Back to Left Curve no. 22 table of contents
"The essence is good but all the appearace is evil"
While I was in Budapest during March of 1997 an old friend of mine, Éva Karádi, invited me to attend an event at the Osiris Liberary Club and Bookstore planned for the release of the Spring issue of the quarterly journal Magyar Lettre Internationale of which she is the managing editor. The issue featured a section, called "Women Writers = Women's Writers?" (Író Nök = Nöírók?) which problematized the notion that had developed in the west (primarily in the US) of women's literature as being a subgenre in literature and of equating it with the work of writers who also happened to be women. Éva mentioned to me that there would be a panel presentation and audience discussion on the theme, and one of the panel members would be Agnes Heller. I knew of Ms. Heller as being a student of György Lukács and a prominent member of Hungary's "New Left" dissident movement in the 60's and 70's who was prevented from pursuing her career as a philosopher and had left Hungary in the late 70's. My knowledge of her work had been primarily through her essays published in English in journals such as Telos, New German Critique and Thesis Eleven. Based on my general preconception of her, I was expecting a professorial, serious critical theorist, roughly within the Central European Hegelian-Marxist tradition. As is frequently the case with preconceptions, my preconception hardly coincided with the reality. Agnes Heller turned out to be a spunky, energetic, refreshingly straightfoward, down to earth and direct woman. She dismissed the whole notion of the segregation of writing by women as "Women's Literature" and was in general scornful about the whole institutionalization of "Women's Studies" in US universities. At one point, she rather unceremoneously equated "Women's Studies" as being the same as the dogmatic "Party line" which had done so much damage to culture in Hungary during the period of Party rule. I just sat there and realized that this really was a different world than what I was used to in the US when discussions about issues of "identity politics" (particularly "sexual politics") took place. Not only was there a direct and open exchange of views without the self-controlled, tense, psychologically charged atmosphere so prelavent in similar gatherings among US "progressives," but the audience, most of whom were younger women, without exception supported Agnes's view. The overall thrust of the discussion was a decidedly antagonistic attitude toward "Western feminism." And this antagonism grew, so it seemed to me, not from a denial of the problems of sexual inequality, but rather from a deep-seated distaste for the repressive consequences of the "politicization of everyday life" that had occured in this part of the world during the period of "really existing socialism." It was a reaction born out of the numbing pain inflicted by the forceful denial of subjective will according to the dictates and interests of dominant political power.
After the event Éva Karádi introduced me to Ms. Heller and suggested that I do an interview with her for this journal. The interview took place in English at Ms. Heller's Budapest apartment on March 24, 1997. The text below is a transcription of our taped interview, which was reviewed and sent back to me with corrections by Ms. Heller.
Csaba Polony: Could you tell us briefly about your background, training and the issues that you have been concerned with?
Agnes Heller: My work is my whole life. I would start with my experience of the holocaust. My father was killed, and many of my childhood friends. So this experience exercised an immense influence on my whole life, particularly on my work. 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? ehat is modernity all about? can we expect redemption? So it was ideas like these that interested me, and very passionately from the beginning onwards. And I felt that I had a debt to pay as a survivor. Writing moral philosophy and philosophy of history for me then became a way to pay my debt as a survivor to the people who could not survive. So in this respect my philosophy became a sacrifice but a sacrifice which I enjoyed. And this is not contradictory, I can sincerely say that my whole life became a sacrifice to pay my debt and simultaneously I enjoyed writing philosophy. For example, the great painters enjoyed painting the crucifixion of Christ, the greatest possible suffering. And they did it by putting color on the canvas. And this apparent contradiction is what characterizes my life: the things that I have done have been a sacrifice to pay a debt I owe and the ways in which I have done them has been the enjoyment I have derived from writing philosophy.
