bakhtin—A philosophical reading


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Sergeiy Sandler
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We know that in his youth Bakhtin was among the first in Russia to read and admire the works of Kierkegaard, and that he continued to keep Kierkegaard in high esteem in the last years of his life. Still, Bakhtin scholarship has not focused much on the in­flu­en­ce Kier­ke­gaard’s though has had on Bakhtin. Indeed, we will be hard-pressed to find in Bakhtin’s writings more than a few sphoradic references to Kierkegaard’s work, but nevertheless, so I shall argue, Kier­ke­gaard’s influence goes to the very heart of Bakhtin’s thought – his philosophical mo­ti­va­tion. Like Kierkegaard, Bakh­tin’s philosophy seeks to be relevant to the person, “to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know … to find the idea for which I can live and die”, rather than dis­co­ver the truth about the world or follow other, more traditional, philosophical pursuits. In this lecture I shall first try to substantiate my claims about the influence of Kier­ke­ga­ard on Bakhtin by examining the work in which it is most clearly evident – To­wards the Phi­lo­so­phy of the Act. But this influence, I would like to claim, does not end in Bakhtin’s ear­li­est writings, but rather continues throughout his life. [This paper appears here as read at the conference (without a bibliography, and lacking reference to some relevant information and publications of which I learned after delivering it). It has been since developed into a full journal article, currently under review]
Mikhail Bakhtin has gained a reputation of a thinker and literary theorist somehow hostile to poetry, and more specifically to the epic. This view is based on texts, in which Bakhtin creates and develops a conceptual contrast between poetry and the novel (in "Discourse in the Novel") or between epic and the novel (in "Epic and Novel"). However, as I will show, such perceptions of Bakhtin's position are grounded in a misunderstanding of Bakhtin's writing strategy and philosophical approach. Bakhtin often draws such conceptual contrasts as the ones between epic and novel, but does so not in order to characterize pre-given phenomena (in this case, the epic and the novel as two groups of literary works), but to construct a conceptual space which he in turn uses to explicate elements of his philosophy.