© Agnes Heller and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Heller was interviewed by Andrew Hines on October 19th, 2012
Ágnes Heller is a Hungarian philosopher. A prominent Marxist thinker at first, she moved onto a liberal, social-democratic position later in her career. Dr. Heller was the student of Georg Lukacs and a prominent member of the Budapest School until she went into exile in 1977 after many waves of political persecution. Since 1986 she has taught at the New School for Social Research in New York City and currently holds the post of Hannah Arendt Visiting Professor of Philosophy and Political Science. Dr. Heller has published widely on a number of subjects in Philosophy of History, Political Science and Ethics, and is the recipient of numerous awards for her writings and service to education and society. Her more recent work has been concerned with aesthetics.
How did you decide to work in academia? Was it a conscious choice? Who were some of your mentors when you were a student?
In answer to your first question, let me take you back into another place and time.
We are in 1947-1951, Budapest, Hungary. My story begins two years after WWII, where since 1949 Hungary had entered into a Soviet type communist regime. During that time I was then a young girl of 18 to 22 years old, my father had been killed in Auschwitz, and my Mother earned less than was necessary for survival. It was during this time that I chose to become a philosopher; a choice that in many ways happened by chance, but has since become my personal destiny. In a world where there were no choices left, this was a lifelong decision and one that would shape my path to come.
There was thus no other choice for me but to get a PhD, and then a job in a department of philosophy, but for a young girl, imprisoned in a country, this was difficult. After the revolution of 1956 I was thrown out of my institution due to a political disciplinary procedure, and found myself placed as a teacher of Hungarian literature in a High School. I had, again, no choice in the matter. The first time I could teach again at a university was in 1979, when I was given permission (from the party) to emigrate. My first choice of “academia” was La Trobe University in Melbourne but, again, I had no other options.
The one choice I had, this choice which would become my destiny, arose by chance when my then boyfriend took me to a Lukács seminar on the history of philosophy after Kant. I did not immediately grasp or understand the lecture, but I understood that I needed to understand. That I must understand. Lukács became my teacher, and continued to inspire me for more than twenty years. “Inspiration” is the proper word, for he never asked his students to repeat his ideas slavishly. Although often dogmatic in his writings, Lukács was not dogmatic as a professor. He encouraged us to think, to think about everything. I learned from him that although knowledge is necessary in philosophy, as in all other branches of sciences, what we know in philosophy is just the starting point for independent thinking. This spirit came to permeate the so-called Budapest School, to which I belonged.
Other inspiration came from the Korcula Summer School where various intellectuals from different shades of the left were meeting every year to discuss all the important issues of the world. None of us were interested in whether someone came for the “academic value” of the school. The important thing was the contribution to the discussion. All of us believed that what we were saying (in philosophy) would make a difference in the world.
In your experience, has the role of a professor evolved since you were a student?
Your question about the changed role of professors suggests that the role of the professor changed since I was a student, and that it was changed in the same direction and all over the world.
I have no recollection of “the role” professors played in my times as a student, for I was not interested in their role. One professor was inspiring, the other was boring, one was splendid the other dull. This is all that I remember.
I suppose, that at present, the role of a professor differs whether she teaches in a College or a Graduate School; and it also differs as to whether she teaches in France, USA or in China. In my experience the teacher- student relationship is more egalitarian in the “new world” than for example in China. In general I know little about the “role of professors”, for the last 25 years my experience has been mainly about philosophy professors and the teaching of philosophy, I cannot generalise the role of the professor. I can only speak of myself. I have taught in many different countries (Italy, Germany, and Argentina), in different Universities, in Undergraduate and Graduate schools alike. But my main experience has been related to the New School for Social Research, in the Graduate Faculty where I have served as a professor of philosophy for over 25 years.
Subject to my experience I think that the task of a professor is threefold:
One first needs to provide knowledge, and create ‘huddles’ which prepare students for work in academia, allowing for them to become good teachers.
Secondly, one should encourage students to practice independent thinking, to ask their own questions, to remain curious; in short, to become a proper philosopher. No one can be taught to be a philosopher, only to be a good philosophy teacher. The teacher can only provide the preconditions for the talented students to become independent, creative and original philosophers.
And thirdly, to make students aware of the role philosophy can play in the world; in the social world, in the world of politics, the world of art and so on. One can aim at the fusion of “school philosophy” and “world philosophy.” One must make students aware that in philosophy departments, although philosophy is taught and learned at the academy, it does not serve it.
Nowadays most philosophy departments are interested in the first “function” alone. Personally, I was lucky to get a position at the New School, a place that is committed to all three enumerated obligations.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim can be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information and digital interactive media?
Your question concerning the crisis of the university has dominated discussion since 1968.
