This article was originally published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung by Jurgen Habermas on July 22nd, 2019. You can find that piece here. © Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. All rights reserved. Provided by Frankfurter Allgemeine Archiv. It was translated by Jennifer Hofmann.
This year, when with a guilty conscience and much too late I congratulated her for her 90th birthday, Agnes Heller replied without a trace of hurt feelings: “Well wishes are never too late.” Death notices, however, always come too soon. To the very end, Agnes Heller was a person full of sparkling vitality. She had limitless spiritual energy. In hindsight, it seems inevitable: The only type of death befitting such a person is a sudden one. Now: news of her swimming out into Lake Balaton on her vacation last Friday, and never returning. Agnes herself would have shied away from romanticizing this news; but I can very well imagine—if I’m allowed such consoling thoughts—that she’d hoped for such a sudden death.
Agnes Heller was an old school philosopher. In the mid 60s, when I first met her at Iring Fetscher’s in Frankfurt, then ran into her again at the yearly gathering of practice philosophers on Korčula Island, she struck us all—despite communalities in our orientations of critical thought—as the young, captivating embodiment of a philosophical profile resembling our teachers’ generation. From our perspective, it seemed as if the heritage of German idealism had sustained itself among our interesting “Eastern Bloc” colleagues—as we called them—a self-certitude, untouched by the fallibilism of science, that was no longer familiar to us in contemporary western philosophy.
This unbroken philosophical self-confidence mixed with the freshness of young Agnes Heller’s unbiasedly open mind—presumably the reason why she drew in the mentality of students surrounding Georg Lukács in the 50s. This observation, however, did nothing to alter this group’s perspective on mental and political independence, the humanist impulse, and scientific productivity. Perhaps this awareness of mental sovereignty served as a protective shield for Agnes Heller and her friends who, after the uprising of 1956 had been quashed, were prosecuted and forced into exile.
Over the last decades, I’ve learned to acknowledge that this idealistic self-certitude and this feeling, yes, this view of philosophy as a calling was but one facet of this admirably solid character; of this proud and at the same time brave and street-smart woman. Given the presence of this strong personality, I wonder if a large part of this author’s energy and passion has been lost on readers who’ve only read her books. This may not apply to her first book, “Renaissance Man”, published in 1967 in Hungary: through this epoch and the looming personas it produced, Agnes Heller celebrates with abandon the humanist spirit and the virtues it encapsulates. One thing that sets her apart as a philosopher, and something she truly shares with Hannah Arendt, is the ability to combine an emphasis on soaring ideas with remarkably simple evidence within everyday experience and wisdom.
Agnes Heller is a philosopher of the old European sort. Her thought reflects an unusual life, a painful life story. This time period of extremes left deep scars. Not that she would have ever made a fuss about it, but by the time she was barely fifteen years old, she’d already experienced the unimaginable. Only by chance and cleverness, this young girl and her mother avoided deportation and execution, while her father was murdered by the Nazis. Raised in communist Hungary, she lost her position as Lukács assistant in 1956, and with that a chance for an academic career. She worked part time as a teacher, continuing her philosophical work under adverse circumstances, until finally emigrating to Australia.
The following years, working as a professor at the New School of Social Research in New York, which was founded during the NS-era for the reception of German and European émigrés, promised a well-deserved end to the political prosecution of the Jewish philosopher. When the émigré finally returned to her home country, however, she was once again subjected to chicanery, public hostility, and even anti-Semitic assaults under the illiberal democracy of Viktor Orbáns. It wouldn’t end. Of course, this depressing experience didn’t stop her from openly criticizing the regime and encouraging younger generations. Life never afforded her calm.
Agnes Heller did not view herself as an intellectual. In her own way, she lived as a philosopher, which gave her the strength to stand firm in light of that era’s adversities.
Jurgen Habermas is chair of philosophy and sociology at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt and a permanent visiting professor at Northwestern University.