Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895-1975) was a Russian literary and language theorist as well as a cultural philosopher. Though his ideas and concepts were diverse and complex, the search for the unity within differences and various interrelations ruled his work. Bakhtin was interested in time and space throughout his life and had developed his literary concept by the 1920s. Two decades later he clearly enunciated his considerations about the chronotope and adapted Einstein’s physical category of time-space for the aesthetics. He favored relativity theory for the purpose of relational meanings but refused relativism. In his later works Bakhtin introduced the concept of carnival, a feast with the unique sense of time and space.
Bakhtin was born in Orel, south of Moscow, on November 17, 1895. Beginning in 1919 he published several works on the history and theory of literature, language, psychology, and culture, occasionally under the names of friends. He studied philology in Odessa and St. Petersburg. Owing to his religious activities during the political rule of Stalin, he was sentenced in 1929 to exile in Kazakhstan. Together with problems with the Soviet government and the suppression or loss of several publications, Bakhtin also suffered from a bone disease, which caused him pain and eventually resulted in the amputation of his right leg. Bakhtin spent his last years in Moscow, where he died on March 7, 1975. In his early years Bakhtin convened the so-called Bakhtin circle, a group of intellectuals who were interested in diverse subjects such as German literature and philosophy, religion, and politics. Bakhtin’s reading of the German classic philosophers, including Kant and Hegel, and the advances made by contemporary physicists such as Einstein and Planck influenced his wide range of ethical, aesthetic, and epistemological issues.
His concerns with ethical problems led him from the act to rhetoric and communication. In the early composed and posthumously published Toward a Philosophy of the Act (1986) he rejects the theoretical concepts of traditional formalism and substitutes for them his phenomenological or descriptive concept of dialogue. By recognizing the similarities between the act and the word, he exchanges the abstract system of language of the traditional disciplines for the metalinguistic concept of communication, in which the utterance, the context, and its interrelations are essential elements. To describe dialogic interrelations Bakhtin introduces the concepts of carnival, heteroglossia, and polyphony. In his first and influential paper “Problems of Dostoevsky’s Work” (1929), Bakhtin uncovers the polyphonic novel as a new kind of novel. In a creative and active process the author enters dialogic relations with its characters and the recipient as well. When his seminal paper was translated into English, Bakhtin added a chapter on his concept of carnival and redefined the book in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1963). In Rabelais and His World (1965) Bakhtin deepens his idea of carnival and introduces the concept of the grotesque. During the feast of carnival, people live in a concrete imaginary or utopia, whose foundation is laughter, by turning the world upside down. The collection The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (1975) includes one of Bakhtin’s most important analyses of the novel, as well as treatises on heteroglossia, dialogism, and the chronotope.