Contemporary philosophy is a discipline in which religion hardly figures. A subject called philosophy of religion exists and has some devoted practitioners, but in the discipline as a whole inquiry into religion is a marginal activity. No doubt many circumstances have contributed to this state of affairs, some of them lying outside philosophy, but a part of the explanation lies in the recent history of the subject.

During the last century some of the most powerful currents in the discipline allied philosophy with scientific method. For the Vienna School of Moritz Schlick and Rudolf Carnap, whose work in the early decades of the twentieth century had a formative influence in Britain and the United States, the central concerns of philosophy were in logic and the theory of knowledge. Working in the British tradition of empiricism, Bertrand Russell reached a similar conclusion at around the same time. Scientific inquiry set the standards that must be met by all branches of thought that claim to embody knowledge. By clarifying scientific method and exhibiting its rationality, philosophers could join forces with the dominant intellectual enterprise of modern times. If philosophy had a future it was as an adjunct of science.

The type of philosophy that emerged from the convergence of Viennese positivism with British logical empiricism, sometimes described as the analytical tradition, was highly restrictive in scope. Ethics and aesthetics were relegated to the periphery of the subject, if not beyond, while about religion nothing was said. In some strands of this tradition it was asserted that the only meaningful questions were those that could, in principle, be settled by scientific methods. Since metaphysical questions do not fall into this category, they were judged meaningless.

As traditionally understood, metaphysics was the study of the kinds of things that exist in the world; but this was a type of inquiry that could not be disentangled from an attempt to establish some kind of ultimate ground for judgments of value. Metaphysics and religious apologetics have never been far apart. The question Why is there something and not nothing? is an example. Ostensibly an expression of puzzlement about the existence of anything at all, it has always been linked with questions about the place of human beings in the world. These are questions of the sort religions address, and many analytical philosophers have believed that religion is like metaphysics in being beyond rational discussion. Some have conceded that questions of the kind asked by religious believers may not be literally nonsensical; but because they remain unanswerable, it has been assumed that they are unworthy of serious attention.

Against this background it has been easy to conclude that religion has no place in philosophy. This is not a view confined to the various strands of the analytical tradition. Critics of that tradition have aimed to broaden the scope of philosophy, with some arguing that it has closer affinities with literature and the arts than with logic and science. A countermovement of this kind developed in the later philosophy of Wittgenstein, who was reacting against the Viennese and the British schools that had informed his early work, while a phenomenological tradition of inquiry into the nature of Being continued to be practiced by philosophers who took their bearings from Heidegger. In each case philosophical inquiry was meant to encompass all aspects of human experience; but religious experience has rarely been given much attention, and aside from the few who devote themselves to antireligious polemics it seems tacitly agreed by most philosophers that religion is not a worthwhile subject of inquiry.
If the work of Leszek Kolakowski has a recurring theme it is that philosophy and religion have always been inseparable. Many contemporary philosophers read Plato as if he were an early contributor to logical theory. More interestingly, and doubtless also more accurately, Kolakowski understands him as a mystic. Plato’s account of an eternal realm of truth and beauty, more real than the shadowy world humans inhabit, was part of a doctrine of salvation, and to that extent of a piece with religion. As Kolakowski understands them, Plato and Ockham, Spinoza and Leibniz, Locke and Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche were all of them engaged with religious questions. Moreover, these questions have continued to inform the thinking of many philosophers who see themselves as having no interest in religion.
It is part of Kolakowski’s achievement as the greatest living intellectual historian to have tracked the ways in which religion has shaped Western thought. His work is, in effect, a sustained argument for the irreducible presence of religion in intellectual life and in society. In Kolakowski’s view the secular movements of the last century, such as communism, were not vehicles for a view of the world that owed nothing to religion. Marxists were militant in their enmity to religion, and aimed to bring about a type of human society in which it had no place; but they deployed categories of thought, including a view of history as a narrative having a consummation or end-point, which are inheritances from Western monotheism. Marxism was one of the great secularizing movements of the modern period. Yet for Kolakowski, religion was not in truth superseded, either in Marx’s thought or in the movements Marx inspired. Instead, the promise of salvation reemerged as a project of universal emancipation.


