The Hungarian Academy and its institutes

The attack on the philosophers has been going on ever since January 8 when Magyar Nemzet claimed that "Heller and Co. researched away half a billion forints." The "political commentators" whom I would rather call "political hacks," with some help from the named philosophers' professional adversaries, showed such ignorance of the world of academe that it really boggles the mind. It soon became quite obvious that the newspapermen writing article after article have not the foggiest idea about what grants and grant applications are all about. I'm trying to imagine a situation in this country in which politicos would attack a group of scholars who received money for the study of the former Soviet Union. There are always people who consider money spent on this or that project a waste. But the academic world doesn't work that way. Although some people might object, there could be very good reasons for studying Persian literature or culture, not only as fascinating areas in and of themselves, but because it might enrich our understanding of today's Iran.

In Hungary grant applications were made and thirty-one were handed out by a jury whose members were unknown to the applicants. Of these thirty-one only six grants were questioned in Magyar Nemzet. What is behind this whole sordid affair? Part of the story might be found in the less than satisfactory situation that exists in the Philosophical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

I hold strong opinions about the whole structure and functioning of the Academy that was reorganized in 1949 along Soviet lines. It became an institution granting academic degrees, maintaining innumerable research institutes, whose members had all sorts of privileges including monthly salaries. One of my former professors in the intervening years became an academician. When years later we met in the Academy's building, we were chauffeured in one of the many cars belonging to the Academy to the studio of a famous sculptor who was working on the bust of my former professor. And naturally, the driver came and drove us back to town.

I had hoped that with the change of regime these institutes would go back to where they belong, the universities, and that the Academy would once again become what it was before 1949. For one thing, teaching and research should go hand in hand. In addition, in Hungary a peculiar situation developed, especially in the arts and social sciences. After the 1956 revolution professors who took part in the events were fired from their university jobs and often found refuge in the research institutes. Since members of the institutes had no teaching duties, they had more time to devote to pure research. Thus a two-tier system developed in which the professors at the universities occupied a decidedly lower status, often with good reason.

Of course, the privileged group of academicians and the members of the research institutes had a vested interest in keeping the old Soviet-style structure and therefore put pressure on the Antall government to leave the system alone. Although it is a very expensive setup with very few tangible scientific results, the Academy's influence is considerable and its political weight is growing. In the last few years the Academy's leadership became closely associated with Fidesz and the political right. The current president of the academy, József Pálinkás, was prior to his election a Fidesz member of parliament and in the first Orbán government minister of education. Most likely the aged academicians, most of whom lean toward the right anyway, elected Pálinkás in 2008 because they were counting on a Fidesz victory at the 2010 elections. But even his predecessor, Szilveszter E. Vizy, was close to Fidesz and in his capacity assisted the party in all sorts of ways. By now the Academy is an established political tool of the government.

Among the many institutes there is the Philosophical Institute in which a few months ago profound changes took place. The custom until then was that the employees of the Institute recommended someone from among their ranks for the post of director. About a year ago the members picked one of their colleagues who for a number of years worked as deputy director: György Gábor, a philosopher specializing in the philosophy of religion. There was also an applicant from the outside, from the University of Pécs, János Boros, whom the others didn't consider qualified. Pálinkás intervened and, ignoring the wishes of the members of the Institute, appointed Boros who in no time began an ambitious plan of reorganizing the Institute which according to him didn't function well. He complained that the philosophers didn't spend enough time at the Institute, which was not at all surprising considering that the whole Institute consists of two small rooms for twenty-seven researchers. Moreover, the members of the institutes were not expected to work from eight to five on the premises even if there were ample space. People do research in libraries and usually work at home. Boros also complained that some of his colleagues didn't bother to repeat their postgraduate work and attain a Ph.D., introduced in Hungary not a terribly long time ago. Agnes Heller is not a member of the Institute, but it would be mighty strange if someone insisted on her enrolling again in graduate school and writing a Ph.D. dissertation. Then Boros complained that some of the colleagues didn't take formal language examinations. Again, the absurdity of this position is apparent in cases such as Miklós Gáspár Tamás, who speaks Hungarian, Romanian, English, and French fluently and who has lectured widely all over the world.

