THE LIFE OF VOSYLIUS SEZEMANAS
AND HIS CRITICAL REALISM
LORETA ANILIONYTE and ALBINAS LOZURAITIS
The philosophical and pedagogical activity of Vosylius Sezemanas is closely connected with the dramatic cultural and spiritual changes in the life of Lithuania which he significantly influenced. Time does not devalue the significance of his work: on the contrary, it reveals its importance and demands its analysis and creative assimilation.
Philosophy, more than any other branch of knowledge, depends on the personal life and experience of its author. For the real object of philosophy, the end to which it strives, is human life itself together with all its phenomena. Human reality, its historical currents and social conflicts have their own order and specific truth which can be seen only by those whose outlook is not confined to the limits of their personal life and reduced to the consideration of accidental phenomena, those who are sensitive to the essential values of human existence. Philosophy is the awareness of these values and also the inevitable companion of their historical development. Although it never reaches its final end, the work of its great authors reveals the relations and legacy which permit progress towards that end.
Vosylius Sezemanas is a philosopher in a classical, or perhaps even in an ancient sense of the word. The wide scope of his interests, together with the lack of professional and provincial narrow- mindedness, opened Sezemanas to dynamic and contradictory social and cultural influences and encouraged him to incorporate them organically into his own philosophical contemplation. Perhaps the most attractive trait of his creative work is the lucidity and simplicity of his thinking, which strictly, methodically and systematically tries to embrace the whole universe of philosophical problems.
Vosylius Sezemanas was born on May 30, 1884 in Vyborg, Finland, into the family of a physician. His father was a Swede and his mother a German. Soon after his birth the family moved to St. Petersburg. There he spent his childhood and a part of his youth. In 1902 he graduated with a gold medal from the Catherine the Great German secondary school and entered The Military Academy of Medicine, but after a year he left to study philosophy and classic philology in St. Petersburg University. After graduation in 1909 he started his work in the department of classic philology at the university, but soon received a fellowship for studies abroad and left for Germany. During the following two years he studied philosophy, psychology, aesthetics and pedagogy under the guidance of the leading professors of those times, H. Cohen, P. Natorp, F. Cassirer, H. Diels, H. Wolfflin, in the universities of Marburg and Berlin. In 1911 he returned to Russia and taught philosophy, pedagogy, psychology and logic in several St. Petersburg schools.
At the same time he continued his philosophical studies and in 1913 received his masterís degree and was elected a privatdocent of the Department of Philosophy at St. Petersburg University. Soon the First World began and he volunteered to go to the front as a medical orderly. Returning to St. Petersburg he continued teaching. After the February Revolution he worked in the press bureau of the interim Government and from time to time in the Archives of the Revolution. In 1918 Sezemanas moved to Viatka where he taught pedagogy and psychology in the Pedagogical Institute. In 1919 The University of Saratov elected him associate professor of philosophy, and later professor. In 1921 he started teaching in the Leningrad Institute of Art. Soon, as a citizen of Finland, together with his family he reemigrated to Helsinki. In a search for a means of subsistence his family moved to Berlin where Sezemanas earned his living by private lessons, translations and collaboration with Grzebin publishing house.
In 1923 Sezemanas was invited to be a visiting professor at Kaunas University in Lithuania and six years later he became a full professor. The end of his peregrinations and satisfactory living conditions beneficially influenced his philosophical studies, and therefore it is in Kaunas University that he completed building his philosophical outlook and wrote his most profound treatises on epistemology, logic, aesthetics, and the history of philosophy.
As a European thinker, he published works in different European publications. At the same time he integrated into the philosophical and cultural life of Lithuania. He was consistent and profound in every field of his activity and hence learned the Lithuanian language well and did much to elaborate and perfect the philosophical terminology of that language. When Lithuania regained Vilnius he became a professor at Vilnius University and worked there until the Nazis closed the university in 1943. Then he taught German in a Russian secondary school in Vilnius. He returned to the university after the war. But in 1950 he was arrested by Soviet authorities and sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp. After six years he was released and, several years later was allowed to teach logic in the Department of History and Philology at Vilnius University. Combining an intensive teaching load with studies in logic and the history of philosophy, he worked until his death in 1963.
