EducationFeatureLettersLiberal Democracy in Question

Agnes Heller Awarded Second Annual Courage in Public Scholarship Award

TCDS is happy to announce that the eminent philosopher and activist Agnes Heller, NSSR Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, was awarded the second annual Courage in Public Scholarship Award by theNew School for Social Research Europe Collective at the 25th Anniversary Democracy & Diversity Institute in Wroclaw, Poland on July 16, 2016.  Below is the citation for Prof. Heller written and read by Judith Friedlander, former dean of the Graduate Faculty, and a professor of anthropology at Hunter College, who is now writing a history of The New School for Social Research. – Adrian Totten

Agnes Heller: Distinguished philosopher and heroic dissident, Agnes Heller is “a child of the 20th century, touched personally by all the great events, as well as all the tragic events, of this last century.”

These are the words the Israeli philosopher Yirmiyahu Yovel used to describe Agnes Heller in the Laudatio he delivered in 2006 at the Hermann-Cohen-Akademie für Religion, Wissenschaft und Kunst, when she received the academy’s Medal for Jewish Culture and Philosophy. For those unfamiliar with Agnes Heller’s story, he continued:

She lived [these events] in close personal contact, both from within and without: Nazism and Auschwitz; Communism and Stalin; the modern experience of contingent existence; the collapse of historical traditions; the fall of the Soviet Empire and the Berlin Wall, which liberated her country, Hungary; the ills of modernity in the West; and the transformations and vicissitudes of the modern Jewish situation. With all this she has coped both personally and philosophically. In fact, ‘both personally and philosophically,’ is one and the same thing for Agnes, for this is the way she chose herself to be, and through this – through philosophy—she came into her own.

The Hermann Cohen medal is only one of many such awards and honors that Agnes Heller has received since 1989 in recognition of her scholarship and courage. Others include the Hannah Arendt Prize (1993), the Sonning Prize (2006), the Goethe Prize (2010), the Primo Levi Prize (2012), the Wallenberg Prize (2014). Most moving of all, Agnes Heller once said, was the medal she received in 2008 from the Czech Republic in recognition for the courageous stand she took in August 1968 when the Soviet Union and its satellite states put an end to the dream of building a socialist society “with a human face”. On August 23rd, three days after a battalion of tanks rolled into Prague, Agnes Heller and 4 other dissidents from Hungary succeeded in eluding the censors and published their declaration of protest in a major French newspaper (Le Figaro), a gesture of solidarity for which predictably they were punished.

And now, dear Agnes, in the summer of 2016, the New School for Social Research –Europe takes great pride in recognizing you as well with its newly created award for Courage in Public Scholarship, not only for what you stood for during the Communist period, but for your ongoing contributions in the 21st century as a philosopher, teacher, and, once again, as a political dissident. Since 2010, you have been a leading voice of the democratic opposition in Hungary and the target of smear campaigns orchestrated against you by members of the Fidesz Party and others on the extreme right.

Dear Agnes — and yes, this is the way we should address you today, despite the formality of the occasion, because you are dear to all of us here in Wroclaw as you are to your many other friends at NSSR and throughout Europe, not to mention other parts of the world. As New School philosopher Richard Bernstein has confessed, “I find it difficult to write about Agnes Heller without writing a love letter.” And he speaks for the rest of us when he describes what he most loves and admires about you:

You are first and foremost “an independent thinker — ein Selbstdenker — who hates all ‘isms,’ who has had the courage to criticize, rethink, and revise your most cherished beliefs, and who approaches life experiences with an ever renewed freshness and vitality.” You are, Dick continues, “a thoroughly ‘good’ person: generous, caring, loyal to friends, sensitive to the suffering of others, and always vivacious. There isn’t a trace of ressentiment in you. Your being-in-the-world epitomizes what Hannah Arendt calls amor mundi. One comes away from an encounter with you feeling more alive and more attuned to the world.”

Dick met you in Dubrovnik in 1981; others of us a bit later, after you came to the New School in 1986 as the Hannah Arendt Professor of Philosophy. Although you have technically been retired now since 2009, you thankfully return to the New School almost every year to give a public lecture and meet with former students. A gifted teacher with a devoted following, your students hold professorial posts in many countries around the world, including Australia and Brazil, Austria and Mexico, and the United States. No matter where they have settled, you accept invitations from them to give lectures to their students, on the vast range of philosophical questions that interest you and about which you have written. Your books number well over 30 and appear in almost as many languages. The latest came out in Hungary this past April, just in time for the Budapest Book Fair. It is the first of several volumes you are writing for students on the history of philosophy.

