Не представляю себе философию без рыцарей чести и человеческого достоинства.

Всё остальное — слова.

Мераб Мамардашвили

Мераб Мамардашвили

European responsibility

Русский Française


(Presentation at the International Symposium on European Cultural Identity. Paris, January 19881)

First of all, I apologize for my inevitable imperfections of expression, for French is not my native language, and I am not able to read from a prepared text: I always have to work at the moment I speak.

Following the intervention of Alain Touraine, I was tempted to speak in Russian2. For me, a Georgian, Russian is like Spanish would be for you, so I have chosen this other Spanish, which French is for me — I will speak French3.

I wanted to say a few words regarding those concepts that have formed in me on the basis of the experience of a young person, the personal experience of a human being4 who was born outside Europe, who lived in the hinterland and there became conscious of the history of his country and its culture5. The lesson that I derived from my experience is that I had there a privileged vantage point to see what a European cannot see.

You Europeans take too much for granted, treat things as almost natural. For instance, you don’t give a second thought to what constitutes the foundation of your existence. You lack a sharp awareness that a human being is first of all a constant effort in a suspended interval of time, it is a constant effort just to become human. A human being is not a natural state, a state of nature, but a state that is continually created. Personal experience that turned me upside down and that formed me for good, I hope, was philosophy as a theory of constant creation — that is, a Cartesian philosophy — and I have to admit that it was French culture or philosophy that formed my mindset. To explain my idea I will use the definition of love that Pascal gave. He once said that love does not have an age because it is always being born [naissant]6. I would say the same about European identity: Europe does not have an age — it is always being born. Exactly this is Europe’s responsibility, the European responsibility toward itself. In this sense, I felt the absence of something I believed to be fundamental, which allowed me to be more aware than a European who takes Europeanness for granted.

Because of this absence we better understand European society and culture — this is why I defined my vantage point as a privileged one. For me culture as such is an ability or capacity to practice complexity and diversity. I underscore the word practice, for culture is not knowledge. One is cultural when one is capable of practicing complexity and diversity without necessarily knowing everything, and without necessarily being able to apply an idea or an abstract concept to reality.

Starting with the Renaissance we became irreversibly modern. I think we have to acknowledge to what one was “reborn” [“renaissait”] during the Renaissance. The Renaissance of what? Insofar as Renaissance is the foundation or the continuum of our modernity, it is composed of two elements that were “reborn” and that were becoming irreversible during the Renaissance.

The first element is the Greco-Roman world, specifically a social or civil idea, or if you wish the belief that only a concrete social form, only a concrete community, can realize in life, on earth, an infinite ideal: a finite form can carry the infinite. This is expressed by another fundamental Roman idea, which is the rule of law. In this respect, my country — the term “post-colonial” has been used here — I would say that my country, where I was born, is a walking paradox: part of the ex-empire, it is at the same time post-colonial, in that it was not touched by the Roman conception of the rule of law7.

The second element is the Gospel. It is the idea that there is something inside the human being that could be termed the internal voice or word, and it is enough to hear this voice, this word, and follow it, so that God may give help along the way. It is necessary to walk without external help, following the internal voice, without counting on guarantees, and with all of that appears the disruptive and worrisome element, the element that creates history. Europe is the form in which one sees clearly that the organ of life, the organ unique to the human being, is history. The Renaissance, in my view, is history as organ of life.

This is what was “reborn”, and upon which civil society constructed itself [s’articulait]. We, whose bodies are less developed, who lack the complexity and structure of civil society, understand that it is precisely this which we need. It is only possible to acquire it by historical means, that is to say we can only begin, commit ourselves to the effort and sustain this effort, and do it in such a way that things are born in the space bounded by the effort itself.

One may become fatigued or forget the origins of this effort, and become unable to sustain it, and here a danger lies in wait for Europe: exhaustion after long historical labor, the incapability to sustain or remember the effort on which history depends, to bring it to life at each moment, to cross the abyss without guarantee and without hierarchies. When I spoke of the Gospel, I wanted to speak of the distinction unique to European culture, that is the clear distinction between the internal principle, or the so-called power of language, and of the law, the external law. In this respect, European culture is antimoralistic and antilegalistic, because the power of language which comes out of the interior principle is paramount. This principle itself directs the effort and the human struggle. European culture is perhaps the first and the only valid answer to this question: Is change possible in the world? Is it possible that someone conditioned by the forces of cause and effect, bound by the chains of determinism, may be capable of rising up and realizing in concrete forms an infinite perfection?

