German-speaking Philosophers – Portraits

Reason and the World. Ernst Tugendhat’s 80th Birthday

Ernst Tugendhat; © Lorenz ViereckeErnst Tugendhat; © Lorenz ViereckeWhy is there something rather than nothing? Why does the world exist? Ernst Tugendhat has never ceased wondering about such astonishing questions. Yet surprisingly he is one of the leading representatives of analytical philosophy in Germany. This philosophy focuses on the rational analysis of particular problems. It not only attempts to achieve clarity of language, but also analyzes the language of such problems.

Its model is physics. Following Gottlob Frege, it uses above all the instrument of logic. For Bertrand Russell, it founder, the philosopher can accurately grasp the world logically and linguistically down to the smallest detail. Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his early work Tractatus logico-philosophicus (1921), assumes that a simple sentence reflects and represents a state-of-affairs exactly as does a picture. This school believes that in order to develop a really clear language, it must say goodbye to that profound-sounding language which was employed in the twentieth century especially by Martin Heidegger.

It was by reading Heidegger’s famous early work, Being and Time (1927), in the second half of the 1940s that Ernst Tugendhat, born on March 8, 1930, developed an interest in philosophy. In 1938, the persecution of the Jews forced him and his family to flee Germany, first to Switzerland and then to Venezuela. In 1946, he began his university studies at Stanford in the United States and then transferred, as soon as this was possible after the war, to Freiburg to study with Heidegger. At the time, he saw this move as a gesture of reconciliation. Later he came to regret it as disrespectful towards the victims of the Holocaust.

Turn to analytical philosophy

At the heart of Heidegger’s thought is the question of the meaning of being, that is, the question about what it means that something is. From the outset, Tugendhat sought ways of thinking different from that of Heidegger. In 1956, however, he received his doctorate for a dissertation on a subject in Aristotle that was not yet so far removed from his teacher’s concerns, namely how we can say “something about something”. But he developed a scepticism especially towards Heidegger’s idea of truth, which is not based on the separation of “true” from “false”. For Tugendhat, truth concerns the demarcation of right from wrong thinking, which enables thought to be expressed clearly rather than obscurely.

It should therefore hardly be surprising that Tugendhat, during his stay in the United States in the 1960s, turned to analytical philosophy, which had little time for Heidegger’s way of thinking. Thus Tugendhat joined the philosophical mainstream not only in the Anglophone world; in Germany, too, analytical philosophy dominates the scene in the humanities and its exponents sit in many of the chairs of philosophy.

Unlike most professors, Tugendhat welcomed the student unrest in the sixties, not least because too many people at the universities (though not only there) still repressed the Nazi past. He taught at the start in Heidelberg and in the seventies conducted research together with Jürgen Habermas at the Max Planck Institute in Starnberg. He then taught at the Free University of Berlin and in the nineties went to Chile. It was in these decades that he wrote many of his fundamental works – for instance, Introduction to Analytical Philosophy (Vorlesungen zur Einführung in die sprachanalytische Philosophie / 1976), now a standard work. In Ethik und Politik (1992) (Ethics and Politics), he developed a nuanced theory of ethics. Since 1999, he has been an honorary professor at the University of Tübingen, where he habilitated in the sixties.

Wonder: the origin of philosophy

Does Tugendhat owe his continued wonder about being to that fascination which drew him to Heidegger? That would itself be rather surprising, for his present judgment of Being and Time is devastating. In the last ten years, Tugendhat has rather come to grips with religion, and not only as a object of sociological interest, as it is for Habermas, who has studied the relation of religion and morality without himself developing a curiosity about religion.

In 2003 Tugendhat published an anthropological study entitled Egozentrizität und Mystik (Egocentricity and Mysticism). He freely confesses his need for faith. Mysticism teaches man to practice a detachment from himself so that he can again develop that wonder about the world which is the origin of philosophy. Such an attitude of mind need not abolish egocentricity, but it reflects upon and transforms it so that it becomes acceptable to others.

Isn’t this in turn all the more astonishing? Didn’t the great pioneers of analytical philosophy openly avow their atheism? Bertrand Russell’s 1927 lecture “Why I Am Not A Christian” ruined the philosopher’s reputation in the United States. Yet there were also believers among the founders of the movement; the Catholic Wittgenstein, for example, separated the sayable from the unsayable.

Natural foundations of reason

Both positions are united by the self-assurance of possessing the right views against the philosophical competition. In his Anthropologie statt Metaphysik (2007; Anthropology Instead of Metaphysics), Tugendhat then accepts nobody in the philosophical tradition except Plato and Aristotle. This doesn’t lead to many certainties, but rather to questioning the whole philosophical competition.

For Tugendhat, there is no absolute standpoint in philosophy. Instead, his philosophical anthropology enquires after the naturally given foundations of reason. It holds that the specific characteristic of man is the capacity to express states-of-affairs in language and to give grounds for action. Thus the clear factual question remains the focus of his philosophizing. He encourages in this way contemporary philosophy’s prevailing tendency to retreat from grand theories and questions about the whole. Yet these then remain beyond what can be concretely said, as the Unsayable. So it is not surprising if Tugendhat continues himself to be astonished by the world and being as a whole.

Hans-Martin Schönherr-Mann
is an Essayist and Professor for Political Philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich and Professor for the philosophy of Science at the Leopold Franzens University of Innsbruck.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
April 2010

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