My favourite philosopher from Budapest

As a young biology undergraduate in the mid/late 90s, in Hungary, culturally hungry for something else too besides feeding largely on the natural sciences, I happened to quickly browse through a series of booklets – Értekezések, emlékezések – published by the publishing house of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, when the title of one such booklet caught my eye. It was called After the system: Philosophy in the Epoch of Sciences [1], and it was the inaugural lecture of Márkus György (George Markus mainly for the English-speaking world), read out loud by the author at the Academy upon accepting him as an external member.  

I studied this 20 something page booklet several times then and several times in the decades since and I still don’t ‘own’ the text meaning it is such a dense, intellectual product that it does not cease to excite me and offer yet unresolved problems for the next i(n)ter(pret)ation. It’s good to be surrounded by texts one does not own. Compare this with an average paper in analytical philosophy, where the logical structure of the arguments can be easily extracted and the text be left dead for good. Márkus’s text starts with acknowledging the dominant position the formal (math, logic, computer science) and natural sciences occupy in the current culture of humankind and the role their technical application play in social change and the general reproduction of societies. Then it shows some science-specific philosophical problems the sciences cannot conceptualise with their own tools, but with the help of philosophy. Next it gets historical and shows philosophy’s own big problems presented by its culturally inherited ‘system’ format conceptualising philosophy as a (the) science itself. Here, the now explicitly meta-philosophical investigation introduces three different attempts to solve the crisis of philosophy, ending in author committing himself to the third solution thinking of philosophy as theorised conceptual narration, always adjusted to state-of-the-art science providing a general orientation between facts and values, or mediation between general paradigm of the relation between humans and the world on one hand, and the practical problems of the present, on the other. In other words, philosophy has all the tools to help us figure out what’s next, by reflecting to what was in the past, from the point of view of the present.

This booklet changed my life as it significantly contributed to me becoming a less naive and more reflective scientist and also at the same time, a philosopher. So in a way I Iived by this booklet ever since as a doubly-trained scientist-philosopher inthe ongoing and even more dominating Epoch of Sciences. How fitting.

Here’s one particular list motivating why Márkus György could become one’s favourite philosopher from Budapest. I believe the list demonstrates that the same, strong intellectual commitment could happen today with others as well, not just ~20 years ago. 

