The Red University Building, the principal and oldest building of the National University of Kiev
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Research potential

The religious vitality and strong intellectual history of CEE give it the potential to make distinctive contributions to Big Questions research. In recent decades, however, this potential has tended to remain unrealised. This section details some of the intellectual traditions, institutions, and individuals operating in CEE that have especially high potential for this kind of work.

(a) Research areas

The oldest traditions of Big Questions research distinctive to CEE are associated with the Eastern Christian Churches, which date back more than seventeen centuries. The ancient focus of the Eastern tradition was in the Byzantine Empire. Today this tradition remains strong in several CEE countries, including Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro. A distinct strand is found in Georgia and Armenia, with their own historic churches and intellectual traditions.

Eastern Christianity has dealt extensively with themes at the intersection of science, theology, and philosophy, but this work has historically not received proportionate international attention. There are signs of growing interest, however, including a major research initiative on Byzantine understandings of science at the University of Belgrade, and a planned Routledge Studies in Byzantine Philosophy series, under the editorship of Filep Ivanović, Executive Director of the Centre for Hellenic Studies in Montenegro.

Central Europe and the Baltic developed in close exchange with the centres of Western Europe. Until the twentieth century, thinkers from this region thus played important roles in the development of Western philosophy, theology, and science. However, the isolation of these regions during the twentieth century has resulted in many of these thinkers, from Vitello to Boscovich, receiving less international attention. Like their Eastern Orthodox counterparts, these thinkers may represent an important resource for new research directions.

In the twentieth century CEE was a major centre for phenomenology with CEE phenomenologists including Edmund Husserl, Jan Patoçka, Roman Ingarden, and Edith Stein. This tradition suffered during the communist period but was never extinguished, and the Catholic University of Lublin developed a distinctive synthesis of phenomenology and the Aristotelian Thomism known as “Lublin Thomism”. Its most influential exponent was Karol Wotyła, later Pope John Paul II, who has had immense international impact on contemporary Catholic thought, and the broader world.

Lublin Thomism is closely related to Wojtyła’s Christian personalism because of its emphasis on the importance of human persons. In his work, Love and Responsibility, first published in 1960, Wojtyła proposed what he termed “the personalistic norm”:

This norm, in its negative aspect, states that the person is the kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end. In its positive form the personalistic norm confirms this: the person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.

On the other end of the spectrum personalism has close ties with existentialism, with both traditions being brought together by twentieth-century Ukranian philosophers working within the Orthodox tradition including Nikolai Berdyaev and Georges Florovsky. The impact of these thinkers on Orthodox theology was profound and continues to this day.

CEE was also a key area in the early development of analytical philosophy, with Gottlob Frege, Jan Łukaszewicz, Kurt Gödel and Alfred Tarski all hailing from the region. Most of the region’s leading analytical philosophers fled in the 1930s and 40s, and the analytical tradition went into abeyance for some decades. It had a marked revival in the early 2000s, however, and since then it has rapidly gained ground, encouraged by the early roots of the tradition in the region. The analytical tradition is especially appealing to younger researchers who aspire to contribute to the international discussion, and often have some training in the West. In recent years, analytical theology has also begun to emerge in CEE theology faculties. The IRC has identified groups of excellent analytical theologians in both Catholic and Protestant institutions in Slovenia, Hungary and Ukraine, although in general analytical theology is still much less established in CEE than analytical philosophy is.

There is an important question concerning the place of Big Questions in the CEE analytical tradition. An outdated perception often persists in the region that the analytical approach is essentially secular in orientation. This is supported by the association of analytical philosophy with the West, which in turn is associated with secularism. However, many younger scholars have however expressed interest to IRC in applying the tools of the analytical tradition to Big Questions work, and in drawing on the growing pool of analytical Big Questions research internationally. The moment is timely to support such work, and to promote a more inclusive picture of the analytical tradition.

During the initial scoping project, the IRC has found that promising Big Questions research or potential research programmes in CEE typically fall within three large thematic areas. The first area is research that looks at Big Questions specifically in the CEE context. This includes work within the ancient intellectual traditions of CEE, notably Byzantine Christianity and the related Georgian and Armenian Churches, as well as modern traditions like Lublin Thomism, phenomenology and Christian personalism. It also includes the complex theological and philosophical response to totalitarian government; a persistent interest, especially among CEE theologians, is in better understanding the complex ways in which the traumas of the twentieth century have both weakened and strengthened religious life in the region.

