The Budapest Dialogical School


The name and the basic position.

The official-sounding name “Budapest Dialogical School” in reality refers to a community of thinkers, poets, artists and scientists, who worked illegally for over fifty years. Its representatives stand for the primacy of the spirit and consequently reject all institutionalism. They were not allowed to publish either under the Nazi or the Bolshevik regimes. The two central figures of the community are Lajos Szabó (1902-1967) and Béla Tábor (1907-1992). Several others, whose names will feature in the historical sketch below, had stronger or weaker ties to the group.

The Budapest School advocates the primacy of the spirit and, within that, the primacy of the word. It considers both rationalism and irrationalism the decay products of the unitary spirit. It deems rationalism an overly narrow framework for investigating the real problems of the spirit. For the Latin “ratio” matches only a section of the meaning of the Greek “logos”. What is left out is what was translated into Latin as “verbum”: living speech, the personal word. The Logos, encompassing both ratio and verbum, is the space of seeking the truth. Truth is not an objective, but rather a subjective, dialogical relation. In this sense, the dialogical Budapest School is logocentric; it restates the eternal fundamental questions in the linguistic-intellectual context of the demythologizing Zeistgeist–the same questions that were asked by the Bible, by Plotinus, speculative gnosis and mysticism, classical German philosophy, Kierkegaard and dialogical thinkers, and on the other hand by avantgarde artists and researchers of the foundations of mathematics.


1. The Beginning.

Lajos Szabó, the founder of the school, started out as a Marxist. The twenties found him studying at the Institut für Sozialforschung in Frankfurt, and under Karl Korsch in Berlin. Returning to Budapest, he became––alongside Pál Justus, Pál Partos and Andor Szirtes––one of the intellectual leaders of the Hungarian anti-Bolshevik and anti-capitalist Marxist oppositional movement. Here he met Tábor in 1930.

The meeting between Szabó and Tábor itself is emblematic, and arks out their future horizon. Ádám Tábor, son of Béla Tábor describes it in his essay Concourse at the centre:

“In the autumn of 1930, Béla Tábor was taken by his friend, the excellent Georgist social researcher Andor Szirtes, to a lecture held by Lajos Szabó at the Jaurès Circle, which was operating under the unofficial aegis of the Social Democratic Party. Some 2-300 young people––Korschist oppositionists, leftist students, Trotskyists and communists alike––were trying to follow the then Marxist thinker's argumentation on matters of religious history. When the lecture ended, Béla Tábor asked to talk from the back, and summed up the lecture in the following words: "If I'm not mistaken, according to the lecturer religion is revolution and the Church is counterrevolution." Lajos Szabó jerked up his head and vividly called back over the stuffed room: "That is exactly what I wanted to say!" This is how their life-long close friendship and work relationship of nearly a quarter of a century began.”

By the 1930s, the path followed by Szabó és Tábor had departed completely from the Marxist movement. Taking as his starting point Korsch' sentence “Socialism, both in its ends and in its means, is a struggle to realize freedom” (Karl Korsch, 1930), Béla Tábor writes in his essay Socialism, gnosis and opposition, “The two of us with Lajos Szabó,

based on the principle of the inseparability of ends and means (as we also declared in our critique of Marxism in “Indictment...”) were willing to accept freedom only in its continuously spiritualised form as freedom. Accordingly, we considered the efforts for freedom as understood by the socialist (and even more so, the liberal) movements only as self-deception or camouflaged attempts at oppression. Already at its start, i.e. during its esoteric-Marxist phase, the Opposition regarded the Marxist differentiation of theory and ideology to be its basic methodological principle. It used the adjective “leftist” [...] in the following interpretation: a position is more “to the left” if it enforces more radically theory against ideology. Theory for Marx means researching the truth, whereas ideology refers to a “false mindset”, that is a “mindset” that serves the interests of a particular power (for Marx: a particular class). The spiritual Opposition [...] set itself the challenge to cut away the ideological shell to get to the theoretical core, in all manifestations of the thinking spirit (that is why its intellectual sensitivity increased more and more). However, it used this criterion also to Marxism itself, and therefore increasingly distanced itself from Marxism.”

