10 Polish Philosophers Who Changed the Way We Think
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Although Poland may be less well-known for philosophy, many Polish philosophers can be counted among the most influential thinkers in history, their ideas shaping both Polish and international consciousness. Culture.pl presents a handy list of must-know Polish philosophers, in an information-packed guide to their most important ideas and the impact they made on the world.
Andrzej Wiszowaty (1608-1678)
Few reformation movements were as radical as the Polish Brethren who openly rejected all Christian dogmas, such as the belief in the Holy Trinity (this Unitarianism earned them the name of Arians, after an early-Christian sect) or in Original Sin. Andrzej Wiszowaty was perhaps the most influential thinker among the Brethren. He argued that the only guidelines in religion should be the Bible and reason. He believed that God endowed people with everything they need in order to understand the revelation contained in the scripture and if something cannot be grasped by reason, it should not be accepted.
In the end, Wiszowaty claimed that the most important meaning of the Bible lies in its ethical teaching, which concentrated on human dignity. This led the Brethren to create a radically egalitarian society – for example, they believed that a husband and wife should form a partnership in which there would be no domination. They also openly opposed the pervasive serfdom system of their day, with many of them liberating their peasants and living with them on equal terms. As pacifists, they refused to serve in the army. All this, unsurprisingly, led to their expulsion from Poland in 1658.
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But Wiszowaty’s works were not only influential among his fellow believers. Although many of his important treatises have been lost, they were read and commented on by the most important philosophers and scientists of his era, as well as by many alternative thinkers. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz wrote a critique of Wiszowaty’s treatise against the dogma of Holy Trinity, and it is likely that Isaac Newton himself was a Unitarian – he collected the works of Wiszowaty and other Arians. Wiszowaty’s books were part of John Locke’s personal library and the philosopher shared the Polish thinker’s view on the relationship between faith and reason. During the Enlightenment era, Voltaire echoed the Arian arguments against dogmatism (and he definitely read Wiszowaty) and the Polish Brethren even managed to reach the Founding Fathers of the United States – James Madison and Thomas Jefferson attended several sermons of their friend the Unitarian preacher Joseph Priestley, who openly cited Polish Brethren as influences.
Stanisław Staszic (1755-1826)
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To say that Stanisław Staszic was an ambitious thinker would be an understatement. His most important work, Ród Ludzki (Humankind), was written in rhyming hexameter and aimed at explaining the entire breadth of history of humanity. To achieve this goal, Staszic analysed the most important events in which humankind was involved, such as the creation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Paradise, and attempted to find recurring processes and schemes.
He discovered that history was ruled by unchanging laws and mechanisms and that at its centre was human reason, which ruled over human tendency towards egoism and conflicts and inclined them to create an order of truth in the form of co-operating groups. He considered constitutional monarchy to be the greatest embodiment of this order and believed that human history will ultimately lead to the establishment of a specific goal – a world order in the form of an association of nations that would be called… the European Union!
In a way, Staszic can be considered a typical Enlightenment philosopher – he was one of the most influential popularisers of Enlightenment ideas in Poland and one can say that Ród Ludzki is a description of how humanity gradually achieved maturity. As often happens with Enlightenment thinkers, his legacy has a very practical side. He was one of the reformers involved in the creation of Poland’s first constitution and held many political functions, which helped him promote his ideas of improving the situation of peasants – Staszic was a ‘physiocrat’, meaning he believed that farming was the only possible source of wealth. He is also considered one of the fathers of the Polish education system – he co-created Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Nauk, which later became the Polish Academy of Science.
Maurycy Mochnacki (1803-1834)
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Maurycy Mochnacki’s short life was quite eventful – he got kicked out of the University of Warsaw for slapping a Russian soldier in the face, was arrested for being part of an underground pro-independence organisation, and fought in and chronicled the November Uprising. It is safe to say that Polish national interests occupied a central place in his life and the same can be said of his thought.
His familiarity with contemporary German philosophy was unmatched among Polish thinkers of his time and Mochnacki was fascinated with Schelling’s idealism. He subscribed to the idea that nature is deeply spiritual and that its spirit develops historically into more and more complex forms and manifests itself in human thought. Mochnacki argued that he and his contemporaries were living during a period where nature’s spirit was at a stage of development that centred around nations and the products of their thinking. As such, he believed literature (meaning all cultural works) to be the greatest expression of the national consciousness. Thus he argued that a typically Polish way of thinking exists, evident in the thoughts of the common people and found in a more definite form in Polish literature. What he believed was necessary for the full development of this thinking and of the Polish nation, was the creation of a Polish philosophy, in which the national spirit would find its concrete form through concepts and discourse.
