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William H. Newton-Smith, 1943-2023: The Adventurous Life of a Maverick Philosopher

The renowned philosopher of science William Newton-Smith was an intellectual with a practical streak, founding or overhauling 35 universities, in addition to writing several classic books that remain in print after four decades. He was also a co-founder of Project Syndicate.

LONDON – As an undergraduate at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, William H. Newton-Smith traveled to East Germany as part of a United Nations exchange program to encourage mutual understanding among young people on either side of the Iron Curtain. He had an East German pen pal and visited her in Zittau in 1964. Profoundly shocked by the Volkspolizei, the barbed wire, and the minefields at the border, the visit had an enduring impact on him.

Fifteen years later, in 1979, Newton-Smith was one of Oxford’s most promising young philosophers at Balliol College, where he was a Fairfax Fellow. As secretary of the sub-faculty of the Department of Philosophy, he had received a letter sent to the university written by Julius Tomin, a Czech philosopher who had begun informal tutorials in private homes in Prague after the authorities expelled faculty and shut down departments deemed to be too radical. Copies of the letter, sent in the wake of the Charter 77 petition on human rights in Czechoslovakia, were also mailed to Harvard, Cambridge, and Freie Universität Berlin. Only Oxford answered.

Nearly two years later, Newton-Smith, as secretary, tabled the request to send faculty to Prague to deliver lectures to the informal groups. The request was approved, together with a small sum to cover visiting lecturers’ costs. And so began a lifetime of academic activism, bringing the intellectual freedom and opportunity of higher education to those otherwise unable to access it.

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