Tadeusz Kotarbinski



  Main works

  Selected bibliography


  Documentation on Kotarbinski

  External links



Tadeusz Kotarbinski (1886-1981) is one of the most representative figures of the  Lvov-Warsaw School, not only on account of the doctrines he put forward but also because (like Ajdukiewicz ) he continued his activity in Poland after World War II, greatly influencing Polish philosophical culture, of which he became a sort of guardian spirit.

The philosophical doctrine to which he owes his fame is called "reism" (or "concretism"). It is based on the so-called system of "calculation of names" (or ontology) formulated by the great logician Stanislaw Lesniewski (1886-1939), a great friend of his and a colleague at the University of Warsaw, a distinctive feature of whose thought was radical nominalism. Taking up Lesniewski’s classification of names, Kotarbinski viewed a name as meaning "all and only those terms and phrases that can constitute the subject or predicate of propositions concerning things or persons", of the type A is B, where "is" is taken in the fundamental, primary sense Lesniewski gave it in his Ontology.

As Lesniewski saw it, the meaning of "is" is different from the meaning it has in English and Italian, being better rendered by the Latin "est" or the Polish "jest"; this is due to the fact that in Polish, as in Latin, there are no articles, whereas in both English and Italian the use of a definite or indefinite article before a name specifies the meaning attributed to the verb "is".

Kotarbinski thus distinguishes between:

(a) singular names, which are used as grammatical subjects and refer to individuals or things ("Plato", "Rome");

(b) general names of people or things ("man", "city") that can only be subjects in universal propositions of the type "every A is B" or predicates (in universal and singular propositions); and finally

(c) empty names ("chimera", "centaur") that denote nothing and cannot be the subject of any true proposition, singular or general, but which by definition can be appropriately reduced to a combination of singular and/or universal terms that are the names of people or things, so as to obtain an expression that is synonymous with the empty name.

All these are genuine names, as opposed to apparent or fictitious names which comprise all names referring to properties, relations, or even states and which Kotarbinski calls pseudo-names or "onomatoids". From this point of view it is obvious that in the expression "the departure of the train was delayed", the term "departure" is an apparent name as it has no designatum: the "departure" does not exist, but only a train that is departing. The sentence should therefore be formulated more correctly as "the train departed later than scheduled". All genuine names (singular, general or empty) are concrete nouns, whereas abstract nouns are apparent names. The existence of these abstract names leads to the erroneous opinion that they correspond to something that really exists, i.e. that there exists an entity referred to by terms like "roundness", "equality", etc. The same applies to names indicating relationships. When we state, for instance, that "there is a relationship of friendship between Jan and Piotr", we really mean that Jan and Piotr are friends. Just as "roundness" does not exist, neither does the relationship of friendship (see the diagram which shows his theory of names).

Kotarbinski presented two versions of reism - an ontological and a semantic one. The ontological thesis consists of maintaining that only people and things exist, i.e. that every object is either a person or a thing. Following criticism by Ajdukiewicz, who accused him of tautology, Kotarbinski made a further statement of this ontological thesis, saying that "every object is either body or spirit" and that "every spiritual being is a body". The fundamental thesis of reism thus became "every object is a body": this phase was termed "somatism".

The semantic version of reism refers to the language we use to describe the world and briefly consists of maintaining that it is possible to translate every proposition containing fictitious names into one containing only genuine names. Each fictitious name we encounter in everyday language is therefore an onomatoid. This is in practice a drastic reduction of the categories of Aristotle to a single category of things, which corresponds to Aristotle’s primary substance (thus excluding secondary, or universal, substances). The semantic analysis of reism is undoubtedly very similar in certain respects to what was later to be the eliminativistic stand taken, on a nominalistic basis, by Ramsey and Craig and subsequently by Quine. In its more philosophical aspects, it is also similar to the radical "physicalism" supported by Carnap and Neurath.

