Metaphysical Horror

by Leszek Kołakowski, 1988,
revised edition edited by Agnieszka Kołakowska,
University of Chicago Press, 2001

Philosophy, and in particular metaphysics, has been killed off again and again, day after day, the deed done by a variety of assassins: eighteenth-century empiricists, Hegel, Marx, positivists of every hue, Wittgenstein, and so on. But behold, after all these massacres the poor thing rises from the grave, oblivious to the fact that it is supposed to be dead, and starts walking. Where it is going it admittedly does not know, and nor does anyone else, but that is a different question.

Leszek Kołakowski, "Our Merry Apocalypse," Is God Happy? Selected Essays, Basic Books, 2013, p.318

No, we can neither expect nor demand respect for the law just because it has been promulgated, regardless of its content. What matters is not respect for this or that (often accidental) decision of the majority in a parliament or of a judge. Rather, what matters is respect for the moral law, which may or may not coincide with the positive law and which involves the legally irrelevant distinction between good and evil.

Leszek Kołakowski, "Crime and Punishment," ibid., p.236

Thus it is wrong to say that the content of the divine commandments is the result of the Creator's whim, and equally wrong to say that the Creator is subject to external laws, ready-made rules that exist independently of Him which it is not in His power to invalidate. The first would question God's infinite wisdom, the second His omnipotence.

Leszek Kołakowski, "On Natural Law," ibid., p.245-246

Leszek Kołakowski (1927-2009), teaching philosophy in Poland, after taking his doctorate in 1953, was dismissed in 1968, when his thought turned against orthodox Marxism. He then left the country. Visiting at many universities in the West, he settled professionally at the University of Chicago and Oxford, until retiring in 1995. His critique of Marxism was thus based on a close knowledge of Marxism as it was actually taught in the Soviet Block and on personal experience of Communism as it was actually applied, conducted, and lived by people in Eastern Europe under Soviet domination. So when Kołakowski speaks of the Communist slave state, he knows whereof he speaks, unlike the "useful idiot" leftists in the West.

Metaphysical Horror is a book of metaphysics. This is something about as rare in recent Western philosophy as Alfred North Whitehead, who may almost have been the last person (apart from Thomists and Aristotelians) to engage in it as unapologetically as Leszek Kołakowski. And Kołakowski looks to have been better informed about the history of philosophy than Whitehead, who I suspect, like many of his generation, may have known next to nothing about Neoplatonism and its long history of influence in the Middle Ages, and later. Also, Metaphysical Horror deals largely with the branch of metaphysics called natural theology, and thus is doubly sinful since few 20th century philosophers (apart from Whitehead, subsequent "Process" philosophers, the Thomists, and Aristotelians, again) took anything about God seriously. Such a topic, and the broad historical background, is something that Kołakowski had to have investigated on his own, since neither the Marxist subject matter of his own education and the analytic milieu in which he found himself in the West would have had anything to do with it. Since he does quote Latin a lot, perhaps we see him corrupted (from Communism and atheism) by the Polish Catholic Church.

But we do find some weaknesses in Kołakowski's treatment. It was probably his Marxist background that left him with a more than warranted regard for Hegel. So Kołakowski is weak on the Kantian critique of metaphysics, and is not always accurate on basics of Kantian doctrine. In this, he is comparable to Roger Scruton, who has far less excuse. Also, where Scruton uses his analysis in the service of Wittgenstein, with Kołakowski, from whom I have a epigraph (q.v.) directly critical of such philosophy, we are preserved from many such errors. However, as we shall see, Kołakowski himself is not entirely free of the baleful influence of Wittgenstein.

Despite insufficient use of Kant's principles, Kołakowski nevertheless provides us with an excellent and useful exercise in mapping the metaphysical problems he addresses onto Kantian and Friesian critique. Most importantly this involves the "metaphysical horror" referenced in the title of the book. He means something specific by this, as we see here:

And since the Absolute, like Time, its defeated but living foe, cannot be conceptually reduced to anything else, its name, if there is one, is Nothing. So Nothing rescues another Nothing from Nothingness.

