What do Russian philosophers think? Results from a philpapers-type survey

Philosophy is concerned with the big questions. Do humans have free will? What are numbers? How does thought connect to reality? Can grounding help modal process reliabilism capture JTB’’** analyses of knowledge?

I made that one up, although it’s more likely to be form of the sort of question you’re likely to see if you read contemporary journals. You might wonder, though, what people working in contemporary academia, with its often hyperspecialized concerns and impenetrable argot, think about the foundational questions of their discipline.

(This isn’t limited to philosophy: you might want to know whether a literature student who did their PhD on advertising in the literary journals Dickens serialized in thinks Shakespeare is objectively better than Dante, or what someone who works on forcing mildly over worldly cardinals thinks about, say, mathematical creativity.)

In the case of philosophy, we’re lucky: the Davids Bourget and Chalmers did a survey on their invaluable indexing site philpapers.org which asked professional philosophers about their opinions, so we could learn what philosophers think about the big questions like those with which I began. They also wrote an interesting article about it, and while it’s not presupposed, if you’re interested in the question it’s worth reading.

That survey was conducted in English, and a preponderance of its respondents were from countries where so-called analytic philosophy is done. But if we’re interested in it, we should be interested to see how things turn out in other traditions. I was thus pleased to happen across the article “O chem doomaiot rossiiskie filosopy? Rezultaty internet-oprosa” (Besedin, Vasiliev, Volkov, and Kuznetsov 2017; What do Russian philosophers think? Results of an internet-survey), which reported the results of a philpapers-like survey conducted among Russian philosophers. The aim of this post is to convey some of the main findings of that survey, as presented in the article. Let me emphasize: none of this is my work, and it’s all the work of the authors.

The survey was conducted in the first half of 2015 by philosophers associated with the center for consciousness studies at the Moscow State University Philosophy department (all references are to the above-linked article), I think carried out by the authors of the article (but I’m not sure about that). It was done online, using surveymonkey. 566 people finished out of just over one thousand who started; about another hundred falsely answered pairs of control questions (i.e. gave diverging answers to ‘is there a priori knowledge?’ and ‘is there knowledge independent of experience?’, which — a few ornery counterexamplers notwithstanding — should be answered the same way). This left 421 (let’s call this the sample), 170 of which were either doktor nauk or kandidat nauk (I don’t know exactly how close these are respectively to PhD and grad student (nauka is just science), but hopefully it’s roughly the same idea; and let’s call this the expert sample) Men outnumbered women roughly 2:1, and the average age, across the different cohorts, was around 35–40 (in a companion piece, someone rightly complained that this makes vivid the fact that the medium selected for a younger demographic, and so its results probably can’t be extrapolated to the whole population of Russian philosophers).

Unlike the philpapers survey, this one contained a range of free choice questions, where you could enter into a textbox your own answer. This enabled the surveyors to ask some more open-ended questions than the philpapers survey. I’ll first go through them.

The first interesting one of these is discipline. The first question concerns the most popular specialisms of the respondents: in order, they are social philosophy (‘sotzialnaya filosofiya’), ontology and epistemology (one category), and history of philosophy.

What is sotzialnaya filosofiya? Alas, I don’t really know. It’s not, I think, what analytic philosophers would call social philosophy, perhaps more inspired by sociology than analytic philosophy tends to me. In a latter blog, once I have an answer, I’ll give it.

The next question the article asks is about the philosophical tradition the respondent belongs to. Here the answers are, in descending order, as so, and just giving the figures for the expert group:

Analytic philosophy: 13%

Existentialism: 13%

Marxism: 9%

Russian philosophy: 7%

Materialism: 6%

Positivism (post-positivism): 6%

Although I don’t know what these latter two, the first two are very interesting, because existentialism is often viewed as a core component of ‘continental philosophy’, which is distinguished from analytic philosophy. Per their own reports, then, it seems Russian philosophy is split down the middle.

The next is the most influential classical philosophers. They work it out in various ways I don’t propose to get into, but the list of most influential philosophers is familiar: Kant, Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Marx. Kant is most popular on most of the ways of looking at the data, which is an interesting point. It would be interesting to see what Anglophone, or French- or German- speakers would go for (it’s probably out there — philosophers are obsessed with ranking things). Among the most influential Russian philosophers are Soloviev, Berdyaev, Mamardashvili, Losev, Lenin (in a future post, more on them); among the most influential books are Critique Of Pure Reason (again, Kant is #1), The Republic, Thus Spake Zarathrustra comes in third, surprisingly, and Being And Time.

