After the iron curtain descended, what Winston Churchill in 1946 could still call the “famous cities” of Eastern Europe came to seem oriental and mysterious. East and West became different worlds, divided by military alliances, economic systems, and ideologies. Those who sought ways through and around the iron curtain had to rely on ideas that preceded and might outlast the geopolitical division, and conversations that would in the meantime seem enlightening on both sides.
The Polish thinker Krzysztof Michalski, who died on February 11 in Vienna, was one of the few who found such ways, and he became one of the architects of the Europe that emerged after the end of communism. Born in Warsaw, he devoted his life to the risky proposition that philosophical discussion, in the right setting, could bring together Poles and Germans, Eastern and Western Europeans, and eventually Europeans and Americans. He exemplified what Thomas More called philosophia civilior, or civil philosophy, which “knows its stage” and “adapts itself to the play in hand.” The stage was the Europe of ideas; the play was the cold war and its resolution. The iron curtain could be crossed and might be raised.
Michalski’s youthful vision of a common European conversation arose from the seriousness of the Continental philosophical tradition in Poland and the predicaments of scholarship under its Communist regime. In the late 1960s, when he was a student there, Warsaw University had world-class philosophers, including Leszek Kołakowski. Michalski belonged to the spectacular Polish revolutionary generation of 1968, dispersed when the Communist regime expelled many of its brightest members as “Zionists” and fired their teacher Kołakowski. Michalski remained in Poland and wrote a dissertation on Heidegger, befriending the Polish priest-phenomenologist Józef Tischner and the Czech phenomenologist Jan Patočka.
Michalski’s second book, on Husserl, brought him to West Germany, where he impressed teachers and made friends. In spring 1980, during a seminar in Dubrovnik with Hans-Georg Gadamer, Michalski had the idea of founding an institute for advanced study where Eastern European thinkers (above all dissidents) could meet Western European scholars. The point was not to reconcile official ideological divisions, but rather to reach human understanding and establish friendships as a “side effect of intellectual work on subjects of common interest.”
Michalski was anticipating, and resolving, a practical problem in the Eastern European political thought of the day. In the 1980s Eastern European dissidents defined “civil society” as the independent activity of people who ignored the oppressive Communist state and sought authentic relationships that might, by indirection, create a new sort of politics. Václav Havel and Adam Michnik spoke of “living in truth” or “living as if we were free.” The weakness of these inspiring ideas was their anarchism: civil society cannot endure without institutions, which require not just honesty but tact, not only courage but connections. Michalski had all of these. As a scholar in his thirties he managed to obtain the backing of German scholars and foundations, the city …