Synopsis

This volume, it is hoped, will be of interest to two audiences, those who already have an interest in the work of Agnes Heller and would like to see it discussed in detail, but also those who need an introduction to her work. In the latter case, I think particularly of those who, being unfamiliar with the background of her thought, find her work difficult to access.

There is a problem especially for many English speaking readers in Heller’s mode of presentation. It is not a question of technical or esoteric vocabulary or of a difficult style. On both these scores Heller is exemplary in her attempt to say what she has to say as directly, simply and plainly as possible. Nor is it a question of reference to academic debates or problems that are generated only on some very special or idiosyncratic assumptions. On the contrary, if anything, the difficulty for many arises just from the absence of explicit reference to, and discussion of, the details of academic debates and assumptions. More precisely, it is very characteristic of the more ‘academic’ of philosophical writers, from Aristotle through the scholastics to contemporary analytical philosophy, to discuss questions in relation to the debates in the literature paying as much attention to the meaning of the questions as to the answers given, by making distinctions in relation to the contentions in play, offering arguments, counter-examples and new ‘cases’ or refining definitions and modes of argument. By contrast, in Heller’s work one is presented with a sequence of assertions, some of which may seem sweeping or contentious, others commonplace or even irrelevant, to those who lack a precise grasp of just what is at issue, what is being claimed and with what intent.

The difficulty is compounded by Heller’s lack of interest in the epistemological and with ontological questions that have dominated philosophy and social theory, especially since the war. No theories of language, conceptual soundness, verification, meaning or deconstruction dominate her work. She approaches substantive issues directly, without much concern to keep separate conceptual, explanatory, causal or factual considerations. Those who have been taught to look to the form of discourse rather than its ‘content’ as the key to understanding find this disconcerting. Similarly, one is often unsure how wide the historical reference of a statement is intended to be, and how relativistic certain features of, say, her moral philosophy are.

The result is that one may wonder whether it is worth the effort of relating this enormous volume of writing to one’s own concerns and modes of thinking, of persevering long enough to grasp the whole picture and see the apparently diverse pieces in their full context. Clearly, one service that this book may provide for those in such doubt is to articulate the controversies that arise from and about Heller’s work, and so make the point and scope of much of it more apparent. For this reason, too, I have not adhered strictly to the initial proposal to assemble a set of critical pieces with Heller’s reply to criticisms, but have included a number of pieces that elucidate her work in contrast to that of others who have addressed the same concerns.

It would be inappropriate and premature to attempt any overall outline or assessment of Heller’s work here, both because it is so broad ranging, and is still developing and has not been discussed sufficiently for any kind of critical consensus to emerge. Nor shall I attempt to summarise or synthesise the various contributions to their volume. They speak for themselves and Professor Heller is best qualified to comment on them. But I will say a little here about the nature of and the intention behind Heller’s work.

Typically it is phenomenological or descriptive, rather than causally explanatory or normative. These categories, however, are by no means independent of each other, as Heller is well aware. There is an indefinitely large number of ways of dividing up the world and labelling the pieces and their aspects and relations. If our interest is more ‘serious’ than making jigsaw puzzles, we need to have reasons for adopting certain grids, sets of relations and levels of abstraction in our descriptive procedure.

As in property matters, rituals and sign systems of all sorts, such as tradition or established convention, is important. Faced with a multiplicity of equally arbitrary choices, the existing convention holds sway, simply because there is no sufficient reason to outweigh the costs of changing. But no tradition of any complexity is wholly coherent with itself. When inconsistency gives rise to conflict, consciously or unconsciously traditions will change, and people have to attempt to deal with the problems of change.

In many ways, the central problem of Heller’s work is that of coping realistically and responsibly with this problem. Very crudely, one might say that the main movement in her position has gone from a fairly simple humanist anthropology towards a more explicitly ethical position. Not that anything of substance is abandoned in the process, but increasingly her view becomes more complex and the role of each element in it, more circumscribed. A humanist Marxian view of history as a progression towards a fully ‘human’ society is increasingly qualified by a consciousness of the difficulty of solving the problems posed by technological and social change, and of their roots in enduring problems.

