15 Voices on Patočka for the 21st Century


The year 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Charter 77, the Czechoslovak declaration of human rights that played a pivotal role in inspiring opposition movements in Eastern Europe, ultimately leading to the fall of communism. Nineteen seventy-seven was also the year that philosopher Jan Patočka, one of the three original spokespersons of Charter 77, died in the aftermath of severe police interrogations. His tragic death brought him posthumous renown as a Socrates figure throughout a broader public. Yet Patočka’s primary bequest is perhaps less the political role he played towards the end of his life, and more his lifelong thinking on the most urgent questions of truth and morality, religion and secularization, art and literature, the role of philosophy in the everyday world, and the fate of European civilization in the wake of the horrors of the 20th century.

Ludger Hagedorn, Head of IWM’s Research Focus on the Philosophical Work of Jan Patočka, has gathered a collection of 15 voices from scholars, writers and intellectuals around the world on the question of why Patočka’s work resonates ever more so in the 21st century.

Jan Patočka (rechts im Bild) mit dem Architekten Jan Sokol (links) in Paris; vor 1937.
Jan Patočka (rechts im Bild) mit dem Architekten Jan Sokol (links) in Paris; vor 1937.

Jan Patočka’s thought remains a vital source for political action in the twenty-first century. More than most, Patočka grappled with the implications and responsibilities of political freedom, not only in his philosophical reflections, but also in his own life. Three things stand out. First, political freedom means living in problematicity. Patočka recognizes that the world in which we live invites ongoing problematization, and as such, the search for truth requires its radical questioning.

Second, the problematization of the world can result in a ‘shaking’ of instituted constellations of meaning, of taken for granted ‘certainties’. In this way, political freedom involves struggle and conflict over new meanings and ways of being human. New social worlds and forms of collective unity are created in and through such political contestation.

Finally, Patočka’s political thought emerges, at least in part, from the phenomenological insight that we are always already in-the-world. This means that humans are not unfettered sovereign world makers standing beyond the world; rather humans are beings of the world. Our reach is thus more modest and limited than modern thought would generally suppose. Being in-the-world also means that political freedom requires a shared, public space – a world in common – in which its citizens can act in openness to renew ‘life in truth’.

Suzi Adams, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Flinders University, Adelaide

In today’s Europe, we are witnessing the renewal of a politics that builds its identity on radical nationalism and European cultural superiority. Rather than being an integrative factor, the call for European “unity” often reveals exclusivist and xenophobic political projects. The crucial question for me is: How to formulate a positive European identity without being Eurocentric? While postcolonial epistemology gives us a good methodological tool for a profound critique of the European intellectual heritage, it will hardly offer any positive formulation of its cultural and epistemological identity in a globalized world.

Patočka’s thought is really insightful here: It provides the same strong critique of the arrogance of European rationality, but rather than rejecting it as “Eurocentric”, he turns back to its history and finds the conflicting moments revealing the possibilities of freedom. Patočka’s approach probably cannot answer all the questions that the post-modern world is facing, but it provides an alternative conceptual framework in which a debate on the “new Europe” – Europe rather as an idea than a pragmatic political alliance – can start. To create a “post-European community” based on inclusiveness and openness is the European task for the 21st century. Patočka’s late political commitment for Charter 77 shows that its realization is more than an idealistic fantasy.

Kristina Andělova, Department of Czech History, Charles University Prague

My life has been soft, and I have never been through a fraction of what Jan Patočka (and others) went through in the Czechoslovakia of 1977.  Yet in recent times, I’ve found it frighteningly easy to imagine the kind of mental fog, the demoralisation and the sense of helplessness that can descend once political tyranny takes hold in a country.  Against this threat, it is heartening to think of Jan Patočka, both because of his own courageous action and because of his thinking on how political tyranny works and how we can resist it.  Even phenomenology helps, by bringing us back “to the things themselves”, reminding us to set aside received ideas and to concentrate on what presents itself immediately to our own experience.  I find myself often thinking of what Jan Patočka said in his “Political Testament,” shortly before his final arrest: “What is needed is for people to behave at all times with dignity, not to allow themselves to be frightened and intimidated, and to speak the truth.”  It sounds simple.  It is not.

