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Ágnes Heller

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Ágnes Heller

Ágnes Heller
Ágnes Heller (c. 1998)
Born 12 May 1929
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Continental philosophy
Main interests
Political theory

Ágnes Heller (born 12 May 1929) is a Hungarian philosopher.

Early life and political development

Ágnes Heller was raised in a middle-class Jewish family. During World War II her father used his legal training and knowledge of German to help people get together the necessary paperwork to emigrate from Nazi Europe. In 1944, Heller’s father was deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp where he died before the war ended. Heller and her mother managed to avoid deportation.

With regard to the influence of the Holocaust on her work, Heller said:

I was always interested in the question: How could this possibly happen? How can I understand this? And this experience of the holocaust was joined with my experience in the totalitarian regime. This brought up very similar questions in my soul-search and world investigation: how could this happen? How could people do things like this? So I had to find out what morality is all about, what is the nature of good and evil, what can I do about crime, what can I figure out about the sources of morality and evil? That was the first inquiry. The other inquiry was a social question: what kind of world can produce this? What kind of world allows such things to happen? What is modernity all about? Can we expect redemption?[1]

In 1947, Heller began to study physics and chemistry at the University of Budapest. She changed her focus to philosophy, however, when her boyfriend at the time urged her to listen to the lecture of the philosopher György Lukács, on the intersections of philosophy and culture. She was immediately taken by how much his lecture addressed her concerns and interests in how to live in the modern world, especially after the experience of World War II and the Holocaust.

1947 was also the year that Heller joined the Communist Party while at a Zionist work camp[2] and began to develop her interest in Marxism. However, she felt that the Party was stifling the ability of its adherents to think freely due to the belief in Democratic centralism (total allegiance) to the Party. She was expelled from it for the first time in 1949, the year that Mátyás Rákosi came into power and ushered in the years of Stalinist rule.

Scientific work

Early career in Hungary

After 1953 and the installation of Lukács, and in 1955 she began to teach at the University of Budapest.

From the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 to the Prague Spring of 1968

The 1956 Hungarian Revolution was the most important political event of her life, for at this time she saw the effect of the academic freedoms of Marxist critical theory as dangerous to the entire political and social structure of Hungary. The uprising confirmed Heller's ideas that what Marx really means is for the people to have political autonomy and collective determination of social life.

Lukács, Heller and other critical theorists emerged from the Revolution with the belief that Marxism and socialism needed to be applied to different nations in individual ways, effectively questioning the role of the Soviet Union in Hungary’s future. These ideas set Heller on an ideological collision course with the new Moscow-supported government of János Kádár: Heller was again expelled from the Communist Party and she was dismissed from the University in 1958 for refusing to indict Lukács as a collaborator in the Revolution. She was not able to resume her research until 1963, when she was invited to join the Sociological Institute at the Hungarian Academy as a researcher (Tormey 4–18) (Grumley 5–15).

From 1963 can be seen the emergence of what would later be called the “Budapest School”, a philosophical forum that was formed by Lukács to promote the renewal of Marxist criticism in the face of practiced and theoretical socialism. Other participants in the Budapest School included together with Heller her second husband Ferenc Fehér, György Márkus, Mihály Vajda and some other scholars with the looser connection to the school (such as András Hegedüs, István Eörsi, János Kis and György Bence).

Heller's work from this period, subsequently repudiated, concentrates on themes such as what Marx means to the character of modern societies; liberation theory as applied to the individual; the work of changing society and government from “the bottom up,” and affecting change through the level of the values, beliefs and customs of "everyday life". Since 1990, Heller has been more interested in the issues of aesthetics in The Concept of The Beautiful (1998), Time Is Out of Joint (2002), and Immortal Comedy (2005).

Career in Hungary after the Prague Spring

Until the events of the 1968 Prague Spring, the Budapest School remained supportive of reformist attitudes towards socialism. After the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces and the crushing of dissent, however, the School and Heller came to believe that the Eastern European regimes were entirely corrupted and that reformist theory was apologist. Heller explains in her interview with Polony that:

the regime just could not tolerate any other opinion; that is what a totalitarian regime is. But a totalitarian regime cannot totalize entirely, it cannot dismiss pluralism; pluralism exists in the modern world, but it can outlaw pluralism. To outlaw pluralism means that the Party decided which kind of dissenting opinion was allowed. That is, you could not write something without it being allowed by the Party. But we had started to write and think independently and that was such a tremendous challenge against the way the whole system worked. They could not possibly tolerate not playing by the rules of the game. And we did not play by the rules of the game.

