Mikhail Epstein

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Mikhail Naumovich Epstein (Russian: Михаи́л Нау́мович Эпште́йн; born 1950) is an Anglo-American and Russian literary theorist and critical thinker. Mikhail Epstein is S. C. Dobbs Professor of Cultural Theory and Russian Literature at Emory University, USA, and Professor of Russian and Cultural Theory at Durham University, UK. He moved from the USSR (Moscow) to the USA (Atlanta) in 1990 and from the USA to England (Durham) in 2012. He is founder and director of Centre for Humanities Innovation at Durham University.

His areas of specialization include postmodernism, cultural theory, Russian literature and intellectual history, contemporary philosophical and religious thought, ideas and electronic media, and interdisciplinary approaches in the humanities. Professor Epstein is also an expert on Russian philosophers of the 19th and 20th century as well as Soviet era philosophers like Nikolai Berdyaev.[1]


Epstein was born in Moscow of Jewish heritage. He was the founder and director of the Laboratory of Contemporary Culture in Moscow.

He moved to the USA in 1990 and was fellow of Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (Washington D.C.) in 1990–1991. He joined Emory faculty in 1990. In 1992–1994 he received grant from National Council for Soviet and East European Research to work on the history of Russian thought of the late Soviet period. He has authored inteLnet and a number of other interdisciplinary web sites in the humanities.

His latest project is "On the Future of the Humanities: Paradigmatic Shifts and Emerging Concepts" on which he worked as an inaugural senior fellow at the Center for Humanistic Inquiry (Emory University, 2002–03).

Mikhail Epstein has won national and international prizes, including Andrei Bely prize (St. Petersburg, 1991); The Social Innovations Award 1995 from the Institute for Social Inventions (London) for his electronic Bank of New Ideas; the International Essay Contest set up by Lettre International and Weimar – Cultural City of Europe 1999; and Liberty Prize, awarded for his outstanding contribution in the development of Russian-American cultural connections (New York, 2000).

Epstein maintains blog "Snob", where, in particular, since 2007 he reports "СЛОВО ГОДА" - a Russan-language "Word of the Year".[2]


Epstein's favorite intellectual occupation is inventing new disciplines and methods. His writings are full of proposals for such disciplines, for new genres and concepts, and for new words to describe them. Semionics, for example, would be the science of how to produce new signs, and silentology the inverse of linguistics. This is what actually the humanities' enterprise may be: finding mutenesses and lacunae in the languages of existing disciplines and trying to fill them.

The contemporary humanities, according to Epstein, are in transition from the philosophy of analysis to the philosophy of synthesis. Each act of the analysis contains a possibility for a new synthesis. The strategy of the language synthesis, or what can be called constructive nominalism, now presents itself as an alternative to the analytical tradition. Inasmuch as the subject of philosophy—universals, ideas, general concepts—are presented in language, the task of a philosopher is to enhance the existing language, to synthesize new terms and concepts, lexical units and grammar rules, to increase the volume of the speakable and therefore of the thinkable. If in the 20th century philosophers concentrated on the analysis of language, in the 21st century, they will focus on the synthesis of the variety of new languages (discourses, disciplines).

Epstein calls his method potentiation and contrasts it with the traditional predominance of the actual (or real) over the potential in the ontology of Aristotle and Hegel. Analysis is focused on the actual, whereas synthesis looks into the multiple potentials hidden in any given actuality.

Potentiation, according to Epstein, both inherits the method of deconstruction and moves beyond it. Potentiation is a positive, constructive deconstruction. Deconstruction, at least in its conventional form of academic poststructuralism, is mostly understood as "the undoing, decomposing, and desedimenting of structures," though, according to Derrida's intention, it "was not a negative operation. Rather than destroying, it was also necessary to understand how an ‘ensemble’ was constituted and to reconstruct it to this end." Epstein also has presented the concept of post-atheism to the western world as an idea that religion even in a totalitarian atheistic society will survive under other social guises.

To this definition of deconstruction by its founder, Epstein juxtaposes the definition of potentiation as reconstruction of potentialities contained within a given cultural ensemble as a multiplicity of alternative ensembles. The term "potentiation" would better accommodate positive aspects of deconstruction: not merely criticism of a given practice or discourse by demonstrating its actualistic and logocentric pretensions, but construction of alternative readings and modes of writing.

In 2012–2015, Mikhail Epstein served as the founding director of the Centre for Humanities Innovation at Durham University (UK) CHI and organized the international conference Beyond Crisis: Visions for the New Humanities where forty papers were presented in the genre of manifestos. Epstein advances the research and educational program PILLAR — an acronym for Philosophy, Information, Language, Literature, Art and Religion. These areas are deeply intertwined in the real world and in the history of culture. The project addresses the concern that these six subjects are often taught in isolation, instead of as an integrated curriculum. PILLAR is designed as an interdisciplinary strategy complementary to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), to serve as the pillar of humanistic education and the field of interdisciplinary intensity in all liberal arts colleges.

