BAKHTIN Michail Michailovich—theoretician of literature, investigator of cultur, and humanist, b. 18 November 1895 in Orle, d. 7 March 1975 in Moscow.
Bakhtin’s father worked as an official in different branches of a bank and so the family lived in turn in Vilno, Odessa, and Petersburg, where Bakhtin studied in the historical and philological department of the university in that city. He did not complete his studies because of the outbreak of the revolution, during which time he worked as a teacher in the small town of Nevel near Petersburg. There he gathered around himself a group of intellectuals called Bakhtin’s circle. In this milieu, which lasted until 1927 in the unfavorable conditions of real socialism, Bakhtin wrote his first scientific works.
The difficult situation in post-revolutionary Russia forced Bakhtin to move to Vitebska to find work. There he taught in the Institute of Pedagogy. He returned to Petersburg and in 1928 he took part in an informal discussion group called “Voskriesheniye” for which he was arrested. He was sentenced to five years in a concentration camp in the Solovietsky Islands, a punishment equivalent to a death sentence. Bakhtin owed the mitigation of this sentence to his book, The Problem of Dostoyevsky’s Creativity, published in 1929. The commissar of education at the time liked the book. His positive opinion played the deciding role in the mitigation of the sentence. Bakhtin was finally sentenced to exile in the town of Kustanay in Kazakhstan.
When his sentence was completed, Bakhtin tried without success to take up scholarly work. He had serious health complications. Because of a chronic bone disease his leg was amputated in 1938. Until the end of the war he worked as a teacher in high schools in the vicinity of Moscow. In 1945 he began scientific work in the Pedagogical Institute in Saransk and later completed his education in Mordvinsky University. In 1946 he defended his doctoral dissertation called, Francois Rabelais in the History of Realism in the Gorki Institute. After receiving the title of doctor he became the direction of the Chair of Literature in Saransk where he remained until he retired. Bakhtin’s most important scholarly works could not be published because of censorship.
The book on Dostoyevsky’s work saved Bakhtin from oblivion. Young researchers from the Gorki Institute were fascinated by the book’s contents and decided to find the author and make his work widely known. By their efforts, in 1963 in Moscow an expanded edition of this work was printed. Two years later Bakhtin’s doctoral dissertation was also published. By the publication of these works his views became known in Russia and beyond. In 1969 Bakhtin left Saransk and moved to Moscow. He spent the last years of his life in Moscow occupied with writing.
His major works include: Problemy tvorchestwa Dostoyevskiego [Le 1929, 2nd edition called Problemy poetiki Dostoyevskogo, Mwa 1963; Problemy poetyki Dostojewskiego [Problems of Dostoyevsky’s poetics], Wwa 1970; Tvorchestvo Frantsya Rable i narodnaya kultura shrednioviekovaja i rieniessansa (Mwa 1965; Twórczość Franciszka Rabelais’go a kultura ludowa średniowiecza i renesansu [The creative work of Francois Rabelais and the popular culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance], Kr 1975); Voprosy litieratury i estietiki (Mwa 1975; Problemy literatury i estetyki [Problems of literature and aesthetics], Wwa 1982); Estietika swoviesnogo tvorchestva (Mwa 1979, Estetyka twórczości słownej [Aesthetics of verbal creativity], Wwa 1986).
Bakhtin’s most important scientific achievements were in the theory of literature. In this field, the best known is his view on the dialogue-character of language. In this theory, every human utterance is an answer to an infinite series of utterances that happened in the past. Therefore to understand the proper meaning of an utterance we should reconstruct as fully as possible the situation in which the utterance occurred. A text received in a different cultural context reveals completely new meanings, but these meanings already exist in the text.
Bakhtin’s views on the study of literature and culture had various philosophical inspirations. In his early period he was influenced by I.Kant and neo-Kantianism, especially in the version of the Marburg school of H. Cohen and P. Natorp. This influence was apparent especially in his attitude of dislike for metaphysics, his anti-psycholigism, and his conviction that the historical process has a dynamic character. Furthermore, Bakhtin, like the philosophers of the Marburg school, held that the aesthetic and ethical problematics, connected with the philosophy of the state and of law, should play an important role in philosophy. The similarity between the positions of both philosophical currents is manifested in the terminology they apply. We find in Bakhtin’s work such terms as “that, which is given”, “the unity of thought and being”, etc.
