Stanisiaw Ossowski (1897-1963), Polish sociologist, was a scholar of wide interests: his writings include studies of the theory of social structure, the methodology of the social sciences, social psychology, aesthetics, and the sociology of art. He was also active in the promotion of sociology as a profession in Poland, organizing the Polish Sociological Association after World War ii; he was a cofounder of the International Sociological Association and served as its vice president from 1959 to 1962.
Ossowski’s works are marked by the combination of a broad historical and cultural perspective with a precise conceptual apparatus and expository manner, and he taught his students to maintain such broad perspective without any sacrifice of rigorous inductive analysis. He sought to tackle the focal social issues of his day, striving for unambiguous results that were firmly grounded empirically. He was deeply convinced that the social scientist must stick to his scientific opinions regardless of the pressures exerted on him by society, and he communicated this conviction to his students. As he put it, “The scientist is a man for whom disobedience of thought is a professional obligation. His social function is to question. In this respect he must obey neither the synod, nor the committee, nor the cabinet, nor Caesar, nor God” (1964a, p. 22).
Ossowski was born in Lipno, the son of a physician. He studied philosophy at the University of Warsaw and in Paris and Rome. The Lvov-Warsaw school of philosophy was principally interested in the logical analysis of the language of science, preceding the Vienna Circle in this respect by a few years. The influence of the Polish school, above all the influence of Lukasiewicz and Kotarbinski, shaped Ossowski’s interest in methodology and his conviction that a precise formulation of the problems and the conceptual apparatus of the social sciences is indispensable to successful sociological study. His doctoral thesis (1926), an outgrowth of his combined interest in the logic of concepts and the theory of culture, was an analysis of the concept of sign and discussed the twofold function of culture elements: that of expressing and that of denoting.
His next major work was a book, U podstaw estetyki (1933; “On the Foundations of Aesthetics”), written while he was working as a secondary school teacher. The book includes a review of past work on aesthetics and analyzes in precise terms the respective roles of the beauty of nature and the beauty of man-made objects in man’s spiritual life and in human culture. On the basis of this book, Ossowski was awarded the venia legendi by the University of Warsaw in 1933.
During the ten-year period that Ossowski worked on aesthetics, he was developing the interest in sociology that was gradually to become dominant. In the 1930s his concern with social issues and with the problems of socialism grew, and he became a member of the socialist-minded intelligentsia of pre-World War II Warsaw. Both his sociological and his social interests were strengthened by a period of study that he and his sociologist wife, Maria, spent in England, from 1933 to 1935. While there, Ossowski attended Malinowski’s seminar on cultural anthropology and came into contact with the political and cultural problems of non-European peoples. This led him to try to avoid European ethnocentrism in posing and solving sociological problems and to search for syntheses that would be valid for broad cultural areas.
His contact with cultural anthropology also intensified his interest in the phenomenon of racialism, and in the late 1930s he delivered lectures on the social functions of racialist theories and myths in contemporary societies (1938). In his preface to the second edition, Ossowski wrote, “Today, racialist ideology seems an anachronism. . . . But racialism was an anachronism even before the war. That war demonstrated fully how vital such anachronisms can be when they encounter favourable conditions, and how insufficiently modern civilization safeguards man against the possibility of mass folly” ( 1948, pp. 5-6). It is hardly surprising to find also that Ossowski took an active part in the campaign against anti-Semitism in Polish academic life before 1939.
During the war Ossowski was active in the Polish resistance. At the risk of his life, he lectured in the then-underground University of Warsaw. He also continued to write, but most of the works he wrote during this period were burned in 1944. The only work that survives is a small but important book (1943), first published clandestinely, that outlines the ideal socialist democracy: It proposes that a planned economy and individual freedom be combined, permitting social equality without the loss of cultural diversity. The new democratic culture would be marked by the coexistence of universalization and differentiation processes on a large scale.
After the war Ossowski lectured at the University of Lodz and then was appointed to the chair of sociology at Warsaw. He held the chair until 1952 when, with increasing Stalinization and the systematic elimination of centers of independent research, the chair was abolished. Although he was thus deprived of contact with students, Ossowski continued his research with a group of his closest followers. During this period he wrote Class Structure in the Social Consciousness (1957), analyzing the various ways that social stratification has been handled in different social theories and ideologies. He paid particular attention to differences in the conceptual apparatus of the theories of social structure in Marxist and non-Marxist sociology. At the International Sociological Congress in Amsterdam in 1956, he explained that his chief concern in writing the book was to develop conceptual categories that would enable sociologists to compare changes in social structure in socialist and capitalist countries (1956).
