Different Routes: A Russian philosopher who was shot in Siberia found a sympathiser in a Finnish student of Russian language and literature

Liisa Bourgeot found Gustav Shpet, who studied the forms of human experience, inspiring because he asked questions that were sufficiently fundamental. Eleven years after the first encounter, Bourgeot has almost completed her doctoral thesis on Shpet’s philosophy. In an article by journalist Kyösti Niemelä, Bourgeot describes how her connection to this thinker, who died during Stalin’s Great Purge, came about at a cemetery in a Parisian suburb. Our series of long reads called Different Routes takes you from one research topic to another every month.
Illustration: Hans Eiskonen

Text: Kyösti Niemelä
Illustrations: Hans Eiskonen

 

In the spring of 1912, the 33-year-old Russian researcher Gustav Shpet travelled to Göttingen, an old German university city. Shpet had studied mathematics and philosophy, published his first research articles and started teaching philosophy in Moscow. He had been involved in the founding of an institute for psychology research in Moscow and had already gained some renown in his home country. Shpet travelled around Europe to learn about the current trends in philosophy, because ideas and ways of thinking spread slowly at that time.

He arrived at the University of Göttingen to listen to lectures by the famous Edmund Husserl. Husserl, who was in his 60s, was at that time forming a foundation for phenomenology, a new way of creating philosophy that would later become one of the most important trends in 20th-century European philosophy.

Shpet quickly found himself powerfully inspired by phenomenology and began to have personal conversations with Husserl. He immediately began to create his own individual philosophy based on Husserl’s thinking and published many important philosophical texts in a short space of time. Later, Shpet would be called the father of Russian phenomenology.

A little less than 100 years later, in autumn 2009, Liisa Bourgeot, a student of Russian language and literature, heard about Gustav Shpet for the first time. Bourgeot had become interested in phenomenology – had completely fallen for it, as she herself says – a few years earlier and had started attending a seminar on phenomenology alongside her studies.

Professor Vesa Oittinen, one of the few experts in Russian philosophy in Finland, gave a presentation on Shpet. Although the presentation was less than half an hour long, Bourgeot was immediately fascinated by Shpet. Here was a philosopher who wrote in Russian and, what’s more, was a direct student of Husserl, the founding father of phenomenology. Bourgeot began reading Shpet’s work shortly after the lecture and wrote her thesis on his thinking. At the moment, 11 years later, she is completing her doctoral thesis on Shpet’s philosophy under Oittinen’s guidance. This extraordinary doctoral thesis provides groundbreaking perspectives on our understanding of the Russian philosopher.

 

Fumbling along at the start

Bourgeot’s research position literally arrived by post. While still writing her thesis on Shpet, Bourgeot received an email from the Professor of Russian Language and Literature, Tomi Huttunen. He asked if Bourgeot would be interested in taking part in a project he was applying funding for from Kone Foundation. Later, Huttunen received a large grant from the Foundation for a research project on the Russian avant-garde, and since 2013, Bourgeot has mainly worked on her doctoral thesis.

“The early years involved a lot of fumbling. Having made some conclusions in my master’s thesis, I soon found myself overturning them and realised I knew nothing about anything. It took me a long time to get a grip on anything,” Bourgeot says.

In the first few years, she outlined the context of Shpet’s thinking. She read up on history of Russian philosophy, Russian linguistic theory and a diverse variety of other texts, ranging from German Romanticism to Immanuel Kant, in an attempt to understand Shpet’s place in the history of philosophy. In the beginning, there was no way of even knowing how much cultural history, philosophy or linguistic theory her doctoral thesis would include.

Later, Kone Foundation awarded Bourgeot a new personal grant to help her continue her doctoral thesis. In 2014, Bourgeot had her first child and her second in 2017, with parental leave interrupting her work on her doctoral thesis. Her journey to becoming a doctor took longer than expected.

“It wasn’t all bad, because I needed a lot of time to mull things over. By no means, however, was it an ideal process from the university’s point of view.”