This view was completely incompatible with Kadar’s view of Hungary’s political future after the Revolution of 1956. According to her latest interview[3] in the German newspaper Jungle World, she thinks that political and criminal processes after 1956 were antisemitic.

After Lukács’ death in 1971, the School’s members became victims of political persecution, were made unemployed through their dismissal from their university jobs, and were subjected to official surveillance and general harassment. Rather than remain as dissidents, Heller and her husband the philosopher Ferenc Fehér, along with many other members of the core group of the School, chose exile in Australia in 1977.

Career abroad

Heller and Fehér encountered what they regarded as the sterility of local culture and lived in relative suburban obscurity close to La Trobe University in Melbourne, and they assisted in the transformation of Thesis Eleven from a labourist journal to a leading Australian journal of social theory before its subsequent conversion to "American civilization" (Tormey 4–18)(Grumley 5–15).

As described by Tormey, Heller’s mature thought during this time period is based on the tenets that can be attributed to her personal history and experience as a member of the Budapest School, focusing on the stress on the individual as agent; the hostility to the justification of the state of affairs by reference to non-moral or non-ethical criteria; the belief in "human substance" as the origin of everything that is good or worthwhile; and the hostility to forms of theorizing and political practice that deny equality, rationality and self-determination in the name of "our" interests and needs, however defined.

Heller and Fehér left Australia in 1986 to take up positions in The New School in New York City, where Heller currently holds the position of Hannah Arendt Professor of Philosophy in the Graduate Studies Program. Her philosophy continued its neo-liberal postmodernisation which began with its repudiation of Marxism for a functionalist and market-based theory of society and ended with a conversion to a kind of neoconservatism under the influence of the events of 9-11. Her contribution to the field of philosophy has been recognized by the many awards that she has received (such as the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Philosophy, Bremen, 1995) and the Szechenyi National Prize in Hungary, 1995) and the various academic societies that she serves on, including the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. In 2007 she visited China for a week for the first time.

Heller currently researches and writes prolifically on ethics, Shakespeare, aesthetics, political theory, modernity, and the role of Central Europe in historical events.

In 2006, she was the recipient of the Sonning Prize, in 2010 she received the Goethe Medal.

In 2010, Heller, with 26 other well known and successful Hungarian women, joined the campaign for a referendum for a female quota in the Hungarian legislature.[4]

Heller continues to publish internationally renowned works, including republications of her previous works in English, all of which are internationally revered by scholars such as Lydia Goehr (on Heller's The Concept of the Beautiful), Richard Wolin (on Heller's recent republication of A Theory of Feelings), Dmitri Nikulin (on comedy and ethics), John Grumley (whose own work focuses on Heller in Agnes Heller: A Moralist in the Vortex of History), John Rundell (on Heller's aesthetics and theory of modernity), Preben Kaarsholm (on Heller's A Short History of My Philosophy), among others.

Heller is now Professor Emeritus at the New School for Social Research in New York. [1] She continues to work actively both academically and politically around the globe. Recently she has spoken at the Imre Kertesz College in Jena, Germany together with Polish sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman [2], at the Tübingen Book Fair in Germany speaking together with Former German Justice Minister, Herta Däubler-Gmelin, [3], and other venues worldwide.

Awards, honors (selection)



  • The Marxist Theory of Revolution and the Revolution in Everyday Life (TELOS Fall 1970)
  • On the New Adventures of the Dialectic (TELOS Spring 1977)
  • Forms of Equality (TELOS Sumer 1977)
  • Comedy and Rationality (TELOS Fall 1980)
  • The Antinomies of Peace (TELOS Fall 1982)
  • From Red to Green (TELOS Spring 1984)
  • Lukacs and the Holy Family (TELOS Winter 1984-5)


