Authors: Mikhail Bakhtin

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Russian literary critic and linguist

Author Works


Freidizm: Kriticheskii ocherk, 1927 (probable author, as V. N. Voloshinov; Freudianism: A Marxist Critique, 1973)

Formal’nyi metod v literaturovedenii: Kriticheskoe vvedenie v sotsiologicheskuyu poetiku, 1928 (probable author, as P. N. Medvedev; The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, 1978)

Marksizm i filisofiya yazyka, 1929 (probable author, as Voloshinov; Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, 1973)

Problemy tvorchestva Dostoevskogo, 1929

Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo, 1963 (Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, 1973, 1984)

Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable i narodnaya kul’tura srednevekov’ya i Renessansa, 1965 (Rabelais and His World, 1968)

Voprosy literatury i estetiki, 1975 (The Dialogic Imagination, 1981)

Estetika slovesnogo tvorchestva, 1979

K filosofii postupka, 1986, wr. 1919-1921 (Toward a Philosophy of the Act, 1993)

Speech Genres, and Other Late Essays, 1986

Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays, 1990


In the late 1970’s, Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (BEHK-tehn) emerged from decades of obscurity to be hailed as one of the leading and most original theorists in a remarkably wide variety of disciplines ranging from linguistics and the social sciences to semiotics and literary criticism. Bakhtin, who was born in Orel, south of Moscow, in 1895, studied philology at the University of Odessa and later at Petrograd. He began his teaching career in a provincial elementary school, from where he went to secondary schools and the teachers’ college at Saransk. Three books written in the 1920’s–Freudianism: A Marxist Critique, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, and Marxism and the Philosophy of Language–have been attributed to him, either in their entirety or in part, even though the works were signed by his friends and colleagues V. N. Voloshinov and P. N. Medvedev. The political climate in postrevolutionary Russia, as revolutionary freedom gave way to political repression, may have necessitated this deception on the part of a writer whose religious views made him suspect. In 1929, the year he published the early version of his important study of Fyodor Dostoevski, Bakhtin was sentenced to internal exile and forced to work as a clerk on the Siberian border. He returned to teaching in 1936 but was beset by difficulties in the following years. In 1938, chronic osteomyelitis led to the amputation of his leg, and acceptance of his doctoral dissertation on François Rabelais, written and submitted in 1940, was delayed for political reasons until 1952 (and left unpublished until 1965). Despite physical infirmities, political difficulties, exile, and a demanding teaching schedule, Bakhtin wrote copiously throughout his entire career, but few of his books appeared under his own name during his lifetime. Only in his final years did his work begin to exert some influence on the new generation of Soviet intellectuals.{$I[AN]9810001346}{$I[A]Bakhtin, Mikhail}{$S[A]Voloshinov, V. N.;Bakhtin, Mikhail}{$S[A]Medvedev, P. N.;Bakhtin, Mikhail}{$I[geo]RUSSIA;Bakhtin, Mikhail}{$I[tim]1895;Bakhtin, Mikhail}

At the time of his death in 1975, Bakhtin was largely unknown outside the Soviet Union. Within a decade, that situation changed dramatically. The reason for this sudden rise to fame had less to do with those critiques of Freudianism, Marxism, structuralism, and the social sciences that Bakhtin had either written or influenced in the late 1920’s than with his having articulated many of the concerns that became identified with a later period of theoretical inquiry. He formulated precisely the kind of metatheory that more theorists began pursuing so avidly later in the century. Whether Bakhtin’s thinking developed over the course of his career, as Michael Holquist has argued, or remained essentially unchanged, as Tzvetan Todorov has claimed, remains in dispute. It is clear, however, that his major preoccupations remained remarkably consistent. These may for convenience be divided into two large and largely overlapping areas: linguistics and literary study.

