Wilhelm Halbfass, Philosophy Professor

Posted: June 03, 2000

Wilhelm Halbfass, 60, professor of Indian philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania and a giant in his field, died of a brain hemorrhage May 25 at Bryn Mawr Hospital. He lived in Narberth.

Professor Halbfass taught at Penn for the last 27 years after stints at universities in Canada, India, and his native Germany. He also authored seven books, which are considered major sources and references in Indian and Asian philosophies.

He visited India nearly two dozen times, meeting scholars at universities and cultural institutes, his family said.

Officially, he was professor in both the departments of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and South Asia Regional Studies. Despite his stature among colleagues around the world, Professor Halbfass was a gentle, quiet and unassuming intellectual, friends said.

"He was very humble and open and patient with students," said Thomas B. Ellis, a doctoral student of the professor's. "He never made the student feel inferior."

His brilliance was evident when comprehending other cultures, Ellis said.

"He would study other cultures and intellectual systems in their own languages," Ellis said. "He knew Sanskrit and Pali, a vernacular of Sanskrit."

Professor Halbfass earned his doctoral degree in Indian philosophy from the University of Goettingen in 1967. He was drawn to Eastern philosophy while studying Western cultures.

His first position was as assistant professor at his alma mater.

In 1970, Professor Halbfass began a three-year assignment at Brock University at St. Catherines in Ontario, before joining the Penn faculty in 1973 as a professor.

During his career, he also taught at frequent intervals as invited professor at other universities in the United States and in Europe.

His pastime was music, particularly listening to classical composer Richard Wagner while working.

He is survived by his wife, Helga Marquardt Halbfass; daughters, Sonja and Vera; his parents, Willi and Ilse-Marie; and a brother. Professor Halbfass would have celebrated his 32d wedding anniversary today.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. today at Chadwick & McKinney Funeral Home, 30 E. Athens Ave., Ardmore. Burial is private.

Dominic Sama's e-mail address is dsama@phillynews.com

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