Tradition is the backbone of all culture, of learning perhaps more than of anything else. Poland’s tradition of learning has been unlucky. Particularly since the Partitions, how often the threads have been broken by contrary winds! Learning has nourished too little among us, because it has little tradition. The greater the duty of the citizen to guard it wherever it is to be found — and if covered with ash from the conflagration of evil times, to bring it out into the light of day.
In this place therefore, mention is made with grateful respect of the man who was first among Poles to devote long years to research into the origins of culture. Father Hugo Kołłątaj. Destined like Turgot for scholarly quiet, he tore himself from the study and plunged into the whirlpool of political life. Like Condorcet, he wrote in prison. With incomparably more scientific method than Condorcet, in thought he is closer to Turgot.
Whereas his contemporary Stanislas Staszic was simply a pupil of the Encyclopedia, Kołłątaj had more of the elements of the Enlightenment. The two stood at the head of public life in Poland, but only because of circumstances: they did what, in the condition of their country, they regarded as their main duty. The disastrous state of Polish affairs impelled them to politics a hundred times more urgently than any Turgot. Had Poland been secure and developing normally, Kołłątaj and Staszic would have been university professors. Their qualifications were such that there was no university in Europe of which they could not have been ornaments.
Father Hugo Kołłątaj (1750-1812), the distinguished reformer of Cracow University and one of the creators of the Constitution of the Third of May, a man of relentless energy (in which Staszic was his equal) and of a warm temperament (Staszic was his superior in control of self and master of circumstance), differed from contemporary scholars in not being a naturalist. He was indeed remarkable among European scholars of his generation in being pre-eminently a humanist who possessed a naturalist’s training but who worked in the field only in so far as it was necessary to enable him to go deeper into historical studies.
Kołłątaj proceeded on the assumption that history rests on geography and chronology, and that it was the more necessary for him to study these subjects as he wished to work on the beginnings of man’s history. For the same reason he devoted himself to research in the field of physical geography, and embarked on geodesies, cosmic geography and latterly astronomy.
The fruit of these extremely extensive studies and an enormous erudition was the relatively disappointing Critical examination of the principles of history on the beginnings of the human race.
Attention has been called to the fact that the title does not correspond to the content, since it is not an historical but a geographical work. “Kołłątaj’s book is in essence a great system of general geography, full of fresh and creative thought: suffice it to say that with his clearly defined concept of geological time, and analyses of geological processes in the light of contemporarily active forces he anticipated Lyell, while his analysis of the influence of environment on society provided foundations for the system of anthropogeography, in anticipation of both K. Ritter and Ratzel.”49
The history really begins only with volume III. Almost all the results of the research of those days are indifferent to us, the interest lies in methods and basic views. Here are Kołłątaj’s:
“It is vain,” he says, “to try to collect and explain the whole of early history from Moses alone”50 the latter is, incidentally, much and often misused.51 In view of this, the exhausting work of recreating prehistory must be undertaken (as we should say today) from other sources and by other means. It is an indispensable task, since “the moral sciences cannot dispense with a search of early history”.52 “For anybody who reflects well on such important material will easily understand that without an improvement in early historical studies, improvement in the moral sciences is very difficult, not to say unlikely; for what natural history is to the physical sciences, human history is to the moral sciences”.
On method Kołłątaj has this to say: “So many philosophers, metaphysicians and legislators have believed that where history failed it was enough to rely on reason alone, that by looking well into the nature of man with its help it would be possible to uncover the whole history of the first beginnings from which man reached his present state. Historical truths, being results of the activities of either man or nature, never of metaphysical speculation, cannot be discovered by any means except patient investigation of the activities of man and nature, and that in those examples in which history shows them.”53
Written in 1800, the passage explicitly proclaims the inductive method. In another place — arguing that a numerous band of scholars was needed for the task in hand — Kołłątaj says: “Let us begin without concerning ourselves about who will afterwards correct us: for it is time that those who work on the moral sciences ceased to derive their systems from conjectures: that history should lake the place of fairy-tales, suppositions and all cosmogonic fancies; that we should make entirely certain by undisputed proofs what can be known and in what measure, and what shall we expect in vain to discover later.”54
Kołłątaj resists the supposition that humanity at the start of its existence was in a “savage” state: he asserts on the other hand that after the Flood for many people there followed a period of barbarisation which in some cases still endures — and writes a special paragraph “On the causes of man’s lapse into barbarity after the Flood”. Today’s “savages” are not wild because they have not yet raised themselves higher, because they have remained on their original rung but, on the contrary, because as descendants of those who separated themselves from the main stream of humanity, they have continued to be left to themselves and grown savage. In Kołłątaj’s view the enormous differences in the mental state of the various peoples of the world are not otherwise explicable.55 Let it be said that in our time many scholars share this opinion, and many suppose it to be a very recent scientific achievement.
In his work Kołłątaj is never a littérateur, in which he stands out among contemporary Europeans. Incomparably closer to Montesquieu than to Voltaire, he had a slight opinion of the learning of the latter because “he had little knowledge in physical matters”.56 Indeed, where in Voltaire are there to be found such specialised, laborious and exact investigations as Kołłątaj conducted into, for example, water, the ebb and flow of the tide, ocean currents, eddies, evaporation: into the atmosphere, winds, air streams and whirlwinds, into fire, volcanoes, earthquakes, the case of coal? Kołłątaj has a whole treatise on palaeontology, one of the earliest in existence, and on the sea-bed and a good sketch of oceanography; all with a complete scholarly apparatus, with “notes” more than one of which grew into a separate treatise, for example that on the measurement of height (twenty pages of print), as if the author were more than a specialist in one sector of his subject.
Kołłątaj excels by the precision of his work and his extraordinary erudition.57 Again the comparison with Turgot suggests itself: both abandoned scientific pursuits for the duties of public life and both failed to reach their goal in the whirlpool of politics. And yet, how much more fortunate was Turgot! How much more fortunate even Condorcet!
One other observation suggests itself. In the years Kołłątaj was writing his Critical Examination the works in which Herder”58 and Condorcet treat of the nuclei of human life were already published, but in the Examination there is not a trace of them. It is probable that Kołłątaj knew and was uninfluenced by these inquiries for reasons not difficult to divine. Opposed to “metaphysical speculation” in historical studies, refusing to countenance “reliance on reason alone” in relation to them, he was an opponent of the meditative method, and inductionist.
We have seen that he had a distinct method, not unlike Montesquieu’s and Turgot’s, but worked out, independently. The way in which he did this may be followed in detail in the scientific apparatus scrupulously offered in his notes, also in a few places in the main text where he explains in detail how he arrived at a conclusion. And he would have achieved more had it not been for unlucky philologising.59 At any rate he was the first man to examine the subject of prehistory methodically.
Let us look now at the opportunities offered by historical induction 130 years after Kołłątaj.