Leszek Kołakowski & other intellectuals

Well, R.I.P, Mr Kołakowski and witam back to Poland to rest your bones after all those long years spent somewhere else – Oxford mostly. You’re not being dug up but you are being relocated, which should keep Jamie happy as ‘guest’ commented earlier.


Leszek Kołakowski

“one of the most prominent creators of contemporary Polish culture” (A. Michnik)

I’m going to confess to never having heard of Mr Kołakowski until he died. Suddenly the media were all over his philosophical ass and you’d have to be pretty stupid, or not in Poland, to realise that another Polish hero had bitten the dust. My interest was piqued and so I went forth onto the wide-open plains of virtual knowledge to discover more about Leszku and why it is that I should be interested in his death at 81 years of age and under no suspicious circumstances.

Had he been younger or the circumstances been suspicious then it would, naturally, have been interesting and a clear case for Dr. G medical examiner so I could have tuned to Discovery channel for a full breakdown of the size of his heart and relative usefulness of his dental records! You might want to know that the site linked to has a useful section entitled “How not to die”, there are simply no ends to the skills of Dr. G. Give it a few years and she’ll be “Saint G of Orlando”. Anyway, I digress.

It seems that Mr Kołakowski, born in Radom (poor sod), was a famous “philosopher, intellectual and eminent professor” who initially embraced communism (joined the party in fact) as a fresh start for this country but then fell out of love with it, went into exile and started writing nasty things about Marxism. We’re not talking graffiti on the walls of Chicago toilets either, we’re talking a three volume more than thousand page epic:

From philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, one of the giants of twentieth-century intellectual history, comes this highly influential study of Marxism. Written in exile, this “prophetic work” presents, according to the Library of Congress, “the most lucid and comprehensive history of the origins, structure, and posthumous development of the system of thought that had the greatest impact on the twentieth century”. Kolakowski traces the intellectual foundations of Marxist thought from Plotonius through Lenin, Lukacs, Sartre and Mao. He reveals Marxism to be “the greatest fantasy of our century…an idea that began in Promethean humanism and culminated in the monstrous tyranny of Stalinism”. In a brilliant coda, he examines the collapse of international Communism in light of the last tumultuous decades. “Main Currents of Marxism” remains the indispensable book in its field.

“Indispensable book in its field” is one of those phrases I love dearly. As far as I can tell it means “little read and even less frequently purchased but nevertheless an important book (probably)”.

I’m sure the book has its merits, anyone who spends so long explaining why Marxism is a fantasy can’t be all that bad, especially when they make that conclusion in the mid 70’s, i.e. before the whole things goes tits-up and it becomes obvious that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. I confess I haven’t read it, haven’t even read a precis of it. That’s partly because, as I said earlier, I’ve never heard of Mr Kołakowski and partly because reading philosophical / intellectual works turns me to stone! You think I’m exaggerating but it’s true, it took me almost three weeks to come back to life after trying to read Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”.


Me after reading Kant

What is the problem with these philosophers? Why do they have to say in 20,000 words what could more simply be explained in 20? Most of the time it would boil down to “Your guess is as good as mine” or “I really haven’t got a clue” but they’re not satisfied with that are they, they have to get all obsessive-compulsive about it and go on and on and on in long and convoluted sentences making sure they do the appropriate amount of name-dropping so you know they have at least been spending some time reading. “Reason” seems to be a special kind of plaything of the philosophical ones, even Leszek had a stab at that one. If you have the stamina you can go read an extract (extract mind you!) from “The Alienation of Reason” – here’s what you can expect:

This leads to the question whether positivism also discloses cultural features justifying its treatment as a distinctive whole, or whether we are dealing with a number of traditional philosophical themes that were in each case adapted to the needs of a given period.