Towards the end of his life, Mochnacki broadened his scope of interests and started discussing the possibility of revolution in Germany. If not for tuberculosis, perhaps he would have left us more writings which would have given his thought international importance. But despite his early death at 31, he created a theoretical foundation for the formation of a Polish national consciousness and it can be argued that without his work, the Polish Romantic bards of the 19th century would not have succeeded in shaping this consciousness. He also remains hugely influential for literary criticism, with many scholars referencing him as one of the pioneers of the field in Poland.
August Cieszkowski (1814-1894)
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August Cieszkowski did not hide the fact that his most important influence was Hegel and it is no surprise that his philosophy tends to be rather Hegelian. However, while the German philosopher believed that the culmination of history lied in the enlightened Prussian state, Cieszkowski could see things were not quite over yet. Just like Hegel, he argued that history develops logically and necessarily to a specific goal, but he saw this goal as still being in the future. He also insisted that this goal is something knowable – just as we can determine the shape of the entire skeleton on the basis of a single tooth, we should also be able to deduce the future from observation of the past and present.
Cieszkowski called his philosophy of history ‘historiosophy’. He determined that after what he called ‘the age of thought’, embodied in Hegel, there should follow ‘the age of action’ – people would no longer just pursue knowledge, but would use this knowledge to consciously shape reality and create a future deduced by historiosophy. This conscious action was supposed to synthesise all opposites and bring universal happiness in the form of God’s Kingdom on Earth – Cieszkowski’s philosophy was a form of messianism. He also believed that Poles and other Slavic nations would have the most decisive role in this process, and his work was not only speculative – he actually engaged in what can be seen as a precursor to positivist organic labour.
Cieszkowski’s influence is enormous. Without the Polish philosopher, Karl Marx would not have developed his idea of alienation and would not have called for action and consciousness to unite in revolutionary praxis. Cieszkowski is also often considered the creator of the philosophy of action and his work largely shaped not only Polish but also Russian philosophy – Alexander Herzen openly admitted that he borrowed numerous ideas from the Polish thinker.
Edward Abramowski (1868-1918)
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Every Pole and tourist visiting Poland has seen the chain grocery stores with the stylised sign ‘Społem’. But few know that this famous logo would not have been created without a philosopher – Edward Abramowski. His life and work was predominantly guided by his idea of a ‘co-operative republic’ – in his view, the state should only defend its citizens from external enemies and guarantee their right to form associations and co-operatives that should be in charge of the economy, education, the social order and other public interests.
This idea, however, was not libertarian, as Abramowski valued the social dimension of human life much more highly than any notions of personal autonomy. Additionally, he believed that all people were psychologically inclined towards solidarity and brotherhood and this inclination should help them in carrying out a ‘moral revolution’ based on a Abramowski’s idea of a Kantian free person structuring their life in accordance with an ethical ideal. To put it most accurately, his proposal was unmistakably socialist, but contrary to many socialist thinkers he believed that real change cannot be enforced by political decisions, but has to happen bottom-up – people should freely decide to co-operate in more and more areas of their life and consciously shape society through voluntary associations. As such, he opposed the authority of partitioning countries and argued that only the rebirth of Poland can bring about the ‘co-operative republic’.
Although Abramowski died few months before the regaining of independence and did not see his ideal fulfilled, he nonetheless remained influential. His work was not merely conceptual – Abramowski actually engaged in putting his ideas into practice by teaching people how to create co-operatives and helping them develop economic independence. Among the members of his Co-operative Society founded in 1906 (which also published a periodical called Społem, meaning ‘Together’, that introduced the famous logo) were Stanisław Wojciechowski, who later became the President of Poland, and Władysław Grabski, later Poland’s Prime Minister and Minister of the Treasury. Abramowski also inspired the ‘Solidarity’ movement, which, according to many scholars, perfectly embodied his ideals of self-government, co-operation and non-violent social change, or even, a ‘moral revolution’. His work is also often discussed by left-wing politicians and activists both in Poland and abroad, and it is likely that his co-operative, peaceful socialism will continue to grow in popularity.
Florian Znaniecki (1882-1958)
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Although culture had been an object of philosophical investigation since antiquity, the philosophy of culture, understood as a separate discipline, is a field that many scholars trace back to the turn of the 20th century. This makes Florian Znaniecki one of its pioneers.
In his thought, he divided reality into two parts – things and values. While he largely left the first part of reality to science, which was occupied with analysing phenomena and looking for unchangeable laws, he considered how we value things to be of utmost importance for philosophy. By values, Znaniecki, did not mean the purely subjective associations we attach to certain things, but the sphere of culture. He believed that people act to objectify certain values (important to them personally as well as to the community) in the products of their creative work. As such, he considered values to be the goal of human activity and made the analysis of these values and activity that turns them into objects – in short, the activity of creating culture – his main task.
