N. A. BERDYAEV (BERDIAEV)
THE BOOK OF S. L. FRANK
“THE UNFATHOMABLE” (“NEPOSTIZHIMOE”)
(1939 - #446)
The book of S. L. Frank is remarkable. Within it there is a great effort and concentration of thought. This is a whole philosophic system, but centralised upon the religious problem. And so it ought to be for S. Frank, since philosophy for him is ontology, an ontology which however is first of all the teaching about God, as also with Hegel, but differently from him. The thought of S. Frank moves within the tradition of Platonism and German Romanticism. He is closest of all to Nicholas of Cusa and in regard to him developes his basic thoughts. The German school is much in evidence, for the book itself was produced and written in German. S. Frank -- is a free and independent philosopher, and the religious element of his philosophy is not within the demands of some authority, but rather of an inner spiritual experience. The orthodox sort, certainly, would find in his philosophy a pantheistic tendency and they would set about seeking heretical proclivities. But this aspect is of no philosophic interest. S. Frank -- is a strong logician. And perhaps the best and strongest part of his book -- is gnosseological. In general, the first part of his book is finer than the second, in which are detected the weak sides of his philosophy. S. Frank beautifully and convincingly demonstrates, that knowledge presupposes not the given, but rather the unknown beyond the given, that being and logic itself possess metalogical foundations. Cognition is directed upon darkness. Consciousness would seek potentially to contain boundless infinitude. To comprehend the unfathomable is impossible. Yet all the same, S. Frank tries however to show, that the ungraspable is graspable. He wants to surmount rationalistic philosophy. But he too much believes in cognition through the conceptual. In the book of S. Frank are shown all the contradictions and difficulties ontologically with an ontologically oriented philosophy. This is a fine sample of ontology. But the ontologic thought of S. Frank leads once more to thought about the impossibility of ontology. Ontology, grounded always in the underlying hypostasising of the products of thought, in a logical universalism, mustneeds be set in contrast with a philosophy of spirit, of the cognitive within human existence.
The philosophy of S. Frank is a philosophy of All-Unity. In this he is very close to Vl. Solov’ev, who had a primal intuition of All-Unity. Amidst this, he senses himself belonging to the great philosophical tradition, to the philosophia perennis. S. Frank employs a tremendous power of thought in defense of the philosophy of All-Unity, of concrete monism and universalism. But in his book are evident all the weak sides and difficulties of this type of philosophy. S. Frank is a Platonic-realist, but he wanted also as it were to affirm the individual. But what he says about the unrepeatedly-individual, he then contradicts with his philosophy of All-Unity, and from this there is no escape. There are problems, which herein are completely unresolvable and furthermore cannot be genuinely posited. Such are the problems of freedom, of person, of evil. Having read through a large portion of the book of S. Frank, and very much esteeming the power and substance of his thought, I had the impression, that the problem of evil was nowhere brought out by him, that by virtue of an inner necessity it was absent in his monist philosophy. But at the very end, the problem nonetheless was put forth, and for me this was the weakest side of the book. First though, before moving on to a consideration of evil, I want to make yet several remarks. S. Frank demonstrates persuasively, that actuality is but a snippet of the rational within reality. Actuality, as a whole, is never knowable. Reality is deeper than the being of the object. Hence there mustneeds be made the inference, that being is not primary. Not only is being not a primary-given reality, but even God is not a primary-given reality. The primary-given reality is the concrete man. Any sort of proof then of the existence of God is impossible, save through the existence of man, in whom is a Divine principle. On principle S. Frank acknowledges the commensurability between man and God, and to him is foreign that godlessness of man, which makes for an abstract transcendentism. But for S. Frank, God is the Absolute. Since the Absolute is at the remote limit of thought, any sort of relationship with the Absolute is impossible. The Absolute cannot egress out from itself. The Absolute is not person. With S. Frank there is a primacy of “being” over “existence”, over the “is”. But it is necessary to affirm the primacy of “existence” over “being”. The significance of a critical idealism within the history of human consciousness is altogether not in the asserting of the coincidence of the real with the rational, but on the contrary, in the exposing of this, that the products of thought are mistaken for reality. Idealism ought to be surmounted, but it is not in this his work of critique. I would reproach S. Frank on incorrect useage of the word “subjective”, which moreover is done by a large number of philosophers. It is impossible to be in agreement with this, that the “I” only but arises in front of the “thou”, and it is impossible to acknowledge, that the “we” is more primary than the “I”, which contradicts the truth of Personalism and leads to the slavery of man. S. Frank is not troubled by the objectification, the objectivisation of the “we” set over the human order. On the outside, from the objective order, from the human “I” there is no transcending, and there is but objectivisation, wherein the transcending is only on the inside.1 It is a striking aspect, that for S. Frank religious faith coincides with a monism of two worlds. Religion is monism, whereas every dualism is anti-religious. But there is indeed possible a religiosity, connected with the experiencing of contradiction, suffering and evil, and this especially mustneeds be said for the religion of redemption. Religion surmounts the inescapable dualism, but within it there is a dualistic moment. While moreover, monism often becomes non-religious. S. Frank bases himself upon a “revelation in common”, and this is completely correct for a philosophy of religion. And it is true actually, when he says that each man has his own especial religion. I consider the freedom of S. Frank as a thinker especially invaluable.
