Ernst Wolfgang Orth (1936-2024)

Ernst Wolfgang Orth, professor emeritus of philosophy at University of Trier, has died.

The following obituary was written by Ralf Becker, Christian Bermes and Karl-Heinz Lembeck, and sent in by Simon Schüz.

Ernst Wolfgang Orth (1936-2024)
An Obituary

 Ernst Wolfgang Orth was born on August 9th, 1936. He died on March 1st of this year in his hometown of Trier at the age of 87.

Orth studied German, history, philosophy, and psychology at the universities of Mainz and Freiburg in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He obtained his doctorate in Mainz in 1965 with a thesis on the philosophy of language in Husserl and Hönigswald (published in 1967). From 1962 to 1970 he was an assistant to Gerhard Funke in Mainz. In 1970, he was appointed to the newly founded University of Trier, where he worked as Professor of Philosophy until his retirement as emeritus in 2001. During his active career, he held several visiting professorships at universities abroad (1983 Penn State, 1985 Ottawa, 1989 Milan, 1995 Graz, 1998 Kyoto). He was Vice President of the German Society for Phenomenological Research (DGPF) from 1978-1983 and President from 1983-1987 and President of the Max Scheler Society from 2007-2009. Finally, Mr. Orth was also Managing Director of the General Society for Philosophy in Germany from 1981-1988.

In terms of the history of philosophy, his research focused on the 19th and 20th centuries. In particular, he focused on the phenomenology of the early 20th century and the various strands of neo-Kantianism and Lebensphilosophie of the late 19th century. If one sought a problem- historical heading for Orth’s reading of the philosophy of this period, you could quote the title of one of his books: From Epistemology to the Philosophy of Culture (Von der Erkenntnistheorie zur Kulturphilosophie [1996]). This arch expresses the genesis of a philosophical question that offsets the loss of ultimate certainties of knowledge against the gain that the insight into the concrete conditions of human understanding of the world promises to give—even and especially when these conditions prove to be only provisionally stable because they are historically and culturally open.

Orth has drawn attention to the points of this development in many publications. Most of the positions he deals with can be understood as mediating models of transcendental and cultural philosophy. Orth traces such models—for instance, Husserl’s or Cassirer’s—back to an original dual motivation of transcendental philosophy. On the one hand, it has as its prerequisite the thematization of the human being, or more precisely: of human subjectivity. It relies on the fact that all knowledge of the world is knowledge in human consciousness and that this consciousness, for its part, is the only instance of which humans can authentically assure themselves. On the other hand, however, this human being as an essentially contingent variable is precisely what must be abstracted from in a quest for first principles. With Husserl, this is expressed in the idea of a ‘reduction’ to supposedly pure structures of consciousness; with Cassirer, it is exhibited in the uncovering of universal functions of reason. The human being therefore seems to be thematized as the starting point for transcendental reflection only to be immediately pushed aside again.

This ambivalence can obviously only be overcome if anthropology, within the framework of transcendental epistemology, does not present itself as an obstacle, but as a necessary perspective. And precisely this, as Ernst Wolfgang Orth attempts to demonstrate on many occasions, is an insight that not only Husserl and Cassirer each gained in their own way, but which was more or less clearly explicated by a large part of the philosophy of the epochs in question. The authoritative source of experience to which the transcendental question regarding the conditions of the possibility of knowledge has to resort is no less than the full, the whole human being. The anthropological philosophy of the 20th century, so the thesis goes, has its fundamental basis in the epistemology of the 19th century. This is not a reductive view, because anthropology is not understood here as an individual science, and because its findings are not only intended to serve as selective support for philosophical arguments—but because anthropology slips into the role of a first philosophy, which understands the human being both as the basis and the vanishing point of every possible orientation about the world, and also of every orientation about such an orientation, i.e. as the basis and vanishing point of philosophy itself.

The fact that such insights owe their existence to a very peculiar development of thought is proven by the fact that the aforementioned argument for a kind of ‘humanization of the transcendental subject’ was still decisively rejected in Orth’s early publications which warned against an overvaluation of anthropological claims in philosophy. Later, in 1990, however, what was once forbidden under penalty of law was even allowed to shine as the prominent title of one of his most important essays: Anthropology as First Philosophy (Anthropologie als erste Philosophie). Such challenging theses also led to Orth once being described as a philosopher of the ‘penultimate things’. This was certainly never meant disrespectfully, but was formulated in the light of his insight that transcendental questions about the conditions of our knowledge of the world do not lead to ultimate principles, but rather to the occasional conditions of our thinking, i.e. to the recognition of the historicity and culturality of human consciousness—entirely in the tradition of Dilthey, Husserl, or Cassirer. And these conditions are always only penultimate, because they can change, can be abandoned, can be joined by new ones. The normativity of orientation in the life-world then proves to be eminently fleeting. Philosophy, however, insofar as it has to provide orientation about such orientation on Orth’s conception, should only describe such norms and does not simply want to partake in them. In order to modify Husserl’s aperçu of a philosophy of finitude in the awareness of infinity, Ernst Wolfgang Orth’s philosophy can therefore perhaps be described as a ‘philosophy of penultimate things’, but in the awareness of the possibility and necessity of ultimate things as well.

Ralf Becker, Christian Bermes und Karl-Heinz Lembeck

German language version of the obituary

PhilPapers page for Ernst Wolfgang Orth

Wikipedia page for Ernst Wolfgang Orth

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments