Vaclav Havel, Part IV: The Influence and Importance of Jan Patocka

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14 Responses

  1. Mark,

    I was hoping to comment on your prior post first but changed my mind, having been so moved and inspired by this one! We’re deeply indebted to you for this marvelous series of reflections covering related and unfairly neglected subject matter. I merely want to reiterate and add to what you write here.

    Patočka did indeed serve as Havel’s philosophical guru or teacher (I think the former term better captures the nature of that influence), albeit in an informal manner. And the phenomenology and existentialist ideas of Patočka became, generally, in Paul Wilson’s words (writing in the 1980s), “a symptomatic, or typical feature of the independent intellectual landscape in Central Europe….” In this instance, existentialism and phenomenology (by way more of Heidegger than Husserl) is centrally concerned with what we loosely or vaguely but unavoidably christen as “the search for meaning,” but especially in a social setting wherein it is believed that a scientific worldview or ideology of some sort has been elevated to a cultural pride of place in a way that displaces or neglects human subjectivity (as implied perhaps in the expression, ‘scientific determinism’). Here we might recall, with John Cottingham, that for

    “a fair part of the twentieth century it was common in much of the anglophone world to dismiss many of the traditional grand questions of philosophy as pseudo-questions. People who felt perplexed by the ancient puzzle of the meaning of life were firmly reminded that meaning was a notion properly confined to the arena of language: words or sentences or propositions could be said to have meaning, but not objects or events in the world, like the lives of trees, or lobsters, or humans. So the very idea that philosophy would inquire into the meaning of life was taken as a sign of conceptual confusion.”[1]

    The socio-historical circumstances that account for the dismissal of many of the traditional “grand questions” in philosophy in East-Central Europe were not, however and in the main, due to the baneful influence of a kind of analytic philosophy that was more ideology than method for a time in the twentieth-century Anglophone world (a time when we can speak fairly of significant ‘methodological’ and other debilitating differences between ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy).[2] Rather, in this instance it had more to do with the ideological dominance of a crude Marxist-Leninist ideology propagated by the ruling regimes of Part-State Socialism that included an equally crude scientistic ethos (one in which the ‘humanist Marx’ all but vanishes). Moreover, and with important exceptions, in contemporary philosophy and in large measure owing to naturalism or physicalism (metaphysical, ontological, epistemological, moral, psychological, etc.), the impact of modern science (and by extension, bewitchment by technology) has often, by design and default, resulted in a kind of scientism in the sense that professional philosophy is thought best confined to serving solely as an underlaborer of the natural (and social) sciences (the social sciences here conceived as grounded in or utterly dependent on natural science), with the former privileged for its provision of the only true or valid (or most important) forms of knowledge (as opposed, say, to being simply one of several—and no less significant for all that—kinds of ‘knowing’). Perhaps the most honest if not frightening expression of this scientism was crystallized in Patricia Churchland’s book, Neurophilosophy (1986): “In the idealized long run, the completed science is a true description of reality: there is no other Truth and no other Reality.” While Party-State ideologues lacked the philosophical sophistication of a Churchland, their Marxism likewise aspired to the pretentious heights common to what we might place under the rubric of “scientism,” albeit in a social and cultural climate in which alternative ideologies and worldviews were conspicuous by their absence, hence the liberating qualities of Patočka’s courageous rendering of phenomenological and existentialist ideas:

    “Havel recalls that in the 1960s, Patočka [‘whose life was a living parable of thought in action’] would come to the Theatre on the Balustrade and hold informal discussions with actors and writers on phenomenology, existentialism and other philosophical questions. ‘These unofficial seminars,’ Havel says, ‘took us into the world of philosophizing in the true, original sense of the word: not the boredom of the classroom, but rather the vital search for the meaning of things and the illumination of one’s self, of one’s situation in the world.’ [....] As Charter spokesmen, Havel and Patočka had both been summoned to Ruzyně prison for interrogation, and during the noon break they sat in the prisoner’s waiting room, discussing philosophy. ‘At any moment,’ Havel recalls, ‘they could have come for us, but that didn’t bother Professor Patočka: in an impromptu seminar on the history of the idea of human immortality and human responsibility, he weighed his words as carefully as if we had all the time in the world ahead of us.’” [I can’t help but recall the portrait of Socrates in the Crito]

    [1] Please see: John Cottingham, On the Meaning of Life (New York: Routledge, 2003).
    [2] Please see the discussion in Avrum Stroll’s Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

  2. erratum: “Party-State Socialism”

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    I want to add my thanks for this series of posts. I had just started reading Havel’s plays about a week before his death, while preparing to teach a seminar on the theory and practice of protest, starting in April. These posts have been really helpful background.

    The Power of the Powerless also has some incisive comments on legalism — I hope you’ll eventually comment on these. Apropos of which, I wonder if the natural law/higher deontology issues you mention in the context of Patočka might be connected to the rejection of positivism by Gustav Radbruch and his student Robert Alexy, both of whom are better-known in Central Europe than in the Anglophone world (though I admit they’re known to me, too, barely more than in name only). I’m not sure whether they stood/stand for the proposition that there’s a duty to disobey an unjust law, or simply that there isn’t any duty to obey one, but even if they didn’t directly influence Patočka it seems like there’s a strong parallelism in their conclusions.

