Obituary and Commendation Professor Dr. phil. habil. Fritz Wenisch

This obituary was published in Aemaet No. 9, 2020.

On January 30, 2020, a wonderful man, dear friend, and important philosopher, still to be discovered and recognized more widely, Professor Fritz Wenisch, left us, and entered the true, immortal and eternal life he was always convinced of as a philosopher, and believed in and hoped for as a Catholic Christian.

I wish to express here my deeply felt condolences to his widow Resia (Theresia) Wenisch, his children Dr. Michael Wenisch and wife Michelle, Dr. Magdalena Andres and husband Frank, and Dr. Thomas Wenisch and wife Shannon, and to his grand children; to his brothers, Dr. Berhard Wenisch and wife Waltraud, and Johannes Wenisch; and sisters Lilli Wenisch, Pia Crosby and husband Dr. John Crosby with their children, and Gertrud Wenisch, now Sr. Freude Maria.

Biography in brief

Born in Austria (Neunkirchen/Lower Austria), Dr. Wenisch grew up in Hallein and Salzburg. He attended part of his Elementary School (Übungsschule) and his first four High School years at the Academic Highschool (Prep school) Borromäum, both in Salzburg, Austria. After this, he attended the Teacher Training College ( Bundeslehrerbildungsanstalt ); likewise in Salzburg. From 1964-1968, he studied philosophy at the University of Salzburg. In 1968, he received his Doctorate in Philosophy.

From 1966-68, he served in a position corresponding to Graduate Assistant (linked to the Chair of Professor Balduin Schwarz) and from 1968-1971 as Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department of the newly founded University of Salzburg.

He started his teaching career at the University of Rhode Island in 1971, first as Assistant Professor, then as Associate Professor, and finally as Full Professor of Philosophy. In 1975 he received his “Habilitation” from the University of Salzburg and earned the rank of a Privatdozent.

Spanning almost half a century, from 1971 to 2019, Fritz Wenisch has been teaching taught at the University of Rhode Island. From 1974-1991, he served as Philosophy Department Chair.

Fritz Wenisch as Personality

Before discussing his merits as a philosopher, I wish to say a few words about the remarkable personality of Fritz, who was one of my best and most faithful friends from 1953 on, when we attended the same elementary school.

Everything about him was original: his appearance and facial expression, his voice, his extraordinary sense of humor, his wit and quick-wittedness, his many poems written in his unique style, his way of acting as the teacher Wampl in Johann Nestroy’s comedy Die schlimmen Buben in der Schule (the bad boys in school), his mode of philosophizing and publishing philosophical writings. In all of these activities he was, more than any other person I knew, with the exception of Dietrich von Hildebrand - who was also quite unique and original -, unmistakably “Fritz”.

Fritz was a very loving, tender husband, who, until a few days from his death, woke up his wife Resia every morning with a loving poem he had composed for her the previous evening.

Fritz was also a very faithful and loving friend, who, though we had been separated in space from our 25th birthday on, for over half a century (we saw each other only now and then), always sent me birthday messages, in the form of poems and rhymes, the last one just three weeks before his death (my birthday is January 6th and I am just two months younger than Fritz). I will put his poem here in the original German and, though it is hardly translatable, in English, because this poem and the fact that he wrote it just three weeks before his death, captures his warm and kind personality beautifully:

Lieber Josef!
Die Jahre eilen—eins, zwei, drei—
An uns schon sehr geschwind vorbei.
Schon wieder ist es jetzt so weit:
Es ist für mich die höchste Zeit,
Herzlichst zu gratulieren Dir,
Da nun Dein Alter gleichet mir:
Ja, fünfundsiebzig—eine Frist,
Die ehrwürdig als Alter ist.
So wünsche ich Dir jetzt das Beste
Zu diesem schönen, großen Feste.
Mög’ Gott Dir Seinen Segen schenken,
Und Dich auf Deinen Wegen lenken.
Vielen, vielen herzlichen Dank für das ausgezeichnete und hochinteressante Buch Christian Philosophy and Free Will.
Da ich jetzt komme an das Ende,
Noch einen Gruß ich schnell Dir sende.
Dein steinalter Freund

Dear Josef!
The years hurry on - one, two, three-
they pass us very rapidly.
Again, it is already due:
*High time for me, to send to you Congratulations,
Now that your age is like mine:
Yes, seventy-five-,
Which is a venerable age.
So now I wish you the best
To this big, beautiful Feast.
May God give you His blessing,
And guide you in your ways.
Many, many thanks for the excellent and highly interesting book Christian Philosophy and Free Will.
Now that I am coming to the end,
Quickly one more greeting I send.
Your stone age friend

Without recording here the many pranks he played on his high school teachers and friends, I just want to mention two examples of his occasionally slightly sharp but also charming sense of humor.

