OBITUARY: PROFESSOR RAYMOND KLIBANSKY ; Historian of Philosophy in the Platonic Tradition Who, a Refugee from the Nazis, Was an Apostle of Tolerance

By Kraye, Jill | The Independent (London, England), November 3, 2005 | Go to article overview
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OBITUARY: PROFESSOR RAYMOND KLIBANSKY ; Historian of Philosophy in the Platonic Tradition Who, a Refugee from the Nazis, Was an Apostle of Tolerance


Kraye, Jill, The Independent (London, England)


The historian of philosophy Raymond Klibansky would have celebrated his 100th birthday on 15 October. Although he was best known for his critical editions and scholarly interpretations of medieval and Renaissance thinkers, his expertise ranged from antiquity to the present and included British as well as continental philosophy.

His father, Hermann Klibansky, a German wine exporter of Lithuanian Jewish descent, moved the family to Paris a few years before Raymond's birth in 1905, but they were forced to return to Germany at the outbreak of the First World War. From 1923 Raymond Klibansky studied philosophy and classical philology at the University of Heidelberg. These two fields remained a central feature of his scholarship, which emphasised the necessity for philologically sound editions of philosophical works, whether ancient, medieval or modern, based on a thorough examination of all surviving manuscripts.

Another defining characteristic of his work, the conviction that in order to understand philosophers one needed profound knowledge of the historical context in which they wrote, was strongly influenced by the Hamburg art historian Aby Warburg, to whom he was introduced in 1926 by one of his philosophical mentors, Ernst Cassirer. Klibansky became a member of the inner circle of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg, not only making extensive use of but also helping to organise the famous library, whose subject-based arrangement was designed to facilitate research on the survival of all aspects of the ancient world and their often dramatic transformation by differing historical circumstances.

Klibansky's first publication, an edition of a Latin treatise by the 16th-century French philosopher and mathematician Charles de Bovelles, appeared an as appendix to Cassirer's Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance published by the Warburg in 1927 (and translated in 1963 as Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy). The Neoplatonic current in Bovelles' thought derived in part from Nicholas of Cusa, the 15th-century German philosopher whose Latin writings were to occupy Klibansky, as an editor and interpreter, for the rest of his life. He believed that the dialectical tension in German philosophy between rationality and a suprarational mysticism, which reached its culmination in Hegel, could be traced back to Nicholas of Cusa and to one of his sources, the medieval German theologian Meister Eckhart.

Completing his doctoral dissertation on 12th-century Platonism in 1928 and his Habilitationsschrift (post-doctoral thesis) on philosophy and history in 1931, Klibansky had already begun teaching in Heidelberg when the Nazi rise to power in 1933 put paid to his hopes of an academic career in Germany. In a defiant letter explaining that he considered it incompatible with his duties as a scholar and a teacher to fill out an official form disclosing the religious affiliation of his parents and grandparents, he nevertheless made a point of declaring that his entire lineage, as far as he knew, had been Jewish.

He caused further offence with his work on the Latin writings of Meister Eckhart (published as Magistri Eckardi Opera Latina, 1934- 36), in which he highlighted the influence of medieval Arabic and Jewish thinkers. This challenged the view of Nazi ideologues who presented Eckhart's German works as a pure expression of Aryan philosophy. Klibansky's position in Heidelberg rapidly became untenable (despite support from Wilhelm Furtwngler, the new regime's favourite conductor). He was locked out of his office and his notes were confiscated. In August 1933, having secured a diplomatic pouch in which to carry his books, he left Germany, stopping for a few weeks in the Netherlands to do some manuscript research in the library of Leiden University, before crossing the Channel to England.

Arriving penniless in London, he set about improving his knowledge of English and learning its philosophical terminology by reading Hobbes and Hume.

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OBITUARY: PROFESSOR RAYMOND KLIBANSKY ; Historian of Philosophy in the Platonic Tradition Who, a Refugee from the Nazis, Was an Apostle of Tolerance
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