Central European Perspectives

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Although the countries of Central Europe (CE) have a long tradition of critical reflection on science and technology, this tradition was severely curtailed from World War II to the end of the Cold War. Only since the early 1990s have discussions emerged that might be described as contributing to bioethics, environmental ethics, computer ethics, and related fields of science, technology, and ethics. Other traditions of scholarship nevertheless have developed in ways that may be related to these fields, and deserve consideration, especially when placed within a larger historical and philosophical context.

Boundary Issues

CE has been defined according to different criteria. A variety of factors—geographic, religious, linguistic, strategic, ethnic, historical, sociopsychological, and developmental—have shaped the dividing lines of the lands located between Russia and the German-speaking countries. In some conceptions, even Russia and Germany were included. For centuries, it was the route by which conquering Central Asian tribes—Huns, Magyars, Tatars, and others—invaded Europe. It was also the path by which Western armies—those of Sweden's Gustavus Adolphus, Napoleon, and Hitler—attacked, attempting to expand east into the center of Russia. This region was an important strategic area called the Euro-Asian heartland or pivot area. Whoever controlled the territory was said to control the world, which is why CE was repeatedly subject to invasions from east and west. As a result of all these assaults and historical expansions, CE has the most complex ethnic makeup in Europe, peopled in many places by ethnic groups too small to constitute a separate nation-state.

Like Southern and Eastern Europe, CE has been slow, and reluctant, to embrace the Enlightenment as well as the Industrial Revolution; economic development and industrialization evolved more slowly and unevenly than in Western Europe. This may be explained in part by the longtime authority and spiritual power of religion in these countries. Together with other influences, this religious authority contributed to other than economic growth. The specific character of the so-called Slavic mentality generated by the different character of language and cultural heritage is being protected and rescued against the attempts of homogenization resulting from integration with the economically powerful European Union. The problem is very vital in public discussions on the advantages and disadvantages of European integration, and is a strong arguing point for Eurosceptics against Euroenthusiasts. The former oppose treating economic factor as the exclusive criterion of development. They point to the literary tradition of ironic or spiritual distance to terrestrial profits.

Differences between developed countries of the West and the developing CE countries of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary disclose special problems. In the early-twenty-first century, the dynamic growth possible for these countries—sometimes called the Visegrad Group—as a result of having joined the European Economic Community (EEC) as well as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), has opened a new era in their relationship to science, technology, and ethics.


Communist regimes attached great importance to scientific achievements, realizing that such accomplishments constituted a strong position in the Cold War. However the communist ideology, trumpeted in the media and developed in every sphere of public life, that elevated the character of the working class and peasants over that of elites, ultimately resulted in scientists being considered parasites, producing nothing of material social value. Such political attitudes fluctuated, being stronger at some times (until Stalin's death in 1953) than at others; nevertheless they had significant impact. Many inventive scholars who did not sign loyalty declarations were marginalized or persecuted. After 1968 some university professors, many of Jewish origin, left CE for the West to continue their research in more democratic conditions.

One of them, Leszek Kołakowski, gained international fame as a critic of Marxist theory. His thorough, three-volume monograph of Marxism is outstanding not only due to vast range of materials used in the narration but also due to its clear-sighted style. Kołakowski explains the phenomenon of Marxism and the reasons of its worldwide spreading. He locates the project of radical transformation of social relations on the wide background of history of thought, exposing in it millenarist and eschatological motifs. In such a perspective Marxism is suspected of being one more version of salvation, but a secular one. Kołakowski discusses not only the very conception of Marx but investigates its further history in different European countries, registering meanders of the evolution of the original project, caused by peculiarities of social contexts and processes in different European countries and elsewhere.

Some philosophers nevertheless remained in CE doing work that is directly relevant to the philosophical and ethical understanding of science. Among these are Tadeusz Kotarbinski (Poland) and Jan Patocka (Czech Republic). Their unique achievements, such as the theory of good work called praxiology fromulated by Kotarbinski or phenomenological reflection on history and role of technology by Patocka were the exemplary proofs that autonomous and efficient thought has been practiced even under the Soviet Union supremacy. Praxiology was developed in many European countries (such as Norway) as well as in the United States as important contribution to the theories of management and could be also considered as Polish contribution into philosophy of technology within which technology is defined mainly as multi-levels organization. Phenomenological accent on responsibility makes Patocka's considerations actual both at the time he was writing and at the present moment.