A human being is always in a state of self-creation and all of history can be defined as the history of this effort to become human. A human does not exist, but becomes. You, the people of the West, and we, the people of the East, are at the same historical moment, and let us not confuse history with chronology. Today something is happening, something of the same nature as what the First and Second World Wars revealed; we stand before the same dangers and the same responsibility. We are at the moment when catastrophes are born, underground, in the hidden veins of various European cultures.

How would I define this responsibility, if I had to do it in another manner? It’s been said before: the modern barbarity, the contemporary barbarity poses the great danger. A person without language is a barbarian. That at least was how the Greeks defined a barbarian: someone without language. Obviously the Persians and others around the Greeks spoke a language, but by language, the Greeks understood an articulated space of presence of all that one may feel, want, and think. This emphatic back and forth, this snowballing of ideas in the public square8: this is what language is. How can we become aware of the fact that the human being alone is naked before the world, not even human until the surrounding space is full of language in the living public square? These articulations mediate the nearly-powerless individual’s effort before the complexity of the human, and permit those speaking to formulate thoughts of their own, and to think what they are thinking.

The fundamental passion of the human is to be fulfilled, to midwife that which is in the state of being born. You know quite well: this is very difficult. Most often, history is a graveyard for the stillborn, haunted by vague longings: of liberty, of thought, of love, of honor. Shades of dignity wander in the limbo of souls which have never been born. This experience of non-birth of something which is myself, I have tested on myself, I have personal experience of it, and thanks to it, I have understood that the passion of humans is to be fulfilled. One doesn’t accomplish this except in the realm of language, in an articulated space, and this is our task. We arrive quite late to this task, but I will call upon Paul Valery who said that “all that is human is not inside the human”. That is exactly my point: the greatest part of the human being is outside of him — or herself — in the space of which I have spoken and which I have defined as “the space of language”, and I would add that to become human is a very, very long effort. It requires courage and patience. The European task hangs from the crest of a wave, and while waiting for it to break, we may expect ourselves to emerge from the strength of this effort. I repeat: becoming human is a very long effort.

Translated by Alisa Slaughter and Julia Sushytska, 2014

  1. This text, the original title of which is “La responsabilité européenne” was delivered by Mamardashvili in French on January 14, 1988 at an international symposium on cultural identity of Europe. The proceeding of the symposium were published in Europe sans rivage: Symposium international sur l’identité culturelle européenne. Paris, Janvier 1988 (Paris: Éditions Albin Michel,1988), 201-205.

  2. Alain Touraine, a French sociologist, presented in Spanish, beginning his speech with the following comment: “Because European cultural integration assumes that we will learn each others’ languages, and because many non-French participants were kind enough to speak in French, I would like to try to return the favor, and therefore not to speak French — I will choose… to express myself in something approximating Spanish”. “Comme l’intégration culturelle européenne suppose que nous apprenions les langues les uns des autres, et comme beaucoup de participants non français nous ont fait l’amitié de s’exprimer en français, je voudrais essayer de leur rendre un peu la politesse, et donc de ne pas parler français et je choisirai… de m’exprimer en quelque chose de semblable à l’espagnol”. Europe sans rivage, 132.

  3. Mamardashvili was born in 1930 in Georgia, a nation in the Caucasus region of Eurasia that became a unified kingdom in the 4th century BCE and adopted Christianity in the early 4th century CE. From the beginning of 19th century Georgia became a colony of the Russian Empire; after several years of independence that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917, Georgia became a part of the Soviet Union.

    The Georgian language belongs to the Kartvelian language family. Unlike Spanish and French, Georgian is not related to Russian, which belongs to the Indo-European family.

    Mamardashvili’s relationship to the Russian language was deep and intimate. He began speaking it and reading its rich literature in his childhood. Later he completed his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Moscow Lomonosov State University (MGU), and spent the rest of his career writing and lecturing primarily in Russian. Still, as for many of those writing and thinking in Russian, it remained for him an imperial language.

    At the beginning of his symposium presentation Mamardashvili indicates that French, in which he was fluent, is just as foreign to him as Russian, even if for a different reason. This sentence was omitted from the Russian translation of this lecture (See Kak ia ponomaiu filosofiiu [How I Understand Philosophy]. Moscow: Progress, 1992, 311-314).

