In memoriam Theda Rehbock

In memoriam
Theda Rehbock (27.8.1957 Aurich-2.1.2021 Susimetsa, Pärnu County)

In Deutsch

Dear Colleagues!

Naise portree.

In the early morning of 2 January, my good friend, the philosopher Theda Rehbock, passed away. For the last year and a half she had been living at her farm at Susimetsa, Laadi village, Häädemeeste township, Pärnu County. From 2003 on, prior to moving to Estonia, Theda had been a guest professor at the University of Tartu several times; she gave lectures in the Philosophy Department and presented at several conferences and seminars of the Ethics Centre. Her longest visit to the University of Tartu was in 2010, when she was guest professor at the Philosophy Department from April to June (DAAD Kurzzeitdozentur). She gave two courses for us: "Lying, truth and truthfulness-moral, anthropological and linguistic arguments against lying", and "Aristotle`s "Nichomachean Ethics." She also gave a presentation at the conference devoted to the 220th anniversary of the birth of Karl Ernst von Baer. Most recently, in June 2019, she participated in the Philosophy Department`s seminar on empathy  which was held at Pühajärve.

Theda Rehbock was born on 27.08.1957 in Aurich, Germany. Her university studies were in the fields of German Studies and Philosophy ( for a period of time also in History and Romance Studies) at the universities of Zürich, München, Münster and Konstanz. In 1992 she defended her doctoral dissertation at the University of Konstanz, entitled „Goethe and the Rescue of the Phenomenon: On the philosophical critique of the world-view of the natural sciences, based on the example of the theory of colours“ [Goethe und die Rettung der Phänomene. Zur philosophischen Kritik der naturwissenschaftliches Weltbildes, am Beispiel der Farbenlehre]. Her Habilitation dissertation was entitled „Being a Person in Borderline Situations: On Critiques of Medical Ethics“ [Personsein in Grenzsituationen. Zur Kritik der Ethik medizinischen Handels], which she defended in 2003 at the Technical University of Dresden.

Theda Rehbock is the author of the following books:

  • Goethe und die "Rettung der Phänomene": Philosophische Kritik des naturwissensschaftlichen Weltbilds am Beispiel der Farbenlehre [Goethe and the Rescue of the Phenomenon: On the philosophical critique of the world-view of the natural sciences, based on the example of the theory of colours] (1995)
  • Personsein in Grenzsituationen: Zur Kritik der Ethik medizinischen Handelns [Being a Person in Borderline Situations: On Critiques of Medical Ethics“] (2005)

The following articles by Theda Rehbock are available in English:

  • „How to respect the will of mentally ill persons“, Studia Philosophica Estonica, Vol. 6.2 (2013) "Medical Philosophy and Medical Ethics in the Nordic and the Baltic Countries" (eds) K. Simm & H. Lerner doi: 
  • "Light And Color From A Philosophical Point Of View“, Trames, 2003, vol 7, No 3, 183-202.
  • The following is an excellent article on autonomy, based on a presentation she gave at the Ethics Centre`s conference on informed consent: "Limits of Autonomy in Biomedical Ethics? A Conceptual Clarification", in Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics , Volume 20 , Issue 4 , October 2011 , pp. 524 - 532, Special Issue "From Informed Consent to No Consent" (ed. M.Sutrop, K.Simm). DOI:
  • The following article is based on a course she gave at the University of Tartu: "Don't lie. Why not?" How to Argue for Truthfulness in Medical Ethics?",  Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics (2012), 21, 177–187.

I crossed paths with Theda Rehbock in 1992, the year she defended her doctoral dissertation. She was teaching philosophy at the time. I attended her seminar on the phenomenology of Husserl, and that was the beginning of  our philosophical conversation, which lasted for 29 years. We were seldom of one mind, but our dialogues were inspiring, continually provoking me to ponder and find new arguments. Theda knew Kant`s philosophy very well, but she also knew the phenomenological tradition (Husserl et al) as well as the philosophies of Antiquity. I am grateful to Theda for introducing me to my future dissertation director, prof. dr. Gottfried Gabriel.

As an ethicist she was interested in the autonomy of the patient and the topics of care, a good death (as a part of a good life), medical intervention, death and the handling of the dead; thus her own illness and preparation for death were sources of philosophical reflection. She has published an article on thi topic entitled „Death and the Dead: A Philosophical Perspective“ [„Der Tod und die Toten. Philosophisch betrachtet“ in Rehmann-Sutter (hrsg). Was uns der Tod bedeutet?, Berlin: Kamos 2018].

