Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe
The Schmooze

From the Tribe of Prophets: Swiss Jewish Philosopher Jeanne Hersch at 100

Although her centenary is not until July 13, the Swiss Jewish philosopher Jeanne Hersch (1910-2000) is already being remembered as a gimlet-eyed defender of freedom.

Born in Geneva to a Polish Jewish statistics professor and his doctor wife, Hersch studied with the philosopher Karl Jaspers, whose career suffered in Germany after 1933 because his own wife was Jewish. Hersch and a fellow student, Hannah Arendt, were among Jasper’s most devoted disciples. Hersch later taught philosophy and worked at UNESCO, and though she remained less famous than Arendt outside of academic circles, she could make waves.

This was demonstrated last July when an exhibit was named in her honor in a Geneva park near the office of the controversial U.N. official Jean Ziegler, who Hersch derided as early as the 1970s, opposing his appointment to the University of Geneva sociology faculty: “Ziegler owes his entire university career to political pressures—going almost to the point of blackmail…he is interested neither in accuracy nor truth,” Hersch wrote. Hersch’s well-founded fears later came back to haunt observers of world politics.

Beyond her writings, mostly untranslated, like “Philosophical Astonishment: a history of philosophy” (“L’Étonnement philosophique: Une histoire de la philosophie”) and “Total Requirement of Freedom: Texts on Human Rights” (“L’exigence absolue de la liberté, Textes sur les droits humains (1973-1995),”) Hersch is esteemed as a literary muse. As her biographer Emmanuel Dufour-Kowalski notes in “Jeanne Hersch,” she had an especial influence on Nobel prize-winning poet Czesław Miłosz, who shared Corsican holidays as Hersch’s sometime lover.

Miłosz’s poem “What I Learned from Jeanne Hersch”, in his “New and Collected Poems” enumerates a dozen lessons, including “7. That intellectuals in the twentieth century were afflicted with the habit of baratin, i.e., irresponsible jabber.” In “The Year of the Hunter” Miłosz (who also wrote a poem “A Conversation With Jeanne”) further describes Hersch, who disapproved of the poet’s drinking and partying: “It would not be easy today to find another person as consumed by moral passion as she was. From the tribe of prophets… I was afraid of her… Jeanne was doomed to isolation, because everyone was afraid of her. That air was so morally pure it couldn’t be breathed.”

On Jeanne Hersch’s centenary, we may all be grateful for that pure air.

To see what Czesław Miłosz was afraid of, watch a Swiss TV interview about philosophy with Jeanne Hersch here.

Engage

  • SHARE YOUR FEEDBACK

  • UPCOMING EVENT

    SKY & SCULPTURE

    Hybrid: Online and at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan

    Oct 2, 2022

    6:30 pm ET · 

    A Sukkah, IMKHA, created by artist Tobi Kahn, for the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan is an installation consisting of 13 interrelated sculpted painted wooden panels, constituting a single work of art. Join for a panel discussion with Rabbi Joanna Samuels, Chief Executive Director of the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan, Talya Zax, Innovation Editor of the Forward, and Tobi Kahn, Artist. Moderated by Mattie Kahn.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.