Conversation with a philosopher – Dr. Richard Mordarski

My guest is Dr. Richard Mordarski,  Professor of Philosophy from Casimir the Great  University  in Bydgosc, Poland and a member of the editorial staff of FORUM.

Elzbieta Ulanowski: You are the second professor of philosophy whom I have known  personally.  The first was Professor  Dr. Barbara Skarga  whose seminars on the history of philosophy I attended as a prerequisite  to taking the exams beginning my doctoral studies.   She was someone larger than life and I am happy whenever I can speak about her.   I have many questions for you.  In your family, was there anyone else  professionally linked with philosophy and what were your  studies like?

Ryszard Mordarski: I am the first in my family to undertake this profession.    But right behind me is my younger brother a Jesuit theologian who works  at the retreat house near the Convent at Jasna Gora in Czestochowa, Poland.  I started out studying theology,  but  entering  into my second  year, I began  the study of  philosophy.  Enrolled at the Catholic University of Lublin in tumultuous  political times,  I  witnessed  the beginning of the end of  communism in Poland, and  received my first diploma at a historical  moment , that is June 4,  right after Communist rule in Poland collapsed,  and upon the election of  a  new, democratic government.   The next two years were spent  in finishing my  study of philosophy  and  completing a two year specialization  in Dogmatic Theology.   All together , I studied for seven years —  a remarkable period of personal growth and intellectual development for me.

E.U.: Since you completed your studies in Lublin, you must know Latin and Greek.

RM.: The program sets aside two years  for the study of   the classical  languages.  I know Greek quite well and with the aid of a dictionary, I am able to translate  most of the ancient texts,  especially since many of them are not that complex.  For example, the New Testament is written in the simple dialect “koine”, employing basic grammar, not  in some obscure or  complex language.    The simplest text  is the Gospel of St. Mark,  which can be well understood  with a vocabulary of  about 600 words.

E.U.: How did the following years flow along life’s  path for our philosopher?

R.M.: While still at the university, I began  working in education  as a teacher of religion.  But I resigned not long afterwards, once I realized that teaching was not exactly my calling at that time.  I decided my direction was to be  the scholarly pursuit of philosophy.   After winning a competition,  I was accepted at the University of Bydgoszcz.   Here I started my doctoral  studies,  with my  chosen subject  the French philosopher,  literary figure and Nobel prize winner  Albert Camus.  I was most of all fascinated by his political philosophy , which he formulated with great honesty and courage, going against the grain  of popular opinion which widely accepted  the existentialist philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre.  Camus was so  consistent and determined  in defending his views,  that he and Sartre actually engaged in a scuffle  when Sartre would not reveal  to the French public the truth about Soviet gulags.   The result of my doctoral studies, “Between Absurdity  and Solidarity”  was published  in 1999.

E.U.: Moving on, you have now completed your doctorate.  But this is not enough in Poland to achieve the title of Professor.  How did you spend the time while  preparing for the examination for the right to teach at  university as a docent or to be appointed a professor?

R.M.: Educational degrees in our country are based on the German system.  To become a professor, you must  go through a process called  “habilitation”.   First, there are examinations during the habilitation  process taken in three stages, each with increasing difficulty. Failure anywhere along the way puts you back at the beginning.  You  must start over,  each time with the level of difficulty increasing.   During the process you must write a book based on original subject matter, which is reviewed prior to publication by two professors.  Following publication, four more reviews are required.   At an appointed time there is an oral exam before the  Faculty Board of the department where one must answer each of the questions posed  satisfactorily, and at the end of that, present a short lecture which is evaluated for content and presentation.  To really understand the difficulty of all of this, you must experience it.   I completed my habilitation at the University of  A. Mickiewicz in Poznan in 2007, with a dissertation on “The classic political rationalism of Leo Strauss”.  Not quite a year  later, the Department of Humanties at my alma mater at Bydgoszcz presented me with the title of professor.

E.U.: Please accept my congratulations.  I believe you are extremely well prepared for and gratified by  your chosen profession.  How would you define philosophy?  I found  a definition that described it as  “a reflection of the world and ourselves in it”.

