Leszek Kołakowski


Leszek Kołakowski

Leszek Kołakowski (born 23 October, 1927 in Radom, Poland) is a distinguished Polish philosopher and historian of ideas. He is best known for his critical analyses of Marxist thought, especially his acclaimed three-volume history, "Main Currents of Marxism".

Life and work

Due to the German occupation of Poland in World War II, Kołakowski did not attend school but read books and took occasional private lessons, passing his final examinations as an external student in the underground school system. After the war, he studied philosophy at Łódź University and in 1953 earned a doctorate from Warsaw University with a thesis on Spinoza. He later became a professor and chairman of Warsaw University's section on the history of philosophy (1959-1968).

In his youth Kołakowski was a precocious intellect and became a devout communist. In the years 1947-1966 he was a member of Polish United Workers' Party. His intellectual promise earned him a trip to Moscow, where he observed the future and found it repulsive. He broke with Stalinism becoming a "revisionist Marxist" and advocating a humanist interpretation of Marx. This led to him losing his job at Warsaw University, and his expulsion from the Polish Communist Party.

Eventually Kołakowski came to believe that Stalinism was not an aberration but the logical end product of Marxism, whose genealogy he examined in his scholarly "Main Currents of Marxism", published in 1976-1978.

He has become increasingly fascinated by the contribution which Christianity makes to Western, and in particular modern, thought, and has sought to defend the role which freedom plays in our pursuit of the transcendent. He asserts that while human fallibility implies that we ought to treat claims to infallibility with scepticism, our pursuit of the higher (such as truth and goodness) is ennobling.

In 1968 Kołakowski became a visiting professor in the department of philosophy at McGill University and in 1969 he moved to the University of California, Berkeley. In 1970 he became a senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He has remained at Oxford ever since, although he spent part of 1974 at Yale University, and from 1981 to 1994 was a part-time professor at the Committee on Social Thought and in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago.

The Library of Congress named Kołakowski the first winner of the John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Humanities in 2003. In Poland, Kołakowski is not only revered as a philosopher and historian of ideas, but also as an icon for opponents of communism.

Quotes

* "A modern philosopher who has never once suspected himself of being a charlatan must be such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading." (From "Metaphysical Horror")

* "In all the universe man cannot find a well so deep that, leaning over it, he does not discover at the bottom his own face." (From "Marxism and Beyond")

* "And thus Prometheus awakens from his dream of power, as ignominiously as Gregor Samsa in Kafka's "Metamorphosis"." (on the emergence of Stalinist dictatorship as an expression of Marxism, from "Main Currents of Marxism")

* "The self-deification of mankind, to which Marxism gave philosophical expression, has ended in the same way as all such attempts, whether individual or collective: it has revealed itself as the farcical aspect of human bondage." (From "Main Currents of Marxism")

* "Religion is man’s way of accepting life as an inevitable defeat. That it is not an inevitable defeat is a claim that cannot be defended in good faith. One can, of course, disperse one’s life over the contingencies of every day, but even then it is only a ceaseless and desperate desire to live, and finally a regret that one has not lived. One can accept life, and accept it, at the same time, as a defeat only if one accepts that there is a sense beyond that which is inherent in human history—if, in other words, one accepts the order of the sacred. A hypothetical world from which the sacred had been swept away would admit of only two possibilities: vain fantasy that recognizes itself as such, or immediate satisfaction which exhausts itself. It would leave only the choice proposed by Baudelaire, between lovers of prostitutes and lovers of clouds: those who know only the satisfactions of the moment and are therefore contemptible, and those who lose themselves in otiose imaginings, and are therefore contemptible. Everything is then contemptible, and there is no more to be said." (From "Modernity on Endless Trial")

* "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, always to defy the seemingly intact resources of common sense, always to suspect that there might be “another side” in what we take for granted, and never to allow us to forget that there are questions that lie beyond the legitimate horizon of science and are nonetheless crucially important to the survival of humanity as we know it." (From "Modernity on Endless Trial")