The next question asks for the three books you read most recently (this is itself interesting: analytic philosophy typically is done via article, although I think they allowed articles as answers). Among “classical” philosophers, we have:

Kant 25
Hegel 19,
Heidegger 17
Aristotle
Wittgenstein 14;
Nietzsche 12,
Plato 10

Among “contemporaries”:

Foucault 25
Chalmers 15
Deleuze 13
Baudrillard 11

In order to interpret what we’ve seen so far:

A Brief Digression

In the anglophone world, a distinction is typically made between ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy. It’s often made fun of, and its boundaries are porous in many places, but roughly analytic philosophy dates from roughly (not a typo — it’s very rough) turn of the 20th century work by people like Frege and Russell and Moore. The standard story is that they rebelled against by turns Kantian (Frege’s work on philosophy of mathematics) and Hegel (Russell and Moore’s realist response to the British idealists). Typical of the analytic style is — so the stereotype goes — a certain formality, concern with language and especially formal language as a means of solving or dissolving philosophical puzzles. One might read the following:

Which I’ve screenshot to save medium’s poor editor. It might be hard to believe, but a good case can be made that this (from Hilary Putnam, circa 1980) is in the service of speaking to very deep perennial questions about the nature of reality and representation. At around the same time, one might find an archetypal continental philosopher say something like:

In this passage to a space whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor of truth, the age of simulation thus begins with a liquidation of all referentials-worse: by their artificial resurrection in systems of signs, a more ductile material than meaning, in that it lends itself to all systems of equivalence, all binary oppositions and all combinatory algebra. It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself, that is, an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes.

And again believe it or not, this (from Baudrillard, again c1980) is concerned with the same thing, of reality and representation. So: vastly slurring distinctions, we have two different methods or styles or approaches, but to some extent at least an overlap in theme. The curious thing about our Russian philosophers is that, when it comes to contemporaries, their taste seems to be continental (Foucault and Deleuze) while their self-image is, in part, analytic. This is puzzling!

Back to the Survey

A second part of the survey is less open-ended. It lets one choose one response out of 2–4, including ‘other’. Some of the questions here overlap with the philpapers survey, which lets us do some comparisons. In what follows, out of laziness, I will just quote the figures for the expert sample. If you know the Cyrillic alphabet, and maybe even if you don’t and are willing to guess, you can look at the tables beginning 98 yourself — the left hand side is typically the sample figures. Here are the questions and responses, with interpolations if things are unclear.

Is philosophy a science?
YES: 39%
NO: 53
NOT SURE: 8

Do you think there’s a distinction between the analytic and continental traditions in philosophy?
YES: 72
NO: 17
N/S: 11

Does God exist?
YES: 46
NO: 21
N/S: 33

Can God’s existence be proved?
YES: 27
NO: 52
N/S: 21

What’s your view about the external world?
IDEALISM: 30
SKEPTICISIM 24
REALISM: 42
SOLIPSISM: 2
N/S: 18

Do you incline towards transcendentalism or naturalism?
TRANSCENDENTALISM: 47
NATURALISM: 28
N/S: 17
OTHER: 8

Note on this question: I don’t know what ‘transcendentalism’ means here. A typical understanding would be perhaps something like Kantian idealism, according to which the world is the co-product of our ways of seeing and thinking and some external world, as opposed, perhaps, to naturalism, on which the world is just a brute thing out there, and would be independent of us.

Do you lean towards ontological monism, dualism, or pluralism?
MONISM: 37
DUALISM: 13
PLURALISM: 33
N/S: 12

Is the world (pre-)determined?
DETERMINISM: 42
INDETERMINISM: 21
N/S: 19
OTHER: 18

Is there a priori knowledge?
YES: 55
NO: 22
N/S: 11
OTHER: 12

Do you lean towards nominalism or realism about universals?
REALISM: 42
NOMINALISM: 39
N/S: 14
OTHER: 13

IS THERE A CLEAR DISTINCTION BETWEEN ANALYTIC AND SYNTHETIC JUDGEMENT?
YES: 29
NO: 48
N/S: 20
OTHER: 3

(N.B I don’t know what connotations the Russian for ‘judgement’ has here: famously, analytic philosophers would say that to call judgements (soozhdenie) analytic or synthetic is a solecism: it’s a property of sentences, linguistic, not mental, things.)

Do you lean towards contextualism or relativism when it comes to knowledge?
CONTEXTUALISM: 47
RELATIVISM: 21
N/S: 23
OTHER: 9

(This is an odd question. Unlike many of the others, contextualism about knowledge is at best 30–40 years old, and pretty recondite — unless you’ve done quite a lot of analytic philosophy you won’t have encountered the debate.)

Do you like correspondence or non-correspondence theories of truth?
CORRESPONDENCE: 41
NON-CORRESPONDENCE: 27
N/S: 20
OTHER: 12

Do you believe in the verification principle?
YES: 36
NO: 15
N/S: 28
OTHER: 21

Another strange one, as indicated by the authors, asked because it’s of particular interest to Russian theorists of knowledge. Outside of Twitter memes, most people aren’t verificationists any more.