The renewal of religious categories of thinking in avowedly secular systems of ideas did not end with the dissolution of Marxism. Though Kolakowski has not commented on the fact, it continued in the ideology of neoconservatism. The notion of the end of history, which Francis Fukuyama propagated during his neoconservative phase and a version of which he appears still to hold, derives from religious traditions of apocalyptic myth. No discernible fact or trend has ever supported the belief that humanity will someday accept one type of government—communism or “democratic capitalism,” say—as alone legitimate. Presupposing as they do a teleological view of history that cannot be stated in empirical terms, all such theories are religious narratives translated into secular language.

The centrality of religion in Kolakowski’s work has not always been understood. When he first arrived in the West in 1968 he was greeted as a socialist humanist who had been driven into emigration by Stalinist repression in Poland. It was an assessment that matched most of the facts that were available at the time, but failed to take the measure of his distance from the type of secular ideology of which Marxism is an example. As became clear with Main Currents of Marxism, completed during the decade following his emigration, Kolakowski did not interpret actually existing communism as a deformation of Marx’s original vision. Rather, he believed that Marx’s ideal communist society postulates a utopian condition of harmony that violates deep-seated human traits and requires, therefore, a systematic repression of freedom. Soviet totalitarianism was a predictable result of the attempt to realize this condition.

The corollary of Kolakowski’s anti-utopian stance was an endorsement of liberal democracy as being, despite its evident flaws, the best available political system. In affirming this Kolakowski was swimming against a powerful current of academic opinion, which at the time he arrived in the West was strongly critical of liberal institutions. These were the years in which many students and much of the faculty in America and Britain joined forces against the war in Vietnam, and, in many cases, against the prevailing capitalist order. It was a time when writers such as Herbert Marcuse, who aimed to retrieve the idea of utopia from its totalitarian associations, were widely influential. Still, Kolakowski was far from being alone in his anti-utopianism. It was a position that had several other distinguished exponents—Isaiah Berlin, Raymond Aron, and Michael Oakeshott, for example—at the time.

What distinguished Kolakowski from these writers was his abiding concern with religion. His argument against Marxism was not only that communism was a utopia whose pursuit led to totalitarianism. He argued that Marx’s conception of communism was a byproduct of a tradition of mysticism going back to Plato and Plotinus, revived in Germany by Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Jakob Bohme, and given a philosophical gloss by Hegel. Most Western critics of Marx’s ideal of communism have attacked it primarily on political grounds, arguing—for example—that the abolition of markets involved too great a centralization of power. Kolakowski’s criticism, summarized in the last sentence of Main Currents, was quite different; it was explicitly religious: “The self-deification of mankind, to which Marxism gave philosophical expression, has ended in the same way as all such attempts, whether individual or collective: it has revealed itself as the farcical aspect of human bondage.”1

Kolakowski’s engagement with religion is coextensive with his work as a philosopher. It is evident in his writings on Spinoza, the subject of his first published work, which appeared in 1957. Many philosophers had interpreted Spinoza as an early Enlightenment thinker, while in Soviet bloc countries he was seen as a precursor of Marx. In contrast, in an article published in 1966, Kolakowski described Spinoza as “the mystic who cast aside God and repudiated belief in immortality,” but at the same time sought “to negate his finitude and somehow touch being itself.”2 In the years following his forced emigration Kolakowski produced books, some of them already published in Polish and others new, on subjects such as seventeenth-century Christian sects, the Devil, and the necessity of myth. Further volumes followed on Pascal and Jansenism, metaphysical horror, and similar topics. Falling somewhere between studies in intellectual history and works of metaphysical speculation, these were books of a kind few Western philosophers were writing, or could have written, at the time.


A slight and deceptively modest volume, Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? is more than a short guide to the history of philosophy. Kolakowski considers twenty-three major western philosophers—in the Polish edition there were thirty; what we have in the English edition is a selection—from Parmenides and Heraclitus, Socrates and Plato, through Augustine and Aquinas, Descartes and Spinoza, Pascal and Hume, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche to Husserl and Bergson. In each essay the key issues that engaged the philosopher are extracted and discussed, and Kolakowski poses some queries of his own to the reader. Written with a graceful simplicity that belies its profundity, this is a book that reconnects philosophy with perennial questions. It is also a book, at times sharply astringent in tone, which some readers will find engagingly provocative.

