Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Leszek Kolakowski

Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski died on Friday. The Telegraph's obit is good, capturing his influence as well as his attractively sceptical and mordant approach to life. I think he was one of the heroes of the twentieth century.

I went to a seminar he gave in All Souls College once, on communism, about fifteen years ago. I left liking the man very much - as dry as talc but with a warm wit that revealed itself in asides made whilst sipping black coffee - but also with a feeling of disappointment: I hadn't heard anything new or revelatory.

But then I realised I'd just been listening to a man whose ideas had triumphed so absolutely in his own lifetime that they'd become part of the intellectual air I was breathing. I don't think there have been many thinkers fortunate enough to experience such a rich justification.

Christopher Hitchens has written an appreciative assessment of him here. I wonder what Hitch, author of 'God Is Not Great', would say about Kolakowski's views on religion? The latter's philosophy was deeply rooted in an awareness of the importance of Christian thought. He believed that the more worthwhile ideas to have emerged from Europe in the last three hundred years or so were ones that retained some basis in a foundational Christian morality, the 'good' bits of sceptical and secular post-enlightenment thought included.

Kolakowski is very interesting - clear yet subtle - on the role of religious belief in the contemporary world, its relationship with enlightenment and modernity. A good way in is to read his 1990 book of essays 'Modernity on Endless Trial' (you can get a taster on Google books).

The essays are elegantly and clearly written, accessible. Their sceptical, doubting arguments resolve themselves into a sort of optimism: it's the intellectual tussle - engaged with humbly and ingenuously - that's the point. However, not without leaving you with a few observations along the way that are more than capable of making you pause. This one paragraph, from the title essay, also illustrates why the word 'mordant' is so often used about Kolakowski:

'I was told that near a Nazi extermination camp, where the soil was superbly fertilized with the ashes of uncountable cremated bodies of the victims, the cabbage grew so rapidly that it had no time to form a head and produced instead a stem with separate leaves; apparently it was not edible. This might serve as a parable for thinking about the morbid tempo of progress.'

UPDATE: The Times obit has come out today. It provides an excellent overview of his thought across the years. It's especially useful in summarising his thoughts on religion, which deserve greater exposure in the debate with Hitchens, Dawkins, et al.


Gadjo Dilo said...

Mordant indeed. We need philosophers who can appear on chat shows - and by the sound of it Kolakowski could have done - or else ordinary punters and busy people are never going to hear these excellent thoughts.

Gaw said...

I think that would be a great thing, Gadj. I believe in the old days the Beeb used to have the odd philosopher on - wasn't AJ Ayer on some panel show?

But thinking about this in practical terms today, it's difficult to imagine who would actually be able to do the interview - Wossy? Norton? Possibly Richard and Judy.

A few years ago you could have got Parky to do it. Even Wogan, possibly. But I fear the dread gogglebox may have now fallen too far, at least as far as prime time is concerned.

I think there is a latent demand for seriousness out there, though. But the fashion of the time works against it, and the Beeb is very much in its grip (with the odd notable exception c.f. Terror!)

Bunny Smedley said...

Attention spans have deteriorated too, though - there are limits in how much real philosophical content (as opposed to arch references, link-pandering or even real cleverness) one can pack into 140 characters - which makes me wonder whether anyone under 30 would sit through an interlude of broadcast philosophy longer than a YouTube clip?

Fascinating post, by the way (a lame-sounding phrase, which is why I resist the temptation to type it out more often) - I knew nothing about Kolakowski. Time for yet more book shopping, clearly.

Gaw said...

Thanks, Bunny. I think attention spans probably are shorter. But I suspect the prevalence of this is overdone. For instance, LotR consisted of three very long films released over three years and was hugely successful. Apparently, some of these video games go on for weeks. Twitter is also apparently only used by the over 30s - kids think it's useless (according to that Morgan Stanley report written by a 15 year-old).

Wouldn't it be great if tv producers showed some professional courage and put more on that made some demands of the audience? That Terror! programme was very good. I wonder what its ratings were?

Bunny Smedley said...

As someone long married to a recovering (not very fast, mind you) D&D enthusiast, I had to sit through the very LoTR films you mention. They were, indeed, long, although not without the odd flash of interest, e.g. the distinctly Ruskinian take on the Mines of Moria, or Sam as Frodo's faithful batman, carrying him through no man's land on the Western Front, or that swamp, or whatever it was mean to be. So perhaps in truth I am mostly complaining about my own limited attention span!

Surely there is some evidence, though, that at the very least, television producers (for instance) assume viewers have shorter attention spans? Compare, for instance, the landmark arts programmes of the following (a) Lord Clark of Civilisation (1969), (b) Robert Hughes (1980) and (c) Matthew Collings ('This is Modern Art', 1998). All were, in some sense, 'serious' programmes, presented by intelligent men for presumably thoughtful audiences. And in each, the tempo quickens - fewer scenes of some chap with bad teeth talking, more action, more rapid cross-cutting from one thing to another - so that the content shifts away from the verbal argument, towards spectacle, entertainment, distraction as an end in itself.

Doubtless there are plenty of other examples that run in the opposite direction, but anyway, this is the sort of thing that nourishes my pessimism about some forthcoming rush of brilliant philosophy programming.

(Barendina Smedley is 43 years old, going on 123 at least, and will soon be on her way to Blackwells, in search of further Kolakowski volumes. Dead philosophers and their essays - that's the way forward.)

Sean said...

Cant say I am familiar with the bloke, did not exactly die for his principles did he?

But then again being jewish in Poland has never been a belly of laughs.

Interesting that he seemed to change his views always against the backdrop of the cultural trend he was most exposed too.

Anyways my favourite Pole apart from my own grandfather that is, is Alfie Tarski, ive always been more impressed with math than language, as long off course you understand that Math has its problems and paradoxes too.

Gaw said...

Gadj: You're declared 'sane' by that journal of record The Spectator (or Clive Davis's blog under their roof)! It's here.

Bunny: I know you're not alone in finding LotR a trial - I live with another sufferer.

Re attention spans: my point is more that short attention spans are a commonly received wisdom amongst people who commission programmes. My guess is that the audience is more tolerant of having to concentrate a bit than it's given credit for. However, I share your pessimism.

Also the TImes obit provides a good summary of his religious thinking (I updated the post with the link).

Sean: I think you may be asking a bit much of him there (it was his wife who was Jewish).

Never got on with maths - good at arithmetic but as soon as it went abstract I was lost.

Sean said...

yes its very systematic of intellectuals to get the f*** out.
Plenty of Jews and especially secular Jews stuck it out though.

( I am aware that it was his wife who was Jewish, i got my language wrong :0)

Gadjo Dilo said...

Strewth, a mention in The Spectator! Tomorrow, the world!!!

Hey Skipper said...

If K+9 was so smart, why did it take him so long to figure out Marxism?

Gaw said...

With members of the intelligentsia, perhaps it's only the really smart who manage to navigate the intellectual thickets and arrive back at the wisdom of ordinary people?