Jan Hus Educational Foundation

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Jan Hus Educational Foundation
10 Merton Street, Oxford, April 2007 (2).jpg
Former philosophy faculty building (1976–2012) at 10 Merton Street, Oxford[1]
Founded May 1980
Founder Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford
Focus Underground education network
Website Jan Hus Educational Foundation

The Jan Hus Educational Foundation was founded in May 1980 by a group of British philosophers at the University of Oxford. The group operated an underground education network in the former Czechoslovakia, at the time under Communist Party rule, running seminars in philosophy, smuggling in books, and arranging for Western academics to give lectures.

The Foundation was deemed a "Centre of Ideological Subversion" by the Czech police, and several of the visiting philosophers, including Jacques Derrida, Roger Scruton and Anthony Kenny, were arrested or placed on the "Index of Undesirable Persons".[2][3]


The foundation was created after Czech dissident philosopher Julius Tomin wrote in 1978 to four Western universities asking them to support philosophy seminars he was holding in his apartment in Prague. The seminars were known as bytové seminảři (home seminars).[2] Tomin called his discussion group "Jan Patocka University", after the Czech philosopher who died in 1977 after being interrogated by police.[4][5][6]

The letter was sent during a period when correspondence from the Eastern Bloc was slow and uncertain; one commentator compared it to sending a message in a bottle. Only one letter is known to have arrived at its intended destination, the philosophy faculty at the University of Oxford, one year after it was sent. The letter was read out to the faculty by William Newton-Smith of Balliol during a meeting in January 1979; the final item on the agenda was "Letter from Czechoslovakian philosophers". Those present voted to offer financial support and to send two philosophers to address the seminars. The minutes noted:

It was agreed that the Chairman (J. L. Mackie) should send a letter of support to the Czechoslovakian philosophers. It was agreed to ask the Lit. Hum [Literae Humaniores] Board to make a grant to cover the cost of sending two members of the Philosophy Sub-Faculty to meet with the Czechoslovakian philosophers."[7]


Kathy Wilkes of St. Hilda's and Steven Lukes of Balliol were the first philosophers to visit Tomin, in March and April 1979.[8][9] Wilkes took books and gave several seminars, the first a talk on Aristotle at Tomin's apartment in Keramická Street from 6 pm to midnight, and another a few days later, to 25 people, on "Identity of Human Personality".[8]

When she returned to Oxford, Wilkes asked its Literae Humaniores board for financial support (at that time philosophy was a sub-faculty of Literae Humaniores), and urged other philosophers to pay a visit, to be coordinated by William Newton-Smith. An article appeared about the seminars in the New Statesman in May. Wilkes wrote one for The Guardian a few days later and another appeared at the end of May in Isis. The philosophy faculty agreed to send Charles Taylor of All Souls, and books were purchased with a grant from the Literae Humaniores board.[8]

Others who became involved included Alan Montefiore and Anthony Kenny from Oxford; Ernest Gellner from King's College, Cambridge; Roger Scruton from Birkbeck College, London; Anthony Savile from King's College, London; and Thomas Nagel from New York University.[10] Branches of the Foundation sprang up in France and Germany. Jacques Derrida, Jürgen Habermas and Ernst Tugendhat, who was born in Brno, all travelled to Czechoslovakia to conduct a seminar.[11]

Arrests, expulsions[edit]

Several philosophers who travelled to give seminars were detained by the Czech police or expelled from the country. Newton-Smith was detained in March 1980, as was Anthony Kenny, then Master of Balliol, the following month. Kathy Wilkes was escorted to the airport in June.[12] Roger Scruton was detained in 1985 and placed on the Index of Undesirable Persons.[13]

The most prominent arrest was that of Jacques Derrida, in Prague in December 1981. He spent 24 hours in custody, supposedly for drug smuggling, after the police planted drugs in his suitcase.[11][14] According to Geoffrey Bennington, his biographer:

[Derrida] goes to Prague to run a clandestine seminar. Followed for several days, stopped at the end of the week, finally arrested at the airport, and, after a police operation on his suitcase in which they pretend to discover a brown powder, he is imprisoned on the charge of "production and trafficking of drugs". Signature campaign for his release. Released ("expelled") from Czechoslovakia after an energetic intervention of [President] François Mitterrand and the French government.[15]

Derrida had been working on Franz Kafka's "Before the Law" at the time—Kafka was born in Prague—and indeed believed the drugs had been planted while he was visiting Kafka's grave. His Czech lawyer said the arrest was like a Kafka story, complete with nudity, photographs and a prison uniform.[16]

Velvet Revolution[edit]

The underground network was active until the Velvet Revolution saw the overthrow of the Communist Party in 1989. The foundation continued to support education in the new Czech Republic. In October 1998 at Magdalen College, Oxford, President Václav Havel awarded Commemorative Medals of the President of the Republic to the foundation, as well as to Kathy Wilkes and Barbara Day. Roger Scruton was awarded the Medal of Merit (First Class) of the Czech Republic.[17]





See also[edit]


  1. ^ Daniel Isaacson, "Oxford philosophy in 10 Mertin Street, and before and after", philosophy.ox.ac.uk, September 2012.
  2. ^ a b Barbara Day, The Velvet Philosophers, The Claridge Press, 1999, 5.
  3. ^ Roger Scruton, England: An Elegy, A&C Black, 2006, 126ff.
  4. ^ "Prisoners that Moscow tries to hide", Associated Press, October 11, 1979.
  5. ^ Nick Cohen, "The Pub Philosopher", The Independent magazine, 18 November 1989 (courtesy link).
  6. ^ Sheila Rule, "Swindon Journal; The Thinker's Pub, With a Resident Philosopher", The New York Times, 7 November 1988.
  7. ^ Day 1999, 33.
  8. ^ a b c Day 1999, pp. 34–39.
  9. ^ For more on Wilkes, see Bill Newton-Smith, "Kathy Wilkes", The Guardian, 19 September 2003.
  10. ^ Day 1999, 33ff; for Gellner, 16; for Scruton and Savile, 45.
  11. ^ a b "French Philosopher Is Seized in Prague", Associated Press, 1 January 1982; Day 1999, 92ff.
  12. ^ Nicholas Hills, "Oxford dons battle Czech secret police", The Montreal Gazette, 4 June 1980.
  13. ^ Day 1999, 255.
  14. ^ David Vaughan, Barbara Day and the Velvet Philosophers", Radio Prague, 12 June 2009.
  15. ^ Geoffrey Bennington, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Derrida, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991, 334.
  16. ^ Jason Powell, Jacques Derrida: A Biography, London and New York: Continuum, 2006, 151.
  17. ^ Day 1999, 281–282.
  18. ^ a b c Day 1999, 283–284.

External links[edit]