What Patočka's ‘care for the soul’ can teach us - RSA

What Patočka's ‘care for the soul’ can teach us


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    Graham Henderson FRSA
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I first came across the work of the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka few years ago when I read a passing reference to his concept of ‘putting soul in the city’. This immediately struck a chord with me because I was at that time running Poet in the City, an arts organisation committed to asserting the importance of the arts and culture to a successful modern society. I also quickly learned that Patočka had been an important influence on Vaclav Havel and his concept of ‘living in truth’. In fact, Patočka had been the most famous signatory of Charter 77, the human rights petition that also brought Havel to prominence as someone resisting authoritarian Communist oppression in the former Czechoslovakia.

Patočka's phenomenological thought departs from this abstraction and grounds thinking about human meanings in a communal context, seeing the search for truth as ceaselessly problematic and part of an ongoing process. As such, he is one of the few philosophers with a clear vision for how European civilisation can restore its political vitality and its spiritual strength in the aftermath of two world wars in which it sacrificed any right it might have had to claim moral authority. His ideas about what he described as ‘post-Europe’ have become even more topical in the face of the current crisis in the European project, the rise of nationalist and nativist movements, and the current debates in the UK surrounding BREXIT. Again, Patočka, writing between the 1950s and 1970s, seems to uncannily prefigure the current crises in legitimacy taking place across the European continent, including the potential disruptions caused by new technology.

My interest in the philosopher quickly came up against a major obstacle: with the exception of a few short pieces in academic journals, none of Patočka's philosophy was available in English translation. Outside of university philosophy departments, it was difficult to get hold of any of his writings. I quickly came to the view that what the world really needs in 2018 is a Selected Edition of some of Patočka's key philosophical texts in a high-quality English translation, and in a published form that will make them available to a much wider readership in the UK and America. I am pleased to say that this idea has met with immediate support, and I have quickly been able to put together a fantastic team around the translation project. In the Czech Republic I am working with the Professor Ivan Chvatik and the Patočka Archive, and will be liaising with him about the choice of key texts. In the UK I am working with the phenomenologist Erin Plunkett, and with her publisher Bloomsbury. We should, therefore, be in a position to publish a book for the general reader, one that could be sold from the book tables at the front of the shop in Foyles or Waterstones, the one labelled New Thinking or Ideas Leadership. Thanks to the support of some key Czech emigres, I am also raising money to fund the work of Erin and a leading Czech translator over the next 12 months, the time that we estimate it will take to put together the manuscript for the new Selected Edition of Patočka's work in English.

Why am I telling you all this now? Well, it is because the kind of philosophy practised by Patočka took place in the form of secret seminars and smuggled Samizdat literature, and was itself a communal activity. It involved constant exchanges with students and with other independent thinkers prepared to take the risk of engaging with free expression under an authoritarian regime. Similarly, in the digital age, Erin Plunkett and I would like to involve a wider community of people with Patočka and his ideas well in advance of the publication date for the Selected Edition. These are important ideas that need to be discussed and explored in the context of our contemporary political, social, and spiritual crisis. Although Patočka does not provide easy answers, I do believe that his philosophy goes to the heart of our current dysfunction and provides the basis for some new and original solutions. If you are interested in going on this journey with us, I would love to hear from you and to involve you in any discussion groups we have over the next 12 months. In the process, you may also benefit from refocusing your attention on ‘care for the soul’.

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