Friday, September 18, 2015

Three days in Oxford devoted to philosophy?

In my last post I reflected on the third day of my ‘Three days in Prague devoted to philosophy’, which was devoted to ‘Plato’s Parmenides in the light of Aristotle’s criticism of the theory of Forms’. My views on the Parmenides radically differ from the accepted views, and I would have welcome if the Czech classicists and philosophers had come and defended the accepted academic views. But no one came, although I had invited all of them: it is a strange heritage that the Velvet Philosophers had left behind.

What ‘heritage’, what ‘Velvet Philosophers’? Let me quote from the back cover of Barbara Day’s book: ‘Published to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s liberation from communism in 1989, The Velvet Philosophers tells the remarkable story of the ‘underground university’, through which western academics, artists and intellectuals collaborated with those who sought to keep culture alive in a country where the Communist Party had tried to suppress it. Those who took part in this extraordinary venture include some of the most famous names in contemporary culture: philosophers as diverse as Charles Taylor and Roger Scruton, Jacque Derrida and R. M. Hare; composers of international standing like David Matthews, Michael Berkeley, and Judith Weir; distinguished writers like Tom Stoppard, Carol Rumens and Piers Paul Read. Artists and critics, architects, historians and political scientists, all played a part, working in conditions of secrecy and under the constant threat of arrest, to bring knowledge, ideas and hope to their persecuted colleagues in one of the most repressive states behind the Iron Curtain.’

How did it all begin? In 1977 I opened a philosophy seminar for young people deprived of higher education because of their parents’ role in an effort to humanise socialism in 1960s, which culminated in the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968 and ended with the Soviet invasion of August 21, 1968. Barbara Day writes: ‘Tomin’s decision to start an open seminar was … a genuine desire to introduce young people to the Ancient Greeks and especially Plato … He loved argument, debate, the crossed swords of protagonist and antagonist; which was also new and exciting for Czech students of the 1970s, accustomed in their university  lectures to sit and take notes of authorized opinions … In May 1978, when the course was gradually winding down for its second summer break, Tomin presented his students with a new idea. He was doing his best for them, he said, but they needed something more. With their permission he would write to some western universities and suggest that their professors became involved in the teaching.’ (Barbara Day, The Velvet Philosophers, The Claridge Press 1999, pp. 27-28)

I intend to organize ‘Three days devoted to philosophy’ once again in Prague next year. I can try to involve students; they have a right to demand that their teachers openly defend their views on the subjects suggested: 1 Self-knowledge in the light of neurophysiology; 2 Kant’s subjectivity of space and time; 3 Plato’s Parmenides in the light of Aristotle’s criticism of the theory of Forms. But I am afraid that on all these themes the Czech philosophers simply follow the views accepted by western (German, French, English speaking) academics. I’ll never forget a friend of mine’s incredulous amazement when he realized – in mid 1970s – that I believed I could make a contribution to our understanding of Plato and Aristotle: ‘Julius, how can you compete with philosophers and classicists at the universities of Heidelberg, Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard?’ My invitation, which I sent to academics from Oxford, Harvard, Heidelberg, and West Berlin Universities in 1978, to come to my philosophy seminar, was inspired by those words of my friend.

So let me once again test the interest of Oxford philosophers in knowledge; let me have ‘Three days devoted to philosophy’ in Oxford. The Oxford University Parks will be as good for the occasion as the Stromovka in Prague. The Prague ‘Three days’ will be in September, in Oxford they may take place in May.

Why ‘Three days in Oxford devoted to philosophy’ with a question mark? I shall be 77 in 2016; shall I be up to the challenge in a few months’ time? I shall do my best to be physically and mentally fit for the occasion, and so I hope the question will be once again: will Oxford dons be up to the challenge?

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