Heller’s work on a philosophical psychology of instincts and feelings evinces an awareness that each human being must construct a self that shapes its genetic heritage into appropriate cultural forms. Every human capacity must constantly be reconstructed and reconstrued. Her philosophy of history recognises that nothing can count as pure again as long as it involves losses that cannot be measured or weighted against those gains in an uncontroversial way. Progress is never simply cumulative, much less inevitable. On the other hand, Heller cannot resign herself to the comfortable relativism that is content to admit that different cultures encapsulate different values and to limit with recognising and accepting that fact. She strives constantly to achieve a point of view from which one can incorporate in a synthesis, as great a wealth of values as possible.

The key feature of such a point of view is an open universality, based on a confidence that, in some form or other, all genuinely human values are compatible. However, that compatibility cannot be assumed. Part of the task of demonstrating it falls to a moral philosophy substantive in its methods and sensitive to concrete realities. It is characteristic of Heller’s approach that she takes the central question of moral philosophy to be ‘how are good people possible?’, not as modern philosophy as typically asked, ‘how is moral knowledge possible?’ At first sight, Heller’s question is too indefinite, too unsituated. When we ask how something is possible, it is normally with fairly definite reasons in mind that are thought to cast doubt on its possibility, and the task is one of refuting those reasons. That is not the sort of task that Heller has in mind. Rather, what she is attempting is to show that being a good person is a realisable option, one that some people actually embrace successfully. The task is to get a clear view of all that is involved in doing so. So it involves conceptual, empirical, evaluative and theoretical considerations at almost every point, all focused on actual moral experience.

For all her awareness of historical and personal diversity and their multiple and social determinants, she clearly thinks that moral experience, like aesthetics or even sensory experience, has a validity that transcends the particular limitations of cultural forms. Much contemporary Anglophone philosophy also rests on a certain confidence in the validity of moral experience. But whereas it tends to construct theories and use experience merely as a test of theory, Heller’s project is rather to elucidate experience in its broadest dimensions, a much more difficult task. Unfortunately, too, it is a task less congenial, at least to academics. Bold theorisation produces definite and often controversial results. There is always the possibility that it will prove powerful enough to produce very substantial shifts of moral convictions, as many utilitarians have hoped. The attempt to construct a comprehensive picture, by contrast, is always relatively tame and unexciting. It hovers uneasily in execution between rapid generalities and boring details.

Nevertheless, if Heller is right, there is no evading the attempt at a comprehensive point of view. No definite norms or rules can pretend to self-evidence. More significantly still, they cannot be applied mechanically without reference to the values that give point to them. Even people who subscribe to the same values will weigh and interpret them differently in many cases. Within shared perspectives, we can discuss and make common choices. Without shared values, we can hardly understand each other. We are reduced to force. Heller has always been optimistic about the capacity of modernity, in practice contemporary European culture, to attain a certain universality, not just by supplanting other cultures, but by developing their values to a genuinely universalistic perspective. As she confesses in her recent book Can Modernity Survive?, until recently it had not even occurred to her to pose the question of the long term viability of modern values.

This confidence is in the Enlightenment tradition. Indeed it is rationalist in many respects. A certain ideal of reason is for her foundational and dynamic, in spite of her reservations about transcendental constructions of a Kantian or Hegelian kind. What is central for her is not any doctrine or cosmic dialectic, but the human capacity for Spinoza’s amor dei intellectualis, a conatus that reaches out towards a specific kind of personal and social development through appropriate praxis. It is rationalist, not by virtue of any deductivist method or conceptual wizardry, but because it sees the human task as one of concretising certain value-ideas that are none the less forceful for being vague and abstract. That these value-ideas have genuine guiding force and lead to more specific determinations and ‘objectivations’ is not due to any particular means of calculation or procedure inherent in their ‘logic’, but rather that they supply criteria that in debate and reflection enable us to make increasingly better choices both in theoretical and in social practice.

