Dostoyevsky As Analytic Philosopher

TLDR: A lot of philosophy aims, by looking at how we represent the world, to say things about the world. Analytic philosophy is a species of philosophy in part defined historically by its being a reaction to Hegel. I show that the work of Dostoyevsky has a similar aim, and responds to the same historical situation, and thus there’s cause for taking him to be (like) an analytic philosopher.

Analytic philosophy is a vague term to describe a movement in philosophy, often dated to turn of the 20th century Cambridge, and figures like Russell, Moore, and Wittgenstein. One core feature of the methodology of these early analytic philosophers was that they looked at the structure of certain languages to draw conclusions about big picture metaphysical questions about, say, the nature of reality.

And zoomed out, this sort of move — looking at language or more broadly representation, and from there concluding big picture facts about the non-representional, has a good claim to be a central feature of Western philosophy. Thus Plato was concerned with the weird fact that we have these representational items, thoughts of circles or the word ‘circle’, and yet we don’t seem to see (perfect) circles in reality. Where do we get the idea from then, if not from perceptible reality? Plato thought there must be some extra-worldly entities that we’re in touch with, and so from mundane facts about our ‘circle’ thought and talk, he concluded there was a realm of forms populated by entities unsullied by the imperfections that make any physical circle not exactly perfect.

Descartes was much concerned by the fact that we have thoughts that seem to represent reality, but how can we know they do so accurately? It’s easy to fall into a way of thinking according to which representation is kind of like picturing, and truth corresponds to accurate picturing, but once we’ve gotten into that framing it becomes very hard to see how we’d ever check accuracy (you might think we check our representation, some mental item, against reality, like we’d check whether our thought of the big tree in the nearby park is accurate by looking at it, but looking is a kind of representation, so we’d be comparing representations with other representations, not with, as we want, reality). Impressed with this line of thinking, Berkeley went ahead and suggested that it showed reality as something extra-representional didn’t exist, and all there were were representations. And so it goes: contemporaryish philosophers from Butler to Putnam use reflections on representation to undergird interesting philosophical conclusions. Arguably, that’s the or at least a genus of the type philosopher.

Then perhaps we get from philosophy to analytic philosophy, from genus to species, by adding stuff. Analytic philosophy is concerned with finding out features of reality by looking at representations (argued below), + some extra distinguishing stuff.

One plausible candidate for the extra stuff is historical context. Analytic philosophy arose as a response to Hegelian and neoHegelian thought. (argued below). So then we could maybe say: analytic philosophy = philosophy + response to Hegel.

I’m not going to argue for that here. It’s probably wrong, because most things are, but it’s a neat way to get at the main point of this essay, which is that Fyodor Dostoevsky can be conceived of as an analytic philosopher, that is to say as someone responding to Hegel by looking at representation and drawing from it conclusions about reality.

You might take this verdict as a reductio of my view: fine. The main point of this essay is to make the case above about Dostoyevsky’s thought (its central message could be rephrased without talking about ‘analytic philosophy’, I think). And that’s worth doing for a few reasons. We tend to recognise that Dostoyevsky is a philosophical thinker, one who has influenced echt philosophers like Camus and Sartre and Levinas. But we seldom think of him as responding to very mainstream philosophical problems about the nature of representation and reality (we do think of him as responding to problems about freedom, or God, or evil, but arguably these aren’t the core set of problems around which Western philosophy turns). We think of him as a writer of philosophical fiction, but it’s kind of unclear what ‘philosophical fiction’ amounts to, and more generally, we’re prone to think there’s literature, and there’s philosophy, and these are two different things. By making the case that Dostoyevsky is an analytic philosopher, we can show how this distinction is more muddy than we might have thought, thereby getting clearer about the limits (or lack thereof) of both philosophy and literature (I made something like the opposite argument a few years ago here. I can’t remember the details but I think it’s pretty interesting.) And downstream, this might help us conceptualize similarly muddy philosophers and works that are at the intersection of the two genres (Kierkegaard, Thus Spake Zarathustra, The Myth Of Sispyhus, and so on).

Here’s my argumentative strategy. I’ll compare the work of Betrand Russell, a founder of analytic philosophy, with that of Dostoyevsky. I’ll show just as the former goes from facts about language (in his case, the newly developed formal language of the predicate calculus) to facts about reality, so Dostoyevsky goes from facts about a very different sort of language (the language he uses to describe the self-consciousness of his tortured heroes) to facts about reality. In both cases, the view is anti-Hegelian, focusing on the plurality of reality. Same method and same enemy: based on that, I conclude the similarities between Russell (and thus analytic philosophy) and Dostoyevsky are underappreciated and elucidatory.