In linguistics, Bakhtin opposed both the Romantics’ view that language is chiefly a matter of individual expression and the structuralists’ preference for abstract language over concrete individualized speech and speech acts. Language, Bakhtin maintains, is essentially dialogic; that is, it is a matter of neither rules nor specific meanings but of relations between, for example, speaker and addressee or of the verbal content of the text and the nonverbalized content of the “intertext” with which any utterance is necessarily in dialogue. The utterance constitutes the basic unit in Bakhtin’s linguistics. It is not a statement per se but the point at which competing “voices” intersect. Such a view leads Bakhtin to claim that language is never uniform (static or “monological”); it is always plural (or fluid and “dialogical”). He also maintains, however, that in addition to the competing voices present in any given utterance–in addition to the centrifugal forces driving language toward diversity–there is a countermovement, a centripetal force, that drives language toward uniformity. In this way, both linguistic chaos and linguistic tyranny are avoided. This provisional equilibrium is necessary because language, as Bakhtin conceives it, is by its very nature social and therefore in search of its own unattainable coherence. Utterance is therefore not a product, or thing, but a process saved from mere relativism by the assumed existence of an addressee, or extratemporal, extraspatial Superaddressee (not unlike the God of Bakhtin’s Russian Orthodox Church), which stands for the possibility that one’s speech will somehow be understood by someone.

Bakhtin’s theory of language is the foundation of his valorization of the novel–which, for Bakhtin, is the very “genre of becoming”: open, fluid, formless, incomplete, protean, parodic, and anticanonic. The novel as defined by Bakhtin stands in opposition to the authority and closure that he associates with those more monological genres–poetry, drama, and epic–in which stasis and dogmatic assertion are the rule. Bakhtin finds the fullest expression of the novel’s dialogic essence in the works of Dostoevski; in them, the characters and their speech lose the last traces of monological certainty and enter into dialogue, both textual and intertextual, with one another, with their author, with Dostoevski’s other works, and ultimately with the intertextual literary and extraliterary encyclopedia. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin traces the dialogical novel back to its source, which, he contends, is not the epic but folklore in general and popular laughter and carnival in particular. At carnival time and in the carnivalistic pre-novels of Rabelais, the eternal word dissolves and in dissolving becomes the immense pluralism of the present moment. The works of Rabelais and the novels of Dostoevski bring to the foreground the plurality of the present that lies at the heart of language, of all human experience, and certainly of Bakhtin’s philosophical anthropology, toward the formation of which his linguistic and literary theories played significant parts.

BibliographyDanow, David K. The Thought of Mikhail Bakhtin: From Word to Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. This gracefully written introduction is a clear and accessible presentation of Bakhtin’s thought for readers encountering the philosopher for the first time.Dentith, Simon. Bakhtinian Thought: An Introductory Reader. New York: Routledge, 1995. This anthology reprints excerpts from Bakhtin’s key works and presents well-researched critical guides to the concepts in those works.Emerson, Caryl. The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997. An indispensable book for those who wish to explore the ongoing world of Bakhtin scholarship. It provides an in-depth overview of the issues debated by Russian Bakhtinians as well as those debated by Bakhtin scholars of the English-speaking world.Emerson, Caryl, and Gary Saul Morson. Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990. Though it is a little too detailed to be an accessible introduction to Bakhtin’s philosophy, this is an invaluable companion to anyone trying to read his entire body of work.Holquist, Michael, and Katerina Clark. Mikhail Bakhtin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. An excellent biography of the man and a penetrating study of his ideas. Includes useful and unusually thorough summaries of Bakhtin’s major works, terms, and concepts. Notable in part for its assertion that selected works of Bakhtin’s associates, Pavel Medvedev and Valentin Voloshinov, were in fact the work of Bakhtin, dictated to his friends and published under their names when he was out of favor with the Stalinist government.Vice, Sue. Introducing Bakhtin. New York: Manchester University Press, 1997. Though this may not be the most definitive guide to Bakhtin’s thought available, its use of contemporary references in long discussions of Bakhtin’s concepts of heteroglossia, polyphony, dialogism, and the carnival make it helpful for those coming to his work with only a basic knowledge.
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