Leszek Kołakowski is as well known for his essays (for which he received the European Prize for the Essay in 1980) as he is for his strictly philosophical works. He launched his spectacular career as an essayist with the publication in 1959 of the influential essay “Kapłan i błazen” (“The Priest and the Jester”), which gained him the reputation as the most brilliant Marxist philosopher in Poland. In this essay Kołakowski formulates a dichotomy between the Priest, the guardian of tradition and accepted absolutes, and the skeptical Jester who “doubts all that appears self-evident.” The philosophy of the Priest, Kołakowski argues, represented incurable and “unbearable traits of senility.” Despite the attractiveness and force with which Kołakowski presents the Jester, the metaphor, as one of his critics observed (Ryszard Legutko, “Podzwonne dla błazna” [Requiem for the jester], in his Bez gniewu i uprzedzenia [1989; Without anger and prejudice]), is based on the confusion of individual temperament—such as intellectual vitality, irony, and paradox—with an intellectual world view. The inadequacy of the metaphor can be seen when it is applied to Pascal, the thinker to whom Kołakowski devoted an essay and made frequent allusions in that period. The irony and humor harnessed by Pascal in his Lettres provinciales (1656–57; The Provincial Letters) to mock the lax morality of the Jesuit Fathers would seem to place Pascal with the Jesters; yet in fact Pascal’s humor serves to defend an austere Jansenist morality and Catholicism, which, according to Kołakowski’s categorization, puts Pascal in the camp of the defenders of absolutes.
Although the dichotomy between the Priest and the Jester could, with the greatest of difficulties, become a key to the interpretation of the history of philosophy, the Jester’s philosophy of the mistrust for absolutes turned out to have considerable practical consequences. The Jester’s philosophy served the former Marxists, including Kołakowski himself—who was called in the 1960s “the most intelligent man in the world”—as a form of immunization against ideological traps into which they had fallen, when, in the early 1950s, they committed themselves to Marxism.
From today’s perspective the “The Priest and the Jester” bears strong traces of the sociopolitical situation in which it was written; yet it is pivotal for Kołakowski’s philosophical methodology. A considerable part of the essay concerns the theological underpinnings of contemporary philosophy. “Philosophy has never freed itself from its theological heritage,” Kołakowski writes at the outset of the essay, “which means that theological questions were merely clumsy formulations of essential enigmas that still hold us in thrall… theology has never been more than a projection of anthropology onto non-human reality.” Thus: …the problem of theodicy in its modern version is that of the “wisdom” of history… Theodicy is, therefore, a method of transforming facts into values… eschatology is an attempt to find absolute justification for our life outside its limits, to establish a reality that makes all other reality meaningful and comprehensible… The most important of these questions is the problem of nature and grace…this question concerns determinism and responsibility… All these questions involve the relationship between man and the absolute… Revelation is simply the absolute in the order of cognition, a collection of positive and unquestionable data, our means of communicating with the
absolute…secular revelation was the Cartesian cogito…nostalgia for revelation lives on in the heart of philosophy.
All these points have been elaborated by Kołakowski in his books, many of which are written in an essayistic form: Obecność mitu (1972; The Presence of Myth), Husserl and the Search for Certitude (1975), Religion: If There Is No God (1982), and Metaphysical Horror (1988).
After his expulsion from Warsaw University and his arrival in the West in 1968, Kołakowski became a frequent contributor to the English Encounter and other European and American journals such as Survey, Commentary, Partisan Review, Commentaire, and Merkur. In 1982 ANEKS, the London-based Polish émigré publishing house, published the collection of his essays, Czy diabeł może być zbawiony i 27 innych kazań (Can the devil be saved and 27 other sermons), written mostly in English, French, and German.
Similar collections appeared in French and English.
In 1990 Kołakowski published Modernity on Endless Trial, for which he received the Laing Award from the University of Chicago Press for the best book of the year. Unlike Kołakowski’s essays written during his Marxist period—Kultura i fetysze (1967; Culture and fetishes, translated as Toward a Marxist Humanism and as Marxism and Beyond) and A Leszek Kołakowski Reader (1971)—these essays are, as Kołakowski aptly called them, “semi-philosophical sermons.” The early mistrust of the Jester against the absolutes is no longer present in his later works, and the dichotomy between the Jester and the Priest is replaced by the opposition between the philosophers who seek a cognitive Absolute and those who apply “skeptical medicine” to the ever-present attempt in European thought to find the absolute “foundation of all foundations.” As Kołakowski persuasively argues, “The search for the ultimate foundation is as much an unremovable part of European culture as is the denial of the legitimacy of this search” (Metaphysical Horror). For the most part, Kołakowski’s attention is focused on the state of Christianity and Catholicism (frequent themes in his writings), the relationship between religious thought and philosophy, modernity, and ideologies. Whether the object of our analysis is philosophy, Christianity, Marxism, or liberalism, we unfailingly come across the same utopian tendency in human thinking: the belief of philosophers in attaining absolute certitude, man’s search for a perfect social order, and the theocratic tendencies within Christianity.