To make my case requires quite a lot of scene setting, of turn of the 20th century Cambridge and Saint Petersburg in the mid-nineteenth century. Luckily, both are times of great philosophical and literary interest independently of the aims of this essay. We’ll consider the more familiar Russell first.

Let me begin with a neat argument for you to consider. There are, it seems, a bunch of things: reality is plural. I don’t mean anything fancy by that. Just that there’s my left shoe and the Eiffel tower, and some other things. And they’re not the same. Equally unfancily, these things are related. The Eiffel tower and my shoe are related by spatial relations, the ‘taller than’ relation, the ‘not being in the same location as’ relation, and so on.

But more than that. There’s my shoe, and the Eiffel tower, and some relations. But it’s not like they just float free: somehow, my shoe, the Eiffel tower, and the relation ‘is smaller than’ are knitted together. That knitting together is what makes it true that ‘my shoe is smaller than the Eiffel tower’, and the lack of a knitting together makes it false that ‘my left shoe is taller than my right shoe’. But being knit together just sounds like a metaphorical way of saying: being related. So then we might want to say that what unifies my shoe, the Eiffel tower, and being taller is a new, higher-order, sort of knitting relation: let’s drop the metaphor and call it exemplification.

That sounds okay at first, but when you think about it, what we’ve done is just add another relation to the mix, the relation of exemplifying. But if the relation of ‘being taller than’ required the exemplification relation to knit together my shoe and the big French tower, why does not my footwear, that bit of Gallic architecture, taller-thanness, and exemplification not also need a relation to be knit together?

This problem, called Bradley’s regress, was taken seriously in turn of the century Cambridge, and variations of it remain pertinent today. Bradley’s solution was the drastic one that there are no relations. But if there are no relations, then there’s no relation “is different to”, so it’s not the case that my shoe and the tower are different. And this generalizes: there are no two things that are non-identical. There is, then, only one thing. This is monism. In this, he viewed himself, and was viewed, as following in the creator of this sort of theory, the idealist Hegel.

Associated with this argument are loftier ideas. The monistic foundation of reality, for the idealists, was imbued with religious or quasi-religious notions: for some, it was a God for atheists. As Russell himself memorably puts it in his popular work Problems Of Philosophy, describing Hegelian idealism:

Everything short of the Whole is obviously fragmentary, and obviously incapable of existing without the complement supplied by the rest of the world. Just as a comparative anatomist, from a single bone, sees what kind of animal the whole must have been, so the metaphysician, according to Hegel, sees, from any one piece of reality, what the whole of reality must be — at least in its large outlines. Every apparently separate piece of reality has, as it were, hooks which grapple it to the next piece; the next piece, in turn, has fresh hooks, and so on, until the whole universe is reconstructed. This essential incompleteness appears, according to Hegel, equally in the world of thought and in the world of things. In the world of thought, if we take any idea which is abstract or incomplete, we find, on examination, that if we forget its incompleteness, we become involved in contradictions; these contradictions turn the idea in question into its opposite, or antithesis; and in order to escape, we have to find a new, less incomplete idea, which is the synthesis of our original idea and its antithesis. This new idea, though less incomplete than the idea we started with, will be found, nevertheless, to be still not wholly complete, but to pass into its antithesis, with which it must be combined in a new synthesis. In this way Hegel advances until he reaches the ‘Absolute Idea’, which, according to him, has no incompleteness, no opposite, and no need of further development. The Absolute Idea, therefore, is adequate to describe Absolute Reality; but all lower ideas only describe reality as it appears to a partial view, not as it is to one who simultaneously surveys the Whole. Thus Hegel reaches the conclusion that Absolute Reality forms one single harmonious system, not in space or time, not in any degree evil, wholly rational, and wholly spiritual. Any appearance to the contrary, in the world we know, can be proved logically — so he believes — to be entirely due to our fragmentary piecemeal view of the universe. If we saw the universe whole, as we may suppose God sees it, space and time and matter and evil and all striving and struggling would disappear, and we should see instead an eternal perfect unchanging spiritual unity. (Problems of Philosophy, chapter IV; from now on, whenever a reference is googleable, I won’t give it. To find it yourself, just select the first 4–5 words, put it in quotes, and follow the link to Gutenberg)

A quick note before going on: as an account of what Hegel actually thought this is probably useless, and analytic philosophy is slowly coming round to the idea that Hegel’s philosophy needs to be taken seriously, and can be learned from. But that doesn’t matter: it’s what Russell thought Hegel thought, and that suffices for us.

