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Jan Patočka - and the Grounds for Political Action

An academic conference taking place at the Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1 on Friday 8th November 2019.

Bringing together academic specialists from the fields of philosophy, phenomenology, literature, history and the arts with members of the wider public interested in moral responsibility, social capital building, and the grounds for political action. The conference is aimed at students in all of these disciplines and at wider audiences interested in philosophy and civil society. The evening arts event is aimed at anyone passionate about the arts and the important contribution they make to a healthy and successful society.

Jan Patočka (1907-1977) was a Czech philosopher. Thanks to his contributions to phenomenology and the philosophy of history he is regarded as one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. Studying in Prague, Paris, Berlin and Freiburg, he was one of the last pupils of the celebrated philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Care for the soul lies at the heart of Patočka’s thought. From Husserl he drew the idea that rationality was the underlying principle of European civilisation. Not the rationality of the Enlightenment, but the radical self-questioning rationality of Socrates and the Greek city state. And, following Martin Heidegger, Patočka put the nature of human beings at the heart of his enquiry, and emphasised the importance of understanding humanity as situated in history.

However, it can be argued that Patočka went beyond both these great influencers by arguing that care for the soul consisted of care for the polis, for social beings in a community. Like his hero Socrates he sought a basis for politics in a combination of constant questioning (and self-questioning), public participation in the polis, and private virtue. The call to champion freedom and truth also imposes upon us a huge burden of responsibility for our fellow citizens and our fellow human beings. It effectively mandates neighbourliness, social capital building and active participation in politics, even if this involves great personal sacrifice. Despite the apparently religious connotations of the word ‘soul’, Patočka’s thought arguably manages to avoid both metaphysics and relativism. Patočka is not interested in the search for total solutions or happy endings but in initiating meaning through our own actions in the real world. In other words, our challenge is to become more fully human by moving perpetually towards the idea of truth and meaning.

Patočka’s thought was not conducted in an abstract place, but in a Czechoslovakia ravaged by successive Fascist and Communist occupations, during which periods he was not allowed to teach at the university. By becoming the most famous signatory of the Charter 77 human rights declaration, Patočka famously made a great personal sacrifice, suffered the same fate as his hero Socrates, collapsing and dying after a lengthy interrogation by the secret police, at the age of 69. It is largely to Patočka that we owe Vaclav Havel’s famous call for ‘Living in Truth’ and the need for both civility and civil society which informed his dissident thought. As a philosopher Patočka therefore played an important part in laying the foundations for the non-violent overview of Communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, the so-called ‘Velvet Revolution’, and for Havel’s unexpected elevation to the Presidency of his country. However, Patočka goes beyond dissidence to explore the basis for individual, social and political action in a post-modern polis. As such he is more relevant than ever today, when fundamental questions are once again being posed about the essential building blocks of a functioning politics and of the nature of a successful society.

The Conference

This important academic conference will bring together some of the leading academic specialists studying and researching the work of Patočka with specialists in Czech history and literature and some of the academics involved in championing free expression and civil society in the former Czechoslovakia before the fall of Communism. The conference aims to achieve the following objectives:

(1) Philosophy - provide a good introduction to Patočka’s philosophy, particularly how his ideas fit into the wider philosophical movement of phenomenology, and with the ideas of his two greatest influencers, Husserl and Heidegger;
(2) Context - situate Patočka and his distinctive contribution to philosophy in its Czech historical and cultural context, exploring his connections with the ideas of Comenius, Masaryk and other important figures within this context;
(3) Civil Society - highlight the relevance of Patočka’s ideas about Socrates and discursive democracy to modern debates about responsibility, truth, morality, civil society and the grounds of political action;
(4) Sacrifice - explore how Patočka’s ideas and his personal example informed the intellectual and political resistance to Communism in the former Czechoslovakia before 1989 and in particular how they contributed to Vaclav Havel’s call for ‘Living in Truth’;
(5) The Arts - celebrate the importance of the arts and culture in the philosophy of Jan Patočka, including the poetry of Vladimir Holan and Karel Hynek Mácha, the music of Beethoven, Dvořák and Janáček, and the painting and collage of Mikuláš Medek and Jiří Kolář.
The conference will provide a strong and topical introduction to the ideas of this very important philosopher, including his role as a leading phenomenologist, his context in the distinctive historical and cultural milieu of the Czech lands, his personal contribution to the collapse of Communism, and his on-going importance to the articulation of grounds for political action.

The evening arts-based event, taking place in the evening after the close of the formal academic conference proceedings, will provide an opportunity to emphasise the important part played by the arts and culture in Patočka’s philosophy and to celebrate some of the great artists and great art which were a particular influence on him.

The Conference Speakers

The conference will bring together distinguished scholars in the splendid surroundings of the Senate House at the University of London*

The programme will be hosted by Graham Henderson, CEO of the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation and a leading cultural entrepreneur, based in the UK, and by Erin Plunkett, lecturer in Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Hertfordshire, and editor of a new Selected Edition of Patočka’s work in English translation (see below).

Darian Meacham, Senior Research Fellow, and Francesco Tava, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, both at the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol are the leading UK based phenomenologists working on Patočka and recently edited an important book of academic essays about his (Thinking After Europe: Jan Patočka and Politics)

Anita Williams, Adjunct Lecturer in Philosophy at Murdoch University, Perth, Australia, is perhaps the world’s leading expert on the a-subjective phenomenology and the anti-scientism of Jan Patočka. We hope to bring her to London for the conference.

Ivan Chvatik, the director of the Patočka Archive in Prague, and a former student of Jan Patočka has in his own life demonstrated the contribution of Patočka’s ideas to the intellectual and political resistance to Communism, and to wider debates about the role of philosophy, morality and truth as the basis for political action in a free society.

Barbara Day and Roger Scruton, both distinguished former Oxford academics, were both personally active in the underground philosophy lecture programme in the former Czechoslovakia before the fall of Communism in the 1980s, the so-called ‘Patočka universities’. Barbara Day was instrumental in creating the programme and has published the definitive account of it (The Velvet Philosophers), Roger Scruton remains one of the UK’s most active public champions of philosophy, liberty and free expression.

Tim Beasley-Murray, Lecturer in Czech and Slovak Literature at University College London (UCL), is a leading academic specialist on Czech literature, and is working closely with Michaela Belejkaničová, PhD student specialising in the political and ethical thought of Jan Patočka at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES).

Rajendra Chitnis, from Bristol University is knowledgeable about the particular debt owed by Patočka to the context of Czech arts and culture. Finally, Vladimir Urbánek, the director of the Comenius Institute, where Patočka worked for several years under Communism, is ideally placed to examine the influence of this importance Christian thinker on the philosopher.

*Please note that a few of the speakers are still to be confirmed

Publication of the new Selected Edition

Along with its other objectives, the Patočka conference is also designed to promote wider awareness of Jan Patočka in advance of the publication of a new Selected Edition of his texts, being published in English for the first time in 2020. It is intended that this new publication will be suitable for the general reader, and capable of disseminating Patočka’s ideas far more widely in the English-speaking world. The Selected Edition is due to be published by Bloomsbury Publishers Limited, one of the UK’s leading academic publishers, in both UK and American editions sometime in 2020.

This publication project arises out of the activity of Graham Henderson, the CEO of the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation, who has a strong personal interest in the work of Jan Patočka, which has greatly influenced his own successful development work in the arts over the last 20 years. Graham is working on this project in partnership with the Patočka Archive in Prague, the Seykra Foundation and other prestigious Czech partners.

Register for the conference (£20 plus booking fee) at
Register for the evening arts event only (£10 plus booking fee) at