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VASILY VASILYEVICH NALIMOV:
Reprinted from Journal of Humanistic Psychology,
Vol. 33, No. 3, Summer 1993, p.82-98
This paper introduces Vasily Nalimov, humanist, philosopher and visionary, and Zhanna Drogalina Nalimov, co-worker and researcher, as individuals whose concepts, regarding human consciousness, are both provocative and exciting. Following his years in Soviet labor camps, and labeled "an enemy of the people", Nalimov found that his ideas were better received in the West than in his own country. I met the Nalimovs in 1991 when they visited Princeton University and I was impressed not only by their vast knowledge and experience in the field of human consciousness research but also by the spiritual bond that exists between them. Later that year, I was honored to be invited to interview Nalimov in their Moscow home: that interview, plus Vasily' s prodigious writings, showed me a man who sees far beyond his own time. Nalimov 's concepts of meaning and consciousness encompass topics as varied as language, mathematics and philosophy, and which will probably not be fully realized until well into the next century.
There is a Russian saying that to be able to write a person must have suffered. Vasily Vasiliyevich Nalimov is such a person. His life story is one of high intensity and drama; he was interned for many years in Soviet labor camps, and he is an outstanding writer. While the majority of his philosophical and mathematical works are as yet fully understood only by a few, they contain a profundity and breadth that may be processed well into the twenty-first century. A review by Professor Rustum Roy of the Materials Research Laboratory, Pennsylvania State University ( 1989) of Nalimov's Faces of Science (1981) emphasizes the freshness and range of Nalimov's writings:
In the summer prior to the failed 1991 coup, sitting in his small book and picture- filled flat in the Moscow suburbs, Nalimov told me about his fascinating life. He was born early in the century, November 4th , 1910, into what he calls a "time of transformation". His father, Vasily Petrovich , came from a small northern village where the language and the culture were predominantly Ugro -Finnish. The people were of Hungarian-Finnish descent and pagan in their religious practice. As Nalimov explained, "The people were very close to nature, there was a belief in animism, and they saw the Earth as a living system". Despite the fact that the authorities forbade these practices, they persisted. For instance, some young men would go off alone into the forest for up to two months. On their return they were considered to be shamans who could use their personal energy to heal.
Nalimov's father, Vasily Petrovich , was considered a shaman through his use of such practices, but he also sought more conventional education. Although Russian was not his first language, he went to Moscow where he gained a medical degree, and then returned to his village where he combined his skills as a healer in both modern and folk medicine. He worked as a " Felddoktor " or field doctor to further support his studies to become an anthropologist and ethnographer. He returned to Moscow, and it was during his later studies at the University that he met and married Nalimov's mother, Nadezhda Ivanovna, despite initial opposition from her family. Nadezhda Ivanovna was among the first group of women to graduate as physicians in Russia. At Nalimov's flat, I had the privilege of being shown the family album.
Here were faded, sepia photographs of young Vasily looking intense and determined, the same look worn by his mother when she was photographed in her professional role as a physician. Here, too, are Nadezhda 's contemporaries, bright young women in their twenties and thirties graduating as doctors and surgeons, women achieving equal status with their male counterparts. During the First World War Nadezhda worked as a surgeon treating wounded soldiers, and in the album we see her with her patients--young men with bandaged heads and crutches. Nadezhda became one of the first Soviet women to graduate as a surgeon and she held the Degree of Distinguished Physician. Nalimov's album shows unique archival- quality photographs of her preparing to perform surgery. As we looked through the photographs Nalimov, praising his mother's achievements, paused for a moment and proclaimed "...and she was also my mother !"
