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Philosophy in a Cold Climate


by Tadeusz Kotarbinski, translated by Olgierd Wojtasiewicz
Pergamon Press, 548 pp., $18.00


by Tadeusz Kotarbinski, translated by Olgierd Wojtasiewicz
Pergamon Press, 219 pp., $7.50

Polish Analytical Philosophy

by Henryk Skolimowski
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 275 pp., 40s.

A Philosophy of Man

by Adam Schaff
Lawrence and Wishart, 139 pp., 15s.

The Alienation of Reason

by Leszek Kolakowski
Doubleday, 219 pp., $4.95

Der Mensch Ohne Alternative

by Leszek Kolakowski
R. Piper, 280 pp., DM 12.80

The Polish philosophy of this century, best known for its achievements in formal logic, is a most impressive cultural phenomenon. In his extensive study of its vicissitudes during the Stalinist period Zbigniew Jordan observes that its beginning can be exactly dated. In 1895, when he was thirty-one, Kazimierz Twardowski returned from working with Franz Brentano in Vienna to take up a chair at the University of Lwow. While in Vienna he had written an important monograph on philosophical psychology and he could well have gone on to a successful career in the highly professional surroundings from which Husserl, Meinong, and the phenomenological movement in general were emerging. At Lwow he found the philosophy of his own country in a loose, amateurish, edificatory condition. Until his death in 1938 he devoted himself to the task of transforming it into what was perhaps the most rigorously and effectively rational philosophical community in the world.

The high standards of professional competence he imposed on the philosophers of Poland can be expressed in two principles which seem straightforward to the point of obviousness. They demanded that absolute priority be given in philosophical work to the greatest possible clarity and definiteness of expression and the greatest possible rigor in argument, with all essential logical steps being explicitly set out. In his view, humanly interesting conclusions can be left to look after themselves: bright ideas will emerge without the assistance of an academic philosophical profession. The prime responsibility of the professional philosopher is to set an example of intellectual discipline by dedicating himself to the strict critical justification, rather than the invention, of ideas and beliefs.

In due course two main lines of activity developed under Twardowski’s influence. The first and better-known of these is the work of the great school of Polish logicians. During the two decades of the life of the independent Polish republic this was the only genuine community of logicians on any substantial scale in the world. The examples of Frege in Germany and of Russell and Whitehead in Britain had had some general influence on philosophy and had inspired an individual here and there to take up full-time work in the field of logic, but they had produced no institutionalized study of logic at an advanced level. A good way to measure the uniqueness of logic in Poland is to compare the main elementary text used there, Lukasiewicz’s Elements of Mathematical Logic which is at once rigorous and sophisticated, with its contemporaneous English opposite number, Susan Stebbing’s muddled and promiscuously put together Modern Introduction to Logic.

THE FIRST TWO major Polish logicians—Jan Lukasiewicz, who died in exile in Dublin in 1956 at seventy-eight—and Stanislaw Lesniewski, who died in 1939 at the age of fifty-three—both came to the subject from philosophy. Both, it seems, felt that Twardowski’s principles could be fully put into effect only by going back to absolute fundamentals, to the strictly formal study of deductive reasoning. Lesniewski abandoned philosophy for logic altogether after the 1914 war, repudiating some early, informal essays on logical topics. Lukasiewicz remained interested in the philosophical implications of his logical work, but insisted that philosophy was intellectually valueless if it was not solidly founded on modern formal logic.

Both contributed extensively to the subject. Lukasiewicz invented a new, economical notation, devised unprecedentedly rigorous systematizations of basic propositional logic, and, by initiating the investigation of many-valued logics, created a kind of logical counterpart to non-Euclidean geometry. He also did some very original research in the history of logic. Lesniewski, like Frege and Russell, sought to provide new logical foundations for mathematics, and in pursuing this aim radically revised predicate logic and invented a new logical discipline, mereology, concerned with the relation of whole and part.

Their work established a lively tradition and they had worthy successors. Alfred Tarski, their most brilliant pupil, who has been in the United States since 1939, produced, in his monograph on the concept of truth, the school’s most distinguished achievement. Under the leadership of Andrzej Mostowski the school is still in effective existence in Poland today.

The logicians of a nation whose language is little known do not find this fact an obstacle to general recognition. Important logical discoveries can be expounded quite briefly and will be largely expressed in the near-Esperanto of formal symbolism. Thus the Polish logicians soon acquired an international reputation. But the equally distinguished philosophers associated with them have had to wait much longer. Of the two leading figures Ajdukiewicz has had only a small proportion of his work published in any of the world languages while the two main works of Kotarbinski have only recently come out in English translation, one of them after nearly forty years, the other after eleven.

Kazimierz Ajdukiewicz, who died a few years ago, is perhaps the more exact, expert, and technically ingenious of the two. But he has been less influential than his colleague Tadeusz Kotarbinski, who is now, at eighty-one, retired but by no means inactive. One reason for this is that Ajdukiewicz has not woven his numerous and penetrating applications of formal logic to central philosophical problems (about meaning, necessary truth, and the existence of abstract entities) into a unitary, systematic form, whereas Kotarbinski’s work is everywhere connected to a central, governing idea. Another reason for Kotarbinski’s pre-eminence is his remarkable qualities as a man.

