The Birth and Death of Literary Theory
Regimes of Relevance in Russia and Beyond
Galin Tihanov




Gustav Shpet’s Reflections on Literature

This chapter takes the discussion of the different regimes of relevance and valorization of literature begun in Chapter 1 into a new territory. I am interested in revealing how a milder version of the traditional regime of relevance, which insisted on the wider social commitment and cultural significance of literature, facilitated during the 1920s an interpretation of literature not through the prism of literary theory—which would have entailed an insistence on the uniqueness of literature grounded in the specific way it uses language (the condition sine qua non for modern literary theory after its inception in the 1910s)—but rather through the less radical screen of aesthetics and philosophy of art. The reader would recall the Introduction to this book, in which I advanced the hypothesis that the gradual emancipation from philosophy was a central condition for the emergence of literary theory around World War I. Gustav Shpet (1879–1937) is very much a thinker who participated in this process, but his place in it remained contradictory and inconclusive: while foreshadowing some important tenets of Structuralism, as we shall see later, his ultimate loyalty tended to be with a philosophical and aesthetic approach to literature and the arts, rather than with a perspective that would have required recognition of their discursive autonomy and specificity. He rejected Russian Formalism (and thus also literary theory at its inception), and the Formalists repaid him in kind; a comparison with Bakhtin, later in this chapter, finds Shpet defending views on literature (especially the novel) that initially he and Bakhtin shared, but from which Bakhtin distanced himself in later years, leaving Shpet as a proudly staunch supporter of what were, by then, past approaches to literature. Neither a Marxist nor a religious thinker (despite some residual presence of these discourses in his writings), neither a Formalist nor a Bakhtinian, Shpet’s life and work must be examined closely if we are to appreciate the fluctuation of positions and the intersection of different ways of understanding literature and its regimes of relevance in the Soviet 1920s.

In Russia, Shpet has by now entered the domestic canon of philosophy as the most significant Russian philosopher to emerge during the interwar period. The principal promoter of Husserlian phenomenology, while at the same time creatively modifying Husserl and departing from him on some essential points, Shpet was also an early advocate of modern hermeneutics. He left behind seminal work spanning psychology, philosophy, aesthetics, literary and theater studies, and the history of Russian thought. Notwithstanding his intellectual significance, Shpet’s contributions are yet to be appropriated in the West, where familiarity with his work hardly goes beyond a relatively narrow circle of Slavists and an even smaller number of committed phenomenologists. This chapter therefore begins by furnishing a “thick” description of Shpet’s involvement with literature, the theater, and the practice of literary translation, embedded in an outline of the main stages of his life and intellectual evolution, along with an account of the principal areas of his work. Once the larger context of his multifaceted intellectual endeavors has been established, the latter part of the chapter assesses the precarious balance between innovation and regression that marks his contribution to the study of literature and theater in the Moscow Linguistic Circle and at the State Academy of Artistic Sciences (GAKhN); I am particularly interested in locating Shpet’s place in a force field shaped by the work of his contemporaries: the Russian Formalists and Mikhail Bakhtin.

Shpet’s Life and Intellectual Career

In the absence of a serious book-length biography, piecing together Shpet’s life and sketching his intellectual trajectory is not an easy task. One can identify four major periods in Shpet’s career. The first one begins in 1903, when Shpet published his first scholarly reviews, and ends with his turn to phenomenology in 1912–13. The second period, Shpet’s most creative and fruitful, runs from 1912–13 to 1923. The third period, marked by Shpet’s close involvement in the work of GAKhN, begins in 1923–24 (Shpet was elected vice-president of GAKhN in 1924) and ends in 1930 with his forced retirement from the Academy. The fourth and final period comprises the years between 1930 and his death in 1937.

Born on 7 April 1879 in Kiev to a Polish mother (who never learned to write in Russian)1 and a Hungarian father who had disappeared before his son’s birth, Shpet finished classical high school in Kiev and then registered in 1898 as a student at Kiev University, initially in the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics (inasmuch as he was classed as an illegitimate child, tsarist legislation prevented him from enrolling at university until he was formally adopted—less than a year before his enrolment—by his mother’s brother). In 1899, Shpet was expelled for participating in Social Democratic activities and exiled to Kherson for some five months.2 His knowledge of Marxism dates from this time (he read Engels, Kautsky, and Plekhanov in Kherson); although a sympathizer in his youth, he rejected it soon afterward, but continued to read Marx into the latter half of the 1910s (along with the writings of anarchists and reformist socialists). On being readmitted to the university in 1901, Shpet enrolled in the Faculty of History and Philology and began to attend the famous psychology seminars of Professor G. I. Chelpanov (later a patron and promoter of Shpet’s career). Shpet followed Chelpanov to Moscow in 1907, becoming a Privat-Dozent and undertaking teaching at Moscow University and in the Higher Women’s Courses. In 1910, he traveled to Germany to expand his knowledge of philosophy and psychology.