The young Nalimov would often accompany his mother to the hospital and watch her work. He writes ( 1989a ):
Nalimov (1989a) claims that "the winds of fate made me from my childhood contact tragedy...." and his family certainly suffered a great deal. In addition to his mother's early death and his father's imprisonment, Nalimov's maternal grandfather suffered deprivation of his civil rights and expulsion from his home, presumably for political reasons, and his mother's sister and brother both committed suicide. Nalimov's sister, Nadezhda, became the wife of a British military officer during the First World War, but when the war was over her husband returned to Britain and Nadezhda was sent to a prison camp. After her release, Nadezhda tried to be reunited with her husband but died before she was successful. The family of Nalimov's step-mother, Olga Fedorovna , also had a paradoxical history of intrigue and political adventures. This became the background in which the young Nalimov was raised. It strengthened him for his own ordeals. Speaking of the politically-motivated deaths of friends and colleagues he (1989a ) theorized:
Like his father, Vasily was also arrested for counter-revolutionary activities and at the age of 26 he was condemned, without trial, to 5 years of reformatory prison camp and exile at Kolyma . However these 5 years became 18 years and he was only finally released in 1954, after Stalin's death. Although officially free, his freedom was restricted to certain areas and, even though he was rehabilitated in 1960, Nalimov felt that the stigma remained: " But even now I feel behind me the shadow nicknamed 'people's enemy'" ( 1989a . p.13). He remembers those times (1992):
Nalimov's first wife was Irina Vladmirovna Usova whose father was a nobleman and landowner with an estate in Kursk province. After her death he married Zhanna Drogalina and therein lies a love story. Following the end of her first marriage Zhanna had a dream. She was in a boat, in a storm and lost. Suddenly there was a man who pulled her to safety. Later, in waking reality, she was invited to a party, as was Nalimov. Neither of them particularly wanted to attend the party but they went because friends had invited them. Neither knew the other was attending but they met at the door to the party and there was an "instantaneous recognition". They took each other's hand and walked into the party. Zhanna says that they are still holding hands and have not let go. They look at each other and you can feel the love they have for each other. She touches his 80-year-old face, and says lovingly, "Look at this face...". There is a passage from Maeterlinck 's La Morte (1914) quoted in Spontaneity of Consciousness (1991) that she says characterizes the essence of Nalimov's writings:
The concept and understanding of human personality is not incompatible with those of mathematics and physics, according to Nalimov (1985). In Space, Time and Life he employed the flexibility of Bayesian logic to construct an image of personality which included aspects he termed ego, meta-ego, multidimensionality , and hyper-ego. Nalimov based his ideas on the early work of Lewin (1936) and Zeeman (1965). Lewin rejected the classification model of personality representation and attempted to construct a structural image of personality. Nalimov was interested in Lewin 's (1936) strati-graphics of personality, in particular, the geometry of the calm state and those of stress and tension. Zeeman's (1865) topographical models of consciousness, and the field of transpersonal psychology, also influenced Nalimov as he interpreted personality as a manifestation of the semantic field through which consciousness interacts with itself and with the world.
Transpersonal Psychology, A review by Stanislav Grof (1982) applauded Nalimov's work Realms of the Unconscious as "the first significant contribution of Soviet science to the field of transpersonal psychology and to the new paradigm in consciousness research." Grof said that its significance went far beyond the fact that it represented an endorsement of the basic assumptions of the transpersonal movement. Grof felt that this work, based on the theory of probability and semantics, brought a unique original perspective into the field of transpersonal psychology:
It transcends provincial, national, political, racial and religious chauvinism, and ideological clashes of competing systems based on ignorance of the holistic nature of reality. In the context of his vision, the only hope for humanity is the creation of an entirely new human culture through a radical transformation of consciousness. In this way Nalimov's work is an important addition to recent trends and efforts in humanistic and transpersonal psychology to offer a new and promising alternative strategy in approaching the current global crisis. (p.188)
In a 1990 letter to Anne A. Simkinson of Common Boundary, Nalimov outlined the ways in which the practices of Russian spiritual intellectuals are complementary to ideas in Western transpersonal psychology. They include: the rejection of reductionism in describing the nature of consciousness, recognition of the transpersonal nature of personality, awareness of meditation as a means of studying human consciousness and as a therapeutic tool, and an interest towards manifestations of altered states of consciousness. Nalimov's own background in probabilistically -oriented mathematics, and their application to linguistic and psychological problems, differs from other concepts of transpersonal psychology in several ways. For example, he compares personality structures to certain notions in theoretical physics, he resorts to probabilistic thinking, and he proceeds from a Platonic, rather than an Oriental philosophy. Nalimov's core idea is that the concept of meaning is the key element structuring human nature.