In brief, the atmosphere at the Institute was anything but amiable. Then on top of everything else a younger colleague and a supporter of Boros while intoxicated made some anti-semitic remarks about Gábor György, who related the incident to Népszava. The young philosopher sued the paper and it was only a few days ago that the courts found Népszava innocent.

Most likely János Boros and his friends in the Institute are behind the attack on "Heller and Co.," but surely without the support of people higher up it couldn't have been launched. Some people think that the witch hunt has Viktor Orbán's blessing. If so, I consider it another political mistake. The attack on the philosophers has reverberated outside of Hungary's borders, as I mentioned a few days ago.

I find it surprising that Viktor Orbán doesn't simply pick up the telephone and tell the media outlets close to Fidesz to cease and desist. But no! Just today Heti Válasz for all intents and purposes called Ágnes Heller a liar. Again with the assistance of a fellow academician, M. István Fehér, apparently a talented philosopher with right-wing leanings. At one point Heller in Magyar Narancs said that she was one of the people who suggested that Fehér become a member of the academy "despite the fact that his political views are far from [her own.]" And here comes Fehér in a letter to the editor of the weekly in which he announces that as far as he knows Heller didn't recommend him for membership. There were three recommendations but Heller's was not among them. Otherwise he received about 75% of the votes but the vote was secret.

How low can you go? And no one says: enough!

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Paul
Guest

These articles about philosophers baffle me (I don’t mean that pejoratively). I assume it’s just a language and/or culture thing, but I simply can’t imagine a new government in the UK (even an extreme right-wing bunch like we’ve got at the moment) attacking philosophers. Nor the public understanding why, or even knowing what philosophers are or do.
In fact, I will be honest and include myself in that group. I have no idea what philosophers ‘do’. My image of them is a small group of mostly elderly men, living high up in some remote academic towers, discussing extremely involved philosophical points with each other – points that the rest of us would neither understand nor care about.
Perhaps ‘philosopher’ means something different in Hungarian or to Hungarians? Or it could just be me – I am, after all, just a working class boy (who actually spent a large part of today watching West Ham knock Nottingham Forest out of the FA Cup, not discussing philosophical points), so what do I know? Quite possibly very little.
But I remain totally baffled by this whole issue.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Paul: “These articles about philosophers baffle me (I don’t mean that pejoratively).”
Believe me, I’m baffled too.

Mutt Damon
Guest

In Planet Hungary their crime is that they time to time give interviews to newspapers. Now if your are smart and start saying things that make sense then your in trouble. This is the “logic”. If, for some reasons, the dentists or the bakers would be interviewed and they would turn out to be smart, then FIDESZ mob would go after them too.

Kirsten
Guest

Probably it is as banal as Mutt writes. I was also thinking whether it could be due to hierarchical thinking of Austrian-Hungarian (“K.u.K.”) type where professors are automatically considered an “authority”. Could be a problem if they have already started to criticise the government. And yet another reason could be in Éva’s sentence: “whose members had all sorts of privileges including monthly salaries.” Perhaps this is only a detail in this story, but for me that sounds as if it were easier to denounce these people than making regular pay less of a privilege.

Minusio
Guest

@Paul: In a later post I would like to comment on the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in general, and some of its institutes in particular.
But just for now, I’d like to assure you that philosophers ‘do’ a lot for you and me. They study the fundamental issues of this world (although often they are just busy rephrasing and remodeling age-old problems) and although their works are mostly read only by fellow philosophers, their thinking goes into almost everything that touches our lives: politics, economics, law, science, journalism, everything. Even physics was once paraphrased as a ‘department of experimental philosophy’.
It’s a pity you don’t know any philosophers personally. You’d be surprised how faszinating it is to talk to them. 

