He was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, to Fritz and Greta Tugendhat, the wealthy Jewish family that commissioned Mies van der Rohe with the Villa Tugendhat in Brno. In 1938 the family fled from Czechoslovakia to St. Gallen, Switzerland, and in 1941 travelled on to settle in Caracas, Venezuela.
Tugendhat studied classics at Stanford from 1944 to 1949, and went on to do graduate work in philosophy and classics at the University of Freiburg, receiving his doctorate with a work on Aristotle in 1956. During the years 1956−1958 he did post-doctoral research at the University of Münster. From then until 1964 he was an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Tübingen, where, after spending 1965 lecturing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, he gained his Habilitation in 1966 analyzing the concept of truth in Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.
Tugendhat became a professor at the University of Heidelberg (1966−1975). During the 1960s and 1970s, Heidelberg developed into one of the main scenes of the left-wing student protests in Germany. Because of the student movement and as a protest against the situation at German universities in the 1970s, Tugendhat gave up his position and relocated to Starnberg, where Jürgen Habermas was at the time. In 1980 he moved to Berlin, becoming, like his friend Michael Theunissen, a professor of philosophy at the Free University of Berlin. He was invited to give the 1988–89 John Locke lectures at the University of Oxford, but had to withdraw because of ill health.
Tugendhat retired in 1992, but was a visiting professor in philosophy at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago (1992−1996), a researcher at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna (1996), and visiting professor at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic (1997−1998).