A Chapter of the Philosophical Anthropology in Germany: Helmuth Plessner
The discipline of philosophical anthropology can be described as the work of an historically specific group of conservative German intellectuals, with figures such as Max Scheler and Arnold Gehlen who exerted a relatively large influence in the philosophical debate of the first half of the 20th century. At the same time, in an explicitly leftist and anti-conservative milieu, something of a “negative anthropology” was developed (in an independent manner) by authors such as Günther Anders, Theodor Adorno, and Ulrich Sonnemann, whose intent was to think dehumanization without a positive image of what the human is. Due to his entry into the German intellectual debate of the 1920s, Helmuth Plessner is typically included among the first group, despite the somewhat modest and mostly local reception of his work and his rather moderate and anti-radical political positions. As a Jew, he fled Nazi Germany (while Gehlen’s career was advancing in Frankfurt and then in Leipzig during the period of Hitler) and survived the war hidden in the Netherlands (curiously, in his reflections on language in his lectures, Plessner employs often quite particular examples from Dutch). Although he later received a Lehrstuhl in sociology in Germany, the author of Die verspätete Nation remained relatively isolated in the academic scenario of post-war Europe.
Edited by Julia Gruevska, Hans-Ulrich Lessing, and Kevin Liggieri, the transcripts of Plessner’s lectures on philosophical anthropology held at the University of Göttingen in the summer of 1961 have been published by Suhrkamp. This course is comprised of 18 lessons. The first three lessons are dedicated to the idea and the definitions of philosophical anthropology. In the second block of three lessons, Plessner works on the problem of language. Afterwards, a third block of the course proceeds to the relation of man and his environment (Umwelt). After a lesson dedicated to the “utopia of the lost wild form of man,” in which the conceptions of natural man (derived mostly from Rousseau) are criticized, and another lesson on the concept of person, Plessner approaches in three lessons the concept of role, thought in its theatrical, anthropological and functional sense. In the fifth block of the course, Plessner exposes the main points of a study already been published in English under the title Laughing and Crying: A Study of the Limits of Human Behavior, in which he works out the relation between expressivity and human condition, comparing these with examples from empirical sciences such as biology and zoology. At the end of the course, two lessons address the problem of disembodiment [Entkörperung] and the human consciousness of death. The last one approaches the actuality of philosophical anthropology, with Plessner reviewing the questions worked through during the semester.
Those are already familiar with the work of Plessner will not find new theoretical material, as these lectures are the basis for his work Conditio humana. But the book certainly permits a different access to Plessner’s formulations on philosophical anthropology, in a similar manner as in recent decades the publication of lecture transcripts of authors such as Foucault and Adorno have thrown new light on their work. Plessner (like Adorno) shows a generous and pedagogical clarity with the students, in strong contrast to the technical jargon present in some of his texts. The spontaneity of spoken thought, the constant evocation of the second person (and also of the we) and a text marked by the contingency of a lecture produce a different complicity between author and reader, the latter of whom is treated as a listener.
First, we should highlight the context of the philosophical anthropology. This discipline saw its high point in Germany after the First World War and began losing relevance in the mainstream intellectual scene around the 1970’s. The relationship between the essential determinations of man and the experience of the first enormous catastrophe of the 20th century is a question not ignored by Plessner. In a strict materialistic sense, Plessner says that “this science [philosophical anthropology] made significant progress with the experiment of brain injuries occasioned by the First World War” so that “the war worked as a violent experimenter” (12). The war “opened up” man for insight in different senses, but also literally. The image of mutilated human beings revealed that it was not any longer evident what “man” was: this was the moment of the rise of philosophical anthropology. In the notes to the first lesson of the course, Plessner writes: “Ph[ilosophical] A[nthropology] is the expression of the uncertainty of man about his ‘determination’ [Max Scheler]” (9). The reference is probably to the essay The Human Place in the Cosmos from 1928 (the same year of the publication of Plessner’s Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch), where Scheler writes that “in no historical era has the human being become so much of a problem to himself as in ours.” Already in his Die verspätete Nation (first published in 1935 and then reedited in 1959), which was an attempt to understand the genealogy of fascism, he quoted Golo Mann, who said: “The question of what Germany is, and what should be done with it, was an inevitable one hundred years ago. But time worked fast… What man is, and what man should do with himself: that is the question of the future.” It is also no accident that the new period of ontological uncertainty coincided with a rebirth of conservative humanism (centered in the figure of Scheler).
