By JAMES H. BILLINGTON
Leszek Kolakowski was born in Radom, Poland, in 1927. When he was 10 years old, his family moved to Lodz, where he lived under German occupation during the Second World War. He did not attend school but read books from the library of a country house and had occasional private lessons; he took his final exams as an external student in the underground school system. He eventually studied philosophy at Warsaw University, where he earned his doctorate in 1953 and became a professor and chairman of the university's section on the history of philosophy (1959-1968).
An orthodox Marxist at first, Kolakowski was sent to Moscow in 1950 on a course for promising communist intellectuals. It was there that he initially became aware of "the enormity of material and spiritual desolation caused by the Stalinist system."
In June 1956 worker riots in Poznan resulted in many deaths, and in October of that year Gomulka was chosen as party leader in defiance of Moscow. Kolakowski had by then become one of Poland's leading revisionist Marxists. His publication of "What Is Socialism?"—a short, incisive critique of Stalinism—was banned in Poland but circulated privately and translated into English the next year. Disillusioned with the stagnation of communism, he became increasingly outspoken. He was expelled from the Polish United Workers' Party in 1966, dismissed from his professorship two years later, and went into exile.
But his works, appearing in underground editions, continued to shape the opinions of the Polish intellectual opposition. His essay "Theses on Hope and Hopelessness," published in the Paris Polish-language journal Kultura (1971), proposed an evolutionary strategy designed to weaken the system. His concept inspired the activities of the Committee for the Defense of Workers and of the "Poor University," of which Kolakowski was a foreign member.
The relationships between freedom and belief, examined in many different contexts, have been lifelong themes of his scholarly work and are displayed fully in a wide range of essays written in nontechnical language and accessible to a wide range of readers. In "The Death of Utopia Reconsidered" (1983), for example, he explains his view of philosophy.
"The cultural role of philosophy is not to deliver the 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."
After leaving Poland, Kolakowski became a visiting professor in the department of philosophy at McGill University (1968-69), the University of California at Berkeley (1969-1970), and a senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford (1970). Based in Oxford since then, he spent part of 1974 at Yale, and from 1981 to 1994 was a professor part-time in the committee on social thought and the department of philosophy at the University of Chicago. He has been a fellow of scholarly societies in many countries and has received numerous academic honors and awards.
It is the essence of a vibrant human culture, in Kolakowski's view, to honor the universality of human rights while welcoming conflict of values and repeated self-questioning with what he calls "an inconsistent skepticism." "I do not believe that human culture can ever reach a perfect synthesis of its diversified and incompatible components. Its very richness is supported by this very incompatibility of its ingredients. And it is the conflict of values, rather than their harmony, that keeps our culture alive."
The Kluge Prize was created to recognize not only the accomplishments but also "the trajectory" of a scholarly lifetime. For more than a half century, Kolakowski's scholarship has analyzed and affirmed both the underlying values and the desirable diversity of the European heritage. He has been a "Theoretician of European Culture," as the heading proclaimed over the bibliography of his previously banned works that was published in Poland as it was passing from communism to freedom in 1990.
Beginning in 1958 with "The Individual and Infinity," a lengthy book about Spinoza, Kolakowski published a series of major studies on a wide range of European philosophers: "The Philosophy of Existence, the Defeat of Existence"(1965); "Positivist Philosophy from Hume to the Vienna Circle" (1972); "Husserl and the Search for Certitude" (1975); works on Bergson (1957 and 1984); and "Metaphysical Horror" (1988). He was dealing sympathetically with the thought of, respectively, an unorthodox Dutch Jew, French existentialists, agnostic English and Austrian empiricists, a German phenomenologist, a French believer in intuition and "the life force," and those who seek divine answers for human concerns.
Kolakowski's early advocacy of Marxism placed him in initial opposition to traditional Polish Catholicism. But it was more in the spirit of Erasmus' "Praise of Folly" than of Marxist atheism that he wrote his most famous early essay, "The Jester and the Priest," in which he expressed his preference for the former. He developed a deep interest in the religious dimension of human experience in general and in the Christian base of European civilization in particular.
In 1965 he published in Polish a monumental study that he had been working on since 1958: "Religious Consciousness and the Church: Studies in 17th Century Non-denominational Christianity." (It has been translated into French, but not yet—like many of his other major writings—into English.) In this work, he brought to life a vast array of little-known thinkers from all over Europe who embraced Christian ideas but radically rejected affiliation with any existing church. In opposition to the Church's "law," they all favored a religion of direct "grace." The research for this book led him deeper into the mystical mode of knowing and confirmed his distaste for institutionalized "truth," which was taken then to mean statist Marxism more than dogmatic Catholicism. His many writings on religion suggest the validity of the continuing quest for transcendent answers along with the near certainty that absolute answers are unobtainable in philosophy and dangerous in politics. His 1973 lecture "The Revenge of the Sacred on Secular Culture" contends that the sacred is essential for culture as an ordering structure.
He deals with deep questions in a nondidactic and often ironic and gently self-mocking way in the treatises "If There Is No God: On God, the Devil, Sin and Other Worries in the So-called Philosophy of Religion" (1988). In his "God Owes Us Nothing" (1985), he reflects on what he calls "Pascal's sad religion" of belief in a "hidden God" not reachable by reason. The conversion to Christianity of the great 17th-century scientist plunged Pascal, like the modern man he prefigures, into what Kolakowski describes as "a never-ending state of suspense and doubt on the one matter that was really important."
Out of his sustained and disciplined study of philosophy, Kolakowski crafted his best known and most influential work, his three-volume "Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth and Dissolution" (1976-78). Written in exile from Poland, it was, and remains, 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 20th century. It was a prophetic work, written at a time when Marxism still provided the ideological glue for a Soviet system that was thought to have an indefinite life expectancy. He described with his customary objectivity the main ideas and diverse currents of Marxist thinking, but at the same time characterized Marxism as "the greatest fantasy of our century … [which] began in a Promethean humanism and culminated in the monstrous tyranny of Stalin."
His ideas informed the anti-totalitarian youth movement inside Poland, and he became an adviser and active supporter-in-exile of the Solidarity movement that challenged and began unraveling in a nonviolent way the Soviet system in Eastern Europe.
Bronislaw Geremek, an intellectual leader of the Polish opposition, said of Kolakowski: "This skeptical student of enlightenment thought, this scholar of the highest intellectual rigor, this opponent of all illusions, played the most romantic and Promethean of roles. He was the awakener of human hopes."
In exile Kolakowski has written increasingly about the problems of Western culture. His "Modernity on Endless Trial" (1990) and "Freedom, Fame, Lying and Betrayal: Essays on the Everyday" (1990) are rich in substance, yet humane and often humorous in tone.
Some of Kolakowski's recent writings have been seen as a powerful alternative to the triumph of post-modernism and its deconstruction of the idea of truth. One reviewer wrote: "His defense of the human instinct for the transcendent, which is, again, the defense of a philosopher writing from ‘within' the tradition of modern, critical western thought, has been an important challenge to the stifling secularism that is so frequently encountered in the contemporary academy, … [which] ignores the experience of the overwhelming majority of humankind."
James H. Billington is the Librarian of Congress.