Ágnes Heller: A Philosophical Suite
“There is no rigorous philosophy which does not depend on history of philosophy, and which does not acknowledge this dependence; there is no cogent research on history of philosophy which does not take also a philosophical position. This is the credo informing the contributions to this Thesis Eleven special issue on Ágnes Heller. Yet each contribution embodies this afflatus in its specific way, each one discusses Ágnes Heller and with Ágnes Heller according to its own standpoint, whether ethics or epistemology, aesthetics or philosophy of history, (meta)philosophy or history and its vicissitudes. The fundamental tonality being the same, all contributions colour it with their rhythms and styles: a sort of philosophical “suite” inviting us to dance the philosophy of Ágnes Heller.”
from Andrea Vestrucci’s Introduction
Abstract: This was the address given on the occasion of the award of the Goethe Institute’s Goethe Medal to the Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller in 2010. Other recipients of the Medal have included Bruno Bettelheim, György Ligeti, Ernst Gombrich, Karl Popper, and Lars Gustafsson.
Abstract: In this essay, I reconstruct Heller’s philosophy of history, arguing both that Heller’s position presents a serious intervention into modern theorizing about historical patternicity and that Heller’s position should be understood as a valuable hybrid, uniting her existential, ethical, and pragmatic bodies of work. For Heller, history is implicated indissolubly in the personal and ethical decision-making of individual actors. I conclude that Heller undermines postmodern claims about the relativism of history and scientific progress, notwithstanding initial appearances to the contrary.
Pietro Daniel Omodeo
Abstract: This paper deals with Ágnes Heller’s suggestion, in A Theory of Modernity (1999), to ascribe to science a central role in the ongoing development of modernity. As we shall argue, this is not merely a historical issue but, rather, a historical-philosophical one that entails the problem of defining modernity, science and technology and their mutual interconnections. As for modernity, according to Heller, it is a free developmental project without any foundations other than freedom itself. In particular, the evolution of science and technology is one of its main developmental tendencies. Science, she argues, has become the dominant world explanation while technological thought is the corresponding dominant (but not unique) imaginary institution. Her attempt to isolate the essential cultural features of science-technology owes much to Habermas’s analyses of the 1960s on the technocratic developments of contemporary societies legitimized through an ideological employment of science. Like Habermas, Heller embraces an instrumental and problem-solving conception of technology and ‘normal’ science which appears questionable, however, in the light of conclusions on the intrinsic creativity of the science-technology interface deriving from historical epistemology and an externalist history of science. Considerations and examples derived from the recent agenda of historical epistemology could integrate Heller’s philosophical and cultural analysis of the role of science in modernity while challenging some of her assumptions.
Abstract: The question ‘How does a person make an ethical decision?’ becomes all the more compelling and problematic when trying to behave ethically during, as Ágnes Heller puts it, ‘the total breakdown of “normal” ethical worlds’. In her philosophical work Heller pieces together a moral compass internal to individual subjectivity to employ during such times. Kierkegaard’s model of existential choice has played a formative role in Heller’s solution to the problem. In my article I describe Heller’s Kierkegaardian framework of choosing oneself as an ethical being and consider a recent critique of Heller’s Kierkegaardian ethics of personality by Richard J. Bernstein, continuing the substantively productive tension between the irrational and rational forces that determine our ethical actions. In the process, I show common ground between Bernstein and Heller through an appropriation of Arendtian judgment. I turn to Heller’s most recent work in The Concept of the Beautiful in order to make this common ground tangible.
Abstract: According to Ágnes Heller’s plans in 1989 and 1990, the last volume of her moral trilogy should have been entitled A Theory of Proper Conduct. In 1996 the third volume finally appeared with the title An Ethics of Personality. Its content: a series of philosophical dialogues between many dramatis personæ. The change in style and methodology of the third volume led to many criticisms, amongst them Mihály Vajda’s questioning of the whole project’s consistency. The present paper aims to engage these criticisms by retracing the presence in An Ethics of Personality of the themes that, according to Heller’s previous intentions, should have informed the last part of her moral theory. The contribution analyses Heller’s definitions of modern paideia and moral wisdom, the issue of the possibility of happiness for modern people, and the philosophically problematic concept of moral aesthetics. In conclusion, the ‘literary’ methodology of the book is put in relationship with the non-prescriptive aspect of ethics.
Abstract: This paper situates the critical attitude undergirding Ágnes Heller’s theory of modernity by elucidating her conceptualization of its ‘undialectical dialectics’ relative to the dialectical philosophies of Kant and Hegel. For Heller, the methodological commitments orienting a philosopher’s decision on how to conceptualize the dynamics of modernity are not merely theoretical but also ethico-practical, for they attempt to overcome the duality of life and spirit in the singular personality. For the denizens of contemporary modernity – who recognize contingency inhering in their institutions – and for philosophers – who recognize the fallibility of their theoretical claims – a form of skepticism is warranted. By engaging with the work of György Márkus, Heller attempts to evince a notion of ‘normative skepticism’ that may exhibit both a critical attitude appropriate to conceiving modernity as ‘undialectical dialectics’ and to attenuate for the threat of ‘existential failure’ in the choice of oneself as a philosopher.
Abstract: From the point of view of reflected postmodernity, Ágnes Heller constructs her own discourse of aesthetics on the basis of György Lukács’s contribution. She locates aesthetics in her social philosophy, philosophy of history, and ethics, transforming aesthetics from a ‘Marxist Renaissance’ to a ‘post-Marxist’ position, and points out that the paradoxes of modern culture can be avoided by a personality that is autonomous and moral in action. The notion of the beautiful character in everyday life is a symbol of the ideal type of society and of the good life in contrast to the God-forsaken world of modern dilemmas and the domination of the sublime in postmodernism. It is the expression of freedom and democracy in the contemporary age. Heller’s neo-humanist aesthetics is in essence the presentation of her cultural politics as a Great Republic.
Abstract: The paper aims to investigate the meaning of historicity in the light of Ágnes Heller’s interpretation of history as ‘being-in-common’. By touching on the problem of the modern world’s axiological pluralism, the issue of the legitimation of moral theories and the dilemma of morals, the paper analyses Heller’s conception of human goodness as an incontrovertible, inexplicable and mysterious ‘fact’ that is able to illuminate the path of human life and determine the opening of the individual onto the world with the same wonder that marks the beginning of any philosophical attitude.
Abstract: The paper is a reflection on the biography and philosophy of Ágnes Heller. It considers questions of emigration, personality, politics, change, continuity, and friendship in the development of her philosophy.
The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique by Fred Block and Margaret Somers
Reviewed by Claus Offe, Damien Cahill, and Johanna Bockman