A Short History of 20th-Century Polish Philosophy


20th-century Polish philosophy is deeply marked by the events which have affected political and institutional life in Poland. Hence the traditional division made by philosophy historians into three periods: from the beginning of the century to 1918 (when the 2nd Republic was founded after a century of division between Prussia, Russia and Austria; see the map ); from 1918 to 1939; and from 1945 to the present. This feature of Polish history also accounts for the importance in its culture of the centuries-old struggle for independence and the defence of an identity constantly threatened by ruthless attempts at denationalisation, above all on the part of the German and Russian authorities (see the map of territorial changes of the Polish State in the course of its history ).

Traditionally very aware of Western culture, Polish philosophy has shown throughout its history a remarkably receptive attitude towards the dominant philosophical currents of its German-speaking neighbours, especially Austria: not only were the two main Polish cultural institutions located in Hapsburg-dominated territory (the ancient University of Cracow and the University of Lvov , which were the only ones that existed at the beginning of the century), but it was also customary for Polish scholars to pursue their scientific studies in Vienna or at a German university. The presence of the Universities of Cracow and Lvov and a more tolerant ethnic attitude in the Austrian dominion created favourable conditions for the defence and spread of an autonomous philosophical culture (also made possible by the fact that use of the national language was allowed in the universities).

In Russian-dominated Warsaw , on the other hand, Tsarist policy had eliminated the Polish university and replaced it with a Russian-speaking Imperial University. It was, however, in Warsaw that the first review specialising in philosophy was published in Poland, in 1897 - "Przeglad Filozoficzny" - thanks to the efforts of Wladyslaw Weryho (1868-1916), who devoted himself tirelessly to organising the national culture. Another important date for philosophy in Warsaw is 1905, when the Russian authorities adopted a more conciliatory attitude towards Poland and allowed a free university to be opened, where Adam Mahrburg (1855-1913) and M. Kozlowski (1858-1935) taught. Finally, in November 1915, the German occupying forces allowed the University and the Polytechnic to be re-opened. This favoured a flow of intellectuals to the capital from other Polish cities. Among those who held posts at the University and other important institutions, an outstanding figure in this period is that of Leon Petrazycki (1867-1931), a polyglot intellectual who first worked in Berlin and St. Petersburg. A scholar of law and a social theorist, his originality lies not only in his specific theories (characterised by the importance he attached to psychological factors in forging the various fields of culture and society, especially law) but also in the innovative methodology he developed and applied.

A further significant event is the flourishing, at the end of the last century, of an important school of philosophy and the history of medicine, a field in which Poland was a leader: the first European chairs in these disciplines were founded in Cracow and Poznan at the end of the First World War and the review "Archiwum Historii i Filozofii Medycyn", founded by A. Wrzosek (1875-1965), was published in Poznan. The main figures in the school were Tytus Chalubinski (1820-1889), the founder of the school, Zygmunt Kramsztyk (1848-1920) who founded "Krytyka Lekarska" (Medical Criticism) (1897-1907), at that time the only European review devoted to theoretical and methodological problems in medicine, and Wladyslaw Bieganski (1857-1917), the author of a number of books of logic, methodology and philosophy of medicine, who combined the medical profession with reflections on methodology in medical science, of which he is considered to be one of the founders.

Another important line of thought in this period is the Socialist/Marxist current. Closely linked to the issue of national independence, Socialist thought in Poland began to spread at the end of the last century, mainly due to the propaganda of Ludwik Warynski (1856-1889) and the political activity of Stanislaw Krusinski (1857-1886), who respectively embodied the social-revolutionary and social-democratic trends. Another significant representative of this trend was the theorist of the Polish Socialist Party, Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz (1872-1905), whose interpretation of Marxism was strongly tinted with positivism. Oriented in the opposite direction to positivism, i.e. towards a subjectivist and anti-naturalistic form of philosophy, was another Marxist philosopher, Stanislaw Brzozowski (1878-1918), endowed with a complex personality and a controversial intellectual physiognomy. Of importance for social and philosophical thought was the work of Edward Abramowski (1868-1918), one of the most acute theorists of the co-operative movement and a supporter of anarchic trade unionism (influenced by Sorel).

However, the event which was to shape the future of Polish philosophy was the foundation of the so-called Lvov-Warsaw School by Kazimierz Twardowski , who occupied the chair of Philosophy in Lvov in 1895. As one of his pupils, Tadeusz Czezowski , recalls, "[...] there were no Polish schools of philosophy. The school was created by Twardowski. It was ready at the moment in which Poland regained its independence in 1918 and was so strong and had such solid foundations that it not only dominated the other spheres of Polish philosophy but also influenced philosophers who were not directly connected with it; not to such an extent as to make them abandon their ideas and change their interests, but in such a way as to permeate Polish philosophical works with the methodological demands and way of dealing with philosophical problems typical of Twardowski's school [...]. In this way the influence of Twardowski's philosophical activity spread throughout the country, creating a typical philosophical workstyle and uniting the disiecta membra of philosophy in Poland" (K. Twardowski as Teacher, "Studia Philosophica 1939-1946", III, 1948, pp. 13-14). Among his pupils were philosophers of note such as Jan Lukasiewicz , Stanislaw Lesniewski , Alfred Tarski , Kazimierz Ajdukiewicz , Tadeusz Kotarbinski , Izydora Dambska and others. It was especially in the field of logic, semantics and metalogic that the Lvov-Warsaw School achieved the international recognition it deserved: polyvalent logic and the research into the history of logic conducted by Lukasiewicz, as well as the semantic conception of truth elaborated by Tarski, not to mention individual technical contributions to the various branches of logic, lost any merely national colouring and became part of the world-wide heritage in the field of logic.

