Home/John Schwenkler/philosophy/Leszek Kolakowski, 1927-2009

Leszek Kolakowski, 1927-2009

Leszek Kołakowski, the philosopher and communist dissident who spent most of his career at Oxford after fleeing Poland in 1968, died this Friday afternoon in an Oxford hospital. Reuters has a brief obituary here, and over at dotCommonweal I’ve excerpted an account of his life that I wrote last year for a book review. Meanwhile, here is a passage from Kołakowski’s 1982 Tanner Lecture that I discuss in that review, and that inspired this blog’s title:

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. All the most traditional worries of philosophers – how to tell good from evil, true from false, real from unreal, being from nothingness, just from unjust, necessary from contingent, myself from others, man from animal, mind from body, or how to find order in chaos, providence in absurdity, timelessness in time, laws in facts, God in the world, world in language – all of them boil down to the quest for meaning; and they presuppose that in dissecting such questions we may employ the instruments of Reason, even if the ultimate outcome is the dismissal of Reason or its defeat. Philosophers neither sow nor harvest, they only move the soil. They do not discover truth; but they are needed to keep the energy of mind alive, to confront various possibilities of answering our questions.

P.S. For more on Kołakowski’s life and work, this Tony Judt essay from the New York Review of Books is indispensable. There is also some interesting autobiographical material in the BBC’s obituary.

leave a comment