Mulling things over suits Bourgeot fine, though, because she says she prefers to retreat to a corner to read and write rather than debate, unlike many philosophers and students of philosophy.

 

A brief introduction to phenomenology

Imagine a desk. I can recall my desk, touch it, see it from near and far, in different lighting and from different angles. I can hate it and miss it. The desk stays the same, only my subjective experience changes.

Edmund Husserl criticised the scientific thinking of his day for being able to describe a desk but not a person’s experience of it. Although science back then had already provided people with a huge amount of information about the world, it was not able to examine the form of human experience well enough or objectively enough. It would take phenomenology to do that.

The starting point for phenomenological philosophy is human consciousness and a person’s experience of something. Phenomenology zooms in on the human mind, on the way desks, people, other beings and things manifest themselves in our consciousness – the way we see them, hear them, imagine them or hate them. By studying human experience, phenomenology sought to discover the deep structures of human consciousness and, in particular, the way consciousness is directed towards the world. Subjectivity did not mean ambiguity: Husserl emphasised the accuracy and scientific qualities of his philosophy.

Bourgeot explains she was attracted to phenomenology precisely because it asks sufficiently fundamental questions about thinking, being and reality.  This, she says, is exactly what she wants from philosophy: to ask the most fundamental questions.

After Husserl, the tradition of phenomenology continued, for example, when Martin Heidegger wrote about the temporality of being and the anticipation of death – being-toward-death, as he called it. Or when Jean-Paul Sartre in his existential philosophy wrote about the fundamental freedom of humans, how we are all “condemned” to be free and, at the same time, responsible for ourselves.

Sartre, Heidegger, Shpet and many others further developed Husserl’s philosophy, each taking it in a direction of their own. Phenomenological philosophy or philosophy that draws from phenomenology and other research are still being conducted around the world, including Finland.

One of the big questions Bourgeot examines in her doctoral thesis is the actual relationship between Shpet and Husserl’s ideas. Which ideas did Shpet get from Husserl? Where do their differences lie?

This subject was discussed in a collection of articles published in English in 2009 which was one of the first books Bourgeot read about Shpet. It reinforced her conviction that the subject was worth studying.

“From the moment I started reading the book, I felt it didn’t explain anywhere near everything, or anywhere near thoroughly enough – that there was a kind of gap between Shpet and the explanations. Maybe there’s a little debater living inside me, because I decided to try and fill that gap – probably just out of stubbornness.”

She now believes she has filled the gap and found an answer to many of the questions reading the collection raised.

Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) is considered the “father” of phenomenology and one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century.

 

Seminars are part of social research

Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture The Thinker has long been seen as a portrayal of what a philosopher does. The Thinker portrays a man resting his chin on his hand, deep in thought. This is exactly what philosophers do, according to popular views: they stare at something with a focused and distant expression and ponder things until there is smoke billowing from their ears.

In reality, writing a doctoral thesis in philosophy is much more social than The Thinker suggests. The majority of a researcher’s time goes into reading books, taking notes and writing in the silence of a library or office. However, it takes a lot more than this. Discussions with colleagues is a necessary part of the research process.

There are two groups whose regular meetings have been very important to Bourgeot: a researcher seminar in her own subject and a phenomenology seminar.

The researcher seminar on Russian literature meets a couple of times a month to discuss the text of one researcher. Bourgeot says that she has received fruitful and accurate comments there specifically on the cultural history of Shpet’s time.

The phenomenology seminar, on the other hand, is a joint event between several universities. The seminar welcomes researchers from any number of fields who have conducted phenomenological research.

“There is a very strong sense of working together there,” Bourgeot explains.

At first, she just listened. It took some time to learn how to follow a conversation about phenomenology and then a little more time to learn how to discuss it. Talking about philosophy requires more accurate language and consequently takes more effort than talking about many other fields of research. Later, Bourgeot gave an introduction to a subject she wrote an article on for her doctoral thesis.

“It was an important moment – to have a proposition of my own.”