The historical delimitation of philosophical anthropology as a discipline is something that Plessner approaches explicitly in his lectures: he criticizes openly the idea that there has always been philosophical anthropology, so that it must be seen as an anachronism to speak of a philosophical anthropology in Plato or Saint Augustine. He situates it rather as a late product of bourgeois society that begins to appear in the 19th century, as well as in sociology (that presupposes itself a philosophical anthropology and that has a concept of man diverse from the medical and natural sciences). However, it is effectively in the 1920’s, and as a sibling of the “philosophy of existence,” that philosophical anthropology sees its rise. He says: “Let me say something about the date of origin of philosophical anthropology, in the sense that we want to gradually develop here, and of the philosophy of existence. It is not an accident that both emerged in the 20’s of this century, and at the same time. The first works on philosophical anthropology – if I don’t think of the predecessors in the 19th century, that actually exist, especially Feuerbach – appear after the First World War, that is, in the beginning of the 1920’s. The problem developed there” (27). Also, the early philosophical anthropology of Günther Anders was named by commentators as a hypostasis of the Homo weimarensis, in which the existential condition of not being completely merged with the world (that is, the “world-estrangement of man”) was at the same time the condition for man’s freedom. (The latter was, however, “pathological,” as this freedom was a result of man’s “non-identification” and contingency relatively to world – in opposition to animals, that have in the world their “natural place.”) The proximity to Plessner’s formulation of the “ex-centric positionality of man” is evident.
Plessner approaches this motif of the “deficitary nature” of man, of man as a Mangelwesen, a motif that can be traced back to the 19th century, at least back to Herder: Herder would speak of man as an animal without claw, horns, poison fang, or strong bite. That means that the biological existence of man, his instincts, are not enough. If this natural weakness of man was something to be denied – and eliminated – by fascist naturalism (legitimized by the doctrine of race, which was, as Plessner points out, a dominant philosophical anthropology of the 1930s that wished to affirm the natural and “original” force), this separation from nature is, on the contrary, what Plessner wants to affirm: “Man is, before everything, instinctually weak [instinktschwach]” (119). What is not openly said by Plessner, but which we could interpret in this way, is that the instinctual realm carries a historical trauma, the same way as German backwardness appears as an excess of nature, as the “biological fall of man” [biologischer Sündenfall] (as Habermas says in his interpretation of Die verspätete Nation). A moral problem, linked to a specific historical experience as the problem of “evil” (understood as aggression), appears between these lines of philosophical anthropology, which does not wish to naturalize the bestiality happened in the past. Therefore, Plessner’s intention is not to understand fascism as a “destiny” written in human nature – although in these lectures, specifically, Plessner’s reference to German fascism, are quite lateral. In this sense, in a less pessimistic manner as Freud in his Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, the essential determinations of man lie in the fact that he is not subordinated to his instincts (as animals are). The essential is not instinct, but its restraint (the “super-ego,” Freud would say). Plessner became, as it is known, an expert in biology and in other fields of the natural sciences. But at the same time, his interest lies in the limits of nature: a constant procedure of philosophical anthropology is the comparison between man and animals, in order to distinguish them.
What underlies Plessner’s considerations is an anti-Nietzscheanism (in other texts he names the origin of three radicalisms he despises: Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche), and also the critique of what he calls the “utopia of the lost wild form of man,” for him a “biological interpretation of civilization and culture as precisely the fall of man [Sündenfall] from nature” (124). As Habermas points out, Plessner’s vision of human Sündenfall is its involvement in nature, not in civilization (as Rousseau sees it). Plessner certainly doesn’t follow the Frankfurtian interpretation of the Dialectics of Enlightenment and doesn’t see the civilized restraint of the instinctual realm in a pathological manner. Rather, such restraints are what characterize the specifically human and should be positively affirmed. Social norms, which are not identical to vital and biological norms, have a “regulative braking function” [regulierende, bremsende Funktion] (121). “To be human therefore means to be guided and inhibited by norms, to be quickened and braked, directed and at the same time limited. That is, to be human means to be a represser [Verdränger]” (122). A defense of these “humanizing” brakes as a defense of civilization shows an inversion of Rousseau that we could call Plessner’s “utopia of the lost civilized form of man,” that has a special meaning during the Reconstruction and Denazification of post-war Germany. Man may be a “blond beast” – but the “blond beast is in the stable” (126). In a certain manner, Plessner’s philosophical anthropology is a praise to the success of domestication of man.
This negation and repression of instinctual nature has a violent dimension. This theory of compensation of the biologically underprivileged condition of man (in which the spirit would result from the insufficiency of the body) finds in Gehlen’s philosophical anthropology a more authoritarian version, as man becomes not a peaceful creature when he leaves the natural condition of animal, but rather becomes a kind of ultra-strong animal. Plessner criticizes Gehlen in these terms: “Capacity of abstraction, language, intelligence become weapons. They become so to speak second order horns and claws” (120). We could even make a comparison on Adorno’s view of the violence of the abstraction as a “second-order” instinct of self-preservation (so that civilization appears as a continuation of the state of nature), but that would lead us too far. However, the compensation of the biological weakness for Gehlen is the social strength – the institutions. Plessner’s view on the break of the biological dimension is different, as he emphasizes language: “Where does man show himself as man, specifically? There where the breaking [Brechung] through language takes place, that is, there where he enters a totally other dimension as the purely biological dimension” (107). To become human means to leave nature behind. We could even identify a proximity with the Habermasian approach (formulated a decade later) on the communicative action as the “breaking out” of the dialectics of enlightenment, in which reason (understood by Adorno and Horkheimer as originally instrumental) is no longer a “second order” instinct, that is, a continuation of the history of violence. However, strangely enough, Plessner doesn’t make any reference to the Dialectic of Enlightenment, a text he certainly knew. When he understands language as a social structure, Plessner “sociologizes” his philosophical anthropology, in which this being for the other – the “communality” [Gemeinsamkeit] – is central. But Plessner never ceases to investigate the relation to nature and the form of the body. He is interested in the mouth, the tongue, and in the capacity to produce sounds. “Language and voice belong to each other” (73). His interests continuously flow from biology to sociology, and back, so that we notice a continuous tension between nature and society, although they always need to be separated.
