Jan Patočka, philosopher who “had really huge impact on direction of country”

Jan Patočka

Jan Patočka is regarded as perhaps the greatest Czech philosopher of the 20th century. A new book makes several of his writings available in English for the first time.

The Selected Writings of Jan Patočka: Care for the Soul is the title of a collection of writings published recently by Bloomsbury in the UK. Most of the essays appear in English for the first time ever in the book, which is edited by Erin Plunkett of the University of Hertfordshire and Ivan Chvatík, who was close to the philosopher and heads the Jan Patočka Archive. The collection is translated by Alex Zucker.

Patočka was a student of Husserl and Heidegger and worked in the field of phenomenology, a branch of philosophy focused on experience and consciousness.

However he is probably best-known as one of the founders of the Charter 77 human rights movement in Communist Czechoslovakia; by then 69 and in poor health, the philosopher died following gruelling secret police interrogations soon after the Charter was published.

In the new collection’s introduction Erin Plunkett asks rhetorically “why Patočka and why now?” – questions I put to the academic herself.

“For myself, the reason why Patočka is so appealing is his critique of instrumental reason.

Photo: Bloomsbury Publishing

“I think of him as kind of a philosopher of rupture and of uncertainty.

“I find Patočka quite helpful for thinking through a way of remaining open to uncertainty that both kind of affirms our need for things to ground us – for example, the community of other people – but in a way that doesn’t just end up reaching back to the security of national identities or pre-conceived identities but allows us to forge new forms of identity, new forms of community that are more open.

“So that’s what appeals most to me about Patočka.

“Other people… and one of the reasons that we were interested in doing this book now is Patočka’s reflections on Europe, the identity of Europe, what it means to carry out the project of Europe when, in a certain sense, that project has failed.

“And Patočka is very clear about that.”

And he spoke about a future that would be “post-European”?

“Indeed, and he’s doing this quite early as well.

“As early as the second world war, and maybe even in writings before that, he’s already using the term ‘post-Europe’.

“This shows up a lot in his work from the ‘60s and the ‘70s especially – his work on Plato and Europe and his work in the Heretical Essays and some of the works that we translated for this volume.

Erin Plunkett | Photo: University of Hertfordshire

“So post-Europe to him is a definitive statement that whatever this European ideal has been and whatever form it has taken – this form of European rationality – is no longer viable, and that the project of thinking of Europe as this narrative of constant progress, maybe with its roots in ancient Greece and moving into the 20th century… that maybe it got knocked off course here and there but essentially it’s a coherent project.

“For him this is deeply flawed, because if we don’t look at the same time at the way in which a certain conception of rationality has led to two world wars, what he calls ‘the 20th century of war’, then we’re failing to kind of see the full picture of what rationality has meant.

“So it’s not just an accident that these things have occurred – it’s sort of part of the flawed notion of instrumental rationality that has guided this European project, according to Patočka.”

Patočka of course was working and living in a totalitarian state and he had himself lived through two world wars. How much do we get a sense of Patočka’s experience of living under communism in his actual philosophy? Is it palpable?

“For me it’s so often something that’s boiling right at the surface of his texts.

“He’s a very technical philosopher in many ways. He writes very technical phenomenology, which relies on a lot of knowledge of Husserl and Heidegger and other thinkers within the history of philosophy.

“So in that sense you could think of his philosophy as quite separate from the environment in which he found himself.

Jan Patočka | Photo: Czech Television

“But I think when you look at his concerns of living with a value of care for the soul… Care for the soul in his philosophy means a kind of cultivation of that element that can’t be controlled and repressed from the outside, a cultivation of, we might say, the spirit or the ability to live in relationship to truth that human beings are capable of.

“When you look at his emphasis on that, and his insistence that whatever system you might be living in, whether it’s liberal democracy or communism... he has plenty of criticisms for all of those systems, in so far as they become complacent and kind of calcified, and work against this capacity for human beings to transcend themselves and relate themselves to the truth, in this open way.”

Perhaps to look at this from another angle, he is I guess best-known to the general public as the guy who helped draft Charter 77 and then died after being interrogated by the secret police. To what degree, could we say, did his philosophy inform that engagement and the creation of the Charter 77 Declaration?

“Scholars disagree about this, but I think that the people that knew him best see the seeds of his political engagement in his philosophy itself.

“So even though you could see his philosophy as having these more esoteric elements, I think that his conviction that human life can’t just be bare existence, it has to be life for the sake of something…

“I think this conviction did lead him to become involved.

“Certainly he was disillusioned by the events of 1968, by his dismissal, prematurely, from the university in 1972, and no doubt these events kind of led him in the direction of political involvement.

“Not that it was something inevitable, from reading his philosophy, but I think there’s a deep link there.

“Other dissidents found in Patočka’s philosophy – despite not having technical backgrounds in philosophy – something to inspire them.

“And of course he became this symbol of a kind of martyr hero, after the fashion of a Socrates, somebody who died for truth or in relationship to truth.

“So I think regardless of whether you think of Patočka as an actual martyr, or just someone who happened to get caught up in this movement, there is no doubt about his impact on the dissident movement.

“Looking at figures like Havel, using so many of Patočka’s ideas, I think it’s clear he had a really huge impact on the direction of the country.

“And I don’t think that it’s an overstatement to say that his ideas contributed to eventually the fall of communism.”

