Czech Republic, philosophy in

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N010-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 14, 2024, from

3. From the foundation of an independent state

The culture and political climate of the new democratic state was conducive to philosophical investigation, and philosophy was an integral part of the curriculum in the newly formed universities and colleges. Among the many trends, positivism was still in fashion and even became a sort of national philosophy. It was mostly true to J.S. Mill’s principles of positive methodology and to Comte’s schemes of development, although attempts were made to modernize these (see Comte, A.; Mill, J.S.). Josef Tvrdý (d. 1942) introduced the emergentism of Samuel Alexander to the qualitative understanding of evolutionary processes. However, Josef Král (d.1978) worked out his concept of the history of Czech thought in a traditional spirit. Emanuel Chalupný (d.1958) also pursued the philosophy of Czech history and created his own sociological system. Spiritual fathers of neo-positivism like Ernst Mach (a long-serving professor at Prague University), Rudolf Carnap and Philip Frank, who both worked in Prague for some time, had less direct impact on Czech philosophy.

Masaryk’s humanistic philosophy based on religion was adopted mainly by Protestant thinkers, including Emanuel Rádl (a proponent of ‘intuitive realism’ and critic of positivist scientism), Josef L. Hromádka (an independent follower of so called dialectic theology), and Jan B. Kozák (who was influenced by phenomenology and attempted to solve the problems inherent in the relationship between science and belief, and the question of objective ethical values). Masaryk’s influence extended into many different fields and he found followers in a wide range of disciplines.

In the period between the First and Second World Wars, the three basic streams of structuralism, phenomenology and non-orthodox Marxism constituted mainstream philosophy, and their impact was to prove of major importance. About 1930, structuralism became a methodological basis for some of the humanities and social sciences and took a specific dynamic form with an expressive historical aspect. Its noetical, ontological and sociological principles were worked out by Josef Ludvík Fischer who also created a model of structural democracy, freeing all social forces for the benefit of the individual and society as a whole. Theoretical bases for sociology were formed in an analogical way by In. Arnošt Bláha. The Cercle linguistique de Prague became an internationally acclaimed propagator of the structural and functional understanding of language, literature and the arts, enriching the philosophy of all three in the works of Jan Mukařovský and Roman Jakobson. Additionally, structural philosophy of education and structuralist methods in psychology were advocated by Václav Přihoda (see Structuralism).

The Czech-German Cercle philosophique de Prague, founded on the initiative of the aesthetician Emil Utitz, with J.B. Kozák, became an ideological centre of the phenomenological movement. In 1935 Husserl was invited to Prague and the lectures he delivered were the basis for his final book The Crisis of the European Sciences. Jan Patočka, Husserl’s pupil, became the most important representative of phenomenology in Bohemia. In the 1930s he worked on the problem of the original, predetermined natural world (Lebenswelt), its structure, and the activity of human beings in it. This was a very progressive project and it was some time before it gained a following in the phenomenological literature. Also some structuralists of the era had an interest in phenomenology and duly modified their concept of the function and tasks of art in the context of human existence (see Phenomenological movement).

Marxist philosophy in the first half of the twentieth century had a social basis in a strong left-wing political movement. Apart from the ideologists who took their starting point from the Communist Party, there were those who took Marxism as a starting point for independent thinking. One such thinker was Karel Teige, an important theoretician of avant-garde art. He regarded artistic activities a means to realize an ideal of a free human being and to apply his creative force in the contemporary social conditions. Jaroslav Kabeš, who was influenced by the young Marx and later on by great representatives of Czech culture, persisted in questioning the purpose of human existence. The problems of a materialistic concept of history, and particularly its relation to Czech history and the history of European revolutions, attracted the attention of Kurt Konrad and Záviš Kalandra. The latter was also one of the first Czech Marxists to consider the importance of Freud’s work in understanding the role of the psychological factor in history and the structure of personality.

Other philosophers of the first half of the twentieth century also had significant influence and impact. They include Ladislav Klíma, a radical subjectivist and philosopher of free existence in an absurd world, anticipating later existentialism (see Existentialism); natural scientists František Mareš and Karel Vorovka who argued against positivistic scientism from an idealistic starting point; Vladimír Hoppe who emphasized intuitivism and mysticism; and Karel Engliš who created a philosophical system based on the teleological understanding of social relations (see Functionalism in social science). Among Catholic researchers, neo-scholastic Josef Kratochvil attracted most attention. He called his standpoint ‘neo-idealism’ and aimed to overcome the positivist view of unknowable transcendence. The group of philosophers and theologians gathered around the journal Filosofická Revue was also neo-thomistically oriented, while those German philosophers in Prague who gathered round the Brentano-Gesellschaft, formed from the second generation of Brentano’s pupils, were also very active.

