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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

IAS Fellow's Seminar - How Russia failed the Enlightenment – and the Enlightenment failed Russia

10th March 2014, 13:00 to 14:00, IAS Seminar Room, Cosin's Hall, Palace Green, Lesley Chamberlain (Writer)


In both fiction and non-fiction I look at and try to relive the lives of thinkers and other individuals whose existences have been convulsed by twentieth-century history. Most of them are Russian or German, or from countries in between, and many are emigres forced to confront questions of freedom and belonging.

I'll present three of them here, and consider their lives in relation to the master narrative of the Enlightenment, which mapped out a rational cosmopolitan modernity for a Europe stretching from Calais to Moscow, the Arctic Circle to the Caspian Sea. Alexandre Kojeve was born in Moscow in 1902, Theodor Adorno in Frankfurt am Main in 1903, and Isaiah Berlin in Riga, Latvia, in 1909. All of them were philosophers, albeit of different kinds, and I will argue that the dramas of their lives more or less determined their contribution to the subject. Their positions were on the edge of the academy. Kojeve was a Russian dreamer and a worldly cynic, Adorno a critical theorist and Berlin a cultural conservative and political liberal who became an upper-class socialite and an intellectual darling to middle England. The great philosopher who links them is Hegel, whom elsewhere I've suggested we must include in our understanding of the Enlightenment in order to grasp twentieth-century criticisms of it as 'instrumental reason'. Kojeve taught Hegel in Paris in the 1930s, just as Adorno in American exile was grappling with Hegel's double legacy, to critical dialectic and to uncritical tyranny. Berlin as, in fact a Russian cultural liberal, and a naturalized down-to-earth Englishman, was always suspicious of the abstruse German metaphysician whose work seemed to foreshadow the negative side of the Russian Revolution and the stranglehold of dialectical materialism in Soviet times. I might describe these as three counter-enlightenment lives, as human lives should be, but then what of their work? How did they translate their disappointments and their hopes into theories later generations could work with? 

Fellows' seminars take place on Monday lunchtimes in the seminar room at Cosin's Hall.

Places are limited and so any academic colleagues interested in attending a seminar should contact the Institute in advance to reserve a place.

The aim of these seminars is to develop new thinking on the big issues that are of current concern/interest for the Fellows . Each Fellow is asked to present a core idea that informs their current work, or a problem that they are tackling, that could benefit from cross-disciplinary thinking. These seminars are informal and designed to encourage discussion.

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