The Philosopher’s Eye was sad to see that the charismatic and idiosyncratic philosopher Alexander Piatigorsky passed away earlier this month. Piatigorsky was a professor at the London School of Oriental and African studies (SOAS) until his retirement in 2001. (Sir Isaiah Berlin had intervened to ensure his appointment after he fled the USSR.) The topics on which he wrote ranged from the failures of totalitarian communism to Buddhist thought and even to Freemasonry. Piatigorsky was also a talented linguist – he compiled the first Russian-Tamil dictionary – and a novelist.
But the volume which is perhaps best known amongst philosophers in England is “Symbol and Consciousness: Metaphysical Discussion of Consciousness, Symbolism and Language” (1982), which he co-authored with Merab Mamardashvili. This work, written before Piatigorsky left Soviet Russia and smuggled out from behind the Iron Curtain by the philosopher Ernest Gellner, provides a theory of consciousness that tries to fuse the phenomenological views of Husserl with Buddhist ideas. (An extremely hostile review of the book can be read here.) He returned to the topic of consciousness and self-consciousness in his Thinking and Observation (2002), in which he argued that consciousness is chiefly concerned with contemplating itself rather than with material objects.
Piatigorsky’s energetic lecturing style, full of expansive gestures and constant pacing about, made him well known amongst London students. He is survived by his fourth wife, Lyudmila, and three daughters and two sons from his three previous marriages. (An obituary in The Times can be read here.)
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