Mutt Damon
Guest

This is interesting. This could be part of it. I admit the masses probably wouldn’t look up to the bakers :-).
These people are dangerous when they have some sort of influence. Philosophers are considered the “wise” and the “schooled” the masses look up to. Either way this combined with political involvement (on the wrong side) will make them part of the “anti-Hungary” conspiracy. Similar thing would be if they started to go after famous performers. Watch out Brody ..

Mutt Damon
Guest

One thing still bugs me in this. That is paying for philosophical studies from tax payer money. Is this a Planet Hungary thing? How common is this in the luckier part of the world? I would email my congress person if this is the case here in US .. 🙂 This type of thing should be considered academical research. All this should be financed from grants the departments receive anyway.

Odin's lost eye
Guest
What is going on? I think the answer to that lies in the only model of Government that Fidesz knows. This model is the old Communist model of government. What do I mean by Model of Government? It is the way in which things are to be done and the chain(s) of command. It is part of the general political mechanism that Fidesz wishes to use. One of the tenets it has is that all MUST promote the interests of Fidesz without expecting any reward or acknowledgement. Part of this model requires that the party, Fidesz, is at the very centre of society and controls all aspects of behaviour and thought within that society. This will range from colour of toilet paper you will use to the music you will have in your C.D. collection. They will control everything and when I say everything I mean everything. Deviation from this model will be severely punished. How I do not know except you will be branded as an ‘Enemy of Hungary’ and ostracised. They are starting with that part of the realms of academe which have no real use in Fidesz’s eyes (or rather in O.V.s eyes), and who are persons… Read more »
GW
Guest
A parallel system of Universities and dedicated research institutes or academies is not unusual in Europe. In Germany, the Universities themselves have both teaching faculties and research-only institutes and scholars may belong to one, the other, or both. (E.g. Adorno, was appointed in the faculties of philosophy and sociology and simultaneously had a position at the Institute for Social Research.) In Germany, the primary network of research institutes is that of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, embracing institutes in all areas of the natural and social sciences and the humanities. (E.g. In addition to his University and Institute positions in Frankfurt, Habermas led a branch of the Planck in Starnberg.) In the US, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is a similar institution to the Hungarian, but one in which membership is largely honorary and in which elected members typically have their primary employment elsewhere. There are also pure-research institutions like the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the Rockefeller University (which does grant grad degrees, however), the Hoover Institute, and many government-run institutes, for example those of NASA or the NIH or the Bureau of Standards, as well as that. In addition, all of the “think tanks” on public policy should… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Mutt Damon: “I would email my congress person if this is the case here in US .. 🙂 This type of thing should be considered academical research. All this should be financed from grants the departments receive anyway.”
I don’t know about philosophers but the Russian and East European Studies at Yale received about 100,000 a year from the government for research purposes and language teaching.

Kevin Moore
Guest

Still not a single word on why those more than suspicious contracts by the philosophers should not be supervised.
Still not a single word on why an attack should be of political grounds when it’s the specific contracts awarding the philosophers’ own family members that are challenged.
Still not a single word on how such topics like studying Lukács & Heidegger’s works could be funded from tenders on technological research.
And soon comes our dear Paul, telling everyone how big of a troll I am, without trying to give any genuine answer whatsoever.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

To GW: believe me that the Hungarian system cannot be compared to anything else in the world. Most of the American research institutes are attached to universities and the staff is not very large. But take a look at the list of the research institutes of the Academy: http://mta.hu/cikkek/az-mta-kutatointezetei-103711

GW
Guest

Kevin Moore: Both Lukács and Heidegger wrote texts on technology which have been widely cited in subsequent reviewed literature are are now considered canonical parts of mainstream continental philosophy. See, for example, Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology (pub. 1954; the essay has its own Wikipedia article) and Lukács’s Technology and Social Relations (1966).

GDF
Guest

I recall that in Romania members of the Academy enjoyed similar privileges during the communist regime. Their salaries used to be around ten times the average, they were driven everywhere by their designated drivers etc.
Some of the members of the Academy were really exceptional talents in their fields, others, like Ceausecsu’s wife, were rumored to have no high school education.