  1. Establishing a new kind of philosophical culture. Márkus kicked off almost single-handedly analytical philosophy in Hungary in the early sixties of the 20th century [2]. He studied at the Lomonosov University in Moscow from 1953 until 1957 and there he was the only student, being a member of not just the ‘dialectic’ group but the ‘neopositivist’ group too [3]. I assume there in Moscow this curriculum meant Wittgenstein, the 1st, the Vienna Circle and Russell style philosophy. This happened in the 50s, when in Oxford the philosophy of ordinary language (the coming of Wittgenstein, the 2nd) was crowned. It’s so ironic that in Hungary the previous western winds came from the east via the most talented Marxist of its generation. Cheerio, Moscow! To me, the relevant history of academic, yet politically, culturally important Hungarian philosophy starts with him and if I were to ever write a history of Hungarian philosophy, I would arrange this history according to his foundational role [4][5].
  2. Analytical rigour. Due to this background and a further opportunity to study with Sellars and Quine in Pittsburgh in 65-6 [6] Márkus mastered the analytical argumentative skills giving him an obvious competitive advantage in Hungarian philosophical culture, dominated by dialectical materialists, majority of them practicing philosophy with dubious quality and following political orders. I would venture counterfactually as far (still pretty close) to say that had Márkus not been studied analytical philosophy and scientific thinking deeply he could have become only a good, continental (Marxist, post-Marxist) philosopher, but not an outstanding one.
  3. Dialectical finesse. Despite his locally idiosyncratic analytical baggage, let’s not forget the fact that Márkus majored in THE big, German, continental European ‘idealist/rationalist’ tradition, starting from Kant, peaked in Hegel and pushed to the real world by Marx, as the main protagonist. This meant probably the best schooling in critical and dialectical thinking, as THE method, moving from concepts to concepts by taking internal, content-specific contradictions at their face value [7]. To venture the mirror counterfactual of the previous point: Without the dialectical toolset and tradition Márkus’s chances to become a relevant analytical philosopher from and in Budapest, in the middle/late 20th century, in that historical climate, would have been quite limited. Not impossible though. But he must have realised those chance when in Pittsburgh studied and communicated with some VIPs of that tradition.
  4. Focus on paradoxes and antinomies. Due to this double intellectual baggage, analytic and dialectical, Márkus always took antinomies, full-blown conceptual contradictions, head-on. This trend became ever more expressed throughout his work, peaking in their late theoretical attempt to interrogate ruthlessly the antinomies of the concept ‘culture’. While the continental tradition is focusing on antinomies and dialectics, the analytical tradition is more well acquainted with paradoxes that can be handled (well, more like given a finalised form to put them to rest) with the tools of formal logic and set theory. I think looking into Márkus texts from a logical/strictly analytical point of view could uncover hidden layers of this thinker.
  5. Complex texts one cannot own and a life-time source of real problems and intellectual puzzles. This point I’ve already described in the introduction and would add now that this was also the result of the masterful combination of the methodological double baggage. Combining dialectics with the highest standards of analytical argumentation is just half of the story, to succeed as a producer of highest-rated philosophical studies one must also have a proper historical and scientific knowledge to provide that appealing theorised conceptual narration, adjusted to our advanced knowledge. I remember reading the essays of Kultúra és modernitás [8] in Hungarian provided me with a constant flow feeling, that something is highly relevant to me as an intellectual but also keeps its distance from me all the time. Let us demonstrate complexity and focus on paradoxes and antinomies with the opening passage of Antinomies of ‘Culture’ [9]: “Our notion of culture, which has a foundational significance for most of the disciplines of humanities, is a typically modern concept. To formulate it in a preliminary and intentionally paradoxical way: this concept to a large extent reflects the ambiguities, uncertainties and contradictions that pertain to modernity  as culture; it articulates and simultaneously veils, masks the difficulties and the precariousness of the very project of cultural modernity. These ambivalences and difficulties manifest themselves not only in the now familiar observation that ‘culture’ gains its meaning from its opposition to ‘nature’, an opposition as necessary as conceptually untenable, self-deconstructing. For in fact each of these two conceptual extremes rent by multiple (interrelated, but irreducible), explicit or implicit oppositions of the same character: each of them possesses meaning, through a series of systematic distinctions that in no way can be brought to coherent unity.” Trust me when I say, that this brief text, the concluding one of the late-life magnum opus, representing an unfinished research program, goes on and elaborates so far unthought layers of contradictions around cultural modernity and its components. Please see point 7 on further elaboration of complexity.
  6. Multilingualism provides added value to already existing complexity and fullness of texts. Márkus has written at least in 3 languages I know of, his native Hungarian, English and French. I suspect he has also written in German and Russian as well. John Grumley writes that ‘Along the way, he had acquired, Russian, English, Polish, French and Latin aside from his native Hungarian.’ [10] Add German for sure. I only realise this deeply multilingual feature now, having started to read Markus in English as well, as so far I was restricted to his writings published in Hungarian. This makes his texts even more exciting giving the feeling of a building with many rooms and nuanced, slightly different manners, orchestrated by the same owner.