This period of Shpet’s life and work is marked by the formative influence of European Enlightenment philosophy. Of particular importance in these early years were Hume and Kant, in whose orbit his thought moved for about ten years after 1903. The first mature works Shpet wrote were on the problem of causality in Hume and Kant, and on Hume’s skepticism and Kant’s response to it. In this early period, Shpet feverishly reviewed and translated works of and on philosophy and psychology.

Shpet’s second, and most creative, period can be said to have commenced with his intermittent stays at Göttingen in 1912–14. It was there, in the autumn of 1912, that he met Husserl, an event of enormous significance for Shpet’s evolution as a thinker. Shpet’s embrace of phenomenology, but also his departure from Husserl in certain key aspects, are documented in his first major work, Iavlenie i smysl (1914; Appearance and Sense). Despite Lev Shestov’s advice that Shpet arrange for a German translation of the book, this was not done; an English translation appeared only in 1991.

On his return from Germany, Shpet worked on the philosophy of history and the methodology of the historical sciences and on a book on hermeneutics, Hermeneutics and Its Problems, published in Russian only in 1989–92, which was an attempt at a synthesis of phenomenology and hermeneutics, moving gradually closer to the latter. At the same time Shpet remained interested in psychology and metaphysics, his essay “Consciousness and Its Owner” appearing in Russian in 1916.

On 1 October 1918, the new regime abolished all academic degrees and titles and replaced them by the single title of professor. Following this decree, 175 privat-dotsenty at Moscow University, including Shpet, received the title of professor.3 The years immediately preceding and following the October Revolution of 1917 represent the peak of Shpet’s creativity, generating the ideas that would inform his later works. The important article “The Subject and Tasks of Ethnic Psychology,” for example, written in 1917–18, later became the nucleus of his Introduction to Ethnic Psychology, while the book on hermeneutics, mentioned above, bore on his later book Vnutrenniaia forma slova (1927; The Inner Form of the Word). It is in this period that Shpet wrote his most significant work on aesthetics and literary theory, “Esteticheskie fragmenty” (Aesthetic Fragments), the three parts of which took less than a month to complete (26 January–19 February 1922). Finally, during this period of his life, he published important articles on theater, the philosophy of art, and the methodology of art history, and offered his own interpretation of the early stages of the evolution of Russian philosophy, as well as seminal studies of two important Russian thinkers, Herzen and Lavrov. His Outline of the Development of Russian Philosophy (1922), of which only part 1 was published, provoked both enthusiasm (Koyré) and skepticism (Florovsky).4

The years 1922–23 saw the end of this extraordinarily fruitful stage in Shpet’s career and ushered in a period that was increasingly marked by diversity under duress. The propitious volatility of the first postrevolutionary decade, still tolerant and conducive to creativity, was about to be supplanted by a climate of ideological control and suppression, the brutality of which could not fail to leave its stamp on Shpet’s later fortunes. Generally skeptical of both Marxism and religious philosophy, the last—and at the same time the most pronounced and most persistent—Westernizer in the history of twentieth-century Russian thought, Shpet cut an ever-lonelier figure in the Soviet context. The Berlin-based émigré newspaper Rul' reported in early September 1922 that Shpet had been arrested in Moscow on the night of 16 August, together with the “entire Berdiaev Circle” (no other source has so far verified this information, nor was Shpet known as an exponent of Berdiaev’s philosophy).5 The closure of the Philosophy Department at Moscow University a year earlier had left him deprived of an institutional base, an academic without students or colleagues. With seemingly endless opportunities in sight, there appeared not to be a single worthwhile aim that could mobilize his energy. Shpet’s attention was now frequently claimed by more projects than he could have reasonably hoped to bring to fruition. The promised sequel to the first part of his Outline of the Development of Russian Philosophy was never completed, nor was the continuation of his Introduction to Ethnic Psychology. Shpet was engaged in theater discussions, in literary disputes, in the work of various professional societies (some of them of a trade-union nature), and in prize juries (in 1926, for example, he was on the jury in a competition for the best translation of Boileau’s Art poétique).6 At the same time he was closely involved with several educational and research institutions, most importantly with the Institute of Scientific Philosophy, where he served as founding director (1921–23), and—over a considerably longer period of time—with the above-mentioned GAKhN.7 But even GAKhN, increasingly isolated and under growing ideological pressure by 1927, was doomed to fall under Party control in 1929. In October 1929, Shpet was discharged from his duties as vice-president of GAKhN; in January 1930, his membership was terminated and he was forced into retirement. His personal library, at the time totaling five thousand volumes, freely accessible to his GAKhN colleagues, was broken up.8 None of this, however, could spare him the humiliation of a Party-led purge, to which he, along with twenty-four other members of GAKhN, was subjected in the summer of 1930. According to the resolution of the Commission for the Purge issued on 16 July 1930, he was banned from scholarly work and was only allowed to undertake translations if “proper ideological guidance is guaranteed.”9

