Leszek Kolakowski, renowned philosopher, 1927-2009
Leszek Kolakowski, Professor Emeritus on the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought and in Philosophy, died July 17 in his home in Oxford, England. He was 81.
A philosopher who helped inspire the fall of communism, Kolakowski was a member of the University faculty from 1981 until his retirement in 1994.
He was a professor in Poland before he was expelled for political reasons in 1968. He was the author of 30 books on philosophy and Marxism, including a three-volume critical analysis of Marx's impact on the history of ideas.
He received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Prize in 1983. The foundation recognized him for his exhaustive, critical analysis of Karl Marx's impact on the history of ideas and for his published work, including what he had written about strife-torn Poland.
In 1983 he received the Erasmus Prize ,given annually by a Dutch foundation to recognize important cultural, social or sociological contributions to Europe. In 1986 he presented the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, the nation's highest honor for achievement in the field.
In 1992 Kolakowski received the Gordon J. Laing Award from the University of Chicago Press for his book Modernity on Endless Trial (1990). The Laing Prize honors one book each year written by a faculty member at the University and published by the Press.
"In these essays Kolakowski uses his tremendous erudition to speak, not to specialists, but to the widest possible audience concerned with the future of reason and civilized discourse," said Morris Philipson, Director of the Press, in presenting the honor.
"Many philosophers today are trying to do the same thing, but they lack Kolakowski's wit, style and, above all, his compassion born out of personal experiences with the forces of unreason. Kolakowski shows that a great philosopher can communicate successfully to the thoughtful general reader," Philipson said.
Modernity on Endless Trial is a collection of Kolakowski's essays and addresses, written between 1973 and 1986, which delve into some of the most intellectually rigorous questions of contemporary times. The writings cover the nature and limits of modernity, Christianity in the modern world, politics and ideology, and the question of the claim to knowledge of the human sciences.
In 2003 the Library of Congress awarded him a $1 million John W. Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the humanities and social sciences. In making the honor, the library noted that in the 1980s, even though he was abroad, his writings against communism became and inspiration for Solidarity, the Polish protest movement that eventually ousted the communist regime.
He was the first person to receive the award, which was established to honor accomplishments in fields not covered by the Nobel Prize, such as anthropology, history, philosophy and religion.
Kolakowski was born in Poland and received a Ph.D. at Warsaw University in 1953. He joined the faculty there and became chairman of the section of history of philosophy before being expelled.
He was visiting professor at McGill University and the University of California at Berkeley before becoming a senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, a position he continued to hold after his appointment to the Chicago faculty.
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