At the heart of Russell’s philosophy is the attempt to make sense of the plurality and yet connectedness of the world: to refute monism, idealism, the absolute. In this, he is not alone. One of the oldest philosophical problems, bequeathed to us from Parmenides, concerns whether reality is one or many, and people are still arguing about versions of this problem today. So, we’ll see, this is the core problem for Dostoyevsky.

Russell was helped here both by his friend and colleague G.E. Moore, but also by developments in mathematical logic by people like George Boole, Giuseppe Piano, and Gottlob Frege. What these three thinkers realized, to various degrees, is the absolute fundamentalness of relations to our understanding of the world.

It’s tempting to think: relations? What’s the big deal? Why are relations so important? One philosophical manifestation of this was the tendency to think, in logic and the theory of meaning, that we could get rid of relations and replace them with “monadic properties”, the ways single objects are. When faced with the sentence “my left shoe is smaller than the Eiffel tower” here’s something you can do: you can say it’s composed of the part ‘is smaller than the Eiffel tower’ and ‘my left shoe’. One expression stands for a property; the other, an individual. The point would generalize, and we would never need to appeal to relation-referring expressions in our theory of meaning

This might encourage the idealist thought that there are no relations. Further encouragement might come from considering sentences like ‘John weighs the same as Jim”. This seems like a relation — it looks, grammatically, like one — but plausibly the claim it makes on reality is just that John has the property of weighing 90 kgs and Jim has the (same) property of weighing 90 kgs. We don’t need anything above Jim, and John, and their respective bulks.

But this doesn’t work, for both easy and for difficult reasons. Easy: consider ‘John is lighter than Jim”. It seems like it’s not enough for John to have the monadic property of weighing 89 kilograms and for Jim to have the monadic property of 90 kilograms. We seem also to need the fact that 89kg is less than 90kg. But ‘is less than’ is a relation! Difficult: consider a sentence like ‘A doula helped birth all Johnson’s children’. The noteworthy thing is that this is ambiguous — it can say that for each child, a (possibly) different doula helped birth them, or that there’s some one doula who birthed them all (to see this, imagine the respective continuations: “And yet he claims that midwifery shouldn’t be part of the NHS, despite having used it for each of his children”, “That doula was Andreania Plip-Plop, a long-time family friend”).

That is to say, we can’t just carve the sentence up into one predicative component ‘helped-birth-all-his-children’, which we apply to ‘a doula’. It seems there’s another predicative component corresponding to ‘A-doula-helped-birth’ which we apply to ‘all his children’. But ‘a-doula-helped-birth’ isn’t a predicate, even assuming philosophers’ and logicians’ sloppy and linguistically ill-informed notion of ‘predicate’ — it’s an ungrammatical fragment.

To get into the details, unfortunately, is too much, but very roughly, attempts to reduce relations to predications fall at the hurdle of these so-called sentences of multiple generality, (i.e. sentences where we have general terms (like ‘a doula’ or ‘all his children’ both as grammatical subjects and objects). The best account of them treats the relation ‘x birthed y’ as a shared component of both disambiguations of the sentence, and as thus an irreducible part of our theory of meaning. The lofty idealistic theory of reality seems to struggle with technical facts about meaning.

These sorts of facts about the importance of relations were crucial for Russell’s philosophical development, and thus for the development of analytic philosophy. As an eminent historian of analytic philosophy, Michael Beaney, puts it:

Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that it was the problem of relations that had led Russell to abandon his youthful idealism, and the tremendous excitement he felt in discovering and applying the new symbolic logic lay precisely in the resolution of his earlier problems. Traditional logic had tended to regard all propositions as fundamentally of subject–predicate form, but (like statements of multiple generality) relational propositions had proved particularly resistant to reduction. Propositions involving equivalence relations, such as ‘a is as red as b’ might (arguably) be straightforwardly reduced to ‘a is red’ and ‘b is red’, but propositions involving asymmetrical relations, such as ‘a is heavier than b’, were more problematic. It might be suggested that ‘a’ represents the subject and ‘is heavier than b’ the predicate here, but the latter does not represent an intrinsic property of a, since it involves reference to b, and is thus implicitly relational. We might suggest instead that the proposition be analysed into two simpler propositions assigning particular weights to a and b, but aside from the fact that the weights themselves would have to be compared (involving a higher order relational proposition), such assignments too are implicitly relational, since they depend on measurement against an agreed standard. So such propositions cannot be reduced to simple subject–predicate propositions, and the only conclusion would seem to be to treat them as fundamental, of the form ‘aRb’, which, for Russell, meant recognizing the reality of relations, as ineliminable components of propositions, and a repudiation of what he had taken as a central tenet of British idealism. (Michael Beaney, “Russell and Frege”, in Griffin ed, The Cambridge Companion To Betrand Russell)

