Friday, August 04, 2006

my friend, robert wokler

Here (and here) is Robert's obituary from the London Times.

Eloquent and hilghly regarded scholar of Rousseau and the Enlightenment

THE LIFE of Robert Wokler embodied the political and intellectual tragedies and controversies of the later 20th century. A Jewish survivor of Nazi-occupied Europe, he was close to the leading intellectual historians of the prewar generation and lived to contest with postmodernism the identity of the Enlightenment and its supposed responsibility for the tragedy of the Holocaust into which he was born.

Born Robert Lucien Wochiler in 1942 in Auch, France, to Polish and Hungarian Jewish refugees, Wokler began his life by saving that of his parents: his infant status gained all three of them entry to Switzerland, enabling them to escape deportation to the death camps where his maternal grandparents had been murdered. Schooling, begun in Paris, was completed in California, where the family settled. A prodigious violinist, Wokler gained a National Merit Scholarship to the University of Chicago to study under Walter Piston, but soon switched to social sciences, graduating in 1964.

He came to Europe for the MSc in the history of political thought at the LSE run by Michael Oakeshott and Maurice Cranston, before moving to Oxford, where his DPhil supervisor was Isaiah Berlin, and his college adviser John Plamenatz. To all of these, and to Ralph Leigh, with whom he later worked at Cambridge on the latter’s magisterial Correspondance Complète de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he remained close, contributing later to the festschrifts for all three Oxbridge mentors and co-editing Leigh’s. His early career thus gave him a unique exposure to the different anglophone schools in the history of social and political thought and, in the case of the English institutions, a very close connection to the most influential teachers of the age. Early posts followed at Magdalen College, Oxford (1967-71, in modern history), and Reading (1968-71, in politics and French studies). But it was at Manchester (1971-98) that he made his career, successively as lecturer, senior lecturer and then Reader in history of political thought in the university’s government department, which developed, during his time there, a considerable reputation in political theory.

He was always bursting with ideas and projects, and the very range and diversity of his activity precluded the completion of many of them. His loyalty to his teachers consumed much of his considerable energies. He re-edited Plamenatz’s influential three-volume Man and Society in order to replace the contextualising material that had been removed at the original publisher’s insistence, giving a misleading impression of abstraction. At his death he was editing Plamenatz’s unpublished lectures, which had influenced generations of Oxford PPE undergraduates. He was immensely fond, too, of Berlin (of whom he was a brilliant mimic), contributing to his festschrift, The Idea of Freedom (Oxford, 1979), and among his last concerns was to see a study of Berlin’s posthumous Political Ideas in the Romantic Age through the press.

He was among the most articulate and eloquent speakers of his generation, one of the few who retained a focus on extempore speaking as a distinct art. At the closing session of the Netherlands Praemium Erasmium awards conference in 1999 he delivered, with barely a note, an extended account, of immense erudition and insight, of the previous two days’ contributions.

It is an indictment of the university system that a scholar of his calibre never held a chair. He left Manchester in 1998, having already held fellowships at many of the world’s leading research institutes, including in the US, Australia, Sweden and Hungary, and then adopted the role of peripatetic scholar, to which, being increasingly irritated by the conformity and regulation imposed on teaching in UK higher education, he was in many ways well suited. He held short-term posts at Budapest, Exeter, the European University Institute, Florence, and latterly at Yale, where he seemed at last to have found an environment that supported his considerable energies, and where he had recently turned his attention to the political thought of the Ancient world.

But his greatest contribution has been to our understanding of the Enlightenment, particularly the thought of Rousseau, who was the subject of his doctoral thesis, two of his books, and two collections of essays, as well as being the subject of many of his numerous scholarly articles. Allied to, and emerging from, his interest in Rousseau, particularly the latter’s Discours sur l’inégalité, was his work on the origins of anthropology and the social sciences in the increasingly historicised conception of human nature in the 18th century.

His articles on the Enlightenment debate about the relationship between humans and the great apes illuminated not only pre-Darwinian thinking, but also our own presuppositions about such issues. His enthusiasm for the Enlightenment extended, too, to its vigorous defence against many of the cruder construals of it, made in the name of postmodernity. This led to a series of essays that challenged his identity as an essentially historical scholar: Regressing towards Post-Modernity, the Enlightenment, the Nation-State and the Primal Patricide of Modernity, and The Enlightenment Project on the Eve of the Holocaust all address postmodernity’s charge that Enlightenment is the source of modernity’s ills, and its supposed identification of reason with that narrow and ungrounded instrumentality which was claimed to underpin totalitarianism. He defended instead the Enlightenment itself and the way scholars have invoked it as a source of the essentially human and civilising values he embodied in his own career.

He leaves several books, a mass of scholarly articles, and his principal project, the Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Political Thought (edited with Mark Goldie), publication of which is imminent.

He did not marry.

Robert Wokler, historian, was born on December 6, 1942. He died of cancer on July 30, 2006, aged 63.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I am sorry. Pass my condolences along to our mutual friends. Robert, with all the faithful departed, will be ever in my prayers.