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By T.S.Tsonchev


The Montréal Review, May 2018


Prince Evgenii Trubetskoy (1863-1920) is one of the less known Russian religious philosophers from the Silver Age period and this essay aims to introduce the reader to Trubetskoy's theory of meaning and truth. Trubetskoy argues that the meaning could be only universal and that it cannot be other than "timeless" and "motionless." As universal, motionless, and eternal, the meaning is the truth. But the truth is not simply what is, it is also what is not, it includes both being and non-being, therefore truth could be revealed only in consciousness. Any search for truth, Trubetskoy argues, is an attempt of the individual consciousness to discover in itself and beyond the presence of the unconditioned consciousness, that is God, the Truth. This essay is based on a reading of Trubetskoy's most important work The Meaning of Life (Smisl Zhizni).  


Before we start any discussion on the meaning of life, Prince Evgenii Trubetskoy says, we should first clarify what we understand under "meaning." Asking about the meaning of something is trying to go beyond subjectivism of the individual thought or perception. Thus, the meaning of something is not how I feel this something, or what it means to me, but what it should mean to me and to others, i.e., to all. (p.14) The aim of every logical conclusion is to assert something unconditional, something absolute, that bears the truth. And the truth, for Trubetskoy, is namely the meaning. He says that subjectivism based only on the conclusions of subjective logic is meaningless. The meaning is always universal. Consciousness is always objective. When I feel (or think of) something, he says, it is not yet consciousness; I am conscious of something only in the moment when I overcome my subjective perception and connect myself with some universally meaningful substance. In other words, I find the meaning only when my subjectivity and perception are in agreement with something that is universally confirmed. Trubetskoy gives as an example our perception of an object that is still on the horizon. I and the people around me could have different conjectures about it and argue against each others' propositions, but the truth of the object would neither change nor reveal itself, if we do not approach it, inspect it closely, and finally agree.

One may argue that Trubetskoy does not say something new, it is clear that the quality of a subjective thought should be confirmed by an objective fact, but I think that the goal of the prince here is not to say something original, but rather to direct our attention to the most important thing for a beginning of a discussion on the meaning of life, namely the principles of knowledge. If we do not consciously agree that our subjective vision of life should be universally confirmed then the value of our conclusions would not be only partial, or limited, but senseless, meaningless. If we do not understand that to be true a thought should be true for us and for all, then we, most certainly, would not have a true thought. We all have different expectations of the future, we have different feelings and thoughts of how it would be, and yet only the future brings to us the truth as it is. So one should wait before asserting a meaning, and while waiting, one should have a clear consciousness of one's own limited perception of meaning. The truth comes with the proofs of the objective world. Of course, some authors, mostly among the existentialists, would say that the objective world cannot be the final judge of what is true and what is not, and they would be right, but this does not contradict Trubetskoy's argument. Because in the universal and objective, he sees the subjective included, and the agreement of the subjective, i.e., of my truth, is actually the last criteria for the affirmation of truth. As a Christian author and an opponent of Bolshevik Marxism, Trubetskoy could not accept the dictate of the objective over the freedom of subjective nor disregard the principle of freedom of conscience that is a fundamental Christian concept. As we will see later, Trubetskoy argues that man is not the "measure of all things," yet only through knowing himself, the limits and the workings of his consciousness, man knows the truth.

Trubetskoy is clear: either our thought is all-meaningful (общезначимая), universally confirmed, or it is entirely illusory. (p.18) If everything we consider as reality is an individual, self-enclosed psychological phenomenon, then everything is stripped of meaning and there is no consciousness. In other words, consciousness is the agreement between the psychological perception of the individual man and the objective world. Consciousness, therefore, is the unity of subjective and objective. If all my spiritual life, he says, is limited to my subjective ever-changing psychological condition, I would be incapable to overcome my condition, to overcome my limits, and grasp the supra-psychological, the meaningful. (p.18) Meaning, he concludes, is universality (всеобщность) and absoluteness (безусловность). (p.18)

If the meaning is universal and absolute, then it is also permanent and motionless. (p.19) Our perceptions about an object could be temporal and diverse, but the object itself has its own subjective, permanent reality. We might explore it gradually and understand its truth, but this does not change its nature, does not make of it something different of what it is. Our perception and understanding of a thing changes, but the thing's truth is always the same. The meaning, Trubetskoy says, is always supra-temporal, it is always "clothed in eternity." (19) Note here that the meaning, for Trubetskoy, is not what I find about this object, but what the object is in itself. It is not my ought, so to say, but the ought of the object that coincides with my ought. It is not the is that I impose or find in the object, but the is of the object that is the same in the object and in my mind. Clearly, following this logic, we cannot hope that there is a possibility for absolute coincidence, on a subjective level, between subject and object, and between subject and subject, but only a possibility of constantly growing agreement and meaning. Exactly in the impossibility to find the absolute truth consists the permanent and motionless nature of meaning; the meaning does not change simply because its bottom (or heaven) could not be reached. One may say that if the truth is unreachable then it is ultimately meaningless, i.e., one may conclude that there is no truth, that everything is relative. But the point and value of Trubetskoy's vision is different, it does not aim to reveal the ultimate truth; the value and the meaning of his argument is that there is a depth of truth that is inaccessible for the subjective mind, but there is also a constant growth of truth and meaning, of agreement, that actually makes life possible and meaningful. Life, in other words, is the constant and gradual movement from agreement to agreement between subjects and objects, subject and subjects in regard to subjects and objects.