Measured against the idea of this spritual freedom, they critically re-evaluate not only German classical philosophy, the immediate philosophical environment of Marxism, but also the entire European, Greek and Hindu philosphical tradition. Searching for the theoreticians who best represent for them this idea of freedom, they get to Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and assimilate Johann Georg Hamann and Pascal; they are also deeply influenced by Plotinus, as well as the Medieval speculative mystics, above all Meister Eckhart. They get acqainted with the gnosis of Jenő Henrik Schmitt, via his student Ferenc Kepes. They finally arrive at the word-centric Biblicism of the dialogical thinkers: Ferdinand Ebner, Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber, who, criticising the I- and/or it-philosophies, put the I-Thou-word relationship in the centre.

They are joined in this work by Zoltán Békefi. Szabó's friendship to the painter Lajos Vajda also dates from this time. (Click here for some documents about their friendship in Hungarian.) His disciples include the poet and art historian Stefánia Mándy, later author of the first monograph on Vajda; Endre Bíró, later biochemist and translator of Joyce, and Magdolna Kertész.

2. Writings from the 1930s

In 1936, Szabó and Tábor jointly publish their pamphlet Indictment against the spirit, timed to appear for the Budapest conference of the League of Nations Committee on Intellectual Collaboration. According to them, the precondition of Intellectual Collaboration is the removal of the Chinese Walls which separate the autonomous islands of intellectual life from each other on the one hand, and the intellectual elite from the masses on the other. Therefore they sharply criticize the autarky, epigonism, confusion of tongues and terminologism rampant within intellectual circles, and the most influential philosophical movements of their time, which they all deem to be based on autarky: Marxism (and its subdiscipline Fascism), psychoanalysis, positivism and sociology, reserving praise for existentialism only. They follow the method of “first appreciate, then attack”. In Marxism, they value the fact that it sets the highest intellectual aims for the most oppressed, most suffering, and thus it stands for the alliance of thinking and suffering both theoretically and practically. At the same time, they criticise not only Marxism, but also Marx himself for trying to achieve the spiritual aims by non-spiritual means.

Marx' own personal conduct became an illustration of the impossibility of his practical method: the fact that with despiritualized methods, it is not possible to spiritualize––only to despiritualize. It is possible that using the materialist phraseology, Marx only wanted to speak in its own language to capitalism––which of course includes the proletariat as well as the capitalists––but even if so, he forgot his own mother tongue in the process.

(See Szabó's thoughts on Marx here and here, in Hungarian.) Already in this work, they opt for an existentialism for which

“existence” means the existence of the absolute personal position (where “absolute” and “personal” are equally important: existence resides in the polarity of these two).

The absolute personal position means the relationship of “I” and “Thou”, “the mutual presumption between the I-Thou reationship and language, the word”. Language, the word therefore has an “existence-determining, cosmic significance”. They throw further light on their position quoting Rilke's poem beginning Wenn es nur einmal so ganz stille wäre as well as some thoughts of Ferdinand Ebner.

In 1937 Lajos Szabó publishes the first part of The logic of faith – Theocentric logic.

Béla Tábor, who had set out as a writer of short stories before meeting Szabó, some of them published, starts working on his main work Introduction to the prehistory of reality around this time. In 1939, after the first Hungarian anti-Jewish laws, he writes and publishes his book The Two Ways of Jewry with the aim of intellectually mobilizing the Hungarian Jewry. As he writes in his epilogue to the 1990 second edition, his aim was to shake up the Hungarian Jewry from its torpidity, from a form of life which was overshadowed by the constant fear of being threatened.

For this, öne needed to make them aware of the internal––and by its nature esoteric––content of Judaism, make them realize its special and subtle position within Western culture and the challenges that follow from this. One needed to confront their self-pity and self-righteousness […] The high expectations, asking the Hungarian Jewry to measure its behaviour, acts and value-judgements not on others' faults but its own recognized historical responsibility, were meant to raise of a generation of Jews who rely on self-knowledge, who are self-conscious and strict with themselves.

