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Short bio Rudolf Boehm (1927-2019)

Dec 1927

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Biography Rudolf Boehm (1927-2019)


Dec 1927

Rudolf Boehm was born on 24 December 1927 in Berlin-Schöneberg, Germany. The son of a middle-class German family, he was raised with his older sister Helga in the borough of Lichterfelde, a formerly independent municipality of Berlin where he enjoyed his childhood. Boehm recalls that his carefree days not only came to an end with the outbreak of World War II, but also with the loss of his beloved sister in 1942, who drowned in a nearby lake under unclear circumstances.

Afterwards, at the age of fifteen, in the midst of World War II the family moved to Leipzig where his father Theodor Andreas Boehm, professor in pharmacological chemistry, was offered an interesting job opportunity. In Leipzig, Boehm went to the Lutheran St. Thomas School, known as one of the oldest schools of Europe, frequently referred to as the workplace of Johann Sebastian Bach. As Boehm later recalled, at that time Nazi ideology predominated the school, with teachers appearing in the outfits of the paramilitary SA. As a result, only a few months after moving to Leipzig, he sought a way to get away from that political environment that he dismissed.

What followed was his military phase, a time which he would later recall as very sad. Boehm claimed that, paradoxically, the only way to flee from the Nazi doctrine was to actually join the army. In 1943, when military odds were already against Nazi-Germany and when there was a shortage of operational troops, the fifteen-year-old joined the Luftwaffenhilfe, in which he and his peers had to defend the city of Leipzig from being bombed. Due to poor conditions and the strength of the British and American Air Forces, this was doomed to fail and the city got damaged severely. Still, by being busy in the army as child soldier, Boehm managed to escape from the Nazi indoctrination he would have otherwise experienced in both school and the Hitlerjugend. Yet, in September 1944, under field marshal Walter Model he was sent to the Netherlands to counter Operation Market Garden, eventually without being deployed. subsequently in January 1945, as all German boys that were about to have their eighteenth birthday, he was sent to the Eastern Front as part of the Wehrmacht. Unlike most boys in his squad, Boehm managed to survive without being wounded, with the downside of being held captive by the Russians. In a moment of chaos, he managed to escape by mingling amongst civilians and he consequently fled back to Germany with other refugees. When crossing the river Elbe back home, he recalls to have been very lucky not being hit by hostile gunfire.


These experiences as a youngster put their mark on Boehm's lifelong philosophical interests. “What on earth are we doing?”, is what he kept asking himself, “we know a lot, but do we know the right things?” He claims to have come to the decision to study philosophy after endless arguments with his father, whom he blamed for having merely developed nothing but pills in a world in which everyone was crippling each other. As we shall see, Boehm would come up with a critique of the ideal of objectivity: although conventional science might be able to make true claims, they are often irrelevant because they fail to thoroughly question the question they answer. Subsequently, when this science manifests itself in technology and gets aligned with an economy that produces for the sake of production, the consequences for the people and their lifeworld are disastrous. To Boehm, philosophy's task will be to subject the core of this science and socio-economic organization to a radical critique.

Student Years

January 1946

For now, let us get back to January 1946. The eager Rudolf Boehm is back in Leipzig and enrols in the city's university to study philosophy, mathematics and physics. At first, he was an unofficial student because wartime had prevented him from obtaining his high school degree (the German Abitur), but very soon, in March 1946, he had caught up with that. He recalled the neo-Hegelian Theodor Litt (1880–1962) and the hermeneutic Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) as the most important professors at that time. Nevertheless, his main influence was the young Heideggerian Karl-Heinz Volkmann-Schluck (1914–1981), who grabbed Boehm's attention with his lessons on Heidegger's interpretation of Kant. This was the first time Boehm heard about Heidegger, and he was struck by it. Shortly afterwards, Volkmann-Schluck taught on the latter's main influences, which introduced Boehm to the rather unknown philosophy of Husserl. Deeply indebted to Heidegger and Husserl, Boehm gained an interest in the idea of a metaphysics of subjectivity, but thought that this had already been developed by Leibniz. He soon discovered this was an error, but it marks how Boehm, from an early age on, critically outweighed phenomenology against the philosophical tradition, and vice versa. As we shall see, this will become manifest in his doctorate on Aristotle's idea of subjectivity.