Do you think thought experiments are arguments or illustrations?
ARGUMENT: 35
ILLUSTRATIONS: 45
N/S: 9
OTHER: 11

Maybe I’m mistranslating with ‘illustrations’, sounds a bit weird.

Is there knowledge independent of experience?
YES: 63
NO: 18
N/S: 7
OTHER: 12

Can the reality of the physical world be proved?
YES: 55
NO: 19
N/S: 14
OTHER: 12

Do we perceive physical objects directly or via signs?
DIRECTLY: 19
VIA SIGNS: 52
N/S: 17
OTHER: 12

The word I’ve translated as signs, ‘otpechatki’, seems to literally mean ‘fingerprints’, so this is an educated guess about what’s presumably a term of art.

Is the nature of consciousness physical or not physical?
PHYSICAL: 25
NOT PHYSICAL 46
N/S: 46
OTHER: 12

Is artificial intelligence possible?
YES: 54
NO: 27
N/S: 19

Are human beings unique among (known) beings in having consciousness?
YES: 39
NO: 46
N/S: 15

Is our behaviour under some mental control?
YES: 94
NO: 2
N/S: 4

Is consciousness created by biological mechanisms or by culture?
BIO MECS: 15
CULTURE: 32
N/S: 13
OTHER: 40

Apparently there was a big write-in, in the other category, for a bit of both.

Is consciousness unified or not?
YES: 44
NO: 29
N/A: 27

Don’t know what this means

What theory of personal identity do you lean towards?
BIOLOGICAL: 10
NARRATIVE: 20
PSYCHOLOGICAL: 28
SUBSTANTIALIST: 26
OTHER: 16

Not sure what substantialist, which is just a transliteration, means.

In philosophy of science, do you lean towards realism or anti-realism
REALISM: 59
ANTIREALISM: 12
N/S: 23
OTHER: 6

Do you lean towards scientism or anti-scientism?
SCIENTISM: 50
ANTI-SCIENTISM: 24
N/S: 16
OTHER: 10

Again, these are transliterations and I’m not sure what they mean. Presumably ‘scientism’ doesn’t have the pejorative tone (I think?) it does in English.

Are conceptions in experimental science hypotheses?
YES: 79
NO: 5
N/S: 16

This is other question added because of special Russian interest in it. Don’t know what conceptions (again, transliteration), means.

When it comes to value, do you lean towards realism or antirealism?
REALISM: 46
ANTIREALISM: 21
N/S: 25

Is aesthetic value subjective or objective?
SUBJECTIVE: 51
OBJECTIVE: 26
N/S: 9
OTHER: 14

Is there free will?
YES: 78
NO: 7
N/S: 15

Is free will compatible with determinism?
YES: 65
NO: 15
N/S: 20

Is free will compatible with indeterminism?
YES: 55
NO: 18
N/S: 27

Do you believe in compatibilism wrt free will?
YES: 36
NO: 11
N/S: 53

Is morality biological or social in nature?
BIOLOGICAL: 5
SOCIAL: 62
N/S: 10
OTHER: 23

Deontology, Consequentialism, Virtue Ethics?
DEONTOLOGY: 28
CONSEQUENTIALISM: 8
VIRTUE ETHICS: 23
N/S: 33
OTHER: 8

Consequentialism’s poor showing is one of the most interesting findings here. Compare with the corresponding question in the philpapers survey, where it got 23.6%, pretty much equal to deontology.

Is free will a condition for moral responsibility?
SEEMS SO: 79
SEEMS NO: 13
N/S: 8

Does moral truth admit of rigorous proof?
YES: 23
NO: 51
N/S: 17
OTHER: 9

There follows a comparison section. One interesting thing it points out is that in the philpapers survey, there’s a question about ‘non-living philosophers most identified with’. For the philpapers survey, the top ten are: Hume, Aristotle, Kant, Wittgenstein, Quine, Russell, Lewis, Frege, Rawls. The Russian top 5 is: Kant, Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Marx (although the questions aren’t identical). It points out some interesting divergences: analytic philosophers much prefer the analytic/synthetic distinction (61 vs 29), and believe slightly more in a priori truths (something which the authors find strange given the belief in the crisis of the armchair (krizise kabinetnoy)). Another interesting difference is that Russians are much more inclined towards idealism (18 vs 6.8) and philpapers people MUCH more inclined towards realism (76.7 vs 42). Russians, as indicated above, are much more theistic, and considerably more into dualism.

More is to be said. It would be especially nice to know what Russian social philosophy is, and to take a look at what’s published in the journals. I’ll do that next time. For now, I want to go and watch Netflix.

Novella "Coming From Nothing" at @zer0books (bitly.com/cfnextract). Academic philosophy at: http://mipmckeever.weebly.com/