The achievement of national unity had a beneficial effect on the philosophical activity of the new Second Polish Republic. Alongside the traditional centres of Lvov, Warsaw and Cracow, the new University of Poznan (1919) took on a significant role. New philosophical reviews were also founded ("Kwartalnik Filozoficzny" in 1922; "Studia Philosophica" in 1936) and the first general philosophical conferences were held (in Lvov in 1923, Warsaw in 1927 and Cracow in 1936). The philosophical climate in this period was dominated by the presence of the analytical Lvov-Warsaw School, which in a sense overshadowed all other philosophical personalities and lines of thought, however lively and interesting they were. The main philosophical trends in this period were those of analytical philosophy which, besides the leading Lvov-Warsaw School, embraced other philosophers who did not belong to the school, such as Leon Chwistek , or who had weak links with it, such as Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz ; phenomenology with Roman Ingarden ; and Marxism with Ludwik Krzywicki . Alongside these stand philosophers who are more difficult to classify, due to the great originality of their thought, such as Stanislaw I. Witkiewicz , who comes halfway between philosophical commitment and literary practice, or Ludwik Fleck , who combined his profession as a scientist with that of a scientific theorist.

The period between the two World Wars was also a favourable one for Catholic philosophy: the existing theological seminaries and chairs of philosophy were flanked by the Catholic University of Lublin , founded in 1918. As in the rest of Catholic Europe, its orientation was rooted in Neo-Thomism which had received a new impulse from Pope Leo III's encyclical Aeterni patris (1879). Neo-Thomism was the prevalent orientation of Polish Catholic thought, a general framework comprising influences from both national philosophical circles and international debate. The main activity in this area was that of the theologists and philosophers who founded the so-called Cracow Circle, promoted by a small group of intellectuals (J.M. Bochenski , J. Salamucha , Jan F. Drewnowski ) who accepted the modern formal logic developed in Warsaw but applied it to traditional Thomist issues and theological argument.

The new geopolitical context in Poland after World War II profoundly marked the development of Polish philosophy. After a brief period of tolerance and open-mindedness, Marxism, which had become the official doctrine of the new People's Republic, took on a hegemonic role: Stalinism and the Cold War affected philosophy as well, since the Lvov-Warsaw School was seen as an adversary whose myth needed demolishing. It was this school, rather than Catholic thought or phenomenology, which constituted a prestigious competitor for ideological supremacy over the younger generations. It was actively fought by the most famous Marxist intellectuals of the time, such as A. Schaff , L. Kolakowski and B. Baczko, whose accused the school of being none other than an unoriginal variation of Neo-Positivism, supporting a "semantic philosophy" of an "idealistic" nature. The conventionalism supported by Ajdukiewicz also came under attack, being seen as a sort of idealism disguised by an elegant logical formalism.

The death of Stalin (March 1953) allowed a process of progressive liberalisation, giving strength to people like the logician Roman Suszko (1919-1979), who had tried, despite his fundamentally Marxist leanings, to maintain an atmosphere of constructive debate. The change in the philosophical climate had a significant effect on the controversy between the Marxist supporters of dialectic logic and the defenders of formal logic and its cardinal principle of non-contradiction. In 1995 Schaff recognised that behind Marxist criticism of formal logic there lay a confusion between contrariety (or polarity) and contradiction: only the latter is forbidden in formal logic, whereas the empirically ascertainable contrariety between opposing forces and trends by no means implies contradiction. Schaff refers to Lukasiewicz's essay on the principle of non-contradiction in Aristotle; but even more immediate was the connection with an essay by his greatest opponent, Ajdukiewicz, in which he criticised the connection between change and contradiction.

The simultaneous revival of scientific activity, with a series of conferences and seminars, led to a new phase in Polish Marxism, made politically possible by the rise to power of Gomulka in 1956. This was the year in which the so-called "Marxist revisionism" commenced, the leaders of which were Kolakowski and Baczko, and later Schaff himself. This revisionism was essentially fired by the reading and rediscovery of Marx's early works. Other Marxist thinkers, on the other hand, made an attempt at a scientific formulation of Marxist philosophy through a recovery of national and European epistemological and logical thought. Two different philosophical trends therefore came into being within the Marxist framework - the "scientific" school and the "humanistic" school. According to the former, founded by Krajewski, philosophy is based on knowledge of the world and so is seen as epistemology and methodology of scientific research. With reference to Marxism, this meant that a fundamental part of philosophy was dialectical materialism, enriched with the methodological and logical achievements of contemporary epistemology, and therefore explicitly inspired by the Polish analytical tradition and philosophical style. The "humanistic" or "anthropological" school, on the other hand, was inspired by the tradition of classical German philosophy and certain philosophical currents which were popular at the time (i.e. phenomenology and existentialism); philosophy was thus seen as an autonomous domain of thought with its own method, different from that of the natural sciences, i.e. the dialectic or hermeneutic method. The preference for Marx's early works was obvious, along with interest in the works of Lukacs and Gramsci and the rediscovery of authors like Brzozowski.

