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Aurel Kolnai

The life and Work of Aurel Kolnai

John Haldane

Aurel Kolnai was born in Budapest in 1900 and educated at the Royal Lutheran Gymnasium (currently the Budapest-Fasori Evangélikus Gimnázium) from which he matriculated in 1918 summa cum laude. The school had a reputation for academic excellence and other alumni of Jewish background were the economist John Harsanyi, the mathematicians Alfréd Haar and John von Neumann, and the physicists Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner.

Following high school Kolnai studied at the universities of Vienna, Freiburg and Berne with such diverse figures as Moritz Schlick, Ludwig von Mises, and Edmund Husserl. In 1923 Kolnai converted to Roman Catholicism mainly as a result, by his own account, of reading the English Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton, and authors of the German phenomenological school, including Max Scheler and Dietrich von Hildebrand, themselves also converts to Catholicism.

During the 1920s and 30s Kolnai worked in Vienna as a writer and journalist. His writings from this period include contributions to Der Christliche Standestaat (The Christian State) a magazine founded by von Hildebrand to oppose the rise of Nazism in Austria. Kolnai’s articles were written under the pseudonym of Dr A. van Helsing, presumably an ironic reference to the vampire hunter of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Two articles from 1934 clearly indicate Kolnai’s identification of, and anger at the corruption of philosophy in the interests of brutish, fascist ideology: ‘Der Missbrauch des Vitalen’ (‘The Abuse of the Vital’) and ‘Heidegger’s Nihilismus’ (‘Heidegger’s Nihilism’). In the previous year Kolnai had also begun what he later described as “a comprehensive critique of National Socialism and related doctrines”. That work, which is certainly a classic of twentieth century political philosophy and commentary, was written in English and published in London in1938 under the title The War Against the West.

Politically Kolnai was, like Chesterton, Scheler and von Hildebrand, a sort of humane conservative. They also shared a sense of the general loss within their own lifetimes of levels of cultural depth and common understanding that had taken centuries to achieve. Looked at through the simple framework of today’s political categories, however, Kolnai, Chesterton, Scheler and von Hildebrand are hard to place. That is because, for all its attention to positioning and public presentation, contemporary political discourse is intellectually crude and has few terms of ethical analysis, and even fewer insightful reflections on lived experience. Kolnai, by contrast, was a crowd of ideas and insights, at once united but also diverse. And rather than regarding that complex identity as problematic, he viewed it as a due reflection of the complexity and diversity of the human condition.

In the period following the Hungarian uprising of 1956, by which time he was living in England (after a decade and a half spent in the USA and in Canada), Kolnai was developing his ideas on the place of ethics in politics. Concerning which he writes that:

The basic intuitions of mankind – which Right and Left alike cannot but take for granted as a premise for their moral appeal – provide no solution, except in a prohibitive and limiting sense, for the permanent or topical problems of political organization and choice. (A. Kolnai, ‘The Moral Theme in Political Division’ Philosophy, 35, 1960, p. 254).

Sometime later he wrote the following:

It should be noted that when we speak of ‘respecting’ alien property (as also of [respecting] life or rights) we use that word in its weak sense of ‘leaving alone’, ‘not touching’, ‘not interfering with’ . . . not in its strong sense of positive appreciation for something distinctively noble and respectable. (A. Kolnai, ‘Morality and Practice II, The Moral Emphasis’, in F. Dunlop and B. Klug eds Ethics, Value and Reality: Selected papers of Aurel Kolnai (London: The Athlone Press, 1977) p. 105).

As elements of a broader view developed by Kolnai, these ideas serve to counter not only utopian or totalising political and social ambitions, but also suggest that the tendency to invest the political with extensive moral ambitions, or to make it a principal site for their attainment, is a profound mistake, and one likely to do serious damage both to politics and to morality. In the earlier article he writes:

[T]he practice of men in Society, with their divided interests, divergent tastes, and conflicting purposes in need of being aligned and concerted, calls for moral guidance and inspiration. Political controversy involves moral issues. Genuine moral experiences will thus come to be evoked, actualized and deepened, but on the other hand dragged into the tussle of non-moral concerns and adapted to exigencies of ideological argument and of the self-assertion of rival camps. (Op. cit p. 254).