The external events of his life, the frequent changes of places and jobs would not seem to favor contemplative life. However, his works do not reflect these unfavorable conditions: they radiate the peace of wisdom. His external life was a shell which sometimes pressed heavily upon the kernel of his internal life, but never deformed it. As his works suggest for the most part he lived beyond the turmoils of this world. Deep thinking assisted him much to get through the cataclysms of his time, to come back from the Siberian labour camp as composed as before and to be immune to rancor and hatred in accepting life as it is rather than spending it in skeptical slumber.
Even if one lives mostly in oneís own thoughts Siberia does not vanish, but instead of being merciless it becomes merely a rigorous place for spending oneís tragically limited time. Therefore it must be not only spent, but also fulfilled. "Time is Chronos, devouring his own children, a cruel fate, casting people into Hades." Facing its power, man feels helpless; it makes man afraid, "It destroys the value of life and its goods."1 Trying to resist the destructive power of time people create culture as fruit of their struggle against time. Only in creating "objective values" can they surpass the limits of their own historical time. These theoretical conclusions became the practical attitudes of Sezemanas and enabled him to continue his philosophical research within the most unfavorable circumstances and to preserve his philosophical orientation up to the end of his life.
Philosophical work and devotion to thinking was a way of life for Sezemanas. It assisted his survival during times of misfortune. It is difficult to imagine more unfavorable conditions for philosophical studies than those to which he was exposed in the labour camps of Siberia. Nevertheless, even there Sezemanas continued his writing. He wrote on pieces of wrapping paper using a tiny piece of pencil. These things were very scarce and it took a lot of effort to get them. Once the English philosopher F.Bacon mocked dogmatic thinkers, saying that they resemble spiders who make cobwebs out of their own substance. Sezemanas was not a dogmatist, but in Siberia he was in the spiderís situation. He had no books, no intellectual sources except his own mind, memory and the irresistible urge to work on his projects, which could not be postponed. The Manuscript Department of Vilnius University keeps some factual evidence of this work. It is difficult to escape sorrow when looking at these musty pages in some places barely readable, in others not readable at all. They remain the voiceless witnesses of a manís faithfulness to his own vocation.
It is difficult and meaningless to try to guess what shape Sezemanasís philosophy would have taken if his life had been less turbulent and more peaceful. Anyway, it is quite clear that Sezemanas was one of the bright Lithuanian philosophers of his time. In 1928 the well known Russian philosopher and psychologist S. Frank wrote in a letter to the rector of Kaunas University that Sezemanas is one of the most talented and educated philosophers of our time and adds: "There are no doubts that if V. Sezemanasís academic activity happened in Germany, he would have become very famous long ago and would have a sinecure in some prestigious university. His great modesty and extreme intellectual conscience make him postpone publication of his works for a long time which prevents many thinkers from realizing all his scientific significance."2 This characteristic is confirmed by other famous contemporaries of Sezemanas: N. Hartmann, N. Lossky and V. Uirumsky.
Sezemanas was destined to spend the greatest part of his life in Lithuania and quickly became close to Lithuanian culture and took a keen interest in its development. His wife Vilma narrates that "being a native of Kaunas, I realized the beauty of nature that surrounds the city, the splendor of its Gothic building and the mystery of M.K. Ciurlionisís paintings thanks to the influence of my husband alone. I learned to look at many things through his eyes. And he came here as a foreigner."3
For some time at the beginning the problems raised, elaborated and solved by Sezemanas were on the periphery of the philosophical culture of Lithuania. Fighting for its survival, the Lithuanian state could not have a mature original philosophy which would correspond to the contemporary level of European philosophy. The Catholic tradition, on which existing Lithuanian philosophy was established, was antiquated and conservative. Sezemanas had no equal partner for philosophical dialogue in Lithuania. The majority of his colleagues and friends lived abroad and he conducted an intensive correspondence with them.