Theda suffered from breast cancer. In 2013 she underwent treatment for the disease. In 2018, when she found out that the cancer had not only not retreated but metastasized to the bones, she decided to give up her professorship and to devote her remaining years to reading, writing and travel. Her inauguration lecture as a professor at the Evangelical College in Bochum in February 2019 was thus also a farewell lecture. In May 2019 she began  her journey with her camper through Scandinavia on her way to Estonia, arriving in time for the Jubilee Song Festival. She had learned many songs in Estonian, and she sang at both the Tartu and Tallinn Song Festivals. When we visited Haapsalu after the song festival, Theda asked me to find her a place in Estonia where she could settle. The original idea was to purchase an architectural gem near Haapsalu, complete with a reading tower, but that building was not equipped for living throughout the year. Thus the choice was the house at Susimetsa, near Lotteland, in Laadi village in Pärnu county. Theda enjoyed living there, growing her own tomatoes and cucumbers in the greenhouse, picking strawberries from her fields in the summer and going currant-picking. She loved swimming in her own pond and visiting the sauna. When her legs would no longer carry her, she bought a golf-cart in which to drive around her property and an electrical wheelchair which enabled her to get around Pärnu, Tallinn and Tartu.

Theda was very enthusiastic about Estonia and formed a number of friendships here. She had a beautiful voice and she sang in the Pärnu choir. There were about 40 guests at her 63d birthday, mostly people from around Pärnu whom she had had a chance to befriend. She  had started to learn Estonian and read the works of Jaan Kross with great interest. She closely followed Kross` hundredth anniversary celebrations last spring. At the end of October she visited the Pärt Centre and met Arvo Pärt, whose music she held in high regard. Even at the end of November we made a visit to the Estonian National Museum (ERM) and she developed an interest in Kreutzwald`s fairy tales: I gifted her with an edition in German at Christmastime. However,  she did not have a chance to read it. On the way back from NMR tests in Tartu at the beginning of December she told me she was planning to write three books. Unfortunately she was not given time to write any of them. Even the initiative to establish a Philosophy Centre at Susimetsa (with the motto „ Philosophy as a Life Form“) was left incomplete. It was Theda`s dream that Susimetsa would become an open centre for philosophy, where people would have the chance both to write books and work in the garden.

Theda very much liked Pierre Hadot’s book, „Philososophie als Lebensform. Geistige Übungen in der Antike" [Philosophy as a Life Form. Spiritual Exercises in Antiquity] (Berlin, 1991). It was her dream to turn Susimetsa into a place where one could practice philosophy as a life form. Hadot`s book begins with an epigraph from Immanuel Kant, whose philosophy Theda held in high esteem and which she knew well. Kant writes: „When will you learn to live virtuously, said Plato to  an  old  man who said he had listened to his lectures. – It isn`t possible to keep speculating; at some point one  has to think about bringing the teaching to life.“ (Immanuel Kant, Small Lectures, Philosophical Encyclopedia). In today`s terms, a person whose dream it was to make Susimetsa into a place where philosophy could be practiced as a life form would be regarded as an enthusiast. Theda herself also believed that philosophy does not only consist of how to construct a system, but in a certain way of looking at the world, not to speak of a way of living in it.

Theda died quietly and peacefully, without pain and unmedicated, at her home in Susimetsa, just as she had wished. The great pain she had experienced from the middle of October to the middle of December had abated, and she could peacefully fall into eternal slumber. It was Theda`s wish that she be buried on her family`s plot in Aurich, Northern Germany, but that she be sent off from her own home in Susimetsa. The farewell ceremony with a memorial service took place at Susimetsa on 8-9 January; the burial will take place on 18 January at Aurich, East Friesland.
I have lost a very good friend. The philosophy community has lost a philosopher, an ethicist whose thought was excellent, original, backed up by precise argumentation and sensitivity. Left open by her bed was the article „What is Estonian Philosophy“, from  the special issue of SPT on the topic, „History of Philosophy in Estonia“ (vol 8, 2, 2015). The issue põses the question of what Estonian philosophy might be: does it consist of philosophical texts written in Estonian, by Estonians, or texts written by philosophers who have lived in Estonia. If Estonian philosophy with an upper-case first letter, Theda Rehbock was indeed an Estonian philosopher. I hope that some of her writings will soon be translated into the Estonian language.

In deep mourning,
Margit Sutrop