Studies of the origins of Mikhail Bakhtin’s thought have tended to either follow a traditional intellectual history paradigm—where establishing the presence of an influence is taken to be a sign of Bakhtin’s identity as a thinker—or to view terminological and conceptual borrowings in Bakhtin’s work as mere veneer in which he dressed his own ideas to make them publishable or acceptable to his peers in a hostile political and intellectual environment. And while Bakhtin did absorb some genuine formative influences, and did use some terms and ideas as mere masks, a much more interesting and unusual pattern of appropriating others’ voices is evident in, and typical of, Bakhtin’s writings.
In this talk I illustrate this pattern of appropriation by looking at three examples, all related to Bakhtin’s early philosophy (where the use of “masked” writing was not yet necessary), and both involving Kantianism and neo-Kantianism (cited by many as major influences, in the traditional sense, on Bakhtin). The first of these examples is the way in which Bakhtin reinterprets Kant’s “Copernican revolution”. The second is the way in which Herman Cohen’s account of God’s uniqueness in monotheism is reflected in Bakhtin’s early ethics. The third involves a passage in Paul Natorp’s book Sozial-Idealismus as anticipating Bakhtin’s views on language and dialogue, but within a philosophical context Bakhtin rejected.
All these examples (and many others) demonstrate the way Bakhtin, from the outset, works with the voices and ideas of others. Bakhtin’s approach—I shall argue—is not so much that of a scholar examining the claims made by his predecessors, accepting some and rejecting others, but rather, is akin to that of a composer, who integrates and combines motifs and passages adopted from others’ works into the fabric of his symphony, where they acquire new meaning in a new context.