Everyone, who knew Sezemanas, remembers that he never complained of his fate. Connecting his own life with Lithuania, he excluded himself for the time being from the content of modem Western European philosophy, whereas his works belonged organically to that tradition. But true philosophy overcomes time. It was in Lithuania that Sezemanas as a personality and a thinker was discovered and became an authority to those who looked for spiritual support in philosophy. Many older Lithuanian intellectuals were proud of the fact that Sezemanas was their teacher, while the young philosophers of Soviet times frequently started to study Western Philosophy, a subject deliberately neglected by the communist authorities because of ideological considerations, under the influence of his work. The rediscovery of Sezemanasís philosophy proceeded gradually, along with the rescue from oblivion of his works one by one. Many Lithuanians interested in philosophy participated in the process, which resulted in what the author of Sezemanasís biography, J. Tumelis, called "Sezemaniana". The translation and publication of the greater part of his work is not only a tribute to the great philosopher who lived in Lithuania, but also a sign of respect for our own tradition of philosophy, with which Sezemanas intentionally connected his life and creative work.
Sezemanas based his philosophy upon classical German philosophy. At the beginning of the century Germans still held the title of the most philosophically minded nation, but this was not so much because of the merits of the time, but because of the glory of the past. The attempts of the Marburg Kantians to purge Kantís epistemology of ontological residue came to nothing. During his years of study in Germany Sezemanas accepted the ideas of the neo-Kantians in some measure, but soon realized and demonstrated in his research that they seemed new only when, as a sequel to the old epistemology, they were not free from its principal defects.
At that time the emerging phenomenology influenced Sezemanas much more. He appreciated its attempts to reach the limit of the ultimate identity of knowledge and being, to reveal the material content of apriorism and so to overcome formalism. He accepted it as a reliable method for formulating philosophical problems. But even at this point he was reserved: in his view, phenomenology is not sufficiently consistent, so that the idealism which it criticizes, remains in it. The understanding and explanation of the subject more than its phenomenological description, was characteristic of Sezemanasís mentality.
The philosophy which looks for new ways of inquiry is alive and the philosopher who participates in this process is creative. But new ideas deserve to be called philosophical only when they touch upon the essential orientations of philosophy. Better than anyone else, Sezemanas knew how to think by means of philosophical principles and how to discern new philosophical ideas. Seeing traditionalism and the stagnation of modern currents of philosophy, he looked for principles which could open new horizons for the whole of philosophy. These principles must be found in the critique of modern epistemology, the "philosophia prima" of our times. Sezemanas begins with inquiry into epistemological problems.
The focus of his critique was that traditional epistemology, while consistently developing its own principles, turned idealistic. Sezemanas called his own epistemological attitude a critical realism. The critical aspect of realism consists in its dissatisfaction with the knowledge of the reality of the world given by common sense and experience, and attempts to reflect upon this knowledge in order to substantiate it. This means exposing the errors of traditional epistemology.
Sezemanasís voluminous inquiries into epistemological problems were oriented in two different directions, which presupposed two different aspects of critique. First of all, epistemology was mistaken in isolating cognition from other relations between man and reality. As part of the world, one not only knows the surrounding world, but also lives within and by the world. In treating the problem of cognition as totally independent, idealism presupposes that the object of cognition is immanent to the human consciousness and in this way eliminates the problem itself. Thus idealistic epistemology robs cognition of its meaning and arrives at self contradiction.
Nevertheless, in this critique Sezemanas himself is not secure. For this critique is valid only within the limits of the practical, biological relations between subject and object, where the phantasms of consciousness are dependent on and subordinated to the needs of the organism. So the critique can work in explanation of only the early phases of the genesis of cognition. This direct dependence on the practical needs of life becomes weaker and weaker and finally ceases to exist on the highest level of cognition, that is, on the level of scientific theory. Scientific thinking not only does not depend upon the biological activity of an organism, but also achieves independent interest. Theoretical cognition, as well as aesthetic awareness, is fully realized and reaches its end with the mindís ascension to the summit of contemplation, the essential sign of which is disinterestedness.