Now for my practical background. After the war, when I was fifteen, I embraced Zionism. I believed that redemption comes from Zion and I planned to go to Palestine. But when I was 17-18 I changed my mind and chose to remain in Hungary, to go to the University of Budapest and study chemistry and physics. After I had been enrolled for a while, my boyfriend of the time wanted me to come with him to listen to György Lukács and his course on the Philosophy of Culture. At first I said no, I wasn't interested in what I thought was a useless topic. It wasn't hard science. It was very important for me to show that woman could excel in Science just as well as man. I wanted to be a Scientist, like Madame Curie of course. But at the insistence of my boy friend I finally agreed to attend one of Lukács' lectures. So I was sitting there listening to Lukács' elaboration of Shelling or Hegel - I don't remember exactly which - and I began to realize that I hadn't understood a thing about what he was talking. But there was one thing that I did understand: what he talked about was the thing that is the most important of all the things in the world and that I must understand it. So this and my experience of the holocaust combined for me, because basically it was something which was concerned with the sense of life. It became far more important for me than the hard sciences to understand the world in which I am living. I realized that I didn't want to be a chemist or physicist, I wanted to understand the world. The consciousness of the debt that I had to pay because of the holocaust then came together with the understanding that I do not understand one thing about the world. So I immediately dropped my classes in chemistry and physics and joined Lukács. I became a philosophy student, later on a student of philosophy and Hungarian literature. I decided that this was my fate and chose myself as a Philosopher at that point. And I came to the conclusion that you never develop. The moment that you choose yourself as a Philosopher you are as good a Philosopher as you can become, whether you live to be 80, 90 or 100. Nothing changes. You can learn more, get more information, make comparisons but you will not be better. You are always the same person, it is like you have crossed something - I don't know what.
CP: What do you mean by saying that nothing changes?
AH: Nothing changes in the individual's commitment to something. This was why it was far more important for me to pursue my philosophy than to pursue, for example, politics and accept communist politics. I was a member of the Communist Party for two years. I was expelled for the first time from the CP already in 1949. I was accepted again later and expelled for the last time in 1958. At that time you could have the option to choose politics instead of philosophy. But there was a clash. It was obvious that if you accepted the Party line and followed it step by step you could not pursue philosophy because you had to accept certain things that you didn't believe to be true. If you do not follow that road you have already chosen yourself as a Philosopher and you won't change, in the sense that you always prefer it to all the other kinds of exercises. Regardless of what you are doing, what your options are, promises, promotions, you always return to Philosophy because that is what you have chosen for yourself. You can learn a lot, get a lot of information, read many books, you can get the facility to prepare and give lectures, move freely through the material, but all that is secondary. The primary is the choice.
CP: I'd like to ask you a question about your experience with communism, both as a philosophy and a practical political movement. In a sense, the ideals of the communist movement at that time were a response to the kind of questions that I assume you were also searching for: answers to questions of why is there suffering, why is there oppression, and a practical movement to alleviate or change the conditions that produce them. That at any rate was the goal of the best of that movement
AH: That is true and that was the reason that I joined communism, actually. Because it promised an answer to these questions.
CP: So I'd like to ask what in your experience happened - considering the best of the ideals of that movement - in terms of its failure in relationship to your personal quest?
AH: All right. My joining with communism was because of what you mentioned. It offered what I was searching for. It offered an explanation of why there is suffering in the world and it offered an earthly redemption, a second coming of something. But it turned out very soon that it was a phony thing. Because in philosophy you need a redemption and answers to such questions. But you need something else, you need the ability to think with your own mind. You need redemption and the freedom to think with you own mind. You need both but there was a clash between the two. The Party offered a scheme for redemption but it never allowed you to use your own mind. There was a contradiction between these two things. Actually that is how I first lived Marxism. I later became a Marxist while I was quite hostile to Hungarian communism. This was a duplicity or a double-bind, if you will. Marxism, yes because it promises redemption, but this form of communism - no because it does not allow you to think with your own mind. A good friend of mine expressed this discrepancy in 1952 in the following way: "The essence is good but all the appearances are evil." I think that this is a very beautiful expression. The essence is the promise of what is in the theory, particularly in the young Marx. On the other hand you cannot agree with what they say and they do not allow you to think with your own mind. That is also a personality problem with me. I am a collectivist and an individualist simultaneously. I love to meet together with others, I love to have a cause. I am now very sorry that I do not have a cause. I prefer a life in which you have a cause, it's important for me to wake up in the morning and figure out how you can contribute to a cause. But I want to have a cause while I also remain an individual. So how can you do the two things together? It's very difficult, maybe you can't.