Kotarbinski is also important for opening up another field of research to which he was deeply committed: praxiology, which he cultivated mostly after the Second World War. Already anticipated by other scholars (such as B.C. Dunoyer, W. Jastrzbowski, Meliton Martin, Louis Bourdeau, Alfred Espinas, Eugeniusz Spucki, L. von Mises and A. Bogdanov), praxiology has its roots in what Kotarbinski called "practical realism" and represents a common-sense attitude towards the world, respecting things that really exist, the limits and conditions affecting action, and full awareness of the importance of the factors contributing to the situation in which one is working. It was, in short, a resumption of the just means and practical rationality of Aristotle which, in the new reality that emerged after World War II, Kotarbinski must have seen as having an important social function in the construction of a new Socialist order, an effort he viewed in a constructive, co-operative spirit. Praxiology presents itself as the most general of practical sciences, one that can provide a methodology for the efficient performance of any action aiming at a specific goal.

Praxiology provides and explains practical directives, i.e. the commands, prohibitions and restrictions that are applied to actions in order to enhance their efficiency; it formulates a series of types and builds up its own conceptual and terminological apparatus to analyse the basic concepts of the new science and the modes of efficient action: agent, impulse, action, aim, product, result, as well as efficiency, economy, usefulness, effectiveness, exactness, appropriacy, etc. are the cornerstones of his thought. Praxiology thus contains both descriptive theses, whose aim is to explain and clarify its fundamental concepts and their reciprocal relationships (among which he distinguishes between simple and compound, external and internal actions, various modes of co-operation such as positive and negative, etc.), and theses of a normative nature, indicating the necessary and/or sufficient directives for a certain action to be efficient with respect to the goal to be achieved in given situations, and thus the prescriptions and prohibitions to be respected. Kotarbinski also delineated the characteristics of an even more general science than praxiology: the theory of complex systems, which in more recent times was independently proposed by L. von Bertalanffy as a general theory of systems and which Kotarbisnki saw as being outlined in the work of Bogdanov. Examples of the practical directives formulated by praxiology are those expressed by the concepts of activation, automation, instrumentalisation, anticipation, integration, potentialisation, temporisation, mechanisation and so on, with a whole series of further subdivisions (e.g. integration is subdivided into co-ordination, concentration, preparation, planning, etc.).

Praxiology developed in Poland from 1958 onwards, the year in which the Polish Academy of Sciences set up an autonomous Laboratory of Praxiology, which was transformed into a Department in 1967 and in 1974 became part of the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology. In 1980 it took on the name of Department of Praxiology and the Science of Science. It currently edits the four-monthly "Prakseologia" and the English-language annual review "Praxiology", which publishes articles by both Polish and foreign authors. Praxiology has now assumed full autonomy as a scientific discipline, counting research institutes in Poland and abroad. Its main Polish representatives are M. Nowakowska, T. Pszczolowski and L. Lewandowski. The attempt has been made to apply the principles of praxiology to the field of economics by the famous economist Oskar Lange, who sees it as a science of rational action and thus interprets it from a methodological viewpoint. A new generation of scholars such as W. Gasparski, T. Wojcik and J. Zieliniewski have expressed the need for further formal refinement of the discipline and greater integration with similar disciplines that have in the meanwhile arisen in other fields and other countries.

Mention should finally be made of Kotarbinski’s ethical interests, which led him to support an "independent ethic", i.e. one that refuses to search for a foundation in sources other than emotional judgements formulated in the course of human relationships, and especially an ethic that is independent of both religion and any specific world view.


