The Poznan School



Presentation of the School

Main Works

Selected Bibliography

Papers and Documents on the School

Discorsi sul Metodo
Intervista ai principali esponenti della Scuola di Poznan
(In Italian)

Leszek Nowak, La scienza: la ricerca della verità come strumento di dominio
(In Italian)


 Presentation of the School

The Poznan School was a Marxist current in Polish culture which rejected the "humanistic" interpretation of Marxism and emphasised its scientific features, in close confrontation with contemporary epistemology, trying to recover the logical and methodological heritage of the Lwów-Warsaw School.

Intellectual circles in Poznan were not unprepared for such a development: WladyslawTatarkiewicz had taught there in the early 1920s, Zygmunt Zawirski from 1928 onwards, and Adam Wiegner the logician and methodologist (1889-1967) from 1934; after the Second World War Zawirski's chair was taken over by Kazimierz Ajdukiewicz (from 1946 to 1956). Wiegner was succeeded by Jerzy Giedymin , a pupil of Ajdukiewicz, and then, when Giedymin emigrated in 1968, by Jerzy Kmita, who was the first Director of the newly founded (1969) Institute of Philosophy, which marks the beginning of the School's activity.

From a formal point of view, the school can be said to have begun with the publication of a volume written by Jerzy Kmita and Leszek Nowak , who were to be - along with Jerzy Topolski - its two main representatives (Studia nad teoretycznymi podstawami humanistyki [Studies on the Theoretical Fundaments of Human Sciences], Poznan, 1968). In this work, which was greatly influenced by the philosophy of Popper as interpreted by Giedymin, the authors tried to reconstruct logically the explanatory structure of human sciences in order to organise the theory of rational action.

In the late 1960s the School took a "Marxist turn", led by Topolski, which led to the publication of a series of volumes including contributions by the School's main representatives. From this time onwards the development was tumultuous and a large number of scientific contributions were made in all disciplines. Two main trends emerged: one led by Kmita which was more interested in the development of the methodology of human sciences based on a genetic-functional interpretation of historical materialism, and another led by Nowak's group which developed and expressed the idealisational concept of science, more closely connected with the epistemological and ontological themes typical of dialectic materialism. The latter trend, which was often identified with the School as a whole, was the one which showed greater vitality and capacity to expand and was more insistent in its search for international contacts and references with which to compare its proposals and from which to gain new concepts and perspectives.

The idealisational concept of science proposed by Nowak, Kmita (albeit with different emphasis) and Topolski arose from the need to re-interpret Marxism in such a way as to make its scientific nature emerge, thus returning to the Polish Marxist tradition which had privileged its cognitive content and viewed it as a continuation of the rationalistic scientific tradition in Western culture. It explicitly drew on the rigorous, crystalline intellectual style of neopositivism, as opposed to the literary style in which Marx's thought was usually presented, and implicitly criticised the version of Marxism propounded by Kolakowski. The basic philosophical theses of neopositivism were, however, rejected, as was coherent with the anti-positivistic methodological naturalism proposed in the 1968 volume. For the representatives of the Poznan School, this methodological naturalism was the ideal partner for the main theoretical assumptions of Marx's methodology as reconstructed by a reading of his Capital: an idea that Marxism and positivist epistemology have in common is that natural and human sciences share the same methodology even though many of their basic philosophical assumptions are different. Respecting these assumptions, Marxism has to develop its own idea of science; rejecting mixtures and facile syncretism, this idea has to be capable of competing in rigour and clarity with the most advanced epistemologies, and overcoming the limits and bottlenecks of neopositivism.

The basic principles of the 1968 volume were extended to interpretation of the explanation of historical events typical of Marxism, which is termed "genetic-functional": the attempt is to take into account both subjective factors and the objective (socio-economic) background against which Marxism operates. This genetic-functional explanation was the one Marx applied in his Capital to account for the interaction between socio-economic structure and rational individual action. It was of great importance in the work of the Poznan methodologists as it provided support for the methodological analogy they saw between Marx and Darwin, an aspect focused on in particular by Krzysztof Lastowski, and constituted the theoretical nucleus of what was to be an adaptive interpretation of Marxism, developed by Nowak and his collaborators but received unenthusiastically, if not with hostility, by Kmita and Topolski.
Marx's Capital also provided them with a new way of viewing abstraction, typical of his "modelling" method, which they termed "idealisation" to distinguish it from the classical empiricist view. The concepts Marx uses in his Capital, which are those of mature science, are neither empirically given nor generalisations that can be deduced from (i.e. "abstracted" from) experience, but constructs which in reality correspond to nothing, such as a "perfect gas", "two-class capitalism", "rational individual", etc..