This is the horror metaphysicus. [pp.57-58]

This goes back to the previously discussed background in the chapter, "Damascius and Two Kinds of Nothingness." The Neoplatonist Damascius was the last Scholarch of the Academy, and Kołakowski makes extensive use of his theory:

Damascius restates his doctrine of two kinds of Nothing in several places... There is a Nothing that is the first; it lies above everything, including the One and Being. And there is a Nothing that is the lowest, the last and the worst; it lies below matter (which later seems to retain a shadow of being). [p.50]

At one end, the general drift of Kołakowski's analysis is that concepts of God, or the Absolute, as "ineffable" mean that there is less and less that belongs to the object, until there is nothing at all, certainly nothing of the personal God of actual religions, but even nothing in terms of predicates like "One" for the Neoplatonic Absolute. So he ends up with a key quote from Hegel:

It may safely be said that Damascius, in the laboriously constructed chaos of his work, arrived at an idea which was subsequently summed up by Hegel in the following short sentence: 'Pure Being and pure non-Being are the same.' [pp.51-52]

This famous equivalence by Hegel is, of course, quite false. And it can be exposed with the simple observation that "non-Being" is a concept less abstract than "Being," just because it contains a negation, which is an extra feature and predicate. The only way we can discount the presence of the negation is to misconceive it, as Hegel certainly does, especially in the terms that somehow the positive concept implies its negation -- something that, if we took it seriously, would totally destroy the meaning of all discourse, as Aristotle already clearly understood. This is a long-standing criticism of Hegel that Hegelians ignore in favor of all the other obscurantist glories of the system, whatever they are.

But here there is a serious error that a bit of Kantian perspective would have corrected; for the tangle of Nothings that swallows Damascius and Kołakowski is just the sort of Antinomy that Kant identified as characteristic of the "Dialectical Illusion" of speculative metaphysics. There is no de re nothingness there -- just the limitation of human cognition that leaves a gap in our knowledge but not some sort of hollow at the root of reality.

Yet the "two kinds of nothingness" find a startling echo in a feature of Kantian and Friesian metaphysics. Kantian things in themselves exist both internally and externally. I am a thing in myself, which explains my connection to the Reason that dictates the transcendent and unconditioned necessity of the Moral Law, revealing a feature of reality that is invisible in the phenomenal world. Hegel, of course, collapsed fact and value into the vicious judicial positivism of his ethics, jurisprudence, and politics. At his best, Kołakowski is aware of this problem, as we see in the second epigraph above.

With some help from Husserl and Phenomenology, the New Kant-Friesian Metaphysics sharpens Kant's analysis with the theory of Negative Transcendence. The two Nothings of Damascius now appear in the internal and external faces of Negative Transcendence, which is actually the privation of the phenomenal world present to us. A version of the emptiness of internal transcendence is Sartre's treatment of the "translucence," I would say "transparency," of the ego [Jean-Paul Sartre, The Transcendence of the Ego, Noonday Press, New York, 1971, p.42] -- "transparent" because we are looking right through it, which in part translates into the empty space that lies between us and external objects, even though there is nothing about that physical space that is not constructed by the operation of the brain on the two dimensional images on the retina -- there is no space between the images and the retina onto which they are projected. On the other side, the emptiness of external transcendence is evident in Husserl's move of the Pyrrhonian ἐποχή, epochê, or "bracketing" from our consideration of phenomena. However, what enables Husserl to get away with doing that? Well, with Heidegger's (!) distinctions, the εἶναι, eînai, Being, adds no material content to the ὄντα, ónta, the beings, of experience -- and this is echoed in the principle retained in Analytic philosophy that "existence is not a predicate" (although they absurdly make it a quantifer).

In Hegel, of course, there exists only the phenomena, which are also Mind (Geist, Spirit). But Kant says "representation in itself does not produce its object in so far as existence is concerned," Vorstellung an sich selbst... ihren Gegenstand dem Dasein nach nicht hervorbringt [Critique of Pure Reason, §14, A92, B124-125, Norman Kemp Smith, St. Martin's Press, 1929, 1965, p.125; German text, Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1, Herausgaben von Wilhelm Weischedel, Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft, Erste Auflage, 1974, 1956, 1995, p.131]. If Kant is wrong, the result is simply a kind of solipsism -- with Hegel's Absolute Spirit, a sort of Oversoul, as something that nevertheless is affirmed as existing.

