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Resisting the arrogance of intellect

Our generation,mercifully,has little sense of what it means to philosophise as if the very existence of civilisation depended on it.

Our generation,mercifully,has little sense of what it means to philosophise as if the very existence of civilisation depended on it. But for thinkers writing under the shadow of two totalitarian catastrophes,both of which had intellectual support,the activity of thought had high stakes. One needed to dig deep into reservoirs of truth to mobilise resistance to the homicidal illusions of Stalinism. Nazism was morally abhorrent and begged for psychological and historical explanation. But at least at an intellectual level it posed less of a challenge. It had no pretensions to justice or high thought. Communism was more difficult. It was an emancipatory ideology,in some ways the culmination of the highest hopes for humanity. Yet it seemed to turn into its very opposite: sanctioning the worst forms of oppression in the name of emancipation. But it also posed a deeper puzzle. How could so many of the finest minds of the age be seduced by an illusion? How could a doctrine that was supposedly based on a stark realism,a critique of metaphysical flights of fancy,lead so many to lose their grip on reality?

These concerns produced an astonishing burst of theorising. But one towering figure,who in many ways powerfully embodied the existential angst posed by these questions,was Leszek Kolakowski,who passed away last week. A former communist who became a leading Polish intellectual dissident in the sixties,Kolakowski was perhaps as influential in demolishing the hypocritical allures of Marxism as any. He is best known for his magisterial three volume Main Currents of Marxism. Unlike other great dissectors of communism,Kolakowski’s path seemed at first more obscure because it was located,not in the realm of history or smart literary and political observation,as for example was the case with Arendt and Aron. He came to his critique squarely from within philosophy,trying to examine intellectually how Marxism went from a promethean humanism to monstrous Stalinism. The book was a philosophical and rhetorical tour de force. It’s very first sentence,“Karl Marx was a German philosopher,” was a sly cutting down to size of the claims made on behalf of Marx. The account of Marx himself was not unsympathetic and acknowledged his greatness. The political importance of the book lay largely in the third volume,where his contemporary Marxists were pilloried. Marxists often found his arguments unfair,but in doing so often missed his central point. This was a point that he insistently raised,most powerfully in his decimation of the greatest Marxist intellectual of the time: Lukacs. He had describe Lukacs as “the most striking example in the twentieth century of what may be called the betrayal of reason by those whose profession is to use and defend it.” But this accusation was aimed at a much larger phenomenon: intellectuals who chose,to deny the reality of atrocity,in the face of their own romantic delusions. Even in more easy going times such as ours,this question has not become entirely irrelevant. But Kolakowski’s greatness lay in showing that this flight from reality was not a contingent aberration,but could arise from the brilliance of thought itself.

Kolakowski who for most of his life in exile,worked at All Souls,Oxford and Chicago,published more than forty provocatively brilliant books. Like his Polish compatriot,the great poet Czeslaw Milosz he became increasingly uncomfortable with a certain self representation of modernity. He was a defender of a human instinct to transcendence. He thought that the unwillingness to acknowledge the possibility that we might not be the ground of our own being,led to a kind of self deification. This self deification could itself be a source of bondage. It has to be said,that in the end his sense of religion bore very much the hallmarks of Catholicism,with its great sense that pride was the ultimate sin. It was a defence of transcendence with a heavy heart. He once wrote “Religion is man’s way of accepting life as an inevitable defeat.”

While he remained a powerful defender of liberal societies,he was not a conventional liberal. Marxism’s fatal flaw was an overreach of reason. But there was a danger that liberal democracies would refuse the use of reason. He despaired of a certain kind of intellectual levelling that was carried out in the name of modern politics,one that refused to make fine distinctions. Such levelling itself was dangerous for it also,in its own way threatened to obliterate the distinction between right and wrong. A tolerance that said,‘anything goes’ would undermine its own foundations.

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Kolakowski had an ability to produce paragraphs of startling luminosity. Witness his riposte to the arrogance of intellect. “A modern philosopher who has never once suspected himself of being a charlatan must be such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading.” As an undergraduate I accidentally ended up in lectures he was giving at All Souls. I mistakenly assumed the lectures would be on Marxism. But the lectures were on medieval philosophy. The clarity and verve with which he explained obscure sounding figures like,Duns Scotus and Pascal,had even a small group of nineteen year olds hooked and I stayed on for the term. Some of the material is in his extraordinary tour de force God Owes Us Nothing. The first half discusses the medieval argument for the persecution. It displayed Kolakowski’s skills in reconstructing arguments that are now politically unimaginable; the attraction of his work was that for the most part,he would not let you score easy intellectual victories over positions you disliked. The second half is a moving account of what he called “Pascal’s sad religion,” that seemed to encapsulate vividly humanity’s never ending doubt on the questions that were truly fundamental.

He achieved almost all the high academic honours imaginable. For him the cultural role of philosophy was “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.” This seems like an easy sentiment to articulate,but Kolakowski reminded us of what the stakes are in living up to it.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research

First published on: 21-07-2009 at 02:43 IST
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