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International Studies in Phenomenology and Philosophy

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Faces of anti-positivism in Prague

the Masaryk-Festschrift (1930)

Patrick Flack(sdvig press)

pp. 219-232

Faces of anti-positivism in Prague Flack Patrick; Archiving of XML in sdvig press database Open Commons June 14, 2019, 3:06 pm ( )

Die Veröffentlichung dieser Festschrift erfordert keine besondere Erklärung. Der Mann, der damit gefeiert wird, und sein Lebenswerk stehen in all ihrer Einzigartigkeit und Bedeutsamkeit inmitten der gegenwärtigen Epoche da und rechtfertigen ohne weiteres jede Aeußerung der Anerkennung, der Verehrung und der Sympathie.1
Boris Jakovenko, Vorwort

1In 1930, a Festschrift in honour of Tomáš Masaryk's 80th birthday was published in two supplements attached respectively to Volumes I and II of Der russische Gedanke [Russian Thought], a journal edited in Prague by the Russian émigré philosopher Boris Jakovenko (1884-1949)2. In the first volume of the Festschrift, 18 articles in English, French, German and Italian3 by contributors from Eastern and Western Europe including well-known figures such as Benedetto Croce, Léon Brunschvicg or Pavel Miljukov discuss in broad strokes a number of themes of central importance in Masaryk's thought (epistemology and typology of sciences, Europe and Russia, the philosopher's role in society, etc.). In the second volume, no less than 28 contributions (again in four languages, with a majority in German) stemming for the most part from members of Prague's philosophical milieu address more directly Masaryk's work, its relevance in various fields (ethics, history, philosophy, politics, sociology) as well as its links to a number of classic authors (Kant, Dostoevskij, Tolstoj) and national traditions (Czech philosophy, French positivism, Russian religious thought).

2As Jakovenko puts it in his introductory remarks, the publication of such a Festschrift – honoring as prominent and historically significant a figure as Masaryk – does not in itself « warrant any particular explanation ». Both the thematic scope of the first volume and the discussion of the various aspects of Masaryk's work, activity and personality in the second volume follow a clear, straightforward aim, which is to provide a broad overview and fittingly diverse tribute to Masaryk's mulifaceted legacy. As such, the Festschrift fits neatly in the genre to which it belongs and serves its purpose well. That being said, the long and somewhat disconcerting list of both famous and obscure contributors also raises some questions as to the scope and coherence of the hommage being paid here to Masaryk. For instance, a closer look at the contributors' backgrounds and interests reveals a concatenation of intellectual traditions – ranging from Italian Neo-Idealism, Russian religious thought, Neo-Vitalism, Eurasianism or Neo-Kantianism to the Brentano School and Czech Anti-Positivism – whose connection with Masaryk is not always self-evident. As such, the Festschrift seems to reach beyond its function as a tribute squarely focused on Masaryk : instead (or in addition), it provides a historical panorama of the critical reactions to his thought and thus functions as an expression of the complex intellectual context Masaryk contributed to foster in Prague and beyond.

3It is to this contextual, critical dimension of the Festschrift that we will turn our attention here. Through a few brief comments on the contributions concerned with the themes of epistemology, positivism and the place of philosophy among the sciences, I wish indeed to highlight how the Festschrift effectively provides a fascinating insight into the underlying personal and conceptual networks of the Prague philosophical context – at the crucial moment, in the 1920s, when that context was evolving from its early commitments to positivism and Herbartism towards the internationally successful paradigms of its maturity (Gestalt psychology, phenomenology and, of course, structuralism).

4In order to frame the epistemological discussion about positivism and the role of philosophy that takes place in the Festschrift, it is perhaps useful to start by underlining that the most important unifying link between the different authors partaking in that discussion seems to have been not so much Masaryk and his positions than the editor of both volumes, Jakovenko himself. This is evident above all from the selection of contributors, nearly all of whom were acquaintances or colleagues of Jakovenko (rather than, in most cases, noted Masaryk scholars or disciples). For example, the presence of several Italian philosophers (next to Croce, one finds important representants of the so-called « Milan School », Antonio Aliotta and Piero Martinetti) clearly owes to Jakovenko's close personal ties with and intellectual interest for Italy4. Ivan Lapšin, Sergej Gessen, Nikolaj Losskij or Dmytro Čyževskij were all part of the Russian emigré milieu in Prague, of which Jakovenko was a leading figure. Similarly, many of the Czech or indeed French contributors of Volume II (Daniel Essertier, František Fajfr, Josef Ludvík Fischer, Jan Kozák), wrote for Ruch filosofický [Philosophical Activity5], the most important journal of Czech anti-positivism, which Jakovenko co-edited alongside Ferdinand Pelikán6.