In autumn 2019, the seminar leaders, philosophy researchers Fredrik Westerlund and Andreea Smaranda Aldea, took Bourgeot out for coffee and gave her a private lesson on phenomenology. In particular, they helped her understand phenomenological reduction. It is a phenomenological method created by Husserl and further developed by Shpet. It involves trying to break away from our everyday thinking and focusing on the experience itself by closing yourself to the world around you or leaving it aside, as it were.

Bourgeot believes that her having not been initiated into the subject has also had its advantages. It means that she has not had strong preconceptions about phenomenology, which might then have directed her interpretations of Shpet’s thinking too much.

“I have not tried to make Shpet fit into a particular role; instead, I have tried to read him from within.”

The roles of the participants of the phenomenology seminar change over the years: many have joined as students, written a doctoral thesis and then started discussing the subject with their former teachers more as equals and colleagues.

Since Bourgeot’s subject lies in the borderland between the two seminars, she finds herself always occupying a somewhat unfamiliar area in either seminar.

“It has sometimes been hard but also educational and has kept me critical of my own work in a good way.”

 

The history of philosophy is philosophy

Bourgeot is studying the history of philosophy: her doctoral thesis explains what a particular philosopher has actually said, how another philosopher has influenced their view, and what differences there are in their thinking. In addition, the history of philosophy involves analysing the position a philosopher holds in the philosophical tradition and cultural history of their own country.

“Philosophy is an exceptional field of research in that its history is part of philosophy itself,” says Professor Emeritus Vesa Oittinen, one of the supervisors of Bourgeot’s doctoral thesis.

“The history of zoology is not zoology. It does not study animals. But if you study the history of philosophy, that is philosophy,” Oittinen sums up.

Philosophy does not age in the same way as natural sciences do. Today, Aristotle’s ideas on biology or physics are largely seen as historical curiosities, but Aristotle’s ideas on ethics continue to be used at the beginning of introductory courses on ethics at universities around the world.

More than students of any other field, students of philosophy read studies that are hundreds or even thousands of years old. Literary research, for example, may involve reading fiction dating far back in history but not much literary research that is very old.

Oittinen explains that this is due to the reflective nature of philosophy. Philosophy is a very specific field of academic research in that it examines its own foundations.

And the foundations of everything else too.

“Physicists study gravity and radiation. But if a physicist starts to consider how reliable the information they have received is or what it is based on, they move into the field of philosophy.”

Thinking about the foundations is precisely what makes philosophy more timeless than other fields of research. The answers to the question “what is knowledge?” do not age in the same way as the answers to the question “what do we know about planets?”.

 

Russia is a rarity

Liisa Bourgeot’s doctoral thesis is exceptional in that it deals with philosophy written in Russian.

None of the major philosophers of the past wrote their works in Russian. Plenty of widely esteemed music, mathematics and literature have been produced in Russia, but considerably less philosophy. When Finnish universities teach the classics of philosophy from the 19th and 20th centuries, they have mostly been originally written in English, French or German.

“As with many issues related to Russia, this too can be explained by the fact that the modernisation of Russia occurred so late,” says Vesa Oittinen. He points out that universities and science in general did not reach Russia until the 18th century. Oittinen considers Pyotr Chaadayev the first Russian philosopher. He criticised Russian spiritual life in the early 19th century. This was not an auspicious beginning: the Russian government found Chaadayev’s ideas so outrageous that he was declared legally insane. Since then, under Stalin, many philosophers have met even more horrific fates.

Like Chaadayev, Shpet set out to seek philosophical influences abroad. Before Göttingen, he had visited Paris, Edinburgh and elsewhere in Germany.

But even the Russian philosophy that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries is not well known in Finland or elsewhere in the world, according to Oittinen. An important reason for this is the fact that considerably fewer people speak Russian than German or French, and philosophy is primarily studied in the language it was originally written in.

“Philosophical differences in meaning are so subtle and substantial that words have to be very accurately interpreted,” Bourgeot says.

Meanings are easily lost in translations of philosophical literature, even in the best of them.

