Logic in the early Soviet Union


Materialism and Empiro-criticism is possibly the most influential work of philosophy in the 20th century. It became the party line, the core philosophical text, “an obligatory subject of study in all institutions of higher education in the Soviet Union” (wikipedia), a description of which was included in the Short Course of the History of the Communist Party that everyone had to know. Literally tens of millions learned, or at least read the tenets of ‘diamat’:


Without getting into too many details — which are better told by others, because the story is complicated and nuanced and in certain respects the jury is out on parts of the science (I’m thinking of epigenetics and related things) — people ended up the view that Lamarckian theories of inherited acquired characteristics were right, because they were viewed as more in line with Marxist materialism. For the Lamarckian, if one generation acquires a characteristic it previously lacked — imagine we all had to go out fishing and hunting all day, leaving our computers behind, becoming athletic, no longer sweating when we go upstairs — its offspring could inherit that characteristic. This fit well with Marxism, as


As the title of a famous anthology has it, from Frege, who resolved long-standing problems in logic, proposed a novel philosophy of maths, and laid the ground for 20th century linguistic semantics, to Goedel, who presented astonishing results about the newly rigorous formal systems people like Frege (and Peano, and Russell, and Hilbert, and many more) discovered, the period from roughly 1870 to 1930 was a golden age for logic and the foundations of maths.

Orlov published in this journal, which can be read on archive.org. The photocopying isn’t great, but it seems churlish to complain


With all that finally said I can now turn to the point of this post. It turns out that in the first few decades of the 20th century, Russia produced some interesting work in logic, despite the fact that it increasingly became necessary to tow the Lenin party line concerning dialectical materialism. For example, Nikolai Vasiliev, already in the 1910s, was — through a glass, very darkly — anticipating trends in non-classical logic. In particular, just as his countryman Lobachevsky developed non-Euclidean geometry, he wondered whether he could create a sort of “curved” logic as thinkers had created geometries of curved space, and so he wondered about, just as the non-Euclidian rejected things like Euclid’s fifth postulate, he could reject fundamental laws of logic, like the law of non-contradiction. While he arguably didn’t get too far (see this article for an English account of one of his papers; I’m relying on Valentin Bazhanov’s 2001 Essays on the Social History of Logic in Russia; all details in this section are from this book; all (not very good) translations are mine), it’s still fascinating to see these modern ideas presented back then, and it makes one wonder what Russian philosophical logic could have been had it not been for the repressive time.



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