The central problem in Bakhtin’s philosophy is the question of “moral being”. In connection with the problem posed in this way he worked on particular questions on the way in which moral phenomena are manifested in human reality. Bakhtin’s conclusion differed from that to which the representatives of the Marburg school arrived. Bakhtin especially did not like the explanation E. Cassirer proposed in his “philosophy of symbolic forms”. he thought that there is no domain of symbolic culture that could contain moral values.
Bakhtin stated that general and universally binding moral norms do not exist. The norms contained in particular ethical systems are merely statements based on the a priori accepted presuppositions of particular systems. Bakhtin also criticized the solution Kant proposed in the question of moral norms. He that thought when Kant formulated the categorical imperative he was caught in a vicious circle: the will establishes the right or the law, and then it is subordinate to the right or law.
The main argument Bakhtin employed to provide a rational justification for his negation of objective moral norms was that these norms were theoretical in character. The assertion of the truth of a norm does not oblige a man to acknowledge it as the proper rule of conduct. We are dealing with norms of a binding character not in morality, but in religion and law. In religion and law the obligatory character of norms does not result from their content but from the authority of the institutions that establish the norms. In the case of legal norms the state is such an institution, while religious norms rely on the God’s authority. For this reason Bakhtin thought that the only acceptable criterium for the obligation of moral norms was the concrete human individual’s awareness. In his rational justification of morality he ultimately appeals to the voice of conscience. A man is aware of responsibility for his deeds. This responsibility results from the fact that every man is a person and therefore occupies an unrepeatable place in the world. He is a unique and exceptional being who cannot be replaced by anyone else. Therefore all the decisions he makes bear the stamp of individualism. Each man’s ontological situation is therefore exceptional. It cannot be described in general abstract terms. At most we may attempt to make a phenomenological description of it, because despite its non-repeatable character, we may discover in them certain common elements.
In the face of the then dominant Marxist philosophy, Bakhtin emphasized the role of personal relations in human culture. He also accented the uniqueness and sovereignty of the human person. He showed that man cannot be reduced to a product of socio-economic conditions. Because of such views, Bakhtin’s works for many years could not be printed.
Apart from the Kantian current, scholars who study Bakhtin’s work indicate many other philosophical inspirations apparent in his works. It is often remarked that Bakhtin’s though has much in common with the philosophy of existentialism. C. Miłosz said that Bakhtin was an existentialist many years before J. P. Sartre and M. Heidegger. Other scholars emphasize the fact that Bakhtin began his work with attempts to make descriptions of a phenomenological character. In works on Bakhtin’s thought scholars also point to his connections with Marxism. To illustrate these relations of dependence the authors commonly refer to works from the second half of the decade of the 1920s. They often neglect to mention that the use of Marxist terminology was a necessary condition for any scientific work in the conditions of real socialism.
One of the most interesting scholars of Bakhtin’s thought, Tzvetan Todorov, came forth with an interesting conception, that there is much convergence between Bakhtin’s views and some of the presuppositions in M. Buber’s “philosophy of dialogue”.
S. Balbus, Propozycje metodologiczne Michaila B. i ich teoretyczne konteksty [Michael Bakhtin’s methodological propositions and their theoretical contexts], in, Michael B., Twórczość Franciszka Rabelais'go a kultura ludowa średniowiecza i renesansu [Francois Rabelais’ creative work and the popular culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance], Kr 1975, 5–56; T. Todorov, Anthropologie philosophique, in: Micail B. Le principe dialogique suivi des écrits du cercle d B., P 1981 (Antropologia filozoficzna [philosophical anthropology], Przegląd Humanistyczny [Humanistic Review] 27 (1983), n. 1–2, 81–99); B. Dialog—język—literatura [B. Dialogue—language—literature—], Wwa 1983; K. Klark, M. Holquist, Mikhail B., C 1984; A. Woźny, B. Między marksistowskim dogmatem a formacją prawosławną [B. Between Marxist dogma and Orthodox formation], Wr 1993; B. Żyłko, Michail B. W kręgu filozofii języka i literatury [Michael B. In the circle of the philosophy of language and literature], Gd 1994; idem, Michail B. i jego “filozofia moralna”, in: Michail B. W stronę filozofii czynu, [Michael B. Toward a philosophy of the deed], Gd 1997, 5–22.
Robert T. Ptaszek