Kotarbisnki was born into a family whose cultural commitment was considerable (his father, Milosz, was a composer and painter, his mother a talented pianist and his father’s brother one of the most significant figures in Polish theatre at the turn of the century). After a certain amount of hesitation about his future profession (he was initially attracted to mathematics and physics, then to architecture) he finally opted for philosophy and studied for a doctorate in Lvov, writing his doctoral dissertation on Mill and Spencer under the guidance of Twardowski . In Lvov he also attended Lukasiewicz’s lectures in logic and Witwicki’s in psychology; previously, while still at high school in Warsaw, he had also attended clandestine lessons in philosophy held by Brzozowski , Krzywicki and Mahrburg , whom he greatly esteemed. After his university studies he returned to Warsaw, where he took up a career as a high school teacher of classics, and at the same time took an active part in the cultural life of the city, holding lectures, publishing articles and collaborating with Weryho in the organisation of the Philosophical Institute (1915). In 1919 he was appointed Temporary Professor and then, in 1929, became a Full Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Human Sciences. In the 30s he participated actively in the cultural and political life of the city, in particular struggling against nationalism, clericalism and the anti-Semitic tendencies which were widespread at the time in Poland. This stand brought him closer to the left wing of the Socialist Party. Under the German occupation during World War II he took part in clandestine teaching activity and also narrowly escaped being sentenced to death by a right-wing clandestine faction who declared him to be an enemy of the Polish nation. After the War, Kotarbinski taught at the University of Lodz, helping to organise it in his capacity as Rector (1945-49). He then returned to Warsaw , where he taught philosophy and logic at the University until his retirement (1951-61). He was also President of the Polish Academy of Sciences (1957-1962), where he founded and directed the Laboratory of Praxiology.

 Main Works

  1. Elementy teorii poznania, logiki formalnej i metodologii nauk, Ossolineum, Lwów, 1929.
  2. Le réalisme radical, Proceed. of th 7th INternational Congress of Philosophy, London, 1930, pp. 488-500.
  3. Kurs logiki dla prawników, Gebethner i Wolff, Warszawa, 1955.
  4. Traktat o dobrej robocie, PWN, Warszawa, 1955.
  5. Wibór pism, vol. I, PWN, Warszawa, 1957
  6. Wykady z dziejów logiki, Ossolineum, Lódz, 1957.
  7. Wibór pism, vol. II, PWN, Warszawa, 1958.
  8. I principi di un'etica indipendente, Rivista di Filosofia, L, 1, 1959, pp. 3-14
  9. Essai de réduire la connaissance psychologique à l'extraspection, AA.VV., Atti del XII congresso di Filosofia (Venezia, 12-16 settembre 1958), vol. IV: Logica, gnoseologia, filosofia della scienza, filosofia del linguaggio, Sansoni, Firenze, 1960, pp. 295-99.
  10. The concept of action, J. of Philosophy, 57, 1960, pp. 201-209
  11. The Basic Postulate of Concretism, Schriften zur Phonetik, Sprachwissenschaft und Kummunikationforschung, 3, 1961, pp. 79-87
  12. Meditazione sulle posizioni di Bacone, Convivium, 39, 1962, pp. 36-7
  13. Leçons sur l'histoire de la logique, PUF, Paris, 1964.
  14. Les origines de la praxéologie, PWN, Warszawa, 1965.
  15. Praxiology. An Introduction to the Science of Efficient Action, PWN-Pergamon Press,Warszawa-Oxford,1965 (Engli transl. of n. 4).
  16. Franz Brentano comme réiste, Revue Int. de Philosophie, 4, 1966, pp. 459-476.
  17. Gnosiology. The Scientific Approach to the Theory of Knowledge, PWN-Pergamon Press, Warszawa-Oxford, 1966 (Engl. transl. of n. 1).
  18. L'évolution de la praxéologie en Pologne, in AA.VV., Contemporary Philosophy, a cura di R. Klibanski, vol. II: Philosophy of Science, Firenze, La Nuova Italia, 1968, pp. 438-50
  19. La justification active, "Logique et Analyse", 41-42, 1968, pp. 273-9
  20. Reism: Issues and Prospects, "Logique and Analyse", 11,"1968, pp. 441-58
  21. The Task and Problems of Praxiology, "Prakseologia", 31,1968-69, pp. 7-25
  22. Les formes positives et negatives de la cooperation, "Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale", 3, 1970, pp. 316-25
  23. Determinism and fatalism in face of activity, "Dialectics and Humanism", 2, 1974, pp. 3-11.
  24. Sources of general problems concerning the efficiency of actions, "Dialec. and Human.", 1, 1975, pp. 5-15
  25. Concepts and problems in general methodology and methodology of the practical sciences, Przeeci-Wøjcicki, Twenty-five years cit., 1977, pp. 279-89
  26. Elementy teorii poznania, logiki formalnej i metodologii nauk, PWN,Warszawa, 1986 (3th ed.).
  27. Dziela wszystkie. Ontologia, teoria poznania i metodologia nauk, Ossolineum,Wroclaw et al., 1993.