After the collapse of communism in 1989, the period of transition and transformation began. The role of science in these countries has been recovering after a totalitarian regime's controlling system. The infrastructure of scientific development is strongly connected to economic growth, which, previously, was not highly advanced. The end of the Cold War opened borders. International cooperation in different fields, especially in the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, and informatics), became more regular and was not ideologically controlled. The Polish Academy of Science became a member of the European Science Foundation in 1991, and scientists had an opportunity to take part in extensive international research programs. International conferences and meetings were organized in all fields, social sciences and the humanities included. The Czech Academy of Science underwent a radical reform in 1994. Social needs fueled research into the economic and legal questions connected to the privatization of socialized property; specialists began to examine critically whether pure liberalism could cope with transition problems, and investigated the role and impact of business ethics in that process.

Social consciousness, which under communism was soothed artificially and often deliberately misdirected, developed rapidly. The problematic character of scientific authority, of science in general, and the issues related to the incorporation of scientific discoveries into society became the substance of public debate as well as of scholarly research. Important works related to these topics discuss issues of science and the search for truth or science and democracy, with the argument that scientific development is central to the future. Nevertheless the growing consciousness of the dilemmas raised by scientific-technological advancement, either generally (for example, spiritual crisis of the contemporary world, technology and civil rights) or more specifically (such as creating quality cultures, or economic and social effects of the lack of adequate technology education) have become vital to the worldview of the CE nations.


Central European University in Budapest, Charles University in Prague, and Warsaw University are representative of the new tendency to liberate education from ideological limits and conditioning. According to some studies, the entire educational system in postcommunist CE countries is undergoing fundamental change. The structure is making a successful transition from the radical-structuralist model that previously dominated to a functional-liberal paradigm.

The communist party ran a hierarchical and strongly centralized educational system. An elementary level of education was easily accessible to all members of society. Education served the needs of the dynamic, industrial society; it also immersed students in scientific socialism ideology. In the early-twenty-first century, curricula and teaching methods have undergone serious transformation.

According to some research carried by The World Bank Institute in 1997 on the quality of educational systems in CE countries, the process of decentralizing started and was developed. Comparison of experiences from Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic let the researchers expose the main problems and suggest solutions.

Economic underdevelopment makes full educational reform unachievable. In this context, the activity of Hungarian financier and philanthropist, George Soros, appears to be very important. He is a founder and a chairman of Open Society Institute (OSI) in New York and in Budapest and of the Soros foundations network. Promoting a free press and political pluralism in all the postcommunist countries, in spite of being accused and hindered by the authoritarian governments in Eastern European and Post-Soviet countries, he and his foundations are dedicated to building and maintaining the infrastructure and institutions of an open society. Through the global network of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), he helps to support health programs, to fight discrimination of all sorts, and to promote democracy. In CE countries they help to replace the authoritarian model in education with the civic education style. Different steps and procedures are being introduced to democratize education system, to develop a new way for teachers to relate to their pupils. Financial support providing schools with necessary equipment such as computers, videocassettes, and CDs contributes much to achieving real transition in the education field.


Under communism, scientific achievements were treated as part of a scientific-technological revolution rather than as abstract or pure concepts. At universities and technical schools throughout the CE countries, the philosophy of technology developed first from the Marxist viewpoint (for example, Radovan Richta in Prague, Adam Schaff in Warsaw), and then in a more pragmatic and individualistic way (such as Ladislaus Tondl in Prague; Tadeusz Kotarbiński in Warsaw; Józef Bańka in Katowice, Poland). In general, however, technology has been a subject of systematic philosophical reflection only since the early 1990s.