CP: I'd like to ask you about the quote you just mentioned, "The essence is good but all the appearances are evil." Isn't that really an age-old issue, very traditionalist in the sense, that prior to the modern age, "essence" was taken as true reality, whereas "appearance" was illusion, a phantasm? Or that the material world was fleeting whereas the spirit or soul was eternal - in the medieval conception, and prior to that as well. And a part of the whole modernization process involved making "appearance" the real and "essence" an illusion, or an ideological reflection of forms of social practice by various groups. Do you think that, in terms of the failure of Marxism, or extending that to the failure of modernism as a whole, is wound up in that conflict or problem?
AH: At that time, when I was involved in that problem, I was unaware of the deconstruction of metaphysics. I was unaware of the fact that Marxism, and even already Karl Marx, was a new metaphysics and you can really compare it to what Heidegger and Nietzsche described as the reversal of metaphysics. The essence then becomes what is underneath, it is deep-down and no longer that which is high-up. You have to go deep-down and unearth the essence from the world of appearance, the world of commodity fetishism. What appears in your every-day life, daily communication, intercourse and so on, and the reversal of the appearance of something that is really deep-down and essential: that is the reversal of metaphysics. But at that time I had not experienced this in these terms. I'm speaking about the field of Marxism, not about Karl Marx. Marx was a cogito who elaborated the great theory of modernity. I think there are three great over-arching theorists of modernity: Hegel, Marx and Max Weber. All the other theorists approached modernity from one angle or another but didn't give us an over-arching general theory of modernity. But I would not speak of the failure of modernity. The idea of the failure of modernity is a very romantic thing. It assumes that modernity should have been something better, that because it did not provide something better, by definition it failed.
CP: Could you elaborate on why you believe that modernity did not fail?
AH: Yes, it has not failed because I think we have to look at what our expectations have been. If we think that modernity has failed we have to compare modernity with our expectations and the question which we may then ask is whether or not we have had the wrong expectations. We expected development, we expected progression, we expected that the modern world would solve all the problems that the pre-modern world could not solve. We expected the modern world to become far superior to all kinds of pre-modern world arrangements. It didn't happen that way and instead of speaking about the failure of modernity we have to ask the question whether our expectations were right. Rather, we need to look at modernity as being different than all pre-modern social arrangements. The fact that it is different doesn't mean that it is necessarily better, it is simply different. And if we describe it as different we have to ask how it performs its function as a new social arrangement in counter distinction to all previous social arrangements. And for the time being we cannot speak of modernity's failure but of its enormous success. Because it first became elaborated two or three centuries ago in Europe and since then it has spread throughout the whole world. The whole world has essentially become modern as far as the social arrangement is concerned. It's an amazing success and not a failure. Of course if you are dissatisfied with the modern world, if you don't like it, if you feel that meaning is lost and if you are afraid and speak with Heidegger then, yes, I believe it is so. But it is not the failure of modernity, dissatisfaction with modernity also belongs to modernity. It is part of its functioning, it belongs to its survival. Of course, I do not know if modernity will be able to survive. That is something to which you cannot yet give an answer. It is still a very new social arrangement and it is difficult for us to imagine how a social arrangement with so little spirituality can survive. Whether it will be possible for modernity to survive is an open question. It is still too early to tell, but at this point we cannot describe it as a failure.
CP: Going back to your life development, could you describe the circumstances at the time you left Hungary? What led to your leaving?
AH: It was because of the so-called "Philosopher's Trial"; that is how it has become to be called in Hungarian history, in 1973. It was a Party resolution issued against a group of philosophers and sociologists, mostly students of György Lukács and their students. The essence of the resolution was the following: since in Hungarian scientific institutions Marxism-Leninism should be practiced, those people who are alien and hostile to Marxism-Leninism have no place in Hungarian scientific institutions. Consequently such people have to be removed from their jobs. So we were dismissed from our jobs at the Institute of Philosophy and the Institute of Sociology and we became unemployed. That is, "theoretically unemployed" because supposedly there was no official unemployment at that time. And it was not allowed that you take an inferior job, but at the same time according to the Party resolution we as scientific workers were unqualified to work in our field because of our hostility to Marxism-Leninism. So because of the Party resolu-tion we were dismissed from our jobs at the Academy of Sciences and became unemployed for a few years. While we were unemployed we decided that we had to leave the country, not just because we were unemployed but because we were constantly subjected to police harassment, we were followed in the streets, they sent informers and spies to our apartments, and my husband, Feri, also spent a few days in prison. Our apartments were searched in the early morning hours. So it was a very unpleasant kind of life. And so enough was enough. We finally decided in 1977 to leave the country. 1977 was the first year that we could decide to leave the country. Let me explain. It was Catch-22. They told us that we can only get an immigration passport if we have a job to go to. But at that time there were very few jobs in the West and the universities told us to come for an interview to see if they would want to give us a job. But we had to tell them that we cannot come for an interview because we can only get our passports if we already have a job. So it was Catch-22. Finally a friend of mine, who was an Hungarian immigrant, Iván Szelényi, applied for a job for me in Australia and the university sent someone to Budapest to interview me. And I got this job and that was how I got the passport.
