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Intellectual History

A Tradition Uncovered

by Ákos Sivadó 

In attempting to place philosophical and intellectual  achievements in a comprehensive conceptual framework, one needs to demonstrate that the framework can indeed accommodate such a narrative. An endeavour of this kind seems especially challenging when its subject matter is Hungarian philosophy – since most historians and commentators have so far only thought of it as a history of  reception of Western ideas. Such a label implies that what is missing from Hungarian philosophy is precisely some characteristic feature that enables us to call it distinctively “Hungarian”. In his newest book, Tamás Demeter argues against this (mis)conception, and attempts to present an alternative to the accepted view – an alternative account of twentieth-century Hungarian philosophy that proposes to uncover a tradition in Hungarian thought that has so far eluded historians and philosophers alike.

According to Demeter, the key aspect of twentieth-century philosophical thought in Hungary is its connection to the social: questions that the most prominent figures of the century addressed are deeply rooted in the problems of society and sociality, and it is against such a characteristically Central-European socio-historical background that their works can be fruitfully interpreted as parts of a tradition. The main question therefore is the following: in the vein of German idealism and British empiricism, is it plausible to speak of something like “Hungarian sociologism” in the twentieth century? Demeter’s answer is an unequivocal “yes”, and the perspective he offers his readers gives him firm grounds to rebut the claim that Hungarian philosophy is “much less creative than it is receptive” (p. 13).

Georg Lukacs, 1952 (photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-15304-0097 used under Creative Commons CC-BY-SA license, Wikimedia Commons)

His book attempts to paint the picture of a century’s worth of Hungarian thought from Menyhért Palágyi’s critique of psychologism at the turn of the century to Kristóf Nyíri’s contributions to communication theory in the 1990s. Demeter’s investigations are quite wide in scope, addressing not only the work of prominent Hungarian philosophers (like Menyhért Palágyi, György Lukács, Imre Lakatos, György Márkus, Ágnes Heller) but of social historians (István Hajnal), classical scholars (József Balogh), and philosophically inclined sociologists of knowledge and art (Karl Mannheim and Arnold Hauser, respectively), too. While emphasizing the sociological character of their thought, Demeter’s aim is not to show how the Hungarian thinkers were connected to some kind of Marxism through Lukács’s work – almost to the contrary, he emphasizes for example that Lukács’s early contributions to the tradition (like his Enwicklungsgeschichte des modernen Dramas) predate his Marxist turn, and show signs rather of Georg Simmel’s influence.

In the course of its nine chapters, Demeter’s book provides an insight into Palágyi’s involvement in the debate about psychologism (Chapter 2), the interest in the history of communication in the early twentieth century (Chapter 3), Lukács’s theory concerning the development of modern drama (Chapter 4), the concept of worldview (Weltanschauung) in the early texts of Lukács, Hauser and Mannheim (Chapter 5), the sociological trend in Hungarian philosophy of science (Chapter 6), the perspectives of a sociology of art (Chapters 7), the anthropological orientation of the Budapest School (Chapter 8), and the aspects of Nyíri’s sociological approach to the history of philosophy (Chapter 9). These chapters, however, do not provide an encyclopedic overview of their subjects (as they need not, since it is not the main goal of the book). Their purpose is rather to raise questions and establish a framework for interpretation – all the while showing how the authors struggled with sociologically-rooted problems, and how these problems influenced their way of thinking. This is what makes the elaboration of the sociological tradition stronger than regular reconstructions of the history of ideas usually tend to be.

Sociological issues can provide a foundation for philosophy in more ways than one, so it would be useful to take a closer look at just what kind of sociological thinking it was that was undertaken by the main figures of Demeter’s narrative. By the early years of the twentieth century, two distinct ways of thinking about the role and methodology of the social sciences had been established: on one side were those who emphasized the need for causal explanations in the social sciences, with a positivist view of sociology in mind; whilst the other side viewed such endeavours as to a large extent fruitless, advocating instead the goal of understanding (Verstehen) and interpretation of social phenomena. Proponents of the former approach were influenced by the ideas of Émile Durkheim and his contemporaries, whilst those who sympathized with the latter were followers in the footsteps of Georg Simmel and Max Weber.

Karl Mannheim (source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Turning our attention to the Hungarian intellectual landscape of that time, it can be said that members of the Society for Social Science (established at the beginning of the century) regarded the works of Spencer, Marx and Durkheim as their main influences, whereas those participating in the meetings of the Sunday Circle (an intellectual salon led by György Lukács) discussed the teachings of Simmel and Ferdinand Tönnies. As Demeter points out (p. 25-26), the distinctively social scientific societies in Hungary entirely neglected, or at best paid marginal attention to philosophical issues, and for this reason could not really influence Hungarian philosophy. The sociological tradition flourished not because of Hungarian social scientific thinking – it did so in spite of it, since the philosophical answers given to the social, intellectual and cultural problems of the time were characteristically anti-positivistic in nature, in opposition to the main current of contemporary sociological thinking in the country. Perhaps the only relevant common feature of both intellectual circles is the influence of Marx and Marxism: it is present in contemporary social scientific thinking (mainly in the thought of Oszkár Jászi, Ervin Szabó and Pál Szende) and in philosophical thought as well.