To make the concept of idealisation clearer, Nowak compares it to caricature: "Let's see what a caricaturist does: he takes certain details of a given person and emphasises those he thinks are most important. That is, he exaggerates: he does not portray everything but alters a person or a situation by neglecting certain features he believes to be of secondary importance. Science [...] does the same. When a physicist constructs the concept of a material point, he does not present a physical object but distorts it and assumes that it has no dimension, focusing on other properties it possesses (e.g. mass), which he considers to be essential for the physical magnitudes he is studying. In short: science applies the same method as caricature".

This concept of science, which Nowak and his disciples elaborated and perfected in large number of articles and books, using the tools of formal logic, was explicitly presented as an alternative to the Standard Conception of scientific theory which dominated contemporary Western epistemology. Above all, it attached great importance to the modelling character of science, viewing theories as a succession of increasingly realistic models linked by concretisation. It also greatly refined the relationship between theoretical apparatus and empirical data: the one is not directly compared with the other as in Popperian falsificationism, but undergoes a process of adjustment and refinement in which empirical confutation does not lead to rejection of a theory but to procedures of concretisation and modification of its essential underlying structure. Only at the end of a complex process can a given theory be completely rejected, thus giving rise to what is usually called a "scientific revolution". Indeed, the idealisational stand rehabilitates the principle of correspondence as proposed by Bohr; it becomes the foundation on which to interpret the historical evolution of science and establish the various types of relationships which link successive theories. W. Krajewski, I. Nowakowa and J. Such in particular worked in this direction. In addition, the introduction of the notions of essential structure and primary and secondary factors led the Poznan methodologists to support an "essentialist", realistic concept of science, clearly inspired by Marx: science does not aim to describe and organise the phenomenal data supplied by immediate experience, but tries to capture the nomological relationships which are the essence of reality and become manifest only in the extent to which we apply idealisation. Reality is not "flat" but hierarchically structured into different levels, only the most fundamental of which can give us the essential law of the phenomenon being investigated. In his law of free fall, for example, Galileo only took gravity and time into account, neglecting all other factors (e.g. the resistance of the air, wind, etc.) as secondary. Gravity is the essential, basic fact; the others are secondary in that it is possible for a body to fall without them. This way of viewing science is clearly very close to Popper's "modified essentialism". The counterfactual nature of scientific laws requires a different way of viewing the concept of truth: it cannot be seen as simple correspondence as this would presuppose a phenomenalist concept of reality, which is alien to the idealisational approach. If applied to idealisational laws, the classical concept of truth "would lead to the absurd conclusion that all idealisational statements were true in the classical sense, given that they are emptily satisfied by real objects." The essentialist concept of truth thus does not require correspondence between scientific statements and empirical facts, but supports the view that the truth of an idealisational statement is proportional to the structural similarity between the hypothesised essential structure - and the nomological links between the factors it establishes - to the essential structure which actually governs the phenomenon being investigated. This similarity is confirmed by the explanatory fecundity and empirical robustness the law possesses.

This modelling approach was not an absolute novelty in the long history of Marxist exegesis and had already had some forerunners in Polish philosophy. However, the accurate distinction between abstraction and idealisation, the systematic way in which the School developed its particular epistemology, using original interpretations to retranslate several Marxist conceptual categories, as well as its heuristic fecundity (creatively applied by scholars working in different fields ranging from psychology with Jerzy Brzezinski (see his curriculum vitae), to biology with K. Lastowski, to history with J. Topolski, to pedagogy, the reinterpretation of historical materialism, etc.), has in recent years gained the idealisational concept of science considerable recognition in Western philosophical culture, and has made it a subject of lively debate both in Poland itself and in international journals. This has progressively freed the epistemological framework from its originally Marxist leanings, thus relieving it of an exegesis which, at least in the initial stages of the School's work, appeared to be somewhat contrived. Now the idealisational perspective has stretched beyond its Polish limits, it has got rid of its typical genetic traits and is shared or at least discussed with considerable sympathy by philosophers of science who in the meanwhile were moving in the same direction, re-evaluating the role of models and abstracting procedures in scientific conceptualisation. In this sense it is one of those post-positivist epistemologies that have tried to overcome the impasse of contemporary epistemology following the implosion of the Popperian school and the devastating effect of the history of science inspired by Kuhn. This history is not, however, over: its main representatives are still producing a remarkable quantity of research, and the School's leader, Leszek Nowak, continues to play a decisive role in directing the School and training new researchers.