  4. “The human being” is one of the key terms in the philosophical vocabulary of Mamardashvili. The Russian word that Mamrdashvili consistently uses is chelovek — the word that is technically gender neutral, and refers equally to men and women. As Miglena Nikolchina writes, in this word “the traditional humanist values of ‘man’ have been invested without producing, at least on a linguistic level, the exclusion of woman. To be sure, there is – to ward off unrealistic feminist hopes – the joke that ‘woman is the best friend of chelovek.’ The joke, however, would not be possible if it were not assumed in purely linguistic terms that woman was chelovek to begin with” (“The Humanism-Antihumanism Divide: The Concept of ‘Man’ between the End of World War 2 and the Fall of the Berlin Wall”, Sofia: Center for Advanced Study, Working Paper Series, 2013, 5).

    During his presentation at the Symposium Mamardashvili chooses to use the French “l’homme”, an equivalent of the English “man”. In the French translation of his Cartesian Meditations the term “l’homme” is also used for chelovek, and this is also the case with the interviews that make up the volume La pensée empêchée.

    This edition translates “l’homme” as “human being” in an effort to be more consistent with the original, Russian, term that is more gender inclusive, and also to an novel approach to humanism that Mamrdashvili develops in his texts (see Nikolchina’s “The Humanism-Antihumanism Divide”).

  5. Moscow was the main center of cultural and intellectual activity in the Soviet Union, and in some periods of Soviet history support for and tolerance of local cultures and languages was ambivalent or inconsistent. This is one of the ways in which Georgia remained a hinterland of Moscow, and, by extension, of Europe.

    Georgia’s relationship to Europe is also not unambiguous. If we accept that the border between Europe and Asia follows the watershed of the Ural Mountains, and then continues along the Greater Caucasus watershed, then Georgia belongs simultaneously to Europe and Asia, since 4% of Georgia’s territory is north of the Caucasus mountains. In recent years, Georgia explicitly aligns itself with Europe and the West at the political level. Georgia is one of a few Christian nations in the region — it accepted Christianity as its official religion in the early fourth century BCE, and nearly 90% of its population today is Christian. More significantly for our purposes, however, in his considerations about Europe Mamardashvili diverges from the usual geopolitical meaning of Europe and non-Europe. He notes that Europe is a process of becoming a human being, and as such is something upon which we are just as likely to stumble in Hong Kong or Kiev as we are in Paris, and, in fact, we might not find it in Paris at all (see “Problema cheloveka v filisofii”, Neobkhodimost’ sebia [“The problem of the Human Being in Philosophy”, Indispensability of Oneself] (Moscow: Labirint, 1996), 258).

  6. Mamardashvili has in mind the following statement: “L’amour n’a point d’age; il est toujours naissant”. It comes from the Discours sur les passions de l’amour (line 82 of Manuscript G) attributed to Blaise Pascal. See Georges Brunet, Un prétendu traité de Pascal (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1959).

  7. The editors wish to draw attention to the term “post-colonial” as it is used here by Mamardashvili. It would be a mistake to simply assume that Mamardashvili and his Western audiences share a common meaning of this term. Consider the idea elaborated by Miglena Nikolchina that certain terms commonly understood to be identical in meaning are actually heterotopian homonyms, and, in fact, invert each other, causing major misunderstandings between representatives of different cultural traditions. See Miglena Nikolchina, Lost Unicorns of the Velvet Revolutions (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013). Even if this is not the case with “post-colonial”, the reader should allow for the possibility that this term diverges from the meaning commonly attributed to it in the West.

  8. In the French Mamardashvili uses the phrase “le roulements de ces ‘gueulements’” which suggests haranguing or hectoring. In the similar contexts in Russian he uses the term “обкатывание”. The word means “making round or smooth by rolling”, or “breaking in”. In his Vilnius Lectures on Social Philosophy Mamardashvili uses the image of rolling a snowball to indicate how ideas or opinions are developed in conversations on the agora: a small, miserable snowball of thought that would otherwise melt in the course of being rolled around by interlocutors in an open public space expands into a sizable ball of snow, and, occasionally, into a beautiful snowman. See Mamardashvili’s Vil’niusskie lekcyi po sotsial’noi filosofii [Vilnius Lectures on Social Philosophy], Saint Petersburg: Azbuka, 2012, 124-125. The translators are grateful to Alena Mamardashvili for the reference to Vilnius Lectures.