Moving the Soil

Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?
23 Questions from Great Philosophers
Leszek Kolakowski
Basic Books, $20, 223 pp.

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...

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About the Author

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