About Jan Patočka

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Jan Patočka, a respected name in Continental philosophy, though less well-known in the English-speaking world, was, with Eugen Fink and Ludwig Landgrebe, one of the key figures in the small, yet—for the phenomenological movement—extremely important group of Edmund Husserl’s last direct pupils. He met Husserl for the first time in Paris, where he spent the entire schoolyear 1928-1929 on a graduate scholarship and had the fortunate opportunity to attend, at the Sorbonne, the Pariser Vorträge (better known under the title of Cartesian Meditations), fascinated, in his own words, “to see this meditation unfold, impervious to the public eye, as if the philosopher were himself at Descartes’ hearth, further developing his themes.” When he subsequently won a Humboldt-Foundation stipend, it was clear that, far from staying in Berlin where he had been assigned, he would let nothing keep him from rejoining Husserl in Freiburg. The old master greeted him warmly as a fellow countryman—Husserl’s native Prostějov (Prossnitz) was and still is part of the same country as Turnov, where Patočka was born in 1907, or Prague, where he was to live out his life. As a matter of fact, he was at the time the one and only countryman of Husserl’s to show a serious interest in phenomenology.

The impressions and experiences from the months the young Patočka spent in Germany, in 1932-1933, were without a doubt decisive for the future path of his thought. In Berlin, he not only witnessed Hitler’s coup d’état (a shock he was later to speak of as the beginning of his political awakening), but engaged in a fruitful friendship with Jacob Klein. Klein was also instrumental in recommending insistently that Patočka not concentrate solely on the study of Husserl’s phenomenology, but apply equal attention to the thinking of his one-time assistant Martin Heidegger – despite Heidegger’s later severe criticism of Husserl and his eminently criticizable political stance. Patočka was given the same advice by Husserl’s then assistant, Eugen Fink. In Freiburg, where he was an eye-witness to Heidegger’s infamous Nazi rectorship of the university, Patočka was also initiated, with the help of Fink, his elder by a mere two years, into the deepest of philosophical issues which – as he was already then beginning to understand – lay hidden in the gaping abyss between Husserl’s phenomenology and what Heidegger had made out of it. He has attended two lecture courses given by Heidegger: Die Grundfrage der Philosophie [The Basic Question of Philosophy] (in M. Heidegger, Sein und Wahrheit, GA Band 36/37, pp. 1-80; the English translation is in preparation) and Der Begriff der Wissenschaft [The Concept of Science] (not yet published).

To delve into these obscure depths or, eventually, to bridge the gap – such was the task Patočka appears to have taken up even then. While following the many different paths, he will perhaps have succeeded at least in indicating that this in-between is indeed the space worth diving into, if one is both to come closer “to things themselves” than Husserl himself ever managed and to let phenomena shine forth at once in their apparentness and in their historicity, consistently grasped and interpreted as a matter not only of the “history of Being” but, to no less an extent, of that of mankind.

Patočka’s experience with the dramatic and tragic times in which his destiny placed him was quite clearly of primary importance for his succeeding in linking phenomenological questions and questioning with the field of the philosophy of history, as well as in his later becoming himself a pivotal figure in contemporary Czech history.

To get back to the 1930s, at the time when he was writing the habilitation thesis he was to publish in 1936 on the Husserlian theme of the life-world (The Natural World as a Philosophical Problem), Patočka was instrumental in organizing the visit to Prague during which Husserl presented, in November 1935, one of the first drafts of his posthumously published work The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Shortly thereafter, when it became clear that Nazi authorities were not willing to allow Husserl and his assistants to work undisturbed on the transcribing and editing of his manuscripts in Germany, Patočka endeavored to secure their transfer to Czechoslovakia. Ludwig Landgrebe was thus able to prepare the first volume of the proposed Collected Works of Edmund Husserl (Erfahrung und Urteil), but when the book came off the press in Prague, in March 1939, Hitler’s troops were already marching into town. Nearly the whole edition was destroyed by the Nazi occupiers who, eight months later, also closed all Czech universities for the duration of the war.

During the Occupation years, Patočka lived as a secondary school teacher and was later mobilized as a laborer, while never ceasing to work simultaneously on several ambitious philosophical projects (among them, already, a philosophy of history). All remained unfinished at the end of the war, when their author chose rather to invest his energy into his teaching at Charles University. During the short interlude of freedom before the February 1948 “Prague coup” ushered in yet another—this time Stalinistic Communist—totalitarian regime and Patočka was forced out of academe, he lectured mainly on the history of philosophy, with courses on the Pre-Socratics, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

He was to wait twenty years—sidelined into editing the work of the great late Renaissance philosopher Comenius, and becoming by the way a leading figure of world Comeniology—before being called back to Charles University thanks to the political liberalization of the so-called Prague Spring. In the meantime, he had published in 1964 his second and last book to appear in a normal way: the collection of essays on Aristotle, his Forerunners and Successors, for which he was awarded the highest postdoctoral degree of the Academy of Sciences. (A third slender volume—the collection of more politically-minded essays For the Meaning of Today—was to be printed in 1969, then censored and pulped before it ever got to the bookshops).

With widening publishing possibilities at home and abroad in the second half of the 1960s, Patočka also continued working on the original revision of phenomenology. These reflections nourished his teaching when, at age 61, he was finally awarded tenure as professor at Charles University. His appointment was, however, officialized only in the autumn of 1968, i.e., over two months after Czechoslovakia had once again been occupied—by the armed forces of its Warsaw Pact allies. After a mere four years of teaching, Jan Patočka was forcefully pensioned on reaching age 65, left with only a, so to speak, private engagement with the participants of the half-illegal seminars held in his own apartment or at the homes of students, friends and well-wishers.

In the darkest days of the 1970s “normalization” period he nonetheless kept working, as he wrote to a French friend in 1975, “harder than ever” on his main subjects. His last and most translated major work, the Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History, was published in a totally illegal samizdat edition less than two years before his life reached its climax and end, when—following through with the ideas of freedom and responsibility which draw an unbroken line of force through forty years’ thinking, teaching, and writing—he became, alongside future Czech president Václav Havel, one of the three initial spokespersons for the dissident civic initiative movement Charter 77.

Ivan Chvatík