Finally, a brief mention concerning one original development of the idealisational concept of science in the re-interpretation of Marxism: the so-called "non-Marxian historical materialism", elaborated in particular by Nowak, P. Buczkowski and A. Klawiter. It consists of a radicalisation of Marxist materialism and its extension beyond the field of economics to that of politics and ideology. The three fundamental dependencies established by Marx - production forces determine production relationships; the economic basis determines the political superstructure; socio-economic conditions determine social conscience - correspond to the three fundamental moments or domains any social entity is divided into: the economic, the political and the ideological. For Marx, however, only the economic domain was of fundamental importance, the other two being merely superstructural manifestations of this domain. Reflection on the mechanisms governing Socialist systems has led Nowak, however, to the realisation that, unlike capitalism in which it is enterprises that choose the production system which will allow them to maximise their surplus value, in Socialist systems it is the political domain which is more important: it is State authorities who decide the productive structure and the allocation of resources. This feature of real Socialism leads Nowak to conclude that the dependencies established by Marx are inadequate as they are not capable of explaining in a satisfactory way the whole of historical reality; it is therefore necessary to generalise historical materialism. This is possible by restoring full autonomy to the above-mentioned fundamental domains of society, but attributing to each of them an isomorphous structure with respect to the others. There is, in fact, in all three a material level, an institutional level and an ideological one. The material level is represented by the means of economic production possessed by owners (who are therefore the ruling class in this field), the means of political coercion possessed by the "rulers", and the means of spiritual production possessed by "priests" or the intellectuals. The institutional level is in turn divided into an economic level (e.g. trade unions), a political one (e.g. the State) and a cultural one (e.g. the Church). Lastly, the ideological level presents three groups of theoretical convictions according to the domains to which they belong. In this way Marx's materialism is extended to the political and ideological domains, exhibiting a class-based structure in each of them: respectively the contrast between owners and workers, rulers and the ruled, the clergy and laymen (or priests and the indoctrinated). Marx's materialism was too weak, as it did not comprehend the possibility of a materialistic approach to both politics and culture. In this perspective, far from a sort of multifactorialism or watering down of materialism, historical reality is explained by exclusive recourse to the material level of each domain, that is, by identifying possession of the means of material production, of political coercion and of indoctrination as the key factor for an understanding of social development and the various social types.

So, each of the three classes materially dominating the three domains of social reality continually tries to expand its sphere of influence and invade that of the others, beyond acceptable limits, thus giving rise to a class struggle of a dual nature: not only a struggle between owners and workers in the economic domain, but also one between owners and rulers or rulers and the clergy, etc. This kind of struggle can lead to an accumulation of power by a single class, for example the ruling class wielding intellectual power and thus becoming a dual class of rulers and priests. This is what happened with Fascism, where the means of both coercion and indoctrination were possessed by a single class, while an autonomous class of owners still continued to exist. Societies in which the three dominant classes exist separately from each other are typically class-based ones, Western capitalism being a prime example. Other societies are "superclass" societies, the most significant being real Socialism., in which economic, political and ideological power is combined in a single ruling class, a threefold class of rulers, owners and priests. This is typical of societies in which oppression and the lack of basic liberties reach their highest point, as there is no independent power that can oppose the monopoly exercised in all spheres of social life by the threefold ruling class.

On this basis it is possible to elaborate a philosophy of history which tries to explain the most important turning points in the history of mankind (like the Russian Revolution or the events leading up to the fall of Communism in Poland), using a wealth of idealisational models which have their theoretical and methodological roots in the conception of science typical of the School.


