Professor Raymond Klibansky

Historian of philosophy in the Platonic tradition who, a refugee from the Nazis, was an apostle of tolerance
Click to follow
The Independent Online

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 Furtwängler, 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. With support from influential scholars like Etienne Gilson, who wrote to the Academic Assistance Council describing Klibansky "as one of the four or five greatest academics in the world of medieval philosophy", he obtained lectureships at King's College London, then Oriel College, Oxford, and Liverpool University.

Although he took a keen interest in the great British philosophers - he later discovered and edited some new letters by Hume - he shared Cassirer's dismay at the blinkered approach of the analytical philosophers who dominated the Oxford scene: ignoring the historical context of thinkers such as Leibniz, the only thing they wanted to know was whether his statements were true according to their own criteria.

Klibansky found a more sympathetic intellectual and spiritual home in the Warburg Institute, which had also moved to London in 1933. He gave lectures there on 12th-century Platonism and edited a series, published by the Warburg, of critical editions of the Latin translations and Arabic compendia by which knowledge of Platonism was transmitted in the medieval period. He outlined the broad contours of this movement in his 1939 monograph The Continuity of the Platonic Tradition in the Middle Ages, also published by the Warburg. One of his best-known works, Saturn and Melancholy, a study of the interrelationship between notions of genius and melancholy in art, religion and philosophy from antiquity onwards, was written with the art historian Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl, Director of the Warburg from 1929 to 1948. Although the book began to take shape in the 1920s, when all three scholars were associated with the Warburg library in Hamburg, it did not reach print until 1964, its progress repeatedly hindered by the tragic political events of the mid-20th century.

During the Second World War, Klibansky worked as a political intelligence officer for the Foreign Office. Although totally committed to the military defeat of Nazi Germany, he told every American or British air force officer he encountered about the Hospital in Cues founded by Nicholas of Cusa and housing his invaluable manuscript library, and pleaded with them to protect it from the Allied bombardment. The building was spared, and the locals credited Klibansky with its salvation, greeting him as a hero on his return there after the armistice.

When the war concluded, he was briefly Director of Studies at the Warburg Institute, before being appointed Frothingham Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at McGill University, Montreal, a post he held from 1946 to 1975. Having suffered persecution at the hands of the Nazis during his early life, in later years he founded and edited the series "Philosophy and World Community" (1957-95) whose aim was to publish and disseminate texts that presented a philosophical case for toleration. Klibansky's own edition of Locke's Latin "Letter on Toleration" was translated into several languages.

With his colourful assortment of bow ties, Klibansky cut a dapper figure even in his nineties. Nor did advancing years cause him to give up philosophical and philological research. In 1993 he co-authored a fundamental study of the manuscript tradition of the second-century Latin Platonist Apuleius (Uberlieferungsgeschichte der philosophischen Werke des Apuleius). A Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, since 1981, he could often be seen working in the Bodleian Library, accompanied, after he married for the first time aged 89, by his wife, Ethel Groffier.

A historian of philosophy who drew attention to the continuing influence of the Platonic tradition and to its transformation over the centuries, Raymond Klibansky also believed that philosophy could teach the timeless lesson of tolerance to the contemporary world.

Jill Kraye