“I’m not saying you can’t study a philosopher if you don’t speak their language, but it definitely helps.”

Before Bourgeot heard Oittinen’s lecture on Shpet, she herself held some of the traditional prejudices against Russian philosophy.

“Prejudices like this include the idea that Russian philosophy doesn’t exist or that it’s purely religious, or that it’s just Dostoevsky and Tolstoy – who are, of course, great thinkers. To find what I considered a serious academic philosopher was a big deal for me.”

Terrain that has been only marginally studied presents its own difficulties. Although there is a social aspect to research, it can make you feel intellectually isolated.

“In many ways, the subject I’m studying is very new, which has led to some loneliness. There are no courses on Russian philosophy, no research tradition, no research community as such and not very many people I can ask for help or advice.”

Bourgeot says she has been lucky with her supervisors: Vesa Oittinen has plenty of in-depth knowledge about Russian philosophy, and Tomi Huttunen has trusted in her ability, even as a novice researcher, to explore this difficult subject.

“In a situation where the history of Russian philosophy is still barely known, even in Russia, the importance of knowing cultural history becomes even more important.”

 

Visitors’ book recorded the researcher in history

In March 2017, Bourgeot travelled to Moscow to explore folders about Shpet located in the Russian State Library. She wanted to make sure she hadn’t missed anything important written by him. She found nothing that would change her ideas and conceptions, but the journey turned out fruitful anyway.

“In the Russian archives, every visitor’s name is recorded in a small list, and I saw who had visited there before me. It was a bit of a boost to my self-esteem that I recognised all the names and knew what they had written, and it was an exciting thought that my own name would be added to the list.”

Bourgeot says that, in moments of weakness, researchers sometimes think that everyone has commented on their subject before and there can’t possibly be anything to add to it.

“In the archives, I saw what a short list it was and that there was plenty of work still to be done.”

The old papers in the archive did not make her feel as if she was somehow closer to the subject of her study. That feeling came elsewhere, in a rather surprising place.

For Christmas 2019, Bourgeot and her husband and children travelled to Paris and stayed in the suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. There were extensive strikes under way in the city which made it almost impossible to use the metro and buses, so the family spent their entire holiday in Boulogne-Billancourt. They soon discovered that the district had been a hub for Russian emigrants in the 1920s. After the 1917 revolution, a large number of Russian intellectuals and artists moved to Paris to live.

Bourgeot’s spouse, Ian, found out that Shpet’s close friend and discussion partner, the philosopher Lev Shestov was buried in a nearby cemetery. Shestov, who died in 1938, achieved renown in France during his years of emigration and is much better known there than Shpet. And so Bourgeot went looking for Shestov’s grave on the last day of her trip to Paris.

“It was a bright day and there was no one else in the cemetery. I bought a rose at the gate, and after a long search, found the grave. Being able to visit, so to speak, someone who was a close friend to Shpet was a great experience. For the first time, I could feel Shpet’s fate deep in my bones, whereas until then he had felt somehow elusive.”

Shpet himself does not have a grave you can visit, as he was a victim of Stalin’s Great Purge and was shot in Siberia in 1937.

Gustav Shpet (1879–1937) was charged with anti-Soviet activities and deported to Siberia in 1935. He was allowed to continue his academic work in exile, but in October 1937, he was arrested again and executed shortly thereafter.

 

Thoughts built on pieces of paper

Rodin’s The Thinker is lost in thought, but Bourgeot very rarely just sits and thinks when she works. Her most common working methods are reading, writing and taking notes. This is due in part to the fact that the subject of her research is another person’s thinking.

Bourgeot’s notes are not to be found in notebooks or files. She seldom takes notes by computer, but instead jots them down on any piece of paper she has to hand, such as shopping receipts.

“To sort out the matter at hand in my head, I have to write it down on a piece of paper and draw arrows and circles and make lists and underline things.”

This is how she worked also when she made a breakthrough in her research in the summer of 2019. In December of the previous year, Bourgeot had attended a large Slavic conference in Boston, where she had met other researchers in the field, and she was now ready to start the serious business of writing. While once again reading Shpet and Husserl side by side in the National Library of Finland’s Slavonic Library, Bourgeot had a sudden inspiration.

