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A theory of self and human existence

A review of Initiation and preservation: Modes of cultural philosophy By: Arūnas Sverdiolas. Publisher: Nova Science: Hauppauge, New York, USA, 2015.

March 24, 2016 - Leonidas Donskis - Books and Reviews


A close examination of the emergence of modern Lithuanian philosophy is most useful when studying the intellectual and moral sensibilities of Eastern Europe. At the same time, a study of modern Lithuanian theoretical thought may reveal a number of the hitherto concealed nuances of the multi-cultural and multi-faceted character of modern Lithuania. Contrary to a widely accepted, albeit loosely argued, opinion of many western scholars regarding the Baltic countries, namely that Lithuania came into modern political existence as a homogenous entity that had nothing to do with its multi-ethnic and multi-cultural past, an examination of 20th century Lithuanian philosophy disproves this.

Although the multi-cultural character of Renaissance and Baroque Lithuania underwent considerable change throughout the previous centuries, it could be argued that modern Lithuanian philosophy originated as a universalistic attempt to bridge distant cultures and create a synthesis of the civilisations of East and West. This reflected not only its initial orientation towards Russian philosophy (the similarity between the concept of “a synthesis of civilisations of East and West”, put forward by the Lithuanian philosopher Stasys Šalkauskis, a follower of Vladimir Solovyov,  and that of “Eurasianism” is striking), but also the dynamics of Lithuanian nationalism. Like any other form of Central or East European nationalism, it had its liberal and conservative phases.


In fact, modern Lithuanian philosophy originated as a response to the questions formulated in Russian philosophy, religious, moral and social. Later, it turned to Continental European philosophy, preoccupying itself with German and French existentialism, hermeneutics and phenomenology. During the inter-war period in Lithuania, the philosophy of culture arguably became the principal philosophical discipline. At that time, the philosophy of culture as a discipline sensu stricto was fading away in Western Europe, giving way to the intrusion of the social sciences in the fields of theory of culture and Kulturkritik. Yet it was flourishing in Lithuania, where a Department of the Philosophy of Culture was established at the University of Lithuania in Kaunas (which was renamed Vytautas Magnus University in 1930).

Regrettably, the loss of independent political and intellectual existence that Lithuania experienced for five decades isolated and marginalised the then lively and promising intellectual culture. Despite this, in the early 1980’s, Lithuanian philosophy started recovering and reorienting itself towards western currents of modern theoretical thought. Though Lithuanian philosophy survived into the 21st century, owing to the work of Lithuanian émigré thinkers, the second birth of modern Lithuanian philosophy would have been unthinkable without the gradual emancipation of thought that occurred in Lithuania itself. Interestingly enough, the birth of modern philosophy in inter-war Lithuania was instrumental in the search for modes of public discourse, collective identity and cultural policy, as well as for elaborating the national project as a whole. Even more striking is the fact that the revival of philosophy was instrumental in achieving Lithuania’s independence and freedom in 1990.

Vincas Trumpa, an émigré Lithuanian historian who spent much of his life in the United States, once noted that during the inter-war period, Lithuania transformed its will-to-power into a will-to-culture, and thus transformed itself from a Naturvolk into a Kulturvolk. Trumpa stresses that this might help explain why and how the philosophy of culture, developed by such Lithuanian philosophers as Stasys Šalkauskis and Antanas Maceina, flourished in inter-war Lithuania. In fact, the philosophy of culture in the first half of the 20th century can be considered to be a specifically East/Central European (in particular, a Russian, Romanian, Polish and Lithuanian) phenomenon, for it sprang from “German subculture,” which was related to European culture in the way that a national variant relates to a general cultural model.

However, Trumpa could have added that the principle of culture, and numerous projects for promoting the rise of national culture, was as empirically disconnected from mundane reality in Lithuania as was the 19th century Russian intelligentsia from the common people, or the 18th century German middle-class intelligentsia from the court aristocracy, especially in terms of the sharp dividing line drawn by German philosophers and writers between Kultur, or Bildung, and Zivilisation.

At this point, it goes without saying that the Lithuanian intelligentsia present at the dawn of the emergence of modern Lithuania described the Polish language and culture in the same way that the German intelligentsia described French culture. The similarity of these cases is striking, for the Lithuanian intelligentsia came to regard the Polish-speaking Lithuanian gentry in exactly the same manner as the German intelligentsia had regarded the pro-French German aristocracy. 

Interpretation of self

It seems that Vincas Trumpa must have been right. Culture (or in his terms, the “will-to-culture”) was the principal driving force behind the politics of inter-war Lithuania. However, while Trumpa must be credited for producing many interesting insights, he failed to emphasise that because it was based on religious thinking, the concept of culture wielded by inter-war Lithuanian philosophers could not be effectively applied either to modern, secularised society or to multi-dimensional reality in general. Moreover, according to this concept, culture was understood as pure spirituality, or as the conscious renunciation of social reality, and thus offered no way to process the complex, diverse and multi-faceted nature of human reality.