He interprets the Jewish religion as the religion of the sacrifice, where sacrifice means creating a higher value from a lower value against the resistance of the material.

At the beginning of the 1940s, Szabó writes his essay Bible and romanticism, in which he characterises the romantic era as follows:

Works, experiments, fragments: an extremely condensed debut of poets, artists and thinkers. They started to excavate universal paths and wanted to pick up the thread of tradition.

But while

Biblical personalities, characters or messengers retain solidarity with each other over space and time, […] say yes to each other and the jointly followed path, the artists of the romantic period are characterised by not-knowing-about-each-other, not-continuing-each-others'-work, not-saying-yes-to-each-other.

Szabó sometimes calls his position “linguistic materialism”, and from this standpoint he re-evaluates the central questions of the foundations of mathematics (“Grundlagenforschung”), questions which generated a lot of debate at the time. His first writing on set theory is from 1938.

Both Szabó and Tábor were taken to concentration camps, but fortunately survived.

3. After 1945

The foundations of the Budapest Dialogical School were laid in 1945–48. In these years, Szabó and Tábor were closely associated with the writer and essayist Béla Hamvas, as well as the philosopher of art Lajos Fülep. Intensive collaboration with Hamvas started as soon as the end of 1945. Their regular conversations became known as “Thursday Conversations”, attended also by Stefánia Mándy (at this point, already Tábor's wife) and Katalin Kemény (Hamvas' wife).

Between 1945-48, Szabó held regular lectures in private. He discussed the theory and psychology of values, the critique of set theory, language mathesis and the theory of signs. In his analyses he assimilates both the pre-philosophical situation (e.g. the Indian tradition and the pre-Socratics) and the post-philosophical situation, the critique of philosophy and religion offered by Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Dostoyevsky. The most active participants of the discussions were Attila Kotányi and György Kunszt (both students of architecture at that time), who also made detailed notes of the lectures. (The texts of the lectures could only be published in 1997. For some excerpts in English, click here. The text in Hungarian see here.) Frequent attendees included Endre Bíró and Gábor Bíró. Later the mathematician János Surányi joined in to the discussions on the theory of science and mathematics.

Szabó actively participated in the programmes of the “Európai Iskola” (“European School”). This group of Hungarian avant-garde artists and theorists was formed in 1945, and banned by the Stalinist authorities in 1948. Some of its members, such as the painter Júlia Vajda, her husband József Jakovits, the first surrealist sculptor, the painter Ilka Gedő (the wife of Endre Bíró), a disciple and friend of Lajos Vajda, Endre Bálint and his wife, Iri Richter remained active participants in the theoretical discussions led by Szabó and Tábor. They conducted significant, clarifying debates on the relationship between word and image, on the question of “the primacy of word versus the primacy of image”, as well as “the primacy of word versus the primacy of number”.

Szabó himself became a calligrapher. He left for Western Europe with some of his followers in 1956, and lived in Brussels and Düsseldorf. He had exhibitions in several cities including Brussels, Paris, Dusseldorf and Essen. Many of his drawings he signed with the sign AO, his alias in the movement, which stands for Anti-Organization. This sign later became a visual symbol in his work.

Béla Tábor remained in Budapest after 1956. During the four decades of Soviet occupation, he held seminars in his apartment. His students included poets, writers, painters, art historians, architects and scholars alike. Alongside his own continuous intellectual work, Tábor considered the intense personal and theoretical conversations with them his most important activity. These conversations usually originated from artistic or other personal problems, and gradually expanded to approach a broader range of questions. Tábor could always give a theoretical depth to the questions on hand, which simultaneously enhanced personal involvement. Meanwhile, he was continuously working on his pneumatology: his theory of personality, logos and symbols. Once the dictatorship fell, his older books and a few of his more recent writings were published. In 2003, some of his hitherto unpublished essays were collected in the volume Personality and logos.