Positive transcendence, in turn, is what Heidegger would have called the "truth, ἀλήθεια, of being." It turns out that Being, as it is hidden, invisible, or "bracketable" as Negative Transcendence, is simply the dimension of Value, Ἀξία, that appears in the phenomenal world. So Being is the Good, Ἀγαθός, as discussed in the "Lecture on the Good." This would not be a surprising assertion in the Neoplatonic metaphysics that is discussed by Leszek Kołakowski. The difference is that we are not talking about the theoretical construction of a transcendent object. That is not possible in a Kantian metaphysic. Instead, the "good" means the goodness that we find in all good things -- very much as a kind of shadow of the transcendent (using Plato's language), as Kant himself thought of the Moral Law. There may be a Platonic Form of the Good behind all that, or an Absolute, or Brahman, or the God of Abraham and Isaac, or the Tao, but the nature of this is not open to our theoretical inspection or coherent reconstruction.

The horror metaphysicus evaporates. It is replaced by moral, not metaphysical, demands. If this is mistaken for Hegel's positivism, we need only remember, with Hume, that matters of fact do not establish matters of value. The practice of the courts, or the laws, cannot define what is right and just, except in terms of the force exerted by the State. As Kołakowski says himself, "What matters is respect for the moral law."

Kołakowski cannot achieve the best result because, as I have said, his thought involves a little too much Hegel and too little Kant. We can see the problem in this quote:

For if the presence of the [scientific] observer is an irremovable factor in the description of some physical events, this does not necessarily imply that the observer is a Kantian intellect imposing a priori forms on the shapeless stuff of perception; rather, the observer is an intellect that discovers its own patterns in reality as it 'really' is, and can reveal them because reality is mind-like. [p.76]

But the "Kantian intellect" does not impose "a priori forms on the shapeless stuff of perception." The "stuff of perception" cannot possibly be "shapeless," or the categories of synthesis could be applied in any way that we like. If anything, this is what we can expect from Wittgenstein or Benjamin Lee Whorf, but Kołakowski pastes it onto the philosopher among them to whom it does not apply. Indeed, Kant's theory is precisely the one where "the observer is an intellect that discovers its own patterns in reality as it 'really' is, and can reveal them because reality is mind-like." So the question is then how reality is itself "mind-like"; but the dual nature of representation, that phenomena are mental contents as well as "empirically real" objects, easily takes care of this in Kantian philosophy. Indeed, noting that Kołakowski's remark begins with the reference to the "mind-like" nature of "physical events" in Quantum Mechanics, this dimension of the matter is something to explore in what is presented in these pages as Kantian Quantum Mechanics.

For all the hopelessness of the horror metaphysicus, Kołakowski knows that the God of Abraham and Isaac is not a God of Nothingness, ineffability, and remote inactivity. The latter is the kind of God that philosophers tend to come up with, as in Spinoza, or even in Vedânta. Thus, Kołakowski effectively undoes much of the metaphysics he has discussed with the following observations:

But we do not seem to get into this kind of trouble when we try to reconcile it [i.e. God's creativity] with the Bible [instead of with Christian Neoplatonic or Aristotelian orthodoxy]. The God of the Bible is affected by all the emotions:  he can be angry at His subjects and frustrated by their wayward behaviour. But He loves them, and can also rejoice when (on rare occasions) they display kindness and obedience. He is a god of love, and also a person like us.

The standard comment of theologians (emphatically and repeatedly made by Maimonides in his Guide of the Perplexed) is that the language of Scripture is 'anthropomorphic' because it has been adjusted to the meagre capacity of our minds, which are unable to grasp the hidden metaphysical message. This would be more persuasive if they -- the theologians, or at least some of them -- did not also claim to have a dictionary with the aid of which the divine Word, as it stands, can be translated into the proper, exact idiom of their science. Not only do they claim to understand more fully what God really wanted to tell us, they claim to be able to explain the incongruity between myth and philosophy, implying both that the myth is a philosophical doctrine and that this doctrine is real, or at least that it is the most important meaning of Holy Writ (assuming that we distinguish between its literal, allegorical, moral and metaphysical meanings). And this is very difficult to accept, for both historical and epistemological reasons. Myths are not 'really' theories. They are not translatable into some non-mythical language that is supposedly better at conveying their genuine concern to us. [p.94]

