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Ivan A. Ilyin: Russia’s “Non-Hegelian” Hegelian

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This chapter discusses two of Ilyin’s major philosophical works (the only two available in English translation): The Philosophy of Hegel as a Doctrine of the Concreteness of God and Humanity (1918) and The Essence of Legal Consciousness (1956). Both are placed against the background of defining events in the often-difficult circumstances of Ilyin’s life. Ilyin provided a substantial exposition, interpretation, and critique of the whole of Hegel’s philosophy. While many elements of that exposition and interpretation deserve commendation, his critique fails in fundamental respects. Ilyin was formally educated in the Faculty of Law of Moscow University (between 1901 and 1910), with special concentration on the history of philosophy and philosophy of law. The writing of his major work on legal philosophy stretched over much of his adult life, and was published only after his death. It focused on the concept of pravosoznanie (Rechtsbewusstsein in the nineteenth-century German original), loosely translatable as “legal consciousness.” The work is a passionate defense of the necessity for the rule of law in any genuine state, and a detailed account of the likely consequences in practice of any corruption of that ideal—with historical examples drawn mainly from his own lifetime.

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  1. 1.

    Some aspects of that “combativeness” are discussed in Grier (1994).

  2. 2.

    That volume (sometimes published in two tomes), Nashi Zadachi, has not been translated into English. However, the flavor of one of the most quoted ones can be grasped from some excerpts translated in the early 1990s in an article of mine (Grier 1994).

  3. 3.

    Between the years 1918 and 1922 he was arrested six times by the Cheka on suspicion of counter-revolutionary activities, repeatedly held and interrogated in the cellar of the Lubianka, and, finally, following the sixth arrest, sentenced to permanent exile abroad on pain of execution should he ever return. The records of all six interrogations were recovered from the KGB archives by Yuri T. Lisitsa, and showed that Ilyin refused to misrepresent himself even under these circumstances. These documents and all associated official orders and records were published in 1999 in the Appendix to a supplementary volume to the Collected Works in Russian (Ilyin 1999, 373–438). Later, during the 1930s in Nazi Germany, he was also regularly interrogated by the Gestapo, who regarded him with suspicion following his refusal in 1934 to accede to their demands for his cooperation with their anti-Semitic and anti-Russian propaganda campaigns. Ominously, the Gestapo eventually placed his name on a list of aliens who were not to be granted exit visas from Nazi Germany.

  4. 4.

    This hope, first articulated in a letter from Germany in 1911 during his period of study abroad, was to be at least partially realized, though not until 1946 (see Iljin 1946), and in a world he could not have imagined in 1911, while he lived out a personal fate he also could not have imagined as a young man. Several of his fellow émigré friends had urged him repeatedly over the years to produce a German translation of his Hegel commentary. They feared that his great work, published in a very small printing in Russia on the eve of the Civil War, would otherwise be entirely forgotten. Finally, during World War II, he produced a translation of all of volume one, supplemented by the two concluding chapters (only) from volume two, omitting eight chapters from the latter. He explained that he lacked the time and strength to translate the remainder. This single volume was published in Switzerland in 1946 under a new title: Die Philosophie Hegels als Kontemplative Gotteslehre (A. Francke AG: Bern) by Professor Dr. Iwan Iljin, “früher an der Universität Moskau.”

  5. 5.

    There are not a few individual pages with upwards of 50 to 100 such citations.

  6. 6.

    Both volumes are available in English translation: Il’in (2010, 2011). Both volumes have recently been issued in paperback. Volume One contains an extensive “Translator’s Introduction” (73 pp.), and Volume Two contains a somewhat shorter one as well.

  7. 7.

    A discussion of these issues can be found in Grier (1990, 59–84).

  8. 8.

    However, Ilyin decisively rejected Hegel’s view on divine impassibility at the end of his commentary, giving no real argument for his own position. He seemed rather to view the impassibility of the divine as a self-evident truth, implying perhaps that Hegel’s view could not be taken seriously by any believing Christian.

