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Jan Patočka - and the Grounds for Political Action

The Foundation was delighted to present an academic conference and arts event at the Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1 on Friday 8th November 2019, in partnership with the Institute of Advanced Modern Language Research (IMLR), part of the School of Advanced Studies (SAS) at the University of London.

The conference brought together leading academic specialists from the fields of philosophy, literature, history and the arts with members of the wider public interested in moral responsibility and the grounds for political action. The evening arts event (Care for the Soul) attracted a wider audience passionate about the arts and the important contribution they make to a healthy society. 


Who was Jan Patočka? 

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. His philosophy forms a dialogue with many of the great philosophical thinkers of the 20th century, including Husserl, Heidegger, Arendt, and Foucault—while also reaching back to ancient Greek philosophy. Like the ancient Greeks, he sees care for the soul as central to the task of philosophy, and insists that we include as part of this idea 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. 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.

Publication of the new Selected Edition

Along with its other objectives, the Patočka conference was 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. 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, probably sometime in 2021.

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.