Speaking of history, perhaps your first act of courage in public scholarship occurred in the mid-1950s, when you yourself were still a student of the Hungarian critic Lukács: “The greatest luck of my life,” you wrote, “was to have become György Lukács’s disciple.” But you were already a Selbstdenker. When Lukács suggested that you write a doctoral dissertation on aesthetics, you told him that you wanted to do one on ethics. Then write on the ethics of Lenin, he proposed. Not yet, you demurred diplomatically. You preferred to begin with the work of Nikolai Cherynshevsky, the Russian writer who had influenced Lenin, assuring Lukács that you would write your second thesis on the revered leader of the Russian Revolution. A promise you had no intention of keeping, because, as you noted many years later, “the ethics of Lenin didn’t exist.” You wrote your second thesis on Aristotle.

After 1956 you could no longer set foot in a Hungarian university. Ostracized at home, you began to attract a following abroad, “imperceptibly at first” was the way you described it, among New Left intellectuals in the West and dissidents in the East. By the late 1960s, students of philosophy were reading you in Serbo-Croatian, Italian, German, English and Spanish, throughout Europe, in Australia and remote parts of the Third World. Your most popular works in those days were Everyday Life and The Theory of Needs in Marx, where you made your most eloquent case for a “revolution of everyday life” over all other forms of political revolution.

During the 1960s, while Lukács was still alive, the authorities left you and his other disciples more or less alone, with the occasional raps across the knuckles, to be sure, that all dissidents expected. But when the great man passed away in 1971, the party took revenge. Two years later they staged the so-called Philosophers’ Trial and stripped you and the other members of your Budapest School of whatever privileges you still had, including your research position at the Institute of Sociology and the right to publish. The situation became so intolerable by the mid-1970s that you went into exile, moving first to Melbourne in 1977, where you taught at Latrobe University for 9 years; then to New York and the New School for Social Research.

György Lukács may have made you a philosopher, but Pál Heller, your father, is the one who inspired you to study ethics. He died in Auschwitz in 1944, when you were 15 years old. Pál Heller, you tell us, was your model for the good person you wrote about in The Philosophy of Morals. Philosophers, you explain, do not invent a moral philosophy; they observe the way people around them have lived and then choose “the most exemplary.” In your case, this was your father, whom you describe as having gone through life, to its bitter end, as a decent person. You began, you wrote, by following “the simplest choices [he made] in everyday life up to the ultimate moral conflicts, the borderline situations. Not all men go this way up to the end. My father did.”

When the Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944, your father had no illusions about what would happen to him. As an active member of the resistance and a Jew, he knew that he was doomed. What kept him going, however, was the firm conviction that you would survive and remain true to what he had taught you. “All you need,” he wrote in his last will and testament, a few weeks before the Germans arrested him, “is a little more luck than your father had and everything will be all right…. In spite of what has happened over the last years, I have not lost my faith…. Evil may be victorious for now—but goodness will prevail in the end. Every good person contributes a speck of dust to that final victory.”

May your father be right! And may we have the strength to follow your example and do our part to bring about that final victory. But what does this entail in 2016, in a terrifying world that continues to ignore the lessons of Auschwitz? It’s a tall order, you admit, but that is no excuse for giving up. In January you offered the following advice to members of the European Parliament, who had invited you to address them on Holocaust Memorial Day:

We must do everything we can “to marginalize anti-Semitism and all kinds of racism…by preserving liberal democracy, practicing citizens’ rights, human rights; all the liberties needed to protect our world from the totalitarian threat, from nihilism and fundamentalism, and from the misuse of modern technology. To protect our world as much as possible from all the conditions…of Auschwitz,” even if, you concede, we cannot protect ourselves from all the causes.

For your fierce commitment, dear Agnes, over these many years, to doing everything you can to defend liberal democracy, the NSSR-Europe community is proud to confer upon you its Courage in Public Scholarship Award.

Notes:

Quotations by Yirmiyahu Yovel and Richard Bernstein come from:

Yirmiyahu Yovel, “Laudatio for Agnes Heller,” pp. 11-22, and

Richard Bernstein, “Existential Choice: Heller’s Either/Or,” pp 87-100, in

Katie Terezakis, Editor, Engaging Agnes Heller: A Critical Companion (NY: Lexington Books, 2009).

Quotes by Agnes Heller come from:

Interviews with Judith Friedlander;

Agnes Heller, A Short History of My Philosophy, (NY: Lexington Books, 2011);

Agnes Heller, “Is Representation of the Holocaust Possible?” Speech delivered at the

European Parliament, Brussels, January 27, 2016 (Holocaust Memorial Day).

Also for you:

Judith Friedlander

Previous post

Letter from an Offspring of the Spanish Civil War

Next post

Why Melania Trump’s Plagiarism Matters