Ivan Chvatík | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

Ivan Chvatík, who is now 80, became a student of Patočka’s when the philosopher impressed him as “extraordinary” in lectures in the late 1960s.

“He was a very nice person. Of course he had a sort of authoritative… atmosphere. But he was very, very, very pleasant.

“He never read his lecture – he always developed his idea on the spot, regardless of whether it was some lecture from the history of philosophy or something contemporary which he was just working on.

“So he always developed the thought and it was quite apparent that he was really thinking when teaching [laughs].”

The two became close and when the philosopher was thrown out of the university in the early 1970s Chvatík helped organise underground seminars for Patočka at apartments in Prague. He explains how.

“We knew what the situation with the secret police was and what the Communists could do, and what they did not like.

“So we decided to organise these sessions quite secretly – we never used telephones, and so on.

“It started in I think 1973 and it went on – and it was, I think, very nice.

“Of course we recorded all of that and most of it has already been published in the collected works, which I organise.”

Was he angry or bitter about not being allowed to teach officially and having his career so badly affected by the Communists?

“Well, it’s difficult to say so, because he knew this already from his whole life in fact [laughs].

“So he was used to it and he understood that it would end like that.

“It was even a miracle that he was allowed to teach until the middle of 1972.

“So in this respect it was no problem for him.

“But there was another problem for him. He was a little ill, with his lungs, and he in fact wanted to write a lot of things.

“In his letters, which we are now publishing too, he is always complaining that he has no time and not enough energy to do all these things.

“But on the other hand he did so many things that it is unbelievable [laughs].”

After he died in 1977 what did you and other people do to keep his legacy alive?

“He was one of the first three spokespersons of Charter 77, so we must have finished our sessions at the end of December, ‘76.

“But then after the New Year the Charter was published and the police were furious, so we couldn’t meet again.

“I just met him once at the Main Post Office, when he was filling in papers following the open letter to the general prosecutor, concerning the Charter.

“It was also sent to a lot of other places, so I helped him filling in these papers [laughs].

“And it was the last time I saw him.

“When he died in the hospital, it was a Sunday… I learned it from Radio Free Europe or Voice of America – I don’t remember which – at about noon.

“So I decided immediately to go home to Prague; in Prague you couldn’t hear the radio – outside at the cottage it was possible.

“Immediately we went home and with three other friends, one of them had a car, we went in the evening to the flat of Patočka’s daughter.

“With the help of her husband, Jan Sokol, we went to Patočka’s flat – he was living in the villa of the father of Jan Sokol – and we packed all the manuscripts and important things and took it away.

“Because we decided that the police were lazy and they would get their orders only on Monday morning [laughs].”

What did you do with those materials?

“First we kept it in secret – and sorted it in a way, because that evening we just had to put it all in a heap and take it away.

“So we sorted it and then I started to organise what we now call the archive – a collection of Patočka’s texts.

“And we published in fact 27 volumes in samizdat, done on a typewriter

“But of course there were a lot of things which were not published at all, so very soon I succeeded to make the acquaintance of the director of the copying department at the Ministry of Finance [laughs].

“That was functioning perfectly for many years, until the end of ’89 [laughs].

“We made heaps of copies every week – as much as I could carry in two big bags.”

It is sometimes said that dissident turned president Václav Havel drew inspiration from Patočka’s philosophy, particularly the concept of “living in truth”, with which Havel was closely associated. Chvatík says the reality was a little more complicated.

“Generally speaking it is true, but in detail he didn’t meet Patočka very often, first because he was in jail most of the time.

“Of course he knew Patočka already from his activity in the theatre Na Zabradli, because Patočka did sort of seminars there after performances, in the night.

“In fact the connecting device or how to call it between Patočka and Havel was Jiří Němec.

“He is a man who is not very well-known until now but he in fact was the inventor of Charter 77, the soul of the whole project.

“He was a philosopher and he knew Patočka a long time before and he was in regular contact with Vaclav Hável.

“So it was transferred in this way.”

Patočka is regularly referred to as one of the greatest Czech philosophers of the last century. But how well known are his ideas beyond his native country? Erin Plunkett says it depends on which parts of the world one is talking about.

“I’d say he has a much stronger reputation in Europe than he does in the Anglophone world.

“For example, his writings have been available in French and German for some time – much more of his writings have been available in those languages.

“Paul Riceour was the philosopher who wrote the article announcing Patočka’s death, kind of painting him as a philosopher of the resistance.

“At the very end of Patočka’s life he had this influence on French philosophy. You seem him in Derrida – that’s where I encountered Patočka for the first time.

“He hasn’t had as much influence on the Anglophone world and that’s part of the reason why we wanted to produce this book of new translations.

“I think one area where he’s starting to become more relevant is political philosophy.

“He was influenced by Hannah Arendt’s writings and although he doesn’t have a political philosophy per se, he picks up a lot of the same themes as Arendt: the importance of non-instrumental thinking as a counter to a purely utilitarian conception of life.

“And this is starting to inform some discussions: What politics is and especially in the discussion of what we want Europe to be – if we no longer have this coherent, unified project of Europe available to us, what is Europe going to look like?

“So there are a lot of political philosophers, Italian and English, who are looking at Patočka now and trying to gleam some of these themes from him.”