Notebooks

Leszek Kolakowski

10 Apr 2009 17:40

Polish philosopher and historian of philosophy. He's one of a very small number of people who is thoroughly conversant with both the analytical and Continental strains of Western philosophy, and knows the history of their (common) ancestors as well. (I know his familiarity with analytical philosophy comes from having studied under some of the best of the Polish logical empiricists; the other traditions presumably came to him through other professors...) In the '50s he was one of the most prominent revisionist Marxists in Poland, and got himself officially censured by the government after '56. Sometime between then, and 1968, when the Polish government forbid him to teach and he went into exile, he stopped considering himself a Marxist, even a revisionist one ("ultimately, there are better arguments in favor of democracy and freedom than the fact that Marx is not quite so hostile to them as he at first appears"), though still a socialist and (I think) an atheist. His first place of exile was Berkeley, which seems to have been a really horrid shock, as can be seen from various articles he published around that time about the New Left, and it's easy to sympathize with his retreat to Oxford. (Imagine: a non-Marxist socialist, just expelled from a Soviet satrapy, totally immersed in European high culture, plopped into Berkeley in the late '60s, and asked to approve of what the students and soi-disant revolutionaries were up to. Even if one has feeling for both parties, it couldn't have been pretty.)

Kolakowski is of interest, not just as an ex-Name (a very useful and pretty study could be made of the rise and decline of his reputation within the western Left over the last thirty or forty years), but as a superb historian and thinker. To steal his own description of Lukacs, whatever he writes about, he has the subject at his fingers ends, and, what's more, can make it interesting. He even pulls off this trick with the arguments of the Young Hegelians (in Main Currents of Marxism, I) and 17th century theology (in God Owes Us Nothing), subjects which must at times have pretty damn dry even to many of the people directly involved. Kolakowski is nonetheless always able to make clear why people got wrought up about such things, what the issues involved were, how they thought, why they thought that way. His reflections on our current predicament I find less persuasive, perhaps because they don't agree with mine (though I think his views of socialism and Marxism are absolutely on-target). On top of all this, he has a very surprising vein of humor, which shows up more in his essays than his full-length books, e.g. "The Epistemology of the Strip-Tease".


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