The function of universities has changed dramatically since “class” universities were slowly replaced by “mass” universities. Other things were also in flux, the role of women in professional and intellectual institutions dramatically changed, as did technology in teaching and research. It is part of the normal state of our universities to talk constantly about their continued crises.
You have described your work as being motivated by questions that arose from your experience of both the Holocaust and the totalitarian regime in Hungary. To quote from an interview in the Left Curve Journal you responded, “I was always interested in the question: How could this possibly happen? And further on in the interview, “what kind of world can produce this? What kind of world allows such things to happen?” These two questions broadly fall under the headings of the ethical and the social and form a dialectic between individual choice and social choice. Where is the line between the two and how has this dialectic transformed in this, the information age?
When I was thinking over my own history of myself as a philosopher (for my book The Short History of my Philosophy) I had to reckon with my early and long lasting attachments to ethics and philosophy of history. Such attachments have perhaps no causes, but life experiences can pull us to confront certain questions. There is no doubt in my mind that two of my personal life-experiences, the Holocaust and the Gulag, pulled me towards such confrontations with ethics and the philosophy of history. You are right in that they are connected puzzles, yet different all the same.
Totalitarianism is a modern political organisation, the possibility of which can be found both in the Enlightenment and the radical reaction to Enlightenment. Totalitarian rule uses ideology as a means to create both faith, and terror. The combination of faith and terror produces a certain ethical attitudes (I have addressed these in depth in the second part of my work Dictatorship over Needs when discussing the Soviet Union). The Holocaust only became possible under Totalitarian rule, yet the mass murder of children in gas chambers cannot be ascribed to the combination of faith and terror. To answer the unanswerable question of the Holocaust puts ethics into the foreground, even in a Biblical context as the conscious and radical retrieval of the Ten Commandments such as Imre Kertészhas suggested.
[Editors note: Dr. Heller has chosen to answer the following two questions together]
Dr. Heller, your work has shifted throughout your lifetime as the political circumstances surrounding your life have shifted. You were a member of the Communist party in Hungary up until the revolution and more recently your work has shifted again in the wake of 9/11. Throughout your life, what is it that you have found lacking in a school of thought’s ability to accurately respond to contemporary situations?
Eric Hobsbawm has claimed that you distanced yourself from the Communist party in Hungary and were eventually expelled because you were concerned that the party stifled the ability to think freely. The end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st brought about a host of changes in regards to politics, education and individual freedom. How have these changes affected freedom of thought and how should it function in our era?
I was expelled from and left the Communist Party when I was 27 for my support for the 1956 revolution and my so called “counterrevolutionary” ideas. I turned away from the party not just because it prevented me (and all the other intellectuals) from free thinking, but mainly after becoming aware (though too late) of the terrible crimes committed by it and for its name. From 1968 I remained an independent “Leftist” with great, although not uncritical, sympathies for the New Left. I called myself a Marxist for a while, albeit I rejected the fundamental Marxist theories about the historical role of the proletariat in the world, and the paradigm of production.
Even retrospectively I do not see abrupt changes in my philosophy, with the exception of my rejection of the “grand narrative” in the early eighties. The change was continuous, due to a rethinking of earlier works or confronting entirely new challenges. Times change, new historical phenomena emerge, and new dangers develop. I reflected upon them without abruptly changing my philosophical position; this is also true about my philosophically expressed reaction to 9/11.
In answer to your question as to whether liberties such as freedom of thought, speech and the press are endangered I can answer only in the affirmative.
Liberties are first and foremost, fragile. They are fragile, because of the fragility of Modernity. Modernity has no fundament. It is, if you wish, founded on freedom, but freedom is a foundation that does not found since it needs to be maintained by constant work, commitments, sacrifices and first and foremost by thinking.
Secondly, liberties are fragile because commitment to freedom can clash with other commitments, other modern values, such as commitment to life, to security, to wellbeing etc. Among all the liberties, freedom of thinking occupies a special place. If citizens think with their own minds and do not simply parrot the opinions of leaders, then they help to promote, maintain and restore all other liberties. Revelatory Truth is thus not confronted to mere Opinion as traditional and metaphysical philosophy have suggested, but the plurality of Truth claims backed by no other authority but the authority of freedom of speech itself. This leads back to ethics. To think with one’s own mind is the condition of human dignity and requires the practice of civic virtues.
In closing, much of your recent work has revolved around aesthetics. How do you view this shift in relation to your past work and what are you currently working on?
I turned towards the philosophy of art and the philosophy of religion after realising that in matters of ethics and in the philosophy of history, I was thinking through everything and I could not add anything new except minor details, and that did not interest me. I did my duty to the dead; in this respect I am free. Thus I can turn to my old loves, such as Shakespeare, the Comic phenomenon, or the bible. For instance my latest book is about the philosophy of dreams.
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