To protect himself from unintended results Sezemanas changes the direction of his inquiry. If cognition is able to pursue ends which are practically insignificant, epistemology is obliged to pay attention to the sources of cognition. Traditional epistemology was blinded by its fascination with the victories of the natural science. That is why philosophical rationalism sometimes secretly, sometimes openly, befriended its own enemy, naturalism. As a result, epistemology takes for granted that everything which is given for cognition must be given to the subject exclusively as an object, that is, as an independent being foreign to the subject, which exists before cognition starts. This is correct of the natural sciences: natural phenomena exist beyond the subject and in studying them the subject diminishes the distance between them and himself. Accepting the natural sciences as a paradigm, epistemology assumes that all the differences in cognition spring from the differences in the cognition of the object and that the structure of knowledge corresponds to the classification of sciences, which rests upon a single principle. In this case the subject itself becomes exclusively receptive and void, that is, it does not have its own structure.
Sezemanas thinks that this kind of presentation to the consciousness of the cognitive object is to be regarded neither as the most important, nor the only possible one. The structure of cognition is more complicated and multidimensional. The presence of knowledge about the objects, which are not the external things, indicates this. The subject-object opposition does not exist in this knowledge. The starting point of this cognition is the participation of the subject in the object, a sort of identity of the subject and the object. The cognitional process is oriented in a diametrically different direction, compared to that which it follows during the cognition of external things. Here the subject produces the object by means of alienation of some internal content of his own, as if he splits in two parts and regards one of them as the object. This kind of cognition was discovered for the first time in psychology, which rebelled against the one-sidedness of the thinking characteristic to the natural sciences. Cognition of psychic life has to be based not upon psychic phenomena, but upon a different and sometimes even contrary thing ó psychic experience. The latter is not given to the observer as an external thing, otherwise the nature of psychic phenomena would be unknowable, which is the cause of the failure of naturalistic psychology. Only structuralistic psychology is able to discern the essence of psychic phenomena, for it can explain how understanding as a specific method of cognition of psychic reality arises from psychic experience.
This kind of cognition ó the objectless cognition ó and its method of understanding is characteristic of the whole realm of social sciences, history and culture that is called human spirituality, ideal essences and values. Here everything depends on the subject and does not exist independently of the subject. On the other hand, objectless knowledge has no sense. Therefore this kind of knowledge lacks not an object, but an external object, for there is no subject-object opposition here: cognition is directed to the subject itself, in fact it is a self-cognition. The assumption that a naturalistic kind of cognition is universal brought traditional epistemology to the wrong conclusion, that in cognition the subject remains passive. It is possible to restore the legitimate status of the subjectís activity ó his will, intentions and desires in epistemology ó only by means of the rejection of the above mentioned assumption.
The term objectless cognition seems illogical, for it is easy to discern the contradictio in adjecto in it. Nevertheless, it has its own meaning and significance within the limits of Sezemanasís philosophical theory, and some important methodological conclusions follow. Probably the most important of them is this: the subject is the most important thing for the analysis of the problem of cognition. Moreover, the subject itself becomes internally problematic, it loses its own identity, acquires extension, dimensions, layers with relations and tension between them; that is, the subject acquires an intricate internal structure. Otherwise, if the subject were absolutely identical with itself, did not have its own structure, cognition would be impossible. Again, the presence of this structure alone enables us to move within it in order to analyze cognition.
The inherent structure of the subject (self, person) serves as a basis for the variety of cognitional attitudes, the issues of the intentionality and the active nature of consciousness. The multi-dimensionality of these attitudes correlates with that of being present in the object. That is why they embrace not only material things, but also historical and cultural phenomena.
Because of this personal socio-historical horizon the structure is complex and has many different aspects. Therefore it cannot be dogmatically fixed, but rather is a general regulative principle of the cognition of human existence, the application of which, in the specific fields of practice, is a separate question. The general content of this principle is that the source of cognition of human existence, that is, the source of objectless cognition, is the central kernel of the subject (person), where existence coincides with consciousness. But for this reason consciousness is indistinct and unclear; it has to be pushed from the centre of the person into the peripheral layers and become relatively independent. That is, it must become an object in order that the primeval apprehension of its being be developed into theoretical knowledge. In the cognition of nature the process is diametrically different: first, the object of cognition appears on the periphery of the self, then through the logical process it approaches the centre. Since in both cases cognition reaches its own completed form, that is, becomes a scientific theory within the same layer of the person, it causes an illusion that the nature of cognition is simple and hides from the eyes of inquirers the essential differences in the sources and ways of cognition.