Kevin Moore
Guest

GW: you can’t be serious.

Mutt Damon
Guest

@Kevin Knock it off. Either way those were legal contracts. Any wrong doing should be proven at the courts. Do you agree?
Your government should focus on regulations from now instead of revenge. I mean real laws, not just “we’re the good guys, don’t worry” type regulations, like the media law.
My $.02 is that this type of “research” should only be financed with academic grants. It’s OK if it is tax money as long as there is credible direct oversight in the parliament.
Let’s try to introduce law and order.
( Ahh, I’m so great 🙂 )

Kevin Moore
Guest

“Either way those were legal contracts. Any wrong doing should be proven at the courts. Do you agree?”
I completely agree. Too bad none of YOU agree on this!
How else could it happen that ALL of you label this as a political attack despite the charges state that:
1. some contracts were assessed by the same persons who were applying for money;
2. these contracts were completely off-topic and had nothing to do with the tender in question;
3. the philosophers contracted their own private small companies with the same task that should have been done within their scope of activities as employees.
How come that NONE of these charges are countered or even denied?
“Your government should focus on regulations from now instead of revenge.”
So you want the government to overlook that these contracts were probably nothing more than thefts of public money? You call this “revenge?”
I WANT the government to supervise how public money was spent, this wast part of why I voted for them!
Why do you want them to skip this?
Currently 2 separate police investigations are underway. Aren’t you happy that truth is to be revealed in the end? It doesn’t look like that you are happy!

Member

Mutt Damon: My understanding is that the Hungarian and “western” systems are still very different, as most Hungarian Universities are public universities. So any grants they provide for research directly or via MTA would come out of the taxpayers pocket. Private universities that are common in the USA, and other western countries are managed by a group, fees are higher, but money is also coming from larger donations from the private sector and from corporations. Some money for research could come from government run institutions, when the research is for their use. The Hungarian private sectors and corporations does not have the same strength as their western equal.
What is philosophy good for? I do not know to many people who pick up a philosophy book, but philosophy is entwined in corporate culture, politics, psychology, even research biology and of course in religious studies. Everyone can answer to simple questions in every day life but philosophers try to find the logic between how intangible things work. THeir studies are used in establishing new “protocols”, conduct research on other subjects, create new laws, and so forth.

Joseph Simon
Guest

Interestingly enough all of you raise the important question: what are many of these illustrious academic institutions good for?
The current financial crisis almost ruined the US, with huge global implications. Why do we have all those Business Schools at Harvard, MIT, economists with PhD’s, etc. Has anyone sounded an alarm? No one saw the avalanche being built up that literally destroyed many lives. So much for those lofty academies.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Kevin Moore, Perhaps you should read other sources beside Magyar Nemzet then you would know that those “charges” are simply not true.

Pete H.
Guest

JS, just because you didn’t hear them predict it, doesn’t mean they did not. Krugman, among others, predicted the crisis some 36 months before it happened. But, the press wasn’t ready to report it and the government was not ready to act on it. You should do a little background work before you post such sweeping statements.

Kevin Moore
Guest

Eva: please have mercy on me and point me to those sources where I can get this vital information.
Thank you.

John G
Guest

Question: were only the”left wing” philosophers “dishonest” in their financial dealings, or did the “right wing” group of philosophers operated under the same financial arrangement as the others and are simply left out of the investigation ? Which then would make it very much a political.