Notwithstanding some obvious structural isomorphisms and the almost identical structure of their sentiments, inter-war Lithuania’s nationalist movement differed in various ways from its counterparts in Romania, Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries. Although, as a meta-discourse, the Lithuanian nation emerged from the system of dominant ideas and values, intellectual strategies, moral stances, keywords and even frameworks for self-interpretation, the development of the humanities and social sciences in Lithuania at that time hardly compares with what was happening in, for example, Romania.

In short, for a long time, the philosophy of culture was the only theoretical framework for the interpretation of the self, the historical essence of the nation, that nation’s past, present and future and the nation’s cultural achievements. It should come as no surprise that, in addition to the philosophers who developed the Lithuanian version of the philosophy of culture such as Stasys Šalkauskis, Antanas Maceina, Juozas Girnius, Vosylius Sezemanas and Bronius Stočkus, a number of Lithuanian writers, journalists, critics and lay intellectuals also contributed to the philosophy of culture by raising problems and questions related to the vision and project of Lithuanian national culture. Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes, which was enormously popular amongst Lithuanian intellectuals at that time, served as a great theoretical challenge and as a reminder of what kind of issues should be raised to keep Lithuania aware of the most symptomatic tendencies of western civilization. 

It is important to mention the impact that Polish philosophy and intellectual culture had on Lithuania in the 1970s and 1980s, which was especially critical during the five decades of Lithuania’s isolation from Europe and the rest of the world due to the occupation and annexation of Lithuania by the former Soviet Union. Two post-war generations of Lithuanian philosophers and humanists studied the history of philosophy in Władysław Tatarkiewicz’s volumes on the history of philosophy. An erudite scholar and a uniquely qualified historian of ancient, medieval and modern philosophy, Tatarkiewicz was regarded among Lithuanian doctoral students as highly as Frederick C. Copleston, an Oxford Jesuit of immense erudition who established a reputation as one of the most preeminent historians of philosophy.

Poland provided Lithuania with a well-researched and documented philosophical literature, not to mention numerous translations of key texts in classical and modern philosophy. Polish philosophers such as Roman Ingarden or Leszek Kołakowski captivated the minds of a number of young Lithuanian intellectuals. The return of Lithuanian philosophy occurred in the 1980s, a decade that should be regarded as one of the high points in the history of modern Lithuanian thought.

Bridging philosophy

One of the founders and leaders of the new Lithuanian philosophy was, and continues to be, Arūnas Sverdiolas. An interdisciplinary master who is equally at home in phenomenology, hermeneutics, semiotics and various schools of literary theory, Sverdiolas seems to be the only thinker capable of bridging the inter-war and present currents of Lithuanian philosophy. Uniquely attentive to, and respectful of, inter-war Lithuania’s intellectual culture, Sverdiolas took the then heroes of Lithuanian philosophy very seriously, incorporating the issues they addressed into his own inclusive design of thought.

A scholar and a historian of philosophy who was competent in all the major schools of modern thought, Sverdiolas developed his own version of the philosophy of culture, shaping it as a multi-dimensional and interdisciplinary theory of the humanities that engaged in a dialogue with Lithuanian and Western European intellectual traditions. An elusive, albeit intense, dialogue of tradition and modernity remains a notable trait of Sverdiolas’s thought.

His recent major work is the book Initiation and preservation: Modes of cultural philosophy (initially written in Lithuanian in 1996 and then translated into English and published in 2015). This volume is an attempt to construct an explanatory framework for the humanities and an innovative reinterpretation of the classical legacy of western thought. Taking the entire western philosophical tradition as an interpretive framework for key cultural categories, such as initiation and preservation, this book raises pivotal issues in the philosophy of culture.

A master of metaphor and idiom, Sverdiolas makes elegant and deeply meaningful allusions to present politics and culture, thus bridging classical antiquity and modernity, modernism and postmodernism and also western and non-western trajectories of thought and action. The latter is not accidental, as the translation of thought into action is one of the crucial issues addressed in the book.

Culture as a reservoir of meanings and paradigms, as well as a symbolic design for self-interpretation and an in-depth exploration of the world, is treated here in the most inclusive sense. Endurance, initiation, preservation, vanitas, the horizons of this side, polycentric field, the time of myth and history and communities in polycentric field; they all come as hermeneutical and phenomenological keywords in the multi-perspective, complex and sophisticated philosophical fabric of Sverdiolas’ book.

