Mikhail Lifshitz,
What are the Classics?

(Ed. V. Arslanov)– Moscow: Iskusstvo XXI vek Publishing House. 2004
Fragments from Chapter 9 “The Meaning of the World”
Translation from Russian: David Riff

On the theory of the “absurd” etcetera
We have only one way of judging the outer world and our own role in it. It is to be found in reasonable thinking, whose prerequisite is its own reasonability, which rejects the absurdity of the real. This even holds true when we attempt express perplexity [at] the unreasonable nature of the world. The theory of the absurd is also a theory, both in the positive sense of the word, since it points toward a number of extreme contradictions, and the negative, since it formalizes and rationalizes reality, creating a rationalism of the irrational.
This is why any intelligent person should resign to relative absurdity, attempting not to fall prey to panic. Panicked theories do not express the fact of absolute absurdity’s existence, but only one of its particular instances, namely trauma.
Yes, but what should we do if our situation is thus? Does it really mean that we should not express it? You have to understand it, that is express it, finding an exterior point of reference. You have to go beyond its boundaries, orienting yourself toward a broader circle of real facts. Cf. Lenin to Gorky on his mood in Leningrad, but…not the Hegelian abstraction of resignation.

 “Differential optimism”
The theory of the “gap.” All becoming should be considered from this vantage. The truth is all good and well, but happiness is better. Without happiness, there is no truth. But happiness itself belongs to truth. Its force may be weak, but truth is not just a simple illusion, an epiphenomenon, but something objective. Not two parallel lines – subjective consciousness and the practical powerlessness of the spirit, but the crossing from one into the other, though interrupted, contradictory, uneven, with retreats and setbacks, but still actual and real. This is exactly why one needs to measure the whole by those islands of objective truth, which – even though they are happiness, grace-time –  are more universal than silent centuries. First of all, the law that Aristotle already knew and that Pugachev expressed in his fable about the eagle and the raven. Second of all, while there is no such thing as uninterrupted happiness as the fundament of truth, there is a constant return of goals, a rebirth of creative energies. (p. 425)
Our world is not the best and not the worst of all possible worlds. It is somewhere in the middle, but this middle is mediation, while it should be – and this is the tendency toward the good – die wahre Mitte [the true middle], mesotes [more to the middle] in the sense of akrotes [higher up].  (p. 426)
            “And that’s it?” An inevitable exclamation that expresses the fact of a person’s finitude. Various means of overcoming this fact are themselves infected by finitude – love, labor. Ideal means of reuniting with the absolute hold more freedom: creativity of the spirit, games, alcohol… In the first case, the ideal has a certain real basis; in the second case, it is an illusion. It is no coincidence that alcoholism is often connected to creativity as a professional ailment that is neither necessary nor at all desirable.

Verum – factum [Truth – fact]
There is always a correspondence between reason and the factual world; in this sense, irrationalism is wrong. Then again, irrationalism grows from the fact that this correspondence is not necessarily harmonic. Retribution for the failure to correspond is also a form of correspondence. In this sense, open discrepancy, incongruity, absurdity – if one looks at them from the dialectical point of view, in historical cross-section – take on a new meaning.

The meaning of the world
Nothing would be easier than to discard this problem, but it will still exist. Only meaning is not exterior, but interior, and it exists. It exists because everything disparate has some universal content; thus, it is not an unconditionally new addition to cognition, a synthesis without an a priori, but known information, a return to the fundamental principle. The newer this return is, the greater its universal meaning. Logical primacy does not correspond to primacy in time, meaning that meaning lies ahead of phenomena. This is also the other side of “meaning.” It lies in both the return to the fundamental principle, and in that this principle is ahead, in the “for what.” As a whole, it is universal. (p. 426-27)
The idea of absurdity is the most extreme expression of irrationalism (which Dada already contains.) It is the negation of logodicy, adaecvatio rei et intellectus [the adequacy of things and reason]. Not irrationality as the best means of comprehending the world, but the irrationality of the world itself, the dying of its sapience, not only in the present concrete form, but also in the form of possibility.
On modern Western philosophy’s antagonistic attitude toward Hegel and the question of the world’s rationality, “logodicy”.
It is precisely Hegel’s formula “everything real is rational” that contains the statement of its unreasonableness, in the only form available to him and to his time on the while. Since this formula was a paradoxical expression of the distance between the demands of reason and the facts of the real world, this distance was justified by the dialectical character of becoming. Justified, but also emphasized.
It is precisely this distance that the efforts of modern Western philosophy seek to eliminate. It would have us accept the world as an unreasonable world and not as reason’s being-other. This, ostensibly, is what the great emancipation from belief in the other amounts to. By the way, the changing image of Hegel in the 20th century is most apparent in Kroner, Hartmann. Its beginning can already be found in Dilthey.

