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A Philosopher of Small Things

A new book on ‘antiphilosophy’ revives interest in Lev Shestov, a seminal but largely forgotten thinker

David Sugarman
June 11, 2012
Lev Shestov in Kiev, 1916.(© Private collection, courtesy of Lev Shestov Studies Society [Société d’Etudes Léon Chestov])
Lev Shestov in Kiev, 1916.(© Private collection, courtesy of Lev Shestov Studies Society [Société d’Etudes Léon Chestov])

The critique that philosophy is disconnected from our day-to-day concerns is as old as philosophy itself. Thales of Miletus, considered by many to be the first philosopher, was so lost in thought as he contemplated the heavens that he wandered right into a ditch. Philosophy, the story suggests, tends to study the stars while overlooking the earth completely.

In the past century, however, some philosophers have turned away from large and abstract ideas to examine the world around them—to ponder the ditches, as it were.
Introduction to Antiphilosophy, a recently published book by Boris Groys, argues that philosophy has become far more local in its interests and relatable in its concerns, a trend he calls “antiphilosophy.” Groys, the Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University and author of The Total Art of Stalinism, describes a mostly 20th-century trend in European thought away from the grand, esoteric subjects one might normally associate with philosophy (the nature of human consciousness, the existence of the soul) toward an interest in man’s daily deliberations and occupations. Through personal and subjective explorations of boredom and anxiety, laughter and despair and ecstasy, practitioners of antiphilosophy hope to gain insight into the human condition.

The thinkers who embody this trend are, for the most part, well known (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger), and Groys’ engagements with these familiar figures are often original and illuminating. But one chapter that is especially noteworthy is Groys’ discussion of Lev Shestov, a Russian Jewish philosopher, theologian, and critic whose work was essential in the development of existentialism. Today, Shestov is little-remembered, but Groys’ discussion of his philosophy serves as an excellent introduction to a fascinating and influential thinker who deserves to be better-known in his own right.


Lev Shestov, né Lev Isaakovich Schwarzmann, was born in 1866 into a prosperous merchant family in Kiev. His father was very knowledgeable about Jewish law and literature but was not religious or observant. Shestov married in 1896 and began his career as something of a man of letters in Russia, writing about Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov through the prism of Nietzsche’s philosophy. The tumult of the early decades of the 20th century, however, brought tragedy and instability into Shestov’s life: His son was killed serving in the Russian military, and the October Revolution in 1917 forced his family to flee the country. Shestov would spend the next few years in exile, journeying through Crimea and Switzerland, until 1921, when he would finally settle in France. He died in Paris in 1938.

Shestov’s first sustained work of original philosophy, The Apotheosis of Groundlessness (1905), explored what he termed the “groundlessness,” or irrationality and uncertainty, of man’s experience of the world. “We know nothing of the ultimate realities of our existence, nor shall we ever know anything,” he wrote. “Let that be agreed.” The world does not make sense, argues Shestov, and philosophy should not hope to find reason in it: “The business of philosophy is to teach man to live in uncertainty … it is not to reassure people, but to upset them.”

Shestov’s view that philosophy needed to proceed from an axiom of groundlessness, from an understanding of the human condition as essentially absurd and pointless, was argued in opposition to philosophers who emphasized reason—and the supposedly rational nature of human existence—above all else. Rational and logical thinking clearly help humans understand certain aspects of the world, Shestov acknowledged; “to discard logic completely would be extravagant,” he wrote. But Shestov also believed that rational thought was merely one human ability among many. If used in every sphere of life, he believed, reason would corrode man’s ability to connect to a more spiritual realm. Shestov thus advocated that faith and reason, theology and science, needed to be regarded as two distinct entities. “It seems to me,” Shestov wrote, “that it is enough to ask a man, ‘Does God exist?’ immediately to make it impossible for him to give any answer to this question.” Therefore, he suggested, one would be wise not to ask such questions.

The story of man’s fall from the Garden of Eden epitomized, for Shestov, the tension between reason and faith, or what he termed “Athens and Jerusalem.” Why is it that man can do whatever he pleases in Yahweh’s idyllic garden except taste from the tree of knowledge? “The very moment man ate from the forbidden fruit,” Shestov said in a conversation in 1934 with Martin Buber, “he gained knowledge and lost his freedom. Man does need to know. To ask, to beg questions, to require proofs, answers, means that one is not free. To know means to know necessity. Knowledge means that man is not free.” This unbridgeable dichotomy was at the center of Shestov’s oeuvre and was developed most comprehensively in his last—and perhaps greatest—work, Athens and Jerusalem (1937).

Shestov did not believe that recognizing the irrationality of human existence was an end in itself but rather saw it as a crucial “penultimate knowledge,” as a necessary truth that one had to acknowledge. The “ultimate knowledge,” however, was only achievable through a leap of faith, through a turn to God that could not be founded upon reasoned argument or scientific fact. Man cannot be completely certain that God exists, Shestov argued, nor can he reason his way into religious belief. Rather, he must take a radically irrational step toward God, a step that is personal and not outwardly logical—or even verifiably sane.

