11 February 2018


Obituary Elisabeth Walther-Bense


Text: Jörg Stürzebecher, Ursula Wenzel

Pragmatic, patient, determined – these are just some of the qualities that come to mind when remembering the philosopher, linguist, translator and university lecturer Elisabeth Walther-Bense, who died on 10 January 2018.


Elisabeth Walther, as she was known until 1988, began her academic career as a scientist, completing her doctorate in 1950 under the supervision of her husband-to-be, the philosopher Max Bense. In 1952, along with Bense, she joined the Volkshochschule in Ulm, before it became the HfG Ulm in 1953. From 1956 onwards she taught in the studium generale at the HfG, giving lectures on the “concept of freedom”, familiarising young people with linguistic criticism and introducing them to semiotics, an essential requirement for studying design. To do all of this, she needed to have an understanding of possibilities, and hence pragmatics, and given the educational requirements at the HfG Ulm, she almost certainly needed patience, which included pragmatics, especially in order to teach her subjects to not just German-speaking students but to French and English-speaking students as well. What is more, she also needed precision, and possessed this in equal measure to the writer Francis Ponge, whose work she translated. His “Einführung in den Kieselstein” [Introduction to the Pebble] begins with the sentence: “Mit dem Wort mit beginnt dieser Text” [With the word with begins this text]. She also wrote her postdoctoral thesis on Ponge (published in 1964), which allowed her to become a lecturer, and then obtain tenure until she finally became one of the first women to get a full professorship at the University of Stuttgart. By this time the legendary series of literary, artistic and philosophical works known as “red” that she founded with Max Bense, was long established. It has only ceased publication now, following her death. She was at the vanguard of work on speech, thought and art forms of the Stuttgarter Schule with magazines such as “Augenblick” [Moment], “Semiosis” or works such as the “Wörterbuch der Semiotik” [Dictionary of Semiotics]. She also fought for the recognition of design as an academic discipline, especially in Germany. We have her to thank for being the eyes and ears to the clash between Max Bill and Arno Schmidt over lessons on text at the HfG Ulm.


She translated the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce and published Max Bense’s works. She kept in touch with writers experimenting with image and text such as Helmut Heißenbüttel or Anton Stankowski, and from the 1960s onwards kept up with developments in computers and even learned Turkish at an advanced age. She knew exactly what did and didn’t belong in the exhibition “Bense und die Künste” [Bense and the Arts], held in 2010 at the Karlsruhe Center for Art and Media.


In 2007, Gerda Müller-Krauspe wrote a sensitive portrait of Walther-Bense in her work “Selbstbehauptungen” [Self-assertions] about women at HfG Ulm. Through her teachings and her books, Elisabeth Walther has influenced many people far beyond her narrow field of expertise. Determinedly.


Nº 281
Design and Archives

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