Getting to the root of Latvian philosophy

  • 2005-12-07
  • By Tim Ochser
RIGA - In a recent poll to find 100 important Latvian personalities, Teodors Celms made a somewhat surprise showing on the list. Celms was that rarest of things in Latvia 's a professional philosopher. Although his heyday was in the 1920s and 1930s, he still remains arguably the only homegrown philosopher of any real significance. But what is his legacy, if any? Does philosophy even have a role to play in society beyond the lecture rooms of the University of Latvia's faculty of philosophy? TBT set out to investigate the state of things. Jelena Celma manages to mix philosophy and pancakes extremely well. After giving a mouthful on the former, she quickly takes a mouthful of the latter. The 73-year-old is amazingly sharp-witted, speaking with refreshing insightfulness on a whole range of topics, from her famous grand uncle Teodors, to how the Latvian language copes with assimilating post-modernist terms.

Celma has been teaching esthetics and Russian philosophy at the University of Latvia for almost 40 years. The philosophy faculty was closed down following Latvia's incorporation into the Soviet Union at the end of WWII and it was only reopened in 1966. Celma moved to Riga from Moscow to study at the university and took up a teaching position there directly afterward.

The associate professor doesn't appear especially interested in discussing her grand uncle's achievements, although she frequently references him in her lectures. Indeed, she seems somewhat reluctant to combine the words "Latvia" and "philosophy" at all.

"Latvia doesn't have any great philosophers," Celma muses. "Our students work in a very philosophical environment, and they gain a broad understanding of subjects, but no one really takes philosophy to an extraordinary level. But then philosophy isn't very high on the agenda in post-independent Latvia."

Although Celma is the longest-serving teacher at the University of Latvia's philosophy faculty and is something of an institution in herself, she remains remarkably open to new ideas. Some time ago, she held a seminar asking a simple question: is there such a thing as Latvian philosophy? The question is certainly a valid one considering how few significant philosophical works have been published by Latvian thinkers.

Maija Kule, for one, believes there is. Kule, a professor at the University of Latvia and specialist in phenomenology, is widely considered as one of the best contemporary Latvian philosophers around. She has published the only English-language book on the state of philosophy in Latvia 's "Phenomenology and Culture" (2002) 's in which she starts out with an in-depth analysis of Teodors Celms' work and legacy.

"Teodors Celms was our best philosopher," Kule explains. "He has had a lasting impact on Latvian philosophy and our students continue to study him."

But although Celms is popularly acknowledged as Latvia's finest philosopher, he spent the last 40 years of his life in the U.S.A., where he expressed little but bitterness toward his native country. Unlike most expatriated Latvians, Celms instilled strong anti-Latvian feelings while raising his children abroad.

Celms made his name after studying in Germany under the famous phenomenologist Edmund Husserl from 1922 to 1925, where he was one of his most promising students. His 1928 German-language work "Husserl's Phenomenological Idealism" was a noted text for many years. He went on to write several significant works in the 1930s, including a couple of Latvian-language publications, such as "The Problems of Today" and "Truth and Appearance." He also helped to set up the philosophy faculty at the University of Latvia, where he taught as a professor.

But in the late 1930s, Celms was forced out of his post because of ties to his brother Julijs, a prominent political figure who was imprisoned under President Karlis Ulmanis. Celms was then forced out of necessity to work in a Jelgava high school until he emigrated to Germany, and then with his family to the U.S.A. in 1949. There he worked as a teacher at Augustana College in Illinois until his retirement in 1963. Celms died in 1989, embittered to the end by his treatment from the authorities.

While few people doubt Celms' importance in establishing philosophy as a proper academic discipline in Latvia, his legacy remains less clear.

Some 250 students a year study philosophy at the University of Latvia, and the list of key modern philosophical texts being translated into Latvian grows ever longer, from Michel Foucault to Jean Baudrillard to Richard Rorty. But to what extent has philosophy infiltrated mainstream Latvian society? Has it had any impact at all beyond academic confines?

"Philosophy has a large influence in Latvian society," says Elga Freiberga, a professor of esthetics and art philosophy. "The president of Krajbanka was a philosophy graduate, as are many of the staff at Rigas laiks magazine."

But Freiberga acknowledges that a role-call of a few famous graduates hardly constitutes a culture of philosophy.

"In general, Latvians don't understand philosophy in an academic sense. They are philosophical in a pragmatic, everyday sort of way," she says. "Latvians are more interested in business."

Could the Latvian language itself be a hindrance rather than a help when it comes to disseminating complex foreign-language texts and popularizing them?

"National philosophical traditions can only occur in great languages, such as French, German and English. It's not a question of semantics or meaning. It's a question of the experience of a language. We just don't have a tradition of self-reflection in language," Freiberga explains.

But Maija Kule believes that Latvian is able to adequately translate foreign philosophical texts and render them in a suitable form. Her husband has translated the likes of Heidegger and Husserl, among others, from German into Latvian.

"It's very important that Latvian can capture word play, such as Heidegger's extreme word play in German. And it can. It's not so pagan that it can't express complex philosophical ideas," she says.

Jelena Celma, meanwhile, has finished her pancakes and is now sipping her tea. She continues to talk passionately about philosophy in her strongly accented Latvian, earning the occasional bemused stare from some of the other diners.

She believes that philosophy is increasingly popular with young people nowadays, but not necessarily in a good way.

"In Soviet times we used philosophy to fight against ideologies, all ideologies. But now it serves a practical purpose. Young people are career-orientated, that's all they think about. They don't even consider that capitalism is just another ideology," she says with a smile. "Nowadays philosophy is used to justify everything from fashion to marketing."

Celma finishes her tea and glances at her watch. Her mind has clearly drifted to the trolleybus waiting to take her home to her Plavnieki apartment. But at 73, she shows more passion for life and more willingness to confront its never-ending questions than most younger people can muster up over the course of years. And that, surely, is a good thing-in-itself.