 Selected Bibliography

  1. Rand, R., Kotarbinski's Philosophie, "Erkenntnis", VII,1937, pp. 92-120.
  2. Jaworski, Marek,Tadeusz Kotarbinski,Wydawnictwo Interpress,Warszawa,1971.
  3. Kuczynski, Janus (ed.), Mastery and humanism (An interview with prof. Tadeusz Kotarbinski, "Dialetics and Humanism", 1, 1977, pp. 11-19.
  4. Grzegorczyk, Andrzej, On Certain Formal Consequences of Reism, "Dialectics and Humanism", 1,1977, pp.73-80
  5. Lazari-Pawowska, Ija,The ethical teaching of Tadeusz Kotarbinski, "Dialectics and Humanism", 1,1977, pp.53-65
  6. Czeowski, Tadeusz,The indipendent ethics of Tadeusz Kotarbinski, "Dialectics and Humanism", 1,1977, pp.47-52
  7. Sinisi, V.F.,The development of Ontology, "Topoi", v. 2, n. 1, 1983, pp. 53-61
  8. Przelecki, Marian, Racjonalizm Tadeusza Kotarbinskiego, Studia Filozoficzna, 12,1986, pp. 167-78
  9. Smolucha, Zofia, Tadeusz Kotarbinski, 1886-1981: bibliografia,Woj. Biblioteka Publ., Olsztyn, 1988.
  10. Wolenski, Jan, Kotarbinski,WP, Warszawa, 1990.
  11. Wolenski, Jan (ed.), Kotarbinski: Logic, Semantics, Ontology, Nijhoff, Dordrecht/ Boston/ Lancaster,1990.
  12. Airaksinen, Timo, Goals and ethics: Comments on Kotarbinski, in AA.VV., Logika, praktyka, etyka: Przeslania filozofii Tadeusza Kotarbinskiego, Towarz. Nauk. Prakseologii, Warszawa 1991.
  13. Moles, Abraham, Theories des actes: Implication et intrication (En hommage à T. Kotarbinski), in AA.VV., Logika, praktyka, etyka: Przeslania filozofii Tadeusza Kotarbinskiego, Towarz. Nauk. Prakseologii, Warszawa 1991.
  14. Gasparski, W., A philosophy of practicality. A treatise on the philosophy of Tadeusz Kotarbinski, Societas Philos. Fennica, Helsinki, 1993.
  15. Poli, Roberto,The Dispute over Reism: Kotarbinski - Ajdukiewicz - Brentano, in Coniglione-Poli-Wolenski (ed.), Polish Scientific Philosophy, Rodopi, Amsterdam/Atlanta 1993, pp. 339-54
  16. Dudek, Joanna, Etyka niezalena Tedeusza Kotarbinskiego,WSP, Zielona Góra, 1997.


Documentation on Kotarbinski

Kotarbinski's letters to Kazimierz Twardowski

An opinion of Kotarbinski on Witkiewicz

Diagram illustrating the theory of names

Altri Link

Short presentation of the ontological reism

Reconstruction of Kotarbinski's position about universals


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