As mentioned, the exact details aren’t important (although they are inherently incredibly interesting, and I haven’t done justice to the technical triumphs the problem of multiple generality gave rise to). What is important is that developments in formal languages were harnessed to draw conclusions about deep problems of philosophy, in particular problems concerning unity and plurality. My argument will be that a very analogous case can be made when we attend to the work of Dostoyevsky.

In order to do that, though, we need to say a little about roughly mid-19th century Russian (broadly construed to include people like Ukraine-born Gogol) intellectual culture. That is an incredibly rich, exciting, and dynamic culture which defies concise summary. But here are some things we can say relatively confidently (some relevant English language sources are Isaiah Berlin, Russian Thinkers, and Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoyevsky, either abridged or complete. I draw on both below.) Intellectual life was fed on ideas largely imported from Germany, and just as in Russell’s England, Hegel and his idealism loomed large (the dandyish uncle in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons is a paradigm literary example). Vissarion Belinsky, for example, an arts and culture commentator to a large extent unknown in the West but extremely influential at the time, became a convert to the sort of lofty idealism well summarised by Russell above. And Dostoyevsky, like other literary men, fought for Belinsky’s attention (the relevant chapters of Frank tell the story).

Particularly interesting for the Russian species of idealism is, in addition to the metaphysical monism, the fatalism that accompanied it. Indeed, a fatalism pervades much Russian thought of the time, as we’ll see. For the Hegelian fatalist, we get the idea that there is a march of history, that we are all parts of the unfolding of reason, whose completion (in line with the famous Hegelian “dialectic”) will be marked with the dissolution of the many into one. We are all insignificant pawns in the unfolding of history (see Berlin (p166) on Belinsky: “It was childish and shallow and short-sighted to attack of seek to alter reality. What is, is, because it must be”).

We see this in Tolstoy, and in particular in the famous epilogue to War and Peace. The idiosyncratic argument of that epilogue is that history — the discipline — is doomed to fail. We want to explain things — say the 2008 crash — in terms of “great” (not necessarily “good”) people, or again of social and economic forces, or again of ideas (thus, perhaps, Allan Greenspan or Dodd Frank or neoliberal financialization). But all such explanations are bad explanations, Tolstoy thinks. Reality defies them. That’s not to say there are no explanations. There are: we just can’t figure them out, because they’re so massively complex. History unfolds according to laws too complex for humans to grasp, and even the best of us, the “great people” of history, are subject to these laws. This, it should be noted, is not Hegel: Tolstoy, in his typical opinionated way, didn’t like Hegel, but it ends up sounding very similar to ideas about the Hegelian “cunning of reason” according to which the great people who make history are merely pawns of something above them.

We see similar fatalism in the “nihilists” of the 1860s. The nihilists were responding to the earlier generation of Hegelian romantics, and promoted a hard-headed positivism that left no room for free will or its manifestations. Their archetypal presentation is in Bazarov in Fathers and Sons, who tells us things like (in discussion with his friend):

“No such thing as principle exists. That you seem never to have divined. Instincts only exist, and upon them everything depends.”

“How so?”

“Thus. We will take myself as an example. Owing to the nature of my instincts, I am prone to deny — I am prone to deny because my brain is so constituted. In the same way, if you were to ask me why I am interested in chemistry, and why you like apples, I should reply that the same reason holds good in each case — that our respective instincts are what they are. In other words, there exists between your instincts and mine a certain affinity. Deeper it is not given us to probe.”

Bazarov elsewhere compares humans to frogs: predictable, simple, rule-governed beings. The key idea behind all these differing approaches to the same idea is that the individual differences between people don’t matter. There is something above — the Hegelian Geist, the inscrutable Tolstoyan laws of history, the nihilists’ laws of nature — that subsumes and determines our actions. Metaphysical monism and determinism are incompatible with pluralism, with we each being our own separate agents in the world. This was the world Dostoyevsky inherited, and his work can be seen as an extended response to it.

