Sergej Hessen

I have recently discovered this author and I found his vision on history quite inspiring. I think that considering history (in all its forms) as a never-ending process of social and personal re-elaboration of cultural “values” keeps both pedagogy and school into a critical and positive dialogue, functional to a fruitful educational planning.

Sergej Hessen, Ust’-Sysolsk (Siberia) 1887 – 1950

Sergej-HessenFamily of jurists, studied at the Rickert (neo-Kantian school) where he acquired an original philosophy of values, he participated to the October Revolution, looking forward to a democratic solution for the fight of workers and peasants. His ideal is the socialist legal. Because of the “democratic centralism” of Lenin, he abandoned the Marxism and left Russia for Berlin (1923), Prague (1924) and Warsaw (1934): these choices represent the need of distance from the leading ideology of his country and keep alive a cultural dialogue in order to fine a third way (democracy) between liberalism and Marxism.

His most important works:

  • “Philosophical foundations of pedagogy”, Berlin, 1923;
  • “Ideology and autonomy of education and pedagogy”, 1938;
  • “Structure and content of the modern school”, 1939;
  • “Platonic and evangelic virtue”, 1939.

The dramatic events of the second world war, the concentration camps, the genocide of the Jews, therefore the obscuration of the mind of the defeat of the “reasons of culture” did not discourage him. In 1948 he wrote for Unesco “Modern Democracy”, for the renovation of liberal ideology in a democratic way and “Pedagogy and economic world”: an analysis of the pedagogic problems on the modern industrial society.

He represents a rare example of pedagogic and civil commitment.

From Kant, through Rickert, to values as foundation of culture and history.

Hessen based his pedagogic vision on the idea of culture, derived from the humanistic tradition and in particular from philosophy of values of Windelbrand and Rickert.

Kant demonstrated that it is not possible to explain the experience without referring to the laws of the ego. Rickert went beyond and applied the idea of Kant to history: it is not possible to explain history without referring to the values: the values are the conditio sine qua non (“condition without which it could not be”) to explain the infinite tension that animates the human cultural production. The production of values is functional to the tradition or the accumulation of human production that have a meaning, an intrinsic validity.

What are these values about? I will answer with “Culture and history”, from Sergej Hessen.

“History is the past of a nation” does not really mean anything.
In 1564 Ivan the Terrible established his body guard and in another year he lost a chess game with his medical staff: these are two facts belonging to the past. But the first is an historic fact while the second is a simple fact attesting some relations of happenings. Indeed, while the second is actually past and it vanished all his reality, was born at the time and at the time finished, the first instead is not past but is transmitted generation by generation and is now up to our time. We unconsciously carry it because we do not have the strength to get rid of his presence.

Similarly the discovery of the differential calculus by Leibniz and Newton made between the XVII and XVIII century is still persisting nowadays in the works of mathematicians and physics. This fact hasn’t been submerged into the past but, passed down generation by generation and became an essential part of our reality. The historical past is, therefore, an imperishable past that goes beyond the power of time, that self-preserves from decomposition and oblivion: is an alive past, never extinguished; and that is why we can remember it: we can restore it in our knowledge. The historical past, passed down the various generations, connect them to each other: history is tradition.
That is why history is not only tradition and has other principles that keep it alive, free from the supremacy of time. These principles (or values) soar over any contingent and changeable purpose of the common and daily human activities, all through the historical life of humanity. They transcend time and personality and permeate the succession of generations and unify the generation under the commonality of ideals, in which human creativity succeeds. These principles are inexhaustible because infinite and infinite […] because the meaning of values goes always beyond its historical reality.

Science will never complete its purpose, the ideal of perfect beauty will never be realized, the human being will never end the fight against itself, against the temptation to rest its achievement of higher and higher moral freedom. On the other hand, the more man learns, the bigger his aspiration to discover all the reality presents new problems. The impossibility to totally accomplish our duties, increases the quantity of our moral duties and the realization of beauty sharpens our perception and presents even more motifs for artistic creation. The more men get next to the values, the bigger they walk away and last as unsolvable, unreachable problems not because they are fictitious but because they are inexhaustible and transcendent.