I hesitate to give a clear‑cut answer to this question, for it involves certain difficult historiosophic decisions. The question is all the more vexatious because the meaning the positivists themselves ascribe to their anti­metaphysical bias has been interpreted, as we have seen, in various ways. This is best illustrated by comparing the rules given by Wittgenstein with those given by Carnap. It is one thing to say “What we cannot speak of we must be silent about,” something else again to say that metaphysics should be treated like poetry. After all, poetry is not silence, for all that it cannot be called “true” or “false” in the semantic sense. Wittgenstein’s rule urges us to banish whatever cannot be expressed as a logical sentence from our image of the world, more generally from all intellectual concern. Carnap’s merely warns us to distinguish between meaningful and unverifiable statements, to treat the latter as purely expressive or lyrical utterances; he urges us not to confuse something that merely expresses with something that also has meaning, and hence to refrain from representing the emotional gestures involved in metaphysical, religious, or valuational verbalizations as authentic convictions whose rightness or wrongness it is possible to dispute. When the metaphysical prohibition goes no farther than a definition of knowledge that automatically gives extra‑scientific status to philosophical assertions, the practice of metaphysics becomes, so to speak, legal according to positivism, so long as we do not ascribe so‑called cognitive value to such reflections. In this case, positivism cannot, strictly speaking, fulfill the ideological tasks mentioned at the end of the preceding chapter; that is, it cannot, if it is to be consistent, have a destructive effect on ideological attitudes, it can only deny them scientific justification, truth or falsity in the scientific sense.

Someone poke me with a sharp stick – quick!

Okay. Back to Mr Michnik’s quote at the top of the page, Mr Kołakowski was “one of the most prominent creators of contemporary Polish culture”. I understand that slagging Marxism would be popular in Poland but I really don’t think that’s enough to warrant such a statement. I can’t find any particular Polishness in the work I pasted from or indeed in other works I can find online so can someone help me understand why Michnik says what he does? He’s smart, he’s Polish and he’s dead doesn’t seem to do it for me but I’m prepared to accept that I am a) stupid and b) missing something obvious that only Poles know about and so I’m looking forward to being educated here.

Oh, and if anyone can find a good reason why I should like philosophy generally then that would help as well.


12 thoughts on “Leszek Kołakowski & other intellectuals

  1. bob says:

    I was ‘Kanted’ once as well. It took many pints of bitter, gallons of skin cream and quite a few curry’s to begin to re-enter the world after. Not sure I have made a full re-entry however.

    As he said: “From such crooked wood as that which man is made of, nothing straight can be fashioned”. The bitter helped getting uncrooked after reading him

  2. guest says:

    “slagging Marxism would be popular in Poland but I really don’t think that’s enough to warrant such a statement. I can’t find any particular Polishness in the work”


    I think slagging Marxism IS very Polish.

    The Italians, French, Germans, Scandinavians, Dutch and (some?)Brits will never critisize Marxism so openly. In western Europe there is more or less a hidden love/sympathy for Marx, Lenin and co.

    I think only Poland and the USA are so “anti Marxist”. (and some smaller countries)

  3. gagutek says:

    I know Kolakowski mainly through this book
    It is non-philosophical stuff, but these intelectual small stories made me smile each time I read it. And I come back it it quite often.
    So far I wasn’t able to trace an English translation (I even don’t know if it exist) as I would love my husband to read it.
    If you know Polish well enough, please read it.

  4. gagutek says:

    O, and I have this book in Polish
    but haven’t finished reading it yet. It is more serious stuff.
    I can’t believe the price!

  5. Scatts says:

    Yeah, a lot of the rarer books are silly prices. I’ve seen a few of his at that price. Still, it’s cheaper than sleep hypnosis treatments.

  6. gagutek says:

    it’s me again :)
    I really like Kolakowski :) even if I don’t know much about his philosophical work.

    >>> Oh, and if anyone can find a good reason why I should like philosophy generally then that would help as well>>>

    Philosophy = thinking
    You don’t need more reasons to like it!

  7. adthelad says:

    gagutek – philosophy = thinking

    er…well almost. Philosophy is more an attempt at reasoning so as not to end up living in ‘cloud cookoo land’ where, amongst others, Marxists live.

    As evidenced by scatts, some people think reasoning means ‘“Your guess is as good as mine” ;)

  8. adthelad says:

    ….and the comments on the reviews

  9. Terry says:

    I don’t get it. Why hate on Richard Marx?

  10. phlojd says:

    There were some really interesting exchanges between Kolakowski and EP Thompson as a result of the latter writing this broadside open letter to the former:


  11. Kapaneus says:

    Off topic: you shouldn’t use the strange form ,,Plotonius“ (where the heck did you get _that_ from??), use “Plotinos” instead and people will understand you …

    As for the cited abstract it’ll be totally understandable to anyone who finished reading Carnap’s and Wittgenstein’s main works. Just some piece of colorful language but nothing unusual.

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