All of these express the same belief that there is a perfect solution to all human problems.
Yet there are no perfect solutions; the solution to one problem always gives rise to others.
There are only dilemmas with which we need to learn how to live. Kołakowski believes that “moderation in consistency” is the best way to counter this utopian thinking, which always leads to the perversion of the ideal and in the social realm finds but one solution: totalitarian temptation, exemplified in the 20th century by the rise of Marxist and Nazi states. While the specter of Marxism, the greatest utopia of the 20th century, as Kołakowski called it in his monumental work Główne nurty marksizmu (1976; Main Currents of Marxism), is behind us, cultural relativism, characteristic of the life of contemporary Western democratic liberal societies, undermines the very belief in the existence of moral and epistemological “absolutes” on which European culture has always been based.
Born 23 October 1927 in Radom. Studied at the University of Łódź, 1945–50, Ph.D., 1953. Member of the Polish Workers’ Party, 1945. Staff member, Po Prostu (In plain words), 1955. After the socalled “October thaw,” 1956, became one of the leading voices for the democratization of life in Poland. Professor of modern philosophy, University of Warsaw: 1959–68: expelled after giving a speech at the Warsaw Chapter of the Union of Polish Writers. Delivered a famous speech at at the 10th anniversary of the “Polish October,” 1966: expelled from the Polish United Workers’ Party. Left Poland, November 1968; no references to his works could be made in Poland, 1968–89. Professor of philosophy, McGill University, Montreal, 1968, and University of California, Berkeley, 1969; senior research fellow, All Souls College, Oxford, 1970–95; visiting professor, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1975; professor, Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Philosophy, University of Chicago, 1980–95.
Awards: several, including the German Booksellers Peace Prize, 1977; Erasmus Prize, 1980;
Veillon Foundation European Prize for the Essay, 1980; Jefferson Award, 1986;
MacArthur Award, 1982; University of Chicago Laing Award, 1990; Tocqueville Prize, 1994.
Essays and Related Prose
Der Mensch ohne Alternative, 1960
Kultura i fetysze, 1967; as Toward a Marxist Humanism: Essays on the Left Today, and as Marxism and Beyond, translated by Jane Zielonko Peel, 1968
Traktat über die Sterblichkeit der Vernunft: Philosophische Essays, 1967
A Leszek Kołakowski Reader, TriQuarterly 22 (1971)
Obecność mitu, 1972; as The Presence of Myth, 1989
Husserl and the Search for Certitude, 1975
Czy diabeł może być zbawiony i 27 innych kazań, 1982
Religion: If There Is No God, 1982
Le Village introuvable, 1986
Metaphysical Horror, 1988
Pochwała niekonsekwencji: Pisma rozproszone z lat, 1955–1968, 3 vols., edited by Zbigniew Menzel, 1989
Cywilizacja na ławie oskarżonych, edited by Paweł Kłoczowski, 1990
Modernity on Endless Trial, 1990
God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal’s Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism, 1995
Other writings: one-act plays, short stories, and works on Marxism (including Główne nurty marksizmu [1976; Main Currents of Marxism]), philosophy, and religion.
Kline, George L., “Selective Bibliography,” TriQuarterly 22 (1971): 239–50
Davis, Charles, and John C.Robertson, Jr., “Religion: If There Is No God,” Religious Studies Review 2 (1985):145–51
Karpiński, Wojciech, “Leszek Kołakowski: A Portrait,” in European Liberty: Four Essays on the Occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the Erasmus Prize Foundation, The Hague: Nijhoff, 1983
Kline, George L., “Beyond Revisionism: Leszek Kołakowski’s Recent Philosophical Development,” TriQuarterly 22 (1971):13–47
Król, Marcin, “Leszek Kołakowski: Le Philosophe et la religion,” Esprit (October 1985):63–81
Lenz, Siegfried, Gesprache mit Manes Sperber und Leszek Kołakowski, Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch, 1982
Schwan, Gesine, Leszek Kołakowski: Eine marxistische Philosophie der Freiheit nach Marx, Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1971
Schwan, Gesine, “The Philosophical Resistance of Leszek Kołakowski,” Humanities: National Endowment for the Humanities: Leszek Kołakowski, the 1986 Jefferson Lecturer 7, no. 2 (1986):10–16
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