Prof. Maria Ossowska (1896-1974) Prof. Maria Ossowska (1896-1974) Jan Morek/FORUM

As a scientist, she showed a continual drive to push forward a research agenda that she had sketched out in her youth. As a citizen, she demonstrated unyielding courage in defending the values she held dear. It has now been 40 years since the death of Maria Ossowska, the precursor of moral sociology


Aurhor: Elżbieta Neyman
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Elżbieta Neyman, a sociologist and essayist, has published the book Intymny portret uczonych [An Intimate Portrait of Scholars], examining the correspondence of Maria and Stanisław Ossowski. 



She was born as Maria Niedźwiedzka, into a poor noble family. She had her family circle to thank for a very thorough education: she was well-versed in foreign languages, classical music, and the philosophical literature. In 1915, she began studying at the University of Warsaw under Tadeusz Kotarbiński, Władysław Tatarkiewicz, and Jan Łukasiewicz. She wrote her PhD dissertation on the axiology of the stoics, then earned her higher doctorate (DSc or habilitation) degree based on a treatise in semantics.

Her marriage to the sociologist Stanisław Ossowski was not just an emotional bond, but also a partnership in intellectual pursuits and in public action. Together they wrote the seminal article “The Science of Science” (1935).

The Ossowskis were affiliated with the progressive left, playing an important role in the creation of the Warsaw Housing Cooperative and in the protests against the “ghetto bench,” as the segregation measures against Jewish students at Polish universities were then known. Their sociopolitical convictions did not allow them to accept paid positions at academic institutions, so they served as university lecturers without pay. Ossowska’s development as a scholar was profoundly affected by a research visit to England (1933-1935). She attended seminars by Bronisław Malinowski and George Moore, and had already previously been in contact with Bertrand Russell. Her interests turned towards ethical problems.

At the end of the 1930s, Ossowska formulated a research agenda with the primary objective of describing and explaining moral behavior. It was meant to draw upon various fields: logic, mathematics, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. In lieu of speculative deliberation, Ossowska postulated an empirical approach. The main fields of this new science were to be the psychology of morality (above all addressing the problem of how motivation is shaped and functions), and the sociology of morality (studying the social underpinnings of motivation and the behavior of individuals). To pave the way for these, she undertook an analysis of the very language of moral thought in her Foundations of the Science of Morality, a work finished before WWII but published in 1947 (in Polish). In it she put forward a theoretical manifesto.

The period of the war and occupation saw social affairs gain the upper hand in the Ossowskis’ lives, above scholarly pursuits. They assisted people of Jewish origin, engaged in educational activity among the workers’ community, organized an underground university, and gave lectures.

It was under the German occupation that Maria Ossowska wrote her book Motives of Action (published in Polish in 1949). It contains a critical review of the fundamental concepts for analyzing moral phenomena, such as “human nature,” “motive,” and “intention,” and a theory attempting to explain these phenomena by appealing to altruism or egoism.

In 1945 the Ossowskis became professors at the University of Łódź. Their teaching activity would nevertheless be punctuated by discontinuity. Ties with their students in Łódź were severed by their return to Warsaw in 1948 to take up chairs at Warsaw University. But they were soon forced to say goodbye to their new students as well: for political reasons, both were suspended from giving lectures or seminars in 1950-1956. Even so, this did not interrupt their research work. It was during this time that Ossowska’s first source-reviewing monograph, Bourgeois Morality (published in Polish in 1956). Here she analyzes the classical proposals in ethics: those of Franklin, Defoe, Albertini, and Volney. Based on historical reconstruction, she formulates an ideal type of bourgeois thought, which she depicts against the backdrop of how it was criticized by the Polish social left, the thinking of the noble class, and the Young Poland movement.
The political thaw of 1956 led to both Maria and Stanisław’s reinstatement to their chairs at the University of Warsaw. The subject of sociology, which had previously been banned as a “bourgeois discipline,” also reappeared at higher education schools.

In 1960, Maria Ossowska was invited by Barnard College in New York to deliver lectures on the sociology of morality. Back in Poland, she published Social Determinants of Moral Ideas (Polish edition 1963), dealing with the emergence and development of norms in social life. She also addresses the central problem of the factors that shape the morality of social groups: the physical environment and factors of a biological (race and gender), demographic, economic, social, political, religious, and family nature.

Stanisław’s death in 1963 marked a major turning-point in Maria Ossowska’s life. She took charge of her husband’s discussion group, took his master’s and doctorate students under her patronage, and prepared six volumes of his collected works for publication. In 1966 she published her own book, The Moral Thought of the English Enlightenment, in which she attempts an empirical verification of the hypotheses presented in her theoretical works. She demonstrates that optimism, utilitarianism, rationalism, and tolerance also characterized thinkers who represented classes other than the bourgeoisie. She stresses that English ethical thought is notable for its distinctive separation of ethics from religious dogma and its praise of benevolence.

In 1967 Ossowska gave a series of lectures at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, which was followed by the first publication of one of her works in English translation (Social Determinants of Moral Ideals, English edition 1971).
Her work Moral Norms: A Tentative Systematization points out the main ethical concerns of the modern era. Ossowska groups moral norms into the following categories: those which defend our biological existence, independence, and privacy, those that serve the need for trust, and those which stand in defense of justice. Ossowska’s last book, The Chivalric Ethos and Its Varieties (in Polish 1973), is a typological work supported by source materials.
It is hard to overestimate Maria Ossowska’s role in science and public life. She formulated and then pursued a coherent research agenda for a new discipline. In her scholarly work she had to overcome not only intellectual, but also emotional resistance – she was initially surrounded by an atmosphere of mistrust, among a community which was accustomed to adopting a stance on moral issues that prescriptively set forth what was right and what was wrong. Despite the historical curse, we might say, that hung over her teaching efforts, she still managed to leave behind students who continue her work.



© Academia 3 (43) 2014

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