The Hunt for the Law of Infinite Cornucopia
Where did Leszek Kolakoski's idea come from?
June 18, 2012 - 2:20 pm
Some years back, I came across the phrase “the law of the infinite cornucopia,” more tersely named “Kolakowski’s Law.” This beautiful piece of wisdom, apparently offered by the late Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, states that for any given position, there are an infinite number of arguments to support it. A Marxist who became a staunch anti-communist, Kolakowski might have agreed that the utopian Left argues the way Mike Tyson fights: they want to put you down quickly but, if pushed, will resort to anything and everything, including biting your ear.
Since then, I have seen passing references to Kolakowki’s Law in many blog posts. (It has even appeared in the New York Times.) I happen to think the law is correct, and, as proof, I can give you an infinite number of reasons why I think so. I was thus pleased to see it gaining currency in political discussions. As I came across more references to the infinite cornucopia, however, I noticed that each explanation of it was phrased in almost exactly the same way, and that all were most likely taken from the short Wikipedia page devoted the law.
As someone who currently makes a living as a historian, this was not good enough for me. I wanted an original document. I wanted to read Kolakowski’s own explanation of this law, so I decided to seek out the source in which it first appeared. This has proved much more difficult than I had originally thought. Google searches of the relevant phrases turn up only blog posts that regurgitate the brief Wikipedia explanation. There is no essay or article or even so much as a quotation from Kolakowski himself on the Internet explaining the law of the infinite cornucopia.
Where does this law come from?!
The obvious guess is that it comes from an obscure article of Kolakowski’s that is not available online. My other guess is that it is lurking somewhere in his multi-volume classic Main Currents of Marxism, of which I have read chunks but do not have copies handy.
Despite the lack of original sourcing of Kolakowki’s Law on the Internet, it appears that the person who originally brought the law to the attention of a wide audience was the historian Timothy Garton Ash, who referenced it in a 1996 article in The New York Review of Books and then again in a book of his. There is no footnote in either text.
This, then, seems to be one of those cases in which an entire superstructure of references is built on a rather flimsy base.
My curiosity growing, I e-mailed Garton Ash today inquiring where Kolakowski first articulated this elusive but profound law of political debate. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the source is obviously available on the Internet and that I missed it. Any Kolakowski scholars in the PJ community? If so, please e-mail me.
I shall report back to you.