Tuesday, August 23, 2005


I just recently read the book by James Billington, Russia: In Search of Itself. This is a great book, very readable with wonderful insights into Russia's past, present and potential futures.

This is not a book review for this short piece could not do justice to this important book. Rather this essay develops just one line of thought from the book about the concept of sobornost' - an idea that may have some bearing on the innovation commons.

In the 1920s, Vladimir Vernadsky developed "his increasingly visionary idea that man was not only an organic part of the biosphere but also an immaterial force in the 'noosphere', where everything is determined by the interaction between the human mind and the material world. Multiple conferences and even special institutes have arisen in post Soviet Russia to discuss the moral and spiritual implications of living in the noosphere. The discussion has involved more people more deeply in Russia than did the earlier consideration of the similar ideas of Teilhard de Chardin in the West."

Later, Billington writes, "Ivanov sees in the concept of the noosphere the key to global collaboration both in solving common problems and in restoring the imbalance in modern culture between the two hemispheres of the brain. 'The current high status of the left side of the brain' results from the written, alphabetized means of communication that supplanted humanity's earlier oral and pictorial ways of communicating. The new audiovisual culture of the late twentieth century opens up the possibility of restoring the right side of the brain to a co-equal role. Harmony within the individual could facilitate harmony in the noosphere."

He continues, "In the later Soviet era, V. V. Ivanov had helped pioneer the innovative movement of humanistic scholarship called semiotics (the science of signs). Seeking to apply the discipline of linguistics to other forms of human thought and expression, this informal school met in the relatively free atmosphere of Tartu, Estonia... Semiotics was seen as a means of unifying knowledge, and of rendering the noosphere intelligible as a 'semiosphere'."

In March 2002 Alexander Dugin, in describing his new Eurasia political party, believed that "Intensive scientific development in this Union will lead Eurasia both forward to economic modernization and back to traditional village values. And the Internet will permit economic activity to return from decadent cities to healthy rural locations."

In writing about Russia's travails in search of a democratic identity, Billington writes, Some advocates of a democratic rather than an authoritarian future for Russia buttress their case with new theories about the 'noosphere'. The prolific economist Yury Yahovets argues that all past theories about inevitable conflicts and the rise and fall of civilizations are now obsolete. The broad cycles in human affairs (the sociosphere) and in the natural world (the biosphere) are being superceded by the interaction of the human mind with the cosmos (the noosphere). All of mankind is now reaching 'through the storms to the stars'.

The ecological crisis has become global and cannot be resolved by either arrogant central planners or the 'uncontrollable randomness of the market'. Nor can one rely on the naive 'eco-centrism' of those who see science and technology as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Questions must now be resolved collaboratively between nations and disciplines in the noosphere, 'the sphere that determines the influences of human thought and activity on biospheric processes'.

...Russia has the resources and talent to replicate this model on a larger scale and validate it for multiethnic countries - and perhaps even for the world as a whole."

Later, he introduces the concept of sobornost', "The spirit of togetherness engendered by local, cooperative activity was seen by many Russians as the expression of an indigenous tradition that they call sobornost'. This is a Slavophile-originated term derived from the word sobor, a word with multiple meanings of cathedral, council, and the simple gathering in of people or of things that had previously been scattered. It expresses a desire to find a measure of common purpose for a people and a culture long rent with splits and schisms. It provides a post-Soviet generation with a social ideal that is different from either Eastern collectivism or Western individualism. And it suggests that there is a spiritual dimension to nonpolitical, small-scale human community.

The basic human embodiment of the sobornost' ideal is the family. Family happiness was the ideal of much nineteenth-century Russian literature. The persistent integrity of the family throughout the twentieth century protected the Russian people from some of the intrusive inhumanity of the Soviet system. But sobernost' is thought to be exemplified in a wide variety of communal undertakings ranging from the camaraderie of pioneering construction work in harsh climates to the intense discussion of proscribed ideals in small urban circles.

Semion Frank, one of the most important neglected thinkers of the late imperial period, argued in the emigration that sobornost', 'the choral principle in Russian life', was not just an ideal from the past but a force for the future. Sobornost' overcame the potential hostility between the I and Thou with a kind of organic, spiritual unity that differed from 'sociality' (obshchestvernost') in which isolated individuals are aggregated into materialistic interest groups.

...sobornost' describes the kind of communion with others that is open to an individual seeking to discover what St. Augustine described as that which is within me which is deeper than myself. For others seeking a 'third way' between socialism and capitalism, sobornost' represents an indigenous communitarian ideal on which to base a humane, social democratic future."

In his conclusion, Billington writes, "Frank's belief that sobornost' begins with spiritual transformation within individuals rather than material changes in society...All of these Russian thinkers - and many others yet to be discovered - contribute not just to their own, but also to European and world civilization."

Russia: In Search of Itself
James H. Billington
Woodrow Wilson Press, 2004


Blogger Oliver Markley said...

Thanks for this, Paul. I think that the idea of sobernost' holds great promise; and would suggest that we use this as a focus for a future meeting of the Central Texas World Future Society.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Georgia said...

Many teachers work dilgently, building "Sobornost" with tools created by Great Thinkers such as Ned Herrmann. We already have the tools that will enable the wholeness described in your essay and many other worthy writings that link in unified resonance.

We have little excuse to wait on such an important and critical learning curve facing humanity.

1:37 PM  

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