The Irrational within the Rational
In a talk given at the Tenth Annual Meeting of the Society for Scientific Exploration, Nalimov ( 1991c ) elaborated on his idea of the irrational existing as a complementary principle to the rational. Roger Nelson (1992) reporting on Nalimov's talk, stated that the irrational and the rational, while appearing to be opposing principles, can be demonstrated to be complementary, throughout the examination of semantic texts that can be treated by the techniques of physical modeling. Nalimov urged efforts to formulate a universal non-personalized consciousness and presented data that indicated the need for such an integrated, holistic perspective. In the Russian journal Chelovek ( 1991b ), Nalimov writes:
A prolific writer, Nalimov has frequently received publication both in Europe and the United States. During the early 1980s he was successful in finding an American publisher for four of his major books, Faces of Science (1981), In the Labyrinths of Language: A Mathematician's Journey (1981); Realms of the Unconscious: The Enchanted Frontier (1982); and Space, Time and Life: The Probabilistic Pathway of Evolution (1985).
In Faces of Science Nalimov explores the fundamental shift that has recently occurred in science - a movement away from description based on deterministic modes and towards those based on probability, while In the Labyrinths of Language is an exploration of the nature of language in which Nalimov presents the reader with a collection of definitions and statements about language from a wide-ranging group of philosophers and writers. He also introduces the idea that meaning has a "fuzzy" nature, described in terms of probabilistic measures, whereby he formulates his probabilistic theory of meaning. Nalimov's denies the long-held view of the world as deterministic:
"Meanings are ubiquitous, they are at the foundation of the Universe," states Nalimov (1988). Realms of the Unconscious (1982) is a treatise on the symbology of the unconscious and follows a different path than Nalimov's earlier writings. It assesses the role of the unconscious on the physical world, seeking answers to such age-old questions as: do we only perceive the world through human-made physical devices? Or is our unconscious a specific receptor that is in contact with another reality closed to physical devices? This book takes the reader into the world of prophetic dreams, as well as meditation and symbology , where the borders of science and religion meet.
Past, Present and Future
In Realms of the Unconscious Nalimov analyzes past, present and future in terms of states of Doing. In a novel discourse Nalimov carries on a dialogue between himself and another-worldly Meta-observer of Time. Nalimov states that the present is simply the realization of "doing" or the state of Doing (perhaps similar to the Buddhist state of Being or the Zen state of doing-without-doing). The past, according to our current paradigm, is frozen Doing (which does not take into consideration the historic concepts of reincarnation and karma) and the future is potential Doing. The only different between past, present and future is in the state of Doing, and Time is but a grammatical category which serves to express various state of Doing.
Nalimov adds that, within our culture, psychological events are ordered according to physical Time which arises from physical Doing. However, he acknowledges that psychological Time is felt differently in different periods of life. Time may be affected by some external conditions. The speed of psychological Time changes, he claims, simply because the scale of Doing is transformed, either expanded or compressed. He concludes that our concept of personal psychological Time is as deeply metaphysical as that of the probabilistic vision of the world.
Human Potential Pavtrushev (1987), introducing the Soviet approach to transpersonal psychology, quotes Nalimov's and Drogalina's (1984) rationale for a new experimental approach to the unconscious:
There have been, however, Soviet critics of Nalimov (e.g. Bassin , 1985; Kirayev, Korshunova, & Mikhlin, 1985; Simonov, 1986a) who have had problems with his definitions of the terms consciousness, subconsciousness and unconsciousness. Kirayev, et.al. (1985) criticized Nalimov and Drogalina's description of a model of the subconscious level of mental activity as:
A New Meaning
Nalimov's most recent work Spontaneity of Consciousness: An Attempt of Mathematical Interpretation of Certain of Plato's Ideas (1989b) can be considered an attempt at a mathematical interpretation of certain Platonic ideas and covers the topic of "meaning" in more detail. However, even Nalimov has problems with the definition of meaning:
Writing on the topic of meaning in the year of Perestroika (1989a) Nalimov remembers:
A New Science
Nalimov (1989c) feels strongly that we are facing the edge of a new paradigm where science will have to face new problems. He writes:
"Prediction, in general, is impossible" writes Nalimov, claiming that prediction is only possible in the physical sciences where all the factors are held constant. In psychology there are no constants and structure is constantly changing. "Because there are no constants in human nature", Nalimov adds, "it is impossible to predict what will happen - prediction carries a probabilistic factor" (1991a):
It is the phenomena of probability which Nalimov feels created nature, the world in which we live, us as its people and our individual characteristics. "It is so strange", he ponders, "how was it possible for nature to create such things?" It is this very factor that created a man named Nalimov: philosopher, educator, devoted husband, mathematician, dissident, writer, and (although he may deny it) visionary.
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Grof. S. (1982). Review of Realm of the unconscious: The enchanted frontier, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 14, 186-188.
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