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“The Awakener of Human Hopes”: Leszek Kolakowski

The following is a guest post by Lauren Sinclair, Program Assistant at The John W. Kluge Center. It is the eighth post in a series on past recipients of the Library of Congress Kluge Prize.

Leszek Kolakowski

Leszek Kolakowski, first recipient of the John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity.

The first-ever Kluge Prize was awarded to Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski in 2003. In conferring the Prize, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington called Kolakowski “the most important single thinker behind the most important event of the late 20th century, the implosions and the peaceful nonviolent end of the communist system.”[1] Kolakowski’s advocacy for freedom, in particular the freedom of expression, contributed to his being known as an “awakener of human hopes”, a title bequeathed to him by leaders of the Polish Solidarity movement.[2]

Kolakowski (1927-2009), endured much personal hardship during his life. His family was displaced by the Nazis during the occupation of Poland, and his father was executed by the Gestapo. His opposition to Nazism manifested in his joining the Polish Communist Party in 1945, and he quickly became its posterchild. His dissertation at Warsaw University was a Marxist analysis of the Jewish Dutch philosopher Spinoza,[3] a philosopher who posthumously was reputed for his opposition to Decartes’ mind-body dualism. Spinoza was excommunicated from his Jewish community, while his books were placed on the Catholic Church’s index of forbidden books, a path Kolakowski would follow.[4] After a period of revisionist and critical scholarship that increasingly distanced him from Marxist orthodoxy and Stalinism, Kolakowski was expelled from his position as Chair of Modern Philosophy at the University of Warsaw, and his books banned. Kolakowski and his wife moved to Montreal, Canada, and then Berkeley, California, as political and intellectual exiles.

Kolakowski’s writings are credited for influencing the solidarity movement in Poland, which eventually brought an end to communist rule there and later throughout Eastern Europe.[5] In “Hope and Hopelessness,” Kolakowski’s main critique of Polish socialism was that by nationalizing and sanitizing history, the Polish government eradicated the potential for an honest contemporary existence. Kolakowski stated that the role of the philosopher was to build the “spirit of truth” and to “never stop questioning.”[6] For humanity to flourish, Kolakowski believed “[t]here is one freedom on which all other liberties depend, and that is freedom of expression, freedom of speech, of print. If this is taken away, no other freedom can exist, or at least it would be soon suppressed.”[7]

Kolakowski was dedicated to the pursuit of knowing ourselves and our truths; he saw this as the social role and responsibility of the philosopher. While Kolakowski’s “mordant style and air of almost sublime disillusionment could sometimes give the impression of cynicism,” [8] he countered this with a dark and cutting humor. Kolakowski compared philosophers to dirt diggers, garbage collectors, circus clowns,[9] priests, jesters,[10] and charlatans.[11] The impression of cynicism was mitigated by the promise of transcendence[12]–a persistent hopefulness–that is possible through the pursuit of questioning and the preservation of the freedom of expression.

The Kluge Prize awards outstanding achievement in the humanities and social sciences, and Kolakowski was a scholar who met all of the Prize’s major criteria.[13] Dr. Billington celebrated Kolakowski as “a true humanist: philosopher, intellectual historian and cultural critic. Throughout his creative life he…asked big questions with the kind of intellectual honesty and depth that we have sought to honor with the John W. Kluge Prize.”[14] This appraisal set the bar for a remarkable lineage of notable and influential scholars recognized by the John W. Kluge Prize since its establishment.

This post is the eighth in a series on past recipients of the Library of Congress John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity. The Kluge Prize will be bestowed again on September 29, 2015 to philosophers Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor. The ceremony will be webcast. #KlugePrize.

Previous posts in this series:

Notes

[1] Billington, J. H. and Kolakowski, L. (5 November, 2003). Polish Philosopher Receives Kluge Prize [interview]. Retrieved September 17, 2015 from: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment-july-dec03-kluge_11-05/

[2] Olson, E. (5 November, 2003). $1 Million Humanities Prize Goes to a Polish Philosopher. Retrieved September 17, 2015 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/05/arts/1-million-humanities-prize-goes-to-a-polish-philosopher.html

[3] Gömöri, G. (29 July 2009). Leszek Kolakowski: Polish-born philosopher and writer who produced seminal critical analyses on Marxism and religion. Retrieved September 17, 2015 from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/leszek-kolakowski-polishborn-philosopher-and-writer-who-produced-seminal-critical-analyses-on-marxism-and-religion-1763959.html

[4] Between 1968 and 1981 Kolakowski’s name was on Poland’s index of forbidden authors. See: Simmons, M. (22 July 2009). Leszek Kolakowski. . Retrieved September 17, 2015 from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/jul/22/philosophy-1968-the-year-of-revolt)

[5] Billington, J. H. and Kolakowski, L. (5 November, 2003). Polish Philosopher Receives Kluge Prize [interview]. Retrieved September 17, 2015 from: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment-july-dec03-kluge_11-05/

[6] Kolakowski, L. (22 June, 1982). The Death of Utopia Reconsidered [lecture]. The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Delivered at the Australian National University. Retrieved September 17, 2015 from: http://tannerlectures.utah.edu/_documents/a-to-z/k/kolakowski83.pdf

[7] http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment-july-dec03-kluge_11-05/

[8] Billington, J. H. and Kolakowski, L. (5 November, 2003). Prize Winner [interview]. Retrieved September 17, 2015 from: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment-july-dec03-kluge_11-05/

[9] Kolakowski, L. (5 November, 2003). What the Past is for [speech]. Retrieved September 17, 2015 from: //www.loc.gov/loc/kluge/news/kolakowski.html

[10] Kolakowski, L. (1962). The Priest and the Jester. Dissent, Summer 1962, 215-235. Retrieved September 17, 2015 from: http://www.unz.org/Pub/Dissent-1962q3-00215

[11] Lyall, S. (14 February, 2004). When Philosophy Makes a Difference. Retrieved September 17, 2015 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/14/arts/when-philosophy-makes-a-difference.html?_r=0

[12] Billington, J.H. (2003). Leszek Kolakowski: Scholar and Activist, The Long Career of the Kluge Prize Winner. Library of Congress Information Bulletin 62 (12). Retrieved September 17, 2015 from: //www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/0312/kluge2.html

[13] Billington, J. H. and Kolakowski, L. (5 November, 2003). Polish Philosopher Receives Kluge Prize [interview]. Retrieved September 17, 2015 from: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1492691

[14] N.a. (5 November, 2003). Library of Congress Announces Winner of First John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Humanities and Social Sciences. ). Retrieved September 17, 2015 from: //www.loc.gov/today/pr/2003/03-195.html

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