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Leszek Koakowski
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Leszek Koakowski

Koakowski in 1971
23 October 1927
Radom, Poland
17 July 2009 (aged81)
Oxford, England
d University
University of Warsaw (PhD, 1953)

Jerusalem Prize (2007)
20th / 21st-century philosophy
Western Philosophy
Continental philosophy
Western Marxism[1]
Marxist Humanism
University of Warsaw
Notable ideas
Humanist interpretation of Marx


Leszek Koakowski (Polish:[lk kwakfski]; 23 October 1927 17 July

2009) was a Polish philosopher and historian of ideas. He is best known for
his critical analyses of Marxist thought, especially his three-volume history,
Main Currents of Marxism (1976). In his later work, Kolakowski increasingly
focused on religious questions. In his 1986 Jefferson Lecture, he asserted
that "We learn history not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed,
but to know who we are.[3]
Contents [hide]
See also
Further reading
External links


Koakowski was born in Radom, Poland. Owing to the German occupation of

Poland (1939-1945) in World War II, he did not go to school but read books
and took occasional private lessons, passing his school-leaving examinations

as an external student in the underground school system. After the war he

studied philosophy at d University. By the late 1940s it was obvious that
he was one of the most brilliant Polish minds of his generation,[4] and in 1953
earned a doctorate from Warsaw University with a thesis on Baruch Spinoza
in which he viewed Spinoza from a Marxist point of view.[5] He served as a
professor and chairman of Warsaw University's department of the history of
philosophy from 1959 to 1968.
In his youth Koakowski became a communist. In the period 1947 to 1966 he
was a member of the Polish United Workers' Party. His intellectual promise
earned him a trip to Moscow, where he saw communism in practice and
found it repulsive. He broke with Stalinism, becoming a "revisionist Marxist"
advocating a humanist interpretation of Marx. One year after the 1956 Polish
October, Koakowski published a four-part critique of Soviet-Marxist dogmas,
including historical determinism, in the Polish periodical Nowa Kultura.[6] His
public lecture at Warsaw University on the tenth anniversary of Polish
October led to his expulsion from the Polish United Workers' Party. In the
course of the 1968 Polish political crisis he lost his job at Warsaw University
and was prevented from obtaining any other academic post.[7]
He came to the conclusion that the totalitarian cruelty of Stalinism was not an
aberration, but instead a logical end-product of Marxism, whose genealogy he
examined in his monumental Main Currents of Marxism, his major work,
published in 19761978.[8]

Leszek Koakowski

Kolakowski became increasingly fascinated by the contribution which

theological assumptions make to Western, and, in particular, modern thought.
For example, he begins his Main Currents of Marxism with an analysis of the
contribution that various forms of mediaeval Platonism made to the Hegelian
view of history. In this work he criticized the laws of dialectical materialism for
being fundamentally flawed finding some of them being "truisms with no
specific Marxist content", others "philosophical dogmas that cannot be proved
by scientific means", yet others being just "nonsense".[9]
Koakowski defended the role which freedom plays in the human quest for the
transcendent. His Law of the Infinite Cornucopia asserts a doctrine of status
quaestionis - that for any given doctrine one wants to believe, there is never a
shortage of arguments by which one can support it.[10] Nevertheless, although
human fallibility implies that we ought to treat claims to infallibility with
scepticism, our pursuit of the higher (such as truth and goodness) is
In 1968 Koakowski became a visiting professor in the department of
philosophy at McGill University in Montreal and in 1969 he moved to the
University of California, Berkeley. In 1970 he became a senior research fellow
at All Souls College, Oxford. He remained mostly at Oxford, although he
spent part of 1974 at Yale University, and from 1981 to 1994 was a part-time
professor at the Committee on Social Thought and in the Department of
Philosophy at the University of Chicago.
Although the Polish Communist authorities officially banned his works in
Poland, underground copies of them influenced the opinions of the Polish
intellectual opposition.[citation needed] His 1971 essay Theses on Hope and
Hopelessness (full title: In Stalin's Countries: Theses on Hope and Despair),
[11][12] which suggested that self-organized social groups could gradually
expand the spheres of civil society in a totalitarian state, helped to inspire the
dissident movements of the 1970s that led to Solidarity and, eventually, to the
collapse of Communist rule in Europe in 1989.[citation needed] In the 1980s,
Koakowski supported Solidarity by giving interviews, writing and fund-raising.
[citation needed]