A second focus is on the relationship between reason and faith. Present-day CEE is characterised both by a high level of religious vitality and by a common perception that religious faith is divorced from rational enquiry. This has created pent-up interest in the relationship between reason and faith. Some CEE scholars have suggested to us that robust scholarly engagement with this question may be a crucial part towards legitimizing Big Questions research more generally by providing a framework in which doubts about the possibility of academic engagement with spiritual questions can be discussed and addressed.

Finally, there is a clear focus on questions of fundamental metaphysics. Again, there are respects in which this focus follows a pattern of pent-up interest. Substantive research in metaphysics was largely impossible in the communist period, and has sometimes been discouraged since by the antiquated perception mentioned above that analytical philosophy is anti-metaphysical. Among younger researchers, however, there is now increasing awareness of the renaissance of metaphysics in analytical philosophy, and a keen interest in returning to these topics. Unsurprisingly given the wider religious vitality of the region, this interest is often focused on specifically religious dimensions of fundamental metaphysics.

(b) Research institutions

Research institutions in CEE can be divided into three categories. First, there are the region’s traditional leading universities, often founded in the Middle Ages or the Early Modern period. Secondly, there exist the academies of science, usually founded from the nineteenth century onwards. Third, there exist newer institutions, founded in the twentieth or twenty-first century, some of which played a distinctive role in challenging and rebuilding after communism. In this section the principal strengths, challenges and opportunities of each of these groups of institutions are outlined.

CEE has a number of great historic universities. In many cases these institutions date back to the Middle Ages, while others were founded by new national governments in the nineteenth century. Among the most important ancient universities are the Charles University in Prague (1348), the Jagiellonian University in Cracow (1364), the University of Leipzig (1407); these were followed in the early modern period by the Palacký University Olomouc (1573), Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca (1581), Vilnius University (1579) University of Tartu (1632), Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest (1635), and the University of Zagreb (1669). Most of these foundations had religious origins. Major nineteenth century foundations include the Universities of Belgrade (1808), Berlin (1809), Warsaw (1816), Kiev (1834), Bucharest (1864), and Sofia (1888).

Many of the historic universities of CEE were internationally renowned, and, until the early twentieth century, some were among the best in the world. Many were temporarily dissolved during the Nazi occupation and all subsequently suffered under communist rule. The communist government fostered research in natural science but imposed strict ideological control in the humanities and social sciences. Strict restrictions on international travel hampered academic contact with the wider world, and academic nepotism became a serious problem. As a result, the international standing of CEE universities tended to decline. The only major exception to this pattern was in Yugoslavia, where ideological constraints were less strict, and some non-Marxist intellectual strands continued through the communist period.

Since the 1990s most of the historic universities have been reformed, though to widely varying extents. In East Germany most faculty members in the humanities and social sciences were dismissed and replaced by West German academics. This was of course not possible elsewhere, since other countries had no equivalent to West Germany from which to draw new faculty. A kind of parallel did occur, however, in countries with extensive underground university systems or with large diaspora populations. This was especially true in Czechia, Poland and the Baltic. For example, after the fall of communism, the philosophy faculty at Charles University, Prague was largely replaced by scholars trained by the Jan Hus Educational Foundation.

The historic universities present a correspondingly mixed picture today. Their faculties comprise a mixture of aging communist-era academics, academics hired from underground or diaspora backgrounds, and younger academics trained since the fall of communism, often abroad. Some institutions remain little-known internationally. Others, such as Tartu or the Charles University, have swiftly raised standards and have recovered some of their former prestige. Even the more prestigious universities in the region are only beginning to compete with their Western counterparts for international funding.

