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Eastern Europe - always Copernican

By Tomasz Gil –

The conventional Anglo-American view of Europe as the continent beyond the British Isles comprises the larger land units of France, Germany, Italy, adds a few other places like Scandinavia, or Benelux, or Switzerland, but has hardly any concept of the political, geographical structure or history of the lands of Eastern Europe that do not belong to Russia proper. There are reasons for that. For example Poland, which around year 1600 was a major Eastern European power, imploded as a political entity in the 1700s. During the last 200 years much of Europe's Eastern lands was either under German and Austrian political influence or under Russian or Ottoman domination.

Because of its confused identity Eastern Europe's contributions to general European heritage are forgotten or misattributed. It is fair to say that Poland is a country with strong Catholic core and an unflinching allegiance to the Roman Church. But it is hardly ever noticed that Poland, or the lands nearby, is also a country of Copernicus and Kant - thinkers who have made pivotal contributions to the history of Western thought deeply influencing our present way of thinking. Copernicus lived and worked in present day northern Poland and his theory set in motion the development of modern science resulting in the intellectual upheaval of the Enlightenment. The latter movement's results were harnessed by Immanuel Kant, who worked and died on Königsberg in 1804 - just about 200 years ago, just about 100 km from the labs of Copernicus. Kant's contributions unquestionably changed our civilization and ushered us into the age of modern philosophy. In the same city of Königsberg in 1930 a young Viennese mathematician, Kurt Gödel, announced his fundamental incompleteness theorem that demonstrates the limitations of mathematics. We are still absorbing the full import of the thought of Kant and Gödel. A Polish mathematician, Stefan Banach, who died in 1945, laid the foundation of a whole new field of mathematics, was active in Lvov (also Lviv or Lemberg) through the horrific upheavals of WWII. His student - Stan Ulam - went to the US in 1939 and gave important contributions in nuclear physics.

Seminal thinkers in the domain of economics are of East European provenience, and have had a major impact on the Anglo-American civilization - clearly visible in the last 20-30 years. Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, of Vienna and Lemberg (Lviv), have promoted the free-enterprise capitalism. Hayek published his best known book - "Road to Serfdom" - in England during World War II - when the support for market solutions was flagging and socialism was seen as the way of the future. The thought of Hayek and Mises ultimately found champions among Western political leaders such as Reagan and Thatcher. Liberal capitalism was reinvigorated by an intellectual injection from Eastern Europe.

There are others - Freud, Husserl, Dostoyevski. The Euroamerican civilization quite often receives a strong corrective shock from the side of Eastern Europe. Quite often the West does not notice wherefrom the correction comes.


© 2006 Content property of Tomasz Gil -