Mikhail Bakhtin  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Mikhail Bakhtin (November 17, 1895 – March 7, 1975) was a Russian philosopher, literary critic, and semiotician who wrote influential works of literary and rhetorical theory and criticism. He is best known for his work Rabelais and His World which explored transgression, the grotesque body and the carnivalesque in Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel.



Despite the fact that Bakhtin’s career was fraught with difficulties and complications, impeding the publication of many of his manuscripts until after his death, Bakhtin is considered to be a significant thinker of the twentieth century. As a philosopher Bakhtin was concerned with ethics and the act. As a philologist, he was concerned with language, arguing that a struggle between forces simultaneously working to separate and unite those things existing in both nature and culture was at the very center of existence. According to Bakhtin, examples of this struggle are best reflected in human language and best recorded in the novel, a subject to which Bakhtin devoted a significant amount of time (Holquist xv-xviii).

As a literary theorist, Bakhtin is associated with the Russian Formalists, and his work is often compared with that of Yuri Lotman. His career is frequently described as being broken into periods, but there is some discrepancy as to how those periods should be divided. During the 1920s, Bakhtin's work tended to focus on ethics and aesthetics in general. Early pieces such as Towards a Philosophy of the Act and Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity are indebted to the philosophical trends of the time – particularly the Marburg School Neo-Kantianism of Hermann Cohen, including Ernst Cassirer, Max Scheler and, to a lesser extent, Nicolai Hartmann. But it was only after Bakhtin’s death in 1975 that authors such as Julia Kristeva and Tzvetan Todorov brought Bakhtin to the attention of the Francophone world, and from there his popularity in the United States, the United Kingdom, and many other countries continued to grow. In the late 1980s, Bakhtin's work experienced a surge of popularity in the West, and he continues today to be regarded as one of the most important theorists of literature and culture.

Bakhtin’s primary works include, Toward a Philosophy of the Act, an unfinished portion of a philosophical essay; Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Art, to which Bakhtin later added a chapter on the concept of carnival and published with the title Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics; Rabelais and His World, which explores the openness of the Rabelaisian novel; The Dialogic Imagination, whereby the four essays that comprise the work introduce the concepts of dialogism, heteroglossia, and chronotope; and Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, a collection of essays in which Bakhtin concerns himself with method and culture.

In the 1920s there was a "Bakhtin school" in Russia, in line with the so-called discourse analysis of Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson.


Bakhtin was born in Orel, Russia, outside of Moscow, to an old family of the nobility. His father was the manager of a bank and worked in several cities. For this reason Bakhtin spent his early childhood years in Orel, Vilnius (Lithuania) and then Odessa where, in 1913, he allegedly joined the historical and philological faculty at the local university. He later transferred to Petersburg University to join his brother Nikolaj. It is here that Bakhtin was greatly influenced by the classicist F. F. Zelinskij whose works contain the beginnings of concepts elaborated by Bakhtin. Bakhtin completed his studies in 1918 and moved to a small city in western Russia, Nevel, Pskov Oblast, where he worked as a school teacher for two years. It was at this time that the first “Bakhtin Circle” formed. The group consisted of intellectuals with varying interests, but all shared a love for the discussion of literary, religious, and political topics. Included in this group were Valentin Volosinov and, eventually, P. N. Medvedev who joined the group later in Vitebsk. German philosophy was the topic talked about most frequently and, from this point forward, Bakhtin considered himself more a philosopher than a literary scholar. It is in Nevel, also, that Bakhtin worked tirelessly on a large work concerning moral philosophy which was never published in its entirety. However, in 1919, a short section of this work was published and given the title “Art and Responsibility”. This piece constitutes Bakhtin’s first published work. Bakhtin relocated to Vitebsk 1920. It was here, in 1921, that Bakhtin married Elena Aleksandrovna Okolovič. Later, in 1923, Bakhtin was diagnosed with osteomyelitis, a bone disease that ultimately led to the amputation of his leg in 1938. This illness hampered his productivity and rendered him an invalid.