Headed in the right direction, Kołakowski nevertheless errs with what we could call a "category mistake." Holy Writ, in the theological context, is not "myth." It is Revelation; and Revelation, although it can share some characteristics of myth, also contains much that does not conform to the features of mythology at all -- after all, the Books of Moses are called the "Law," , Tôrâh, not the "edifying tale," however edifying the tales therein are expected to be. All of the Neoplatonists considered by Kołakowski, Ancient, Mediaeval, and Modern, or Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, have this approach that their philosophical theories are the literal truth, while what is seen in Scripture is something fantastic whipped up for the sake of the masses who haven't the wit to understand literal philosophy. To the philosophers, Holy Writ is "myth," and Revelation as a direct message from God actually doesn't exist. So Kołakowski has been somewhat corrupted by these philosophers, even as he realizes that it denatures "myth" to think that it is "translatable into some non-mythical language."

Again, the way out of this is a Kantian theory, although we have the considerable impediment that Kant was too much of a rationalist to take Revelation seriously himself. There is neither an angry God nor a loving God in Kant's philosophy of religion, and certainly not a God who would pick the Jews as the "Chosen People." While Fries qualifies the moralism of Kant's theory, there really is no conceptual space for Revelation until Rudolf Otto, and even with him we might wonder how far he goes in tracing the character of a religion to its scriptures. I suspect that miracles may have been as challenging to Otto as to any philosophical rationalist. With Kant and Fries, certainly, it is not clear that they are really even Christians, in the sense that the death of Christ redeems in the sins of the world, and the resurrection of Christ fulfills the promise of eternal life. These are things that the modern, clever Christian no longer deigns to believe.

What this all adds up to in Kołakowski is muddled, not just by Hegel, but by too much influence from Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and deconstructionists. We also see where he continues to miss points in Kant. Correctly observing that "the enfeebling of metaphysical faith and of religious worship" is linked to "the gradual disappearance of the very notions of good and evil" [p.101], Kołakowski prefers a mystical "acquaintance with Being" to the rationalism of Kant's "practical reason" [p.102]. However, this preference is not based on an evaluation of Kant's Categorical Imperative as insufficient for moral judgment, as I have argued elsewhere, and it jumps over what would have been provided by Friesian non-intuitive immediate knowledge to this "acquaintance with Being," which must be construed in intuitive forms. Thus, "existence as a primordial, irreducible act" is "supposedly given in an intellectual intuition of the Absolute..." [pp.102-103]. Since "intellectual intuition" in Kant only belongs to God, because it produces the existence of its object, Kołakowski has here fallen into the error of the Idealists -- who see "intellectual intuition" as just as passive and receptive as Kant's "sensible" intuition -- unless we accept that, as the Absolute ourselves, we ourselves think the world into existence, which is something a Neoplatonist could get behind. This again falls into the tangle of speculative metaphysics, which is really what Kołakoski's horror metaphysicus amounts to. And we must see confusion in his use of expressions like "metaphysical faith," since, although faith may be about transcendent objects, metaphysics is something else, a philosophical discipline, that is easily and entirely superfluous to religion. Indeed, such a discipline in its own terms has never had much interest in "religious worship," which is a form of "empty" ritual and is directed at a self-sufficient Being who stands in no need of worship from the likes of us. The very idea that worship and prayer may solicit benefits for us is then beyond offense.

Since, like Kołakowski, I also think that elements of Descartes, Husserl, Heidegger, etc. have some contribution to make, I can only see him as someone whom I keep passing in a dark room, with us headed in different directions, using some of the same paths. The difference, of course, is that I see Hegel as pretty worthless, Kant's contribution as neglected, and people like the despicable Martin Heidegger as moral lepers whose failures, revealing of the deficiencies in their thought, cannot be overlooked.

