Felipe León / Notes on the life and work of Semyon L. Frank (1877- 1950)

In the first half of the 20th century, lively debates were going on in Europe concerning the foundations of sociality and interpersonal understanding. Participants in these debates included central figures of the phenomenological tradition, such as Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Max Scheler, and Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as lesser known figures, including Alfred Schutz, Gerda Walther, Edith Stein, and Karl Löwith, amongst many others. Contributors to these debates didn’t come only from philosophy, though. Founding figures of German sociology like Georg Simmel and Leopold von Wiese provided important inputs. Psychiatrists like Ludwig Binswanger and Medard Boss were also significantly interested in the topic of sociality, as were other thinkers whose contributions spanned the boundaries between philosophy of sociality, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of language, like Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, and Ferdinand Ebner.

One of the relatively minor figures whose intervention in these debates seems to have fallen into oblivion in contemporary scholarship on the philosophy of sociality is the Russian philosopher Semyon L. Frank. Frank was born in 1877 in Moscow, where he was raised. He studied law for some years at the University of Moscow before being expelled from that institution because of his sympathies with Marxism. He subsequently studied in Berlin, where he attended Simmel’s lectures, and eventually went back to Russia, where he taught in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, and Saratov. In 1909 he edited the first Russian translation of Husserl’s Logical Investigations. In 1922 he was expelled from the Soviet Union together with other intellectuals, on one of the so-called ‘philosophers’ ships’. He spent the rest of his life in Germany, France, and Britain, where he died in 1950.

Although Frank’s philosophical work was not restricted to the philosophy of sociality, he devoted to this topic his book The Spiritual Foundations of Society. Introduction to Social Philosophy (published in Russian in 1930, translated into English in 1986, and into German in 2002). Material included in this book had been anticipated in his 1929 essay ““Ich” und “Wir”. (Zur Analyse der Gemeinschaft)” (written in German). He revisited the topic of sociality in his works The Unfathomable. Ontological Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (1939) and Reality and the Human Being (1949). Even though Frank’s work on social philosophy is closely interrelated with his philosophy of religion, some of his discussions can be selected for analysis independently of his broader agenda. In particular, one interesting feature of Frank’s reflections on the foundations of sociality is his appeal to the interrelations between I, you and we in order to clarify the question of the sense in which society is real.

Frank opposes the thesis of what he calls “singularism” or “social atomism”, according to which the reality of society is ultimately reducible to the reality of individual human beings and their interrelations (2002 [1930], 117). At the same time, he doesn’t dismiss the idea that understanding the relation between an individual and a plurality of individuals is important for understanding the structure of society. But he suggests a reconceptualization of this relation, appealing to the notions of I, you and we. I will briefly mention two moves he makes in this context. In the first place, Frank resists the idea that ‘we’, as the first-person plural, is simply the plural of ‘I’, the first-person singular. The proposal that we is a plurality of Is is rejected by Frank on the grounds that, properly understood, I is unique and, in this sense, not pluralizable. As he puts it in the 1929 essay, “‘My I’ is as such unique and unrepeatable — or, as one may also say: I am unique and unrepeatable, and a ‘second I’ —if we put aside the uncanny representation of a Doppelgänger— is in fact an absurdity that one could never encounter” (1929, p. 55). Secondly, even if I is senso strictu not pluralizable, Frank leaves room for a conception of the plurality of I as I and you. Roughly, his suggestion here is that the I constitutes itself in an act of differentiation within the original unity of the we, and that in this act of differentiation a link between I and you is established. Interrelations between individuals are thus important for Frank, but differently from defenders of “social atomism”, he appears to trace these interrelations back to the very notion of individual that is at stake in his elucidation of societal life.

Frank summarizes his considerations on I, you and we by stating that “we is not the plural of the first-person, it is not many Is, but rather the plurality as unity of the first and second person, as unity of I and you” (2002 [1930], p. 136). Independently of all sorts of reservations one might have about the support that Frank provides for this and related claims, I find that his appeal to I, you and we in order to clarify the structure of society is an intriguing and thought-provoking proposal, that doesn’t deserve to simply fall into oblivion.


Frank S. L. (1929) “Ich” und “Wir”. (Zur Analyse der Gemeinschaft). In B. Jakovenko (ed.) Der russische Gedanke. Internationale Zeitschrift für russische Philosophie, Literaturwissenschaft und Kultur 1(1): 49-62. Bonn: Friedrich Cohen.

Frank S. L. (2002 [1930]) Die geistigen Grundlagen der Gesellschaft. Einführung in die Sozialphilosophie. Freiburg i.B.: Karl Alber.


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