And while his philosophical contributions are very important, Znaniecki is perhaps best known for how his philosophy of culture informed his approach in sociology. His method was groundbreaking for this freshly established field – he believed that social events are either actual or potential objects of somebody’s activity and, as such, they should be analysed on the basis of their importance for the acting subjects. He argued that sociology should focus on analysing the products of culture – the embodiments of values expressed by the members of the society – and was one of the first sociologists to study autobiographies, journals and letters. Thanks to his contributions, Znaniecki is considered one of the most important sociologists of all time – he founded the highly influential domain of humanistic sociology and his works and methods are still used and discussed by contemporary social scientists.
Roman Ingarden (1893-1970)
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Edmund Husserl thought that Roman Ingarden was one of his best students, but Ingarden was not content with just praise – his importance actually lies in his turn against his master. Both were phenomenologists in that they concentrated on examining the ways in which we experience our ‘life-world’, but Ingarden was sceptical of Husserl’s apparent claim that it is impossible to determine whether something actually exists outside of the consciousness.
The Polish philosopher believed that we should look into our various experiences of different objects to establish the essential meanings and characteristics of these experiences and objects. As such, Ingarden believed we should not only ask what exists but also how and in what way it exists – this led him to contribute to a broad range of subjects.
Although his body of work is fascinating, the lack of translations from Polish made him most famous for his aesthetic theory, since he mostly wrote about it in German. The Literary Work of Art is perhaps his most well-known book. In it, he used the method discussed above to ask the question of how literary works actually exist. He determined that they can be neither real objects (because two copies of Hamlet are the same work) nor ideal in the Platonic sense (this would make creating and changing them impossible). As such, they must be a ‘purely intentional formation’ that depends on the ideas of the author, on the public availability of their copies, and on the relationships between meanings attached to the text. He also proposed a hierarchical structure of literary works – this structure starts with individual sounds and letters and moves upwards, through words and phrases, to characters, events and places. As such, the fact that there are many conflicting interpretations of literature does not mean that some are wrong or that interpreting is purely subjective – the readers might simply refer to different parts of the structure.
Ingarden’s ideas were revolutionary for 20th-century literary theory and influenced some of its most important movements, such as New Criticism and Reader Response Theory. Reading became fundamentally different after Ingarden – while the contents of a book and the intentions of the author remain relevant in our interpretations, he shifted the perspective and made the reader, their experience of the book and what they are able to distinguish from its structure assume the central spot.
Alfred Tarski (1901-1983)
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Being able to say what is true is a great accomplishment for any philosopher. Although Alfred Tarski did not give us a complete list of true statements, he created a concept of truth that avoids the so-called liar’s paradox, a problem that has troubled philosophy since antiquity. Imagine me saying: I am lying. If you assume that what I am saying is true, then that means I am lying, so it cannot be true. Then of course you should assume that my statement is not true. But this means I am not lying that I am lying!
There are many other formulations of this paradox and Tarski observed that they all depend on our language being self-referential. He proposed that truth should be expressed only in a meta-language that is on a higher level than the language it describes. While the meta-language can refer to its object language, the reverse does not apply. Following Tarski, we can say that the statement ‘I am lying’ is true if and only if I am lying (notice that the part in quotation marks refers to the statement itself and the other part, expressed in metalanguage, to the actual state of affairs). If I am lying, then this statement is true. If I am not lying then it is false. There is no paradox, because the object language does not influence meta-language.
Tarski’s meta-language made it possible to develop the science of semantics and it was also extremely important for computer science, logic and mathematics. But Tarski was not a one-hit wonder – his numerous contributions made him one of the most important logicians of all time. He taught at UC Berkeley during his later life, but he started his career in Warsaw where he became part of the Lviv-Warsaw School, a highly influential group of philosophers that also included, among others, Kazimierz Twardowski, Jan Łukasiewicz, Stanisław Leśniewski, Tadeusz Kotarbiński, Kazimierz Ajdukiewicz and Izydora Dąmbska. Their contributions to philosophy are counted among the most important in the 20th century and are discussed worldwide, while many lecturers and students of the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Warsaw still continue working on their ideas.
Leszek Kołakowski (1927-2009)
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Doing philosophy in the 1950s and 1960s Poland was not an easy task. On the one hand, the communist regime was very clear in pointing out that it considered the official doctrine of ‘scientific Marxism’ to be the only correct line of thinking. On the other hand, the tradition of the Lviv-Warsaw School that occupied itself with objective and empirical knowledge remained very strong. In this intellectual climate, a group of philosophers that included Leszek Kołakowski, Bronisław Baczko and Andrzej Walicki developed a novel approach that largely grew from their disillusionment with Marxism.