In 1924, Bakhtin moved to Leningrad, where he assumed a position at the Historical Institute and provided consulting services for the State Publishing House. It is at this time that Bakhtin decided to share his work with the public, but just before “On the Question of the Methodology of Aesthetics in Written Works” was to be published, the journal in which it was to appear stopped publication. This work was eventually published fifty-one years later. The repression and misplacement of his manuscripts was something that would plague Bakhtin throughout his career. In 1929, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art, Bakhtin’s first major work, was published. It is here that Bakhtin introduces the concept of dialogism. However, just as this revolutionary book was introduced, Bakhtin was accused of participating in the Russian Orthodox Church's underground movement. The truthfulness of this charge is not known, even today. Consequently, during one of the many purges of artists and intellectuals that Stalin conducted during the early years of his rule, Bakhtin was sentenced to exile in Siberia but appealed on the grounds that, in his weakened state, it would kill him. Instead, he was sentenced to six years of 'internal exile' in Kazakhstan.

Bakhtin spent these six years working as a book keeper in the town of Kustanaj, during which time Bakhtin wrote several important essays, including “Discourse in the Novel”. In 1936, he taught courses at the Mordovian Pedagogical Institute in Saransk. An obscure figure in a provincial college, he dropped out of view and taught only occasionally. In 1937, Bakhtin moved to Kimry, a town located a couple hundred kilometers from Moscow. Here, Bakhtin completed work on a book concerning the eighteenth-century German novel which was subsequently accepted by the Sovetskij Pisatel’ Publishing House. However, the only copy of the manuscript disappeared during the upheaval caused by the German invasion.

After the amputation of his leg in 1938, Bakhtin’s health improved and he became more prolific. In 1940, and until the end of World War II, Bakhtin lived in Moscow where he submitted a dissertation on Rabelais which could not be defended until the war ended. In 1946 and 1949, the defense of this dissertation divided the scholars of Moscow into two groups: those official opponents guiding the defense who accepted the original and unorthodox manuscript, and those other professors who were against the manuscript’s acceptance. The book's earthy, anarchic topic was the cause of many arguments which ceased only when the government intervened. Resultantly, Bakhtin was denied a doctorate and granted a lesser degree by the State Accrediting Bureau. Later, Bakhtin was invited back to Saransk where he took on the position of chairman of the General Literature Department at the Mordovian Pedagogical Institute. When, in 1957, the Mordovian Pedagogical Institute made the transition from a teachers college to a university, Bakhtin became head of the Department of Russian and World Literature. In 1961, Bakhtin’s deteriorating health forced him to retire, and in 1969, in search of medical attention, Bakhtin moved back to Moscow where he resided until his death in 1975 (Holquist xxi-xxvi).

Bakhtin’s works and ideas gained popularity after his death, and he endured difficult conditions for much of his professional life, a time in which information was dangerous and therefore often hidden. Therefore, the details provided now are often of uncertain inaccuracy. Also, contributing to these often imprecise details is the limited access to Russian archival information during Bakhtin’s life. It is only after the archives became public that scholars realized that much of what they thought they knew about the details of Bakhtin’s life was false or skewed largely by Bakhtin himself (Hirschkop 2).

Works and Ideas

Toward a Philosophy of the Act:

See Toward a Philosophy of the Act

Toward a Philosophy of the Act was first published in Russia in 1986 with the title K filosofii postupka. The manuscript of this early work was found in bad condition with pages missing and sections of text that were illegible. It is for this reason that this philosophical essay appears today as a fragment of an unfinished work. Toward a Philosophy of the Act comprises only an introduction, of which the first few pages are missing, and part one of the full text. However, Bakhtin’s intentions for the work were not altogether lost, for he provided an outline in the introduction in which he stated that the essay was to contain four parts (Liapunov xvii). The first part of the essay, deals with the analysis of the performed acts or deeds that comprise the actual world; “the world actually experienced, and not the merely thinkable world.” For the three subsequent and unfinished parts of Toward a Philosophy of the Act Bakhtin states the topics he intends to discuss. He outlines that the second part will deal with aesthetic activity and the ethics of artistic creation; the third with the ethics of politics; and the fourth with religion (Bakhtin 54).

Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Art: polyphony and unfinalizability

During his time in Leningrad, Bakhtin shifted his focus away from the philosophy characteristic of his early works and towards the notion of dialogue. It is at this time that he began his engagement with the work of Dostoevsky. Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Art is considered to be Bakhtin’s seminal work, and it is here that Bakhtin introduces three important concepts.