From the point of view of the philosophy of All-Unity, the problem of the relationship between God and the freedom of man remains unresolved. Freedom is a scandal for this philosophy. S. Frank, certainly, does not deny freedom, but he cannot find a place for it, it presents a difficulty, just as it does for Thomism. But the greatest difficulty appears to be the existence of evil, although he does not recognise nor acknowledge this. For him philosophy possesses an immanent tendency towards optimism. His own particular philosophy is completely optimistic, and for him the “obligatory” and “value” coincide with reality. He evidently regards this optimism as a sign of religiosity. He essentially comes nigh an agnosticism in regards to evil. Yet together with this he crosses over the limits of agnosticism. Outside of God it is impossible to think any sort of nothing, outside God there is no uncreated freedom, but in God Himself there is a “not”. This is quite close to Schelling, to the acknowledgement of a dark nature in God. The insurmountable difficulty is in this,
that evil is a falling-away from the Divine All-Unity. But it is impossible to think a falling-away from All-Unity, in regard to the All-Unity it is impossible to think any sort of “outside of”, for it includes within itself everything, and this means also the evil. An agnosticism is correct, inasmuch as it signifies an acknowledgement of the mystery of evil. But in regard to this mystery is possible an existential description, a description of the experience of evil. S. Frank makes the attempt to reduce evil, which nonetheless is a non-dismissible experience, to a consciousness by man of his own guiltiness. But for him as regards evil in the world, in the world-order there is nothing wrong, no injustice, no evil, which mustneeds be fought. This is a sufficiently traditional point of view. Various orthodox theological doctrines in essence are compelled to deny the existence of evil in the world, and reduce everything but to the property of sin and the punishment for sin. And by this is preserved the world equilibrium. But in the book of S. Frank is a place which is striking, and which evidences a terrifying plunge into the abyss. S. Frank acknowledges the existence of “cracks” in the All-Unity. Evil is a “crack” in the All-Unity. But what can this acknowledgement signify for a philosophy of All-Unity? This is first of all a “crack” in the philosophy of All-Unity itself, in the consciousness of the philosopher himself. The philosophy of All-Unity “cracks”, when set before the problem of evil. S. Frank attempts religiously too much to compromise the acute sense and awareness of evil, and it means mutiny. Compromises exist with Pascal, with Dostoevsky, and particularly with Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard. And this position would make Hegel stand religiously higher than Dostoesky, which is completely untenable. The acute wounding by evil and the sufferings of the world seem to me a religious phenomenon, preeminently. But in summarising I would point out, that I am left with a very positive impression. The thought itself of S. Frank continues to develope the uniquely original Russian idea of God-manhood. God is the God-man even in the heavenly existence. The humanness within man is his God-manness. The book of S. Frank mustneeds be acknowledged as one of the most interest books on the metaphysics of religion. The only pity is that it has such an hapless title, which can be intimidating. The limitations of thought of S. Frank are essentially the limitations of the Platonic, the limitations of monistic philosophy, and the limitations of his emotionality in point of the limitations of German Romanticism.
© 2000 by translator Fr. S. Janos
(1939 - 446 -en)
S. L. FRANK: NEPOSTIZHIMOE. Journal Put’, May/Sept. 1939, No. 60,
1 Vide my book, “About the Slavery and Freedom of Man. An Essay in Personalist Philosophy” [trans. note: the English edition was published under the shortened title of “Slavery and Freedom”].
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