[From the online edition of the New York Times. To read the entire piece, click here.]
The region that brought forth the great medieval Bukharan polymath ibn Sina (Avicenna) has been thought to be philosophically fallow for centuries, though on a visit to the Academy of Sciences in Almaty some years ago I was presented with a souvenir meant to assure me that Central Asia was indeed still producing philosophy worthy of note. It was a collectively authored book entitled “The Development of Materialist Dialectics in Kazakhstan,” and I still display it proudly on my shelf. Its rough binding and paper bespeak economic hardship. It is packed with the traces of ideas, yet everything about the book announces its materiality.
I had arrived in the Kazakh capital 1994, just in time to encounter the last of a dying breed: the philosopher as party functionary (they are all by now retired, dead or defenestrated, or have simply given up on what they learned in school). The book, written by committee, was a collection of official talking points, and what passed for conversation there was something much closer to recitation.
Central to this performance was the concept of “materialism.” The entire history of philosophy, in fact, was portrayed in Soviet historiography as a series of matches between the materialist home-team and its “idealist” opponents, beginning roughly with Democritus (good) and Plato (bad), and culminating in the opposition between official party philosophy and logical positivism, the latter of which was portrayed as a shrouded variety of idealism. Thus from the “Short Philosophical Dictionary,” published in Moscow in 1951, we learn that the school of logical empiricism represented by Rudolf Carnap, Otto Neurath and others, “is a form of subjective idealism, characteristic of degenerating bourgeois philosophy in the epoch of the decline of capitalism.” ...