Her confidence in reason, concretely deployed in the search for solutions, can ultimately be vindicated only pragmatically. In this way it is like the confidence of practicing scientists in scientific method, resting not on any foundationalist epistemology or metaphysics, but on a shared and changing experience of problems and their resolution. A free, democratic society is a condition of the interactions that generate such developments, but it cannot be shown to be a sufficient condition for them. Perhaps this is the point of Heller’s recognition of the need for commitment. Granted the hazards of thinking and living, we can hardly look for anything more than a soundly-based hope in any human project. The problem that most concerns me here is not so much the need for commitment as the kind of commitment that Heller seems to postulate. Perhaps the matter is best approached by reference to the historical background, rather than by way of theory.

Like so many whose thought has been deeply marked by the experience of the Nazi and Stalinist epochs, Heller feels if I read her correctly, that a merely pragmatic adherence to democratic political values is a very inadequate way of meeting the totalitarian challenge. Many decent people were suborned or at least neutralised by those regimes because of their ‘realistic’, ‘pragmatic’ response to their situation. Only those who had a deeper and more robust commitment to liberty offered direct and effective resistance to the fanaticism of evil. Many of us have felt the force of this argument but it is a very dubious one, which has often been taken to warrant rather reactionary positions of a conservative and religious sort. In fact, it is not at all sure that its historical premises are correct. Many of the people who resisted most strongly, often heroically, did so not out of deeply thought out moral or political convictions, but out of a simple, direct, concrete response to perceived evils. Many with deep religious convictions offered no resistance.

More fundamentally, there is good reason to ask whether the cure is not part of the problem. The alleged need for a faith was certainly a factor in attracting many people to the totalitarian banner. The more pragmatically minded were (and still are) despised as inferior, materialistic, insensitive, pusillanimous, inauthentic and so on. One service that deconstructionism may provide is to get rid of this arrogant and vicious nonsense from the bloodstream of European thinking. What is worthwhile in human life arises not from dedication to ‘realising’ abstract values that are pre-given and prevalidated or are the object of some special intuition by ‘sages’ like Heidegger, but are rather the concrete sensibility of a moral consciousness that never denies the particular in the name of the universal or the everyday reality in the name of something allegedly ‘deeper’. What I fear about Heller’s talk of a radical philosophy as something to be put into practice is not so much that anything she says is itself likely to lead to evil, but that it encourages a mentality that looks to religious, philosophical or political ideologies for ‘guidance’ and ‘justification’ inaction. In that league, democratic ideas lose out. They are too vulgar, thin and superficial to compete with the ‘profunditions’ of evil and obscurantism.

In fact, there is a counterpoise to the dangers of ‘profundity’ in Heller’s own work, especially in her highly original work on everyday life. The health of everyday life for Heller consists in a balance between what she calls objectivations ‘in themselves’, objectivations ‘for themselves’ and objectivations in and for themselves, corresponding to the rules and norms of everyday cultural practice, of religion, art, philosophy and morality and the institutional practice of society respectively. If everyday cultural practice, the taken-for-granted ways of language, of dealing with everyday objects and with others are not firmly given, the basic framework of life is weakened and the prospects of social integration correspondingly removed, leading to a danger of institutional domination and ‘wild’ ideas in higher culture. People no longer know what to do. If the ‘higher’ sphere of objectification for itself is weakened, people no longer have the means of making sense of life as a whole and becoming whole persons. They lack a critical perspective on both the institutional framework of society and the ‘givenness’ of everyday practices. Finally, if the sphere of institutional ‘in and for itself’ rules and norms is weakened, especially in a complex modern society, a certain chaos ensues because effective social action on a rational basis is no longer possible, leading to the rule of violence. Most of this, I believe, is true enough. The question that arises, however, from Heller’s delineation of the possibilities of our modern situation is whether the kind of primacy she gives to the ‘for itself’ and to a certain idea of wholeness that she derives from Lukács is justified.

