Remembering Agnes Heller
A tribute to a great philosopher
Agnes Heller died last Friday. She embodied philosophy and was a source of light in the dark times of the Twentieth Century and in the Twenty First until last week. Here is a note by Judith Friedlander (her friend and former Dean) to her New School for Social Research colleagues. -J.G.
It is with deep sadness that I write to let The New School for Social Research community know that our cherished colleague Agnes Heller, Hannah Arendt Professor of Philosophy, died on July 19, nine weeks after celebrating her 90th birthday. She was vacationing with friends and colleagues on Lake Balaton, like she did every year, as a guest in the summer facilities of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
But this year was different. The Orban government had recently passed a new law that was going to dismantle the Academy, and Agnes was still trying to fight that decision. Full of energy and terribly concerned about the plight of Hungary and other countries in Europe, she was not about to give up. What’s more, she was a strong and avid swimmer. Yet somehow on Friday, she went into the water and did not come out.
Agnes was one of Europe’s most revered philosophers and outspoken dissidents, both during communist times and again more recently. For those of us at The New School, she was also a beloved colleague, teacher, and friend. She joined the Department of Philosophy in 1986 and retired in 2009 — not that this technicality slowed her down. Over the past 10 years, she continued writing prodigiously and giving lectures around the world, passing through New York regularly to visit with students and colleagues and give a lecture or two at NSSR.
During the 2018-2019 academic year, in addition to giving lectures almost every week throughout Europe and a conference in China, Agnes came to The New School twice. In the fall, she spoke at the launch of the book Critical Theories and the Budapest School: Politics, Culture, Modernity (Routledge), edited by Jonathan Pickle and John Rundell, two of her students, and with contributions from several others. In the spring, she spoke at a conference celebrating the life and work of our colleague Yirmiyahu Yovel, Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy, who died in 2018.
In the summer of 2016, Agnes received the Courage in Public Scholarship Award, presented by the NSSR Europe Collective at The New School’s Democracy and Diversity Institute in Wroclaw, Poland. At the ceremony, I delivered a laudation that highlighted the significance of Agnes’ work as well as her impact on colleagues and students at NSSR and around the world.
When Agnes turned 90 in May, newspapers across Europe published glowing articles and interviews with her. Journalists wanted to hear her views on the upcoming European Parliament elections. So did French President Emmanuel Macron, who flew her to Paris to have lunch with him and several other leading intellectuals. In Hungary, Central European University, which Orban is forcing into exile, paid tribute to her, as did dissenting students in the country’s national university, ELTE. Agnes’ daughter organized a surprise party for her in a restaurant in Buda with 120 of her closest friends, who presented her with a two-volume collection of articles and tributes written by colleagues from around the world.
Before going on summer vacation, Agnes finished yet another book, the final volume of her history of philosophy that she had been writing for Hungarian students. Her last gift to The New School was a powerful article for the Spring 2019 issue of Social Research on Political Transitions Revisited: “Hungary: How Liberty Can Be Lost.” (An excerpt is published here.)
The Philosophy Department will organize a memorial for Agnes during the 2019-2020 academic year.
Judith Friedlander is a former dean of NSSR and Walter A. Eberstadt Chair of Anthropology. She is the author of A Light in Dark Times: The New School for Social Research and Its University in Exile (Columbia University Press 2019), in the last chapter of which Agnes Heller figures prominently.