5All this is not to say that Jakovenko's selection of contributors is in any way arbitrary or follows a « programme » unrelated to Masaryk. The inclusion of Russian thinkers, for example, is fully warranted by Masaryk's sustained interest for Russian philosophy and his direct support of the Russian emigrés in Prague (through the famous programme Ruská akce [Russian Action]). Amongst the Italian contributors, Piero Martinetti, for one, was keenly interested in Masaryk's work and later wrote an obituary of the Czechoslovak president7. Further, one can note the willing participation of Vasil Škrach, Masaryk's personal secretary and the editor of the Masarykův sbornik [Masaryk Almanach], a clearly Masaryk-oriented publication from which, morevoer, a number of texts are reprinted in German translation in Volume II of the Festschrift. Also significant is the fact that the Festschrift includes a contribution by Oskar Kraus and that Jakovenko sought (and failed only on practical grounds) to obtain a contribution from Edmund Husserl8: Kraus and Husserl, of course, were representants respectively of the Brentano School and phenomenology – two movements with clear historical connections to Masaryk, much less to Jakovenko.

6Despite Jakovenko's obvious efforts to keep Masaryk and his work firmly at the heart of the Festschrift, it is abundantly clear however that the editor was also interested in providing a plurality of voices on the Czech philosopher, very intentionally casting his work and its relevance in an interdisciplinary, international and transcultural perspective that goes well beyond the immediate scope of Masaryk's interests. In so doing, of course, Jakovenko was being faithful to the spirit of Masaryk and the resulting picture that emerges from Festschrift still fairly represents his thought and its influence. But, at the same time, Jakovenko's editorial choice also accentuates the different impacts of and reactions to Masaryk's work. As such, the discussion carried out in the various contributions of the Festschrift takes on a form that is not so much hagiographical or descriptive as critical and which clearly reflects a context already very idiosyncractic in its diverse answers to Masaryk and his pioneering role both as a Czech and a European thinker.

7This dimension of the Festschrift is discernable for example in the discussions of Masaryk's historiographical account of Russian philosophy, which is met by Lapšin and Jakovenko with some disapproval, in particular because it puts too much emphasis on Russian philosophy's « practical » nature and misses its new, « transcendantal » turn (a turn carried out and epitomised by the « neo-Kantians » Lapšin and Jakovenko themselves). Such critical distance is even more clear in the discussions of Masaryk's positivism and the fundamental methodological and epistemological orientation of his philosophy. Whereas Masaryk himself de facto contributed to introduce positivism in the Czech context, in particular through his early admiration for Auguste Comte and his proposal of a « concrete logic », many of the Festschrift contributors seek to nuance that role and emphasise Masaryk's evolution towards a more elaborate « critical realism ». In fact, one can go a step further and caracterise the Festschrift as offering a very diverse statement of anti-positivist positions.

8The first – and quite revealing – exposition of such a position is offered in Volume I by Antonio Alliota (1881-1964), a prominent Italian philosopher and historian of philosophy. In his article « Dell’esperimento scientifico e di quello metafisico » [On the Scientific and the Metaphysical Experiment], Alliota explores the methodological and epistemological implications of scientific experimentation. Briefly put, his argument is that any given scientific experiment does not simply involve the empirical verification of a discrete hypothesis, theoretical « truth » or particular law (of physics, mathematics, etc.), but implies a controlled « action » and « modification » of reality itself, which leads in its turn to a modification of « the whole system of physical theory, of our entire mathematics, our entire logic. And [..] our entire philosophical conception of the world » (p. 12, my translation). Scientific experimentation, Alliota concludes, is thus always also metaphysical, functioning as an open-ended, explicitly Hegelian process of « Aufhebung », where older theories are superated by the knowledge (and the modified reality) produced by new, successive scientifico-metaphysical experiments.