In Poland, Koakowski is not only revered as a philosopher and historian of

ideas, but also as an icon for opponents of communism. Adam Michnik has
called Koakowski "one of the most prominent creators of contemporary
Polish culture".[13][14]
Koakowski died on 17 July 2009, aged 81, in Oxford, England.[15] In his
obituary, philosopher Roger Scruton said Kolakowski was a "thinker for our
time" and that regarding Kolakowski's debates with intellectual opponents,
"even if ... nothing remained of the subversive orthodoxies, nobody felt
damaged in their ego or defeated in their life's project, by arguments which
from any other source would have inspired the greatest indignation."[16]


Koakowski in 2007

In 1986, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Koakowski for
the Jefferson Lecture. Koakowski's lecture "The Idolatry of Politics",[17] was
reprinted in his collection of essays Modernity on Endless Trial.[18]
In 2003, the Library of Congress named Koakowski the first winner of the
John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Humanities.[19][20]
His other awards include the following:
Jurzykowski Prize (1969)
Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (1977)
Veillon Foundation European Prize for the Essay (1980)
MacArthur Award (1982)
Erasmus Prize, MacArthur Fellowship (1983)
Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities
Award of the Polish Pen Club (1988)
University of Chicago Press, Gordon J. Laing Award (1991)
Tocqueville Prize (1994)
Kluge Prize of the Library of Congress (2003)
St. George Medal(pl) (2006)
Jerusalem Prize (2007)
Democracy Service Medal (2009)


Klucz niebieski, albo opowieci budujce z historii witej zebrane ku

pouczeniu i przestrodze (The Key to Heaven), 1957
Jednostka i nieskoczono. Wolno i antynomie wolnoci w filozofii
Spinozy (The Individual and the Infinite: Freedom and Antinomies of
Freedom in Spinoza's Philosophy), 1958
13 bajek z krlestwa Lailonii dla duych i maych (Tales from the
Kingdom of Lailonia and the Key to Heaven), 1963. English edition:
Hardcover: University of Chicago Press (October 1989). ISBN
Rozmowy z diabem (US title: Conversations with the Devil / UK title:
Talk of the Devil; reissued with The Key to Heaven under the title The
Devil and Scripture, 1973), 1965
wiadomo religijna i wi kocielna, 1965
Od Hume'a do Koa Wiedeskiego (the 1st edition:The Alienation of
Reason, translated by Norbert Guterman, 1966/ later as Positivist
Philosophy from Hume to the Vienna Circle),
Kultura i fetysze (Toward a Marxist Humanism, translated by Jane
Zielonko Peel, and Marxism and Beyond), 1967
A Leszek Koakowski Reader, 1971
Positivist Philosophy, 1971
TriQuartely 22, 1971
Obecno mitu (The Presence of Myth), 1972. English edition:
Paperback: University of Chicago Press (January 1989). ISBN
ed. The Socialist Idea, 1974 (with Stuart Hampshire)
Husserl and the Search for Certitude, 1975
Gwne nurty marksizmu. First published in Polish (3 volumes) as
"Gwne nurty marksizmu" (Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1976) and in
English (3 volumes) as "Main Currents of Marxism" (London: Oxford
University Press, 1978). Current editions: Paperback (1 volume): W. W.
Norton & Company (17 January 2008). ISBN 978-0393329438.
Hardcover (1 volume): W. W. Norton & Company; First edition (7
November 2005). ISBN 978-0393060546.
Czy diabe moe by zbawiony i 27 innych kaza, 1982
Religion: If There Is No God, 1982
Bergson, 1985
Le Village introuvable, 1986
Metaphysical Horror, 1988. Revised edition: Paperback: University of
Chicago Press (July 2001). ISBN 978-0-226-45055-1.
Pochwaa niekonsekwencji, 1989 (ed. by Zbigniew Menzel)
Cywilizacja na awie oskaronych, 1990 (ed. by Pawe Koczowski)