First, is the concept of the unfinalizable self: individual people cannot be finalized, completely understood, known, or labeled. Though it is possible to understand people and to treat them as if they are completely known, Bakhtin’s conception of unfinalizability respects the possibility that a person can change, and that a person is never fully revealed or fully known in the world. Readers may find that this conception reflects the idea of the soul; Bakhtin had strong roots in Christianity and in the Neo-Kantian school led by Hermann Cohen, both of which emphasized the importance of an individual's potentially infinite capability, worth, and the hidden soul.

Second, is the idea of the relationship between the self and others, or other groups. According to Bakhtin, every person is influenced by others in an inescapably intertwined way, and consequently no voice can be said to be isolated. In an interview, Bakhtin once explained that, "

In order to understand, it is immensely important for the person who understands to be located outside the object of his or her creative understanding—in time, in space, in culture. For one cannot even really see one's own exterior and comprehend it as a whole, and no mirrors or photographs can help; our real exterior can be seen and understood only by other people, because they are located outside us in space, and because they are others.

(New York Review of Books, June 10, 1993).

As such, Bakhtin's philosophy greatly respected the influences of others on the self, not merely in terms of how a person comes to be, but also in how a person thinks and how a person sees oneself truthfully.

Third, Bakhtin found in Dostoevsky's work a true representation of polyphony, that is, many voices. Each character in Dostoevsky's work represents a voice that represents an individual self, distinct from others. This idea of polyphony is related to the concepts of unfinalizability and self and other, since it is the unfinalizability of individuals that creates true polyphony.

When, in subsequent years, Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Art was to be translated into English and published in the West, Bakhtin added a chapter on the concept of carnival and the book was published with the slightly different title, Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics. According to Bakhtin, carnival is the concept in which distinct individual voices are heard, flourish, and interact together. The carnival was Bakhtin's way of describing Dostoevsky's polyphonic style: each individual character is strongly defined, and at the same time the reader witnesses the critical influence of each character upon the other. That is, the voices of others are heard by each individual, and each inescapably shapes the character of the other.

Rabelais and His World: carnival and grotesque

See Rabelais and His World

During World War II Bakhtin submitted a dissertation on the French Renaissance writer François Rabelais which was not defended until some years later. The controversial ideas discussed within the work caused much disagreement, and it was consequently decided that Bakhtin be denied his doctorate. Thus, due to its content, Rabelais and Folk Culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance was not published until 1965, at which time it was given the title, Rabelais and His World (Holquist xxv).

The Dialogic Imagination: Chronotope, Heteroglossia

The Dialogic Imagination is a compilation of four essays concerning language and the novel: “Epic and Novel”, “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse”, “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel”, and “Discourse in the Novel”. In the nineteenth century the novel as a literary genre became increasingly popular, but for most of its history it has been an area of study often disregarded. It is through the essays contained within The Dialogic Imagination that Bakhtin introduces the concepts of heteroglossia, dialogism and chronotope, making a significant contribution to the realm of literary scholarship (Holquist xxvi).

In “Epic and Novel”, Bakhtin demonstrates the novel’s distinct nature by contrasting it with the epic. By doing so, Bakhtin shows that the novel is well suited to the post-industrial civilization in which we live because it flourishes on diversity. It is this same diversity that the epic attempts to eliminate from the world. According to Bakhtin, the novel as a genre is unique in that it is able to embrace, ingest, and devour other genres while still maintaining its status as a novel. Other genres, however, cannot emulate the novel without damaging their own distinct identity (Holquist xxxii).

“From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse” is a less traditional essay in which Bakhtin reveals how various different texts from the past have ultimately come together to form the modern novel (Holquist xxxiii).

“Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel” introduces Bakhtin’s concept of chronotope. This essay applies the concept in order to further demonstrate the distinctive quality of the novel (Holquist xxxiii). The word “chronotope” literally means “time space” and, in the essay, Bakhtin defines it as “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature” (Bakhtin 84). For the purpose of his writing, an author must create entire worlds and, in doing so, is forced to make use of the organizing categories of the real world in which he lives. For this reason chronotope is a concept that engages reality (Clark and Holquist 278).

