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Opening Remarks by Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen at the Ceremony “35 Years Institute for Human Sciences”

06.11.2017 | Reden

"For many years, I have been following the activities of this Small Giant, and I would like to express my deep respect to all those who have contributed to its success."

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my great pleasure to welcome you all at the Hofburg, more precisely at the Geheime Ratsstube, the Privy Councillors’ Chamber, where prominent talks and meetings have been taking place for centuries.

Tonight’s ceremony also serves intellectual exchange – and it does so in honour of a very special occasion: the 35th anniversary of the Institute for Human Sciences.

I am grateful to welcome tonight’s keynote speaker, Professor Michael Ignatieff, who agreed to step into the breach for Professor Ira Katznelson.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

 “35 Years Institute for Human Sciences”. This anniversary inevitably brings one particular topic to mind: refugees or “flows of refugees” – as it would be commonly called today in those somewhat impersonal terms.

35 years ago, in 1982, 120,000 to 150,000 refugees came to Austriaafter martial law had been declared in Poland shortly before.

It was precisely around that time that an intellectual, who also came from Poland, made a dream come true.

He founded an institute for advanced study in Vienna, a Princeton for social and human sciences, as one could call it a bit ambitiously.

This Polish philosopher was Krzysztof Michalski, barely 34 years old at the time. Just as ambitious were his plans, which is perfectly legitimate at that age.

 This marks the beginning of stunningly exciting times:


  • Within a very brief time, he and his colleagues manage to find financial supporters and bring the first visiting fellows to Vienna.
  • Soon after, Pope John Paul II from Poland becomes aware of the Institute and starts the tradition of the annual Castel Gandolfo Talks, which he hosts for 16 years;
  • the legendary Jan Pato?ka Memorial Lectures bring some of the most renowned philosophers to Vienna, from Hans-Georg Gadamer to Charles Taylor, Jacques Derrida or Paul Ricœur; 
  • and the equally legendary Wednesday Club gathers personalities, some of whom were later to pursue remarkable careers: such as Joschka Fischer, Angela Merkel or the young Hungarian bearer of hope Victor Orbán, then vice-chairman of the Liberal International…. 

Times have truly changed since then. Not only are the former Eastern-bloc countries now fully fledged members of the European Union.

The challenges faced by the international community as well as by each and every one of us have also changed fundamentally over these past 35 years.

Threats have become more global; technological possibilities have undergone phenomenal growth; the human genome has been deciphered; the existence of the Higgs particle has been proven.

We are facing forms of communication and opinion-shaping processes that were at best dreamt of in the 1980s; and our political form of liberal, western democracy is increasingly coming under pressure.

Only the exploitation of our planet continues to advance steadily, and is downplayed just as steadily, time and time again.

These changes, however, occurring at an ever-faster pace, require critical reflection and debate, fact-based analysis, as it is called nowadays, and an exchange of rational arguments.

It is the merit of the Institute for Human Sciences that for the past 35 years, it has been offering a space where all of this is not only possible but takes place at the highest level.

16 fellowship programs, 1,300 fellows since its inception, and over 200 events per year are just three indicators that can serve to outline the Institute’s extraordinary active engagement.

For many years, I have been following the activities of this Small Giant, and I would like to express my deep respect to all those who have contributed to its success.

Your achievements have been truly remarkable, and you have significantly enriched the intellectual map of Vienna, nay, even of Austria and Europe.

I would like to extend my heartfelt congratulations and wish the Institute for Human Sciences all the best for the future.