  • A mai történelmi regény, (The Historical Novel Today, in Hungarian) Budapest, Múlt és Jövő Kiadó, 2011.
  • The insolubility of the "Jewish question", or Why was I born Hebrew, and why not negro? Budapest, Múlt és Jövő Kiadó, 2004.
  • Beyond Justice, Oxford, Boston: Basil Blackwell, 1988.
  • Can Modernity Survive?, Cambridge, Berkeley, Los Angeles: Polity Press and University of California Press, 1990.
  • Dictatorship Over Needs (with F. Fehér and G. Markus). Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983.
  • Doomsday or Deterrence (with F. Fehér). White Plains: M. E. Sharpe, 1986
  • Eastern Left – Western Left (Freedom, Totalitarianism, Democracy) (with F. Fehér). Cambridge, New York: Polity Press, Humanities Press, 1987.
  • An Ethics of Personality, Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1996.
  • From Yalta to Glasnost (The Dismantling of Stalin's Empire) (with F. Fehér). Oxford, Boston: 1990.
  • General Ethics, Oxford, Boston: Basil Blackwell, 1989.
  • The Grandeur and Twilight of Radical Universalism (with F. Fehér). New Brunswick: Transaction, 1990.
  • The Humanisation of Socialism (with A. Hegedus et al.), (collected papers trans. from Hungarian). London: Allison and Busby, 1976.
  • Hungary, 1956 Revisited: The Message of a Revolution A Quarter of a Century After (with F. Fehér). London, Boston, Sydney: George Allen and Unwin, 1983.
  • Immortal Comedy: The Comic Phenomenon in Art, Literature, and Life, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc, November 2005.
  • Individuum and Praxis (Positionen der Budapester Schule), (collected essays trans. from Hungarian, with G. Lukács et al.). Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1975.
  • On Instincts (English trans. of Hungarian original). Assen: Van Gorcum, 1979.
  • Lukács Revalued, editor. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983 (paperback, 1984).
  • A Philosophy of Morals, Oxford, Boston: Basil Blackwell, 1990.
  • The Postmodern Political Condition (with F. Fehér), Cambridge, New York: Polity Press Columbia University Press, 1989.
  • The Power of Shame (A Rationalist Perspective), London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.
  • Reconstructing Aesthetics, editor with F. Fehér. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.
  • Renaissance Man (English trans. of Hungarian original). London, Boston, Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.
  • A Theory of Modernity, Blackwell Publishers, Cambridge MA, 1999.
  • The Theory of Need in Marx, London: Allison and Busby, 1976.
  • The Time is Out of Joint: Shakespeare as Philosopher of History, Blackwell Publishers, Cambridge MA, 2000.
  • Towards a Marxist Theory of Value, Carbondale: University of Southern Illinois, Telos Books, 1972.

See also


  1. ^ Interview with Csaba Polony, Left Curve Journal
  2. ^ 'We lived in community, we felt we belonged together. We needed neither money nor the rich ... I didn't like the rich, today I am ashamed of it. I abominated the black market dealers, the dollar speculators, the men of rapacity and greed. No problem! I'd stay loyal for ever to the poor. So, crazy chick that I was, I joined the Communist party to be with the poor'. Cited Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times,,2002 p.137
  3. ^
  4. ^ Női kvóta: népszavazással és meztelen férfiakkal próbálkoznak, Népszabadság, 5 November 2010.
  • R. J. Crampton Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century-And Beyond. Second Edition. London: Routledge, 1994.
  • Ferenc Fehér and Agnes Heller (1983) Hungary 1956 Revisited: The Message of a revolution- a Quarter of a Century After, London, UK: George Allen and Unwin Publishers Ltd
  • John Grumley (2005) Ágnes Heller: A Moralist in the Vortex of History, London, UK: Pluto Press
  • Curriculum vitae of Ágnes Heller Archived April 8, 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  • Agnes Heller (2000) The Frankfurt School, 2 December 2005 [4]
  • Csaba Polony Interview with Ágnes Heller [5]
  • Simon Tormey (2001) Ágnes Heller: Socialism, Autonomy and the Postmodern, Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press
  • Fu Qilin, "Budapest School Aesthetics: An Interview with Agnes Heller", Thesis Eleven,2008,V0l.1.num.94.
  • Agnes Heller, "Preface to A Study of Agnes Heller's thoughts about Aesthetic Modernity by Fu Qilin", Compatarative Literature, 2006,vol.8, num.1

External links

  • Collegium Budapest [6]
  • Interview with Ágnes Heller: Post Marxism and the Ethics of Modernity, A Brief History of Radical Philosophy 2005. 2 December 2005 [7]
  • Heller, Ágnes. The Three Logics of Modernity and the Double Bind of the Modern Imagination, Collegium Budapest, 2 December 2005. [8] (.pdf file)
  • Rick Kuhn, Marxism Overview, 24 August 2004, 2 December 2005. [9]
  • Mikko Mäntysaari, Ágnes Heller, 2 December 2005 [10]
  • Liam McNamara, Michael E. Gardiner (2000) Critiques of Everyday Life, New York and London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-11314-8. 2 December 2005. [11]
  • Simon Tormey Interviews with Agnes Heller (1998)” 1 February 2004. 2 December 2005. [12]
  • Agnes Heller at University of Milan, Italy, 7 May 2008. [13]
  • Interview with Agnes Heller, "On Ethics of Personality", by Andrea Vestrucci, in Secretum 16-2008 [14]
  • Beyond justice
  • Interview with Ágnes Heller
  • Interview with Philosopher's Zone
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