CP: One thing that I never quite understand is why did the Party bother? Why was it so important for them what a few philosophers said? What were they afraid of?
AH: You see you don't understand the regime. The regime just could not tolerate any other opinion; that is what a totalitarian regime is. But a totalitarian regime cannot totalize entirely, it cannot dismiss pluralism; pluralism exists in the modern world, but it can outlaw pluralism. To outlaw pluralism means that the Party decided which kind of dissenting opinion was allowed. That is, you could not write something without it being allowed by the Party. But we had started to write and think independently and that was such a tremendous challenge against the way the whole system worked. They could not possibly tolerate not playing by the rules of the game. And we did not play by the rules of the game. Let me tell you a very simple thing. It's very difficult to understand. But you have family in Hungary, you speak Hungarian and are of Hungarian origin, so maybe it's not so difficult for you. When we were going to be dismissed from our jobs the Party declared that they were going to organize a scientific debate about our dissenting views. And they sent us invitations to participate in the discussion about our views. We wrote back to them a letter and the letter said the following: we would be happy to participate in a public discussion of our views. But we cannot participate in a discussion which is organized by the Party, is open to only those whom the Party invites and in addition the purpose is to discuss our faulty ideas. Because what kind of discussion is this? It is totally ridiculous! We just cannot participate. This is what I mean by not playing the game according to the rules. I know this because the then Party boss, György Aczel - Sándor Revesz just wrote a very interesting book about him - regretted very much the Philosopher's Trial and said later, after the democratic change, "You really ruined my game. I believed that you would come, exercise some self-criticism and after a few years you would get back your job. But you ruined my game." And actually we really did ruin his game, we didn't play by the rules of the game. In that regime you had to play the game, otherwise you would marginalize yourself entirely. Of course you could live here as a pariah. I would never say that we were forced into emigration. We chose to emigrate. You could live here as a pariah; you could live by teaching language day and night, translate books and abandon doing philosophy, resign from doing intellectual work. You could live that way. Had I known at that time that the regime would collapse in 1989, perhaps I would have chosen a pariah situation. But according to our analysis then we believed that though the regime would eventually collapse, it would not do so in our lifetime. And you only have one life and I really wanted to do philosophical work, I had to write philosophy. I didn't want to play their game and I didn't want to live as a pariah, so we decided to leave.
CP: Do you think there is anything inherent in the underlying philosophy of this type of social system as it was practiced that led to its totalitarianism, or a situation in which you had to play by the rules of the game? It seems like this was the same outcome anywhere in the world where there has been this Party rule, where a society was to be built and run according to a prescribed plan. What is your understanding of why this happened?