In the summer of 1948, the diligent student Rudolf Boehm is at a crossroads. As Heidegger is suspended from the university due to his relations with the Nazi Party, Gadamer and friends are willing to arrange for him a personal assistant so that he can pursue his philosophical work. The twenty-one-year-old Boehm is granted this offer, which he declines on two grounds he later describes as common sense. First, he considers himself to be too young to handle Heidegger's direct influence. Second, with the denazification process still going on, he sees no way of critically assessing Heidegger's involvement with the Nazi system. Instead of accepting this offer, with the support of Gadamer he follows Volkmann-Schluck to the university of Rostock, where he serves as his assistant. In 1949, Volkmann-Schluck invites Boehm to join him to Cologne, which he did. There, Boehm meets Herman Van Breda (1911–1974), the Belgian Franciscan monk who had saved Husserl's manuscripts and smuggled them from Freiburg to Leuven during World War II. Van Breda's plan was to store them not only in Leuven, but in different universities, namely in Buffalo (with Marvin Farber), in Freiburg (with Eugen Fink) and in Cologne. The freshly appointed professor Volkmann-Schluck likes the idea, but it is Rudolf Boehm who practically arranges the setup of the Cologne Husserl Archives with Van Breda. Walter Biemel (1918–2015), so Van Breda arranged, would return from Leuven to Cologne to manage the Archive. However, this meant that Van Breda was now looking for someone to replace Biemel in Leuven. It had to be someone who was familiar with phenomenology, the German language and the Gabelsberger shorthand (in which Husserl wrote his manuscripts). After Van Breda had begged Boehm for advice, Boehm offered him his services, which Van Breda thankfully accepted. In 1952, Walter Biemel moved to Cologne, where he trained Boehm in Husserl's phenomenology and the workings of the Archive, after which Boehm moved to Leuven.



Boehm stayed at the Catholic University of Leuven from 1952 until 1967 (before its split of 1968 in the Dutch-speaking Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and French-speaking Université Catholique de Louvain). Those years were very productive and marked the start of his philosophical career. During the first months, he stayed at Biemel's place, where his wife Marly Biemel was still living and working. Together with Boehm, she prepared Husserl's Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften for publication as part of Husserl's collected works called Husserliana. In the following years, Boehm undertook important work, such as editing and authorizing volumes seven, eight and ten of the Husserliana. Not only is he running the Leuven Archives under Van Breda, leading a doctoral program on Husserl's philosophy and hosting international researchers from around the globe, he also translates Merleau-Ponty's Phénoménologie de la perception into German and the first half of Heidegger's Sein und Zeit ( with De Waelhens) into French. In the sixties, Boehm visited Heidegger both for questions regarding this translation and to learn more on how he edited Husserl's Vorlesungen zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins, which had already been published in his lifetime. In addition, also in Freiburg, he stood in close contact to Gerhart Husserl, a son of Edmund Husserl he perceived as a father figure. Amongst other things, Boehm played a mediating role in the copyright arrangements between Gerhart and the Leuven Archives. Alongside Jacques Taminiaux (1928–2019), the editor of Phaenomenologica founded by Van Breda, Boehm also stood in close contact with Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995). Desperately looking for someone to publish Totalité et Infini after Gallimard and others had declined, he submitted the manuscript to the Husserl Archives of Leuven. There, Boehm and Taminiaux convinced Van Breda to publish it as part of the Phaenomenologica, for which Levinas was very grateful. During his years in Leuven, Boehm also saw his chance to develop his own philosophy. Two of his early influential articles were written during these years. One on Heidegger's philosophy of technics in 1960, and the other on Husserl and Nietzsche in 1962. Under the supervision of Volkmann-Schluck, he furthermore wrote his dissertation on Aristotle's hypokeimenon, published in 1965. The core idea of this work will accompany him throughout his philosophical life.