In the realm of aesthetics, Epstein (together with poet and conceptual artist Dmitry Prigov) is credited with introducing the concept of "new sincerity" (novaia iskrennost' ) as a response to the dominant sense of absurdity in late Soviet and post-Soviet culture.[3] In Epstein's words, "Postconceptualism, or the New Sincerity, is an experiment in resuscitating "fallen," dead languages with a renewed pathos of love, sentimentality and enthusiasm."[4]



  • Epstein, Mikhail (1990). Tagebuch für Olga. Chronik einer Vaterschaft. Aus dem Russischen von Otto Markus. München: Roitman Verlag. 
  • The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto. New York–London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012, 318 pp.
  • PreDictionary. Berkeley: Atelos, 2011, 155 pp. (paperback). ISBN 1-891190-34-2
  • Cries in the New Wilderness: From the Files of the Moscow Institute of Atheism. Trans. and intr. by Eve Adler. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2002, 236 pp. (hardcover and paperback). ISBN 0-9679675-4-6
  • Transcultural Experiments: Russian and American Models of Creative Communication (with Ellen Berry). New York: St. Martin's Press (Scholarly and Reference Division), 1999, 340 pp. (of 23 chapters in this book, 16 are written by this author). ISBN 0-312-21808-7
  • Russian Postmodernism: New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture (with Alexander Genis and Slobodanka Vladiv-Glover, in the series Studies in Slavic Literature, Culture, and Society, vol. 3). New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1999, 528 pp. (of 24 chapters in this book, 16 are written by this author). Hardcover and paperback editions. ISBN 1-57181-028-5
  • After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture, Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1995, 392 pp. Hardcover and paperback editions. Electronic edition, Boulder, Colo.: NetLibrary, Inc., 2000. ISBN 0-585-15509-7
  • Relativistic Patterns in Totalitarian Thinking: An Inquiry into the Language of Soviet Ideology. Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, Occasional Paper, #243. Washington: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1991,94 pp.
  • Filosofiia vozmozhnogo. Modal'nosti v myshlenii i kul'ture (The Philosophy of the Possible: Modalities in Thinking and Cultrure). S-Petersburg: Aleteia, 2001, 336 pp.
  • Postmodern v Rossii: literatura i teoriia (The Postmodern in Russia: Literature and Theory). Moscow: LIA Elinina, 2000, 370 pp.
  • Bog detalei. Narodnaia dusha i chastnaia zhizn' v Rossii na iskhode imperii (A Deity of Details: The Public Soul and Private Life at the Twilight of the Russian Empire). New York: Slovo/Word, 1997, 248 pp.; 2nd, revised and expanded edition, Moscow: LIA Elinina, 1998, 240 pp.
  • Na granitsakh kul'Tur. Rossiiskoe – amerikanskoe – sovetskoe (On the Borders of Cultures: Russian – American – Soviet). New York, Slovo/Word, 1995, 343 pp.
  • Vera i obraz. Religioznoe bessoznatel'noe v russkoi kul'ture XX veka (Faith and Image: The Religious Unconscious in Twentieth Century Russian Culture), Tenafly (New Jersey): Hermitage Publishers, 1994, 270 pp.
  • Novoe sektantstvo: tipy religiozno-filosofskikh umonastroenii v Rossii, 1970-80-e gody (New Sectarianism: The Varieties of Religious-Philosophical Consciousness in Russia, the 1970s–1980s). Holyoke (Massachusetts): New England Publishing Co., 1993, 179 pp.; 2nd edition, reprint, Moscow: Labirint, 1994, 181 pp.
  • Velikaia Sov'. Filosofsko-mifologicheskii ocherk (Great Sov'. A Philosophical-Mythological Essay). New York: Word/Slovo, 1994, 175 pp.
  • Ottsovstvo (Fatherhood. An Essay), Tenafly (New Jersey): Hermitage Publishers, 1992, 160 pp. ISBN 1-55779-045-0. Ottsovstvo (Fatherhood. A Metaphysical Journal), 2nd ed. S-Petersburg: Aleteia, 2003, 246 pp.
  • 'Priroda, mir, tainik vselennoi...' Sistema peizazhnykh obrazov v russkoi poezii ('Nature, the World, the Mystery of the Universe...': The System of Landscape Images in Russian Poetry). Moscow: Vysshaia Shkola, 1990, 304 pp.
  • Paradoksy novizny. O literaturnom razvitii XIX-XX vekov (The Paradoxes of Innovation: On the Development of Literature in the 19th and 20th Centuries). Moscow: Sovetskii Pisatel', 1988, 4l6 pp.


  • Epstein, Mikhail (Mar–Apr 2013). "The art of world-making". Philosophy Now 95: 22–24. 


  1. ^ Russian Philosophy On The Intelnet
  3. ^ Alexei Yurchak, "Post-Post-Communist Sincerity: Pioneers, Cosmonauts, and Other Soviet Heroes Born Today," in Thomas Lahusen and Peter H. Solomon, eds., What Is Soviet Now?: Identities, Legacies, Memories (LIT Verlag Berlin-Hamburg-Münster, 2008), ISBN 978-3-8258-0640-8, p.258-59, excerpt available at Google Books.
  4. ^ Mikhail Epstein, "A Catalogue of New Poetries," in Mikhail Epstein, Aleksandr Genis, Slobodanka Vladiv-Glover, eds., Russian Postmodernism: New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture (Berghahn Books, 1999), ISBN 978-1-57181-098-4, p. 146, excerpt available at Google Books.

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