If Plessner performs this double movement between biology and sociology, it is because his interest lies in the “determination of the double nature of man” (9): on the one side, the cultural and spiritual existence of man, and on the other side, his vital expressions in the biological world. And so he comes back to the discussion with Descartes and the separation of body and soul. This disruption as the essential determination of man is Plessner’s point of departure, and also the point to which he comes back in the last lesson: “a unity that has a break [Bruch] in itself” (219). It is interesting to note how this idea of a unity that breaks itself in two (the gap between body and spirit) is also present in his interpretations of the German historical process. The epigraph of the second edition of Die verspätete Nation (1959) was a quote from Thomas Mann in 1945: “There are no two Germanies, an evil one and a good one, but one, whose best turned to evil through a diabolical ruse.” This was the classical question for German liberal humanists: how was so much hatred and aggression possible in the country of poets and philosophers?
It is difficult to say if Plessner applies his model of philosophical anthropology to understand Germany or the contrary, if his reflections on human nature are an attempt to explain a determinate historical experience. This German unity-in-duality (that in the 19th century allowed the modern rebirth of dialectics) was represented by Marx as Germany’s small body (material and political backwardness) with its huge head (the advanced ideas). But in Plessner there is no dialectics produced by this gap between Germany’s body and spirit and his vision is not the same as Marx’s (neither is dialectics’ two the dualism of body-spirit). For him, Germany’s small body was actually a monster, it was a body without spirit: “Bismarcks Reich, eine Großmacht ohne Staatsidee,” power and force without “idea.” The problem was not the State, incorporated in an idea, but rather an excess of nature. Instead of humanity (the spirit), in backward Germany appeared the organic body: the people, the German Volk. The problem was that the ideological national fundament was: “Nicht Staat, sondern Volk”. On the idea of Volk, which for Plessner represents the German anti-humanism, he affirms: “This category, shaped by Herder in opposition to the generalizing abstraction of the universal idea of humanity, in order to overcome the vacuum between the individual rational being and the general human reason, the generic human being, is romantic and flourished in the 19th century towards the significant reality, through which it today reveals the power of a political idea.” To sum it up, Plessner interprets Germany’s backwardness as a lack of spirit: in its excess of nature, Germany “lacked political humanism.” As Habermas affirms, in Plessner’s work “humanism, also the political humanism of the western world, should as a mere postulate continue to ethically maintain its force.”
Although we speak of Descartes’ ontological separation of spirit and body, it is important to say that Plessner is not Cartesian, as he follows the break of the 19th century philosophy that brings nature under philosophical consideration. But following the humanist tradition of Enlightenment, evil is always related to what is not spirit: the organic res extensa (as Deleuze remarked about Kant). For Plessner, however, nature is not evil in itself: evil is a specific human tendency that appears in this division between nature and spirit. Man is no “beast of prey,” says Plessner. At the same time there are no murders in nature, properly said. Only man, in his particular “eccentric position,” can become a criminal. Plessner comes back to this problem in the last lesson of the semester: “Evil in this sense only becomes possible as reality through this peculiar disruption [Zerrissenheit] and brokenness [Gebrochenheit]” (221). It is a conception of human essential determinations, and at the same time we can’t avoid reading it as a response to historical problems. Plessner’s philosophical anthropology has its place in 20th century Germany.
 Max Scheler, The Human Place in the Cosmos. Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2009, p. 5.
 Apud Jürgen Habermas, Politisch-philosophische Profile. Frankfurt am Main: Surhkamp, 1984, p. 133.
 Günther Anders, Die Weltfremdheit des Menschen: Schriften zur philosophischen Anthropologie. München: Beck, 2018.
 On Plessner’s concept of “exzentrische Positionalität”, see: Joachim Fischer, “Exzentrische Positionalität: Plessners Grundkategorie der Philosophischen Anthropologie”. Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, 48, (2000) 2, p. 265-288.
 Helmuth Plessner, Die verspätete Nation. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1982, p. 11.
 For an interpretation of the relation between the modern rebirth of dialectics and the historical experience of backwardness in 19th century Germany, see Paulo Arantes, Ressentimento da Dialética: Dialética e Experiência Intelectual em Hegel. São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1996.
 Plessner, Die verspätete Nation, p. 48.
 Ibid., p. 52.
 Ibid., p. 59
 Ibid., p. 19.
 Jürgen Habermas, Politisch-philosophische Profile. Frankfurt am Main: Surhkamp, 1984, p. 134.