Karl Roretz, the Austrian epistemologist, philosopher of culture, and aesthetician, was born at Schloss Breiteneich. He studied law, and later philosophy, at the University of Vienna, receiving his doctorate in 1906 with the dissertation "The Problem of Empathy in Modern Aesthetics."
In 1922 Roretz became a Privatdozent at the university and taught history of modern philosophy until 1938, when he ceased lecturing after the Nazi takeover of Austria. He resumed lecturing in 1945 and continued until his retirement in 1951.
As an epistemologist, Roretz espoused a "critical positivism," a philosophy whose foundation is both scientific and, in Immanuel Kant's sense, criticist. The outstanding features of his thought are critical reflection, skeptical rationality, intellectual honesty, and independence of mind. He rejected dogmatism and unsupported metaphysical speculation. Like Hans Vaihinger, he regarded metaphysical concepts as self-contradictory fictions. Thus, Roretz held, metaphysics lacks any purely logical meaning.
Roretz's major work, An den Quellen unseres Denkens (Vienna, 1937), contains his most acute epistemological analyses. In this monograph he studied "vital concepts," concepts in whose formation an element of will or an element of value plays a decisive part and whose definition is therefore preceded by a decision. Among such concepts are those of art, of ethics, of popular education, and of the slave trade.
Roretz's elegant and penetrating psychological analyses of culture and his critical analyses of values deserve particular consideration. The decline of spiritual values, he contended, is due to internal degeneration or disintegration within the person and the society, and only seldom to external pressure.
He also studied the genesis and structure of mass psychological phenomena ("mass, illnesses," Massenerkrankungen) in religion, politics, economics, art, fashion, and sports—notably such extremely dangerous religious and other spiritual "epidemics" as belief in vampires and devils, witch-hunting, and racial persecution.
As a philosopher of culture, Roretz felt most akin to Friedrich Nietzsche. Like Nietzsche, he believed in life with a deep conviction. But Roretz's view of life was Kantian, and the meaning of life for him consisted in working at the problems life poses. He advocated a philosophy that interpreted reality from an aesthetic point of view.
Such a philosophy, he held, provides an orientation toward life and the world that is biologically optimal. The world appears, in this view, as a drama without metaphysical supramundane or transmundane galleries to which it must play. Roretz professed a deep joy in the variegated splendor of the world. "The meaning of the world," he wrote, "is an aesthetic meaning."
In his studies of what he called intellectual-aesthetic values—aesthetic effects bound up with specific achievements of thought, as in mathematics, strategy, or chess— Roretz made important contributions to aesthetics itself.
His interest in ethical problems was equally great. A convinced humanist and democrat, he supported the Ethical Culture movement and strove for a secular ethics independent of any metaphysical or religious assumptions.