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Methodology Can Do Everything

Expert, no. 9 (8-14 March 2004)
Platon Bureev and Petr Shchedrovitski

A Russian thinker set up the task for himself to develop an original philosophy that would help create an intellectual elite out of independently thinking citizens.  

On 23 February 2004, the philosopher and methodologist, Georgi Petrovich Shchedrovitski, if he had lived, would have been seventy-five. The same day, his students and followers celebrated half-a-century of the Moscow Methodological Circle, also a Shchedrovitskis creation. For this double anniversary, the Moscow Methodological Circle Heritage Press and the School of Cultural Politics published a number of books about Shchedrovitski. The philosopher had always striven to disseminate his ideas amongst the widest audience possible. It appears that today this is becoming achievable.

Shchedrovitski was born in 1929, the year when Stalin announced the Great Break in the countrys politics and renewed the ideological attack against idealist philosophy. Coincidentally, in the same year, a group of European thinkers known as the Vienna Circle announced its programme of scientific philosophy.

Twenty years later, the dean of the Physics Department of Moscow University recommended Shchedrovitski, then a third-year student, to join the recently opened Nuclear Physics Section within the Department. Its students formed a team that later contributed to Soviet nuclear weapons. In response to this invitation, however, Shchedrovitski asked to be transferred to the Philosophy Department.

At the Philosophy Department, Shchedrovitski (or GP, after Georgi Petrovich, as friends nicknamed him), became friends with other philosophy students, Alexander Zinoviev, Boris Grushin and Merab Mamardashvili. In the following years, the group shaped the intellectual climate at the department. They brought a breath of freedom in the claustrophobic atmosphere of this school of official Soviet philosophy. Walking around campus, strolling along Moscow boulevards or visiting pubs, the friends discussed the issues of logic with the hope of constructing a new methodology of thinking and of solving many contemporary problems. It was their way to fight the official philosophy while avoiding open confrontation with the Communist Party. The problems they attempted to solve were both scientific and practical, for example, problems of management and project design. Having analysed Karl Marxs Capital, they came to the conclusion that this work contains the logic which could lay the foundation for the human sciences of the twentieth and twenty-first century. This was the logic suited for changing the world. In spite of personal differences, each of them believed that Marx had paved the way for central debates in twentieth-century philosophy.

GP emphasised the difference between formal logic, which dated from Aristotles times, and the logic introduced by Marx. The latter reflected on the subject matter, substance and evolution of what the logic applies to, and it is, in his view, therefore more adequate for the process of thinking. While Aristotles logic describes the rules of the syllogism, genetic logic understands thinking as activity or practice. This activity is not an object or thing, nor is it a psychological process. Thinking is social, he concluded; thought, language and individual psychology are derivative of society. Their genesis and evolution follows the logic of ascending from abstract to concrete, the logic of Capital.

From the beginning, this new logic and methodology were intended to be an instrument for solving theoretical and practical problems. GP believed it would be especially relevant in contemporary conditions characterised by incompleteness of information. These conditions required a collective effort and division of responsibilities amongst participants.

One can claim that, beginning with the mid-sixties, methodology became more and more in demand. By the end of the century, a genuine methodological revolution had taken place in both the human and the natural sciences. Today, leading thinkers assert the ideas formulated by the philosophers of the late fifties and early sixties.

GP did not tire of arguing that the countrys development required, above all, tens of thousands of active and autonomous citizens who know how to think independently and who could resist dictatorship by any institution, be it a state, trade-union or international corporation. He saw the mission of the Moscow Methodological Circle, which he had founded, as raising a new intelligentsia or meritocracy. This intellectual elite was to commit itself to the countrys development and take the risks which followed from this mission. In the sixties and seventies, the Moscow Methodological Circle formed several generations of young people, both students and professionals. These people were ready to leave their previous occupations psychology, linguistics, mathematics, physics, chemistry, education, geology, architecture in order to become methodologists.