László Surányi––Ádám Tábor, translated by Balázs Szendrői


Homepage of Lajos Szabó

The calligraphies of Lajos Szabó from the years 1957-1967, a selection with some further information

The homepage of Béla Tábor (not yet available)

The homepage of László Surányi (not yet available)

Works in English

Lajos SZABÓ, A short summary of Szabó's theory of signs

Lajos SZABÓ, Will – critic of criticismThe logic of faith, Chapter VI, translated by Christophe Kotányi (not yet available)

Lajos SZABÓ, Sign and imageThe logic of faith, Chapter VII, translated by Christophe Kotányi and István Cziegler

Lajos SZABÓ, Mammonism – a natural history, translated by István Cziegler

Lajos SZABÓ, Lead or follow
(Shorter writings/1, translated by István Cziegler)
On Philosophy
On Kant

Lajos SZABÓ, “The intersection between the vast forces of theism and atheism”
(shorter writings/2, translated by István Cziegler)
Contributions to the role of scientific socialism and to its unknown features (1936-1938)
Some remarks on the criticism of Marxism (1934)

Béla TÁBOR, The two paths of Jewry
Chapter III. (What is Jewry?)
Chapter IV. (On the Ten Commandments)

translated by István Cziegler

Béla TÁBOR, Epilogue to the second edition of The two paths of Jewry
translated by Pál Hegedüs and Jessica Sacks

Béla TÁBOR, On Yom Kippur – a section from his Logos and Metalogos
translated by István Cziegler

Ádám TÁBOR, Concourse at the centre
translated by Dániel Sipos

Lajos VAJDA, 10 paintings, introduction by Stefánia MÁNDY (English-German-French-Hungarian)
Corvina, Budapest, 1971.

László SURÁNYI, Szabadság és geometria: logosz és ananké harca a geometriában (Freedom and geometry: the struggle of logos and ananke in the geometry) – Short summary in English

“Axiomatics is poetry: the weighing of words” –
Lectures and informal discussion on the works of Lajos Szabó
8th November 2011, Eger, Ars GEometrica

Works in German

Lajos SZABÓ, Seminarvorlesungen I. Psychologie, die Vorlesung von 13.11.1946., übersetzt von ?

EIKWN, Die spekulativen grafischen Bildschriften von Lajos SZABÓ (mit seinen theoretischen Schriften, ungarisch-deutsch), hrsg. von Attila KOTÁNYI
Ernst Museum, Budapest, 1997.

Béla TÁBOR, Nachwort zur zweiten Ausgabe der Zwei Wegen des Judentums, übersetzt von Madeleine Merán

Béla TÁBOR, Lajos Szabós spekulative Zeichenkunst

László SURÁNYI, Metaaxiomatische Probleme, übersetzt von Madeleine Merán
Harri Deutsch, Thun und Frankfurt – Typotex, Budapest, 1999.

László SURÁNYI, Descartes, Bolyai, Lobatschewskij und die Zurückführung der Geometrie zu ihrer subjektiven Wurzel, übersetzt von Madeleine Merán
in: Jenseits von Kunst, hrsg. P. Weibel, Passagen Verlag é.n. 614-617.

Lajos VAJDA, 10 Bilder, Geleitwort von Stefánia MÁNDY (deutsch-englisch-französisch-ungarisch)
Corvina, Budapest, 1971.

Works in French

Béla TÁBOR: Judaïsme professionnel ou vision juive du monde ?

Lajos VAJDA, 10 tableaux reproduits, préface de Stefánia MÁNDY (francais-anglais-allemand-hongrois)
Corvina, Budapest, 1971.

MÁNDY Stefánia, bálint [=Bálint Endre]
Desclée de Brouwer, 1967.

Danielle PINKSTEIN, Le Passage*

Miklós ABÉRT, The voice of Bela Tabor*

* written for the meeting “Béla Tábor's 100th anniversary” held at Budapest Museum of Literature in 2007

Music in memory of Béla TÁBOR

Works played on the 100th anniversary:
György KURTÁG, For Stefánia Mándy, in memory of Béla Tábor, András Kemenes, piano
János BALI For Béla Tábor
To listen to a part of this work sung by Zoltán Mizsei click here

For a detailed bibliography of the works in Hungarian click here

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