That time, she had texts in front of her from both thinkers – texts she hadn’t read enough times to know them off by heart. Maybe that was the deciding factor. These new texts gave her a new perspective on the true relationship between Shpet and Husserl.

“Since then, I have simply been working on how to demonstrate what I realised and which parts of the texts reveal which issues.”

The text that gave her the crucial stimulus was Shpet’s lesser-known essay Wisdom or Reason? (1917), which Bourgeot read over and over again in summer 2019.

“Shpet’s thinking did not revolve around some small so-called Russian variation on Husserl’s phenomenology after all. It seems that Shpet had a profound understanding of Husserl’s philosophy and commented on its most essential initial settings in his work.”

According to Bourgeot, the key difference between the two philosophers is the fact that Shpet emphasised questions of meaning. When a person’s mind receives certain kinds of sensory observations, they quickly realise that what they are seeing in front of them is, for example, a desk. What interested Shpet was how sensory observations turn into the idea of a desk or a dog in the person’s head – something that has meaning.

In Shpet’s opinion, Husserl had not explained this process well enough and to improve the explanation, he took it upon himself to delve deep into the issue of meaning. In a way, Shpet was ahead of his time, as Husserl and many other phenomenologists did not write extensively about meaning until later.

It is this particular aspect, according to Bourgeot, that makes her doctoral thesis special: in it, she tries to understand Shpet’s motives for modifying Husserl’s theory and the background to Shpet’s conception of Husserl’s theory in a new and more precise way. According to Bourgeot, Shpet’s own phenomenology is closer to Husserl’s than is generally thought. As Shpet’s views on Husserl’s theory become clearer, his writings on culture and art also show up in a new way.

One part of the research is the article Gustav Shpet’s Transcendental Turn, which was published in spring 2020 in the online issue of Studies in East European Thought.

The article describes Shpet’s reflections on the essence and meaning of words. According to Shpet, the way we express reality in language reveals the equivalence between the mind and the objects it observes (such as desks and dogs). In addition, one of Shpet’s key concepts is the “internal form of the word”, which is analysed in the doctoral thesis.

“The term explains what kind of mechanism is used to give meaning to something in a culture. Meaning does not arise out of nowhere; it has a history and a philosophical basis.”

 

Slowly, they start to resemble each other

Bourgeot says she still likes Shpet’s thinking very much, even years after starting to study it.

“Including all its weaknesses!” she adds.

According to Bourgeot, Shpet asked many excellent questions, but his answers are problematic, to say the least.

In general, people study philosophers because they are attracted to their particular way of thinking, but this is not necessary. It is also possible to carry out critical, even very strongly critical, research.

When you focus on the thoughts of one person for more than a decade, it tends to have an effect on your own way of seeing things. Sometimes researchers begin to resemble their research subjects – in a similar way that dog owners are said to resemble their dogs.

Bourgeot says, for example, that she has noticed herself looking for meanings in works of art, like Shpet did. Shpet shied away from many of the avant-garde phenomena and theories of the avant-garde of his time and complained that works of art were often merely ornamental and lacked artistic significance.

In this area, Bourgeot has found herself thinking in words and arguments similar to Shpet’s.

“If a work of art seeks, for example, to take a stand or be intensely abstract, it often seems to be just illustrating a thought or argument, as it were. In Shpet’s terms, it feels like there’s no meaning between the thought and its visual presentation.”

After saying this, Bourgeot looks pensive.

“This is probably a conservative view, and now it has rooted itself in my mind.”

 


 

Liisa Bourgeot

University Researcher, Doctoral Programme in Philosophy, Arts and Society, University of Helsinki. Bourgeot is in the process of completing her doctoral thesis on Gustav Shpet’s philosophy.

 

Vesa Oittinen

Professor Emeritus, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki. Oittinen supervises theses and conducts research into philosophy and intellectual history.

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