The absurd
The absurd: the lowest and highest of functions come together in one and the same organ. But is this really that absurd?
The highest function should not overrate itself, lest it lose its high ground. Isn’t this is a principle for a whole series of similar questions? Isn’t logodicy based on the principle of relativity? 
If people were to ride better on the bad, they would not be the better for it.
The demands of reason are not alien to this world. Quite on the contrary: one cannot demand anything except for that which is given in this world as a possibility. Reason is the reason of the world. Only that there is a concrete distance between reality and demand. Like in Nekrasov: “all the worse you find you find your fate, all the more you tolerate?” (p. 429-430)

On theodicy
NB! Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed (Bacon). But can one even avoid obeying its laws at all? One cannot, but one can. And if one can, then only in the sense of a distortion. In the same way, one can obey nature, both in the sense of holding it high and raising oneself on a high ground over it. In this sense, even our commonplace notions assume that the relationship with nature is not simply undifferentiated mechanical causality. Instead, nature itself leaves a space for the objective difference between the normal and the abnormal, the meaningful and the meaningless, truth and lies, good and evil, the positive (not in the conventional sense, but as positive positivity) and the negative – alias [in other words] a space for human freedom, ethical responsibility. In spite of Kant!
            This thought could be used in order to introduce notions, values, meanings, and absolute truth into materialism. Even into the materialist image of nature. Instead of ancient (and the most recent) theology.
            Basically, the point is to smash (or, to be more precise, to show the relativity, see Marx on necessity and freedom in Volume 3 of Capital) the Kantian opposition of mechanical causality, “nature”, and ethical “freedom”, the world of values. The old materialism and dogmatic Marxism, up to Plekhanov, retains this antithesis. Exceptions can be found in earlier forms of materialism (ХУ1, отчасти ХУ11 столетия????).
            Along with the proof of knowledge’s objectivity, disproving its formal-subjective quality. (p. 431-432)

Expediency and necessityHuman reason was created by nature. Consequently, it cannot be declared to be unreasonable. Having arisen in nature, reason presents it with a bill, asking the meaning of all existence. Reason is satisfied by the element of rightness, “logic” in nature. It is essentially itself a concentrate of this rightness, its subjective expression and extension. But at the same time, it finds that:
1. Logic does not coincide with the real, that is, the unreasonable and the un-right also exists in nature; it is logical in a causal sense, but its logic in the sense of its ultimate goal and perfection (congruent with the demands of reason) is relative at best, a result of protracted becoming, but not its beginning.
2. Furthermore, reason cannot make sense of sense itself. “This is how the world works.” But what the hell is all of this? Particulars can be explained and understood to meet the demands of reason. But on the whole, all that jazz is a tie-in sale. Such compulsion is enemy to the nature of reason. Either reason is an instrument that is only justified in its application to the finite; in this, positivism is just, at least in part (cf. Boltzmann). Or a reality that corresponds to reason has yet to be made, that is nature, having made reason, finally satisfies it in the process of development (Engels). Reminiscent of Aristotle, this thought is the less compulsory. (“Do you know of anything better?” Diderot?). Still, reason – like Totalität – is in a certain state of contradiction with this “primitive accumulation.” Here, the Hegelian doctrine of the result as a beginning can come to our aid.
So basically “And what now?” as Omar Hayam put it.
These pretenses of reason - its demands, the knowledge of its own infinity – lie in contradiction to its historical possibilities; that is a fact. And these are the gnoseological roots of agnosticism. (p. 442-443)

Reason and reality
Is the world reasonable? Everything in the world is stupid enough. One could agree with this, but under one condition: the most stupid thing in the world is the existence of reason (capable of judging the reasonability or dumbness of the surrounding world).
            Our existing world is quite stupid. But it would be even more stupid to imagine correcting it according to the reason we command. This stupidity consists in using reason and its universality to clean and darn something that is after all organic, so that it takes on a random nature. Poor imagination! But in comparison to it, the organic historical concrete is far richer, far more solid. (p. 443-444)

On the question of “theodicy”

Hegel justifies historical necessity; he does not justify the interests and needs of the little man. But he also does not blur over or idealize the de facto tragedies, victims, or dissipations of the natural process. His point of view is harsh but true. However, it also carries false comfort.
            The proper solution to this question consists in a relative acknowledgement of the natural course of events. But under the conditions of choosing a path to be taken, it also means finding the maximum, the differential of given concrete frameworks, borders, scales. The latter goes against Voltaire, just as it goes against Hegel. We can change the course of events for the better, but within limits of some sort (more on this elsewhere); to a certain point, we need to resign ourselves to the inevitability of the evil that comes with good. In this, both Hegel and Voltaire are right. Sacrifices are necessary; it is in the nature of things that the spontaneous process is not harmonious; it is only reasonable in the final analysis; in this, Hegel is right. But in the end, its justification in the final analysis through the needs of the world process supplies no comfort whatsoever; it is in the nature of things to tend toward a higher level of harmony; all one has to do is to protect the natural course of things from forceful, arbitrary intervention, from crude pretenses (even these too are somehow natural, historically natural), and in this Voltaire is right, though his view also lack a historical understanding of the process underway. (p. 447)