GP always emphasised that a country without an original philosophy and a coherent Weltanshauung would hardly be able to compete internationally, whether in the cultural, political or financial domain. Without an efficient philosophy the country will not have a competitive economy. GP believed that his conception of methodology of thinking and practice best suited the needs of Russia. To Aristotles question - what is Being? - a Russian philosopher would answer: Being is both human practice and thinking understood as practice. To learn to control and manage this practice, GP believed, is a challenge for our contemporaries.

In 1968, Shchedrovitski signed a letter in support of two political dissidents, Alexander Ginzburg and Iuri Galanski. He was expelled from the Communist Party and could no longer publish. The consequences were unexpected: although none of Shchedrovitskis work appeared in print, he continued to give lectures and talks at informal seminars. They were recorded, and these recordings, like those of bards and famous artists, spread around the country. GP acquired a fame that official academicians never dreamed of.

In 1979, in order to put his ideas to work, Shchedrovitski created a method of collective problem solving, the so-called Organizational and Practical Game (OPG). He saw it as a direct continuation of Marxs philosophy. Marx dreamed of a new society in which nobody is exploited, neither by economic or administrative means, but in which free people work together. OPG was an attempt to create a mechanism for organizing work in groups and collective management based on common aims and values, not force.

As the legend goes, the first game was provoked by a phrase which GP threw out accidentally at a conference in Moscow: Methodology can do everything! A director of a provincial design bureau, who had serious problems and had come to Moscow for help, overheard this phrase. He invited methodologists as consultants. The Muscovites succeeded in making possible communication, interaction and cooperation between people from different occupations and interest groups and consequently helped solve the problem.

In the 1980s, GP spent almost all of his time organising various games. He based his practice on the work of the Moscow Methodological Circle. Directors of enterprises, colleges and associations presented their problems in the areas of engineering, teaching, urban design and management. In response, GPs team elaborated a technology of organising group communication and problem solving. After the first success, invitations to organise games came from all sides of the country. By the late 1980s, GP had organised over a hundred games, and his students had organised at least as many.

Shchedrovitski often quoted Professor Preobrazhenski, a character of Mikhail Bulgakovs novel, The Heart of a Dog. The events in the novel take place after the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution, when Russia lay in ruins. Professor Preobrazhenski, a surgeon and rationalist, comments when faced by a toilet that does not work: Dereliction is not in water-closets; it is in peoples heads. This was GPs response to what happened in the Soviet Union during the years of stagnation under Brezhnev.

Shchedrovitski welcomed the changes of the mid-eighties and early nineties, yet, as perestroika was unfolding, he saw that the failure to think clearly was leading to accumulating problems and crises. His response was to expand the methodological movement, enrolling more participants and developing methodological tools. He kept emphasising the importance of clear and constructive thinking, and he often repeated that changes in thought are the most complex and significant process in human history, a process of comparable importance to the evolution of the universe. He argued that the future would be as we would make it, first in our thought, or on the boards,[1] then - to the degree of our ability to understand each other and to cooperate - in reality.

Further Reading (in Russian)

G.P. Shchedrovitski, The Problems of Logic of Scienitifc Research and the Analysis of Science Structures: Lectures and Communications at the Seminar on Structures and Systems (June-July 1965). Moscow: Put , 2004. 400 pp.

On the Boards: Public Lectures on Philosophy by G.P. Shchedrovitski. Moscow: The School of Cultural Politics, 2004. 196 pp.

Knowledge and Social Action: G.P. Shchedrovitskis Heritage in the Context of Russian and World Philosophy. Moscow: F.A.C.-Media, 2004. 543 pp.

Translated by Irina Sirotkina and Roger Smith

[1] Methodologists use many special charts and schemes; at their seminars, they make heavy use of chalk and blackboards. On the Boards is also the name of the theatre-studio where Shchedrovitski gave his public lectures in philosophy.

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