Kołakowski's way out of his muddle and "horror" is through "possible languages," where we see the influence of Wittgenstein and others, which commits the fallacy identified by Jerrold Katz of confusing language and theory, and where he resorts to saying, "a philosophy becomes intelligible through a kind of initiation which is not preceded by an act of intellectual understanding" [p.108]. He falls into a relativism of "language":

There is no all-encompassing language; and there are as many possible languages as there are possible angles from which Being and Nothingness can be observed -- in other words, indefinitely many. And there is no angle that opens up all perspectives simultaneously, unless it coincides with the divine eye. [p.109]

Now I think that something about this is a true as a matter of religion and transcendent objects. These things cannot be resolved, in Kantian terms, because they generate Antinomies. In the third epigraph above, we see that Kołakowski is really not unaware of this phenomenon. If we expect God to be both absolutely free and absolutely good, these requirements cannot be fulfilled without contradiction. Yet, far from something like this producing different "languages," the challenge is that they can, must, and do exist in the same language of religious faith -- where God is both good and free. As in the epigraph above, there is some recognition of this in Kołakowski. But Kołakowski does not see the Kantian avenue of an encompassing meta-language, where we can acknowledge the contradictions among transcendent objects but rule them out in the phenomenal world. Indeed, he says:

Sometimes we can shift from one angle to another without forgetting what we saw before, and then we can perceive the truth of several metaphysical perspectives which collide with one another when reduced to a supposedly common language. [p.109]

The essence of Antinomies is that they may be required to coexist while they "collide" within a "common language," like the dogma of the Catholic Church. In other places, there may be a simplification, as when Islamic theology systematizes the omnipotence of God into a denial of free will, God's rationality, and even God's goodness. Will overcomes everything else, as , Allâhu yafʿalu mâ yashâʾu, "God does what he wishes" [Qur'ân 3:40; facit Deus quod vult]. Yet Islam, where it denies free will, falls into the difficulty that sinners will nevertheless be held responsible for their actions. The gymnastics required for this to make any sense are intriguing.

But this does not mean, as Kołakowski says, "all metaphysical positions are equally good" [p.111]. For, as long as metaphysics does not attempt a theory of transcendent objects, we can expect truth to be One and for bad theories to be corrected. But Kołakowski really does not distinguish between the metaphysics that generates Antinomies and the more modest (Kantian) version that, with morality, does not; and Metaphysical Horror finishes with consideration of "incommensurable paradigms" and with confusion of this with areas where consistency and clarity are possible.

As long as people dwell in a relatively stable and mythologically ordered universe, both the meaning of current events and the unity of the world, vaulted by the history of creation, are clear and immune from scrutiny. The order is both physical and moral, and thus there is no room for the question of how to distinguish between the real and the unreal, or between good and evil. The original sin of philosophy (or of the Enlightenment) was to forsake this order and construct another one, rooted in Reason alone. This amounted to an attempt by man to usurp divine privileges for himself -- to build a tower that would reach to heaven. [p.119]

As a philosophical project, we should say that this all began with Socrates. So that is the original sin, if it is one. But the idea that a "relatively stable and mythologically ordered universe" would just continue in the absence of philosophy is not true, as we see where religions challenge each other, both in the relatively peaceful coup by which Christianity overthrew the gods of Greece and Rome and in the violence of the Arab Conquest, where Islam imposed itself on lands from the Atlantic to the Altai Mountains. But the project of Socrates was actually about people's actions, not about metaphysics, and his critique of Greek religion was moral, not metaphysical. He was not building a tower to heaven -- conceding always that the gods were better and wiser than us -- but he did assume certain principles that may or may not have been entirely consistent with the underlying principles, such as they were, of Greek religion. Indeed, we must see Socrates as part of a purely religious evolution by which the pessimism of the Homeric gods was replaced with the optimism of the mystery cults, as at Eleusis. But if we cannot distinguish right from wrong by reason, we are in trouble. Not to worry, Revelation comes to the rescue:

[Romans 2:14] For when gentiles [ἔθνη] who have not the law [τὰ μὴ νόμον ἔχοντα] do [ποιῶσιν] by nature [φύσει] what is of the law [τὰ τοῦ νόμου], even though they do not have the law, they are a law to themselves. [2:15] They show that the work of the law [τὸ ἔργον τοῦ νόμου; Sanskrit , karmadharmasya] is written [γραπτόν] in their hearts [ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις αὐτῶν].