  7. Pluralism in domains, polyphonic in attitudes. This isan aggregated result of the aforementioned features, majoring in two traditions, having lots of interests here and there [11]. This kind of intellectual omnivorism was also present in and sort of inherited by some of his major disciples. Márkus was closer to a fox on the fox – hedgehog scale, to use Berlin’s intellectual typology, as he did have not one, but rather several ideas/problems to work on. This polyphony (sometimes contrapuntal polyphony, for instance analysing art and sciences at the same time in the context of high culture or analysing language and production simultaneously as 2 competing paradigms of human activities) might invite an ‘oral conceptual lens’ (oral view of textuality) to his texts to use the term by Elisabeth Shanks Alexander, applied in the context of transmitting the Mishnah in the oral tradition [12]. Márkus’s textual products have a multiple and fluid character, providing a sense of openness and incompleteness, yet being fully completed pieces; they serve several roles, possibly instructional and pedagogical as well. See point 9 below on Markus as a teacher. As János Kis emphasises, Márkus’s textual universe is the ‘continuously repeating variations of the usual topics’ [13].  These texts are perfect vehicles to probe conceptual ambiguity, to present different but equally plausible ways of intermediate resolutions. They provide home for unsolvable problems, and sometimes end with a Teyku – ‘let it stand’ in Hebrew – to declare the case unsolved in the lack of further information. But am getting too hermeneutical, maybe too far away here. 🙂
  8. Acknowledging earlier mistakes, re-starting over and over again. This sustained open, pluralist, polyphonic attitude is a guarantee of balanced self-correction and is an attractive trait in all ages [14]. In case of Markus the critical reflexion on the Marxist tradition and the impossibility of its direct continuation provided ample occasions for self-criticism as well.
  9. A most emancipatory type of teacher, a seed for schools and ongoing foundation for significant disciples. The previous 2 points made the case for Márkus being a great teacher and indeed he became such a teacher, leading to the formation of schools, twice in his lifetime, once in Budapest, second in Sydney, affecting several generations of philosophers. Let’s just highlight 5 disciples from the Budapest years, showcasing the diversity in professional choices and the high quality of work [15]: Ferenc Altrichter, who has also studied physics and turned into probably the first real Hungarian analytical philosopher of the theoretical kind, János Kis, Márkus’s co-author, the most important Hungarian moral and political philosopher to date, mainly in the analytic tradition, György Bence, co-author of Márkus and Kis, a one time (early period) philosopher of science, also a political philosopher [16], both analytic and continental, also he inherited Márkus’ serious interest in historical reconstruction of intellectual ideas,  György Petri, who became one of the most significant renewers of late 20th century Hungarian poetry and Ágnes Erdélyi, a Max Weber expert and master philosophical and sociological translator.      
  10. Symphilosophieren and true scientific collaboration. This is one of my favourite point about my favourite philosopher from Budapest: he was a great co-thinker and a great co-author [17]. I see 3 different traditions here mixed and strengthen each other, or rather two and half as 2 of them might be linked. In the German idealist tradition there’s the famous case of Hegel, Schelling and Holderlin sharing the same college room in Tubingen and publishing a journal together and in the Marxist tradition, probably not entirely independent from the idealist symphilosophieren Marx and Engels might have been a direct inspiration for the collective work Markus participated in. And to me, as a biologist, another line of collaboration pattern is important as well, one Markus has analysed in some of his works, that of multiple co-authors necessitated by complex scientific studies, helping each other to filter out potential liability issues, mistakes, confirming and framing the ‘authorised’ and more easily defendable version of the product. The level of interdisciplinary involved, the strength of the collaboration depends on the existence of feedback loops of different levels and by all account Márkus was an excellent collaborator and direct colleague.  
  11. Mixing continental and analytical philosophy, bridging the gap. This also follows from the points so far, and been touched already, but worth highlighting it as a separate aspect, that of the successful mediator and connector of different, conflicting philosophical traditions. This is a consistent feature in Márkus’s life, he was already a mediator in Moscow [18] as an undergrad, and in Sydney [19] as well. This is a relevant feature for a philosopher, not be taken lightly, to be able to speak the 2 main languages of current thought. It is indeed riding two horses, biting each other occasionally.
  12. Truly international outreach. Another aspect of what’s been said so far about disciples in Budapest and in Sydney, and a reception in US/Germany as well. A philosopher knowing no borders.
  13. Deep reflections on the sciences, special emphasis on the natural sciences. The introduction hinted at this already, but there are major studies on part of Márkus venturing into this territory, perhaps worth highlighting two solely dedicated to the topic: a., Why Is There No Hermeneutics of Natural Sciences? Some Preliminary Theses and Changing Images of Science [20].
  14. Deepest Marx re-analysis and reconstruction, without dogmas, for non-Marxists. The Márkus oeuvre is great, serious and non-compromising starting point for Marx and also for critical theory. Márkus himself declared Marxism dead as something that can provide a vision of the future or direct social change [21]. So what’s left is a Marx expert philosopher providing a thorough look on some crucial concepts and arguments.
  15. The topmost explanatory conceptual construct/paradigm of human activity and interactivity. My current understanding is that the most ambitious, standalone philosophical problem (if we have to name one) Márkus had formulated is the unsolved question concerning the best theoretical paradigm offering the most comprehensive explanatory power/analogy concerning human activity and interactivity. This is attempted in the most original and powerful manner in Language and Production, published in 1986 where Márkus introduces the paradigm of language and production via a comparative study as the models of intersubjective human activities. Picking on these two models offers another way to create an intersection between continental and analytical philosophy, bridging the gap one more time.
  16. Ethical integrity. While not being a public intellectual, Márkus … (ToDo)
  17. Political bravery. (ToDo)
  18. A lot more Márkus texts to come due to the work of the Márkus Archive. Not only Márkus is an essentially open, ‘oral’ philosopher, the Márkus Archive in Sydney, led by an early Australian disciple, John Grumley, is working on transcribing his 25 lectures at Sydney University from 1978 to 2001. This means that a stream of Márkus’ works is yet to come that might significantly contribute to our understanding of his thought. Just like the lectures of John Rawls on the history of moral and political philosophy give extra insights into his main works and into the thoughts of the thinkers analysed Márkus’ lectures will enrich our understanding in both ways.