What is today called the Warsaw School of the History of Ideas wanted to analyse philosophical ideas from a point of view that would examine their development through history and relationship with other spheres of culture instead of labelling them simply as true or false. As such, their style of philosophy was interdisciplinary, comparative, historical and historicist – their analyses substituted the question of ‘Is it true?’ with ‘How and why did it come to be?’.
This approach should mean there is no surprise then that Kołakowski, arguably the school’s greatest representative, tackled a wide variety of subjects in his work. His critique of Marxism (which resulted in him being forced to leave Poland) and his later work on ethics, responsibility and the role of myth and religion in contemporary societies entrenched his position as a moral authority – he was especially important for the Solidarity movement as well as for the society that tried to find its way in the new democratic reality.
Although his influence in the academia is unquestionable (he worked at the University of Oxford and published numerous well-received books), he is perhaps most widely recognised as a great populariser of philosophy. Over the course of his career, he encouraged people to ask questions, even the most banal ones, and promoted the figure of a jester in philosophy – somebody who is not afraid to challenge even our strongest assumptions and maintains a healthy distance towards everything. His TV appearances in which he discussed such varied topics as God, freedom, laughter and boredom (later published in book-form as Mini-Lectures on Maxi-Issues), as well as his philosophical tales, introduced Poles of different backgrounds and ages to discussions of fundamental philosophical problems.
Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017)
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While Zygmunt Bauman was a professor of sociology, his thought is deeply philosophical and it is difficult to find an academic philosopher who has not read his works. Although some people in Poland find him controversial due to his early adult years as a communist soldier, his later theoretical contributions cannot be overstated.
Bauman is perhaps best known for his study of contemporary societies and globalisation. While many scholars believe that modernity is over and we now live in a post-modern era, Bauman argued that modernising tendencies are still present in our societies and that what we observe can be understood as a continuation of modernity. However, in his view, as a result of social and technological changes, modernity became ‘liquid’. Whereas before everything had, ideally, its proper place in a strictly-defined order (guided by reason), today’s societies are more fluid.
Bauman claimed that people living in ‘liquid modernity’ resemble tourists or strangers who are never at home – they constantly move to other places. They change spouses, find new jobs, adopt new political positions and change their systems of values. In some ways, this is liberating – we are no longer tied to earlier ways of life and are able to pursue directions that were previously unimaginable. But such ‘liquidity’ also washes away any sense of rootedness we might previously have had and replaces familiar structures with a sense of unease, uncertainty and ambivalence. Whereas ‘solid’ modernity aimed at removing personal insecurities by exerting control over nature and introducing hierarchies and rules, it led to the ‘liquid’ modernity that appears to introduce us to a new state of insecurity.
Bauman’s analyses made him one of the most quoted contemporary Polish scholars and it is becoming more and more difficult to discuss and study contemporary philosophy, sociology and culture without referring to his ideas.
Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855)
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As a bonus to our list, we’ve added two unconventional figures that would be more considered ‘thought leaders’ in modern parlance, rather than philosophers. For starters, not many people think of Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish national bard, as a philosopher, but he was actually an interesting and provocative thinker. That being said, he was openly hostile to academic philosophy, accusing it of having a rationalist and contemplative character.
When he lived in Paris, he would give lectures in which he presented a deeply spiritual messianist philosophical system that centred around the idea that Poland, as a nation, occupied a special position in the history of humanity – it was supposed to lead to the salvation of humanity. All this was possible thanks to the ultimate sacrifice Poland made when it disappeared from the map as a result of being partitioned by Austria, Prussia and Russia. To put it simply, Mickiewicz believed that Poland was the Messiah that would help humanity in its work towards absolute happiness.
But this system had a problem: if all of humanity was taking part in this work, then why should only some live to see it completed? This unfair situation led Mickiewicz to believe in reincarnation – if all the people who contributed to the process are in fact born again and again, it means that they will eventually be able to see the happiness they helped to create.
Mikołaj Kopernik (1473-1543)
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Yes, we know, Mikołaj Kopernik, or as he’s more commonly known Nicholaus Copernicus, was an astronomer, not a philosopher! But in fact, his method did not lie that far from philosophy, and it can be argued that it was, in fact, philosophical.
There is no dispute that Copernicus ‘stopped the Sun and moved the Earth’, but he actually did that at the conceptual level – it was only Galileo, who, thanks to his telescope, made the observations necessary to confirm Copernicus’s model. The Polish astronomer closely followed the method of scholastic philosophy and his operations were made at the level of reason and not of the senses. This is why Immanuel Kant called his own paradigmatic breakthrough ‘a Copernican Revolution’. He not only believed that his model was as innovative to philosophy as Copernicus’s was to astronomy, but he also recognised that the methods they used were not that different.
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