Thursday, October 15, 2015

1 Lasting repercussions of what happened thirty five years ago

Thirty five years ago, on Thursday October 15, 1980 the Czechoslovak Communist Party cultural weekly Tvorba published a letter addressed by Professor Radovan Richta to Professor A. Diemer, President of the International Federation of Philosophic Societies. Richta wrote: ‘Tomin is a man who is worth nothing in philosophy … It is self-evident that Mr Tomin would not find the means to live for a single week if he were interesting merely for what he did in philosophy.’

Radovan Richta justified his verdict as follows: ‘Our state magnanimously paid Mr Tomin the relatively high scholarship of an aspirant [a research fellow, J.T.] for four years at the Faculty of Philosophy at Charles University. But Mr. Tomin did not even defend a dissertation on the level prescribed for a candidate despite these favourable conditions, and despite an extraordinary prolongation of the aspirantura [research fellowship, J.T.] so that he did not acquire the qualification prescribed, in the CSSR as elsewhere in the world, as a precondition for gaining the status of a scientist.’

When I obtained a copy of the Tvorba issue in which Richta’s letter was published. I translated it into English, attached to it a few notes, and gave a copy to Oxford philosophers involved in the Prague adventure. In my notes I wrote:

‘I presented my Candidate’s dissertation entitled ‘Three Contributions to the Theory of Knowledge’ to the Faculty of Philosophy in the early spring 1969, before leaving for Hawaii. One of the referees, Professor Tošenovský (Brno University) submitted his (very favourable) reference to the Examination Committee, and sent me a copy of it, yet before I left Prague; the other two referees, Professor Svoboda and Professor Sobotka had not written their reference before I left Prague, and when I returned from Hawaii in 1970 there was no point in writing any reference: all defences of Candidate dissertations were suspended as part of the ‘normalization and consolidation’ process initiated by the Communist regime after the suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968 by the Soviet invasion. New special commissions were subsequently formed; only those were allowed to defend their dissertations who showed their loyalty to the new regime.

Professor Sobotka quoted my dissertation in his edition of Descartes’ Meditationes de Prima Philosophia (Prague, Svoboda Press, 1970). (I hope that this remark does not lead to the disappearance of the book from Czechoslovak libraries.)

My journey to Hawaii was no luxury trip but was undertaken by me within the framework of my aspirantura [as the ‘extraordinary prolongation of the aspirantura’ to which Richta refers]; I had been invited by the University of Hawaii to lecture in Honours Programmes as a Visiting Professor (August 1969 – July 1970)’

I was contacted at Oxford by Professor Raymond Klibansky, a Member of the Steering Committee of the International Federation of Philosophical Societies (FISP); he wanted to know more about Richta, who too was a Member of the Committee. I asked him: ‘At the approaching meeting of the Committee, would you ask Professor Richta about his point concerning my Candidate’s dissertation?’ Klibansky replied: ‘I cannot do that. Richta’s position at the Committee is all too powerful.’

And so I must ask, what had made Richta’s position so powerful that Klibansky shrunk from the very thought of responding positively to my request? It was hardly ‘merely for what he did in philosophy’. Professor Erickson’s BBC explanation springs to mind, of how it happened that the East European regimes collapsed and disintegrated so easily, which I heard one day after midnight on the World Service in the early 1990; he argued that in the late 1970s the KGB realized that Communism was untenable and began to cooperate with the CIA and the MI6 on the dismantlement of the Communism system. And so I ask: was Radovan Richta a linchpin in that grand scheme? Was he an agent both of the KGB and of the CIA?

I wanted to have Sobotka’s edition of Descartes’ Meditations as a proof that I did write and timely submitted my Candidate’s dissertation. Roger Scruton was about to go to Prague and so I gave him my house keys and asked him to go to my flat, to find Sobotka’s book and bring it to me. When he returned from Prague, Roger told me that he visited my flat, thoroughly searched for Sobotka’s book on my bookshelves, but that he could not find it.

In those days I received a letter from Jan Bednář, one of my most faithful students, who asked me to send him a copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. I communicated his wish to Kathy Wilkes and she communicated it to the next Oxford academic sent to Prague. To my great surprize, after a few weeks Bednář wrote to me again, repeating his request. I asked Kathy about it. In those days I was still given copies of the Memoranda that each academic wrote after his visit to Prague. I remember the last Memorandum I was given; it was written by Roger Scruton, who reported that he had given Bednář the requested Dictionary with the words: ‘We let him know that we were not amused at his importunity.’

Richta appears to have been right when he wrote ‘that Mr Tomin would not find the means to live for a single week if he were interesting merely for what he did in philosophy.’

For more than a year my only income has been £26.95 a week. The Pension Service still steadfastly refuse to inform me on what basis they found me in debt of £11, 956.70 in 2009, because of which my state pension of £39.95 has been thus shortened. (See ‘It is all wrong – a letter to the Pension Service’, posted on my blog on June 15, 2015, and ‘It has nothing to do with Oxford University’, posted on my blog on June 19, 2015.)

I still have not received a reply to my request addressed to the Master of Balliol to allow me to present at Balliol a lecture on ‘Plato’s Parmenides in the light of Aristotle’s testimony’, and I have not received a reply to a similar request addressed to the Director of the Institute for Philosophy at Charles University.

Radovan Richta’s shadow does not go away.

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