His areas of specialization include postmodernism, cultural theory, Russian literature and intellectual history, contemporary philosophical and religious thought, ideas and electronic media, and interdisciplinary approaches in the humanities. Professor Epstein is also an expert on Russian philosophers of the 19th and 20th century as well as Soviet era philosophers like Nikolai Berdyaev.
He moved to the USA in 1990 and was fellow of Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (Washington D.C.) in 1990-1991. He joined Emory faculty in 1990. In 1992-1994 he received grant from National Council for Soviet and East European Research to work on the history of Russian thought of the late Soviet period. He has authored inteLnet and a number of other interdisciplinary web sites in the humanities.
His latest project is "On the Future of the Humanities: Paradigmatic Shifts and Emerging Concepts" on which he worked as an inaugural senior fellow at the Center for Humanistic Inquiry (Emory University, 2002-03).
Mikhail Epstein has won national and international prizes, including Andrei Bely prize (St. Petersburg, 1991); The Social Innovations Award 1995 from the Institute for Social Inventions (London) for his electronic Bank of New Ideas; the International Essay Contest set up by Lettre International and Weimar - Cultural City of Europe 1999; and Liberty Prize, awarded for his outstanding contribution in the development of Russian-American cultural connections (New York, 2000).
Mikhail Epstein's work is a growing compendium of ideas that diverge from the existing paradigms in the humanities. Practically every generally accepted decision that is made in the humanities (philosophy, literature, linguistics) leaves room for an alternative yet unexpressed decision. Those theories and concepts were never conceived and realized because they failed to find their exponents, in some cases because they were thwarted by persecutions, totalitarianism, destruction of culture.
Epstein's favorite intellectual occupation is inventing new disciplines and methods. His writings are full of proposals for such disciplines, for new genres and concepts, and for new words to describe them. Semionics, for example, would be the science of how to produce new signs, and silentology the inverse of linguistics. This is what actually the humanities' enterprise may be: finding mutenesses and lacunae in the languages of existing disciplines and trying to fill them.
The contemporary humanities, according to Epstein, are in transition from the philosophy of analysis to the philosophy of synthesis. Each act of the analysis contains a possibility for a new synthesis. The strategy of the language synthesis, or what can be called constructive nominalism, now presents itself as an alternative to the analytical tradition. Inasmuch as the subject of philosophy -- universals, ideas, general concepts--are presented in language, the task of a philosopher is to enhance the existing language, to synthesize new terms and concepts, lexical units and grammar rules, to increase the volume of the speakable and therefore of the thinkable. If in the 20th century philosophers concentrated on the analysis of language, in the 21st century, they will focus on the synthesis of the variety of new languages (discourses, disciplines).
Epstein calls his method potentiation and contrasts it with the traditional predominance of the actual (or real) over the potential in the ontology of Aristotle and Hegel. Analysis is focused on the actual, whereas synthesis looks into the multiple potentials hidden in any given actuality.
Potentiation, according to Epstein, both inherits the method of deconstruction and moves beyond it. Potentiation is a positive, constructive deconstruction. Deconstruction, at least in its conventional form of academic poststructuralism, is mostly understood as "the undoing, decomposing, and desedimenting of structures," though, according to Derrida's intention, it "was not a negative operation. Rather than destroying, it was also necessary to understand how an ‘ensemble’ was constituted and to reconstruct it to this end." Epstein also has presented the concept of post-atheism to the western world as an idea that religion even in a totalitarian atheistic society will survive under other social guises.
To this definition of deconstruction by its founder, Epstein juxtaposes the definition of potentiation as reconstruction of potentialities contained within a given cultural ensemble as a multiplicity of alternative ensembles. The term "potentiation" would better accommodate positive aspects of deconstruction: not merely criticism of a given practice or discourse by demonstrating its actualistic and logocentric pretensions, but construction of alternative readings and modes of writing.