All of this explains why between 1924 and 1929 Shpet was unable to produce much that was of substance and originality. His two important books of the third period, Vvedenie v etnicheskuiu psikhologiiu (1926; Introduction to Ethnic Psychology)10 and Vnutrenniaia forma slova (1927), revisited ideas formulated, as we have seen, in the late 1910s. In fact, after 1927 Shpet appears to have produced no more than an updated version of his short article “Literature” (on which more later) and an unfinished text on the philosophical sources of Chernyshevsky’s dissertation; Shpet abandoned this unfinished text in 1929, the year of his deposition as vice-president of GAKhN.

The final period of Shpet’s life and intellectual career, from his forced retirement from GAKhN in January 1930 until his execution in 1937, was marked by constant insecurity. Although he was actively involved in translation and work for the theater, notably in the preparation of the prestigious eight-volume Academia edition of Shakespeare’s works, his belief in the meaningfulness of philosophy and scholarship had been irreversibly destroyed. He undertook adaptations, editorial work, and internal reviewing; his most significant accomplishment after 1930 was the translation of an imposing body of literature, mainly from the English Romantic and realist canon, as well as philosophical works by Berkeley and Hegel, most importantly the latter’s Phenomenology of Spirit (small portions of which he had translated in his youth as a private exercise in translation).11 Much of this work was done in Yeniseysk and Tomsk in Siberia, where Shpet was exiled following his arrest and trial in 1935, when he was accused of anti-communist bias at GAKhN and of participating in editorial work on the “fascist” German-Russian Dictionary.12 He was rearrested in Tomsk in October 1937 and shot there on 16 November. The precise date of his death remained unknown until 1989.


1. Cf. Mikhail Polivanov, “Ocherk,” 10

2. Shchedrina, “Khronika,” 406.

3. Pavlov, “Filosofiia v Moskovskom universitete,” 102.

4. See Tihanov, “Gustav Shpet in Florovsky’s Mirror.”

5. Cf. the report in Artizov, ed., “Ochistim Rossiiu nadolgo, 589–90. There is, however, confirmation of Shpet’s arrest, for unknown reasons, in early November 1920; he was released on 8 November (Shchedrina, “Khronika,” 426).

6. On Shpet’s membership of the jury, see Shapir’s notes in Iarkho, Metodologiia, 676–77.

7. For a wide-ranging selection of the works of GAKhN’s members and associates on aesthetics, literature, art, music, theatre, and film, see vol. 2 of Plotnikov and Podzemskaia, eds., Iskusstvo kak iazyk. For a shorter selection in English, see the special issue of Experiment: A Journal of Russian Culture 3 (1997), guest-edited by Nicoletta Misler.

8. Cf. Misler, “Citadel,” 30. In the winter of 1922, Harvard University Library considered purchasing Shpet’s collection of Russian philosophical works (some 1,000 volumes); see Archibald Coolidge’s letter to Shpet of 14 February 1922, in Shpet, Filosof v kul'ture, 31–32. According to Nikolai Serebrennikov, Shpet’s library, comprising more than 30,000 volumes, is today at the University of Tbilisi (Serebrennikov, ed., Shpet i Sibir', 88).

9. For an English translation of the resolution, see Bowlt, “RAKhN on Trial,” here p. 305; for a detailed chronology of the purges at GAKhN, see Iakimenko, “Iz istorii.”

10. The year of publication is established in Petritskii, “K tvorcheskoi biografii,” 25.

11. See Iakovich, ed., Doch' filosofa Shpeta, 173.

12. Bol'shoi nemetsko-russkii slovar', vol. 1: A–K, ed. E. A. Meier [Elisabeth Meyer], et al. (Moscow: OGIZ RSFSR, 1934). Meyer and five members of her ten-strong editorial team (including Shpet) were arrested in connection with the dictionary; the second volume never appeared.