With this last point, the list is completed. If you are a natural scientist, a mathematician, a computer scientist, an engineer or an analytical philosopher, consider choosing Márkus as your minor, a true complementer of your main activities.

Acknowledgements

I’d like to thank John Grumley for sending me his Intellectual Biography of Márkus ahead of publication and the information provided on the work of the Márkus Archive.

I’d like to express my thanks to Erdélyi Ágnes for the comments made.

Notes

[1] Márkus György: A rendszer után: A filozófia a tudományok korában. Akadémiai Kiadó, 1994

[2] Miklós Márton and János Tőzsér, two current analytical philosophers in Hungary reconstruct The debate between Márkus and Altrichter (see point 9) citing an early Márkus work as the first proper study in analytical philosophy written in Hungarian and the debate is has triggered, in this closed access publication https://www.ceeol.com/search/article-detail?id=724444 please see abstract here:

‘Márkus György 1968-ban megjelent „Az észlelés és a pszichofizikai probléma (Adalékok a pszichikum természet-ontológiájához” című írása valószínűleg az első magyar nyelvű par excellence analitikus filozófiai értekezés és Altrichter Ferenc 1972-ben megjelent „Megjegyzések az észlelés filozófiai fogalmáról” című írása pedig minden bizonnyal az első magyar nyelvű par excellence analitikus filozófiai vitacikk.’

[3] p803-4 Kis János: A ‘Kultúra, tudomány, társadalom’ Márkus György életművében. in Márkus György: Kultúra, tudomány, társadalom, Atlantisz Kiadó, 2017.

[4] Erdélyi Ágnes, a Márkus disciple in Budapest, emphasises that, referring to the János Kis essay in [3], that Márkus was not part of the Budapest School, a direct Lukács disciple in a doctrinal sense, just like his disciples were not. http://filozofiaiszemle.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Erd%C3%A9lyi-%C3%81gnes-M%C3%A1rkus-Gy%C3%B6rgy.pdf

Here’s the János Kis quote on p804: Nem veletlen, hogy – noha sem eletrajzi, sem doktrinalis ertelemben nem volt Lukacs-tanitvany – az otvenes evek vege fele Lukacs iskolajahoz csatlakozott.

[5] János Weiss cites a Lukács interview, where Lukács said ‘Márkus was not my disciple.’ Note 5 in  Weiss János: Megőrizni és meghaladni. (Márkus György gondolkodói pályájának állomásai) p54-63 in Múlt és Jövő, 2016 4., see book of interview: https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Meg%C3%A9lt_gondolkod%C3%A1s.html?id=kOJiQgAACAAJ&redir_esc=y 

[6] ‘As a specialist in analytical English and American philosophy Márkus wrote his dissertation on Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and soon after spent 1965-66 at the university of Pittsburgh in the US supervised by Wilfred Sellars and Willard. O. Quine.‘ in John Grumley: Towards an Intellectual Biography of György Márkus, p2. upcoming paper in Constellations. I’d like to thank Professor Grumley to sending me the manuscript in advance of publication.

[7] A brief but informative introduction (part 1 and 2) into Hegel’d dialectical method by Antonio Wolf on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eE8pjlpkiD4

[8] Márkus György: Kultúra és modernitás, T-Twins, Budapest, 1992.