Initiation and preservation was translated from Lithuanian into English by the renowned Lithuanian émigré philosopher Algis Mickunas, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Ohio University, and was published by Nova Publishers of New York. With sound reason, Mickunas writes of Sverdiolas’ book:

“The text, by Arūnas Sverdiolas, is an  articulation of a Philosophy of Culture that is truly ground-breaking in its depth and breadth. The author focuses on the most fundamental prejudgments of western and mid-eastern civilisations, their differences and domains of intersection, ranging from classical Greeks, Biblical tradition and their unfolding up to the present. What should be of interest to a reader and also a scholar is the inclusion of texts from Eastern Europe that reveal the manner in which they confronted the clashing cultural challenges, the collapsing of the “high” culture dominated by Plato and his heirs (even if they did not recognise such an inheritance), and the appearance of issues which could not be resolved by returning to some safe haven of the past. The author does not lend comfort by suggesting some palliative for our disquietude, specifically when one of his basic arguments contends that philosophy, as an effort to discover an independent world apart from culture, is no more viable. Philosophy, as a way of being human, is culture and any philosophy regarding itself as being apart from culture and its history is still another aspect of culture. Yet, according to the author, it is culture that reveals our freedom, despite claims by some philosophers that we are subject to causes. The very difference between culture and the natural world is an indication of such freedom. Even when we speak theologically about predestination, we do so by choice provided by the narratives of our culture.”

Symbolic design

Vytautas Kavolis (1930–1996), another noted Lithuanian émigré sociologist in the US, who was always attentive to his native Lithuania with its politics and culture, once defined civilisation as a symbolic design within which we search for the frames of meaning to be able to explain and interpret ourselves and the world around us. Sverdiolas’s concept of culture stands quite close to that of Kavolis’s in terms of his attempt to derive the ideas and concepts we live by from the Bible, ancient and modern philosophy and literature.

Small wonder then, that he tries to explain such phenomena as madness, fanaticism and idealism as a tragic fixation on dead paradigms. As we can clearly see, if we move from Don Quixote to dictators and tyrants in politics, we have an in-depth explanation of what it means to live not in one’s time but elsewhere in the epoch. Sverdiolas seems to do here academically what Hermann Hesse did fictionally in Bildungsroman, especially in the novel Steppenwolf, whose protagonist Harry Haller lives outside of his time. Yet as Algis Mickunas would have it, to deny one’s culture is an aspect of that same culture. Needless to say, this insight throws new light not only onto romantic loners and historically dislocated conservative intellectuals, but also onto single-minded fanatics and jingoists.

At this point, Mickunas’ interpretation of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote is striking. Cervantes, who deserves honourable mention for his timeless chivalric novel, especially in 2016, which marks 400 years since his passing, is granted exceptional reading and interpretation in Sverdiolas’s passage, which reads as follows:

“We encounter the tragic-comic transformation of this theme in Cervantes’ great novel. The knighthood is in unique writing, the novels of knighthood, a described relic of a past social reality. Yet Don Quixote regards this popular writing seriously and undertakes to revitalize the vanished knighthood…. This is a clear paradoxical relationship between what is known and what one wants to bring to life by action. In this case, culture is a reservoir of paradigms. However, Don Quixote is comical because it is impossible to reanimate dead paradigms. Nonetheless, they are never completely dead and can at times be revived. Outlived paradigms lurk to find their madmen. In what ways the heroic following of exemplary action becomes comical and insane is a separate and broad theme whose analysis could disclose a basic cultural transformation. Meanwhile, the figure of Don Quixote elicits not only laughter. The humour of Cervantes belongs to the Renaissance and reaches philosophical depths; the madman and the comic are funny, but funny precisely because they tell to all anonymous a known and everyone’s recognized but unspoken truth, provoking conscious reprimands.”

In his Lithuanian contributions, Sverdiolas addressed some pressing issues related to the public domain, politics of memory, educational and academic politics and the intellectual life of Lithuania. I believe that this is great news. We can see philosophy at work, in the sense of being political, engaged, ethically committed, challenging, endowed with a moral compass and able to bridge what modernity keeps separating, namely, truth and value, rationality and faith, expertise and intimacy, rational choice and moral commitment, the individual and community, powers of self-fulfilment and powers of association, and politics and culture. Most probably, this is exactly what the philosophy of culture, if properly understood, is all about. In addition, Sverdiolas’s book introduces the reader to an Eastern and Central European sensitivity in terms of Lithuanian, Polish and Russian authors, themes and dilemmas that are deeply embedded in the region’s politics and ideas.

Arūnas Sverdiolas’s Initiation and preservation is an important and profound work in continental thought which should be appreciated by an English-speaking audience. Alongside the praise, a word of criticism is in order: a more thorough editing would have benefitted this otherwise remarkable book.

Leonidas Donskis is a member of the editorial board of New Eastern Europe. He is a philosopher, writer, political theorist, commentator, historian of ideas and a professor of politics at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas Lithuania.


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