In order to see this, I want to set out in some detail the account of Dostoyevsky’s philosophy given by the Russian literary critic Mikhael Bahktin who, in Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics, not only produces a compelling interpretation of Dostoyevsky’s works, but also retrofits it with a philosophy of language and thought that fit well with up-to-date thinking in philosophy of language and linguistics (he also had a pretty interesting life, which you can google if you’re interested).

Recall again Russell: taking inspiration from the newly discovered first-order logic, he interposed in the millennia-long debates about plurality and unity. For Bahktin — in my reading, which is selective — Dostoyevsky himself presents an artistic world on the basis of which we can work back to a theory of language, one that is independently plausible. By the way, there are MASSIVE SPOILERS coming up.

Dostoyevsky’s world is populated by “double-voiced” (dvoogolosiyii; the translation is literal); his novels are polyphonic or dialogic (the words here are Russianized versions of the Greek). Bahktin writes:

The unified, dialectically evolving spirit, understood in Hegelian terms, can give rise to nothing but a philosophical monologue. And the soil of monistic idealism is the least likely place for a plurality of unmerged consciousnesses to blossom….Dostoevsky’s world is profoundly pluralistic.(22, PoDP, Rosel trans)

Although Tolstoy defies easy characterisation, he can be seen in many ways as a monologistic artistic. It is evident in his explicit philosophy of history mentioned above, but it can also be seen in his work (space precludes in-depth quotation, but think of how very momentous things happen in Tolstoy without actually explicitly being done: of Pierre and Elen in War And Peace getting engaged without speaking, of Levin and Kitty in Anna Karenina doing the same by tracing letters in chalk on a table, not speaking out and realizing, making real, their deepest desires, for a random example).

The pluralism is effected in numerous ways. One of the ways is that there is no narrative “surplus” of the sort that can give rise to dramatic irony: as Bahktin emphasises, Dostoyevsky's characters know everything — nothing is hidden from them, the narrator has no (interesting) voice of his own. But the main, most philosophically interesting way is in its notion of double-voicedness. Bahktin writes:

every experience, every thought of a character is internally dialogic .. accompanied by a continual sideways glance at another person, from the very beginning a rejoinder in an unfinished dialogue. (32)

Of one of Dostoyevsky’s main heroes, the Underground Man, he writes:

What the Underground Man thinks about most of all is what others think or might think about him; he tries to keep one step ahead of every other consciousness, every other thought about him, every other point of view about him…he tries to anticipate the possible definition or evaluation others might make of him, to guess the sense and tone of that evaluation, and tries painstakingly to formulate these possible worlds about himself by others, interrupting his own speech with the imagined rejoinders of others… (52)

This, I take it, is a notion at the level of thought: our thoughts are always in dialogue with another. And Dostoyevsky thinks that in this lies the nature of existence: “in dialogue a person not only shows himself outwardly, but he becomes for the first time that which he is–and, we repeat, not only for others but for himself as well. To be means to communicate dialogically.” (252)

To be means to communicate dialogically — a new cogito, we could say (Abeba Birhane makes exactly this point in a piece I link to below). But what does it mean? Can we make philosophical sense of it? Does it have any consequences for the ‘monologic’ philosophies in 1860s Russia? Why think that all our speech is accompanied by a sideways glance, by an implicit response to another’s words? And why think, further, that to speak thus, is to be?

Bahktin has an answer, in the form of a highly respectable philosophy of language. He extracts it from Dostoyevsky, where it is not explicitly presented, but is implicitly represented. According to it:

“When a member of a speaking collective comes upon a word, it is not as a neutral word of language, not as a word free from the aspirations and evaluations of others, uninhabited by others’ voices. No, he receives the word from another’s voice and filled with that other voice. The word enters his context from another context, permeated with the interpretations of others…When there is no access to one’s own personal “ultimate” word, then every thought, feeling, experience must be refracted through the medium of someone else’s discourse, someone else’s style, someone else’s manner, with which it cannot immediately be merged without reservation, without distance, without refraction” (202)

On this thought, language is inherently other-involving. By its very nature as a shared object, we can’t so much as think without engaging, if indirectly, with the thoughts of others. And so then we get a quick argument to plurality: even if you try to formulate the thought that reality is unified, you are using words which can only exist in relation to others. This is the core take-home message of my reading of Bahktin’s reading of Dostoyevsky.

