A Garden at Last for Kolakowski










I was sorry to hear from Jeet’s recent post that Leszek Kolakowski had died. As an undergrad I read and read again his penetrating collection of essays in Modernity on Endless Trial – an inspired title, I always thought. Fittingly enough for someone who was influenced by Kant, he shook me from some of my immature dogmas.

For instance, Kolakowski convinced me of the pointlessness of efforts to resolve and overcome doctrinal differences among the various Christian denominations, an insight that helped inform what became my commitment to secular pluralism.

He also helped me to question and resist lazy ways of speaking about left and right, as though these terms were static and self-evident. His essay “How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist,” which Jeet has already reprinted in his post, should be required reading in Poli Sci 101.

And his amusing piece “The General Theory of Not Gardening” reminds us that intellectually we get what we project: whatever school of thought we are trained in shapes how we see the world and so much within it, and often to the exclusion of competing schools and methodologies. The essay in my view is a tacit argument for an interdiscipinary education. But perhaps for Kolakowski it was rather meant as a witty caution against too much learning, because, as he wrote, “it is much easier to have a theory than to garden.”

Kolakowski lived a fascinating life, but also a difficult life: he narrowly escaped being killed by the Gestapo during the War, and on a return trip to Poland in 1988 he was hounded by secret police everywhere he went, even when he went to the cemetery to visit the graves of relatives. In a fascinating 2005 interview by Danny Postel, he wrote that there was no escaping our uneasy “metaphyscial predicament” in the here and now: “We’re living in a world which is, after all, ruled by Manichean, hostile gods.” But in that same interview, Postel asks him whether he is a man of faith, leading to this intriguing exchange:

LK: This I don’t want to discuss.

DP: May I ask why?

LK: I could say why I do not want to answer this question only by actually answering it.

May Kolakowski find a peaceful garden at last, even as the Manichean trial down here continues.


The General Theory of Not Gardening

This is from the November, 1990 Harper’s Magazine.

THE GENERAL THEORY OF NOT-GARDENING by Leszek Kolakowski. From “Modernity on Endless Trial,” a collection of Kolakowski’s essays that the University of Chicago Press will publish next month. Kolakowski teaches philosophy at the University of Chicago and at Oxford University.


“Those who hate gardening need a theory. Not-gardening without a theory is a shallow, unworthy way of life.


“A theory must be convincing and scientific. Yet to different people, different theories are convincing and scientific. Therefore, we need a number of theories.


“The alternative to not-gardening without a theory is to garden. However, it is much easier to have a theory than actually to garden.

Marxist Theory

“Capitalists try to corrupt the minds of the toiling masses and to poison them with their reactionary ‘values.’ They want to ‘convince’ workers that gardening is a great ‘pleasure’ and thereby keep them busy in their leisure time and prevent them from carrying out the proletarian revolution. Besides, they want to make them believe that with their miserable plot of land they are really ‘owners’ and not wage earners and in this way win them over to the side of the owners in the class struggle. To garden is therefore to participate in the great plot aiming at the ideological deception of the masses. Do not garden! Q.E.D.


Psychoanalytical Theory

“Fondness for gardening is a typically English quality. It is easy to see why this is so. England was the first country to take part in the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution killed the natural environment. Nature is the symbol of Mother. By killing Nature, the English people committed matricide. They are unconsciously haunted by feelings of guilt, and they try to expiate their crime by cultivating and worshiping their small, pseudonatural gardens. To garden is to take part in this gigantic self-deception. You must not garden. Q.E.D.


Existentialist Theory

“People garden in order to make Nature human, to ‘civilize’ it. This, however, is a desperate and futile attempt to transform being-in-itself into being-for-itself. This is not only ontologically impossible; it is a deceptive, morally inadmissible escape from reality, as the distinction between being-in-itself and being-for-itself cannot be abolished. To garden, or to imagine that one can ‘humanize’ Nature, is to try to efface this distinction and hopelessly to deny one’s own irreducibly human ontological status. To garden is to live in bad faith. Gardening is wrong. Q.E.D.


Structuralist Theory

“In primitive societies life was divided into the pair of opposites work/leisure, which corresponded to the distinction field/house. People worked in the field and rested at home. In modern societies the axis of opposition has been reversed: People work in houses (factories, offices) and rest in the open (gardens, parks, forests, rivers, etc.). Such distinctions are crucial in maintaining the conceptual framework whereby people structure their lives. To garden is to confuse the distinction between house and field, between leisure and work; it is to blur, indeed to destroy, the oppositional structure that is the basis of thinking. Gardening is a blunder. Q.E.D.

Analytical Philosophy

“In spite of many attempts, no satisfactory definitions of ‘garden’ and of ‘gardening’ have been found; all existing definitions leave a large area of uncertainty about what belongs where. We simply do not know what exactly a garden and gardening are. To use these concepts is therefore intellectually irresponsible, and actually to garden would be even more so. Thou shalt not garden. Q.E.D.” 



6 thoughts on “A Garden at Last for Kolakowski

  1. I always liked the gardening essay, which I became aware of thanks to you. So I had to chuckle when an analytic philosopher came out with a book called “A Philosophy of Gardens” in 2006. From the publicity material:

    “Given the enthusiasm for gardens in human civilization ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, it is surprising that the question has been so long neglected by modern philosophy. Now at last there is a philosophy of gardens.”

    Kolakowski’s parody captured more than he knew. I’ll always be grateful for his wry observations of the intellectual life. He’ll be missed.

    Note to Tom K: inserting a Capitalist Theory would actually spoil the essay. Not because capitalist ideologues don’t exist or are not worth satirizing (they do and are) but because the essay parodies the kind of theories one encounters in the average humanities department, where these kinds of theories were (and still are) more common than a rip-snorting devotion to capitalism.

  2. I love gardening, in theory. If you want to call loving tasty ultra fresh ripe tomatoes and corn a theory, and intend to keep it that way. The successful life of a theoretical gardening lover is contingent upon cultivating friends and acquaintances who do garden. This is not always an easy or effortless undertaking however. Certainly being a fully dedicated non gardening theorist is an easier road but I face the hardship stoically.

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