Sarah Bakewell, Writer, London

Patočka is considered to be the most important Czech philosopher. However, I think that his relevance also has to be seen in something else: Although he was a loyal citizen for almost his entire life, he finally furnished proof of a courageous and philosophically justified engagement for the concerns of civil society. This is most remarkable.

And there is also something else that I find important: it is quite striking how fiercely and passionately Patočka resisted the totalitarian regime. The regime was backed by a big occupation army, yet he dared to base this protest on just a few words uttered by an almost unknown professor of philosophy. Patočka and the first speakers of Charter 77were indeed not a group of armed fighters planning for a revolutionary overthrow. But they demonstrated that a truthful word which is expressed with personal conviction is the biggest enemy of all kinds of totalitarianism.

Ivan Blecha, Philosopher, Palacký University Olomouc

At least some of the basic characteristics of the 21st century are beginning to come into focus: it looks to be a world more than ever divided between confused, competing political fantasies that move masses, though largely at the forfeit of any solid intellectual or moral grounding; a world progressively shaped by the inexorable development of a juggernaut of social technologies of control and government, indifferent to life and freedom in any form; a world in which science succumbs more and more to its own instrumentalization, ungrounded from any genuine orientation around the question of the meaning of human existence and its challenges; a world in which “civilization” itself is torn between pillory and empty mythologizing, suppressing almost from the start any attempt at a reflection on the spiritual meaning of our complex intellectual heritages, in whatever part of the world. How could Patočka not be relevant?

James Dodd, Philosopher, New School for Social Research, New York

More than ever before, we find ourselves today confronted with a double temptation: 1) To assume that life may become something entirely meaningful, lucid and manageable: be it thanks to meditation techniques, to male energy, to the concord with a bigger I or the constellations of the cosmos… Patočka’s philosophy expresses a warning: to reach a final balance, would be a debasement – man is a being of conflict, of discontinuity, and of tension. 2) To assume that our acting is just an accompanying component or a consequence of certain processes that are independent of us: As if our acting and our whole life were something that has already been programmed and cannot be changed so that we are suspended from any responsibility.  Patočka’s philosophy forcefully demonstrates that by our capacity of acting we always bring something new into the world – and what happens around us is always also the result of our own decisions.

Jan Frei, Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague

It is especially Patočka’s civilizational analysis that in some sense develops its full potential only in the contemporary situation. More than ever, the globalized world is characterized by the chances as well as by the tensions arising from the crossing of civilizational settings. What we experience, is the combination and pervasion of traditional elements with the means of modernity (technological, organizational etc.) – a process that was described under the heading of “multiple modernities.”

Patočka clear-sightedly anticipated typical patterns of the current development. His ideas help us e.g. to understand why political radicalisms often have roots in tradition and religion, yet nevertheless are profoundly modern by their use of new technologies, political ideologies, and one-sided (“auto-immunizing”) misinterpretations of their own traditional settings. The full scope of this analysis is developed against the background of Patočka’s concept of hyper-civilization (nadcivilizace) and his later analyses of Europe and the Post-European world.

Furthermore, one also has to mention Patočka’s untimely reassessment of religion as an outstanding achievement of his thought. His thought entails a core of ideas that are as provocative and heretical to the Christian tradition as they are to an all-too triumphant secularism. This philosophical venture clearly makes him stand out as an important forerunner of, as well as a critical counterweight to, the contemporary resurgence of religion in scholarly discourse.

Ludger Hagedorn, Head of Program, IWM, Vienna

The figure of the Socratic philosopher whose existence is a crystal of being and whose freedom of thinking cannot be stopped by anything but his death is a timeless model. Jan Patočka incarnates it for us today. Attacked by the press, harassed by bureaucratic pressure and the police crackdown, the dissident philosopher, spokesman of the Charter 77, constantly denounced the ideology of normalization, risking his life.

