Helmuth Plessner: Levels of Organic Life and the Human: An Introduction to Philosophical Anthropology

Shawn Loht

Levels of Organic Life and the Human: An Introduction to Philosophical Anthropology Book Cover Levels of Organic Life and the Human: An Introduction to Philosophical Anthropology
Helmuth Plessner. Translated by Millay Hyatt. Introduction by J. M. Bernstein
Fordham University Press
Paperback $35.00

Reviewed by: Shawn Loht (Baton Rouge Community College, USA)

This publication of Helmuth Plessner’s 1928 work marks its first translation into English.  In fact, this text is one of only a few of Plessner’s many books that has seen English translation.  As Plessner describes in the Preface to the Second Edition, from 1965, this book did not reach a wide audience upon its publication due to the long shadow of Max Scheler (xix), of whom Plessner was widely seen as a disciple.  The present edition, translated from the German by Millay Hyatt, is a welcome appearance of a seminal text from German philosophy’s very productive engagement with anthropology and the philosophy of life in the first half of the twentieth century.  Regarded by numerous scholars as Plessner’s masterwork, Levels of Organic Life and the Human synthesizes philosophical biology, phenomenology, existentialism, and social philosophy in the process of constructing a systematic philosophy of life from the ground up.  The primary influence on Plessner’s composition of this work is not Scheler, as Plessner maintains in the Preface to the Second Edition, but Plessner’s teacher Hans Driesch, the biologist who favored vitalism as a framework for explaining the presence of entelechy in biological life.  Plessner also cites Wilhelm Dilthey as a major source of inspiration.  Indeed, much of Plessner’s approach seeks to tread a middle ground between the approaches of vitalism and mechanism in accounting for the principles of living things.  Plessner’s aim in fact is not to identify a hidden ingredient, force, or principle driving living things, as much as it is to describe the foundations of life phenomenologically, “finding and testing an approach that would make it possible to characterize the specific modes in which animated bodies appear” (xxiv).  In brief, he writes, the task is to reinvigorate dialogue on what we mean by terms such as “Iife,” “alive,” and “animate,” where supporting evidence can be drawn from what is available to intuition (xxxi).  A task for the specifically anthropological dimensions of this study is to analyze human life from the perspective of the lived body, as opposed to separating human being into dualistic aspects of mind and matter, subjective and objective, or spirit and sensation (32-33).  Plessner maintains that traditional dualism, inherited from the Cartesian paradigm, misconstrues the science underlying anthropology by virtue of separating science into the natural science of measurement on one hand, and the science of consciousness and self on the other hand (65).  Plessner does not want to invalidate this dichotomy entirely; instead, he aims to show how human lived experience is built upon an overlap of both of these dimensions, where human being consists of inner being and outer being at the same time, with the human self centered biologically rather than spiritually.  He stipulates that a specific aim of this anthropology is to highlight human life’s natural existence via a philosophical biology, arguing “The human is carried by living nature; no matter how spiritual he may be, he remains subjugated to it.  From nature he draws the strength and material for any sublimation whatsoever” (71). In other words, “the construction of a philosophical anthropology has as its prerequisite a study of those states of affairs that are concentrated around the state of affairs of ‘life’” (Ibid.).

The primary thesis of Plessner’s study consists of two key claims.  First, living things are defined by the possession of a “boundary” (Grenz), particularly in the manner that this boundary exceeds the physical space occupied by the object (84).  Second, living things are defined by what Plessner calls “positionality” (Positionalität) (121).  By this term, Plessner means the phenomenon of living things’ manner of depositedness or placement within themselves, such that they occupy a place relative to their surrounding environment.  The primary “levels” of the organic Plessner reckons with are plants, animals, and human beings.