The idea of personal structure would not be very fruitful if its field was of the same quality and changed only quantitatively in degrees of clarity and brightness. That human centre, which consists of common day-to-day concerns and interests, is neither a pinnacle of brightness and clearness of consciousness, nor the highest value of the person. The I or centre consists of manís psycho-physiological individuality together with its inseparable environment. This is the actual sphere of human life, in which his practical concerns are concentrated and where the principle of practical expediency holds sway. Here the consciousness is not free but serves as a mere instrument for the satisfaction of various practical needs. This sphere of actuality is surrounded by another sphere, the sphere of neutrality. The latter forms a kind of background for the first. Here practical interests are less significant, consciousness is independent of practical ends, and comes closer to itself. At this point Sezemanas meets the great paradox of theory and practice: placing the first stimulus for the activity of human consciousness in practical life, at the same time he has to acknowledge that this genetic relation hinders and limits consciousness, that only by getting rid of it can thinking obtain its freedom as an indispensable condition and the essence of its spontaneous activity. Only in the neutral personal sphere, where the attitude of disinterestedness appears and ascends to the heights of contemplation, can thinking find such a condition.
Because personal profundity first of all is based upon spontaneous activity, the importance of the neutral sphere becomes clear. However flexible and mobile is the border between the actual and the neutral sphere, they are nevertheless different and even opposed to each other. Therefore the person has not only to develop himself into the neutral sphere of his existence, but also to overcome the danger of splitting his personality in the process. The ability to do this is another criterion for evaluating personality. The realm of manís speculative contemplation will not lose its relations with practical life only if the first will manage to subordinate the latter at least by some measure, that is, to suppress the sphere of actuality and extend itself into it. For the higher forms of human activity, real humanism and specific human nature spring mainly from this.
OTHER DIMENSIONS AND
THE NATURE OF PHILOSOPHY
It seems that Sezemanas begins his philosophical theory from epistemology. But the study of cognitional problems gradually leads his thought beyond the limits of epistemology. He comes to the conclusion that the main drawback of traditional epistemology rests in its self-isolation. It will be able to answer its own questions only when it asks them correctly, but this will be possible only if it gets rid of its self-isolation and extends its own limits. Sezemanasís theory and methodology of cognition without subject, and his teaching on the structure of personality indicate the main direction for philosophy. Sezemanas thinks that epistemology is not the proper basis of philosophy, for the success of the former depends on the results of philosophical anthropology. It is possible to say that the human person is in the centre of Sezemanasís philosophy. He understands man as a complex structure consisting of various spiritual aspects of history and culture, but not as some abstract essence. Hence he is very interested in verification of the methods of cultural studies in general as well as of its various branches.
With this end in mind Sezemanas inquires into the different realms of culture. The scope of his interests is very wide. But he made the most noticeable contribution in aesthetics. His work Aesthetics,4 written in Lithuanian, is the application of the general principles of his philosophy to a unique analysis of aesthetic phenomena. There are no doubts that this work meets the highest demands of a work of such a kind.
It is important to notice that his standards of teaching were as high as the standards of his writings. He used to prepare his lectures so carefully and scrupulously that they frequently resulted in solid philosophical studies. In this way his works on freedom, suffering and the bourgeoisie came into being. His work on the history of philosophy deserves to be mentioned separately. He saw every philosophical problem against the background of the history of philosophy. He never regarded the philosophy of the past as an ossified fact or looked at the problems of modernity as if they are new. His wide cultural outlook and profound philosophical education enabled him to discern various surprising aspects of any problem. Seeing the multi-dimensionality of a problem, he never closed the perspectives on future inquiry.