Patočka warns us about the meaning we will give to the Post-Europe of the 21stcentury: the various spiritualties of the non-European cultures may come into conflict with our hyper-rationalized conception that imposes unilaterally its image of the world. Only a restructuring of our reason— that substitutes the imperialism of the techno-scientific rationalization, can save Post-Europe: by reanimating life in the ideas and the care of the open soul, by restructuring a transcultural spirituality that unites mankind, recreates solidarity and gives meaning again to the communal concern of “the problematicity of the given” (problématicité de l’étant donné).  Because Europe won’t be able to reform itself without opening to other forms of problematicity (present in the Taoist, Buddhist, Indian traditions etc…), this is the primary condition in order to hope for living in peace in a communal world.

By orientating ourselves in the thought of phenomenology and European History, Jan Patočka is a major philosopher for the twenty-first century.

Philippe Merlier, Philosopher, Lycée Suzanne Valadon, Limoges

Patočka’s heroic resistance against political persecution under a socialist regime, by incessantly pursuing independent philosophical research and private philosophical teaching practically under the eyes of state police, is an eminent example showing that it is possible to continue to philosophize under adverse socio-political and institutional conditions. The way he exercises the freedom of thinking and conducts his moral conscience at the risk of his own existence as an act of affirmation of the basic civil rights prescribed by the law of the socialist state but proscribed under a totalitarian regime constitutes an unequaled model for contemporary Chinese intellectuals in their search for independent intellectual personality.

As a dissident phenomenologist, Patočka is the first non-Eurocentric philosopher to reflect on the age of Post-European humanity. His original readings of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle make them speak to us with a freshness and reflective depth seldom seen such that this thinking tradition comes to life again in spite of the unfavorable intellectual climate of the contemporary world. For the Chinese philosophical community in which there is a constant concern for the possibility of giving fresh life again to classical Chinese texts, Patočka’s art of exegesis constitutes a formidable challenge and a model of appropriation.

Kwok-ying Lau, Philosopher, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

In many writings, Jan Patočka studied, amid other topics, the crisis of contemporary technical civilisation. He did it referring to other philosophers but elaborated a strictly original thought. His analyses are highly timely, both in their diagnoses and in their solutions.

Patočka proposes to experience freedom as an elevating impulse (vzmach) that distances us from the massive positivity of what is given and opens to negativity and a mysterious fullness of meaning. It is this understanding that may offer us a way out of the present crisis by suggesting a “solidarity of the shaken,” i.e. the solidarity of those who know what is at stake in history. It could be held that our age has continued the mobilisation process and the implementation of the technical understanding of being, both in the presence of technology in our lives and in the mechanization of globalised economic processes. In this context, the “seer of Prague” (Rorty) has to tell us more than ever with his notions of Force, vzmach, negativity and freedom.

Iván Ortega Rodríguez, Philosopher, Universidad Pontificia Comillas, Madrid

The economic crises and the constant intimidation posed by ISIS terrorism revitalize all kinds of nationalist tendencies in Europe which threaten the disgregation of EU. Impeded by the lack of political cohesion, Europe is unable to play a leading role in the fight against global terrorism and has to accept that non-European actors take over to defend the rule of law.

In the 1960‘s Jan Patočka analyzed Europe‘s situation in the ‘bipolar world’ resulting from World War II: it is a Europe marginalised and displaced from the theatre of history or, in Patočka’s word, a Post-Europe. By universalizing its rationality, modern European civilization ‒ «supercivilization» ‒ spread its technological knowledge over the world, fulfilling the project of global dominance which, however, it paid for by the alienation of its own heritage and the rise of techno-scientific power the essence of which was unfolded in the course of the two World Wars as something that turned against Europe.