AH: First, I don't think that you can ever have a complete explanation about history. You can have as many answers as you have questions about this issue. I don't think that the philosophical model of Karl Marx necessarily leads to the Gulags and has a direct relationship to a totalitarian world, just as Nietzsche has little to do with Nazism. Totalitarian regimes selectively choose ideas that they prefer and discard those that they do not; but I don't think there is a strict, uniliniar development from the philosophical system which they chose. Totalitarian regimes were born out of totalitarian Parties. The first totalitarian Party was established by Lenin and then by Mussolini. But Mussolini got his ideas first from Lenin anyway;at one time they were buddies in the left-socialist movement. In the totalitarian Party there was an authoritarian center which all the members were duty-bound to obey. Discussion was considered to be alien to the Party's line and activity was contrasted to discussion. I think that Ortega y Gasset described it beautifully, though he was referring to Fascism, when he said that an ideology in which only intellectuals discuss and real political persons act instead of discussing is a very characteristic feature of a totalitarian Party. Now what happened in the Soviet Union, and it happened in Nazi Germany as well, is that once the Party seized power the State took on the model of the Party. Then it escalated and the State repressed and homogenized the society into the totalitarian model derived from the Party. And this totalitarian model is a product of the modern world; it is not anti-modern, it has nothing to do with the "Asian mode of production," with "barbarism." It is a very modern thing. Modernity has to do with the invention of new political institutions. The pre-modern world basically knew only one political institution and that was the Monarchy. One man ruling everything, nothing else. Maybe there was the democracy of a few men ruling everything but that lasted only a few centuries in very few select places. Normally one man rule. But the modern world invented new forms: the Absolute Monarchy, Constitutional Monarchy, Parlimentarianism, Democracy, Liberalism, Totalitarianism - everything was invented. The State becomes a kind of craft, a craftsmanship, technique, technology and that brings us again to Heidegger. It is a problem to solve, we can establish a world out of our own imagination if we have the means to do so. The establishment of institutions of our own making is the proper means by which we can arrive at our goals. It is the whole technological imagination, an instumentalization of thinking, that lead to the invention of whole new kinds of institutions, organizations which are allegedly able to realize our plans. We transform the world of nature, we create the new man, we create everything and we need the machinery. This machinery is the Party whose commands everyone has to follow. It is a totally modern invention. And for this Party to govern a nation you did not need a pre-modern social formation. You needed a total disenchantment with democracy, with liberalism, world war, a sense of failure, loss of life. So now when we speak about the "end of history," the "end of totalitarianism," and say, "never again," I am skeptical. I think that if people again become disenchanted with democracy, with life, then "why not?" - it can happen again. Not necessarily in the form of Bolshevism, but in some other form that would be the result of a totalitarian imagination which promises heaven on earth.
CP: It's interesting what you say about "heaven on earth" because in a sense that takes us back to the issue raised earlier about "essence and appearance." The promise of "heaven on earth" in effect transforms appearance, every-day life on earth, into essence or "heaven."
AH: Yes, that is interesting, what you say. The whole appearance and essence issue returns here. In this respect you were right when you pointed to the association between Marxism and the totalitarian regime. Though there is not a direct influence, there is a communality of intent in wishing to reverse appearance and essence. This is why we could imagine in this world that the essence is the reverse of the appearance. You are right in this sense.
CP: Going back to your life history, you left Hungary in the late 70's and then lived in the West, first in Australia and then eventually the U.S. Putting those two experiences together, your life in socialist Hungary and then what you experienced living in the West, how has that effected your life, what you expected from the West while you where in Hungary, what you experienced once you were there and?
AH: I realized that there is no such thing as the "West." For example, New York, where I live now in the US., and Australia, are extremely different. When I went to Australia, I came to a world where there was social security, strong trade unions, great individual freedom, people never interfered in other people's business. It was not easy to understand it at first, but the more I lived there the more I began to love that world. Of all the places I have known in the world, I think that Australia is the most human. Maybe because it is so isolated. There are good friendships, there is not so much competition among people. There is very little hostility. It is a world without great prejudices. Of course it is part of the social inheritance, they are the great-grandchildren of juvenile delinquents who were sent to Australia; yet I have never found a more law-abiding people in the world. They are law-abiding without being interested in the law; they just don't hurt each other.
Then when I came to the United States I encountered a totally different world. I can tell you two things. One is that I cannot complain about myself. As far as I am concerned I got recognition in the U.S. That is something you can get in the United States that you cannot get elsewhere. They recognize performance. In Australia they really don't recognize performance, it is not that important. So my performance was recognized in the U.S. and that is not bad. I felt comfortable in the United States. On the other hand, there is a kind of a reversal in America. In Australia there is collectivism in economics and individualism in politics. The State through negotiations with the Trade Unions (and almost everyone is in a trade union there) centrally determines prices and wages. Socially, economically it is very collectivist. Their is a kind of a mutual help, they help each other. Redistribution is natural. But politically they are extremely individualistic. Now in the United States it is a reversal: in politics the U.S. is extremely conformist, collectivist, and economically they are individualistic. So Australia and the U.S. are exactly the opposite, yet both are considered to be the "West." So I realized that the "West" is not one model, but that there are many models in the West. When I got to America my greatest surprise was how conformist they were politically. In Australia, for example, "political correctness" would have been a laughing stock, a total joke. They are not conformist politically. But economically they are collectivist: how much I have to pay to have a tooth pulled is determined in Canberra.