IN A SERIES of articles in the 1930s Ajdukiewicz developed the outlines of a general theory of language, a kind of conventionalism which sees our conception of the world as determined by the rules through which language is endowed with meaning, rules freely selected from a set of possible alternatives. It is a more radical version of ideas familiar to English-speaking philosophers from the writings of C. I. Lewis and has an even closer affinity to the ideas of Benjamin Lee Whorf, the linguist who held that the forms of different languages could differ so fundamentally as to make translation from one to another impossible and could thus lead to entirely unconnected conceptualizations of the world. But Ajdukiewicz came to doubt the correctness of some of the main assumptions of his argument and proceeded no further with this approximation to a systematic position.

Kotarbinski’s development was in the opposite direction. Early in his career he recommended a program of what he called “minimalism” in philosophy: the study of precise problems of manageable size, in preference to the pursuit of large syntheses (a proposal much like that of a “scientific method of philosophy” made by Bertrand Russell in his Lowell lectures of 1914). But as his reflections accumulated he found, rather to his surprise, that they had a common systematic backbone. This was the theory, first called reism and later concretism, that the only true, genuinely referring names in language are the names of material bodies, whether sentient or not. According to this doctrine all the terms of ordinary and scientific discourse that purport to refer to things other than material bodies—to properties, relations, classes, mental states, social institutions, and so forth—are only apparent names, or “onomatoids.” Such apparent names are, in effect, handy abbreviations. To understand the meaning of sentences in which they occur is to be able, in principle, to translate them into the usually much more complex sentences, referring only to material bodies, of which they are abbreviations.

THE GENERAL FORMULA of reism implies three more specific doctrines: first, a radically realistic theory of perception which takes material things and not private sense-impressions to be the direct objects of the senses; secondly, a nominalist theory of logic, mathematics, and discourse about meaning; and, thirdly, a “somatist” theory of mind which holds that every statement about a conscious, experiencing subject is about a particular, specially organized kind of material thing, viz., an organic body. This is materialism, but of a new kind, semantic rather than scientific, based on the logical analysis of language and not on the findings of the natural sciences.

Since 1945 many English-speaking philosophers have come to accept conclusions that correspond to those of Kotarbinski, although, oddly enough, only as a result of having largely broken away from the logically inspired assumptions about philosophical method which he accepted. Austin and others have undermined the conviction, common to almost all theorists of knowledge since Plato, that private impressions are the immediate objects of perception. Wittgenstein and Ryle have been widely followed in their interpretation of both mental activity in general and of the apprehension of meanings in particular by the behavior, or dispositions to behavior, of embodied human beings—an approach which rejects Descartes’s dualism of the mental and the physical as well as Plato’s dualism of concrete, changing objects of sensation and abstract timeless objects of understanding. But in 1929, when Kotarbinski first rejected them in the work now translated under the unappealing title Gnosiology, the sense-datum theory of perception and a dualistic account of mind and body were almost universal assumptions of the more up-to-date British and American philosophers. Russell, Moore, and C. I. Lewis, for example, never really shook themselves free from them.

The first 385 pages of Gnosiology are a translation of the lightly revised second edition of what was originally published under the title Elements of the Theory of Knowledge, Formal Logic and Scientific Method. From the time of its publication it was the leading Polish philosophical textbook. It was well qualified for the role since the original ideas it contains are embedded, as a statistically small part, in a broad, informative, and economical treatment of the whole range of topics listed in its original title. Instead of reworking the entire text in the light of criticisms and second thoughts, Kotarbinski has added 130 pages of later essays on the controversial issues involved. The book concludes with the long, appreciative, but nevertheless thoroughly critical review that Ajdukiewicz wrote when it first came out.

IT IS NOT SURPRISING that, after forty years, the book should show some signs of wear and tear. In the Preface to the second edition Kotarbinski claims no more for it than the interest of a historical document. But that is over-modest. It remains a uniquely thorough presentation of a substantial and currently lively point of view, one whose chief supporters in the Anglo-Saxon world at present are the “Australian materialists” such as J. J. C. Smart (cf. his Philosophy and Scientific Realism). It is distinguished from comparable works in English by its tentative, conjectural character. On the whole English-speaking analytic philosophers present their views in a demonstrative, apodeictic way. They speak of proof and necessary consequences and argue by reductio ad absurdum. But it is strange that philosophers who regard physical science as the paradigm of human knowledge should adopt the expository stance of traditional abstract speculation, of Aristotle and Aquinas. Those who, like Wittgenstein and Austin, deviate from this practice express themselves with a colloquial, even chatty, inconclusiveness. Kotarbinski displays a well-founded skepticism about the mathematical finality of particular demonstrative-looking arguments in philosophy without lapsing into desultoriness and coaxing. He takes his book’s subtitle “a scientific approach to the theory of knowledge” with a proper seriousness.

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