9More than the argument itself that Alliota outlines in his article, it is its conceptual background that is interesting here. On the one hand, Alliota's position is empirically grounded and originates from experimental science : before turning to philosophy, Alliotagraduated with a thesis in experimental psychology and was a student ofthe Brentanians Felice Tocco and Francesco De Sarlo. Further, many of his writings are dedicated to an interpretation of Einstein's theory of relativity. On the other hand, however, his thinking quickly evolved towards what Alliota himself called his "dynamic pantheism" – a neo-hegelian, spiritualist epistemology most fully outlined in his most famous work, La reazione idealistica contro la scienza (1912) [The Idealist Reaction Against Science (1914)], and of which his Festschrift article also provides a clear expression. Interestingly, Alliota explicitly put forward his approach asan idealist alternative to the dominant positions of Croce and Gentile in Italy. In other words, Alliota appears as a sort of hybrid thinker, who progressively distanciated himself from the naturalist paradigm of the empirical sciences through the combined influence of Brentanian epistemology, a strong reaction against Italian Neo-Idealism, a fascination for the new Einsteinian physics and a turn towards Hegel and neo-Hegelianism.

10The excellent example provided by Alliota's oscillations not only between empirical and idealist paradigms, but between several transcendental answers to the naturalist or positivist approaches of science and philosophy typifies in two significant ways the diversity of the Festschrift as whole9. On the one hand, several other contributions try to trace a constructive path out of positivism (be it from Comte, Spencer or Masaryk) towards a more reflexive or indeed transcendantal and idealist conception of science and philosophy : one can mention in particular Władysław M. Kozłowski, « L'idée de l'homogénéité de la science et les types des sciences » [The Idea of the Homogeneity of Science and the Types of Sciences], Daniel Essertier, « La philosophie de Masaryk n’est-elle qu’ un realisme critique? » [Is Masaryk's Philosophy but a Critical Realism?] and Vasil Škrach « Masaryk et le positivisme français » [Masaryk and French Positivism]). On the other hand, a number of contributions outline clearly transcendantal or critical accounts of science and philosophy, all of which, however, differ strongly in their backgrounds and outlooks. The most interesting of these « critical » contributions are Jakovenko's « Die Philosophie in ihrem Verhältnisse zu den anderen Hauptgebieten der Kultur » [Philosophy and Its Relations with Other Major Domains of Culture], Emanuel Rádl's « Natur und Geschichte » [Nature and History], Oskar Kraus's « Zur Frage nach dem “Sinne der Geschichte” » [On the Question of « The Meaning of History »], and František Fajfr's « Masayrk und die tschechische Philosophie » [Masaryk and Czech Philosophy].

11Amongst the contributions that seek to address the question of positivism directly and which as a result formulate a theoretical position that remains close to the empirical sciences (Aliotta, Kozłowski, Essertier, Škrach), one can distinguish two main strands. Essertier and Škrach – who both write in the volume more specifically focussed on Masaryk – proceed through an immanent interpretation of Masaryk's thought and its evolution (Škrach's interpretation is the more interesting in this respect, as he argues in some detail how Masaryk's initial infatuation for Comte is mediated by the influence of idealist philosophers such as Plato, Leibniz, Kant on the one hand, Brentano and his school on the other). Aliotta and Kozłowski, by contrast, start from their commitement to the natural sciences (experimental psychology for Aliotta, botany and organic chemistry for Kozłowski) to provide their own criticism of positivism. Whereas Aliotta's interests, as we saw, take a clearly neo-Hegelian and metaphysical turn, however, Kozłowski remains much closer (at least in his Festschrift article) to the « epistemological » problem of the typology of sciences. Indeed, in his contribution Kozłowski outlines a re-interpretation of Comte's classification of the sciences, which he modifies by emphasising (against both Comte and Masaryk) that a particular science is not defined only by its object, but also by the intentional attitude of the scientist. Interestingly, to support his addition of intentionality as categorial criteria to Comte's classification, Kozłowski invokes not Brentano but Edmund Husserl and hisLogical Investigations. Kozłowski (1858-1935), that being said, should not be viewed as a phenomenologist. As his uncommon biography proves, his scientific profile eludes such a straightforward categorisation : born in Kiev in a Polish noble family, he was deported to Siberia for his political activism before studying botany in Tartu, then philosophy in Krakow and Lviv ; starting from 1902 he tought and wrote successively in Brussels, Geneva and Warsaw on subjects such as the history of philosophy, sociology and the theory and methodology of science.

