Russian Neo-Kantianism: Marburg in Russia. Historical-philosophical sketches

By Nina Dmitrieva. 

The following are excerpts from the author’s German summary, translated into English by Michael Zank. Please note that the spelling of Russian names may not reflect how the same names may be conventionally spelled in the English speaking literature.

Until the last third of the 19th century the philosophy of Kant had less of an impact in Russia than the doctrines of Schelling, Hegel, and Feuerbach. Similar to Germany, interest in critical philosophy was due to a number of natural scientists. Russian scientists such as D. Mendeleev, N. Pirogov, I. Pavlov, and I. Setchenov adopted the positivism of August Comte, which they understood as a kind of world view and used to counter the then prevailing academic philosophy of P. Yurkevitch, A. Kozlov, and L. Lopatin, as well as to counter the official ideology of an Orthodox-Christian worldview (K. Pobedonostzev) and the mystical doctrine of Vl. Solovjev. While in Germany idealist metaphysics was irretrievably pushed aside by the turn to theory of knowledge, the Russian academic philosophers defended and developed a kind of metaphysics whose evidentiary force derived from German idealism. This damaged the reputation of philosophy as a science in Russia.

The same is true for its general reputation in Russian society. Positivsts, materialists, revolutionary democrats and the so-called popularists (“Volkstümler”) complained that the religious-metaphysical thinkers were unable to provide a theoretical account of social reality that would provide the foundations for the reconstruction of state and society. The discovery and reception of the ideas of German neo-Kantianism in Russia in the last decade of the 19th century coincides with this situation. 

The Baden school of neo-Kantianism acquired greater popularity and fame among philosophically inclined Russian intellectuals than the Marburg school. But the Marburg school nevertheless attracted considerable attention as well because it was considered the programmatically and institutionally more rigorously developed school of neo-Kantianism. The first to pay attention to the social theory of neo-Kantianism (in the 1890s) were the group of “legal Marxists” (N. Berdiaev, S. Bulgakov, J. Davidov, B. (Th.) Kistiakovski, P. Struve, et al.) who, similar to E. Bernstein and others in Germany searching for a liberal program, attempted “to infuse Marxism with a drop of Kantian criticism” (S. Bulgakov). This attempt as well as neo-Kantian theory in general attracted the vehement criticism of L. Akselrod, Vl. Lenin, G. Plechanov and other Russian Marxists.

Russian students and young scientists dedicated to philosophical studies particularly appropriated the Marburg theory of knowledge as well as its interest in systematic philosophy. Very often, they would study with representatives of both schools, first attending the lectures of Windelband and Rickert in Heidelberg and Freiburg i. Breisgau and then moving to Marburg to study with Cohen and Natorp. This was the case with N. Alekseev, O. Buek, S. Hessen, P. Kananov, H. Lanz, S. Rubinstein, A. Sachetti, W. Saval’ski, L. Ssalagoff, A. Toporkoff, B. Vogt, B. Wischeslavzeff, and others. 

In addition, the following studied with Windelband and Rickert: N. Berdiaev, N. Bubnoff, I. Fondaminski, A. Fondaminskaya (née Gawronskaya), A. Gotz, I. Ilyin, B. Yakovenko, B. (Th.) Kistiakowski, O. Mandelstam, P. Novgorodzev, M. Rubinstein, M. Shaginyan, W. Sensinov, A. Steinberg, F. Stepun, and others.

Among the students of Cohen and Natorp were W. Beliayev, N. Boldirev, D. Gawronsky, M. Glikson, M. Gorbunkoff, G. Gordon, N. Hartmann, M. Kagan, J. Klatzkin, A. Kubitzky, B. Pasternak, D. Samarin, W. Sesemann, H. Slonimsky, A. Syrtzoff, A. Weidemann, K. Wildhagen, V. Ssalagowa (?) née Woytiak, and others. Considerable Marburg influence is discernible in the work of M. Bachtin, Wl. Dinse, L. Gabrilowitsch, J. Gordin, A. Gurland, B. Jakowenko, D. Koigen, A. Koralnik, I. Lapschin, E. Spektorsky, A. Steinberg, et al. 

What young Russian intellectuals found in the Marburg neo-Kantian scholars was the sought-after system of philosophical knowledge, a productive and at the same time flexible methodology, as well as access to the most recent philosophical discussions needed to advance their own research. Filled with enthusiasm for the enlightened idea of the promotion of a secular scientific philosophy they returned home where they sought to contribute to “the formation of a lasting philosophical tradition” (B. Jakowenko) of critical rationalism in Russia. They viewed the doctrine of the Marburg school as as a “philosophy of humanism and Enlightenment” that continued “the historical […] centuries old tradition founded by Socrates” (E. Spektorsky).

