Aleksandr Potebnia

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Potebnia, Aleksandr Afanas’evich


Born Sept. 10 (22), 1835, in the village of Gavrilovka, Romny District, Poltava Province; died Nov. 29 (Dec. 11), 1891, in Kharkov. Ukrainian and Russian Slavic philologist and Slavicist. Corresponding member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences (1877). Brother of the revolutionary A. A. Potebnia.

Potebnia graduated from the University of Kharkov in 1856. He defended his master’s dissertation, On Certain Symbols in Slavic Folk Poetry, in 1860. In 1875 he became a professor at the University of Kharkov.

Potebnia, who shared the views of the mythological school, did work in the theory of literature, folklore, and ethnology. He also studied general linguistics, phonetics, morphology, syntax, and semantics. He made major contributions in Slavic dialectology and comparative-historical grammar. On the theoretical level, he chiefly studied the origin of language and the interrelationships between language and thought and between language and nations. His philosophical views were influenced by the ideas of A. I. Herzen, N. G. Chernyshevskii, V. G. Belinskii, N. A. Dobroliubov, and I. M. Sechenov. He was also influenced by W. von Humboldt and H. Steinthal.

According to Potebnia, the thought-speech act is a creative individual mental act. In the process of speech, however, the social element that is language—or more correctly, its sound aspect—acting as “objectified thought” is also involved. This gives rise to a certain duality in Potebnia’s linguistic position: on the one hand, he holds that the word exists as the individual usage of the word, thus denying polysemy and the reality of the word as a unit of a word form; on the other hand, he shows great interest in the process of the historical development of concrete language, thus departing from Steinthal and others. In tracing the development of concrete language, Potebnia drew various conclusions about historical changes in the nature of the linguistic thinking of a given people and humanity in general.

Of particular interest are Potebnia’s “linguistic poetics” and his views on poetic language, the nature of poetry, and the nature of art in general. His main thesis defines art as cognition and the work of thought, analogous to scientific cognition; his theory thus proves to be rationalistic. In the poetic word and in the poetic work as a whole, Potebnia distinguishes three components: outer form (sound), meaning (semantics), and inner form (image). For example, in the word podsnezhnik (“snowdrop”) there is both the direct meaning and the notion of a flower growing under the snow (pod snegom). The poetic aspect of a word and a work of literature lies in its capacity for imagery. The inner form represents the means of comprehending something new not by way of scientific abstraction but by the correlation of new impressions with a preexisting image.

Potebnia’s ideas were further developed by D. N. Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii, D. I. Kudriavskii, A. V. Dobiash, V. Jagić, A. M. Peshkovskii, and A. A. Shakhmatov. His works have influenced the development of modern philology, especially linguistics. His major contributions are in the field of syntax.

Potebnia’s Thought and Language (1862) analyzed the link between language and thinking. His doctoral dissertation, From Notes on Russian Grammar (vols. 1–2, 1874; vol. 3, 1899; vol. 4, 1941), mainly treats syntactic problems, such as the analysis of the concepts of word, grammatical form, and grammatical category. Another of his major works is From Notes on the Theory of Literature (1905).

Potebnia actively participated in the creation of Ukrainian culture, the development of which he saw closely related to the history of Russian culture. He wrote a number of works on the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian folklore. The A. A. Potebnia Linguistics Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in Kiev is named in his honor.


Vol’ter, E. A. A. A. Potebnia, 1835–1891: Bibliograficheskie materialy dlia biografii A. A. Potebni. St. Petersburg, 1892.
Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii, D. N. A. A. Potebnia kak iazykoved-myslitel’. Kiev, 1893.
Khartsiev, V. “Osnovy poetiki A. A. Potebni: Po lektsiiam A. A. Potebni.” In the collection Voprosy teorii i psikhologii tvorchestva, vol. 2, fasc. 2. St. Petersburg, 1910.
Belyi, A. “Mysl’ i iazyk: Filosofiia iazyka A. A. Potebni.” Logos, 1910, book 2.
Vinogradov, V. V. “Russkaia nauka o russkom literaturnom iazyke.” Uch. zap. MGU, 1946, issue 106.
Vinogradov, A. A. Iz istorii izucheniia russkogo sintaksisa: Ot Lomonosova do Potebni i Fortunatova. Moscow, 1958.
Bulakhovskii, L. A. “Potebnia-lingvist.” Uch. zap. MGU, 1946, issue 107.
Bulakhovskii, L. A. Al. Af. Potebnia: K 60-letiiu so dnia smerti. Kiev, 1952.
O. O. Potebnia: Iubileinyi zbirnyk do 125-richchia z dnia narozhdennia. Kiev, 1962. (Full bibliography.)
O. O. Potebnia i deiaki pytannia suchasnoi slavistyky. Kharkov, 1962.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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