If, that is, we regard St. Paul as Revelation. Kołakowski does not mention "natural law," but St. Paul here is the basis of such thinking from Aquinas, to Locke, to Jefferson. If there is a "moral order" that can be rooted in "Reason alone," as these authorities of religion (not including Locke and Jefferson) affirm, then, not only can disputes be resolved in the courtroom, but in principle they can be resolved in International Law, before the trials of the battlefield -- which may nevertheless be necessary, as not all parties will abandon the "ordered universe" familiar to them. In these terms, the "original sin" is not the philosophical project itself, but the determination of some, or many, including Germans like Heidegger, to reject the mediation of reason -- to the great sorrow and loss of Poles like Leszek Kołakowski, who grew up in a country decapitated by the Germans, enslaved by the Russians, and betrayed by their own Quislings.

So Kołakowski may have gotten the moral of the story quite backwards:

So far, the story of the disaster of Babel, at least in its ostensible sense, can be said to have been borne out: the confusion of tongues in philosophy is punishment for our invention of philosophy, or the revenge of myth on the Enlightenment, for the latter's arrogant attempt to demolish the former. [p.121]

Philosophy as "sin" warranting "punishment" is a Wittgensteinian sentiment. But perhaps Kołakowski has forgotten that the hope of someone like Descartes in Reason was set against the background of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which took up the majority of his lifetime, where the conflict cannot be blamed on philosophy, but plays out against the clash of one religious intuition, that of the Protestants, against another, the Catholics. That this could be exploited by the French, and others, for cynical, merely political advantage can hardly be blamed on philosophy either -- the Diadochi were at it centuries earlier. The "disaster of Babel" was thus a practical one of religious interest, and bloodshed, not an original failure of Reason, and Existential Angst. And it was well before the Enlightenment. We see the same thing today, as Islamic Fascism murders, rapes, and enslaves, all with the confident invocation of Islamic Law, not Reason. Few Jihadists will even have heard of the Enlightenment.

The rightful claim to exclusive ownership inevitably results in many equally valid but untranslatable languages, since there is no Supreme Court to declare any one claim more justified than any other. So the horror metaphysicus, and the spectre of never-ending uncertainty, are bound to appear. [p.121]

Since Kołakowski uses the language of law and property here, we are reminded that "never-ending uncertainty" is something that does not survive in the courtroom. But where questions are decided by an actual Surpreme Court, controversy can continue nevertheless, both in terms of religious principles, but also in terms of the rationality of the decisions. The Court of United States v. Carolene Products Co. (1938) that invented the difference between "fundamental rights," such as are found in the Bill of Rights, and all the rest (which Courts can then compromise, belittle, or ignore), not only can be criticized for the non-existence in previous Constitutional law for such a distinction, but simply for the incoherence of the holding itself, since the Ninth Amendment -- an actual part of the Bill of Rights -- affirms that "The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." Carolene Products itself "disparages" all other rights "retained by the people."

Revolutions have started for less, but the dishonesty, evil, and injustice of Carolene Products survives today (2016), and it is really not even a matter of political controversy. Reason and the Enlightenment cannot be blamed for this -- we find the explanation in the economics and psychology of rent seeking. But its very existence is a reproach to the rationality of an educated public, and of the honesty of all American jurisprudence. We could say it is the result of people not taking the Constitution seriously enough, if it were not the case that the overwhelming majority of academic American philosophers and law professors probably have no problem with Carolene Products, which is consistent with their own faith in the power, efficacy, and authority of government -- something that violates every principle upon which the Constitution was constructed -- Enlightenment principles, as it happens. Instead, this corruption is due to the Romanticist influence of people like Hegel, whom Kołakowski softly promotes, rather than the Enlightenment heritage of Kant, whom Kołakowski doesn't seem to entirely understand.

