‘FIRST PHILOSOPHY’ AND THE ‘FIRST’ BAKHTIN
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‘FIRST PHILOSOPHY’ AND THE ‘FIRST’ BAKHTIN book
Mikhail Bakhtin’s last work is marked off from his earliest by a small but absolutely critical shift of emphasis: if in the early 1920s he puts his faith in a ‘first philosophy’ (prima philosophia), by the end of his life he has moved onto the terrain of the human sciences, and philosophy’s task is now not the business of resolving the modern crisis by itself – in an introspection and self-correction offered to other disciplines as exemplary – but to hold the ring between the different sectors of modern knowledge as (in Jürgen Habermas’ expression) their ‘stand-in and interpreter’.1 Or, as he puts it in Toward a Philosophy of the Act, its task is to bring the ‘special’ orders of answerability proper to each of these sectors ‘into communion with’ that fundamental ‘moral’ or ‘personal’ answerability by which alone they break free from their suspended animation in mere possibility and have any real effect in the world (TPA, 3). Philosophy is to make them aware of the ethical charge which necessarily informs them, but for which they themselves do not (and cannot) have any terms. In this very early work – its title is, incidentally, an editorial coinage – there is no hint that these new fields of the social even exist. As Bakhtin comes to acknowledge their existence, as indeed he enters into spirited dialogue with them (to begin with obliquely, through the polemics of his friends Pavel Medvedev and Valentin Voloshinov), so he diverts his project; but without ever
wholly forsaking it. ‘Dialogism’, ‘chronotope’, ‘great time’, the defining motifs of his mature work: all of these are here in potentia.