Thursday, April 4, 2013

Gerda Walther


Gerda Walther (1897-1977) was born in her father's tuberculosis sanitorium near Offenburg, Germany. After the death of her mother, Ragnhild Bajer, in 1902 and her father's marriage to her aunt, Sigrun Bajer, Walther's childhood was said to be a little strained. Nevertheless, her father's Marxist/Socialist inclinations allowed her the privilege of an early political education in Marxism from various influential figures who often came to visit. She enrolled in the University of Munich in 1916 determined to become a socialist agitator.

Gerda's educational path was greatly influenced by her second-semester Introduction to Psychology course taught by Alexander Pfander, and his Introduction to Philosophy course the following semester. It was there she learned of Edmund Husserl (who worked closely with Edith Stein in Freiburg im Breisgau) and was determined to work with him. Although initially Husserl refused to work with Walther, during her first semester with Stein, she was permitted to enroll in Husserl's courses. Both Stein and Husserl considered Gerda to be a fiery and bright individual. She was one of less than five female students working under Husserl. Nevertheless, desiring to complete her doctoral dissertation more to her own tastes, Walther returned to Munich to work with Pfander on her dissertation, Zur Ontologie der Sozialen Gemeinschaften (On the Ontology of Social Communities, 1919). Her dissertation combined phenomenology with Marxist philosophy on the nature of community, understanding humans as essentially socialized beings. She received her Ph.D. summa cum laude and was permitted to become a professor (not all women were permitted this privilege).

While her focus had primarily been set on political activism and socialism, Walther's philosophical interests radically shifted due to a mystical experience she underwent while on a train in 1918. She was overcome with a supernatural experience of light, warmth and goodness. After receiving her Ph.D. she began focusing on the phenomenology of mysticism and parapsychology. Although Walther was permitted to become a professor (unlike Stein and other women philosophers of this time and prior), she was unable to support herself due to the struggling German economy and for the remainder of her life worked part-time jobs when she could find work and wrote on her own. One of the many jobs she accepted was as a stenographer for the state mental health hospital in Emmendingen working with schizophrenic patients. While her work was menial and frustrating, she was able to consider the likeness of mental illness to mystic experiences (as many claimed mysticism was just that).

Although she was fired for condescendingly describing the mental abilities of the medical staff, she received an offer to work with Dr. Albert Freierr von Schrenk-Notzing conducting parapsychological research. Prior to this opportunity, Walther had spent considerable time learning studying and practicing astrology, mysticism, seances, and other "occult" things, so she was a perfect fit for the job. Schrenk-Notzing attempted to apply the scientific method to study such experiences ad telekinesis and materialization, often performing seances and working with mediums. Unfortunately Schrenk died unexpectedly and Walther was again out of work.

Walther's work on mysticism included three editions of her book, Ph√§nomenologie der Mystik (Phenomenology of Mysticism) in which she defended the mystical experience my providing a phenomenological account of mystical (and similar other experiences) shared from around the world, including her own. She argued that simply because not all had access to such experiences does not prove them irrational as not all can understand and experience complex mathematics and yet we except them as legitimate. She defended the mystical experience as a real and perfect form of spiritual data provided from the divine. Those who deny mysticism are not approaching the subject with "the open mind with which the philosopher should approach any subject." (McAllister, 1995).  Her later works also included an explanation of how occult practices and parapsychology relate to the mystic experience and external perception of the real world.

After working with Schrenk-Notzing, Walther supported herself doing freelance writing for journals on parapsychology and psychic research, but in 1933 when the Third Reich took power, publications in parapsychology were banned and she faced questioning by the Gustapo. Eventually she was forced into national service censoring international mail (since she knew English, French, Italian, Dutch and Danish), but would occasionally send penciled-in notes warnings and notes to people who's correspondence she encountered more regularly. Close to the end of her life, after the war had ended and her financial and physical well-being were nearly depleted, she was helping to support a meeting of German Women philosopher, but had neither the funds nor strength to attend. Neverthless, she remained actively ingaged in correspondence with various philosophers up until the week of her death in 1977.  Her autobiography, Zum anderen Ufer (1960), remains in school libraries across Germany because it provides insight into German life.

Personal Response

I initially thought that I wouldn't like this section on Gerda Walther, but after reading the article, I found her to be a fascinating individual. She was fiery, passionate and determined. Gerda earned the chance to work with Husserl despite his initial refusal, then she refused to work with him as a dissertation adviser (though many would kill for the chance) because she wanted the freedom to write her own ideas rather than be directed to write an extension of his. After her mystical experience, she supported and defended a view in philosophy that was utterly rejected and criticized by most. She even faced rejection from most of the philosophical community for her interests in telepathy, clairvoyance and ESP. Finally, I thought it was fascinating that she was unable to teach and participate in the realm of academic philosophy because of her economic situation (apparently professors received menial tuition from students themselves rather than payment from the universities), but persisted in doing her own research and writing throughout her life. She even published work under a pseudonym when she was forbidden to publish an article through a Jewish journal.

Gerda Walther was an inspiring person. Her ideas were unique and interesting, and her fire seems to have stayed with her through the end of her life. I am more interested in her earlier work on communities due to my own interest, but I find her work on mysticism to be very interesting. It seems that she believed (and a small majority may have agreed) that mysticism and parapsychology are real, scientific fields and that the experiences produced from such fields are in a category of spiritual data that are as legitimate as the epistemic conception of sense data, etc. I also thought it was interesting that Walther's work  was often more written for the average reader since she was primarily excluded from philosophical communities.


Chapter 8 "Gerda Walther" by Linda Lopez McAlister from A History of Women Philosophers Volume IV: Contemporary Women Philosophers 1900-Today, by Mary Ellen Waithe


  1. Hello.
    I would like to know if that women on the photo is Gerda Walther? Do you have more photos?

  2. Who are the others in the photo? Is the Gottingen Circle?

  3. The woman in the photo is Hedwig Conrad-Martius.

  4. the man in front to her right, with his hands in his pocket, is Max Scheler. It is a pretty famous photo and it should be easy to find out who everyone is (was) by googling about for it.

  5. The individuals in the photo are (from left to right): Adolf Reinach, Fritz Neumann, Hans Lipps, Max Scheler, Alexandre Koyre, Jean Hering, Hedwig Conrad-Martius, Siegfried Hamburger, Theodor Conrad, Gustav Huebener, Alfred von Sybel, Rudolf Clemens.