Csaba Polony on Wed, 1 Jul 1998 18:39:36 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Interview with Agnes Heller

To: Nettime;

I've been on this list for a several months now and this is my first
post. I decided to post the following interview with Agnes Heller,
because it does touch on many of the themes that I've noticed on
Nettime. For those who are unfamiliar with Ms. Heller's work, she is a
Hungarian philosopher who was a student of Gyorgy Lukacs in the 50s &
60's. She was a member of a group of dissident philosophers and
sociologists during the 60's-70's in Hungary and was forced to immigrate
in the late 70's. She currently lives in New York and Budapest. The
version posted here is edited, though I found myself unable to cut too
much out. The entire interview is published in print form in Left Curve

There is also have a version on our web page at:

or at

We just updated our web page and would welcome any respone from nettimers.

The interview took place at the end of March '97 in Budapest, was later
transcribed, sent to Ms. Heller who returned the manuscript with her

- - -

"The essence is good but all the appearances are evil": An Interview with
Agnes Heller

Csaba Polony: Could you tell us briefly about your background, training
and 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?
What 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.

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 at the time wanted me to come with him to listen to Gyorgy
Lukacs 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 boyfriend I finally
agreed to attend one of Lukacs' lectures. So I was sitting there
listening to Lukacs' elaboration of Shelling or Hegel - I don't
remember exactly which - and I began to realize that I hadn't
understood a thing about which he was talking. But there was one thing
that I did understand: this 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
Lukacs. 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 chose 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. 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 the search that you personally were after?

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 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

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 and 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 Gyorgy Lukacs 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 resolution 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,
Ivan 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. 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, Gyorgy Aczel - Sandor 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. 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

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
were there has been this Party rule, were 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 does not have a direct relationship
to a totalitarian world, just as little as Nietzsche has to do with
Nazism. Totalitarian regimes selectively chose ideas that they prefer
and discard those that do not but I don't think there is a strict,
uniliniar development from the philosophical system from 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's got his ideas first from Lenin anyway, once 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 selected
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 where right when you
pointed to the association with 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 that 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. There 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. But how much I have to pay to
have a tooth pulled is determined by my friend Alen Fels 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, of 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 the 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 Kadar 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 receive
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 look 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 because decadence is just as
much a tendency as is progression and is just as much suspect.

CP: In closing, what kind of advice would you give to young people

AH: None. When I was young I hated it when old people gave me advice.
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