Most important works

* "Klucz niebieski, albo opowieści budujące z historii świętej zebrane ku pouczeniu i przestrodze" ("The Key to Heaven"), 1957
* "13 bajek z królestwa Lailonii dla dużych i małych" ("Tales from the Kingdom of Lailonia and the Key to Heaven"), 1963
* "Rozmowy z diablem" (US title: "Conversations with the Devil" / UK title: "Talk of the Devil"), 1965
* "Od Hume'a do Koła Wiedeńskiego" (the 1st edition:"The Alienation of Reason", translated by Norbert Guterman, 1966/ later as "Positivist Philosophy from Hume to the Vienna Circle"),
* "Kultura i fetysze" ("Toward a Marxist Humanism", translated by Jane Zielonko Peel, and "Marxism and Beyond"), 1967
* "A Leszek Kołakowski Reader", 1971
* "Positivist Philosophy", 1971
* "TriQuartely 22", 1971
* "Obecność mitu" ("The Presence of Myth"), 1972
* ed. "The Socialist Idea", 1974 (with Stuart Hampshire)
* "Husserl and the Search for Certitude", 1975
* "Główne nurty marksizmu" ("Main Currents of Marxism"), 1976 (3 vols.)
* "Czy diabeł może być zbawiony i 27 innych kazań", 1982
* "Religion: If There Is No God", 1982
* "Bergson", 1985
* "Le Village introuvable", 1986
* "Metaphysical Horror", 1988 (revised edition, 2001)
* "Pochwała niekonsekwencji", 1989 (ed. by Zbigniew Menzel)
* "Cywilizacja na ławie oskarżonych", 1990 (ed. by Paweł Kłoczowski)
* "Modernity on Endless Trial", 1990
* "God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal's Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism", 1995
* "Freedom, Fame, Lying, and Betrayal: Essays on Everyday Life", 1999
* "The Two Eyes of Spinoza and Other Essays on Philosophers", 2004
* "My Correct Views on Everything", 2005
* "Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?", 2007

Awards

* Jurzykowski Prize (1969)
* Erasmus Prize (1983)
* MacArthur Fellowship (1983)
* Jefferson Award (1986)
* Award of the Polish Pen Club (1988)
* Kluge Prize of the Library of Congress (2004)
* St. George Medal (2006)
* Jerusalem Prize (2007)

See also

* Adam Schaff
* History of philosophy in Poland
* Law of the Infinite Cornucopia
* List of Poles

References

* [http://www.fmag.unict.it/~polphil/PolPhil/KolakBiblio.html Bibliography]
* [http://bactra.org/notebooks/kolakowski.html Leszek Kolakowski notebook] , by Cosma Shalizi
* [http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/0312/kluge3.html "What the Past is For" by Leszek Kolakowski] —Speech given on November 5, 2003, on the occasion of the awarding of the first Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the Humanities and Social Sciences
* [http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2003/03-195.html "Library of Congress Announces Winner of First John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Humanities and Social Sciences"]

Articles

* [http://socialistregister.com/socialistregister.com/files/SR_1974_Kolakowski.pdf My Correct Views On Everything: A Rejoinder to Edward Thompson's "Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski] , "Socialist Register" 1974
* [http://www.mrbauld.com/conlibsoc.html How to Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist]
* [http://www.autodidactproject.org/other/kolakow1.html The Alienation of Reason (Extract)]
* [http://www.tannerlectures.utah.edu/lectures/documents/kolakowski83.pdf The Death of Utopia Reconsidered]

Reviews

*Judt, Tony. [http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19302 "Goodbye to All That?"] in [http://www.nybooks.com The New York Review of Books] , Vol. 53, No. 14, September 21, 2006 (review-essay on "Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders, the Golden Age, the Breakdown" by Leszek Kołakowski, translated from the Polish by P.S. Falla. Norton, 2005, ISBN 0393060543; "My Correct Views on Everything" by Leszek Kolakowski, edited by Zbigniew Janowski. St. Augustine's, 2004, ISBN 1587315254; "Karl Marx ou l'esprit du monde" by Jacques Attali. Paris: Fayard, 2005, ISBN 2213624917)
*Roger Kimball, [http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/23/jun05/leszek.htm Leszek Kolakowski and the Anatomy of Totalitarianism]


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