“Differential optimism”

Justice exists, but its scale is not comparable to the duration of human life. This is why historical justice often manifests itself as personal injustice. (p. 451)

History and system. Historia aeterna
There is a kind of history that is more logical than logic itself, and there is a kind of logic that has a purely historical meaning. The logical system of the “ancien regime,” for example, and any purely formal logic at that. In relation to relative historical necessity, form is an act of breaking, i.e. a purely historical act; that is, contingent, bare facts and not logic compose the iron logic in question. And this throughout creation!
            Here, logic only cuts to the surface for the first time, and as return back to its basics; rounded off, the logical system is only a product of history. Of course, this all has a direct bearing on the question of whether the world is reasonable. In a narrower sense, reason is only a product, a  fact that thinks of itself too highly as a universal standard, while actually simple fact, contingency itself gives rise to reason.
            Of course, this does not mean that there are many reasons. Since: 1. The highest form of concreteness is a reasonable system in its development. 2. It follows that we must differentia the logical system when it cuts through to the surface from facts, initially taken as intentio obliqua, but hence intentio recta. Hegel does not make this distinction, which is the weak side of his dialectic. (p. 453).
The history of nature as such is the symbolic step of the universal. The province of human madness is a hypertension of historical form. A development, torn from its subject. In this sense, its interrelation – both diachronic and synchronic – needs to be examined from the viewpoint of differentiality and cyclicity. This is this tragedy of material reality. It also contains the answer to the question of whether materialism relativizes “eternal,” metaphysical problems, divesting them of meaning through its social historical explanations. (p. 454)
Thanks are due to the real world. Not for that it is so amazingly logically, but for that it makes it possible for us to understand our own incongruity, our illogicality, and in that, in this, it is reasonable. (p. 454)

The historical (factual) and the reasonable (logical). Limitations of their disparity
Another logic is possible, broader than the reason that we command. This logic is taught by reality itself, which is “smarter” than we are. But this is not an argument against reason, but an argument for its expansion. Our reason is not limited in principle, but it is weak. In this sense, the lessons of the skeptics can be of use.
            These considerations should balance my usual argument rejecting talk of myth’s supremacy over reason and of the unconditional relativity of truth in that the orators do not notice how they themselves make exceptions for their own thoughts, their own reason. Indeed, there is no way that we can jump from our skin, and it would be stupid to the utmost to play at overcoming the bounds of reason with the help of inexact reasoning. But to realize the weakness of even the strictest thought, to see the possibility of its defeat and the necessity to accept facts as facts, to return to them is human, all too human. I repeat that it is important throughout to keep from forgotting the boundary between the possible and actual reasonability of objective processes, without mixing them up as Hegel did, in the spirit of a teleology of the Leibnitzian ilk. (p. 455)

Productive periods after the embryonic stage and new developments toward concentration
The phenomenon of the cycle in time and in development is the same force that is formalized as it advances. Simultaneously, it is also the cycle’s self-absorption, the nocturnal specter, the night.
 “Morning.” It’s the same thing: the morning of humanity’s day, a period of fresh creativity, decisions. “Tomorrow is a new day.” Descartes’ proof. And then, the day develops as history, as life. Our realization of what we have already attained grows stronger, as we become more and more absorbed in formal commonalities, in self-consciousness. See Hegel, in “The Philosophy of the Spirit,” I think, on the morning for gathering in public squares (ancient Greece) and evening for sessions of parliament (self-absorption).
Periods of organic adaptation or night. The formula “tomorrow is a new day,” however, leads us to ponder the role of night, sleep, embryonic periods and other periods of organic adaptation, which are apparently crucial to later periods when “the stars come out,” when new relationships are established to the surrounding infinity of the world during productive periods. The meaning of such epochs in history – the Middle Ages as a precondition for the rise of the Renaissance, an organic adaptation in which the conclusion of the “self-consciousness” (“dissolution”) of the antique world are drawn while sleeping. 
The epoch of the Restoration, the period after the reforms in Russia, “reactionary epochs” in general, nocturnal epochs (p. 457)

Cycle / fatal distortion of the social will
On this occasion, one must note that uprisings in reactionary forms from below punish the limitations of progress, its fall from grace (which is basically what a cycle entails). As such, they reanimate the repressed old, galvanizing outdated orders to take on the meaning of protest and legitimated crimes against civilization.
In this sense, the tragedy of Socrates, according to Hegel, does not differ from the tragedy of Antigone, while Shakespeare (no matter how the provincial wise man Pinsky may one-sidedly interpret my thoughts in this regard) is not simply just a minstrel of the past. This song on the past grows into a breakthrough to the future. This gives rise to the attempt to reconcile opposite, to break the vicious cycle. Art does not only express and reflect the cycle of the philosophy of history, but represents a tragic and comic attempt to step beyond its boundaries into the sphere of full truth. This, in fact, is “poetic justice” (p. 458).