(Let me just note that there’s a large range of philosophical traditions we could connect this to. We could link it up with the structuralist idea according to which a word gets its meaning only by virtue of how it differs from other words. Or we could connect it to Wittgensteinian thought about private languages. We could connect it with ideas about literary modernism or postmodernism, which has been much interested in the thought that modernity is typified by our having a plurality of perspectives or voices at our disposal none of which express the real us. We could connect it with Ubuntu philosophy (Abeba Birhane explicitly links Bahtkin, Ubuntu, and Descartes here), or with the Buddhist idea of dependent origination. We could even — a bit ironically — connect it with actual Hegelian thought (in the man himself, but also in people like Sartre) on the nature of recognition in the master/slave dialectic. While all these are promising avenues for exploration, the one I’ll explore below is the one I’m most qualified to speak about.)

So here, finally, is the argument, vastly simplified. Starting from language, from the multiple-generality-handling capabilities of first-order logic, Russell came to anti-monistic realism, where relations between separate entities were fundamental. Starting from how we see the world as double-voiced and dialogic, we can extract a theory of language that makes sense of the plurality of perspectives which are irreducible to any monological voice. The direction of discovery is different, but otherwise the paths followed by both are very similar. This, then, is how Dostoyevsky is a philosopher.

Bahtkin. Image licence info here

That’s the argument. But so far it’s been pretty abstract. I’ve talked a lot about Dostoyevsky’s art but haven’t actually considered his texts. That seems like an oversight, albeit one that’s slightly understandable. After all, we’re dealing here with thousands of pages of prose that together make up the polyphonic world Dostoyevsky creates. Picking neat excerpts isn’t easy. But let’s try.

Consider this extract from the very start of Notes From Underground:

I am a sick man…. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. … I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand. Well, I understand it, though.

The whole thing is a first-personal monologue. There is no real ‘you’ that is being spoken to, but nevertheless a ‘you’ is addressed, argued with, disagreed with, mocked. This, in a sense, is the essence of dialogical consciousness: for all thought to be implicitly addressed to a you, dependent on a you for its hearing.

And here’s another example, one Bahktin presents, from near the start of Crime and Punishment, a monologue of the protagonist Raskolnikov :

It’s clear that Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is the central figure in the business, and no one else. Oh yes, she can ensure his happiness, keep him in the university, make him a partner in the office, make his whole future secure; perhaps he may even be a rich man later on, prosperous, respected, and may even end his life a famous man! But my mother? It’s all Rodya, precious Rodya, her firstborn! For such a son who would not sacrifice such a daughter! Oh, loving, over-partial hearts! Why, for his sake we would not shrink even from Sonya’s fate. Sonya, Sonya Marmeladova, the eternal victim so long as the world lasts. Have you taken the measure of your sacrifice, both of you? Is it right? Can you bear it? Is it any use? Is there sense in it? And let me tell you, Dounia, Sonya’s life is no worse than life with Mr. Luzhin. ‘There can be no question of love,’ mother writes. And what if there can be no respect either, if on the contrary there is aversion, contempt, repulsion, what then? So you will have to ‘keep up your appearance,’ too. Is not that so? Do you understand what that smartness means? Do you understand that the Luzhin smartness is just the same thing as Sonya’s and may be worse, viler, baser, because in your case, Dounia, it’s a bargain for luxuries, after all, but with Sonya it’s simply a question of starvation. It has to be paid for, it has to be paid for, Dounia, this smartness. afterwards, if you regret it? The bitterness, the misery, the curses, the tears hidden from all the world, for you are not a Marfa Petrovna. And how will your mother feel then? Even now she is uneasy, she is worried, but then, when she sees it all clearly? And I? Yes, indeed, what have you taken me for? I won’t have your sacrifice, Dounia, I won’t have it, mother! It shall not be, so long as I am alive, shall not, it shall not! I won’t accept it!” [ . . . ] “Or throw up life altogether!” he cried suddenly, in a frenzy–“accept one’s lot humbly as it is, once for all and stifle everything in oneself, giving up all claim to activity, life and love!” “Do you understand, sir, do you understand what it means when you have absolutely nowhere to turn?” Marmeladov’s question came suddenly into his mind, “for every man must have somewhere to turn.”

Even without knowing the characters mentioned, it should be clear how ‘double-voiced’ this is, how constantly accompanied with a ‘sideways glance’ to others’ words and others’ concerns. For Dostoyevsky, this is what it is like to be conscious, to be in general: to enter into these internal and external dialogues is to become what one is. One is only through, even if just internal, dialogue with others.

That is in itself a respectable philosophical thesis, backed up, I have suggested, by a respectable philosophy of language. I leave it to the reader to wonder whether their interior monologues are so shaped, whether indeed they are dependent on others’ words in this way.