The argument that one needed faith in the face of an irrational choice—and Shestov’s appeal to the Hebrew Bible to illustrate this position—is quite similar to an argument advanced half a century earlier by Søren Kierkegaard that is often associated with existentialism. An important 20th-century school of thought, existentialism stressed the absurdity of human life and the need for each individual to overcome that absurdity, even if such a project was doomed from the outset. For Kierkegaard, man had to take a leap of faith to connect to God in order to move beyond his despair, and Shestov’s philosophy argued something similar. What made Shestov’s position unique—indeed, revolutionary—was that it replaced Kierkegaard’s Christian God with an absolutely personal God, one that was not the deity of any religion or text but a strange deity of Shestov’s own making. In contrast to Kierkegaard, whose leap of faith ultimately landed him in a traditional Christian world, Shestov’s leap offers no such safe landing. Shestov’s notion of faith and God can thus be seen as a crucial bridge from Kierkegaard’s religious existentialism, which enabled man to connect to the Judeo-Christian God, to the interwar existentialism of figures like Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus, for whom there was no God to turn to.

So, what kind of God did Shestov believe in? Who was it, exactly, that he had faith in? Shestov’s notion of God is, to quote Ramona Fotiade, a professor of French thought at the University of Glasgow and director of the Lev Shestov Society, “complicated and paradoxical.” As mentioned, Shestov was Jewish; Adam and Job appear regularly in his writing. Yet Shestov also speaks frequently about Jesus and the importance of the Christian faith. Was Shestov Christian, then? Was he something like an early Jew for Jesus?

“Shestov’s God is Jewish,” Fotiade explained to me, “but He is at the same time the God who became flesh, who died and rose again according to the Christian faith.” This God “is not so much a law-giver as a God who forgives and saves, and from this point of view, Shestov’s understanding of God is closer to the Christian belief in redemption through faith alone, via a one-to-one relationship between man and God.” Shestov appealed to a distinct synthesis of Yahweh and Jesus that is unique in Judeo-Christian intellectual history. As for whether to classify Shestov as a Jew or Christian, it is of little importance; Shestov was opposed to dogma, creed, cleric, and community. For him, there was simply the divine and man’s ability to connect to the divine through faith. That he chose to believe in an amalgamation of Jesus and Yahweh is not as important as the fact that he chose to believe.


Shestov’s work was highly influential during his lifetime. D.H. Lawrence wrote a preface to the first English translation of The Apotheosis of Groundlessness, George Bataille helped see his work into French, and André Gide allegedly remarked—according to Michael Finkenthal’s excellent study of Shestov’s life and work—that “since his encounter with Nietzsche, he had not met anybody as impressive as Lev Shestov.” Hillel Zeitlin wrote that “if someone asked me who was the true successor of Friedrich Nietzsche, I would answer without hesitation, L. Shestov.”

It is thus one of the strangest features of Shestov’s work that it is so unfamiliar to contemporary students of philosophy, literature, and religion. Why this has been the case is ultimately mysterious. (As Daniel Rynhold, professor of Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, told me: “Who gets picked up in academia and not is often a result of contingencies and serendipity, rather than the value of the person’s work.”) The work being done by Fotiade (she is currently editing a new French edition of Shestov’s work, Le Bruit du Temps) and her colleagues at the Lev Shestov Society aims to increase knowledge and interest, and Groys’ chapter on Shestov in Introduction to Antiphilosophy might mark a turning point in reviving Shestov’s reputation.

Antiphilosophy was not an available term in Shestov’s day—its use in this context is Groys’ invention—but it is a label that Shestov, in my opinion, would have liked. The term antiphilosophy is intended to echo anti-art, an early 20th-century movement that argued that art has less to do with the framed things one finds in a museum or gallery than with the attitude one brings to those particular objects. The best example of anti-art, Groys writes, is Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 “Readymade Fountain.” Duchamp signed (under the name R. Mutt) and dated a store-bought, mass-made, porcelain urinal and then exhibited it. Is the urinal art? Does it do what art is supposed to do? Once it’s been moved into a gallery space, Duchamp suggests, the answer is decisively yes. And what is art supposed to do, anyway? If a viewer gives the urinal—or fountain, rather—the same kind of concentrated attention one gives a work by Monet, is it any less of an aesthetic experience? Duchamp seems to be saying that the creativity and craftsmanship one sees in excellent works of fine art can be found lining the walls of public restrooms, if only one is able to look at those urinals in a certain way. Beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder, anti-art points out, but is invented in the eye of the beholder.

Anti-art’s aim is not to rob art of its purpose but to democratize it, to make it clear that the bathroom has as much aesthetic interest as the gallery if only one is able to change one’s mindset. Shestov’s work aims to do something similar, to achieve a comparable shift in attitude. Shestov’s philosophy seeks to escape the potentially paralyzing strictures of the rational mind and return man to a state of awe. To accomplish this, Shestov did the philosophical equivalent of bringing a urinal into a gallery: His work is not systematic, it does not advance traditional arguments, and it does not hope to speak of a truth that is objectively verifiable. Instead, it is personal, spontaneous, and ironic. It invites readers to think along with him, to understand that using philosophy is not always the best way to be philosophical and that there is much to be learned by means other than the reasoning mind. These qualities and interests would become increasingly popular over the remainder of the 20th century, and it is thus fair to say that Shestov is one of the founding fathers, along with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, of what can now be dubbed antiphilosophy.

As Shestov wrote: “A belch interrupts the loftiest meditation. You may draw a conclusion if you like; if you don’t like, you needn’t.” Shestov’s work has a similar effect; those who think it strange, or even silly, will find plenty of reasons to write it off—admittedly fair ones. Those to whom it speaks, however, will find wonders.


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David Sugarman is a writer living in Baltimore, Maryland.

David Sugarman is Tablet’s Deputy Literary Editor and Special Projects Editor.