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Agnes Heller 1929-2019

“She was forever kind to me.”

I first met Agnes Heller at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research when I embarked on my Ph.D. in Philosophy in 1999. I do not remember which class I took with her first, but I remember clearly the first reception of the philosophy department at which I found myself standing with Agnes, the head of the department Richard Bernstein, and a few other people. From my years in Vienna and Berlin I had developed a habit of opposing my professors and challenging their authority. Agnes made all of this impossible by simply turning to Bernstein with the words “Aloisia is quite a personality.” She surprised me and took me under her wing all at once. I did not understand back then that she liked me from the start, since she saw in me a personification of her theory of personality. Part of her theory of modernity, it challenges us to accept the paradox that we are all born equal, but that we still have to strive to make ourselves into the versions of us that we hope to be. We project ourselves so to speak as that which we want to be and then act according to it, in the sense in which one would act on the Categorical Imperative—“Always act in such a way that you become the person you aim to become.”

Before my second year at the New School Agnes announced a seminar on Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu and so several of us spent the summer reading Proust. The next year I took her class on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and subsequently prepared for a Ph.D. exam by re-reading the Phenomenology in German and English simultaneously, spending a full week at a mountain lake all by myself, jumping into the lake between reading, swimming to the other side and back as I would do with the text.

Swimming, that was Agnes’ way of staying on top of everything. I once asked her how she did it—flying around the world and giving lectures and talks and returning just in time for her seminars. Was she never jetlagged? Her answer was that she would never acknowledge a time difference, would fly there and go on the time there. But she would swim every day, never a hotel without a pool. She swam into Lake Balaton and never came back.

Every year before Christmas I would celebrate a Christmas party at my various sublets or roommate situations. One year, I lived with my boyfriend on Boerum Street in East Williamsburg. Agnes came to the party really early because she wanted to leave early, as one of her favorite old Russian movies was going to be screened on television. She was so early, indeed, that I was still making the dough for my famous Vanillekipferl that would be baked during the party to go warm from tray to mouth. Agnes was the first guest, and not knowing what else to do I sat her down next to me at the kitchen table while I folded together butter, confectioners sugar, ground walnuts and flour. While she refused to call herself a feminist and more or less avoided the topic, that night she told me how she managed with two children, that she would go to conferences and freeze meals for her husband to serve during the week, labeling them Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc. Many years later she would be pressed by a journalist on the topic, how she was one of the few successful women in philosophy, one of so few. Her answer was “Since women have been dependent in the past—either economically or emotionally—they have not contributed great works of culture. Ever since women have been able to be independent—both economically and emotionally—they have made contributions to high culture. This is true for literature, art, philosophy and many other areas.” Agnes often told the story of how her father wanted her to be either a philosopher or a composer—something impossible for a woman to attain. The impossibility of becoming a philosopher, I admit, probably was also why I wanted to become one, rather than the hairdresser or salesgirl that my parents envisioned for me.

One year my husband and I went back to Austria to visit my family. Our daughter was one year old, and a dear Hungarian friend was getting married in Budapest, so we went. I had just finished my Ph.D. thesis and was to defend it in October. Agnes met us in the Jewish quarter where there happened to be a street festival. She insisted we sit down and that she would be our host, would get us typical Hungarian sweets and tea. I remember how she quickly went off, getting the treats and putting them in front of us with a big smile. The same way in which her emails were suddenly signed, “Love, Agnes.” She started to mother us on this visit.

One thing that especially stuck with me about Agnes’ philosophy

is her contention in the Theory of Modernity that it is founded on freedom and that makes it a paradox, because freedom cannot give a foundation. If it did, it would not be freedom but forced. We cannot solve the paradox, and Heller suggests that what we do is not think it as a paradox, despite the fact that it will pop up as one whenever we reflect upon it. She says that paradoxes are such that both sides of it will appear on the same plane, or in the same sphere, in the same history, only pointing in two directions. What matters is how we deal with the paradox. There will always sprout up two groups, one for each side. Some will be convinced that acting in the right way will make the other side of the paradox go away. They think the paradox is a problem that can be solved. This is technological or rational imagination. A second group might ignore the other side of the paradox as simply an illusion, or as tradition and prejudice that can be overcome by enlightenment. This is the labor of historical or romantic imagination, which turns the paradox into a theoretical problem.