Sezemanas was familiar with the historical development of philosophy and its nature so that its methods of cognition were no secret to him. Although he applied the general principles of his philosophy in the analysis of the problems of the historical development of philosophy, his historical works are not a mere illustration of these principles. He devoted most of his attention to two subjects, namely, to ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and to modern German philosophy. In addition to being a philosopher, Sezemanas was a philologist. Knowledge of ancient Greek enabled him to undertake profound studies and an assessment of ancient Greek philosophy. His works about Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus are full of original ideas and shed new light on their philosophy. As a rule Sezemanas discusses even the problems of modern philosophy in connection with antiquity and this enables him to discover the meaning of the changes in philosophy. His knowledge of modem philosophy was no less profound. He was especially well acquainted with the schools of modern German philosophy, the controversial development of which he eagerly observed and critically studied.
Sezemanas sees the meaning of historical studies not so much in the delivery of the facts of philosophy or in the retelling of the ideas of the great philosophers as in the insight into the self- consciousness of culture. That is why the history of philosophy has to reveal the relations of the past, present and future in the development of culture. Philosophy is not the history of cognition alone, but of profound changes in human life.
Philosophy has continually to interpret the meaning of various historical facts, This is not hidden in the facts themselves; the process of discerning it is dramatic and takes great effort. As a rule, only the great thinkers manage to achieve theoretical forms of expression. This is not to say that they create these meanings, in fact they only reveal and express them. These meanings and values are present either in the consciousness of a concrete person, or of a separate social group, or of a whole nation. The method of their cognition is called an understanding.
Facts are always various, different and separated; there is no spontaneous unity among them. They are unfixed in meanings and values, but historical changes in meanings and value are by no means gradual. The history of humanity consists of qualitatively different periods of spiritual culture. Therefore a new period cannot be explained by the previous one in spite of the fact that the first was born and grew up within the latter. As a rule new meanings come into being quite unexpectedly. Their appearance makes historical facts speak with additional and more profound significance in comparison with the previous one.
Such an interpretation of the history of philosophy breaks off relations with evolutionism. The speculative development of the present from the past, as well as of the future from the present, is impossible. Real history never corresponds with the intellectual logical forms by which its cognition is shaped. Real history never fits into the wisest prognosis, but always puts every prognosis to shame.
Sezemanas, therefore, thinks that communication between the present and the past could more easily be established in the contrary direction: the re-examination and re-evaluation of the present not only gives a new meaning to contemporary events but also sheds a stronger light on the past and reveals things which earlier were unseen. In this way the different cultural periods of the past receive a better explanation. From this it appears that their contents have some teleological meaning.
This understanding of history enables Sezemanas to examine crisis as a periodic phenomenon of culture. Culture comes to a crisis when the old scale of values falls short in its explanation and estimation of new events and facts, people lose the orientation and meaning of life, and the world becomes a strange, frightening and dangerous place to live. This situation of disorientation and despair can be overcome only by means of the discovery of new meaning, for in this way the dependence of historical events upon the activity of people can be restored.
In this understanding of the history of philosophy the future is open: it cannot be anticipated or defined. The main thing rests not in the impossibility to know clearly about the period to come, but in the fact that the values of the present enable men to act, while at the same time their actions are building the future. It does not matter that the future will appear differently than desired as long as the historical process is not hindered. When it is, crisis begins, which finally results in the discovery of methods to get over it.
Sezemanas sums up his conception of past, present, and future connections when in speaking about the crisis of modern European culture he also sees its vital forces:
It has to find a new explanation of the present, which not only explains it from the point of view of the past, but also would justify it in the sight of the future. Through the vortex of events it must discern new values and meanings which were not seen before. However, such an explanation as an act of cultural creativity cannot limit itself to the present alone, it casts its own light upon the past and reveals its new dimensions which bring it closer to the forces of the present. It is impossible to explain the present without an explanation of the past. In this way cultural creativity preserves the living connection between the past and future and through the present ó the connection with the future.
Lithuanian Institute of Philosophy and Sociology
1. See the book, pp. 567-568.
2. The Manuscript Department of Vilnius University Library.
3. "Laiskai is toli", Moteris, 1986. Nr. 6. p. 15.
4. V. Sezemanas. Estetika (Vilnius: Mintis, 1970), 463 p.
5. See the book, p. 141.