Berdyaev was born of an aristocratic
family near Kiev in the Ukraine. He was educated first at a military academy
and then at the University of Kiev. Like many other students of his time he
became involved with Marxism in reaction to the social and political
structures of Imperial Russia. In 1898 he was expelled from the university
and imprisoned for two years. He was then exiled for three years to Volgoda
in northern Russia for his Marxist activities. He moved to St Petersburg in
Although Berdyaev initially supported the Russian Revolution, he
eventually became critical of Marxism. Because of his socialist tendencies
he gained enough official favour after the 1917 revolution to become, for
a brief time, Professor of Philosophy at Moscow State University. It soon
became clear, however, that he was not and would not become an orthodox
Marxist. His criticism of the Bolsheviks resulted in his dismissal and
deportation from Russia in 1922.
the help of fellow exiles and the Young Men's Christian Association he
founded the Academy of Philosophy and Religion in Berlin. He moved the
Academy to Paris in 1924 where he founded and edited the influential
(The Way) until 1940.
Berdyaev described his philosophical
method as "intuitive and aphoristic rather than discursive and
systematic". From today's perspective, the need for information as a basis
for philosophy is probably more critical than previously. Because he
tended to think without consistent reference to the world around him
as a source, Berdyaev's writing appears to be a series of pronouncements.
By stringing together and repeating his assertions, he gradually builds a
model or paradigm of reality which, though influenced by others (such as
Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche), is primarily his own.
The foundation of his world view was his concept of the Ungrund, a
mysterious primordial freedom from which God emerges. Out of this
Ungrund, or uncreated potentiality, God creates human beings whose
freedom and capacity for creativity are of the utmost importance. The
Ungrund is similar to Aristotle's "prime matter" - an indefinable,
ultimate presupposition or "myth" whose value can't be rationally
demonstrated but only experienced. The Ungrund doesn't, strictly
speaking, exist in the sense that everything else "has being". Rather, it
is "potential" in the sense that it is the possibility of being.
device of inventing that which can be defined or described but has no
existence other than the description and definition is an ancient one. One
has only to ask, "How do you know that Ungrund exists apart from
your verbal formula?" and Berdyaev's castle of words collapses. He seems
aware of this and reverts to the safer position of admitting that the
Ungrund can't be experienced or demonstrated except as potential.
course, this only puts the question back a stage since "potential" here
means "existing in possibility" in the same sense as it's "possible" I
might fall off a cliff tomorrow morning. Only a speculative metaphysics
can be built on such a foundation.
Berdyaev thought that the philosopher "... ought to be theocentric"
because "... man is a microcosm". I think what he meant by this is that we
experience reality as ordered rather than chaotic or anarchic. Therefore,
behind everything there must be an initial purposefully creative act or,
as he put it, "God is in man ... Behind the finite the infinite is
concealed." He wrote: "There is truth in the sense of knowledge of reality
and there is truth which is reality itself ... it is ... something which
exists." What he termed the logos is the "meaning" of that which
exists and "... still higher than truth is God, or to put it more truly -
God is Truth."
seems to me another version of the old proposal that what we perceive as
order demands someone to make or constitute the order. This argument begs
a number of questions, such as, "Is there order?"; "Might order be
accidental?"; "If the infinite is concealed, how do you know its there?"
and "Is it possible to perceive something which is infinite?"
addition, order in the sense that Berdyaev uses the term is, in the last
resort, purely a human invention. If you or I were not observing nature,
would it make sense to say that nature is ordered? The idea of order
depends upon the notion of classification. If nature has nobody to
classify aspects of it, the entire idea of order doesn't apply.
Berdyaev must have known of Einstein's discovery of the space/time
continuum. If he hadn't been intent on creating a self-referencing
metaphysics, he might have recognised the difficulties his system raised.
Even the words " before" and "after" or "seen" and "unseen" suggest order
- though none properly refers to space-time but rests on the supposition
that time is a dimension independent of space.