The anti-positivistic tendencies in the thought of the book’s key figures are corollaries of their anthropology: the concept of man that severs the individuals’ ties to their society and their socio-historical setting cannot be made compatible with ideologies that attempt to address philosophical questions against the backdrop of a social setting. The usage of the term “ideology” here is deliberate, for one of the merits of Demeter’s book consists in its contribution to the rehabilitation of the concepts of ideology and ideology-critique: following György Márkus, the author discusses at length how, besides its well-established unmasking sense, ideology-critique can serve as an emancipatory-hermeneutical technique. This latter usage is of particular interest because only in this sense is ideology-critique able to show the social significance of a phenomenon instead of the determining social aspects of a particular thought, thereby implying that the connection between social context and thinking is not entirely one-sided.

The distinction between worldview and ideology (discussed primarily in Chapters 4 and 5) plays a crucial part in illuminating the ways various thinkers of the twentieth century addressed questions in their areas of interest – from István Hajnal’s critique of the Weberian account of how the capitalist system came about to the defining role that the decline of the ruling classes play in the interpretation of modern drama put forward by György Lukács.

Agnes Heller, c. 1998 (source: Wikimedia Commons, SZTE Egyetemi Könyvtár gyüjteménye, Szeged, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License)

Another important aspect of the book is its treatment of the relation between social experiences and rational thinking (most prominent in Chapter 5). It may sound surprising at first, but it is clear that all the philosophers under review experienced the limits of rational argument and discussion; it was precisely this common experience that led them to address the conditions of possibility for thinking in the first place. Demeter’s discussion of Lukács, Mannheim and Hauser illustrates this point rather eloquently, and it is worth mentioning that the author’s own prior work in the philosophy of mind, and his theory of folk-psychological discourse has much in common with the presuppositions of the three central thinkers in the sociological tradition. The concept of worldview is of central importance to them, and Demeter persuasively argues that somewhat similarly to Kantian space and time, it should be thought of as historical a priori. In the case of young Lukács and his contemporaries, the concept has a specifically romantic, arationalistic character – so it is not surprising that in Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge worldviews can only be represented as unstructured “feelings”, and their relation to conceptually-structured ideologies (in Mannheim’s thought as well as in Lukács’s and to a lesser extent Hauser’s) becomes problematic.

It is important to note, however, that Demeter does not claim that constructing a  sociological tradition is the only possible framework for writing the history of twentieth-century Hungarian philosophy – nor does he think that each and every thinker of that period should fit easily into this category. The limitations of the sociological orientation of this tradition are clearly revealed in Chapters 6 and 7, which discuss among others the work of Imre Lakatos and Arnold Hauser – and conclude that whilst their attitude and mode of questioning is indeed connected to the tradition, their philosophies of science and art are not entirely subordinated to sociological concerns.

Given the author’s sympathies to sociological approaches, the reader may wonder about the sociological background of the discussed ideas themselves. The most interesting and insightful parts of the book are concerned with the philosophical reconstructions of Lukács’s work (and that of those closely related to him), and the analysis of the various problems that stem from the experience of a mutually-shared social reality. At the same time, explanations based on the sociology of knowledge and ideology-critique that could illuminate – so to speak – the external possibilities of the tradition are to a large extent absent, though the connections they shed light on are otherwise rather intriguing (see in particular the proposed interpretation of the history of Hungarian philosophy in a Central-European context, or the suggestion that the key to this sociological tradition may be found in the conservative anthropology of its most prominent figures).

Demeter’s book fruitfully argues its point: it succeeds in finding a characteristical feature in a hundred years’ worth of philosophizing in and from Hungary, and it establishes a framework that provides the interpretational basis for a coherent narrative of twentieth-century intellectual life. In fact, it may actually do more than that, for the tradition does not seem to end with the century – at least that is one’s impression from reading the last two chapters of the book (on the sociological aspects of the philosophy and anthropology of Ágnes Heller and Kristóf Nyíri). Indeed, Demeter himself has been contributing to the continuation of this tradition.

The narrative put forward in this book is capable of shedding new light on the history of ideas and the history of philosophy in Hungary, as it manages to do away with the generally accepted picture (that of the history of reception) and instead focuses on a feature of Hungarian thought that has so far not been properly reflected upon. In short, Demeter’s book  should command the attention not only of philosophers and historians of philosophy, but also of researchers working in other disciplines of the social and human sciences.

Tamás Demeter: A szociologizáló hagyomány: A magyar filozófia fö árama a XX. században
(The Sociological Tradition: The Main Current of Twentieth-Century Hungarian Philosophy)
ISBN-13: 978-615-5164-026

Price: 2.500 Ft
Budapest, Századvég, 2011, 214 pp.


I would like to thank Zoltán Gábor Szücs, who kindly allowed me to incorporate some of the insight found in his own review of Demeter’s book, published in Korall, 47 (2011), 197–201. I am also grateful to Colin Swatridge for reading the first version of the review and offering his suggestions.

Ákos Sivadó teaches in the Department of Philosophy, University of Pécs, Hungary; he mainly works on problems in the philosophy of social science. 


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