CP: So what do you like about the United States and what do you dislike?
AH: I like the respect that there is for the Constitution. A sense for the law and some kind of seriousness. Of course the seriousness is a backlash. Again comparing that to Australia, in Australia there is much more of a sense of humor about it. I do not like the sheepishness in so much of America. There is a conviction in the United States that there is majority rule. In Europe we are convinced that the "majority" is whoever shouts the loudest. For example, in America "political correctness" is a small minority, but because they shout so loud in the universities everyone is afraid of them, no one opens their mouths and says that they are stupid. There is a kind of totalitarian democracy in American life. Not in the State; if you compare the U.S. State to the European, the American State is far more liberal. But in America what is illiberal is the society and not the State. In Europe the society is far more liberal than the State. In Europe there would be no question of people asking, for example, Don Carlos, an absolutist King of Spain, to please give them back their freedom of thought. Or writing letters to Stalin or Adolph Hitler asking them to give them the freedom for this or that. It's a ridiculous idea. On the other hand, the society in Europe always showed a solidarity against the State. In society you could be sane, your friends would not betray you, they would not denounce you to the State. In America you can never be sure. They will denounce you everywhere. If you tell a joke in private company you can never know if you will not be reported to your employer, to the Dean, to this or that committee. You can never be sure, you are never secure, you cannot feel secure in an intimate way among your friends because you never know who is your friend. And, people do it voluntarily! This was a great surprise for me. In Hungary, during the Kádár regime people were asked by the secret police to spy on their friends. They would say things like, "You accepted money from an American tourist and if you do not spy on your friends you will be imprisoned." So people would be forced to do it. In America they do it voluntarily, they love to do it, they think it is their responsibility. They don't believe in civil relationships, they have no taste, they don't believe in settling things among themselves. For example, the relationship between women and men is totally upside down. In America they are obsessed with sex. In Europe or Australia they are not obsessed with sex, they're just doing sex. Americans are puritans, they are obsessed with sexual crimes. Women and men cannot really be comfortable with each other, they cannot relax, make jokes, be ironical with each other. They cannot say whatever they want. The language is always controlled, you have to control what you say, control your thoughts. And this is not because of the State but because of the society. This is totally un-European and also un-Australian.
And this is not only so in the sexual area. During the Cold War everyone had to say exactly the same thing. I was a devoted far-leftist during the times of 1968 and the student movement, but this conformity even in that movement always bothered me. Everyone had to say the same thing, no one could think with their own mind, you could not distinguish between sheep and sheep, you had to shout together with the wolves.
CP: Yes, I agree with you. It was during the 60's that I became radicalized and I embraced that movement wholeheartedly. Yet, it dawned on me rather quickly that more often than not the ideals had very little to do with what was actually going on. Practically speaking, it really amounted to an extension in different form of the same incredible competition that goes on at every level of American society. It was a power game and adhering to the accepted, given momentary rules was a way of advancing that power. The theme that I see continuously in American culture is this incredible competition. Everyone continually weighs each other to see who is ahead and who is behind. And it's constant and it's unconscious. It's not even a thought process anymore.
AH: I think it is conscious, I don't think it is unconscious. I know it from my son, who is an American lawyer. It is absolutely conscious. As a lawyer you are constantly calculating in these terms: how can you be promoted, how can you become a partner. The thinking is not concentrated on the case but on how you can move up. And it is also in the universities. But still, inspite of this, you can have a sense of team work. It doesn't necessarily contradict team work.
CP: I'd like to ask a general question. We are now at the end of the millennium; some people believe a completely new epoch is beginning to unfold. Given that background, what do you think are some of the most important issues that intellectuals need to address?