 Main Works

  1. A large amount of material is contained in the review "Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities" (PSPSH) which in 1982 took on the form of a book series of a monographic nature, which still continues to be published (Rodopi, Amsterdam).
  2. Social class action & historical materialism, 1982 (n. 6 of PSPSH).
  3. Theories of ideology and ideology of theories, ed. by P. Buczkowski and A. Klawiter, 1986 (n. 9 of PSPSH);
  4. Dimension of the historical process, ed. by L. Nowak, 1988 (n. 13 of PSPSH).
  5. Idealization I: General Problems, Amsterdam/Atlanta 1990 (n. 16 of PSPSH); Idealization II: Forms and Application, Amsterdam/Atlanta, 1990 (n. 17 of PSPSH), eds. by J. Brzezinski, F. Coniglione, T.A.F. Kuipers e L. Nowak.
  6. The social horizon of knowledge, ed. by P. Buczkowski, 1991 (n. 22 of PSPSH).
  7. Idealization III: Approximation and Truth, eds. J. Brzeziski e L. Nowak, Amsterdam/Atlanta, 1992 (vol. 25 of PSPSH).
  8. Idealization IV: Intellegibility in Science, ed. C. Dilworth, Amsterdam/Atlanta, 1992 (vol. 26 of PSPSH).
  9. Social system, rationality and revolution, ed. by L. Nowak e M. Paprzycki, 1993 (n. 33 of PSPSH)
  10. Idealization VI: Idealization in economics, eds. B. Hamminga and N.B. De Marchi, Amsterdam/Atlanta, 1994 (vol. 38 of PSPSH).
  11. Idealization VII: Structuralism, idealization and approximation, ed. M. Kuokkanen, Amsterdam/Atlanta, 1994 (vol. 42 of PSPSH).
  12. J. Kmita, Problems in Historical Epistemology, Warszawa/Dordrecht, 1988.
  13. J. Kmita, Essays in the Theory of Scientific Cognition, Dordrecht/Warszawa, 1989.
  14. W. Kraiewski, Correspondence Principle and the Growth of Science, Dordrecht, 1977.
  15. L. Nowak,U podstaw Marksowskiej metodologii nauk, Warszawa, 1971 (trad. it. riv. e ampliata, La scienza come idealizzazione. I fondamenti della metodologia marxiana, Bologna, 1977)
  16. L. Nowak, The Structure of Idealization. Towards a Systematic Interpretation of the Marxian Idea of Science, Dordrecht, 1980.
  17. L. Nowak, Property and power. Towards a non-Marxian historical materialism, Dordrecht, 1983.
  18. L. Nowak, U podstaw teorii socjalizmu (Fondamenti di teoria del socialismo), 3 voll., Poznan, 1991.
  19. L. Nowak, Power and civil society. Towards a dynamic theory of real socialism, New York/Westport/London, 1991.
  20. I. Nowakowa, The dynamics of Idealizations, Amsterdam/Atlanta, 1994 (n. 34 of PSPSH).
  21. J. Topolski, Metodologia historii, Poznan 1968 (3ª ed. 1983) (trad. it. della 2ª ed., Metodologia della ricerca storica, Bologna, 1975).
  22. J. Topolski, Marksizm i historia, Warszawa, 1977 (trad. it., La storiografia contemporanea, Roma, 1981).

 Selected Bibliography

  1. Epistemology and History. Humanitis as a Philosophical Problem and Jerzy Kmita's Approach to it, ed by A. Zeidler-Janiszewska, Amsterdam/Atlanta, 1996.
  2. P. van den Besselaar, Idealisatie en concretisering. Leszek Nowak reconstructive von Marxs methodologie, "Kannis & Methode", VI, 4 (1982).
  3. F. Coniglione, Da Treviri a Poznan. Leszek Nowak e il marxismo come scienza rigorosa, "Laboratorio", 10/11 (1983), pp. 20-86.
  4. F. Coniglione, Realtà ed astrazione. Scuola polacca ed epistemologia postpositivista, Catania, 1990.
  5. Drosdowski, Pomorski, Wyvzanski, Zybertowicz, Jerzy Topolski - For a new shape of the historical science, in Miedzy historia a teoria (Tra storia e teoria), ed. by M. Drozdowski, Warszawa/Poznan, 1988, pp. 50-65.
  6. B. Hamminga, Sneed versus Nowak: An illustra-ion in economics, "Erkenntnis", 30, 1-2 (1989), pp. 247-65;
  7. A. Garcia de la Sienra, The Cristian model of man: Reply to Nowak, "Social Theory and Practice", 15 (1989), pp. 89-106.
  8. J. Giedymin, Antipositivism in Contemporary Philosophy of Social Sciences and Humanities, "British J. Phil. Science", 26, (1975);
  9. M. Kuokkanen, The Poznan School Methodology of Idealization and Concretization from the Point of View of a Revised Structuralist Theory Conception, "Erkenntnis", 28 (1988).
  10. R. Poli, Astrazione e idealizzazione, "Verifiche", 3 (1988), pp. 189-207.
  11. E. Swiderski, Humanistic Interpretation and Historical Materialism: The Methodology of the Pozna School, in Contemporary Marxism. Essays in Honor of J.M. Bochenski (eds. J.J. O'Rourke, T.J. Blakely, F.J. Rapp), Dordrecht, 1984, pp. 97-108.
  12. E. Swiderski,The Explanation of Actions and Marxism: from the Point of View of the Pozna School, "Studies in Soviet Thought", 30, (1985).
  13. E. Swiderski, Towards a Marxist Theory of Explanation and Uderstanding: The Analysis of Action in the Pozna School, Ph.D. presentata alla Facoltà di Lettere dell'Università di Friburgo, 1985.
  14. J. Tittenbrun, Dialektyka i scholastyka. O pewnej próbej obalenia Marksa (Dialettica e scolastica. A proposito di un tentativo di falsificare Marx), Warszawa, 1986.

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