From the outset of the “institutionalization” of the neo-Kantian movement in Russia the Russian students of the Marburg and Baden schools of neo-Kantianism knew that, as it was put in an editorial of the Russian edition of the journal Logos (1910, vol.1), their “philosophical work, founded on an unconditional reception of the western heritage will inevitably need to adopt the specific and strongly cultural motifs present in Russia.” The phenomenon of a Russian neo-Kantianism rested on this foundation and it became an integral part of Russian culture as an antithesis to a religious-mystical philosophizing and as an appeal for a long-overdue enlightenment within Russian philosophy. 

Nevertheless, a neo-Kantian school was never formed in Russia. The reason for this failure is not as much to be sought in the strong dependence on German neo-Kantian philosophy than in the absence of a strong academic philosophical tradition and in the suspicion, widely shared by different layers of society, that philosophy offered refuge to a dangerous form of free thinking. The Russian neo-Kantians were therefore forced to focus on teaching not only on the university level but also on the highschool level and to produce great numbers of Russian translations of classical western philosophical texts, to the detriment of their ability to work out their own philosophical conceptions, and they were forced to enter into general cultural life and to participate in public debates such as when, around 1910, the ideas of the religious-mystical thinkers gained great popularity. The question debated at that point was whether philosophy, as the religious thinkers demanded, ought to be a worldview of religious-national significance. Some of the Russian neo-Kantians were also members of revolutionary circles, such as the anarchists (O. Buek), the socalled Socialists-Revolutionaries (D. Gawronsky, L. Garbielowitsch, B. Jakowenko, etc.) and the Socialdemocrats (O. Buek, G. Gordon, P. Kananow, D. Koigen, S. Rubinstein, etc.).

For these reasons the institutionalization of neo-Kantianism in Russia took a more informal shape in the activity of philosophical circles and communities among which the socalled “home seminars” gained particular significance, especially the seminar convened by the “Marburger” Boris Vogt which, with few interruptions, met from 1904 until 1946.  


In Russia, where artistic creativity was always assessed not only on the basis of its aesthetic but also on the basis of its social value, the ideas of the “new Kantianism” had   an astounding impact on the representatives of Russian symbolism. Not just neo-Kantian ideas such as the infinite activity of the creative consciousness but also genuinely Kantian ideas adopted by the neo-Kantians exerted an influence, such as the autonomy of the individual or the objectivity of artistic production. As the carriers of these ideas, Neo-Kantians functioned as the “hubs” of a most lively and influential intellectual exchange of concepts, programs, and convictions. Russian artists like V. Brjusiv, Andrej Belyi, and Aleksandr Skriabin formed their aesthetic and philosophical views in immediate conversation with the neo-Kantians.  

After the revolution the problem of a philosophical justification of culture and of artistic productivity became one of the most urgent concerns. In this context many Russian neo-Kantians gained prominence, both from among the emigrants and from among those who had stayed in Russia. The question of an “exit to being” (N. Berdiaev), i.e., of a new ontology, was of highest priority, and the emigrated Russian neo-Kantians S. Hessen, W. Sesemann, J. Grodin and others sought to find an answer to it in a synthesis of the foundations of Marburg neo-Kantianism, Hegelianism, and phenomenology.

The transformation of neo-Kantian ideas in a Russia that was cut off from the European philosophical realm shows two major trends. The first trend is represented by the works of the greatest Soviet psychologist S. Rubinstein, by M. Turovsky’s studies on the philosophy of culture, and to some degree by the paleo-psychological research of B. Porshnev, where we find a combination of Marxism with the problem of consciousness and the theory of personality with a view to the principle of action. The second trend consists in the preservation in the works of B. Vogt and also implicitly especially in the works of one of his students from the 1940s, P. Kopnin, of an established position that comes close to classical Marburg neo-Kantianism. On this foundation, Kopnin particularly contributed to the further development of certain aspects of Marxist theory, such as the problem of the justification of scientific knowledge, the rehabilitation of the concept of form, and the anthropological orientation of philosophical research in general. 

The project of Marburg neo-Kantianism, with its appeal for enlightenment, a Kantian “formation of reason,” and the justification of a scientific program, proved highly resistant and effective both in pre-revolutionary and in Soviet Russia. These principles of the Marburg school were enhanced by the personal relationships between the Russian “Marburgers” and their Russian mentors (S. Trubetzkoy, A. Wwedensky, et al.) as well as their German mentors (Cohen, Natorp), but also by the tradition of protest among the Russian intelligentsia, that, for the Russian neo-Kantians, was easy to harmonize with the “ethical socialism” of Marburg. In this project, the European philosophical tradition that considered philosophy as a science free of religious and ideological claims, found its expression in Russia. The critical European tradition and the Russian tradition of protest enabled the Russian neo-Kantians to retain a relative freedom of conscience under the conditions of an absolute lack of freedom during the totalitarian period and to pass on the principles of a liberal scientific philosophy to their students in Soviet Russia.