Heller’s blanket identification of custom with the ‘pre-reflective’ and her denial that it can generate critical reflection is, I believe, simply wrong. Let us take its elements one by one. First, the rules and norms of ordinary language and language use are not simply fixed like habits. They are constantly modified in use, not just unconsciously, but in our efforts to describe, analyse, express and rationalise life in reflection and conversation. Language use leads directly to reflection. Second, rules and prescriptions for using, handling and manipulating objects, especially man- made objects, are constantly being modified under the pressures of technological and environmental change, involving critiques of economic and technical efficiency but also discovery of new ways of using technology to change our ways of life. Third, rules of human interaction, customs, are constantly being challenged and modified because of their interplay of interests they generate and of the need of each generation for new fashions and styles, without any appeal to ‘higher’ reasons.

What is true, of course, is that all these kinds of reflection that arise from and within the ‘in itself’ are partial, local, pragmatic and contested. They do not ‘rise’ to the level of looking at life as a ‘whole’. But can we, ought we feel it a failure on our part that we cannot grasp our lives as a whole? Heller’s own insistence that there is no uniquely privileged paradigm or point of view itself concedes a certain ‘perspectivism’ to be both ineluctable and even salutary. An individual’s life is always a particular, situated, choice among the rich variety of possibilities open to him or her. Its unity is never a wholly ‘integrated’ scheme, but involves the particular rhythms and counterpoints, the tensions and resolutions of concrete values, ambitions, hopes and defeats, loves and hates. It is by no means clear that it can or ought be conceived as a single work of art or a single project with some one point or meaning. For me, and I believe for a modern sensibility, the quest for a single ‘meaning’ that is ‘superior’ to all particular meanings is a hangover from the totalitarian pretensions of traditional religions, which is dangerous precisely because it downgrades the values that lie within the ordinary performances of life. These need no higher purpose to ‘validate’ or ‘legitimise’ them. On the contrary the ‘higher’ values arise out of them and ultimately must be judged in relation to them.

Similar considerations apply to the institutional sphere, the ‘in and for itself’. Clearly, law, administrative practice, collective enterprises of all sorts have their intrinsic criteria of self-appraisal and relate in turn to those that arise from the sphere of custom and everyday practice and sentiment. They are inherently also ‘for themselves’, not just ‘givers’. In any legal system, there are procedures of justice and equity and evidence and the need for them arises from the specific point of the enterprise, not just from some transcendent point of view. Indeed, any institutionalised ‘game’ that does not establish its own point in practice ultimately ceases to be played. The great and heartening lesson that has emerged from the history of the past fifty years is that pointless institutions ultimately collapse because nobody can take them seriously any longer. Even those who profit from them are unable to sustain their adherence to them. Healthy institutions survive because of the concrete value they have for people, not because of some ‘legitimating’ doctrine or ‘image’. Conversely, if an institution has no concrete point, no legitimating doctrine can ultimately save it.

None of this is to deny that there is indeed a place for the ‘for itself’, for pushing reflection on our problems to deeper and more universal levels. Much less is it to allege that Heller is radically mistaken. When one reads her work in its totality the over-simple formulae are nuanced, qualified and corrected very often in the ways they are worked out in detail. In spite of its apparent pretensions, Heller’s work is in practice more modest than her account of the role of philosophy might lead one to suspect. Ultimately, I believe, it is reflective rather than prescriptive and dialogical rather than apodictic. Above all, it is essentially a work in progress rather than a system. The richness lies in the detail, even when it is in many ways open to challenge, or even wrong.