Kolakowski does not use this small volume to set out his philosophical position, but it does disclose some very definite views. There is, to begin with, the view of philosophy as being inescapably implicated in religious issues. Kolakowski is far from believing that philosophy can give grounds for religious belief. For him there is something absurd in the very idea of a rational theology. Summarizing Pascal but also stating what seems to be his own view, he writes: “Faith is not a series of propositions to which we assent intellectually, not even the proposition that God exists.” For Kolakowski philosophy is one thing, the life of faith another. If philosophy can nevertheless open a way to faith, it is by virtue of the frailties of human reason that philosophical inquiry reveals. Kolakowski’s early study of Spinoza was entitled Antinomies of Freedom in the Philosophy of Spinoza, and in much of the present volume he is engaged in uncovering contradictory tendencies in our reasoning that we—and the philosophers he examines—seem unable to resolve. Kolakowski’s strategy is to identify antinomies—principles or arguments that seem equally convincing or valid but that are contradictory. Like Kant—but also like Pascal, who as Kolakowski points out, did not see himself as a philosopher—he seems to be suggesting that the end result of philosophy is to point beyond itself: if reason ends in irresolvable paradoxes, the leap of faith no longer seems so irrational.

This is a line of thinking with a long and distinguished pedigree, going back to theologians such as Augustine and Tertullian; but it is not without its difficulties. One problem is that the limits of reason cannot privilege any particular faith. Pascal argued that reason could not decide the existence of God. Still, since we must in Pascal’s view decide one way or another, we should bet on God’s existence: if we lose we lose nothing; if we win we gain eternal happiness. Whatever our assessment of this claim, it is clear that Pascal’s wager cannot determine which deity we are to worship. One who engages in Pascal’s wager in an Islamic culture might well end up returning to the religion of Islam, and worshiping the wrong God (as Pascal would see it).

Another difficulty is that the antinomies identified by exponents of this way of thinking do not always exhaust the span of reasonable possibilities. Examining Plato, Kolakowski observes that while Plato’s “dreadful utopia” is no longer of interest, his theory of forms raises “questions that have still not been satisfactorily answered in a way that would meet with general consent,” which “can still disturb our minds’ slumbers.” Questions of this kind arise with regard to our idea of justice. Asking what is truly just and what is not seems to imply that justice is independent of human decision. People who ask this question, Kolakowski writes, “must believe that there is a meaning to existence, a meaning bestowed by God, or by gods, or by some moral constitution, upon whose verdicts we may rely.” But are we really faced with a choice between thinking that justice is an “arbitrary decree which can be established by anyone with enough power” and accepting that there is “some rule, some measure of justice,” which “lies beyond the world”?

Kolakowski is aware that there may be views of justice apart from the two he has identified—some “third possibility,” as he puts it. Yet the stark dichotomy he posits makes it hard to frame other alternatives. His discussion of Plato rests on the premise that justice must either be determined by human decision and hence arbitrary, or else by some kind of otherworldly entity. A further possibility may be found in David Hume, when he argues: “Though the rules of justice be artificial, they are not arbitrary.” (The emphasis is Hume’s.)3 As represented by Kolakowski, Hume’s philosophy was mainly negative in its results. He writes:

Hume’s work was supposed to exalt Reason and Truth; instead, the picture that emerges is of the inadequacy of human reason and the poverty of our cognition…. In the end, reason turns out to be fairly futile; and Hume’s occasional remarks about the natural order of the world, the aims of nature, God and revelation are quite contrary to the essentials of his philosophy. Thus poor reason, hardly born, committed suicide. Sad, in one so young.