Modernity on Endless Trial, 1990. Paperback: University of Chicago

Press (June 1997). ISBN 978-0-226-45046-9. Hardcover: University of
Chicago Press (March 1991). ISBN 978-0-226-45045-2.
God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal's Religion and on the
Spirit of Jansenism, 1995. Paperback: University of Chicago Press
(May 1998). ISBN 978-0-226-45053-7. Hardcover: University of
Chicago Press (November 1995). ISBN 978-0-226-45051-3.
Freedom, Fame, Lying, and Betrayal: Essays on Everyday Life, 1999
The Two Eyes of Spinoza and Other Essays on Philosophers, 2004
My Correct Views on Everything, 2005
Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?, 2007
Is God Happy?: Selected Essays, 2012

Adam Schaff
History of philosophy in Poland
List of Polish people philosophy
Poles in the United Kingdom
Zygmunt Bauman

Jump up
^ Martin Jay, Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukcs
to Habermas, University of California Press, 1984, p. 5: "Although such
thinkers as the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski (during his Marxist
Humanist phase) and the Czech philosopher Karel Kosk were certainly
important in their own right, their work was nonetheless built upon the earlier
thought of Western Marxists, as was that of the Yugoslav theoreticians
published in the journal Praxis."
Jump up
^ "Noam Chomsky Reading List". Left Reference Guide. Retrieved January
8, 2014.
Jump up
^ Leszek Koakowski, "The Idolatry of Politics," reprinted in Modernity on
Endless Trial (University of Chicago Press, 1990, paperback edition 1997),
ISBN 0-226-45045-7, ISBN 0-226-45046-5, ISBN 978-0-226-45046-9, p. 158.
Jump up
^ McGrath, Alister (2010). Mere Theology. London: SPCK. p.144.
Jump up
^ Obituary at
Jump up
^ Foreign News: VOICE OF DISSENT, TIME Magazine, 14 October 1957
Jump up
^ Clive James (2007) Cultural Amnesia, p. 353

See also[edit]












Jump up
^ Gareth Jones (17 July 2009) "Polish philosopher and author Koakowski
dead at 81". Reuters
Jump up
^ Koakowski, Leszek (2005). Main Currents of Marxism. New York: W. W.
Norton and Company. p.909. ISBN9780393329438.
Jump up
^ Koakowski, Leszek (1982). Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.
Jump up
^ Leszek Koakowski (1971): Hope and Hopelessness. In: Survey, vol. 17,
no. 3 (80)
Jump up
^ Koakowski: In Stalin's Countries: Theses on Hope and Despair (1971).
Jump up
^ Adam Michnik (18 July 1985) "Letter from the Gdansk Prison," New York
Review of Books.
Jump up
^ Norman Davies (5 October 1986) "True to Himself and His Homeland,"
New York Times.
Jump up
^ Leszek Kolakowski. Encyclopaedia Britannica
Jump up
^ Scruton, Roger. "Leszek Kolakowski: thinker for our time". Open Democracy. Retrieved 27 February 2015.
Jump up
^ Jefferson Lecturers.
Jump up
^ Leszek Koakowski (1990) "The Idolatry of Politics," p. 158 in Modernity on
Endless Trial. University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-45045-7.
Jump up
^ "Library of Congress Announces Winner of First John W. Kluge Prize for
Lifetime Achievement in the Humanities and Social Sciences"
Jump up
^ Leszek Koakowski, "What the Past is For" (speech given on 5 November
2003, on the occasion of the awarding of the Kluge Prize to Koakowski).