I want to end, though, by considering one particular stylistic trait and how, along with the above, contemporary philosophy of language can shed interesting light on it. That is the presence of confessions and interrogations in Dostoyevsky’s work, which even someone with a relatively cursory knowledge of Dostoyevsky’s work can, I hope, recognize.

Why is confession so important for Dostoyevsky? I have a dialogical answer (I think Bahktin also his this answer, albeit not the contemporary spin I’m about to put on it). To be means to communicate dialogically. As it so happens, contemporary philosophy of language is extremely interested in the closely aligned idea of what it is to converse with other people. And a very core feature of conversation that thinkers like Robert Stalnaker and David Lewis noticed is that conversation is a question of updating a shared body of information, the common ground.

By this is meant that when we talk to someone, we tend to assume a bunch of things as given, which is to say we assume they are mutually known. Then, with that assumed, we try to build upon the stock of things mutually known, say by introducing a new piece of information known to us and convincing the other of its truth.

The point is that for these conversations, for communication to run smoothly there has to be something shared: the shared set of beliefs we aim to update. In this way, the contemporary models of communication bear out the idea that language is an essentially other-directed affair (something made more clear when we move to formal models of dynamic semantics, which assume that the very meaning of an expression is its effect it has on a context in which it occurs. Unfortunately, the technicalities involved in explaining this would take us too far afield). I think it’s even not an exaggeration to say that focusing on this notion has led to some of the most interesting work in philosophy of language, on things like pornography and propaganda, in thinkers like Rae Langton and Jason Stanley, the thought being that we frequently exploit misapprehensions about the state of the common ground to further our conversational goals in a sneaky way.

Realizing this, we can then see why the most powerful moments of Dostoyevsky’s work involve interrogation. Because interrogation is precisely at the place in which the common ground is defective, and in the most serious way. It’s at the very heart of the interrogation that the one interrogated not know exactly what the other, the interrogator, knows.

And this failure of shared background means that a speaker’s actions becomes fundamentality alien to him (if you need convincing of this, imagine you’re spoken to by a custom’s officer or pulled over while driving, and the sudden hyperconsciousness you have not to make it look like you have something to hide, even if you don’t. Suddenly we don’t know the significance of our actions (am I blinking too much? Should I call her ‘ma’am’? Is my smile too disingenuous?) Or think of the painful consciousness of a first date, where the unclear hoped-for presupposition (“Do they like me????”) makes one viscerally aware of all one says and does). And so Raskolnikov constantly worries over the significance of his actions, precisely because, on this line of thinking, he is not truly in dialogue, and so his actions lack proper significance. Consider this passage, one among many when Raskolnikov is talking with Porfiry Petrovich, an investigator whom Rasknolnikov suspects to suspect him (note the complicated pingponging of the attitudes (x believes that y believes that x believes that …), typical of common knowledge) of the murder. Note the painful self-consciousness that comes upon one when the common ground is unclear:

“I believe you said yesterday you would like to question me…formally… about my acquaintance with the murdered woman?” Raskolnikov was beginning again. “Why did I put in ‘I believe’” passed through his mind in a flash. “Why am I so uneasy at having put in that ‘I believe’?” came in a second flash. And he suddenly felt that his uneasiness at the mere contact with Porfiry, at the first words, at the first looks, had grown in an instant to monstrous proportions, and that this was fearfully dangerous. His nerves were quivering, his emotion was increasing. “It’s bad, it’s bad! I shall say too much again.”

Or think again of the very end of the book, where Raskolnikov thinks he has gotten away with it, in a friendly chat with that same Porfiry:

“. . . No, this is not the work of a Mikolka, my dear Rodion Romanovich, there is no Mikolka here!”

All that had been said before had sounded so like a recantation that these words were too great a shock. Raskolnikov shuddered as though he had been stabbed.

“Then . . . who then . . . is the murderer?” he asked in a breathless voice, unable to restrain himself.

Porfiry Petrovich sank back in his chair, as though he were amazed at the question.

“Who is the murderer?” he repeated, as though unable to believe his ears. “Why, you, Rodion Romanovich! You are the murderer,” he added, almost in a whisper, in a voice of genuine conviction.

Raskolnikov leapt from the sofa, stood up for a few seconds and sat down again without uttering a word. His face twitched convulsively. . . .

