Only true philosophers? Charismatic performances of unofficial philosophy in socialist Czechoslovakia
In this thesis, I explore the phenomenon of unofficial philosophy seminars in socialist Czechoslovakia, focusing on the period from 1968 to 1989. After the democratizing movement known as the Prague Spring was terminated by Soviet military intervention in August 1968, intellectuals who supported the reforms were marginalised in their workplaces and often removed. More generally, people associated with the emerging anti-Communist opposition had slim chances of enrolling at university courses or acquiring a university job. Rather than giving up on their academic aspirations, these intellectuals began organising a parallel intellectual life, usually in the form of study groups, with former or aspiring academics lecturing on topics as different as robotics and literary theory. Philosophy was at the forefront of this movement, especially thanks to an intense clandestine connection with Western academics from Oxford University, which was initiated by the Czechoslovaks in 1979. Between 1979 and 1989, dozens of British, French, German and Dutch (among them well-known figures such as Ernest Gellner, Jurgen Habermas, or Jacques Derrida) academics crossed the ‘iron curtain’ on a tourist visa to lecture in the flats of Czechoslovak dissidents. This thesis focuses on the situation in Prague, where the scene of unofficial philosophy was the most active – and where unofficial philosophers were, at the same, under the most intensive pressure from state authorities. To explore this phenomenon, I relied on a combination of interviews with former participants, original philosophy reviews from samizdat journals, the archive of a supporting Jan Hus Educational Foundation founded in 1979 at Oxford University, and the files of the Czechoslovak secret police. Through qualitative hermeneutic analysis of these sources, I created a historical interpretive ethnography of unofficial philosophy seminars which combines the reconstruction of social interactions with the reconstruction of their meanings. My approach challenges the conventional sociological theories of intellectuals, such as those of Pierre Bourdieu and Randall Collins, which present intellectuals as actors interested predominantly in their own success in the global disciplinary scene or realising the ambitions of their social stratum. However, as I argue, such an approach cannot account for unofficial philosophers who had relatively little to gain from their activities, but quite a lot to lose due to intense interest of the secret police, especially with regard to their international connections. To properly understand unofficial philosophers, it is necessary to look closely on the meanings they articulated and the processes by which they articulated them. To explore these, I use the theory of performance developed by the Strong Program school in cultural sociology. I argue, however, that instead of looking at ‘spotlight’ performances that draw large audiences in extraordinary moments and were so far the main focus of analyses using this theory, it is useful also for analysing small-scale, routinised performances. In the empirical chapters of my thesis, I demonstrate that unofficial philosophers were charismatic performers who articulated a variety of moral commitments and were able to create communities of interested and devoted audiences, whom they were persuaded about the meaningfulness of pursuing the general project of anti-authoritarian opposition. By articulating powerful moral symbols in impressive educational performances, they helped the unofficial, non-conformist network to exist despite consistent pressure of the police. As I note in the conclusion, the performance theory of intellectuals offers a path to a better understanding of intellectual success and impact, as well as failure to achieve it, and is very well applicable to currently popular intellectual figures. This thesis, therefore, has two major contributions to knowledge. The first is the novel performance approach to intellectuals that highlights their real-life presentation rather than relying merely on their textual product, and emphasises the moral dimension of their behaviour rather than reducing them to seekers of prestige and public attention. Second, this thesis contributes to the historical knowledge of an under-researched phenomenon in Czechoslovak history and the history of East-West relations during the Cold War, especially by systematising the narrative of the unofficial seminars’ historical development and recovering data about forgotten projects that were central to the development of the anti-Communist opposition.