The Jerusalem Prize

2007 - Leszek Kolakowski

Born: 23 October 1927, Radom Poland

Author's quote: "We learn history not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are."

Field: Philosophy

Prize share: 1/1

Books Written By Leszek Kołakowski

About Leszek Kołakowski

Leszek Kolakowski was born in Radom, Poland. Owing to the German occupation of Poland 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 Łódź University and in 1953 earned a doctorate from Warsaw University, with a thesis on Spinoza. He was a professor and chairman of Warsaw University's department of the history of philosophy from 1959 to 1968.

In his youth, Kołakowski was a communist. In the period 1947–1966, he was a member of the Polish United Workers' Party. His intellectual promise earned him a trip to Moscow, where he saw the future 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, Kołakowski published a four-part critique of Soviet-Marxist dogmas, including historical determinism, in the Polish periodical Nowa Kultura. 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.

Kolakowski became increasingly fascinated by the contribution which theological assumptions make to Western, and, in particular, modern thought, and defended the role which freedom plays in the human quest for the transcendent. His Law of the Infinite Cornucopia asserts that, for any given doctrine one wants to believe, there is never a shortage of arguments by which one can support it. 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 ennobling.

In 1968, Kołakowski 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 his works were officially banned in Poland, underground copies of them influenced the opinions of the Polish intellectual opposition. His 1971 essay Theses on Hope and Hopelessness, 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 Communism in Europe in 1989. In the 1980s, Kołakowski supported Solidarity by giving interviews, writing and fund-raising.

In Poland, Kołakowski is not only revered as a philosopher and historian of ideas, but also as an icon for opponents of communism. Adam Michnik has called Kołakowski "one of the most prominent creators of contemporary Polish culture". Kołakowski died on 17 July 2009, aged 81, in Oxford, England.


Is God Happy? - Leszek Kołakowski

By Cathy P. Burns

I enjoyed this book a great deal. I laughed out loud at some passages and others I just shook my head. This book is for people who actually think and not for folks who just follow the crowd or the usual media pundits. Hopefully, this book will make you question some of your own beliefs and look at the world with a eye toward speculation and not blind acceptance. I just loved it and have recommended it to several of my friends. Some would call this an intellectuals read, but I prefer to say it is for those who are constantly on the search for truth wherever that may take them.


Is God Happy? - Leszek Kołakowski

By Tom N. D.

These concise essays are beautifully written expositions of some of the most profound issues in philosophy. Very few authors are as able as Kolakowski who can provide context and explanation without overwhelming the reader with the density of the information and a thicket of academic jargon.