  9. 9.

    See Williams (2012, 2017).

  10. 10.

    See, for example, Kenley Dove (1971, 35), William Maker (1994, 99–100), Stephen Houlgate (2006, 32–35), Richard Dien Winfield (2012, 18).

  11. 11.

    Ilyin’s own life between 1918 and 1922 was anything but peaceful. He was arrested by the Cheka a total of six times, and at certain points was forced into hiding to avoid further arrests. On two of these occasions the Cheka was apparently moving to execute him. In an utterly improbable sequence of events, his life was spared twice by the intervention of Vladimir Lenin, who was incidentally known among other Bolshevik leaders to be quite interested in Hegel. The first intervention occurred at the request of an older mutual acquaintance of Ilyin and Lenin, Aleksei I. Yakovlev, who cited the fact that Ilyin had authored the commentary on Hegel as one of the reasonsLenin should take an interest in the matter. During the second episode, Lenin was given a copy of the work itself, and afterward proceeded to read it, concluding that although the author was “not one of us,” “his were good books, all the same.” In the event, however, upon being informed that the Cheka had arrested Ilyin again, he was reported to have picked up the telephone and angrily ordered the head of the prison, Agranov, to release him immediately and leave him in peace. In his memoirs Ilyin later related an encounter he had had with one of his jailers, who had referred to him as a “Hegelian.” Ilyin, who always insisted that he was not a Hegelian, replied that that was a misunderstanding: he had never been a Hegelian, and moreover, Marx had nothing in common with Hegel. The jailer apparently replied, “Shut up and don’t object! When we have disappeared, then you can announce that you are not a Hegelian; but until then, that’s your protection.” At some point there was also said to have been a notation in the Cheka files that he was a “Hegelian”—meaning that he had to be dealt with very carefully. See the account in Tomsinov (2012, 76–94, esp. 88–89).

  12. 12.

    The following critique is developed at greater length and more detail in Grier (2020).

  13. 13.

    See Hegel’s Science of Logic, Volume Two, “Subjective Logic,” Chapter 1 of Section One: “The Concept.”

  14. 14.

    One could argue that with his talk of a tacit “bifurcation” in the argument of Hegel’sLogic, Ilyin was dimly sensing a genuine issue concerning the status of HegelLogic, one that has been properly presented only in quite recent commentary on the Science of Logic. I am referring to the view, defended, for example, by George di Giovanni in the Introduction to his translation of that work, according to which one must view the Logic as both the first and the final stages of the circular system consisting of the Logic, the Philosophy of Nature, and the Philosophy of Spirit. In the first reading one is tracing the development of the Concept in the sphere of thought, culminating in the Absolute Idea, in which thought and being are revealed as an identity-in-difference. Next one traces the development of the Realphilosophie through the successive stages of nature and spirit, revealing their consonance with the Concept, and finally one re-reads the Logic, this time as a “recapitulation” of the Realphilosophie, in which (to use Ilyin’s vocabulary) one “recognizes the logical categories as the living substance of the subordinate spheres” while simultaneously “including the content of these spheres in the organism of the logical process”—precisely what Ilyin denied that Hegel could do. But his talk of the “bifurcation” could be seen as a failed attempt to get at something quite important about the structure of Hegel’ssystem. See Hegel (2010), “Introduction,” xxi–xxii, xxvii, and liii.

  15. 15.

    The journal in question was not typeset, but typed, and apparently circulated in the form of mimeographed copies. (Many thanks to James Devin for bringing this document to my attention.)

  16. 16.

    I would argue that signs of this fundamental ambiguity in his attitude toward Hegel can be detected in subsequent writings of Ilyin as well. His “break” with Hegel never appeared to be either decisive or complete.

  17. 17.

    Errol Harris, personal communication. Quoted with permission.

  18. 18.