The current European crisis is understandable as a further manifestation of this auto-expropriation. By diagnosing the crisis of his Europe, Patočka clearly foresaw patterns also of today’s crisis and thereby gave us an efficacious tool of how to handle the difficult situation of our Europe.

Riccardo Paparusso, Philosopher, Angelicum University/Rome International School

Why is Jan Patočka inspiring for the twenty-first century? Here are four thoughts, all related: 1. The solidarity of the shaken, how life reaches out into the night, into darkness and nothingness, our confrontation with the abyss that is human mortality. This is not the solidarity of those who have forgiven and forgotten, but the solidarity of those who understand. 2. (from a letter Patočka wrote to the young Polish philosopher Krzysztof Michalski in 1974) Heidegger’s “special meaning. . .for our East European countries,” Heidegger’s philosophy as an antidote to the “Hegelian bite,” i.e. historical determinism. 3. Human finitude as the condition for meaning: meaning as a searching for meaning, the seeking as the thing itself. 4. Responsibility as (interpreting Heidegger) “not a relation to some kind of being, but an ontological trait of our Dasein in itself.” There is no escaping responsibility.

Marci Shore, Historian of Ideas, Yale University

Jan Patočka will be inspiring for the future at least in three respects. In the first place, for his fellow philosophers, by the way in which he thought – the earnest with which carried out his work, how thoroughly he prepared for every article and lecture, and how critically he regarded his work afterwards. In times of the quantitative “evaluation” of all scientific and scholarly work, in times of the installment of a system where everybody is forced to publish as much and as fast as possible, Patočka’s literary estate with its many unfinished manuscripts reminds us of a different approach. Not that his way of thinking was so volatile, but because he kept on asking himself the same difficult question: is it really worth to be published?

Secondly, Patočka might be considered exemplary for citizens of today in the sense that he helps us to understand that an educated person does not stand out because she/he can speak about everything and pretends to understand everything, but because she/he respects the competences of others, incl. that of elected representatives and politicians. Only in extreme cases of great importance is it essential to interfere critically, certainly without personally discrediting those that are being criticized.

Finally, Patočka continues to remind us of our infinite human duty to think and to ponder the consequences of our own work (respectively those of our passivity or omission to act), and this includes the responsibility to also think beyond the borders of our own domain, because it is precisely here where the consequences might be especially dangerous.

Jan Sokol, Philosopher, Charles University Prague

For the intellectual debate in today’s Belarus, it is Patočka’s idea of a “solidarity of the shaken” and his hope for a renewal of Europe that remain most inspiring. It is important to note that this idea of a renewal is on the one hand closely connected to Europe’s own cultural and historical potential, but that Europe on the other hand is conceived critically and in a necessary mode of self-transcendence. Classical Greek thought, Christianity, the philosophical idea of freedom and its political implications, human existence and the meaning of history, the limits of rationality and questions of civilization are some of the most important constituents of his critical thinking. The intellectual history of Europe plays an eminent role as well, and it is due to Patočka that also Central and Eastern Europe become an integral part of this history.

To my understanding it is of utmost importance to link all these questions and debates with Patočka’s “solidarity of the shaken,” since it is precisely this kind of political philosophy that is capable to disclose the manifold experiences of humiliation and discrimination –be it working conditions or everyday life, be they of local or global impact – and to formulate a new model of solidarity.

Olga Shparaga, Head of Department, ECLAB, Minsk

Patočka’s philosophy does not contain a check-list of institutional solutions to our crises, and we should be suspicious of everyone who pretends to have them. However, his writing provides us with a key political insight: if we are to survive the onslaught of radicalism, pure rationality will not suffice. Patočka’s conception of moderation is not the same as technocratic and managerial governance – in fact, it is the very opposite. It requires a positive and substantive vision of politics.

Patočka’s moderate civilization is our shared European heritage. The European Union is its greatest political and institutional achievement – and the only framework in which the spirit of moderation can be redeemed.

Lubomír Zaorálek, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic