Vale Professor Agnes Heller

Philosopher and alumna Agnes Heller (12 May 1929 – 19 July 2019) sought an answer to the senselessness of the Holocaust, only to find new tyranny in Communism. In 1978, she found a home for her keen intellect at La Trobe. Here, we remember her legacy.

Internationally renowned philosopher and La Trobe alumna Professor Agnes Heller passed away on 19 July 2019. The news has been met with much sadness by the academic and philosophy community, including Heller’s former colleagues from La Trobe, where she lectured from 1978-1986.

As one of the world’s foremost philosophers and social theorists, her contribution to intellectual culture in Europe, the United States of America and Australia, has been profound.

Emeritus Professor John Carroll was chair of La Trobe’s Sociology Appointment Committee and recalls meeting with Heller and her husband Professor Ferenc Fehér in Budapest in 1977 to discuss the possibility of her joining the Sociology team at La Trobe.

Six months later, Heller and Fehér relocated to Melbourne, where Heller began her position as Senior Lecturer at La Trobe in January 1978.

“She became a very good friend to a number of us,” says Carroll.

“Agnes and Ferenc learnt about democracy in Australia, and their political views changed quite a lot during their time here. They used to hold fairly regular dinners at their place, with 20-30 people – I remember the vigorous conversation and discussion at those dinners. At La Trobe at the time, we also had very vigorous staff seminars, and Agnes was always a very active participant. There were about 45 staff in the Sociology department in the late 1970s – it was a very dynamic place.”

During this time, Heller and Fehér also played a significant role in founding the Thesis Eleven journal, which was established in 1980.

Heller continued at La Trobe until late 1986, when she and Fehér departed Australia to take up joint professorships at the New School of Social Research in New York.

In 1991, Agnes Heller was honoured by the receipt of Germany’s prestigious award for literature, the Lessing Prize, and in 1995 she received both the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Philosophy in Bremen, and the Hungarian National Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Sciences, the Szechenyi Prize.

Although living overseas, Heller and Fehér still remained in contact with many of their former La Trobe colleagues, and Heller returned to La Trobe in July 1996 where she was honoured with the conferral of a Doctor of Letters (honoris causa).

An excerpt from this citation details her impact at La Trobe:

"Agnes Heller, in her years in the Department of Sociology, had a large impact on the intellectual and cultural life of both staff and students. Her presence was inspirational for many who came in contact with her through her promotion of social and cultural theory. The fledgling journal, Thesis Eleven, was inspired and encouraged by the contributions and organisational efforts of her and her husband.

Heller and Fehér gathered together and encouraged, in their ‘salon’ of individuals from the various universities and departments, an active and significant group of cultural theorists. Their generosity and warmth as hosts, as friends and as intellectual companions, was legend. They were, in the ‘salon’, continuing in a direct lineage, a tradition going back to the magisterial presence in sociology of Max Weber, today the most pervasively influential of any of the founding fathers of the discipline. The young George Lukács had attended a weekly discussion group in the Weber household in Germany. Decades later, Lukács became the presiding intellectual figure in what came to be known as the ‘Budapest School’ in Hungary. From her undergraduate days, Agnes Heller belonged to the Lukács group, her doctorate was supervised by Lukács, and indeed, she was referred to by the master as his favoured student.

Later again, in Melbourne, the chain extended, producing a dedicated set of graduates which was able to carry this tradition to other academic positions throughout Australia and abroad.

La Trobe University has, accordingly, its own particular reasons for honouring Agnes Heller. It does so in recognition of her outstanding contribution to international scholarship. It does so out of gratitude for the role she played over seven years within its own institutional walls."

Heller’s legacy at La Trobe and within Australia continues to this day, with La Trobe’s Sociology Department’s annual lecture still named in her honour, and there were even plans for Heller to be involved in a series of Thesis Eleven events in Melbourne and Sydney later this year.

“She was still very active – she only stopped writing books about two years ago. Her legacy is enormous and is of major significance to La Trobe’s history. Internationally, she was one of two or three of the best-known philosophers in the world,” says Carroll.

To learn more about Agnes Heller's legacy, read Thesis Eleven's tribute, or listen to her 2013 ABC radio interview.

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