The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen (Hardback)
  • The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen (Hardback)
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The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen (Hardback)

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£35.95
Hardback 608 Pages
Published: 09/05/2016
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Alexander Herzen—philosopher, novelist, essayist, political agitator, and one of the leading Russian intellectuals of the nineteenth century—was as famous in his day as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. While he is remembered for his masterpiece My Past and Thoughts and as the father of Russian socialism, his contributions to the history of ideas defy easy categorization because they are so numerous. Aileen Kelly presents the first fully rounded study of the farsighted genius whom Isaiah Berlin called “the forerunner of much twentieth-century thought.”

In an era dominated by ideologies of human progress, Herzen resisted them because they conflicted with his sense of reality, a sense honed by his unusually comprehensive understanding of history, philosophy, and the natural sciences. Following his unconventional decision to study science at university, he came to recognize the implications of early evolutionary theory, not just for the natural world but for human history. In this respect, he was a Darwinian even before Darwin.

Socialism for Russia, as Herzen conceived it, was not an ideology—least of all Marxian “scientific socialism”—but a concrete means of grappling with unique historical circumstances, a way for Russians to combine the best of Western achievements with the possibilities of their own cultural milieu in order to move forward. In the same year that Marx declared communism to be the “solution to the riddle of history,” Herzen denied that any such solution could exist. History, like nature, was contingent—an improvisation both constrained and encouraged by chance.

Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 9780674737112
Number of pages: 608
Dimensions: 235 x 156 mm


MEDIA REVIEWS

As Aileen Kelly demonstrates in this absorbing, revelatory and surely definitive study, the intellectual catalyst that shaped Herzen’s rejection of the idea that freedom is found in submitting to historical necessity was his encounter with science. Kelly makes a salutary break with the picture of Herzen as a Romantic rebel. - John Gray, Literary Review

Of Russia’s great nineteenth-century writers, two stand out as consistently critical of teleological systems and passionately devoted to a humanism of direct vital feeling: Leo Tolstoy and Alexander Herzen. Aileen Kelly’s monumental intellectual biography, with its focus on Herzen the natural scientist refusing to flinch before contingency, transforms the Romanticism of this visionary thinker into something tougher and more robust—he was as tolerant of inconsistency as was Darwin and just as shrewdly earthbound. Here is a Herzen for our times and our most urgent debates. - Caryl Emerson, Princeton University

This book is brilliantly argued, beautifully written, and profoundly thought-through. This will be one of a handful of classics about Russian thinkers. - Gary Saul Morson, Northwestern University

[A] gripping biography of a tragic if courageous life…[The] hidden strands in Herzen’s thought, painstakingly uncovered here by Aileen Kelly, provide yet another compelling reason we should read the melancholy old Russian again and recognize, in his anguished attempt to defend human freedom in dark times, amid all the cruelty of history, that he is truly our contemporary. - Michael Ignatieff, New York Times Book Review

Magisterial…Kelly offers us a new Herzen to consider—not the last of the Romantics, or the radical Russian exile, but the man inspired since boyhood by science and the natural world. Tracing Herzen’s thought through this lens, she places Herzen firmly and unexpectedly within a line of thinkers from Francis Bacon to Charles Darwin. - Robin Feuer Miller, Times Higher Education

Aileen Kelly’s new intellectual biography of Herzen demonstrates, for the first time, how the many conflicting assessments of him could all be correct. Her Herzen oscillates between opposing impulses, inclined in turn to romantic utopianism and ironic realism…Kelly has given us not only the best portrait of Herzen, but also a profound contribution to intellectual debate today. - Gary Saul Morson, New York Review of Books

Kelly maintains a fine balance between the events of [Herzen’s] life and the intellectual currents that shaped him…She seems to have absorbed everything relevant to her subject, and she challenges received opinion with brio. As I was reading it, I was thinking that anyone interested in the intellectual life of the 19th century would profit from this book, but having finished it, I think anyone interested in intellectual life, period, should get it. It’s the best work of history or biography I’ve read in a long time. - Stephen Dodson, The Millions

This is a remarkably thorough intellectual biography that examines almost everything Herzen ever read and provides detailed analysis of his most significant writings. - J. Zimmerman, Choice

If you read only one book related to Russia this year, this should be it. Kelly’s magisterial intellectual biography of Alexander Herzen not only creates a complete image of the remarkable nineteenth-century Russian philosopher and revolutionary but also reveals the roiling intellectual currents that engulfed Russia’s intelligentsia during each stage of Herzen’s life. In many ways, he was a man of our times as much as his own. The philosophical problems that he struggled with (the essence of freedom, the role of providence in human affairs), his dramatic intellectual evolution, and his final embrace of chance and contingency as the core of his political thought: all have resonance today, when power is often wielded by people who embrace teleological certainties. Kelly masterfully traces the intellectual currents to which Herzen contributed, alongside Montesquieu, Francis Bacon, and dozens of lesser-known eighteenth-century thinkers, and reveals the influence that figures such as Ludwig Feuerbach, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Saint-Simon had on Herzen. Above all, in elegant detail, Kelly establishes how central science was to Herzen’s life and thought. Herzen did more than anyone else—certainly more than the social Darwinists or the Leninists—to fuse Darwin’s insights into a philosophy of history. - Robert Legvold, Foreign Affairs

Kelly is a superb guide, not only aware but fully conversant with Herzen’s explorations of thinkers as diverse as Francis Bacon, Saint-Simon, Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Proudhon and Bakunin…The book is also a joy to read in terms of its style…Kelly’s conception of Herzen is compelling and of lasting value…One comes to the conclusion that The Discovery of Chance is a superlative study of Herzen, deeply researched and well-written, attuned to the different strains in its subject’s thinking. - André van Loon, Berlin Review of Books

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