Ágnes Heller, 1929–2019

Tributes paid to ‘one of Europe’s most revered philosophers and outspoken dissidents’

August 15, 2019
Ágnes Heller, 1929–2019

A leading ethicist and political thinker has died.

Ágnes Heller was born into a Jewish family in Budapest in 1929. Although she lost her father and other family to the Holocaust, she managed to escape deportation and continued to reflect for the rest of her life on how a genocide could have taken place in 20th-century Europe. She studied philosophy and Hungarian at the University of Budapest and became part of the circle of the leading Marxist thinker György Lukács.

After completing a first degree (1951) and then a doctorate (1955), Professor Heller was taken on to the faculty at Budapest. Yet she soon established herself as a dissident by getting involved in the 1956 revolution, which led to dismissal from the university two years later. She spent the next five years teaching in a secondary school, unable to publish any of her writings.  

In 1963 Professor Heller returned to philosophy as a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ sociology research group. But she fell foul of the authorities again when she condemned the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and was later declared “politically unemployable” by the ruling Communist Party. She therefore left the country in 1977 to work first at La Trobe University, Melbourne, and then from 1986 as the Hannah Arendt professor of philosophy at The New School in New York.

An expert in ethics and the philosophy of history, Professor Heller was the author of numerous highly ambitious and influential books in several languages, including A Theory of History (1982), Can Modernity Survive? (1990), An Ethics of Personality (1996) and Immortal Comedy: The Comic Phenomenon in Art, Literature, and Life (2005).

Judith Friedlander, former dean of The New School, described Professor Heller as “one of Europe’s most revered philosophers and outspoken dissidents, both during communist times and again more recently”, who throughout her eighties “continued writing prodigiously and giving lectures around the world” – and was even invited to lunch by Emmanuel Macron when she turned 90 in May.

After nominally retiring from The New School in 2009, Professor Heller spent most of her time in Hungary and became an outspoken critic of Viktor Orbán’s government, describing it in The New York Times last year as “a system of functional feudalism dressed in the formal attire of the democratic processes”. She was also active in the campaign to prevent the abolition of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. She died on 19 July while swimming in Lake Balaton as a guest of the academy and is survived by a son and a daughter.


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