Dostoevsky the Thinker

Dostoevsky the Thinker

James P. Scanlan

For all his distance from formal philosophy, Fyodor Dostoevsky was one of the most philosophical of writers. In works from fictional masterpieces to little-known nonfiction prose, he grappled with the ultimate questions about the nature of humankind. His novels are peopled by characters who dramatize the fierce debates that preoccupied the Russian intelligentsia during the second half of the nineteenth century. What was the philosophy of Dostoevsky? How does reading this literary giant from a new perspective add to our understanding of him and of Russian culture?

In this remarkable book, a leading authority on Russian thought presents the first comprehensive account of Dostoevsky's philosophical outlook. Drawing on the writer's novels and, more so than other scholars, on his essays, letters, and notebooks, James P. Scanlan examines Dostoevsky's beliefs. The nonfiction pieces make possible new interpretations of some of the author's most controversial works of fiction, including Notes from Underground. Dostoevsky's thought, Scanlan explains, was shaped above all by its anthropocentrism, its struggle to define the essence of humanity. All of the subjects the writer addressed—including religion, ethics, aesthetics, history, the state, and the Russian nation—provided clues to the mystery of what it means to be human. Scanlan demonstrates conclusively that Dostoevsky's philosophical views were more solidly grounded and systematic than have been imagined and cannot be dismissed as the notions of an irrationalist.

Scanlan also discusses the flaws and weaknesses in Dostoevsky's thought, in particular his controversial notion that Russia is the one "God-bearing" nation. This belief—that Russia has a messianic role to play in world history—has gained renewed popularity among its citizens, for whom Dostoevsky has long been regarded as a thinker of supreme importance.