R.M.: That is a good one.  However, there are as many definitions as there are philosophers.  The most basic and classic is one that states philosophy  is the love of knowledge.  This comes from the two Greek words: philia  – meaning  ” love“, and Sophia meaning “knowledge“.  Thus speaking etymologically, there is the understanding that  philosophy is the love of knowledge and the constant pursuit of knowledge, without actually every fully achieving  that  goal.

E.U.: As for the pursuit of excellence, one never can fully achieve it.   It’s not really a compliment to tell someone that they are excellent  in a given area, for they  are always striving  towards excellence (according to Prof.  Tatarkiewicz).

R.M.: That’s right.  The philosopher  is constantly on a journey  to become more knowledgeable and even though, he or she may hope that they are  getting  closer to the ideal,  they can never achieve it in actuality.  The philosopher is always on the road to knowledge,  while others may not even realize that it exists or  where to find it.

E.U.: In current reasoning, two philosophers may have harmed human progress enormously.  I am thinking of Frederick Nietsche and Karl Marx.   Their work brought to life the totalitarian systems  of fascism and  communism.  How would you comment on this fact?

R.M.: Well, ideas always have consequences in real life.  Many different events or ideologies had their roots in the thoughts of philosophers.  I believe that both philosophers,  if they were able to learn what had developed from their ideas after their deaths,  would have been horrified.   But at the same time, one can read each one of their writings in a way that leads to Hitlerism or Stalinism.  Thus philosophy  is such an important subject,  for  ideas formulated in the heads of thinkers do get transferred to society and affect it.

E.U.: Please tell me what you are currently working on  and what  the daily life of the philosopher looks like?

R.M.: My main subjects are  political philosophy and ethics,  as well the philosophy of religion.  Everyday life?  I am surrounded by books , etc. and I read, read,  and read some more.  Not only books or articles on philosophy, but  writings of  scientists — in subjects such as physics, biology and genetics.    Many questions,  problems and issues arise  where the natural sciences and philosophy meet.

E.U.: How do you look at other professionals — what do you think of them?  Do you feel sorry that many remain in deep ignorance?

R.M.: Some philosophers have a rather  contemptuous view of others, the result of  the advantage, which they assume they have thanks to their refined, sophisticated intellectual training.  Education in philosophy  does offer good tools for logic and  methodologies for exercising it.  This  facilitates understanding of  other ways of thinking and allows for  classifying them as correct or not. Philosophers also highly value  good, common sense  — basically the perspective of the common man,  so important in everyday life.

E.U.: What kind of a husband and father are you?  Do you demand just a little more from those closest to you?

R.M.: You’ll have to ask them, but I believe I seek out in others that which is interesting and unique in each individual.  For example, that is how  I look at my daughter  Julia, in  trying to help her develop her particular, unique talents.   But  I really wouldn’t  want her to follow my footsteps — for the life of the philosopher is not a particularly easy one.   When one is constantly buried  in the ideas of  thinkers, you can easily antagonize others without meaning to for you are frequently misunderstood.  My wife, Margaret is extremely understanding  and as for my daughter, I try hard to maintain good communications at all times.

E.U.: How is it that we see you  for awhile, and then you disappear for some time?

R.M.: I live in the States for one half of the year.  The other six months  are spent in Poland.  I have about 200 hours  of lectures there which I accomplish in the first academic semester.  Once that is complete, I am back here with my family.  I am fortunate for I can take advantage of  that which is best  in  both countries.  I truly enjoy my work and greatly value the many acquaintances  and associations I have  in Poland.   But I also deeply love being at home with my family in Lorain, Ohio.  And  I am not just relaxing  while here.  I work  with the Department of Philosophy at  Oberlin College and  spend my time translating  various philosophical texts  into the Polish language.   While at Bydgoszcz, I teach my students, along with other  things,  how to use  new terminology  drawn from the latest American philosophical works.

E.U.: You have to your credit, two published books and many translated texts.  I won’t ask for the titles, for they’re probably rather complex.  In  wrapping up, I wish you many talented doctoral candidates, great satisfaction  and happiness in the practice of furthering knowledge and thought. But most of all, the discovery of an idea that can heal the nations of our earth.

Elżbieta Ulanowski
Translated by Sean Martin

Forum, 10/2009