Associate Professor of History, Yale University
(July 2020 – June 2021)
Eyeglasses Floating in Space: Central European encounters that came about while searching for truth
As a dissident under communism, Václav Havel insisted on the imperative “to live in truth.” Thirty years ago, the Velvet Revolution ushered the dissident playwright into the presidency of Czechoslovakia. In his first speech to the United States Congress, Havel asserted, “Consciousness precedes Being, and not the other way around, as the Marxists claim.” Few of Havel’s American listeners had any idea what he meant. In fact, Havel, like other dissident thinkers, was not countering communism with liberalism, but rather countering a Hegelian-Marxist tradition with a phenomenological-existentialist one. The origins of East European dissident thought can be traced back to Edmund Husserl and T.G. Masaryk in the late 19th century, and the post-Enlightenment attempt to find a grounding for truth in the absence of God. After Stalin’s death, Heidegger’s philosophy became an antidote to what Czesław Miłosz named “the Hegelian bite.” This century-long arc reveals a path from epistemology through ontology to ethics, from a preoccupation with clarity and certitude through a preoccupation with determinism versus responsibility, to a preoccupation with authenticity as a moral stance.
Previous stays at the IWM:
June 2018 – August 2019, Visiting Fellow
June – August 2017, Visiting Fellow
May – July 2016, Visiting Fellow
June – July 2015, Visiting Fellow
June 2013 – June 2014, Visiting Fellow
August 2009 – August 2010, Visiting Fellow
Phenomenological Encounters: Scenes from Central Europe
This projects explores the role of phenomenology—and later, beginning in the 1920s, of the existentialism that grows out of phenomenology—in East-Central Europe through World War II and the Stalinist years; the attempts in the late 1950s and 1960s to create a revisionist Marxism; and later, after 1968, to dissident intellectuals’ efforts to develop a post-Marxist, “anti-political” philosophy. Early 20th-century preoccupations with the distance between subject and object, and the role of the aesthetic object, came in time to seem less urgent than preoccupations with clarifying the boundary between determinism and responsibility, and later between truth and lies. What was at stake at these different moments and how did the stakes change?
The Self Laid Bare: Phenomenology, Structuralism, and other Cosmopolitan Encounters
This is a project about Central European modernism, which examines encounters among intellectuals occasioned by phenomenology and linguistic structuralism. I begin with the Viennabased Brentanoschule of the 1870s and 1880s and continue through the phenomenological influence on dissident intellectuals of the 1970s and 1980s. The book is envisioned as an intellectual portrait of Central Europe grappling with modernity and will explore why phenomenology “took hold” in Central Europe; why certain ideas generated at the fin-de-siècle proved peculiarly compelling throughout the whole of the dramatic 20th century.