During the Nazi occupation and the following six years of the Second World War, the continuity of philosophical investigation in Bohemia was interrupted. Universities and colleges were closed down and severe censorship was introduced. Some important philosophical figures were executed, some imprisoned in concentration camps and others forced into exile. The end of the war did not mean a return to pre-war conditions, the shift towards socialism creating a new situation. In the relatively free political situation of the years 1945–8 the ideological influence of Marxism was increasing. This process was supported by Arnošt Kolman who came back from the Soviet Union, as well as by many philosophers of socialist orientation who accepted Marxism and those who had previously been closer to it. Some non-Marxists continued to hold on to their former views.

This situation changed in February 1948 when the Communist Party came to power. Stalinism became the official ideology and all other philosophical and ideological schools of thought were prohibited. Many philosophers, especially Catholics, were imprisoned, and some of the younger ones left the country. Marxists were also persecuted. It took almost ten years for the ideological opposition to get more space for freer philosophical investigations. Meanwhile, Masaryk continued to have followers at home and abroad, Fischer continued his ontological work based on structuralism, and Patočka proceeded in his phenomenological investigations, trying to synthesize his ideas with those of Heidegger, while also maintaining an interest in the history of philosophy.

In the 1960s, young non-Marxist intellectuals gathered round the cultural journal Tvář (Face) – its spiritual agent was a playwright, Václav Havel, and philosophical essayists Ladislav Hejdánek and Jiří Němec were among the contributors. The freer atmosphere was also favourable to the development of non-orthodox Marxism, and the tendency to integrate elements of contemporary European thinking with Marxism became stronger, manifesting itself in many ways. An important experiment aimed at solving phenomenological-existential problems on the basis of Marxism was carried out by Karel Kosík, and similar efforts were made by other philosophers of the same generation. Questions of philosophical anthropology and ethical study also attracted attention. The problems of structuralism and the philosophical message of the artistic avant-garde were considered using Marxist categories by Robert Kalivoda (d. 1989) and simultaneously by other theoreticians in different variants. Other philosophers researched analytical philosophy, cybernetics, semantics and modern logic. In this connection are works written by Ladislav Tondl, Otto Weinberger and Pavel Tichý. At this time, much light was shed on the many periods of the history of philosophy, including that of Bohemia, while at the same time systematic questions raised by the material were widely discussed.

The third catastrophe of Czech philosophy in this century was the defeat of the ‘Prague Spring’, and the subsequent inauguration of another totalitarian regime. The majority of philosophers in the movements discussed above were dismissed from their posts at universities and research institutions, were prohibited from publishing and their books were removed from public libraries. Those who did not leave the country were compelled to work as unskilled manual workers. This gave rise to vigorous unofficial intellectual activity. In spite of police repression, lectures and seminars were organized in private houses, sometimes with the participation of philosophers from France, England, Germany and The Netherlands. Dozens of books and some magazines were issued independently (samizdat), and many works were published abroad. This situation was not without precedent – the philosopher and poet known as Egon Bondy (real name Z. Fišer), a legendary personality of the Czech underground, had been involved in such activity since 1948. Students of Patočka took part in the preparation of a twenty-seven volume edition of Patočka’s Collected Works, and the youngest generation of his pupils continued in his tradition after their teacher’s death. This time also saw the formation of an active group of Catholic-orientated philosophers who concentrated their efforts on publishing the illegal magazine Paraf (whose name derived from Paralení filosofie, parallel philosophy, in opposition to the official philosophy). In the 1980s, as the pressure of the regime gradually decreased, many (mostly younger) philosophers were given the opportunity to work in the official institutions.

The fall of the totalitarian regime at the end of 1989 allowed the necessary conditions for the resumption of Czech philosophy to be re-established. Such freedom had existed in modern times only in the period between the two world wars. Many philosophers of the older generation returned to their original profession, as did some younger philosophers who had been forbidden to work in their field of study after graduating. E. Kohák, I. Sviták, J.M. Lochman and K. Chvatík were some of the philosophers living in exile who now renewed contacts with home. Besides these there was the Catholic thinker M. Loblowicz, analytic philosophers and logicians O. Weinberger, P. Tichý and J. Šebestík, phenomenologist I. Šrubař, postmodernist V. Bélohradský and others. Active philosophical life could now resume.

Citing this article:
Zumr, Josef. From the foundation of an independent state. Czech Republic, philosophy in, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N010-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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