In moral theory, I believe that in spite of Heller’s overambitious characterisation of her enterprise as an answer to the question ‘how are good people possible?’ there are several ways in which her quest is an important contribution to the subject. In the first place, it is a very substantial alternative to constructing a system a priori, or on some simplistic model of the moral agent. The ‘possible’ that she seeks, keeps ‘strictly to what good persons are already doing and thinking’ not what some pure rationality of a Kantian or utilitarian kind would prescribe. Secondly, and closely connected with the first point, her search is for ‘orientative’ rather than strictly ‘prohibitive’ norms, which she sees mainly as limiting cases of the orientative norms. The point is that although morality is not the whole of life, it is a positive aspect of its substance. It must reflect and enter into the substance of interpersonal relations. It is not just a matter of rules we must observe so that we can each get on with our own life without interference from each other, but it also concerns the content of our interactions, establishing trust, mutual openness and cooperation, respect and understanding. It is not just a way of avoiding harms but of being a better person, as Beyond Justice emphasises.

In these respects her view is dominated in practice by a confidence in something like Aristotle’s ‘man of practical wisdom’ and the capacity of ordinary moral consciousness to interpret diversely the necessarily summary prescriptions of moral discourse in practical situations. In this respect, at least, she has never turned back on her enthusiasm for Aristotle’s ethics, tempered though it is with a sense of the ways in which different decisions can be right for different people, even in what are ‘objectively’ the same circumstances. In the long run what makes a decision right is not just a rule but a specific good that is realised in acting well in a particularly appropriate way; it is a good that consists not just in the effects of the action but in the mode of action itself, and its appropriateness to that person’s character and relationships. Where it may be appropriate for one person to reprimand a given person, it may be appropriate for another to offer sympathy and understanding. What seems crucial here is not the objectivation of the norm but the sort of interpersonal relations that people are striving to develop.

Naturally, there are times when institutional considerations and responsibilities must override personal relations. The judge may be convinced that she could do more good by a sympathetic talk with the defendant than by imposing a prescribed penalty, but the law must be administered in the prescribed fashion. There can be no simple reduction of the institutional to the personal, whatever romantics may think. The public is also important and there is no simple maxim or calculus that enables us to weigh one against the other in every situation. Heller is more deeply sensitive to such problems than most moral theorists allow themselves to be. And precisely for this reason she fails, I think, to show just how it is possible to be good, if that is understood as theoretically demonstrating that it is possible. On the contrary, what her analyses tend to show is just how problematical and risky a venture it is to attempt to do the right thing.

What I think she does show is something more important, namely that being a good person is an inherent dimension of a human life that is acceptable in good faith. She does give an answer to the question ‘why be moral?’ by displaying in detail the ways in which human life consists in moral relationships. It is not morality alone, or any other ‘objectivation’ that provides the meaning of human life. There is no such unitary meaning. Rather it is one of the many strands, aesthetic, cognitive, effective, skillful, competitive and imaginative that are fused into the diverse aspects of the complex of everyday activities that are our lives. In spite of her susceptibility to the rhetoric of wholeness, I believe that Heller recognises that the important element of truth in such rhetoric is less grandiose. It is that in no aspect of our lives ought we narrow our concerns to the specific point of that aspect of our activities. We must acknowledge and give proper importance to every other aspect that is affected by the one that engages our attention at the time. We are responsible for all the foreseeable results of our actions.

One of the ‘comforting’ aspects of traditional religion was that it absolved us from responsibility for most of the effects of our actions. The believer needed only to follow the divine precepts and leave the results to God’s providence. Many philosophers have provided analogous ways of passing the buck to some transcendent force. Nobody can do so any longer in good faith. At the same time we are more aware than ever of the incalculable and unpredictable consequences that our actions are likely to have. Even if utilitarianism were a viable metaphysic of morals, it would not be a viable way of determining what is to be done in any matter of social importance. Nor can we be content with a simple deontological dogmatism. I believe Heller’s attempt to face up to this predicament in her detailed exploration of morality and its problems is one of the most important philosophical contributions of our time, a contribution both to philosophy and to life.

I have tried to indicate some of the interest that Heller’s work may hold even when one disagrees with its claims. I hope the reader will find even more convincing evidence in the papers that follow and in Agnes Heller’s comments on them.

John Burnheim