There's a real sense, then, that the interpolation of the word "God" into
such an argument is an extended device to assert some sort of ultimate
order independent of ourselves. I doubt if we can know what is required to
draw the conclusion that behind "order" in the universe there lies a
supreme "order" which requires us to be theocentric. If information about
this supreme order is available, Berdyaev doesn't give it to us.
then of truth as information or "objective" science? If we create order,
in what sense is it possible to apprehend "truth"? Berdyaev thought that
what are often termed objective or a priori truths have no meaning.
The statement "all bodies expand when heated" and the a priori
truth 2+2 = 4, for example, contain no logos or meaning. They are
"... truth with a small letter." So the confidence that scientific
objectivity can provide any sort of ultimate knowledge is a false
philosophy ("scientism"). Such truth can have no meaning because "Truth is
not objective, it is subjective ... removed from that superficial
subjectivity which stands in opposition to objectivity."
So, he thought, there are "primary" and "secondary" worlds. The primary
world is existential and leads to Truth with a capital T. In the secondary
or "objectified world" Truth is broken up through the process of analysis
into "a multitude of truths" with a small t.
Berdyaev has been called the philosopher of freedom, for he was
preoccupied with the liberation of personality from all that inhibits free
creativity. Perhaps this concern derived from his bitter experience with
the illusory freedoms of Bolshevik Russia, especially under Joseph Stalin.
Berdyaev distinguishes between reason and cognition. The former is
universal, unchanging and always true to its nature. The latter is
supposed to be a purely intellectual act, but in reality is "emotional and
passionate ... a spiritual struggle for meaning ... in every true
my view Berdyaev's distinction between reason and cognition is false -
though it appears to be congruent with the rest of his thought. He
achieves the distinction mainly by a mechanical definition of reason as an
absolute or near absolute. He calls reason "universal" and "unchanging".
This distinction is necessary if his division between subjective and
objective, between primary and secondary is to be maintained. I think he
describes cognition accurately. It certainly is not a "pure" intellectual
process, but subject to huge actual and potential distortions through
emotional bias, learned perceptions and misinterpretation of information
from our environment.
result of this distortion and bias is that no two people perceive their
environment in exactly the same way. They may have greater or lesser areas
of perceptual overlap - but cannot, it seems, attain perfect overlap. That
is, if you like, "raw" cognition is inevitably processed through unique
does one check for perceptual distortion in such a situation? One way is
to receive feedback from our environment in terms of agreed standards -
social, interpersonal and the like. The feedback tells one if one matches
these standards. But cognition in our world extends further. We have
devised a way of agreeing about the nature of the universe by what is
broadly called "the scientific method". It's imperfect, imperfectly used
and subject to paradigmatic steps or leaps of interpretation. But it has
altered cognition in the human race for ever.
this context, reason is not a "thing" but a process. It is the
way we think, not the thought itself. In other words, Berdyaev has
made the error of objectifying reason.
human struggle for meaning is a creative process, which Berdyaev terms
"spirit". What really matters to us all is knowledge acquired via that
... emotional and volitional tension [which] is attributable to the
spirit as a whole ... knowledge is a creative activity, not a passive
reflection of things ... the very existence of meaning presupposes a
creative condition of spirit.
as subjects (complete persons or spirits) do the metaphysics. We discover
knowledge. Answers lie within us, subjectively derived through the
creative process - not "in" or "from" the object of knowledge. I suppose
that this implies what has developed into the so-called postmodern
outlook, in which all meaning is imposed by us on the world around.
concern for creativity through freedom led him to struggle against a
"collectivized and mechanized society", envisioning instead a community in
which religious, social, and political relations would enhance personal
freedom. His antagonism towards a collectivised society derived from his
stand that the individual ego realises its potential in a relationship
with others. When that potentiality is realised, the partly-formed
individual becomes a "person". A society which furthers such development
is a "communality" (sobornost
society's purpose, says Berdyaev, should be founded on the existence and
maintenance of the creatively free individual.