[9] Antinomies of ‘Culture’ p633-53 in Gyorgy Markus: Culture, Science, Society. Brill, Leiden – Boston, 2011.

[10] John Grumley: Towards an Intellectual Biography of György Márkus, p2-3. upcoming paper in Constellations.

[10] ‘A very typical phase in George’s lecturing would be to say that he had “once had an interest in x or y” and this always meant that he had a subterranean wealth of knowledge in this area that he could access at the drop of a hat.’ John Grumley in Towards an Intellectual Biography of György Márkus, p7.

[12] Elizabeth Shanks Alexander: Transmitting Mishnah: The Shaping Influence of Oral Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006 (Paperback 2009)

[13] ‘Nincsenek dramai fordulatok, nagy szembenezesek, leszamolasok, csak az egymasba kulcsolodo valtozatok szakadatlan ujraszovese van.’ in p1903 Kis János: Felvilagositok szepunokaja, HOLMI, IV/12, 1992, December. 

[14] ‘…kulonlegesen szerves, folyamatos gondolati mozgassal van dolgunk. Ugyanakkor a kesz keretek kitoltesekent sem jellemezheto. Maga az elmeleti keret is valtozik, de egeszen egyedulallo modon….Markus az uj belatasok fenyeben ujra megkiserli feldolgozni ugyanazt a temat. A kesobbi munkak igy igen gyakran a regi motivumok uj variacioi.’ in p1902 Kis János: Felvilagositok szepunokaja, HOLMI, IV/12, 1992, December. 

[15] I’d like to emphasise that this list of 5 disciples is my subjective selection in a sense that only people are listed whose work I had the opportunity to get to know in some details and assess its high quality. Also with 3 out of the 5 I had a chance to actually ‘work’ with a little, see also next note. There were other recommendations as well whom to include even into this selective list, out of which I would like to mention the name of Marta Feher, an excellent philosopher, methodologist and historian of science. Feher’s academic doctoral dissertation has been published in English as Changing Tools: Case Studies in the History of Scientific Methodology and Markus was one of the thesis’ opponent. I would estimate that the number of active disciples in the 60s were ~20, but I don’t take it as my job to assemble that list here. I’d like to thank Vera Bekes for the suggestion.

[16] Bence was the formal supervisor of my philosophy MS thesis, Kis the informal one.

[17] The most important example is Bence György · Kis János · Márkus György: Hogyan ​lehetséges kritikai gazdaságtan? T-Twins, 1992. 

[18] p803-4 Kis János: A ‘Kultúra, tudomány, társadalom’ Márkus György életművében. in Márkus György: Kultúra, tudomány, társadalom, Atlantisz Kiadó, 2017.

[19] ‘In this volatile climate he was a perfect appointment. A leading member of the Budapest School he was as comfortable teaching courses on Marxism and other courses in the continental tradition as well as being able to attend the seminars and discuss ideas with the more analytically inclined staff in the Department of Modern and Traditional philosophy. Almost immediately Márkus become a highly respected figure between the split Departments. He was primarily concerned to develop a strong curriculum in the history of philosophy and these initiatives was instrumental and, along with some others, was eventually able to bring about a joint curriculum between the two Departments ten years later.’ inJohn Grumley: Towards an Intellectual Biography of György Márkus, p5-6. upcoming paper in Constellations.

[20] p131-200, p201-62, respectively in Gyorgy Markus: Culture, Science, Society. Brill, Leiden – Boston, 2011.

[21] Janos Kis cites Márkus in http://epa.oszk.hu/01000/01050/00183/pdf/EPA01050_holmi1992-12_1898-1922.pdf ‘

„A marxizmus mint a társadalmi cselekvést… irányítani szándékozó elmélet csődöt mondott. Nem hiszem, hogy… tartalmazna egy olyan jövőképet, amelyet racionálisan el lehetne fogadni…
a marxizmus ebben az értelemben halott. […] Politikai, társadalmi, gyakorlati bukása föltétlenül jelzi az elmélet problematikusságát is. Ezért nemcsak egy ortodox marxizmus, de egy neomarxizmus lehetőségében sem hiszek.”
(Uo.)