Koakowski's final section ("Reading the World") is on meaning, for which his metaphysical and epistemological reflections are completely hopeless resources. Hegel lands a final blow:

To be 'meaningful' is to be part of, or to be describable in terms of, this ["the whole of our exclusively human spiritual"] reality, which Hegel was probably the first to identify as a separate realm of being. [p.124]

I see no grounds for such an identification in Hegel. Indeed, there is nothing about the system of Geist that is "exclusively human" at all. It is all the cosmic and absolute Dialectic of Reason. The idea that this might actually be restricted to human beings becomes a sourse of belated and misdirected criticism in Robert Solomon, whose tendencies are as relativistic as we begin to worry is the case with Kołakowski. As for a "separate realm of being" as the basis of meaning, Plato certainly has something of the sort long before Hegel, and in Hegel there is nothing of the sort of dualism that allows for a "separate realm" in Plato or Kant.

Far too much of Hegel emerges in Kołakowski's conclusions:

The assumption [in hermeneutics] seems to be that we understand the historical process as the unfolding of Hegelian universal Mind which is neither divine nor individual-human, has no identifiable self-awareness and no transcendent means of subsistence, but paves the way for an indefinable goal through the intermediary of human efforts and desires. Unlike Hegel, hermeneutics does not need to track down the ultimate goal of the Mind, and can therefore glory in being metaphysically neutral. But it is not. To assume, even if only implicitly, that there is an impersonal Mind, immanent in history, a Mind for which human individuals are unconscious aids (if not serfs) and which reveals its will in an (apparently) erratic manner, is to move on the soil of metaphysics.

This by no means entails that hermeneutic enquiry is misguided or fruitless. It does entail, however, that, unlike science, such enquiry cannot appeal to commonly admissible criteria of validity. [pp.125-126]

This "Mind," to which Kołakowski will subscribe shortly, passes neither Kantian nor Hegelian muster. First of all, if it exists, it must have a "transcendent means of subsistence," even if it is only an epiphenomenon of Leszek Kołakowski's brain. And since there is no transcendent existence, i.e. no things-in-themselves, in Hegel, a "transcendent means of subsistence" does not exist for anything, and we can forget it. All is Phenomena. And since there is no theory of transcendent objects in Kantian philosophy, we aren't going to worry about "transcendent means of subsistence" in those terms either, except to be conscious that they must be there.

Thus, identifiable "Mind" in Kant only means individual minds, even as "Mind" in Hegel can only mean the cosmic Oversoul of the Absolute Geist. If Kołakowski wants a metaphysics that is neither of these, he needs to provide it, which he has not. His "Mind" seems to float (perhaps the Confucian , "floating cloud") above individual minds without as such having any ontological status or ground at all. This is a failure of explanation that is a failure of Kołakowski's foray and essay into metaphysics.

At the same time, Kołakowski's assertion that "such enquiry cannot appeal to commonly admissible criteria of validity" is quite false. Socrates needed no criterion but consistency, and his subject matter was the grounds of all action, including whatever "ultimate goal" his interlocutors might have in mind. This is because the justification of action, and the content of any goal of action, is most generally simply "the good," τὸ ἀγαθόν, whose meaning can be investigated in the Socratic cross-examination of any claims about it. Other concerns, such as the metaphysics of the Good, Mind, the Absolute, or God, can be set aside in a Socratic, if not a Pyrrhonian, Kantian, or Husserlian, ἐποχή.

But do we simply create this meaning by decree, in relating the world to our practical, cognitive and aesthetic aspirations, or do we discover it? Or both? My guess is that in the perspective of hermeneutics the answer is: both. If so, meaning is neither freely produced by us nor ready-made, embedded in nature or history and waiting to be discovered. Rather, Mind, which generates meaning, is made actual in the very process of revealing itself to our minds; or, to put it another way, Being, which is endowed with meaning, 'becomes what it is' thanks to human understanding of what it is. This comes closer to the idea, discussed above, of God as a 'historical' god. [pp.126-127]

This is a disappointing conclusion, as a "guess," to Kołakowski's study. Its hard edge must be this:  How does the "Mind" generate "meaning" as, for instance, moral obligation, when Kołakowski says that different metaphysical "languages" are equally valid, and this "Mind" itself has no ontological status in either Kantian or Hegelian terms. And to "put it another way," does Kołakowski now mean to say that "Mind" has the ontological status of Being, or of God, emerging as a "historical" being, after the fashion, say, of Heidegger's "inner truth and greatness" of National Socialism?

