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The Riddle of the Self revisited

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This paper pays tribute to Felix Trofimovich Mikhajlov (1930–2006), on the occasion of the publication of the third edition of his well-known book, Zagadka čelovečeskogo ja (The Riddle of the Self). Zagadka is a fine expression of the critical humanism that characterized some of the best Russian writing in the Marxist tradition. Moreover, the book provides an ingenious introduction to the philosophical framework of what in the West is called “cultural-historical activity theory.” The first part of the paper is a personal reminiscence about Felix, his remarkable gifts, and the friendship we enjoyed for more than 25 years. The second part returns to the themes of Zagadka and considers what resonance they have for us today, nearly half a century after its first publication.

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  1. 1.

    Part I is based on Bakhurst 2006, and on my Preface to Mikhajlov 2010. An earlier version of Part II was presented at a keynote panel at the 2008 ISCAR conference in San Diego. A Russian version of the paper appeared in Voprosy filosofii, 2010, no. 8.

  2. 2.

    This was the artist Roxanne Permar, who was in Moscow researching Eisenštein. At that time, I would not have been granted a visa to travel to Moscow to do independent research, so I had joined a month-long language class organized by Progressive Tours of London. Permar was one of the group leaders. The other was Eugene Lampert, Professor of Russian at Keele, who is about to enter the story.

  3. 3.

    The principal participants were Mikhajlov, Bibler, Davydov and Lektorskij.

  4. 4.

    These included the following. In 1989 or 1990, when I was an assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego, Felix visited the university with a delegation concerned with the education of the blind-deaf (Alexander Suvorov was also part of the group). In 1991, shortly after I had left San Diego for Queen’s University, I invited Felix to Kingston where he gave an extraordinarily impressive colloquium to a large audience at the Queen’s Philosophy Department. The talk he gave became the basis of “The Soviet Self: A Personal Reminiscence” (Mikhajlov 1995), his contribution to The Social Self, a collection of essays I edited with Christine Sypnowich. A couple of years later we met up in Rochester, New York, which afforded a memorable side-trip to Niagara Falls. And in 1995, while I was on sabbatical in Oxford, Felix was part of a summer school organized by Eureka University that happily took place in Enfield, the town of my birth, making possible an afternoon with Felix and Ljuda at my parents’ home in North London.

  5. 5.

    See Il’enkov 1974, 183; Il’enkov 2009, 22, and Arsen’ev et al. 1966, 265. I discuss personalism at length in Bakhurst 2008. It is also a theme in Bakhurst (forthcoming, 2011).

  6. 6.

    This is an important theme in Moran 2001, a book Felix would have admired.


  1. Arsen’ev, A. S., Il’enkov, E.V., & Davydov, V.V. (1966). Mašina i čelovek, kibernetika i filosofija. In Leninskaja teorija otraženija i sovremennaja nauka. Moscow: Politizdat.

  2. Bakhurst, D. (1982). Action, epistemology and The Riddle of the Self. Studies in Soviet Thought, 24, 184–209.

  3. Bakhurst, D. (1995). Social Being and the human essence: An unresolved issue in Soviet philosophy. Studies in East European Thought, 47, 3–60.

  4. Bakhurst, D. (2006). Felix Mikhajlov (1930–2006): A personal reminiscence. ISCAR News, 4.2, 6–7.

  5. Bakhurst, D. (2008). Minds, brains, and education. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 42.3–4, 415–432, reprinted in R. Cigman & A. Davis (Eds.) (2009). New philosophies of learning (pp. 57–74). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

  6. Bakhurst, D. (2011). The formation of reason. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell (forthcoming).

  7. Il’enkov, E. V. (1974). Dialektičeskaja logika. Moscow: Politizdat.

  8. Il’enkov, E. V. (2009). Dialektika ideal’nogo. Logos, 65.1, 22.

  9. Mikhajlov, F. T. (1964). Zagadka čelovečeskogo ja (2nd edn., revised and expanded, 1976). Moscow: Politizdat.

  10. Mikhajlov, F. T. (1980). The Riddle of the Self, trans. R. Daglish. Moscow: Progress.

  11. Mikhajlov, F. T. (1995). The Soviet self: A personal reminiscence. In D. Bakhurst & C. Sypnowich (Eds.), The social self (pp. 67–83). London: Sage.

  12. Mikhajlov, F. T. (2010). Zagadka čelovečeskogo ja (3rd edn.), with a preface by David Bakhurst. Moscow: Ritm.

  13. Moran, R. (2001). Authority and estrangement: An essay on self-knowledge. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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Correspondence to David Bakhurst.

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Bakhurst, D. The Riddle of the Self revisited. Stud East Eur Thought 63, 63–73 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11212-010-9130-y

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  • Activity
  • Consciousness
  • Creativity
  • The ideal
  • Intersubjectivity
  • Knowledge
  • Mind
  • Normativity
  • Personalism
  • Reason
  • Self
  • Soviet philosophical culture