Further reading[edit]

Azurmendi, Joxe & Arregi, Joseba: Koakowski, Oati: EFA, 1972. ISBN

External links[edit]

Wikiquote has quotations related to: Leszek Koakowski

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Leszek Koakowski.

"Leszek Koakowski". Information Processing Centre database (in

Leszek Koakowski Daily Telegraph obituary
Polish Philosophy Page: Bibliography at the Wayback Machine
(archived 10 January 2008)
Koakowski, Leszek (1974). "My correct views on everything: A rejoinder
to Edward Thompson's 'Open letter to Leszek Koakowski'". Socialist
How to Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist
The Alienation of Reason (Extract)
The Death of Utopia Reconsidered
The Complete and Brief Metaphysics
Judt, Tony. "Goodbye to All That?" in The New York Review of Books,
Vol.53, No.14, 21 September 2006 (review-essay on Main Currents of
Marxism: The Founders, the Golden Age, the Breakdown by Leszek
Koakowski, translated from the Polish by P.S.Falla. Norton, 2005,
ISBN 0-393-06054-3; My Correct Views on Everything by Leszek
Koakowski, edited by Zbigniew Janowski. St. Augustine's, 2004, ISBN
1-58731-525-4; Karl Marx ou l'esprit du monde by Jacques Attali. Paris:
Fayard, 2005, ISBN 2-213-62491-7)
Roger Kimball, Leszek Koakowski and the Anatomy of Totalitarianism
Koakowski: In Stalin's Countries: Theses on Hope and Despair (1971)
Good and Evil, 1 April 1999, BBC Radio program In Our Time
Appearances on C-SPAN


Continental philosophy

Theodor W. Adorno Giorgio Agamben Louis Althusser Hannah Arendt Joxe
Azurmendi Gaston Bachelard Alain Badiou Roland Barthes Georges Bataille Jean
Baudrillard Zygmunt Bauman Simone de Beauvoir Henri Bergson Maurice Blanchot
Pierre Bourdieu Judith Butler Albert Camus Ernst Cassirer Cornelius Castoriadis
Gilles Deleuze Jacques Derrida Hubert Dreyfus Terry Eagleton Johann Fichte
Michel Foucault Frankfurt School Hans-Georg Gadamer Antonio Gramsci Jrgen
Habermas Georg Hegel Martin Heidegger Edmund Husserl Roman Ingarden Karl
Jaspers Immanuel Kant Sren Kierkegaard Alexandre Kojve Leszek Koakowski
Jacques Lacan Franois Laruelle Claude Lvi-Strauss Emmanuel Levinas JeanFranois Lyotard Gabriel Marcel Maurice Merleau-Ponty Friedrich Nietzsche Paul
Ricur Avital Ronell Jean-Paul Sartre Friedrich Schelling Carl Schmitt Arthur
Schopenhauer Peter Sloterdijk Slavoj iek

German idealism Hegelianism Critical theory Psychoanalytic theory Existentialism
Structuralism Postmodernism Poststructuralism

Angst Authenticity Being in itself Boredom Dasein Diffrance Difference Existential
crisis Facticity Intersubjectivity Ontic Other Self-deception Trace

Related articles
Kantianism Phenomenology Hermeneutics Deconstruction

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Categories: 1927 births2009 deaths20th-century philosophers21stcentury philosophersBritish people of Polish descentErasmus Prize
winnersFellows of All Souls College, OxfordHistorians of
communismMacArthur FellowsPeople from RadomPolish anticommunistsPolish emigrants to the United KingdomPolish
philosophersPolish United Workers' Party membersScholars of
MarxismUniversity of Warsaw alumniUniversity of Warsaw
facultyJerusalem Prize recipientsMembers of the European Academy of
Sciences and Arts

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