Ágnes Heller

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Ágnes Heller : biography

12 May 1929 –

Ágnes Heller (born 12 May 1929) is a Hungarian philosopher. A prominent Marxist thinker at first, she moved onto a liberal, social-democratic position later in her career. In addition to political and social thought, she also concentrates on Hegelian philosophy, ethics, and existentialism.

Early life and political development

Ágnes Heller was raised in a middle-class Jewish family, and her father, Pal Heller, was never able to stay with a single job for very long. During World War II however, he 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, along with 450,000 other Hungarian Jews, to the Auschwitz concentration camp where he died before the war ended. Heller and her mother managed to avoid deportation as a result of luck and practical wit.

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?Interview with Csaba Polony, Left Curve Journal

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 Marxist philosopher György Lukács, on the intersections of philosophy and culture. At the time (and ever since), she did not understand the philosophical terminology. However, 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. Faced with the existential choice between Marxism and Zionism, Heller chose Marxism and did not seek to emigrate to Israel.

1947 was also the year that Heller joined the Communist Party while at a Zionist work camp’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 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. Later she became a big fan of Rákosi, she even wrote "fan letter" to her idol.

Awards, honors (selection)

  • Lessing Award, Hamburg (1981)
  • Hannah Arendt professor of Philosophy, Bremen, (1994)
  • Széchenyi Award (1995) – Tudományos munkássága elismeréseként.
  • Doctor honoris causa, Melbourne, (1996)
  • Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary (Civilian), Grand Cross – Star] (2004)
  • European Parliament Italian Section Award (2004)
  • Pro Scientia Golden Medal (2005)
  • Sonning Award (2006)
  • Hermann Cohen Award (2007)
  • Vig Mónika Award (2007)
  • Mazsike Várhegyi György Award (2007)
  • Freeman of Budapest (2008)
  • Goethe-Medal (2010)
  • Hungarian Socialist Party Medal for public activity (2011)