    I’m also struggling with trying to suggest to my future students (Japanese undergrads) just where might be the source of “people power.” If you accept the notion that there isn’t a duty to obey (human lawgivers’) law, then what gives people power its moral cachet? Why is it something different from a raw power contest? No doubt there have been whole libraries of books of which I’m ignorant written on this topic, but most that I’ve seen fall back on Christian religion, John Locke, or both. None of these seem an adequate explanation in the Asian context, and Locke’s connotation of liberal individualism especially seems not the best foundation for collective action. One straw I’m clutching at recently is that the justification for people power might be located in a right conjugate to the responsibilities inherent in the Golden Rule. Some form of the GR exists in a broad spectrum of Western, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures. I realize this is very vague, but if it’s not entirely incoherent then I’d appreciate hearing whether you, Patrick and other readers find this plausible.

    Lastly: I’ve been reading The Power of the Powerless during a visit to Singapore, from where I’m writing now. This is a country where, in 2011, the ruling party was handed its biggest setback in the half-century since independence: they won only 81 out of 87 seats in parliament. Where the “counterculture” newspaper is owned by the leading newspaper, which is tightly controlled by the government. And where, as a well-connected friend told me the other day, opposition MPs develop the habit of holding all private conversations in rooms with TVs blaring loudly. Since my immediate surroundings make even me feel a bit cautious, I’ll simply say that despite the end of the Cold War, Havel’s essay is not at all obsolete — and least of all his observation in section II that the regime he describes “is simply another form of the consumer and industrial society, with all its concomitant social, intellectual and psychological consequences” (cf. Orchard Road).

  4. A.J.,

    I’ve found helpful the non-standard or alternative treatments of power explored in Raghavan Iyer’s examination of Gandhi’s thoughts on same in The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi (Santa Barbara, CA: Concord Grove Press, second ed., 1983 [first edition, 1973, Oxford University Press]) and Todd May’s The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994).

    Less philosophically explicit with regard to the conceptualization of power, but quite suggestive, are two books by Michael Taylor: Anarchy and Cooperation (1976), and Community, Anarchy and Liberty (1982).

    Far less philosophical or theoretical but still worthy of attention are several of the works of Gene Sharp on the (strategic) politics of nonviolent action and “social power.”

  5. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks, Patrick. Gene Sharp is of course in my syllabus, esp. for the “practice” part. As for whether there is a duty to obey the law, and why we think democracy is a good thing, I suppose I’m thinking more of, e.g., the processes of democracy and regime change in Athens (in the time of Cleisthenes), peaceful revolutions like those in the Philippines, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine and even Tunisia; maybe it’s ignorance on my part, but the word “anarchy” seems a bit extreme for my purposes. Japan is a country that isn’t convinced even that “democracy” suits it (having been imposed by the foreign occupier, as many people will tell you). Jacques Rancière’s Hatred of Democracy, especially in its final pages has a lot that’s helpful, e.g., that democracy isn’t a form of government, but rather the power of people to withdraw their consent from the oligarchy who governs — do the works you mention address the question of what justifies this power, and why we think of the use of it as the exercise of a right? That’s the issue I’m trying to get a handle on, in a culturally universal sort of way.

  6. The titles I cited were about discussions (more or less) of “people power.” As for withdrawal of (putative) consent and so forth, I would look to traditional works in the history of Liberal political philosophy. Rights to revolt and revolution are of course constitutional and extra-constitutional and I suppose one could derive same from some human rights instruments as well (regarding ‘self-determination,’ etc.). That’s the extent of my knowledge on the topic! Incidentally, I think democracy IS a form of governance and government….

  7. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks, Patrick.

    BTW, in my #3 above, I should clarify that of the two legal philosophers I mentioned it would more likely be Radbruch (1878-1949) whom Patočka might have been aware of. Alexy (born 1945) probably was too young (and, unless he was more of a prodigy than Wikipedia mentions, was Radbruch’s student only in a figurative sense).

  8. Mark Edwards says:

    Hi Patrick and A.J.,

    I’m not to be more responsive to your responses, but I’m in grading hell at the moment. I promise a more thoughtful reply eventually, but for now I’ve got to get this stack of exam down as the deadline looms.

  9. Mark Edwards says:

    oops, that should “sorry not to be” and “exams.” You can tell I’m distracted.

  10. Roger Lipsey says:

    Would one of you be kind enough to send me the title/author of the book in which VH published a two- or three-page memoir about Patočka? Thank you!

    Roger Lipsey

  11. Roger,

    I’m not sure, but it might be in this book which, it seems, is not available in English: Havel, Václav. O lidskou identitu (on or for Human Identity). London: Rozmluvy, 1984. Paul Wilson quotes from it in the introduction to Havel’s Letters to Olga as a piece titled “The Last Conversation” (1977…and presumably in reference to Patočka), and it’s from pp. 152-55.

  12. Roger, I did some searching and it seems it is available in English: H. Gordon Skilling, Charter 77 and Human Rights in Czechoslovakia (London: Allen & Unwin, 1981): 242-244.

  13. Mark A. Edwards says:

    So nice to see this thread suddenly come back to life! I wish Havel was more on our minds.