Apart from comments and attempts to build on the work of established Western thinkers (Karl Jaspers, Hans Jonas, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Ellul, Jose Ortega y Gasset, and others), only a few independent projects for conceiving interrelations between technology and society have appeared in response to contemporary problems and social needs. Ladislav Tondl (Prague) identified different aspects of social control of technology and developed the concept of delegated intelligence, which enabled him to investigate the structure of subsystems in technology. Imre Hronszky (Budapest) distinguished technological paradigms and discussed communities in technological change. Józef Bańka (Katowice) studied mutual interactions of modern technology and human personality.

Bańka's research became the basis of a new, individual approach that developed into a philosophical concept called eutyphronics. Its main principle was the protection of humankind as it faces the dangers of technological civilization. Andrzej Kiepas and Lech Zacher (Warsaw), editors of the interdisciplinary magazine Transformacje (Transformations), which has published numerous articles devoted to that central issue, have been promoting Western European and U.S. traditions of technology assessment and their own original conceptions of it for years.


Although CE is increasingly engaged with Western intellectual discussions, such standard fields of applied ethics as environmental ethics, business, computer ethics, and professional ethics in science and engineering have not yet become standard fields for research and discussion. Nevertheless, using such recognized classifications, one can note the following contributions.

Business Ethics

The transformation from planned to market economy in the CE countries is a test bed for applying economic theory and business ethics to an enormous historical transition in the economic and political system. Authors from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia have analyzed the economic, philosophical and political problems of the transition process. The education and training necessary to combat increasing corruption in public bureaucracies of CE countries are being examined. The transition to democratic institutions must include the participation of all sectors to enhance transparency and build long-term public trust. Anticorruption efforts, including structural and normative approaches to ethical controls, must be aligned with the core values unique to each country's ecology. Key shared values must include honesty, stewardship, respect for human dignity, and concern for others.

Along with the public debate involved in creating a democratic system, social concerns also focus on so-called postmoral spirituality in different areas. For example, Budapest University organized a workshop called Spirituality in Management in Hungary in 2001. Participants discussed spirituality as a search for meaning, which transcends material well-being. The workshop focused on the possible role of spirituality in renewing the contemporary management praxis.

Computer Ethics

Advances in computer and data communication technology have created new ethical issues. Startling advances in biotechnology and genetic engineering offer not only new cures but also open the possibility of modifying existing organisms. Throughout CE, schools dedicated to these technologies have introduced seminars to enhance awareness of the moral implications of working as an engineer or technologist. Engineering ethics, already developed worldwide, is being introduced in CE university curricula and written about in philosophical journals by such authors as Wojciech Gasparski and Andrzej Kiepas (Poland).

Environmental Ethics

Henryk Skolimowski is a leader in the discussion of environmental ethics. His concepts of cosmocracy as the next stage of democracy and ecological spirituality constitute an important contribution to the philosophy of technology. Instead of treating the world as a machine, he recommends referring to the world as to the sanctuary. He considers the human race as a guide to realize the eschatological purpose of the universe. The basis of his ethics, which is a practical application of eschatology, is the notion of responsibility of some overreligious, mythological character.

At present, CE focus in this area is on practical problems and their resolution. Technology transfer and technology forecasting make it necessary to consider the expected rate of technological advance and to adjust conditions—material infrastructure and social framework—to various applications in science and technology.


In comparison to Western Europe where, as a result of the Enlightenment, the separation of church from government has become the rule, in CE religion retains its importance and influence even in the public sphere. There are political-historical reasons for this situation. In Poland the church was, during the communist period, the center of opposition to the government, shaping opinions and helping to organize resistance to the political regime. Debates among those representing Marxist, atheist, and Roman Catholic views brought ethical problems connected to the scientific-technical revolution to the attention of the public. The vast range of new ethical conflicts and problems are very often still immersed in more general moral worldview religiously or even mythically inspired. Coexistence of these traits with the commonsensical, pragmatic attitude seems to some extent to be politically and socially conditioned. The election of Karol Wojtyła, a Pole, as pope contributed to strengthening the public resolve to reject communism. The great strike organized by the Solidarity movement in Poland in 1980 was the first in a chain of events, which included the fall of the Wall in Berlin in 1989, that culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, ending the communist era. The difficult period of transformation had begun.


SEE ALSO Communism;German Perspectives;Marxism.


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Slavonic and East European Review. Available at http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/mhra/see/2004/00000082/00000003.

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