For example, he advised an American student who was in Salzburg to learn German and lived in his apartment, that when she was invited for dinner in an elegant home, and had eaten enough, she should simply say what a polite guest ought to say, namely: “Danke, mir graust bereits” (Thank you, I am disgusted already).

In a similar vein, he asked our, at that moment heavily smoking, high school teacher on an excursion whether he knew the difference between a hay wagon and a cigarette. When the teacher hesitated how to answer this question and confessed his lack of finding the right answer, Fritz said: The ox draws the hay wagon from up front, in the case of the cigarette, in contrast, the ox draws from the back.

Fritz was a noble person, always ready to help, very humble and modest, almost effacing himself in an unobtrusive way. He was a man without any streak of arrogance or pompousness but always very polite, patient and kind in discussions. In philosophical discussions we had regularly from high school on in my parents’ home, or during joint vacations in the castle Goldegg near Salzburg, he made always intelligent observations, asked excellent question, immersed himself deeply in reading and understanding the Ethics and other books by Dietrich von Hildebrand and other authors. Together with his elder brother Bernhard and his younger brother Johannes and three sisters, the early deceased Maria (Mirli), Lilli, Pia (now Mrs. Crosby) and Gerti, now religious sister in a convent in France, we passed during several years wonderful vacation times together, read with Fritz’s father Ernst comedies of Johann Nestroy which made his father laugh so much that often he could not continue reading. Later, Fritz was a very good actor of the Salzburger Zimmertheater.

Fritz was also a deeply religious person who prayed the Breviary every day in his later years, and received the last sacraments before his death.

His death occurred rather unexpectedly, after a brief illness. He died peacefully in the presence of his family and accompanied by their prayers.

I am confident that his soul entered without delay into paradise.

Fritz Wenisch as a Member of the School of Phenomenological Realism

The school of which Wenisch was an important representative and that numbered such philosophers as Max Scheler, Adolf Reinach, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Edith Stein, Hedwig Conrad-Martius, Roman Ingarden, and many others among its members, has been called “phenomenological realism”.

The name seems complicated, but the matter is simple: As a form of realism, the movement acknowledges that there is a mind-independent reality (a “Thing-in-Itself”) which the human mind can, to a certain extent at least, recognize the way it really is (pace Immanuel Kant).

“Phenomenological” is derived from the Greek word “phainomenon,” meaning in this context “What shows itself”, or: as Heidegger put it in one of his few fortunate expressions, “that which shows itself from itself”. In other words, this school follows the call of the early Husserl, the founder of the phenomenological movement: “Back to Things Themselves.” This maxim invites the philosopher to look at all things and their essences open to what they are themselves and abstaining from all varieties of intellectual constructions and “reductionisms” that falsify things themselves.

Reductionists – under many names and hyperactive in many psychological and philosophical movements – interpret the nature of things, at least in part, contrary to what they themselves really are. They call love nothing other than just a form of “sublimated sexual libido”, the moral virtue of justice just a resentment of the weak against the strong (a reductionism found in Callicles of Plato’s Gorgias or in Friedrich Nietzsche). They reduce a person just to a bundle of perceptions (David Hume), or to an epiphenomenon of brain-processes, promises just to declarations of the will that produce expectations of their fulfillment or to language games; they call free will an illusion, whereas in reality our decisions would be determined by material forces, by history, early childhood experiences, or by God who would predetermine us.

None of these and countless other reductionist philosophies do justice to “things themselves.” Thus, they are bad philosophies. For the purpose of all true philosophy ought to be, and is quite explicitly recognized as such in phenomenological realism, a “return to things themselves.”

Thus, the philosophical movement to which Wenisch belonged places an investigation on what is immediately given, on what presents itself in its own identity to the human mind, at the starting point and at the center of philosophical investigations.

Dr. Wenisch belonged to this very important phenomenological movement and school of philosophy that goes back to Edmund Husserl’s publication Logical Investigations (1900/01), who, with this work, became the father of the phenomenological movement, separating clearly the eternal laws of logic, whose truth and validity is the condition of any truth and science, from mere subjective necessities of human thinking, and thereby laid the foundations for any refutation of relativism and skepticism.

But phenomenological realism, after 1905/1913, separated radically from its father Husserl’s later transcendental turn, a version of phenomenology that became highly constructive, left the given urphenomena far behind, and was more akin to Kant than to Husserl’s own Logical Investigations with their marked objectivism and refutation of relativism of any sort including the Kantian one.

After their break with his new turn to subjectivity, Husserl called the Göttingen and Munich schools of realist phenomenology.