Simultaneously, however, Kolnai indicates a way in which substantive moral values and requirements should constrain the making and implementing of policy, namely in protecting certain fundamental moral interests. If you think that human beings have a liability (be the to fail in otherwise good intentions, to distort or obscure the perception of goods, to lapse from high to low motives; or worse to form bad intentions, to only rarely and dimly see the good, and to relish the base, then you will see reason to limit the scope for organising and regulating the lives of others (particularly others whose own moral inclinations may conflict with one’s own) on the basis of a moral or moralised political ideology.

Certainly human beings also have orientations towards the good; but this has to be accurately identified and kept sight of, and not just at the level of generalities, but in all the (often messy) complexity surrounding particularities: for it is with particularities that action is ultimately concerned. Given intellectual limitations we could not antecedently expect to do well in orchestrating the moral lives of even small groups, let alone entire societies. Experience and historical observation, as well as personal phenomenology, all of which feature extensively and to great effect in Kolnai’s writings, tell us that, in fact, the attempt to regulate societies according to comprehensive moral doctrines results in, at best, hypocrisy and bad faith, and, at worst, in tyranny and death.

Unlike the neutralist liberal, Kolnai and like-minded opponents of moral maximalism do not think that it is in principle or per se wrong to organise society on the basis of a substantive and even a comprehensive moral doctrine; only that it is wrong even to attempt this – given what we know about human nature as it actually is. In issuing this caution, however, it remains the case that there are questions to be posed and answered about the form of moral life and about the role and extent of moral requirement in shaping this. Here we return to Kolnai’s observation that ‘the basic intuitions of mankind . . . provide no solution, except in a prohibitive and limiting sense, for the permanent or topical problems of political organisation and choice’ (op. cit.).

The literary estate of Aurel Kolnai consists of over 100 books from his private collection (many annotated) and some twenty boxes of original papers. The books are in four languages: English, French, German and Spanish, and divide into three categories: books on ethics (including annotated works by H.B. Acton, C.D. Broad, R.M. Hare, D. Von Hildebrand, J. Kovesi, A. MacIntyre, G.E. Moore, H.A. Prichard, and W.D. Ross, S. Toulmin, and G.J. Warnock); books on politics and on political and social philosophy (including again annotated ones by H. Arrendt, R.G. Collinwood, J. Locke and A.D. Lindsay); other philosophical books (by among others E. Anscombe, E. D’Arcy, J.N. Findlay, P. Geach, D.Z. Phillips, G. Ryle, and P. Strawson); and non-philosophical books. The papers include published and unpublished writings, notebooks, personal and other documents.

This is an important archive of a distinctive philosopher the value of whose work in moral and social philosophy is increasingly appreciated. With the support of admirers Harold Acton, Bernard Williams, and David Wiggins, Kolnai was appointed to a part-time “Visiting Lectureship” at Bedford College at London University. During this period he became increasingly interested in British ethical intuitionism, and his writings influenced Wiggins, Williams and others. Kolnai later was awarded a visiting position at Marquette University in the US where he died in 1973.

For an account of the archive see Chris Bessemans’s “A glimpse of the Kolnai Nachlaβ,” Rivista di Filosofia Neo-Scolastica, 104 (1) 2012, pp. 153-173.

Bibliography of writings by and about Kolnai

  • Writings by Kolnai
    1. Early Ethical Writings of Aurel Kolnai ed. F. Dunlop (Routledge, 2018).
    2. Ethics, Value and Reality (Transaction, 2008).
    3. On Disgust eds B. Smith and C. Korsmeyer (Open Court, 2004).
    4. Political Memoirs (Lexington, 1999).
    5. Politics, Values and National Socialism ed. G. McAleer (Transaction, 2013).
    6. Psychoanalysis and Sociology (Sagwan, 2015).
    7. Privilege and Liberty and Other Essays on Political Philosophy ed. D.J. Mahoney (Lexington, 1999).
    8. Sexual Ethics: The Meaning and Foundation of Sexual Morality ed F. Dunlop (Ashgate, 2005).
    9. The Utopian Mind: A Critical Study in Moral and Political Philosophy ed. F. Dunlop and B. Klug eds (Athlone, 1977).
  • Writings about Kolnai
    1. Z. Balas, Exploring the World of Human Practice: Readings in and about the Philosophy of Aurel Kolnai (Central European Press, 2004).
    2. W. Bialas, Aurel Kolnai’s The War Against the West Reconsidered (Routledge, 2019).
    3. F. Dunlop, The Life and Thought of Aurel Kolnai (Routledge, 2017).

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