Editorial Note: Agnes Heller passed on July 19th, 2019. This is one of the last interviews, given to German newspaper Die Zeit.

Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller, also 90 years old, is friends with Habermas. And yet, she disagrees with some of his ideas. The philosopher of Jewish descent just barely survived the holocaust. In 1986, she took over Hannah Arendt’s teaching position in New York.

DIE ZEIT: How did your paths cross with West German Jürgen Habermas in Budapest, and when? Wasn’t the border between East and West firmly closed during the Cold War?

Ágnes Heller: In Budapest in 1953, I was the assistant of Georg Lukács, the history philosopher, who was first the master of my thoughts, then a close friend. Lukács read German newspapers — FAZ, Süddeutsche, NZZ, Spiegel — and through that I was able to read them, as well. I didn’t know of anybody else who could get their hands on them. Lukács also had books nobody else could acquire, and he told me to read them and tell him which ones were important. That’s how I heard the name Habermas for the first time. We knew about Adorno, but not Habermas. The first book of his I read was “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere,” which was published in 1962.

ZEIT: And did you tell Lukács that the book was important?

Heller: Yes, I did. I also recommended “Die höfische Gesellschaft” by Norbert Elias. I didn’t recommend Adorno’s “Negative Dialectics”, however. In my eyes, it wasn’t a good book.

ZEIT: Did you agree with young Habermas?

Heller: I appreciated his early work — “Structural Transformation” and his book “Technik und Wissenschaft als Ideologie.” His communications theory was significant and important, but in my opinion, there’s a problem with it: Truth, according to Habermas, is based on consensus. However, I don’t believe that truth is an answer that can be found in consensus, but that it remains a question. I don’t think that agreement is the only satisfying result of discourse. Also, and this I discussed in my talk, I don’t agree with his approach of not differentiating between empirical and transcendental viewpoints. He presented the transcendental point of view as if it were empirical.

ZEIT: When did you meet Habermas in person for the first time? Was it during one of the conferences on the Yugoslavian island Korčula in the 60s, where western and eastern European intellectuals gathered?

Heller: Yes, I met him in Korčula. The Frankfurt political theorist Iring Fetscher was there, along with the personable doter Ernst Bloch, my Polish friend Leszek Kolakowski, Lucien Goldmann, Herbert Marcuse, who acted as if he were some sort of soccer super star — pretty unappealing — people from the U.S. and England, Marxists and non-Marxists, and we all believed our thoughts could save the world. That illusion held us captive. I went three times — in 1965, 1967, and 1968. Swimming, seafood, those discussions. It was all wonderful.

ZEIT: And Habermas? What do you remember about him?

Heller: He passionately tried to convince us to re-read Marx with an anti-Soviet lens. Later, he said to me: “Agi, those were the Arcadian times of philosophy, when we all thought we could change the world.”

ZEIT: In your autobiography “Der Wert des Zufalls”, you write about talking to Adorno about music in Royaumont, France, in 1968. The heating was broken, cognac was keeping everybody warm, Adorno thought Béla Bartók was a sentimentalist, and you defended Bartók until Adorno agreed with you. Later, you told Habermas about that encounter and how proud you were…

Heller: …and he said that Adorno only agreed with me because I was a young woman. But Adorno asked me to introduce him to Lukács. The two soon fell out over Bloch, however, whose last books Lukács hadn’t even read.

ZEIT: Those were the old guys. You and Habermas, on the other hand, were the young ones. What united you intellectually in Korčula? What divided you?

Heller: I appreciated him as an active, thinking philosopher, who always produced new thoughts. But I always had issues with his receptivity. He misunderstood Foucault. Derrida, as well. Habermas was so absorbed in his own thoughts, he barely acknowledged those who thought differently. Derrida once said: “He doesn’t understand me, but I don’t mind.” Today, Habermas and I are most strongly united by the fact that we both defend a transcendental idea of the European Union after a Kantian model, and by our conviction that that idea is practical. A little while ago, Habermas was in Budapest and gave a public lectured on this, with which I strongly sympathized. I told him sarcastically: “See, you presented a transcendental idea of Europe after all — we’re on the same side.”

ZEIT: The side of reason and enlightenment?

Heller: Jürgen Habermas believes in rationality. That’s refreshing in a world governed by non-rational instincts. However, I’ve always had some difficulties with Habermas’s project to radicalize enlightenment or bring it to fruition. What enlightenment? To borrow Doctor Faustus’s words: Is enlightenment the devil or salvation? Habermas renders no judgment on contradiction within enlightenment. Basically, he refuses to acknowledge it. He’s a strict Kantian and universalist. I am, as well. But Kant was more careful than he is. One can’t reconcile all contradictions. I want to inherit the legacy of human rights enlightenment, as well as the enlightenment of republicanism, the droits de l’homme as well as the droits du citoyen, both are anchored in the French revolution.

ZEIT: Which personal memory of Habermas is most present today?

Heller: I have only fond memories of him. I respect and love him. Jürgen Habermas is a good person in every situation; a good citizen. Moreover: As a philosopher, he was and is a good citizen, regardless of intellectual trends. I’ve always sympathized with the political animal that is Habermas, despite all philosophical differences. Today, I’ve come to agree with his philosophy on post-secular society, which takes religion seriously. But Habermas as a person is more important to me than whether or not he understood Foucault correctly. If I were to write a tragedy, Habermas would be its hero.

Agnes Heller was a Hungarian philosopher and lecturer. She was a core member of the Budapest School philosophical forum in the nineteen-sixties and later taught political theory for 25 years at the New School for Social Research in New York City. 

Translation: Jennifer Hofmann

Interview: Elisabeth von Thadden