In 1928 Klibansky completed his doctoral dissertation on the School of Chartres, highly praised by the famous mediaevalist Étienne Gilson, but not published, principally because of the worsening situation for Jewish academics. While still working at his dissertation, he became an assistant at the Heidelberg Academy, for which he planned the critical edition of Nicholas of Cusa. In 1932, after completing his Habilitationsschrift (post-doctoral thesis) on philosophy and history, he worked out a plan for a second collected works project, the critical edition of the Latin writings of Meister Eckhart.
He had already begun teaching in Heidelberg when the Nazis came to power in 1933 and put an end to his hopes of an academic career in Germany. Because he demonstrated that the Latin works of Meister Eckhart were inspired by Arab and also Jewish philosophers, such as Maimonides, and because he proudly affirmed his Jewish ancestry and rejected Nazi demands to drop his various projects, he was barred from his office, his papers were confiscated and his life threatened. He succeeded in leaving for Britain in July 1933. Before his departure, he was instrumental in securing the removal of Warburg’s library to London, where it opened in 1934 as the Warburg Institute.
Excerpt from Raymond Klibansky, a documentary in French from the program Metropolis, dir. by Pierre-André Boutang and Annie Chevallay. Aired by ARTE, 2000. ©Onlineproductions
During the Second World War, Klibansky, who took British citizenship in 1938, was attached to the Political Warfare Executive. After the German defeat in North Africa, he was asked to prepare intelligence for the Allied invasion of Italy. He is credited with having persuaded the Allies not to bombard St Nikolaus Hospital in Kues, which houses a precious collection of Nicholas of Cusa’s manuscripts. After the war, he was briefly Director of Studies at the Warburg Institute, and was then offered the Frothingham Professorship of Logic and Metaphysics at McGill University, Montreal, a post he held from 1946 to 1975. After his retirement he became a Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, between 1981 and 1995, and an Honorary Fellow thereafter.
Klibansky’s years at McGill coincided with his involvement with the postwar development of the International Institute of Philosophy in Paris. He was editorial director of the Bibliography of Philosophy from 1954 and undertook, under the auspices of the Institute, a vast program of editions whose aim was to disseminate texts that presented a philosophical case for toleration. He also founded and edited a series of survey volumes, “Philosophy and World Community,” the latest of which was La philosophie en Europe, edited with David Pears in 1993. These were noteworthy for the emphasis given to the philosophy of science, and for promoting the dialogue between Western and Eastern philosophies. A man of action, Klibansky was active in defending those who were subject to harassment in dictatorial regimes, such as the Czech philosopher and human rights defender Jan Patočka.
Klibansky’s own work continued with an edition of Hume’s letters and of the Latin text of Locke’s Letter on Toleration. He also returned to editing Cusa and pursuing his interest in Platonism with a study (co-written with Frank Regen) of the manuscript tradition of the philosophical writings of Apuleius (1993).
In 1995 he was married to Ethel Groffier, a professor at McGill’s Faculty of Law. In his final years, he was persuaded to contribute to an autobiographical portrait in the form of a published volume of conversations, Le philosophe et la mémoire du siècle. Entretiens avec Georges Leroux, translated into German and Spanish, and to a National Film Board of Canada documentary, Raymond Klibansky: From Philosophy to Life (2002, French with English subtitles). His last work was devoted to the history of the International Institute of Philosophy, Idées sans frontières (with Ethel Groffier, 2005).
Raymond Klibansky, 1991, in front of the plaque erected by the Senate of the University of Heidelberg listing professors excluded by the racial laws of the 1930s. Photo: Michael Schwarz, UAH.
In 1986 Klibansky was made Ehrensenator of his alma mater in Heidelberg. In 1993 he was awarded the prestigious Lessing prize of the city of Hamburg and two years later, the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. Also in 1995 he received the Italian Nonino Prize “To a Master of our Time” (among past winners of Nonino prizes are Claude Levi-Strauss, Peter Brook, Edgar Morin, Jorge Semprún). Honors followed in Canada also. In 1999 he was made a Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec. In 2000 he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in recognition for being “one of the greatest intellectuals of our time.” Recognition includes honoris causa titles from the universities of Ottawa, Marburg and Bologna, emeritus status from McGill and Heidelberg (1975-2005), designation as Honorary Fellow from Oriel College (1979-2005) and Wolfson College (1995-2005), Oxford, and the Reconnaissance de mérite scientifique prize from UQAM (1991).
Obituaries and homages following his death include notes in Le Devoir (Quebec), Le Monde (France), The Times (UK), The Independant (UK), The Review of Metaphysics, and the Mitteilungen und Forschungsbeiträge der Cusanus-Gesellschaft, among others. The McGill University Senate passed the following resolution in his honour: