Polish Philosopher Wins Library’s Inaugural Kluge Prize

Posted November 5, 2003 at 6:33pm

The Library of Congress awarded its inaugural Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Human Sciences to Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski on Wednesday.

“This is a man who has written about almost everything but always focused on problems of fundamental importance to the human condition,” Librarian of Congress James Billington said at a press conference to announce Kolakowski’s selection.

The $1 million award, endowed by billionaire John Kluge who serves on the Library’s James Madison Council, seeks to honor achievement in areas not covered by the Nobel Prizes, such as philosophy, history, political science, anthropology, sociology, religion, linguistics and criticism in the arts and literature.

Kolakowski, 76, is the author of more than 30 books and 400 other works, focusing primarily on the history of philosophy and the philosophy of religion.

Although he was an orthodox Marxist when he began his career in the mid-1950s at Warsaw University, where he served as chairman of the division on the history of philosophy, Kolakowski was expelled from the party in 1966.

Several years earlier, disillusioned with communism, Kolakowski had become outspoken, writing the widely circulated critique of Stalinism, “What Is Socialism?,” which would be banned in Poland.

After losing his Warsaw University post in 1968, Kolakowski went into exile but continued to write. He would go on to hold posts at McGill University in Montreal as well as several American institutions, including Yale University, the University of California at Berkeley and All Souls College in Oxford, Conn.

Best known for his three-volume work “Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth and Dissolution,” published from 1976 to 1978, Kolakowski also served as an adviser to the Solidarity movement credited with helping to break down the Soviet system in Eastern Europe.

Kolakowski, who now lives in Oxford, England, praised the creation of the award, which Billington described as a way to bridge political and intellectual institutions.

“It’s a really marvelous idea … among other things to bring together not just scholars, but scholars and active politicians,” said Kolakowski, who was scheduled to speak at a formal awards ceremony Wednesday night in the Library’s Great Hall.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who chairs the Joint Library Committee, commended Kluge for his philanthropic efforts. Kluge made a $60 million endowment to the Library in 2000, used to create the John W. Kluge Center.

“This award is the capstone of the Kluge Center’s mission to bring the world’s leading thinkers to the Library and recognizes an area of scholarship for which there are no Nobel Prizes,” Stevens said. “Professor Lesnek Kolakowski deserves this high honor for his lifetime vision, courage and commitment to freedom and tolerance.”

Congress played no role in selecting the award recipient, however. Nominations were provided by universities, research institutions and independent scholars from around the world, and reviewed by a 20-member “Scholars’ Council” and the director of the LOC’s Office of Scholarly Programs before Billington made the final selection.

In an interview Friday afternoon, Billington described the Kluge Prize as “a tribute to the Congress.”

“The Congress has done what no other legislative body in the world has done, and that is taken under its wing the preservation of the world’s knowledge, in all languages and formats, and the nation’s creativity, with the copyright deposit,” Billington said.