Trubetskoy says that to be conscious means to understand and to understand means to go beyond time, to reach the eternity. (19) So Heraclitus, he argues, contradicted himself saying that we never bath twice in the same river: the water in the river runs, but the river is nevertheless the same as far as the water continues its flow. In the idea of "river," we have timeless meaning. Similarly, "movement" denotes without change of meaning a corresponding process of movement. The moving object, a flying arrow for example, passes trough time and space, but what we call movement, namely the passage of the arrow through space and time, is the same. The arrow will fall eventually but this would not change the fact that it moved. In this specific sense, according to Trubetskoy, the movement is immovable and eternal. There is no contradiction between mutability and immutability. (21)

Trubetskoy argues, against Bergson, that we are capable to think and understand exactly because the fact of the eternity and immutability of meaning. In a world of constant change, the meaning hinges on the eternal. Our intuition of the eternal, he argues, makes us capable to find meaning in the temporal. Time is partitioned eternal. "Every synthesis of moments divided in time is possible only through our intuition of the meaning of the eternal." (22)  Every event in time has its timeless, motionless meaning. (22) That is why we are capable, Trubetskoy says, to speak about historical past. The historical past is something non-existent, past is something that is not. If we think of the French Revolution, for example, we admit that in this event there is timeless truth. If we think of the Reign of Terror, then we admit that in it there is a timeless truth. To think about movement and past is to think about every moment as both disappearing in time and persevering in the eternity of truth. (23) We are capable to think of something in the past thanks to the meaning it has. If the meaning, as we have said, is always absolute and timeless, then this something, although in the past, i.e. non-existent, is still in the present, therefore timeless and as such bearing the truth. All this, however, is possible only in consciousness. This means that the full truth of something from the past is not simply revealed in its actual moment of happening, but also and most fully in its meaning and existence in consciousness; and not in the individual consciousness, but rather in the universal consciousness that is, as it was said, the agreement between subject and object, and between subject and subjects on subjects and objects. The universal consciousness is consciousness not conditioned by time and space; it is polyphonic, based on unanimous agreement of all parts composing a unity. Here we discern the features of the typical Russian Orthodox idea of sobornost and all-unity.

To be conscious, Trubetskoy says, is to find the universal truth and meaning of the thing of which one is conscious. Our human opinions and thoughts could be indefinitely diverse, yet the truth for all is one and the same. (30) To be conscious is to connect individual consciousness with universal truth. Truth is necessarily the same for all. Truth is the same for all and at the same time it is one: it is one and all simultaneously. (31) And if the truth is one then the thought, the consciousness would be one as well. In the truth and in the thought that is right and true there is all-unity (всеединство). The truth is everywhere, even in the opinion that is not true. The truth of the untrue opinion consists in its untruthfulness, so even in the false there is truth that asserts the existence and meaning of the false. The unconditional consciousness is pure consciousness and truth, and the search for truth, Trubetskoy says, is the attempt to find unconditional consciousness in my consciousness and my consciousness in the unconditional. The truth that is one and the same for all is absolute truth. (32) The lack of unconditional consciousness would mean lack of knowledge, and everything would be an illusion.

Trubetskoy argues that the unconditional could be found not in the external, but in the internal, in the subjective consciousness. "Know thy self" means, as Plato says, to recall, to find in the depth of my individual consciousness the presence of the universal truth. The falsity in my consciousness is a falsity only because my consciousness is not connected to the universal truth. The fundament of all truth, that is the beginning of all truth, for Trubetskoy, is the faith in the existence of one truth. And this faith is in man, it makes him believe that truth exists; it is confirmed when one continues to observe the thing on the horizon and discover it gradually, building and synthesizing all partial truths and perceptions into a greater whole to eternity. Every reasoning or perception that expands our knowledge of truth is a synthetic reasoning. (35) It is a synthesis of the possible in my individual thought and perception and the actual in the universal truth. But there is no synthesis if there is no connection between possible and actual, between individual perception and expectation and transcendence revealed in act of immanence. However, in the absolute truth there is no gradual synthesis, the absolute truth is a synthetic and complete reality, the causes and the effects, all possibilities and actualities are already there. The only way for the subjective consciousness to approach the truth, to discover the meaning, is to connect with the primal Truth.

Trubetskoy concludes that the subjective truth and consciousness, the truth of the individual person, is possible only because of the existence of an absolute consciousness. The All-united Mind, he says, sees and knows, and we, the human beings, see through Him and know with Him. (40) This means that our consciousness is always conditioned by something greater, something beyond us, namely the absolute consciousness. Everything depends on the All-united and Absolute Mind, while It depends on nothing.


Трубецкой, Евгений. Смьiсл Жизни, Москва: Институт русской цивилизации, 2011 (Trubetskoy, Evgenii. Smisl Zhizny, Moscow: Institute of Russian Civilization, 2011)




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