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8 Nov 2019 09:00 - 17:30

Jan Patočka and the Grounds for Political Action

Conference exploring the contributions of Czech philosopher Jan Patočka to our understanding of whether and how political action is possible.

Bringing together 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 is aimed at anyone passionate about the arts and the important contribution they make to a healthy 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. 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.

This conference will explore the contributions of Czech philosopher Jan Patočka to our understanding of whether and how meaningful political action is possible—taking cues from his phenomenology, his essays on arts and culture, his writings on Europe, and his conception of sacrifice. The day will feature Patočka scholars and academics who worked underground in the former Czechoslovakia. A topical introduction to the ideas of this fascinating philosopher, offering novel ways of reflecting on our contemporary political crises.
The evening arts-based event, taking place in the evening after the close of the academic conference, 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.


Admission: £20  conference, £10 evening event



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, cultural entrepreneur and CEO of the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation, 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).

Francesco Tava, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at UWE Bristol, specialising in political and moral philosophy and phenomenology and one of the leading English-language scholars of Patočka. His edited volume Thinking After Europe explores Patočka’s contemporary political relevance.

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.

Jan Frei, deputy director of the Patočka Archive in Prague, who has published on work in continental philosophy, philosophy of religion, music history and phenomenology of music.

Barbara Day distinguished former Oxford academic, was 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 was instrumental in creating the programme and has published the definitive account of it (The Velvet Philosophers).

Tim Beasley-Murray, Lecturer in Czech and Slovak Literature at University College London (UCL), is a leading academic specialist on Czech literature.

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, Fellow and Associate Professor of Czech at University College Oxford, specialises in Czech literature and will discuss Patočka in the context of Czech arts and culture.

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


 The conference is also designed to promote wider awareness of Jan Patočka in advance of the publication of a new Selected Edition of his texts, including many being published in English for the first. It is intended that this new publication will be suitable for scholars and 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.

The conference is being put on in collaboration with the University of London (Senate House) and the Institue of Modern Language Research.

For more information and full programme go to: https://modernlanguages.sas.ac.uk/events/event/20209

The conference will be followed by an evening arts event 'Care for the Soul – Jan Patočka and the arts'. With live music and performances, this event will take place from 18:30-20:30 and requires separate registration and payment.

Part of Czech Velvet 1989 – 2019 Festival
Festival of Arts, Film, Theatre & Music
1-29 November 2019






UCL, UCL Senate House Hub, 3rd Floor South Block, Senate House, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HU


8 Nov 2019 09:00 - 17:30


Czech Center is a coorganizer of the event

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