Is there reason in the world?
Where does our reason come from? The concretization of several sides of reality: its universal content (you can’t ask everything – Boltzman – “The instrument should not overshoot the means.”) So you want to pull yourself up by your own hair? – It won’t work.
I think, therefore what I think can be thought, or by-itself, or something that is unthinkable for another thought.
The notion of reason contains its opposite. That which does not fit into the current given scheme of the universal in reality or objectively (into the “rational order”) is irrational. The rational or reasonable turns into opposite, since it is not absolutely identical to itself. The reasonable cannot be with itself, if it is not unreasonable at least in part.
The irrational is that which does fit into the scheme of reason in reality. Obkectively, it is that side of reality that has not yet settled into rational forms and turns against them, the unreasonable in nature and society.
Irrationalism is a misrepresentation that mixes up reality with the unreasonable.
The irrational and the rational go over into one another. Their extremes are identical (giraffe).
Any abstraction of reason is limited, not only in our minds, but in rational forms of reality. The crisis of physical teleology. This is the source of what remains beyond its boundary. It is also – dynamically – where indignation against these forms arises. Heraclites’ tonus and the Stoics: tension. The unreasonable.
Is the world reasonable? Yes, but reason is the concrete meaning of being, and everything concrete is broader than any one-sidedness including reason in any narrow, lop-sided sense of the word; that it, it includes the unreasonable since it includes concrete meaning […] but exclude even reason itself, because it is only reason, because it is beneath itself. This (the dialectic of truth) is the real answer, so unlike Nietzsche’s paradox of the lie. An analogy: my formula of realism. The same can be said of the truth. The truth exists but only because it both includes untruth and excludes abstract truth.
This (general) formula has to have a name (type). (p. 466-467)

The formula of the world
Pre-formation? Libretto? No, just as little as a senseless scattering of facts from which typical forms are compiled through selection and transition from the less probable to the more probable (here, senseless order are actually also irrational).
Natural selection takes place under conditions of more and more concrete pre-formations; there is no such thing as abstract selection. This pre-formation grows, becoming more and more concrete. In a phantastic stroke of genius, Hegel expresses this as the idea of the developing god (stolen and feuilletonized by Nietzsche). Yet still, it seems to me that this process has a flipside: god is born in history, but he also dies like great Pan (p. 487-488).

How strange, how wondrous: why is it that we human are at the center of the universe. Isn’t this false pride? In this sense, Bruno and the enlightenment philosophers were somewhat one-sided: one has to understand that we think as a result of this all too relative world, but once we think, there is no reason to be surprised at the absoluteness of our thinking. The same holds true for individual human beings: the fact that I understand or think places me at the center of the world; this fact itself is the result of a wondrous, quasi-miraculous coincidence of circumstances, selections, developments. But since this miracle has already taken place, we are its consciousness, its voice. One must cultivate respect for this voice of the absolute. Hegel probably wanted to say something to this effect.
But I have been trying to express this thought for my entire life. But I can’t. I’m not clear enough.

What I need is a good example!
 (p. 490)


1. Meaning, in Lenin’s lifetime in Petrograd. Lifshitz is referring to Lenin’s famous letter to Gorky July 21 1919. Answering the writer’s accusation that the Bolshevik revolution was being carried out with the help of thieves and without the participation of the intelligentsia, Lenin writes: “We are doing everything to involve the (non-White-Guardist) intelligentsia in the battle against thing. […] One cannot see this in Peter yet, since Peter is a city that has lost an immeasurable amount of ground (and heads) to the bourgeois public (and the “intelligentsia”), but in most of Russia, it is an irrefutable fact […] If one observes, one has to observe at the bottom, where one can overlook a new world being build, in provincial worker’s settlements or village; here, one need not politically grasp the sum of extremely complex data; one can limit oneself to observing.” (Vladimir I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 51, p. 25).

2. This note is written in German.

3. The second developmental level of consciousness, when it become opaque, irrational, and ideological, losing the immediacy of a “transparent mirror.”

4. Mikhail Lifshitz interprets these themes as follows (cf. File No. 144, p. 195): “The terminology comes from Bretano [?], though it works differently there. In recto is when the object finds its direct expression; in oblique is when it is reflected and involves [?] the conditions of place and time with the consciousness of all immediate perception.”

  5. Trans. note: English in the original

6. Trans. note: The Russian idiom literally reads: “Morning is wiser than evening.”