12Unsurprisingly, the already very diverse nature of the responses to Masaryk's positivism and their theoretical origin is complicated even further by the contributions that espouse and formulate a clearly anti-positivist stance. Indeed, although Jakovenko, Rádl, Kraus or Fajfr10 all share the diagnostic of an epistemological and methodological failure of positivism, both their own answer and the tradition in which they choose to inscribe it are often wildly at odds. WhereasJakovenko, as a rationalist and « third generation » representant of Russian neo-Kantianism,elects to defend a clearly Rickertian position on the relation of philosophy to other domains of culture such as science, art, and religion, the biologist-philosopher Emanuel Rádl expressly dismisses neo-Kantianismas an effective critical tool of positivism, briefly outlining insteada more pragmatic conception close to Driesch and the « philosophy of life ». Unsurprisingly, Oskar Kraus – a student of Anton Marty and the first editor of Brentano's papers – chooses to broach a distincly Brentanian approach to the question of history and historicity which ostensibly clashes with Aliotta's neo-Hegelian position. As if to confirm this diversity, František Fajfr provides a brief historical overview of the different Czech reactions to Masaryk that confirms the competing importance in Prague of traditions such as Herbartism, the Brentano School, Dilthey, neo-Kantianism, neo-Vitalism, etc.

13None of the contributions in the Festschrift constitute important, programmatic statements of the views held by their authors. They are but short discussions of a specific issue, which provide but a glimpse of the systematic thought of their authors on the more general problems of epistemology or the methodology of science. As such, there is little sense here in discussing in more details the arguments outlined in these respective contributions, much less in attempting a truly comparative or contrastive analysis. Because these varied contributions are collected not in a thematic volume or a manifesto, but in the loose context of a Festschrift and because, what is more, many of them are reprints or translations of earlier versions, there is also only limited interest in seeking to frame or understand them as parts of a direct conversation or conscious, organised debate. Nonetheless, especially considering the fact that many contributors to the Festschrift knew each other very well and collaborated in varying circles, journals and institutions that intersected or followed tangential trajectories in Prague, it is possible to conclude that the Festschrift reflects very well, if not completely exhaustively, the very broad diversity of answers to positivism that circulated in the Prague philosophical milieu. What the Festschrift also shows quite demonstratively, is that these various answers, and the traditions from which they were drawn, were not formulated in ignorance of each other, but intersected, co-existed and collided.

14This last observation is especially interesting given that, to this day, some of the intellectual traditions or movements present in the Festschrift have barely been taken into account in studies of the Prague interwar context11. Such a neglect, however, is regrettable as it is quite clear that through the mediation of figures such as Kraus and Fischer (who later became leading members of the Cercle philosophique de Prague) on the one hand, of Čyževskij and further contributors to Der russische Gedanke, Ruch filosofický or Masarykův sbornik such as Alfred Bem (a close collaborator of Jakobson and the Prague Linguistic Circle) or even Jan Mukařovský on the other hand, the interesecting conceptual, personnal and institutional networks visible in the Festschrift undoubtedly extended to include Prague's major structuralist and phenomenological circles12. In other words, it is fair to state that the complex anti-positivist landscape revealed by the Festschrift should rightly belong to the horizon of future studies on interwar Prague and the emergence there of particular and original strands of structuralist and phenomenological thought.

Publication details

Published in:

de la Fortelle Anastasia, Moret Sébastien (2019). Histoires des linguistiques, histoires des idées / Istorija lingvistiki, istorija idej: Mélanges offerts à Patrick Sériot, OGI, Moskva.

Pages: 219-232

Full citation:

Flack Patrick (2019). Faces of anti-positivism in Prague: the Masaryk-Festschrift (1930), in A. De La Fortelle & S. Moret (eds.), Histoires des linguistiques, histoires des idées / Istorija lingvistiki, istorija idej, Moskva, OGI, pp. 219-232.