University governance tends to be decentralized, granting academics a greater degree of freedom than elsewhere. Teaching burdens are however relatively heavy. In some countries, academics’ research output is assessed largely on quantity rather than quality, generating large outputs of relatively low-quality work. The disadvantages of this are however increasingly recognised and many of these systems are now being overhauled. This may create important opportunities for the historic universities to reach higher research standards in the coming years. An example of clear progress in raising research standards in this respect is the introduction of a quality-based internal assessment system by Prof. Mieszko Tałasiewicz at the Institute of Philosophy of the University of Warsaw. This has influenced the national public-policy debate, and may lead to national-level reforms.

A second group of research institutions are the scientific academies. Academies are institutions without straightforward parallels in Anglophone academia, and merit some explanation. In the nineteenth century many continental higher education systems were designed to have two wings: the universities, which would be predominantly teaching institutions, and the academies, in which most research would take place. All CEE countries have academies of science, which may do some graduate-level teaching but which remain largely research-oriented.

The academy model has sometimes been highly successful: the Max Planck Institute in Berlin remains one of the world’s most prestigious institutions for natural science research. Academies were especially vulnerable in the communist era, however, and in much of CEE they suffered long-term damage. Humanities departments were often closed altogether, and religion was completely suppressed. Because of their prestige and their close links to the central government, academies were seen as official mouthpieces, and even greater political and ideological control was exercised over them than over the universities.

In the post-communist period academies have been partly reformed. In the natural sciences they are now frequently excellent. In the social sciences and humanities they are more mixed: they have many strong individual researchers, but institutional structures are often bureaucratic and faculty are disproportionately likely to preserve communist-era ideological orientations and academic practices. In some countries academic nepotism is reported to be a serious problem. Researchers with academy positions frequently also have posts elsewhere, and funding bodies should exercise care when determining which institution will administer a grant.

The third group comprises the private institutions that have emerged since the end of communist government. During the 1990s these were founded in great numbers in some countries. They were of extremely variable quality, varying from fraudulent organisations operating for financial gain only, to some of the best research and teaching institutions in the region. Competition and improved regulation in the years since have raised standards, and independent institutions now form a lively and highly interesting group, rich in potential for future work.

Independent educational institutions have widely varying structures and ambitions. Some, like the European Humanities University (Minsk/Vilnius) and Bard College Berlin were modelled on American liberal arts colleges, with the aim of providing more humanistic undergraduate education. Some have a clear religious orientation, like the Ukrainian Catholic University (Lviv) or the Collegium Anton Neuwirth (Bratislava). Some are oriented toward research and dissemination, like the Central European University (Budapest/Vienna), the Copernicus Centre (Cracow) and the Centre for the Thought of John Paul II (Warsaw). Others focus on vocational training, such as the Khazar University (Baku) and the European School of Management and Technology (Berlin).

Independent institutions typically have a strong international orientation, with much more flexible and efficient administrations than are typical elsewhere. Their faculties are often internationally trained and have a wide range of research orientations, including many that are still uncommon in government universities. Teaching standards are often high. In some cases, private institutions are widely perceived to be the most prestigious in the country, such as the Ukrainian Catholic University, Khazar University and the Central European University. Funding bodies should give these institutions careful consideration in planning research projects, to a much greater degree than would typically be true in Western Europe.

There exists a small number of important institutions that are not easily categorised. The most interesting of these, from a Big Questions perspective, is the Catholic University of Lublin. This university was founded in 1918 by Polish priest, Idzi Radziszewski. Fr Radziszewski received written permission from Lenin to found the institution, apparently due to a Catholic sympathiser who happened to be close to Lenin at that time. Like all Polish universities, the institution was shut down during the Nazi occupation, though teaching continued in secret.

When the Soviet army arrived in Lublin in 1944, the University professors emerged from hiding and presented the Soviet officers with Lenin’s letter authorising the University’s establishment. Confronted with such an authority, the Soviet officers had no choice but to reopen the University: the University preserves photographs to this day of Communist Party grandees reluctantly attending its reopening ceremony. Lublin thereby became, and remained throughout the communist period, the only independent Catholic university in the entire Eastern bloc. It attracted freethinkers from across CEE, including Karol Wojtyła (later John Paul II) who taught at the university from 1954. Wojtyła was a major contributor to Lublin Thomism, a philosophical tradition that was widely considered the greatest intellectual threat to Marxism in communist Europe.