With the political changes that took place in Poland in 1956, Ossowski was restored to the chair of sociology at Warsaw. Thereafter he was one of those principally responsible for the rebirth of sociology in Poland. In 1957 his initiative led to the founding of the Polish Sociological Association; he was elected its president and remained in that office until his death. He devoted most of his energy to teaching, but he also wrote a number of methodological essays, later collected in a single volume (1962a). He concentrated on the necessity of preserving humanistic perspectives and psychological intuitions at a time when the theoretical structure of the social sciences was gaining in precision and when modern standardized methods of empirical research were becoming increasingly effective.
In the last years of his life Ossowski was preoccupied with new problems, and he was hoping to write yet another book, on the dynamism of “higher values” in social processes. His work on these problems was interrupted by his death in 1963.
In one of his articles, written in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, Ossowski wrote: “Life in itself is not so important, and the transition to a state of inorganic matter is not so important either. Life is important as an opportunity for experience and for doing things which make life worth living” (1964a, p. 27). These words are a key to the force and charm of Ossowski’s personality.
1926 Analiza pojecia znaku (An Analysis of the Concept of Sign). Przeglqd filozoficzny 29:29-56.
(1933) 1958 U podstaw estetyki (On the Foundations of Aesthetics). 3d ed. Warsaw: Pa00E1;;stwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe.
1935 Prawa “historyczne” w socjologii (“Historical” Laws in Sociology). Przeglqd filozoficzny 37:3-32.
(1936) 1964 Ossowska, Maria; and Ossowski, Stanislaw The Science of Science. Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning and Policy 3:72-82.
(1938) 1948 Wieź spoieczna i dziedzictwo krwi (Social Bonds and the Heritage of Blood). 2d ed. Warsaw: Ksiażka. → The translation of the extract in the text was provided by Stefan Nowak.
(1943) 1956 Ku nowym formom źycia spoiecznego (Toward New Forms of Social Life). Warsaw: Ksiażka i Wiedza.
(1947-1956) 1957 Marksizm i twórczość naukowa w spoleczenstwie socjalistycznym: Artykuiy z lat 1947-1956 (Marxism and Science in a Socialist Society). Warsaw: Ksiazka i Wiedza. → A collection of essays.
1951a [A Paper by Ossowski.] Pages 238-265 in United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Democracy in a World of Tensions: A Symposium. Edited by Richard McKeon with the assistance of Stein Rokkan. Univ. of Chicago Press.
1951b Changing Patterns in Modern National Ideology. International Social Science Bulletin 3:247-253.
1956 Old Notions and New Problems: Interpretations of Social Structure in Modern Society. Volume 3, pages 18-25 in World Congress of Sociology, Third, Transactions. London: International Sociological Association.
(1957) 1963 Class Structure in the Social Consciousness. New York: Free Press. → First published as Struktura klasowa w spolecznej ṡwiadomo ṡci.
1959 Social Conditions and Consequences of Social Planning. Volume 2, pages 199-222 in World Congress of Sociology, Fourth, Transactions. London: International Sociological Association.
1962a O osobliwoṡciach nauk spoiecznych (On Special Features of the Social Sciences). Warsaw: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe.
1962b Contemporary Sociology in the Processes of Social Change. Polish Sociological Bulletin , no. 1/2: 9-16.
1962c Experimental Sociology and Inner Experience. Polish Sociological Bulletin , no. 3/4:5-14. → Excerpt from O osobliwosciach nauk spoiecznych.
1964a Excerpts From the Works of Stanislaw Ossowski. Polish Sociological Bulletin , no. 1:16-27.
1964b Two Conceptions of Historical Generalizations.Polish Sociological Bulletin , no. 1:28-34.
Dziela (Works) Vols. 1—Warsaw: Paustwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1966—.
Lipset, Seymour M. 1964 Stanislaw Ossowski (1897-1963). American Sociological Review 29:748-751.
This work was a typology of the various views of class, social structure, and social processes, and the intellectual milieu from which they emerged. He argued vigorously against the crude bipolar Marxist class analysis of the time. More importantly, he articulated a view in which the existence of status privilege and economic inequality persists, even after the formal abolition of the class system. In particular he sought to introduce the importance of the study of subjective perceptions of inequality, of attitudes, and to research what was new, inherited, or even absent within the supposedly classless societies of real socialism. He also drew attention to similarities between capitalist and socialist societies, in the way in which they presented their societies as classless, and attempted to remove the bases for ‘group solidarity amongst the underprivileged’. The nationalization of the means of production may have been a necessary condition for moving towards the kind of society envisaged by the Marxist-Leninists, but it was certainly not a sufficient condition, and he asserted that many old forms of inequality had re-emerged in a new guise.
Ossowski had the intellectual breadth as well as the moral courage to write this treatise at a time when even the discussion of social stratification with reference to socialist peoples' democracies was taboo. He displayed his socialist concerns alongside intellectual rigour and scholarly autonomy and thus set the foundations for a sociology which survived and flourished in conditions of repression where in other countries of real socialism it all but disappeared.