Kolakowski on Not-Gardening

Aug 4 '09

Leszek Kolakowski died several days ago. I would wager that few regular readers of “The Monkey Cage” will even recognize Kolakowski’s name, let alone know anything about him, unless they happened upon one of the many respectful obituaries that have since appeared in the world press. Kolakowski, for those who don’t know, was a renowned philosoopher and intellectual historian, perhaps best known for Main Currents of Marxism.

It is a sober comment on the parochialism of academic disciplines in general and American political science in particular that so many of us know so little about what’s going on in neighboring disciplines, or for that matter even in neighboring subfields of our own discipline. But that’s a rant for a different day — and before I get too preachy, let me confess that I myself would be unfamiliar with Kolakowski were it not for a delightful essay of his that Ken Newton pointed out to me when we were gathering papers for the volume on The Wit and Humor of Political Science that Ken, Bernie Grofman, Ken Meier, and I have put together. The Kolakowski essay is very funny, and it makes a telling point about the blinders that we put on when we approach our subject matter from a strongly held theoretical or ideological perspective. (For a sampling of Kolakowski’s essays, see his IModernity on Endless Trial , published by the University of Chicago Press in1990).

Anyway, here — as a small tribute to Kolakowski and for your enjoyment — is his “General Theory of Not-Gardening.”

The General Theory of Not-Gardening: A Major Contribution to Social Anthropology, Ontology, Moral Philosophy, Psychology, Sociology, Political Theory, and Many Other Fields of Scientific Investigation

Leszek Kolakowski

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

A theory must be convincing and scientific. Yet to various people, various 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 to keep them busy in their leisure time and to prevent them from making 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 so to 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 of 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 subconsciously haunted by the feeling of guilt and they try to expatiate their crime by cultivating and worshipping their small, pseudo¬natural gardens. To garden is to take part in this gigantic self-deception which perpetuates the childish myth. 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.). This distinction is 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 which is the condition of thinking. Gardening is a blunder. Q.E.D.

Analytical Philosophy

In spite of many attempts, no satisfactory definition of garden and of gardening has 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.