In 1967, Leo Apostel (1925–1995) offers Boehm a professorship at the University of Ghent, which he accepts. There, Boehm lead the Seminar of Modern Philosophy until his retirement in 1992. Apostel's idea was to create a pluralistic Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences, in which Boehm was to represent the continental, phenomenological branch. He is appointed at the same day as Etienne Vermeersch (1934–2019), who is associated with the analytical, positivistic and pragmatist school. Despite huge differences in their points of view, together with Jaap Kruithof (1929–2009) they will make history as the 'Big Four' of Ghent Philosophy. Two years after his arrival in Ghent, in March 1969, Boehm played an important role during the antiauthoritarian student protests. Demanding greater student participation and general liberalization of the university, students occupied the Faculty of Arts for a week. Notably, Boehm puts his offices and supplies at the disposal of the students, and he was the only professor to continue his teaching during that week. Afterwards, former rector Jean-Jacques Bouckaert (1901–1983) asked him to give account for this, whereafter he could resume his academic activities. In the decades that followed, Boehm developed a characteristic way of teaching which either seemed to attract or repel students. Due to his heavy German accent and extensive international expertise, he was often seen as an outsider. More than his colleagues, he was known for his theoretic and historic approach, starting from primary texts of philosophers like Fichte, Pascal or Leibniz. Yet, he encouraged his students to develop their own critical thinking skills. At oral examinations, he notoriously asked them: “What can you tell me? What do you have to say?” His main work as a professor is his Kritik der Grundlagen des Zeitalters, published in 1974. But his contributions are not limited to the academic milieu. Boehm was involved in Flemish cultural life, often participating in debates on cultural, political, economic and ecological issues. He contributed extensively in Dutch-speaking quality newspapers such as De Standaard and De Morgen, but also in popular scientific journals such as Streven, Vlaams Marxistische Tijdschrift, EcoGroen and De Uil van Minerva. In 1979, he founded the Society for Phenomenology and Critique, associated with the journal Kritiek, which ran until 1997. Importantly, when Van Breda died in 1974, Boehm again got involved in the general management of the Husserl Archives of Leuven. Moreover, in the eighties, he was active in the Peace Movement mediating between East and West. In this context, Boehm, as his acquaintance Jacques Derrida a few years earlier, taught at the underground university of Prague in 1985. Although it is likely that the authorities would have banned his lecture, until the end of his life Boehm favored the communist slogan 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs', suggesting that this principle ought to be incorporated in any politics and economics. At the same time, he insisted that his criticism of modernity applied as much to the West as it did to the East, both of which he knew well as he witnessed the creation of East Germany, where his parents lived, but also the collapse of the entire Soviet Union. For his philosophical activities advocating peace, from 1989 until 1990 he was awarded the prestigious Francqui Chair by the Belgian Francqui Foundation.


The two decades following his retirement of 1992 proved very fruitful. Boehm crystalized and expanded his ideas in several books, written in his native German but often immediately translated into Dutch. Notable works are the books Tragik: von Oidipus bis Faust (2001), Politik (2002), Ökonomie und Metaphysik (2004), Grundriß einer Poietik (2005), Topik (2010), and the articles Scheinbare Wirklichkeit. Zur Idee einer phänomenologischen Philosophie (2016) and Metaphysik und Phänomenologie (written 2018, for the moment only published in Dutch translation in 2020). Until the 2010s, he gave guest lectures at the Ghent University on Aristotle, Nietzsche, Marx and Heidegger. In the last decade of his life, Boehm's health slowly but steadily declined, resulting in a gradual loss of hearing and sight. His last public appearances were at the end of 2018. In October, he was at the presentation of What needs? And what is needed? (What ought be? And what is necessary?), a tribute book in honor of his ninetieth birthday with contributions from Giorgio Agamben, Bernard Stiegler and others. On the first of November, he was invited to an interview led by Jan Leyers at the Antwerp Book Fair alongside Toon Horsten, author of De pater and de philosoof, which tells the story of Van Breda founding the Husserl Archives. At the 80th birthday of these Archives of the Leuven University, in December he subsequently held a lecture on his close collaboration with Van Breda. Although his medical condition thereafter forced him to cease public activities, friends, colleagues, students, journalists and others were welcomed in his working chamber in Ghent until he was hospitalized in June 2019. While his international impact on continental philosophy mainly resulted from his time in Leuven, by the end of his life his influence reached far beyond academia, to notable Belgians as the author Stefan Hertmans, politician Björn Rzoska and television maker Jan Leyers. Surrounded by a close group of friends and family, he died in Ghent on 29 August 2019 at the age of ninety-one.


First acquaintance

critical philosophy




(AND Nietzsche)



Critical philosophy (underlined is my personal preference)

The Social Function of Philosophy (1973) (in At the End of an Age)

Critique of the Foundations of Our Time (D. Version: 1974)

Difficult Freedom (1976)

The Evil Spirit of Wallenstein and All of Us (1976) (in Tragik)



2. Science

Wandering in the Realm of the Dead (1987)



3. Economics and Politics

· Growth or no growth? (1992) (in Criticism)



4. Husserl and Heidegger (and Nietzsche)

Heidegger, The Last Lesson (2009)

Nietzsche, the will to power (2010)