Heller’s alternative is to give us a different frame for modern imagination, one that frames modernity. She says we are all confronted with the use of two imaginations and two different concepts of truth. Neither of the two is the truth of metaphysics or religion of the past ages. Technological and romantic imagination do not go together, they are entangled. That is the paradox. Modernity is heterogeneous, all foundations are destructed and deconstructed. The basis of modernity is freedom. Heller’s interpretation of this freedom is that we are presented with a world without ground, that has to reinvent itself permanently. There is no coherent narration for modernity, what is true changes every couple of decades. Heller gives us two examples of the dynamics of modernity, the first being the midwife of the second. Every modern dominant concept of truth or the good or justice has to be questioned continuously. The dynamic can play out as radical nihilism as well as fundamentalism. This rings truer today than ever. Because all women and men are born equal, the premodern truth that some are free and some not is falsified first. However, people will take different places in the hierarchy of social institutions. Freedom means here that we can transgress every limit, and we have to. The only limit that is left is the death of the singular person. This quandary is the paradox of freedom itself, seen from the perspective of imagination.

Ever since we learned about Agnes swimming out into Lake Balaton, we have asked ourselves: did she choose to die or was it out of her hands? This paradox, the fact that we will likely not have the answer, would immensely please her. Her Theory of Modernity was founded on freedom, which really did not give it a foundation at all, since freedom would make for a very bad foundation, being in itself free and precisely not foundational. I keep thinking about Agnes tricking us and fate by leaving it forever open which side of the paradox is the right one. We can tell ourselves the story that Agnes chose to swim out and never return, or we can attempt to explain the event. This is exactly the point to her theory, that only in the development, only in the actions, can we see the meaning of modernity, or of anything, at that.

My heart is sad, but I have known her, and she was great and forever kind to me. Just a few weeks ago I heard the Hungarian singer Veronika Harcsa, whose singing I love since it is like thinking. I planned to introduce Agnes to her voice, which was not to happen. As she will never again take my hand and press it as she did two days after her 90th birthday when I met her in Vienna. Once, during the most difficult time of writing my dissertation she said to me: “Aloisia, the last thing you will understand in philosophy is the self!“ I believe she mastered understanding herself. All we know is that she swam out into the lake and did not come back.

Aloisia Moser earned her Ph.D. at the New School for Social Research with Alice Crary and Agnes Heller, was Visiting Scholar and Lecturer at the Department of Philosophy at UC Berkeley and is currently Assistant Professor at Department of the History of Philosophy at the Catholic Private University in Linz, Austria. Her book Kant and Wittgenstein: A Theory of the Act of Thinking will appear in 2020, and she is currently writing a book on the role of “guessing” in thinking.

This biography is as she sent it to me on May 10th, two days before she turned 90:

Born 1929 in Budapest in a Hungarian-Jewish family. Her father was killed in Auschwitz, she and her mother survived in the Budapest ghetto. She joined the Communist party at 18 years old and was expelled twice, for the second and last time in 1958. After finishing high school she started to study philosophy in Budapest and became a student of György Lukács and soon Lukács’s teaching assistant. She was teaching at the university until 1957, when she was thrown out in a disciplinary procedure because of her participation in the revolution of 1956. She taught Hungarian literature in a high school for five years, was later admitted to the institute of sociology, yet prohibited from teaching in any university. In the sixties she became a member of a group of philosophers (Márkus, Vajda, Fehér, Heller) called by Lukács “the Budapest school”. This friendly circle was involved in creating, at least in theory, alternatives to official Marxism-Leninism and “actually existing socialism”. Some members of the group (among them Agnes Heller) protested in 1968 in Korcula against the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia. As a result, a party resolution was released against the members of the group, all of whom lost their jobs. Heller was declared an anti-Marxist with no place in Hungarian scientific life. Her main works in this period are Everyday Life, Renaissance Man, and A Theory of Feelings.

               In 1977 Heller emigrated to Australia, where she became a reader at La Trobe University, Melbourne for nine years. Her major works in this period are A Theory of History, General Ethics, The Power of Shame and Beyond Justice.             

               In 1986 Heller moved to New York where she became Hannah Arendt professor of philosophy at the Graduate Faculty of New School for Social Research. She retired from her job in 2006, teaching until 2009. Her major works in this period are Philosophy of Morals, An Ethics of Personality, Philosophy of History in Fragments, A Theory of Modernity, The Immortal Comedy, and The Concept of the Beautiful.

               After the collapse of the Kadar regime in Hungary, she and her husband Ferenc Feher visited Hungary regularly. Since her retirement in New York, Heller has returned to Budapest, Hungary where she is active as a citizen. Here she wrote, among other works, The Short History of My Philosophy and A Philosophy of Dreams.

               She received the honoris causa from universities in Peru, Argentina, Italy, Austria, Australia, and Israel. Among the awards she received are the Lessing prize (Hamburg), the Hannah Arendt  prize (Bremen), the Sonning prize (Denmark), the Goethe Medal (Germany), the Willy Brandt prize (Germany), the Ossietzky prize (Oldenburg), the Wallenberg prize (University of Michigan, USA), and the Széchenyi prize (Hungary).

               She was visiting professor, among other places, in Berlin, Konstanz, Buenos Aires, Lima, Pisa and a few Hungarian cities.

               She married twice. She has a daughter and a son, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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