Pavel Florensky

Early Writings, 1903-1909

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Pavel Florensky
Translator(s): 
Boris Jakim
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , June
     2017.
     240 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802874955.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Pavel Aleksandrovich Florensky was a trained theologian, mathematician, geologist, engineer, and philosopher in Russia during the early 20th century whose intellectual pursuits included defending the mystic and mathematical imiaslavie (name-worship) movement, and delineating one of the clearest expressions of icon theology in Russian Orthodoxy. His extensive and wide-reaching oeuvre, combined with his intellectual companionship with the Russian Symbolists and his premature death in a Soviet work camp, resulted in his status as one of the most prominent Russian intellectuals of the pre-war period, connecting seemingly disparate and innovative fields of thought—as well as earning him the title of “neomartyr” among scholars and Russian theological communities alike. Despite this, his intellectual reach has long been absent from conversations on Russian intellectual history in the West. The translations of Boris Jakim, who has for the past two decades worked to bring Florensky’s words to the English-speaking world, have sought to remedy this. 

Jakim’s work, Pavel Florensky: Early Religious Writings, 1903-1909, is the latest addition to this endeavor, centering the conversation around Florensky’s theologically-inclined work—in the first decade of the 20th century—during which a young Florensky graduated from Moscow State University with his degree in mathematics, turning down a faculty position to pursue theological study. Though the essays contained within Early Religious Writings cover seemingly disparate topics—from dogma to the supernatural to the social centering of Russian Orthodox believers—they are united in a concern for the reality of religious experience as a mode of being towards divinity. Thus, Florensky constructs an image of Orthodoxy as simultaneously intellectual and experiential, as well as dogmatic and fluid. This interest in questioning the borders between facets of religious life echoes Florensky’s (and his Symbolist peers’s) larger interest in the scrutiny of the distinctions between disciplines and modes of thought as a vantage point towards some undifferentiated whole accessed through fragmented parts. As such, he says of dogma, “We have every right to be guided by ready-made schemata, but they must only be used as a preliminary scaffolding that allows a more rapid and efficient processing of the raw material” (134). 

This distinction between external “positivistic” forms of reality and a deeper reality weaves its way throughout Florensky’s essays, both explicitly and implicitly calling for some deeper meaning to an encounter with material form, further echoing the larger Symbolist project of inscribing metaphysical meaning onto phenomenology. This also reflects earlier and ongoing conversations in Russia regarding the unique status of the average Russian—inextricably linked therein from “Orthodox believer”—in transcending such barriers, juxtaposed against the “dead culture” of Western European modes of thinking. Florensky’s interest in the Orthodox believer to the Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church to Christianity, and Christianity to reality is fluid, taking on different modes of philosophical inquiry while remaining oriented toward some imminent end as Florensky searches for the language to speak of, what he perceived as the imperative of Orthodox life. In this period of his writing, as Jakim states, “what Florensky thirsted after now was not abstract-philosophical learning but living spiritual knowledge” (viii).

Of course, this has been an exploration of the thought of Florensky himself. This speaks to Jakim’s well-curated selection of essays included in this volume, creating an elaborate link between the social concerns of Russian Orthodoxy and the ontological status of the Orthodox believer. Jakim largely lets this selection speak for itself, foregoing extensive commentary. His introduction to Florensky’s texts contains a brief biographical sketch of Florensky before detailing the contents of the volume, providing information that is largely contextual for each of Florensky’s essays. This introductory material is both historical, situating the essay within Florensky’s life and works, and descriptive, orienting the reader philosophically towards Florensky’s key thematic elements and concerns—whether phenomenological or theologically prescriptive. The result is a map of Florensky’s thought that allows for efficient navigation of the works within, without becoming jargon-heavy or inaccessible to the reader unfamiliar with Florensky’s intellectual community in fin-de-siècle Russia. The flip side of this utility, of course, is that Jakim’s framing prose does little to gesture towards Florensky’s conversation partners, making it seem somewhat obscure or isolated, as opposed to fitting into, a larger metanarrative of Russian religious thought. Specialists of Russian Orthodox history or fin-de-siècle Russian thought, for example, might look elsewhere for a critical commentary on these essays that establishes Florensky’s religious thought in relationship to the ideas shared between Florensky and Andrei Bely in the preceding decade, or to their inheritance of the theurgical language of Vladimir Solovyov. 

Having established this minor caveat, clearly, Early Religious Writings is of the most use to English-language scholars who are interested in incorporating Russian religious thought into larger or more comparative projects, as well as readers who are interested in familiarizing themselves with emblematic Russian religious thought. However, it is also quite useful to the specialist in Russian intellectual and religious history—particularly those in departments of religion and neighboring fields in the humanities—as simply having an English-language collection of the most preeminent Russian thinkers in this area (Jakim has also published translations of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vladimir Solovyov, and Sergei Bulgakov) does wonders for introducing Russian Orthodox thought into such discourse, where it has so often been overlooked by Western scholars in these fields. To that end, Jakim’s translations are skillful and graceful, effectively capturing Florensky’s tone and urgency within these essays, while simultaneously preserving the technical language employed in the original Russian texts, making this a practical text for the classroom as well as for the casual reader interested in making the acquaintance of one of Russia’s most famous theologians.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taylor Thomas is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at Indiana University.

Date of Review: 
May 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Pavel Florensky (1882–1937) was one of the preeminent Russian Orthodox thinkers of the twentieth century. His best-known work is The Pillar and Ground of Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters.

Boris Jakim is the foremost translator of Russian religious thought into English. His published translations include works by Fyodor Dostoevsky, S. L. Frank, Vladimir Solovyov, and Sergius Bulgakov.

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