    Having reached safety in Switzerland, the Ilyins were soon alarmed to discover that the Swiss authorities did not view them as being entitled to permanent residence and threatened to return them shortly to Nazi Germany (and very likely to Ilyin’s death). After numerous fraught appeals, Ilyin was finally informed that the Swiss authorities would grant him permission to stay, but only on the condition that he pay a “caution” of 4000 Swiss Francs, a sum utterly beyond their means. In desperation Ilyin approached the composer Rachmaninoff, then resident in Switzerland, with whom he had been acquainted in Moscow before the revolution. Ilyin was an accomplished amateur pianist, and the two of them had been joined in mutual admiration of the composer Nikolai Medtner, with whom Ilyin was very close. In view of Ilyin’s extreme peril, Rachmaninoff paid the caution, in all probability saving his life. At this point the Ilyins were able to settle in the village of Zollikon, on the outskirts of Zurich, where they remained until his death in 1954, and hers in 1963. However, Ilyin’s right of permanent residence was initially conditioned on a prohibition of political activity of any sort—a situation that sometimes led him to complain that he was living as a “slave in a democracy.” During this initial period, in order to publish in Swiss papers (earning small sums toward subsistence) Ilyin wrote under pseudonyms, posing as a Swiss citizen, and only in German. Finally, after the end of the war, that prohibition was lifted, at which point Ilyin resumed publishing in Russian as well as German.

  19. 19.

    Due to challenging economic circumstances in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet system, the Collected Works wound up being published in a somewhat odd fashion. The first twelve tomes were published as ten numbered volumes, at which point no further numbered tomes or volumes were published. All subsequent volumes (tomes) were published as unnumbered “supplementary” volumes, in the same black bindings with gilt lettering as the first twelve. To identify each of these supplementary volumes, one can only cite its published title and date of publication, which, among other things, makes it quite difficult to know whether one has a complete collection. This difficulty was ameliorated in what was in effect the thirtieth volume (tome) in the series, an unnumbered supplementary volume entitled Nemetskii idealizm. Istoriia eticheskikh uchenii. Istoriia drevnei filosofii [German Idealism. History of Ethical Doctrines. History of Ancient Philosophy] published in 2015, by the Pravoslavnii sviato-Tikhonovskii gumanitarnii universitet [Izd. PSTGU]. In an Appendix, on pp. 539–603, that volume contains a complete table of contents, in order, of every volume from 1 through 30. It also explains that the first 26 tomes (of which only the first 12 were numbered) were all published by Izd. Russkaia kniga, while the 27th through the 30th (unnumbered) tomes were published by Izd. PSTGU (Ilyin 2015). It must be noted that the 31st (unnumbered) tome, Novaia natsional’naia rossiia, Publitsistika 1924–1952 godov [New National Rossia. Journalistic Writing, 1924–1952] was published by yet another publishing house: Institut naslediia: Rossiiskii nauchno-issledovatel’skii institut kul’turnogo i prirodnogo naslediia imeni D. S. Likhacheva. Perhaps it is worth adding that the publishing quality of the most recent five volumes is significantly improved over that of the preceding ones.

  20. 20.

    For a full account of that history, see Il’in (2014, 92–94).

  21. 21.

    I will not devote more attention to this work here, as the published translation contains a substantial amount of introductory material setting out the framework of presuppositions and the major themes of the book.

  22. 22.

    In an unexpected coda to the story of Ilyin’s life, in 2005, at the request of the Russian government, the remains of Ilyin and his wife, as well as of General Denikin and his wife, were disinterred, brought to Moscow, and reburied with honor on the grounds of Donskoi Monastery in a service conducted by the Russian Patriarach Alexei II. Thus, a White general and the Theorist of the White Idea were returned to Russia, in a symbolic gesture of reconciliation.


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Grier, P.T. (2021). Ivan A. Ilyin: Russia’s “Non-Hegelian” Hegelian. In: Bykova, M.F., Forster, M.N., Steiner, L. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Russian Thought. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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