Minusio
Guest
The title was: The Hungarian Academy and its institutes I agree that the Hungarian two-tier academic system is an oddity in this particular organisational form. (It bears little semblance to the German research foundations such as Max Planck and Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.) But given the imperfections of the universities, merging them with the Academy’s institutes would only add inefficiency to mediocracy. On the face of it, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) is financed by the taxpayer. And it is true that there exist a lot of fiefdoms with unmerited perks under its roof, such as chauffeured limousines, holiday homes, service personnel, etc. But this waste only goes for the unproductive, i.e. decorative, top echelons. And this is where you also find the political weight Eva mentioned. Some of the institutes do produce “tangible scientific results”, although most of those seem to be in Hungarian only, which in turn reflects the general foreign-language incompetence in Hungary and constitutes a certain provinciality. It is not generally known that the salaries of researchers (as of all government employees) after the change of the political system were so low that most people needed a second job to subsist. The salary hike by 50% in… Read more »
Mutt Damon
Guest

@Kevin This is very similar (to me at least) to the case of the severance money issue and 98% retroactive tax. I presume nobody committed any crimes, they were just taking advantage of the system. You’re trying to shoot the messenger. And it looks like nowadays it’s open season on certain type of messengers – that’s the revenge part.
They should stop this petty “I’ll go after them” style witch-hunt and focus on regulations. This just shows how preoccupied they are with the wrong things.
I was just laughing my butt off seeing the new boss of the Duna TV selling “oxygenated water” (and high pressure thingy to create it at home) of his wife’s company in a public TV program. Reportedly they were also selling it by the glass in the cafeteria. Kevin, what is this if not a FIDESZ guy taking advantage of the new times ..
Be generous. From now: Law and Order. Too much work? Doesn’t pay?

Kirsten
Guest

@Minusio: After 1996 it was possible to be employed by an institute and found one’s own little company … to land contract work from foreign governments and companies.
And within these private companies, the researchers were expected to do practically the same as in the institute? (The institute could have applied for the same projects as well? Or were the institutes meant as their “platform”?) In such a case interests could easily collide.

GW
Guest

Kirsten wrote: “In such a case interests could easily collide.”
Such conflicts over attributing research to an academic or commercial employer are common around the world and it is a very sensitive subject in employment contracts and very often leads to the construction of complicated Chinese walls, based on, for example, detailed records of when work was performed and in which premises. For example, in many Universities, back in the days of typewriters and typing pools, having an article typed by the University pool would automatically make the results University property.

John T
Guest

Kevin – If the Police investigation finds evidence of criminal wrongdoing, I would have no problem with charges being laid and a case going to court. And if someone is found guilty, then they should serve the appropriate sentence. But I work on the basic principle that someone is innocent until proven guilty. You comments suggest you view it the other way round (Hungarian hardwiring again I guess). But let justice take its course.
If the rules were poor and without proper governance, then they certainly need to be fixed. Who introduced them I wonder? But if people claimed the grants within those rules, no crime has been committed. I will await the outcome with interest.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Kevin Moore: “Eva: please have mercy on me and point me to those sources where I can get this vital information. Thank you.”
I’m really reluctant to do so. I’m truly very busy and you ought to be able to find with the help of Google the necessary sources. However, I give you two links.
http://www.nepszava.hu/articles/article.php?id=385205
and
http://galamus.hu/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=46932:vadak-a-filozofusok-ellen-radnoti-sandor-tajekoztatasa-az-uegyrl&catid=79:kiemelt-hirek&Itemid=115
But there are many, many more. Put some effort into being better informed instead of spouting back accusations without listening to the other side.

Minusio
Guest

Kirsten, GW: Ad collision of interests. The problem was that the institutes wanted to grab all the money generated by contract work (which came in because of the initiative and reputation of some researchers), but wouldn’t even pay for the infrastructure. In fact, even today, they can only pay 40% of salaries from MTA money. So the work was subcontracted to the companies who invoiced the institute. That way they could keep some money within their departments and finance new computers, copiers, travels, books, etc., even pay for the rent of the premises, electricity, telecommunications… (Some institutes have a central office with a director somewhere and ‘departments’ all over the country.)
This wasn’t a very “clean” solution, but otherwise some institutes would have collapsed because people would have left. In some instances, some of the money was used to create foundations which offered scholarships to young co-workers who would have otherwise not been paid more than pocket money.
So this was exploiting legality (but not outside it), and not unethical.

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