The fall of Gomulka in 1970 and the election of Gierek as Party Secretary led to an increasing de-ideologisation of the system in favour of a pragmatic attitude. This allowed Marxist philosophy to develop without the need to adhere to an "orthodoxy" imposed from above and gave rise to a a number of trends and a whole new generation of scholars including Z. Cackowski, M. Fritzhand, M. Hempolinski, T.M. Jaroszewski, W. Mejbaum and M. Siemek. However, the less tolerant attitude adopted following the coup led by General Jaruzelski in 1981 made it increasingly difficult to be opponents and Marxists at the same time. This situation continued up to the fall of Communism in the first free elections since the War (1989), when Marxist philosophy seemed to disappear into thin air and its old supporters either remained silent or rapidly converted to other philosophies which were more acceptable and less compromised.

The end of the Communist regime and the liberalisation of the economy did not, however, give philosophical research the expected advantages, above all because the State no longer played a leading role in the promotion and financing of culture. The perplexity aroused in philosophers by this considerable deterioration in Polish philosophy was clearly expressed at the Lublin Conference in 1993.

Nevertheless, as confirmed by a survey conducted in 1989 by the Catholic journal "Znak", philosophical activity seems to be continuing along the solid lines of the Polish tradition, and can essentially be split into three well-known currents: the Neo-Thomism of Lublin, analytical philosophy and subject-based philosophy, which is inspired by phenomenological teaching. There is also, however, a line of thought more closely linked to politics, with the spread of the debate on liberalism which has been fired by the tumultuous transformation currently under way in Poland. Of course no appeal is made to Marxism. The philosophy of the last few years therefore features a strong persistence of logical and analytical research inspired by the glorious tradition of the Lvov-Warsaw School and renewed by philosophers like Marian Przelecki and Ryszard Wójcicki and semiologists like Jerzy Pelc. One cannot, however, ignore other thinkers such as Klemens Szaniawski (1925-1993) or Stefan Amsterdamski, who has elaborated the concept of the "ideal of science" which contains much of the "thought-styles" of Fleck. Nevertheless, the younger generation have also overcome the limits of the Lvov-Warsaw School by accepting more recent post-positivist trends (from Kuhn to Lakatos and Feyerabend), and showing interest in the position of Rorty and the structuralist conception of theories (Sneed and Stegmuller). An undoubtedly dynamic element is represented by the Centre for Methodological Research at the University of Poznan. On the other hand, themes linked to hermeneutic reflection are also spreading in Poland (thanks to the fact that a number of works are being translated into Polish: Gadamer's Truth and Method was published in Polish for the first time in 1993, Heidegger's Being and Time in 1994), along with the thought of Derrida, many of whose works have been translated in the last few years, and Post-Modernism (with the translation of various Lyotard's works).

(Translated by Jennifer Smith)

 Selected bibliography

- W. Tatarkiewicz, Zarys dziejów filozofii w Polsce (Outlines of History of Philosohy in Poland), Kraków, 1948
W. Eborowicz, Pologne, in Les grand courants de la pensée mondiale contemporaine, ed. by M.F. Sciacca, vol. II, Marzorati, Milano, 1959, pp. 993-1037.
- B. Skarga (ed.), Polska mysl filozoficzna i spoleczna (The Polish sociological and philosophical thought), 3 voll., PWN, Warszawa, 1975-1977
- A. Walicki, Philosophy and romantic nationalism. The case of Poland, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1982.
- J. Górnicka, A. Kawczak, La philosophie polonaise au XXe siècle, "Pétite Rev. Phil.", 4 (1983), pp. 65-108.
- Zarys dziejów filozofii polskiej 1915-1918 (Outlines of History of Polish Philosopohy), ed. by A. Walicki, PWN, Warszawa, 1983.
- F. Coniglione, Realtà e astrazione. Scuola polacca ed epistemologia post-positivista, CUECM, Catania, 1990.
- S. Borzym, Filozofia polska 1900-1950, Ossolineum, Wroclaw et al., 1991.
- N.A. Zmijewski, The catholic-marxist ideological dialogue in Poland 1945-1980, Brookfield, Dartmouth, 1991.
F. Coniglione, Nel segno della Scienza. La filosofia polacca del '900, Angeli, Milano 1996.
- J.J. Jadacki, Orientacje i doktryny filozoficzne. Z dziejów filozofii polskiej, WFiS, UW Warszawa, 1998.

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