AH: There is now a kind of proliferation of important intellectual issues. In my view philosophy has become subjectivized, which contradicts the well-known idea of the "end of the subject." I mean that now every philosopher has his or her own language. There are no more schools of philosophy today. There are no more "Masters" and their pupils. Schools need someone who is considered to be a repository of truth, and the others who are moving around this truth and receiving inspiration from this center of truth. So this is the time when the schools are over because no one any longer believes that he or she is the repository of the truth. In the previous philosophical tradition, every philosopher had his own truth and the different truths were contrasted to the truths of others and every school was hostile to the other schools. Now we no longer have the idea of a central truth. We now have more of an understanding about the thinking of others, that perhaps there is something in it: maybe it is an interesting angle, an interesting way to illuminate the matter, it's not false but perhaps it's not true either. It is a kind of transformation of language. Not in the sense of Wittgenstein's use of language but in the sense that we each have our own philosophical characters. Philosophy gets closer to what we can call novels; that is, we each have our own characters which we put into motion within one framework, and others have their own novels and characters but we can still read each other's novels. This is one tendency; the other tendency is the slight reversal of what happened in the 19th century. In the 17-18th century there still was a general European philosophy, rooted in Latin. But in the 19th century philosophy became nationally distinguished. British, French, German philosophy had nothing to do with a general philosophical language. American philosophy was originally pragmatic but later on took over the English and its traditions. So what developed in the 19th century was the development of philosophies that were isolated nationally. Now what has happened, due to the whole process of internationalization, is a criss-crossing across borders. There are no longer isolated national philosophies and there are no more schools. But there are books that you select as the "books of the year." This is not done consciously or unconsciously. In all the hundreds and thousands of meetings and conferences held each year, the participants know at the given moment which are the books they need to know and need to discuss. After the 60's there was a "Marx period," everyone discussed Marx. I'm only speaking about the leftists now. Then everyone discussed Max Weber, then everyone discussed Habermas, then everyone discussed Foucault, then everyone discussed Derrida, then everyone discussed Hannah Arendt. Now you can say that this is just fashion but it is a fashion that is not simply fashion, because in order to say something we need to talk about the same thing. You cannot discuss a concert with a friend if you didn't attend the same concert; you cannot discuss a book if you and your friend read different books. So the problem has become how to organize people so that they can get together and at least read the same books in order to be able to have a discussion about the same things. And fashion basically produces this, fashion selects the few books that become the center of discussion. So since there are no more schools because everyone is an independent thinker, there may be at least a few works to which everyone can turn in order to have a discussion, in order to be able to have a common language. And this is the new development. Now, whether this can produce great works, I don't know. I am a little skeptical about it. I don't think that this kind of situation promotes the emergence of great independent strong works. But I am cautious because you never know. As Baudelaire says, great works just burst out happily from somewhere and you cannot predict when or where, it just happens. Hegel spoke about the end of art in the 1820's and you know what happened. The great modern art was born afterward. I am very reluctant to speak about the end of anything because, well, let us wait, let us see. I am skeptical about cultural criticism because it is already a sign of decadence. It is the reverse side of the concept of progression. So we are now in a period of decadence, there is always the end of something and the crises of something. I am skeptical. I am not a great admirer of contemporary art but there are some works that I like and some I do not like. There is no grandeur. But there are some good and interesting works now. But we can't predict whether something great will emerge or not, so that is why I am skeptical about cultural criticism: decadence is just as much a tendency as is progression and is just as much suspect.
CP: Why do you think there is this "fashion" in intellectual work now?
AH: Because people cannot talk to each other. For example if there is a group of twelve people and they all read a different book, how could you have a discussion? There are so many books published now, there are so many different kinds of tendencies. And everyone has a philosophy or way of thinking of their own. There are no more styles; in painting for example, there are no more "isms." Perhaps there is in architecture but not in painting or music. So everyone composes in their own way. The so-called minimalists in music for example do not really have a common style. It is very difficult to point to common features among the "minimalists" in music. So if you do not listen to the same things how can you have a discussion? Culture is not production, that is a total misunderstanding. Culture is in the audience, in getting together and discussing. "Did you see this?" What is your opinion?" - that is culture. And if you cannot discuss it, if there is nothing in common, then there is no culture. So to have culture today you have to have fashion because there is no other criteria for selection. Of course that doesn't mean that just because something is not fashionable today it is no longer interesting. Hannah Arendt was just as interesting ten years ago when she wasn't fashionable as today. The only difference is that now that she is fashionable there can be a common discussion about her work. The work of Marx is just as important today as when it was fashionable. He is just not fashionable today and that's it.
CP: In closing, what kind of advice would you give to young people today?
AH: None. When I was young I hated it when old people gave me advice.
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