The final essay, “Discourse in the Novel”, is considered one of Bakhtin’s most complete statements concerning his philosophy of language. It is here that Bakhtin provides a model for a history of discourse and introduces the concept of heteroglossia (Holquist xxxiii). The term heteroglossia refers to the qualities of a language that are extralinguistic, but common to all languages. These include qualities such as perspective, evaluation, and ideological positioning. In this way most languages are incapable of neutrality, for every word is inextricably bound to the context in which it exists(Farmer xviii).

Speech Genres and Other Late Essays

see Speech Genres and Other Late Essays

In Speech Genres and Other Late Essays Bakhtin moves away from the novel and concerns himself with the problems of method and the nature of culture. There are six essays that comprise this compilation: “Response to a Question from the Novy Mir Editorial Staff”, “The Bildungsroman and Its Significance in the History of Realism”, “The Problem of Speech Genres”, “The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences: An Experiment in Philosophical Analysis”, “From Notes Made in 1970-71”, and “Toward a Methodology for the Human Sciences”.

Bakhtin works

  • Bakhtin, M. M. [1930s] (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin and London: University of Texas Press. [written during the 1930s]
  • Bakhtin, M. M. [1941, 1965] Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
  • Bakhtin, M. M. (1984) Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Edited and translated by Caryl Emerson. Minnieapolis: University of Michigan Press.
  • Bakhtin, M. M. (1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. by Vern W. McGee. Austin, Tx: University of Texas Press.
  • Bakhtin, M. M. (1990) Art and Answerability. Ed. Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov. Trans. Vadim Liapunov and Kenneth Brostrom. Austin: University of Texas Press [written 1919-1924, published 1974-1979]
  • Bakhtin, M. M. (1993) Toward a Philosophy of the Act. Ed. Vadim Liapunov and Michael Holquist. Trans. Vadim Liapunov. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • M.M.Bakhtin, V.D.Duvakin, S.G.Bocharov, MM Bakhtin: besedy s VD Duvakinym (Russian), Soglasie, 2002

Disputed texts

Some of the works which bear the names of Bakhtin's close friends V. N. Vološinov and P. N. Medvedev have been attributed to Bakhtin – particularly The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship and Marxism and Philosophy of Language. These claims originated in the early 1970s and received their earliest full articulation in English in Clark and Holquist's 1984 biography of Bakhtin. In the years since then, however, most scholars have come to agree that Vološinov and Medvedev ought to be considered the true authors of these works. Although Bakhtin undoubtedly influenced these scholars and may even have had a hand in composing the works attributed to them, it now seems clear that if it was necessary to attribute authorship of these works to one person, Vološinov and Medvedev respectively should receive credit.


Throughout his lifetime Bakhtin made a significant contribution to the world of literary and rhetorical theory and criticism. He is known today for his interest in a wide variety of subjects, ideas, vocabularies, and periods, as well as his use of authorial disguises. As a result of the breadth of topics with which Bakhtin dealt, he was able to influence groups of theorists in the West including Neo-Marxists, Structuralists, and Semioticians. However, his influence on such groups has, somewhat paradoxically, resulted in narrowing the scope of Bakhtin’s work. Rarely do those who incorporate Bakhtin’s ideas into theories of their own appreciate his work in its entirety (Clark and Holquist 3).

While Bakhtin is traditionally seen as a literary critic, there can be no denying his impact on the realm of rhetorical theory. Among his many theories and ideas Bakhtin indicates that style is a developmental process, occurring both within the user of language and language itself. His work instills in the reader an awareness of tone and expression that arise from the careful formation of verbal phrasing. By means of his writing, Bakhtin has enriched the experience of verbal and written expression which ultimately aids the formal teaching of writing (Schuster 1-2). Some even suggest that Bakhtin introduces a new meaning to rhetoric because of his tendency to reject the separation of language and ideology (Klancher 24).

Bakhtin has been compared to Derrida and Michel Foucault. (Neo Kantianism in Cultural Theory. Bakhtin, Derrida and Foucault. Brandist, Craig. Radical philosophy, July 2000, n.120, p.6 [1] )

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Mikhail Bakhtin" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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