It would be astonishing if Kołakowski really wanted to say anything of the sort, but the relativism implied here, however imperfectly qualified by his "both," is not something that Kołakowski provides any means of precluding. If moral meaning is not objective in the sense of being "already there," then people like Martin Heidegger are not bound by certifiable norms of decency and moral imperatives. We really do seem to end up in Kołakowski with a Hegelian historicism, which, as with all true relativists, is missing the "Absolute." If hermeneutics abandons the "ultimate goal" represented by a Hegelian Absolute, as did the apologetic of Robert Solomon, then Kołakowski loses any of the moral rigor that we might hope from his "both" answer. There is a lot of mush in this business, and it is not what we would expect from the sharpness of moral judgment we often find in Kołakowski.

While the weakness of the moral foundation of this theory is the most disappointing and embarrassing, we should also note the other side into which Kołakowski divides our experience of the world:

The claim that every experience and every object encountered can be of relevance to human life is not a matter of dispute as long as what we mean by 'relevance' is either practical benefit or aesthetic appreciation. (A digression: the fact that we are able to react aesthetically to nature is in itself astonishing; in terms of a philosophy which relates all human life to cultural 'wholes', it must be considered parasitic on the perception of art, or even dismissed altogether -- as Croce believed.) Everything within the horizons of our perception and thought is absorbed and given meaning as part of the world we inhabit and want to tame. [p.126]

The passage quoted above at pp.126-127 follows immediately upon this one. For the overall theory, this passage is just as important. Thus, while the essence of aesthetic judgment is the independence of the object, and the disinterestedness of our regard, Kołakowski seems to have gotten this all backwards. We (or perhaps "Mind") give meaning to aesthetic objects, as they are "absorbed" into our world and culture and are given reality as "parasitic" on the human perception of "art." Where the apparently accepted aphorism is that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," Kołakowski expresses a suitable astonishment that we would react to nature at all. We get the sense that it really can hold no meaning for us, unless we subdue, force, and adapt it into an otherwise merely human category -- art. So we get not the slightest sense off this of aesthetic realism, such as we find in Schopenhauer or the pre-Critical Kant.

Yet we could allow Kołakowski an aesthetic subjectivism, psychologism, or anthropocentrism and still fault him for overlooking an even more acute issue, which, from the subject matter of his book, should have been of some concern or interest to him. Among "every object encountered" in our world, there are τὰ ἅγια, "the holy things." The numinous is not only profoundly "Other," but reduces the relative existence of the human observer to extinction (Sanskrit , Nirvâṇa; or Arabic , fanâʾ). Unlike the passivity of most aesthetic experience (except maybe of the sublime), the holy and numinous fight back, often in terrifying ways. We do not "absorb" and "give meaning" to what we experience. It does that to us. Moses encountered the burning bush. St. Paul was struck down blind on the road to Damascus. Where do these fit in the system of Metaphysical Horror? I do not see a place.

The alternative to this belief ["that there is a Mind which is not ours," i.e. Kołakowski's "floating cloud" Mind] is a consistently scientistic world-image which implies, or explicitly states, that existence is pointless, that neither life nor history nor the universe has any purpose, and that there is no meaning apart from human intentions. [p.127]

Of course, this is a false dilemma. Kołakowski's metaphysics is not the only alternative to Positivistic or Existentialist Nihilism. And while Kołakowski correctly observes that elite ideologies of our civilization and age are indeed hopeless and nihilistic, he also correctly asserts that we have not and most likely cannot stop asking the philosophical questions that the academy and intelligentsia would rather not have to deal with. What after all is their problem? Indeed, they have been led off into the desert and then left there. Kołakowski's project was to find his way back, and he was actually rather well equipped to do that. But he was not free enough of the influence of people who were a large part of the problem -- Hegel, Heidegger, Wittgenstein -- to be free of the false path (via falsa) and ready enough to recognize the clues, in Kant and others, to regain the True Way (Via Vera). But we can do that, in part by learning from Kołakowski's errors and insights both. He was our friend. But now we must go ahead on our own.


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