In reality, the phenomenological realists have been the true followers and developers of Husserl’s thought and among them are his most prominent students and colleagues: Adolf Reinach, Max Scheler, Roman Ingarden, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Alexandre Koyré, Edith Stein, Hedwig Conrad-Martius and others. They carried out in a very superior form the call to return to things themselves. They returned to the objective values and to the absolute, non-relative logical principles and truths, whose intrinsic necessity is wholly independent of the human mind and equally valid for angels and for God Himself, as Husserl had so forcefully stressed in Logical Investigations. Husserl has shown that these eternal and necessary laws, as those found in logic, cannot be accounted for by a Kantian or psychologistic “subjective necessity of human thinking” and are in no way constituted by human subjectivity, a position Husserl later abandoned, at least partly.

The phenomenological realists continued and perfected this original Husserlian objectivism, while Husserl’s later philosophy is more akin to German idealism based on the Copernican turn to the subject that considers itself the source of all intentional objects and as world-constituting. In this respect, phenomenological realism and philosophy of necessary and timeless essences of many things is incomparably more akin to Plato than to Husserl.

The call to return to “things themselves” was masterfully put in action by Adolf Reinach’s philosophy of the A priori in Civil Law , by Hildebrand’s epistemology and ethics, and by other phenomenological realists, who rejected Husserl’s and many others’ relapse into Kant-inspired German Idealism and transcendental relativism.

Other phenomenological realists, in a deep encounter with Aristotle and Aquinas, as well as after exchanges and debates with “existentialist Thomists”, rediscovered also the fundamental role of esse (being and existing) as distinct from essence for reality and as object of philosophical knowledge, and thus overcame, while fully maintaining the philosophy of necessary essences and of an objective a priori characteristic of phenomenological realism, a certain “essentialism” found in early realist phenomenologists.

Realist phenomenologists are thus the true heirs of the maxim “back to things themselves” that has been largely obscured by the later complicated constructions of transcendental (Husserl) and the unintelligible thoughts and word-creations of existential phenomenology (Heidegger).

The most significant contributions of Wenisch as member of this school that he absorbed as one of the 3 or four most brilliant students of Balduin Schwarz, in his turn a student of Dietrich von Hildebrand and first chairman and full Professor of the philosophy department of the University of Salzburg, are his doctoral thesis, in which Wenisch explores and argues intelligently for the objectivity of values, and his habilitation thesis on the method of philosophy, in which he develops further the insights of the Magna Charta of realist phenomenology: Hildebrand’s What Is Philosophy, which Wenisch translated back into German and whose German edition was revised and augmented by Hildebrand himself.

Wenisch contributed also later important explanations of the core of phenomenological realism and its method. Still regarding his work as a significant member of phenomenological realism, he contributed to a volume dedicated to Balduin Schwarz as Festschrift .

As far as the history of philosophy is concerned, Dr. Wenisch was particularly interested in examining thinkers belonging to the movement just described, especially the contributions of Dietrich von Hildebrand. In systematic philosophy, his interests centered on ethics, theory of knowledge, and philosophy of religion.

Fritz Wenisch as an original philosopher of his own who made significant contributions to phenomenological realism

Speaking of Wenisch’s original contributions to develop phenomenological realism I wish to stress first of all his in ancient and medieval times frequent, but now-a-days highly original method of expounding his philosophy, in the majority of his works after the doctoral dissertation and habilitation-book, in the form of Socratic Dialogues. Inspired by Plato, Fritz Wenisch always preferred the style of dialogues in his philosophical works, thus adding a Socratic dimension and Platonic dialectics to the method of realist phenomenology. This gave to his works a quite special note and character.

In terms of contents, Fritz Wenisch developed a philosophy of time, to some extent akin to Edit Stein’s metaphysics of time, but even closer to the metaphysics of time in Bonaventure. Thereby, he corrected implicitly Heidegger’s entirely temporalistic metaphysics and understanding of time. He took up a very important metaphysical insight of S. Bonaventure and integrated it into phenomenological realism. He thereby also developed very originally, phenomenologically and convincingly some insights crucial for a purely rational philosophical demonstration that the world was created from nothing and was preceded by nothing. And he did so in two highly interesting dialogues in the second of which he answered the objections Don Ferrari had raised to his first article.

Another highly interesting work of Wenisch argued that Dietrich von Hildebrand’s famous treatise on 3 categories of importance should be complemented by a fourth category of importance, the objective good for the other person. Thus, he considered the motivation by the objective good for another person, which Hildebrand treated in his philosophy of the benevolence of love, as a distinct category, at least of motivation.

Fritz Wenisch made another particularly significant contribution to the area of philosophy of religion. Three years before his death, he published a very interesting book on the credibility of the Gospels and the rationality of faith as such.

He likewise published a very timely work on philosophy of religion, with deep interreligious aspects: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—Differences, Commonalities, and Community.

I hope to have given the reader a glimpse of the significance of the multifaceted work of the person and of the philosopher Fritz Wenisch. R.I.P.

This obituary was published in Aemaet No. 9, 2020.