That Hume was a skeptic can hardly be denied, but focusing on this aspect of his philosophy risks leaving out the other side, which was Hume’s naturalism. While it is true that he questioned the rational basis of causality and morality, at the same time he reinstated them as parts of human nature. For Hume justice was a human invention; but that did not mean that what is just could be decided by the powerful. Justice was “obvious and absolutely necessary,”4 and while tyrants might trample on its demands they could not alter or rescind them. It may be that justice contains conflicting principles that are equally persuasive; and these may be principles between which reason cannot arbitrate. But such antinomies do not mean that justice is either an illusion or some kind of Platonic entity. If we follow Hume, we will think of justice as being among the universal necessities of social life. Some measure of what is just may be part of what it means to be human.

Antinomies in our reasoning do not necessarily point beyond the human world, and even if they do it may not be toward an otherworldly realm of the kind understood in Western religion. The latter point is illustrated by the work of Schopenhauer. Kolakowski’s discussion of Schopenhuer is not notably sympathetic. He can find no sense in the arguments Schopenhauer advances against suicide, writing that they “defy understanding,” and observes that while Schopenhauer exalts the virtue of chastity, “he does not appear to have practised it much.” Like many philosophers from Augustine onward, Schopenhauer is occasionally incoherent and often failed to follow his own advice. At the same time he is a prime example of Kolakowski’s conviction that philosophy and religion are linked.

Schopenhauer rejected the central tenets of Western religion. He did not believe in any kind of personal deity, and viewed human personality itself as an illusion; he rejected the categorical distinction between humans and animals made by Christians, along with the idea that human history has an overall purpose or meaning. Yet like Kant, the philosopher he revered above all others, Schopenhauer used the antinomies of reason to defend a type of religion. Kolakowski writes that the idea that Schopenhauer developed his philosophy under the influence of his reading of Buddhist texts is “wildly implausible,” and claims that whereas “Buddhism does offer a way to some sort of deliverance,…Schopenhauer’s philosophy offers none.”

It is clear, however, that Schopenhauer was familiar with and admired Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and religion. According to a recent biography,5 Schopenhauer became aware of the Hindu Upanishads in the winter of 1813–1814, while his chief work, The World as Will and Idea (1819), and the later Parerga and Paralipomena (1851) contain many favorable references to Hindu and Buddhist texts and ideas. He deployed Kantian skepticism about the possibility of knowledge of the world as it is in itself, to argue that the world as it appears to us is an illusion—a view that has obvious parallels with aspects of Hindu and Buddhist thought. Equally, while he may not have pursued it himself, his writings do contain a conception of salvation, akin to that found in Buddhism, as a condition in which the will has been silenced, human individuality dissolved, and all suffering has ceased. This may not be salvation as envisioned in Western religious traditions; but it is a vision of salvation all the same.

In different ways all of the philosophers discussed in Kolakowski’s delightful book were engaged, wittingly or otherwise, with religious questions. It is a pity that the volume we have is an abbreviated version of the original edition. As well as being intrinsically interesting, the thinkers who have been left out—who include Meister Eckhart, Plotinus, and Heidegger—would have further illustrated Kolakowski’s reading of Western intellectual history. One does not have to be any kind of believer to think that philosophy and religion need to be reconnected. Religion has had a formative influence on our categories of thought, which it is the task of philosophy to examine. Excavating the archaeology of our concepts is a part of philosophical inquiry. For us, that inescapably involves tracing their debts to Judaism and Christianity. Any way of doing philosophy that neglects these traditions is unhistorical and impoverished.

There are some philosophers for whom the only place for religion in philosophical inquiry is that of a bogey, a specter of irrationality that must be exposed and expelled so that philosophy can be an entirely secular discipline. As Kolakowski has argued, however, a good deal of secular thought has been shaped by Western religion. Exorcising religion is harder than it seems.

Under the influence of the analytical movements of the last century, it has come to be widely accepted that questions that seem in principle unanswerable can scarcely be worth asking. Kolakowski represents a different view, the view of Pascal and Montaigne, which sees asking unanswerable questions as essential if we are to learn the limitations of human understanding. This is the modern tradition of skeptical fideism that Kolakowski continues today. Whether learning the limits of reason does lead to faith—and if so, what kind of faith—may themselves be questions that cannot be answered in any conclusive fashion. But in showing how philosophy and religion have been and should continue to be linked, Kolakowski’s work is exemplary and indispensable.

This Issue

October 9, 2008