by Reinhard G. Mueller


Orientation, considered as finding one’s ways successfully in new situations, isn’t simply a matter of theoretical knowledge. It’s also an achievement and a competence involving manifold orientation skills and orientation virtues that differ depending on the field of action we’re in. Such orientation skills, demanded especially from successful professionals such as entrepreneurs, businesspeople, politicians, lawyers, athletes, marketers, scientists, artists, or poker players, have hardly become an object of philosophical research. Through the lens of the philosophy of orientation, our essay series investigates these orientation skills that are vital for people to successfully find their ways in today’s complex and transforming world.

When we’re trying to orient ourselves and master new, challenging situations we’re always under the conditions of uncertainty and time pressure, and “in order to act quickly and master a situation, one needs to rely on a few clues, without being totally certain of them” (PO 9) [Endnote 1]. Since we can never survey all the circumstances of the situation we’re in, we’re forced to abbreviate it, select and focus on what we consider relevant footholds, develop successful routines in our orientations, and we need to be able to readjust to changes and ever-new challenges. Orientation is, as such, “not about just doing anything, but about doing what is ‘right’ in a given situation.” For instance: “It constitutes a ‘disorientation’ if a baseball team does not play together in a way to score runs, or if a businesswoman or man is unable to find ways to make a good deal under favorable conditions, or if a politician cannot take advantage of an opponent’s weaknesses” (PO 25).

For Aristotle “virtue” refers to “excellence” (Gr. aretḗ) in the widest sense of the word, as doing that which is best and most suitable in situations and through which you usually gain the respect of others. However, such virtues can be universalized only to a limited degree because situations always differ depending on the specific circumstances and are ultimately singular. Connecting with Aristotle’s ‘virtue ethics,’ the philosophy of orientation conceives of virtues as “special achievements” in someone’s orientation, “in which one person may be more skilled than another” (PO 41). Virtues are not something that one simply ‘has’ but rather what one performs and practices, what one can improve on, specialize in, and further develop; we perform them in routines and some people may become especially skilled at them.

The most basic “orientation virtues,” which in principle apply in all areas of action, comprise the virtues of: “overview, circumspection, foresight, insight, precaution, consideration, forbearance, and confidence,” all of which are tied to courage: “the courage to opt, under the conditions of uncertainty for one path of action that appears promising” (PO 240f.). These orientation virtues help you not only “to reorient” yourself “whenever a situation requires it” but also to “use a situation’s uncertainties and decidabilities, as well as the leeways provided by the clues, footholds, and signs, which arise in the situation, to creatively master this situation.” They also come to the fore in your skills to “switch between” your different “orientation worlds” as well as to detach yourself “from given situations by means of thinking” and to “consider other orientations” in your own in order to widen your “horizons and perspectives” (ibid.).

As far as orientation virtues manifest themselves in different ways, depending on the fields of action, and since one can practice and improve them, we research the specific orientation skills they involve and explore the extent to which one can philosophically grasp them regarding the structures of orientation. Orientation skills are often specifically required and trained in the different professional spheres but are also beneficial in everyday life – and vice versa. As such, we investigate the orientation skills connected with, for instance, decision-making, communicating, negotiating, making deals, finding one’s way successfully as an entrepreneur, artist, scientist, or a politician, as well as reorienting and reshaping one’s habits.


1 The abbreviation PO refers to the English translation of the primary book of the philosophy of orientation: Werner Stegmaier, What is Orientation? A Philosophical Investigation, transl. by Reinhard G. Mueller (Boston/Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019).