Piatigorsky

Among us, he was known as ‘Piatigorsky’, not Alexander or Professor Piatigorsky. During my time as an undergraduate at SOAS, he left an impression on me – his remarkable breadth of scholarship and irreverence for the profane – that I am grateful for.

Piatigorsky was a professor at the London School of Oriental and African studies (SOAS) until his retirement in 2001. (Sir Isaiah Berlin had intervened to ensure his appointment after he fled the USSR.) The topics on which he wrote ranged from the failures of totalitarian communism to Buddhist thought and even to Freemasonry. Piatigorsky was also a talented linguist – he compiled the first Russian-Tamil dictionary – and a novelist. Source.

Piatigorsky disliked traditional academic jargon and for most of his life he upheld the principle that scholars should publish as little as possible on the grounds that publishing interrupts thinking. His lecture style was lively and distinctive: he was able to speak with considerable effect about the most abstruse and difficult concepts. Pacing back and forth, smoking, when it was still permitted, he sometimes stopped to observe his cigarette as it burned, pausing before making the next point. He was never known to consult notes. Source.

a man who was widely considered to be one of the more significant thinkers of the age and Russia’s greatest philosopher…

Sasha joined Soas in 1975 as a lecturer, initially in the history department. Sasha loved Soas; and, to an extent, Soas loved Sasha, although his eccentric dress-style, bohemian manners, thick Russian accent and overt intellectualism bewildered many of his colleagues. But Soas in general, unsurprisingly, did not really know what this Russian, Jewish, Buddhist, philosopher, historian, intellectual, linguist (he knew Sanskrit, Tamil, Pali, Tibetan, German, Russian, French and English) and writer was all about. From his obituary (2010) in the Guardian:

There is no doubt that Piatigorsky was a brilliant lecturer. He never referred to written notes, but delivered what always appeared to be carefully crafted and absorbing talks in a fluent, almost literary form of English. He spoke loudly and clearly, but with a thick, drawling Russian accent, as he paced animatedly about the room. Source.

Watch, Philosopher Escaped, a documentary about Piatagorsky.

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