“I didn’t do it,” Raskolnikov whispered, as frightened children do when caught in the act

Part of the extreme uneasiness at play here is not only that Raskolnikov’s guilt is known, but that both he and Porfiry know it, and Porfiry thought Raskolnikov knew Porfiry knew, although he didn’t — and so the common ground necessary for dialogue was defective. He thought ‘I am innocent’ was in the common ground, and was relieved. He was failing, then, to communicate properly, and thus to be and to know himself (the scene would be much less powerful, I think, were the policeman to charge in shouting and put cuffs around him — it would be, somehow, less undermining.)

But the very best example here is from Brothers Karamazov (here’s where the really big spoilers are — you can skip to the next text break without missing too much of my argument, I hope). To brutally summarise, Ivan wants his father dead, but doesn’t want to admit it, or act on it. Smerdaykov realizes this, and so plans, without telling Ivan, to kill the father. Ivan doesn’t know, or doesn’t fully admit to himself, that he knows that Smerdyakov knows that he wants his father dead. They have some allusive conversations about a voyage of Ivan, a voyage that, it so happens, will open up a perfect opportunity for the murder. No plans are made. The proverb-like “it’s always good to chat to a smart man” is repeated by Smeryakov several times.

Ivan leaves, the murder happens, a good suspect is found (Ivan’s brother, but let’s not get into that). Ivan has a final conversation with Smerdyakov:

“Go home, you did not murder him.”

Ivan started….

“I know it was not I,” he faltered.

“Do you?” Smerdyakov caught him up again.

Ivan jumped up and seized him by the shoulder.

“Tell me everything, you viper! Tell me everything!”

Smerdyakov was not in the least scared. He only riveted his eyes on Ivan with insane hatred.

“Well, it was you who murdered him, if that’s it,” he whispered furiously.

Ivan sank back on his chair, as though pondering something. He laughed malignantly.

“You mean my going away. What you talked about last time?”

“You stood before me last time and understood it all, and you understand it now.”

“All I understand is that you are mad.”

“Aren’t you tired of it? Here we are face to face; what’s the use of going on keeping up a farce to each other? Are you still trying to throw it all on me, to my face? You murdered him; you are the real murderer, I was only your instrument, your faithful servant, and it was following your words I did it.”

“Did it? Why, did you murder him?” Ivan turned cold.

Something seemed to give way in his brain, and he shuddered all over with a cold shiver. Then Smerdyakov himself looked at him wonderingly; probably the genuineness of Ivan’s horror struck him.

“You don’t mean to say you really did not know?” he faltered mistrustfully, looking with a forced smile into his eyes. Ivan still gazed at him, and seemed unable to speak.

As in Crime and Punishment, someone learns he’s thought to be a murderer in the course of a pleasant conversation, by someone bemused that it wasn’t already in the common ground. The conversation between Ivan and Smerdyakov happened against a defective common ground, one in which Smerkyakov took silence to mean consenting to his father’s murder, and Ivan …. maybe didn’t. But the same lesson holds: the dialogue fails, and since to be is to communicate dialogically, Ivan fails to be in some deep sense. He soon becomes seriously mentally ill.

We see, then, in confession in Dostoyevsky, an vivid presentation of the dialogic approach to language and thought, and we’ve seen how it comports well with contemporary theories of meaning and communication, and gives us a world in which the problem of the monologic voice is dissolved and replaced with a plurality of different consciousnesses, for whom true existence is intersubjectivity, and for whom to fail to truly communicate carries with it existential cost. This is the philosophy of Dostoyevsky, a language-based response to the spectre of idealism, fatalism, and nihilism just as respectable and deserving of the title ‘philosophy’ as the logic-inspired work of Bertrand Russell.

Let’s recap. On the reading I’ve offered, both Dostoyevsky and Russell count as philosophers sans phrase because they both respond to their preceding intellectual traditions and its problems by attending to the structure of thought and language, showing that it is irreducibly pluralistic and that accordingly monism can’t capture this. The thought and talk is different — the first-order predicate calculus vs the confessions of murderers — and they are undergirded by different philosophies of language, but ultimately, starting from roughly the same place, they end up in the same place, by making similar moves. That’s more than enough, I think, to make my case. Dostoyevsky is a philosopher because he has the features of a philosopher, and so, although we might be tempted to consign his work to the somewhat nebulous genre of ‘philosophical fiction’, we learn more about philosophy and about literature when we see the similarities, and realize that works of literature can put forward views about questions central to the discipline of philosophy.

Novella "Coming From Nothing" at @zer0books ( Academic philosophy at:

Novella "Coming From Nothing" at @zer0books ( Academic philosophy at: