Sep 262009

We learn history not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are.  –Leszek Kolakowski, from “The Idolatry of Politics”, 1986

We were saddened to learn this summer of the death of Leszek Kolakowski, the bril­liant Polish philosopher and historian of ideas. As a professor at Warsaw University, Kolakowski’s courageous criticism of Marxism in the 50′s and 60′s resulted in his books being banned and the loss of his job — and led to his emigration to the West in 1968. Kolakowski taught briefly at McGill University and at Berkeley before settling at All Souls College, Oxford. He was also on the Committee for Social Thought, at Chi­cago, and was a reader for Phil’s disserta­tion. Here is the NYT obit­uary.

In 1978, Kolakowski published his monumental Main Currents of Marxism, an ex­haus­tive analysis (beginning with Plotinus) of such notions as the labor theory of value, dialectical materialism, and the concept of class struggle. He claimed that Stalinism was not an aberration, but a natural consequence of Marxist utopian­ism. Kolakowski was an eclectic scholar whose interests were not confined to political philo­sophy; his books included: Positivist Philosophy (1971), The Presence of Myth (1972), Husserl and the Search for Certitude (1975), Bergson (1985), God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal’s Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism (1995), and The Two Eyes of Spinoza (2004). Nathan’s and my initial exposure to Kolakowski was through Tales from the Kingdom of Lailonia, satirical fairy-tales written while he was still in Poland. Phil recommends Metaphysical Horror (1978), a collec­tion of essays on the history of philo­sophy, and Nathan recommends Religion: If There is no God… (2001).

Like some of Kolakowski’s other recent writing, Modernity on Endless Trial (1990) is concerned with the direction of our intellectual culture. The preface illustrates his sure­ness of touch and self-effacing sense of humor:

The essays selected for this book were written on various occasions and in various languages between 1973 and 1986.  They do not purport to offer any ‘philosophy.’  They are, rather, semiphilosophical sermons in which I was trying to point out a number of unpleasant and insoluble dilemmas that loom up every time we attempt to be perfectly consistent when we think about our culture, our politics, and our religious life.  More often than not we want to have the best from incompatible worlds and, as a result, we get nothing; when we instead pawn our mental resources on one side, we cannot buy them out again and we are trapped in a kind of dogmatic immobility.  We might imagine our­selves to be treasure hunters in a forest, but we spend our effort on evading ambushes.  This is a net gain, of course, but not the one we were after.

Therefore these essays are not edifying.  They are rather appeals for moderation in consistency — a topic which I have been trying to look at from various angles for many years.

Since these texts were written separately and without any idea of them appearing together in one volume, some remarks might be repeated here and there.  This does not worry me much, for who — apart from myself, under duress — would be persistent enough to wade through the whole thing, anyway?  3/3/1990 [Modernity, preface]

Later in the book, Kolakowski talks about the significance of Kant:

I am not a Kant expert and no Kantian but, I should say, a Kant sympathizer — espe­cially where conflicts between Kantian and so-called historicist thinking are concerned, both in epistemology and in ethics.

…being human is not a zoological, but a moral concept.

The belief that good and evil are not determined in the context by historic accidents but precede all contingent facts is a precondition of any living culture.

["Why Do We Need Kant", Modernity, pp. 45-48]

It was characteristic of Kolakowski to acknowledge the legitimacy of a philo­sophical impulse or motif, but resist the tendency to hypostasize and mold it into an ideology. He advocated intellectual moderation. Phil tells the story of how Kolakowski once suggested that newly minted philosophy Ph.D.’s should immediately be made full professors and gradually work their way down — with a dock in pay for every book they publish.

There is not a lot of Kolakowski on-line. As an example of his polemical writing, you might be interested in his rejoinder to Edward Thompson from The Socialist Register in 1974:  My Correct Views on Everything. His more ruminative The Death of Utopia Recon­sidered, was delivered at The Australian National University in 1982, and con­tains the following:

The cultural role of philosophy is not to deliver truth but to build the spirit of truth and this means: never to let the inquisitive energy of mind go to sleep, never to stop ques­tioning what appears to be obvious and definitive. . .

Finally, there is available electronically an extract from The Alienation of Reason on The Culture of Logical Empiricism.

Kolakowski has become a national hero in Poland, celebrated as a spiritual father of the Solidarity movement. In the US, he was awarded the highest federal honor in the humanities, the Jefferson Lecture, by the NEH and in 2003 the Library of Congress named him the first recipient of the John W. Klug prize for lifetime achieve­ment in the humanities. He was a MacArthur award winner in 1982.

  3 Responses to “Leszek Kolakowski 1927-2009”

  1. [...] is what Leszek Kolakowski called the “spirit of truth”. They do not show [...]

  2. [...] Toulmin, who studied with Wittgenstein and was, with Kolakowski, a reader for Phil’s dissertation, died last month. Toulmin was probably best known for his [...]

  3. [...] as in Hegel, it is the process of dialectical conflict that leads us toward perfection. But as Leszek Kolakowski has remarked, Hegel’s philosophy, originally intended as theodicy, ends up as theogony; [...]

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