Moving the Soil

Many books meant to serve as introductions to philosophy tend to have roughly the same effect as the average introductory undergraduate course in the subject: the student moves from puzzlement to confusion and then on to intellectual despair, all along growing more and more bewildered as to why anyone would have taken up this strange pursuit in the first place. Philosophy turns out to be a queer and unsettling enterprise: we demolish our most deeply held beliefs and replace them with a series of elaborate theoretical edifices, and all this simply for the sake of the theorizing itself, without a sense of why this activity is an important one or where it is meant to lead us.

This charge cannot be brought with any justice against the approach to philosophy we find in Leszek Kolakowski’s Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? 23 Questions from Great Philosophers. In this beautiful pocket-sized volume, one of the world’s greatest living philosophers engages with exemplary thinkers from Socrates, Parmenides, and Heraclitus to Nietzsche, Bergson, and Husserl, illustrating what philosophy is and can be by way of an encounter with its past.

Kolakowski was born and educated in Poland. As a young philosopher he embraced doctrinaire Marxism as a hopeful alternative to the horrors of Nazi Germany. But when the Communist Party sent him to Moscow in 1950 to attend a program for promising young intellectuals, he became aware of what he called the “material and spiritual desolation” that the Stalinist system had wrought. Kolakowski played a key intellectual role in the reformist “Polish October” movement of 1956, in which liberal sentiment led to a break between Polish communism and that of the Soviet Union. In 1959 he was appointed chairman of the history of philosophy section at the University of Warsaw.

Though he remained a Marxist through the 1960s, Kolakowski’s relationship to official Communist ideology became increasingly strained, thanks to the growing emphasis in his thought on the sovereignty of the individual and the importance of political and intellectual freedom. In 1966, following an address he gave on the tenth anniversary of the Polish October uprising, he was ejected from the Polish United Workers’ Party. Two years later he was fired from his university post, accused of “forming the views of the youth in a manner contrary to the official tendency of the country.” The same year, following Poland’s state-sponsored campaign against “Zionism,” Kolakowski, his Jewish wife, and their daughter left for Canada and the United States before settling at All Souls College in Oxford, where he has been a fellow since 1970. Although Kolakowski was banned in his home country for more than two decades, his writings continued to have an important effect in Poland, as elsewhere. He provided significant support to the Solidarity movement during the 1980s.

While Kolakowski’s most influential work is undoubtedly Main Currents of Marxism (1976), in which he traces the history and decline of Marxist thought from its origins in Christianity and German Romanticism through Marx, Engels, the Russian Revolution, and what he calls the “breakdown” in the middle of the twentieth century, he is much more than a scholar of the Left. He is first and foremost a philosopher and a historian of philosophy. He has written books on Spinoza, Husserl, Bergson, and Pascal, and dealt extensively with a range of topics in existentialism, epistemology, and the philosophy of religion. Like the rest of his corpus, the essays in Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? reveal the workings of a great mind with a distinctively liberal, humanistic, and Catholic worldview.

Kolakowski summarized his view of philosophy in his 1983 Tanner Lecture, “The Death of Utopia Reconsidered”:

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.

All these philosophical questions, he goes on to say, “boil down to the quest for meaning”—but this is not a quest that we, as philosophers anyway, will ever manage to complete: “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.” This is a conception of philosophy not as doctrine, nor even as method, but as activity and state of mind: an inquisitive probing, a constant search for deeper explanations, a willingness to question received wisdom.

All these characteristics of philosophical inquiry are on display in Kolakowski’s treatment of the philosophers he writes about in this new book. In each case he focuses his attention on a particular question that provides an especially suggestive avenue into the thought of the figure being discussed. Exploring the motivation for these initial questions leads to more questions and to a further investigation of the philosopher’s theories. The culmination of this process is not, however, a neat encapsulation of a set of doctrines (Kolakowski warns at the start that he is not going to provide “a history of philosophy in a pill”), but rather a final set of unresolved questions that are suggested by the preceding discussion. So what we are given is at once an illustration of what philosophy is, and an opportunity to engage in it ourselves.

In his chapter on St. Augustine, for example, Kolakowski focuses on the nature of evil, and explores among other things Augustine’s view that acting according to our own volition leads inevitably to sin, and that “whatever we do that is good is the result of grace.” But Augustine thinks of the gift of grace as undeserved and irresistible, and this leads him to what Kolakowski calls, not unreasonably, a “horrifying” view of the world, according to which hell is deserved by all, but God’s inscrutable decision to bestow grace upon some “grants them (undeservedly) a share in eternal happiness.”

Kolakowski goes on to note the way in which this Augustinian doctrine raises the question of how to understand the freedom of the will: How can we be said to act freely if following our own volition cannot help but lead us to sin, and if the divine grace that leads us to do good is genuinely irresistible? This is not a question that Augustine was unaware of, nor does it want for possible answers, but we are left to ponder it and come up with them ourselves: the soil has been moved, the mind set in motion. The work of philosophy is being done.

Such metaphysical questions—about fatalism, freedom, the goodness of God and creation, and the nature of salvation—make up one of the book’s guiding threads, while epistemological issues—about the source and status of religious faith, the relationship between reason and divine revelation, and the possibility of knowledge in general—constitute the other. In his superb chapter on Hume, for instance, Kolakowski surveys the key tenets of Humean epistemology and then notes the deep and puzzling tensions that arise within it: How are we to understand Hume’s repeated avowals of respect for “our holy religion,” given his relentless attacks on its pretensions? How are we to live out our lives if we cannot make sense of the notion of truth? Is it really possible to have a language that describes only our individual, subjective impressions? Do Hume’s strictures on the power of reason undermine his arguments against religion? Once again, these questions have answers (respectively: don’t take them too seriously; only by being irrational; no, it’s not; and yes, they do), but these answers, together with the further questions that they raise, are left to us.

The quality of Kolakowski’s writing is very much on a par with his strengths as a philosopher, and the translator (his daughter) has done an admirable job of capturing it. The prose is concise, expressive, and easily understandable. At times it is also quite funny. (Kolakowski remarks that Schopenhauer lives up to his reputation as a “gloomy and bitter pessimist” by being “more pessimistic in his pessimism than any of the others who, along with him, created modern philosophy.”) His obvious esteem for the fathers of his discipline comes across even in his treatment of those—like Hume, Hegel, and Nietzsche—whose thought he finds especially dissatisfying. The result is a book that can be likened to “a number of sketches of landscapes,” to borrow a line from Wittgenstein’s Investigations. The sketches themselves deserve to be savored as works of art; but it is the questions to which they give rise, the real, unending work of philosophy, that give this book its greatest importance.

Published in the 2008-04-25 issue: 

John Schwenkler is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley.

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