To drill down on these main features of Plessner’s thesis, his focus on the concept of boundary is motivated by the fundamental notion that living things are characterized by a divergence, exhibited to intuition, of inner and outer aspects, where this divergence is constitutive of the being of the thing (84).  As Plessner summarizes, “[t]he relationship between outer and inner…determines the appearance of the thing-body as a whole” (92-93).  In other words, living things manifest themselves to intuition such that the exterior’s appearance is a function of interior structure, and vice versa.  Intuition can categorially comprehend an interior essence within the thing which is integral to its outward manifestation.  This intuited, interior essence does not arise with the intuition of inanimate bodies.  The concept of boundary is decisive here insofar as it expresses the phenomenon according to which living things direct themselves outward from inside while at the same time maintaining an inward center.  Boundary is thus not a strictly spatial concept as traditional language tends to construe this term, although it does express a living thing’s way of transcending its own space (119).  Plessner proffers the hypothesis that living things are constituted specifically by relating to their boundary, effecting the transition from where their being extends to where it ceases (94).  He does not provide many examples at this stage, but he seems to have in mind, for instance, phenomena such as that whereby plants are characterized by non-static, outward extension, stretching beyond their physical contours seeking food, water, and the like, but where this seeking is driven by an inward principle.

“Positionality” is another concept Plessner introduces in describing the ontology of living things in terms of their spatiality.  Though he expresses a wariness regarding the overtones of the notion of “position” or “positing” prevalent in German idealism, he selects positionality as a term for describing a living thing’s way of situating its specific way of reaching out of itself while at the same time maintaining its inward-turned character. He writes: “I mean by this [positionality] the fundamental feature of an entity that makes a body in its being into a posited one” (121).  Again, as with the notion of boundary, the crux concerns the fashion in which a living thing self-relates in specifically spatial terms.  A living thing possesses its boundary as its own, whereas a nonliving thing does not (121).  This realization of boundary has the implication of the living thing setting itself into a place.  Plessner describes this phenomenon as follows: “This being-for-itself or being-for-it…thus forms, as it were, the invisible frame in which the thing sets itself apart from its surroundings with the special distinctness of boundedness” (122).  Alternately stated, Plessner continues, living things have the character of “claiming” their space rather than simply occupying it; they have a place of their own, a “natural place” (123).  The Aristotelian slant of this last locution seems an intentional reference on Plessner’s part.  Finally, a further implication of the phenomenon of positionality is the observation that for a thing to exhibit a positional character requires it to become, to be constituted by process (123ff).  For a living thing cannot claim its space without actively doing so.  It must grow beyond the boundary originally given to it.  It must persist, pushing against the abandonment of its space (124).  And on the note of becoming, time comes into the picture, insofar as becoming cannot be understood outside of a framework involving time.  The positional character by which a living thing is always “ahead-of-itself” illustrates that living things are defined by existing in time (166-67).  Although Plessner does not highlight it himself, there is ostensibly a Heideggerian flavor in this discussion of the relation between living things and time; his account here seems to echo Heidegger’s claim in Being and Time that the future [Zukunft] is the fundamental temporal mode.  However, at this stage of the text, Plessner is discussing living things at large, and not yet human being.  I will offer some further comments about Plessner’s encounter with Heidegger below.

Plessner differentiates plants, animals, and human beings with the distinction of a living thing’s “form.”  “Form” characterizes for Plessner the specific way a living thing balances its self-sufficiency with its non-self-sufficiency as something alive (202).  In other words, form describes the living thing’s way of managing the divergence of what it can provide for itself and what it needs from elsewhere.  In this guise, the form of “plant” is characterized by “open” form.  Open form characterizes the type of living thing that “in all its expressions of life is immediately incorporated into its surroundings and constitutes a non-self-sufficient segment of the life circle corresponding to it” (203).  This observation describes a plant’s character of exhibiting total integration in its environment, such that everything it needs in order to persist is immediately available to its outward-directed boundary.  In this light, the plant is completely “open” to and in contact with its surroundings; it does not close itself off from its surroundings because it is stuck where it is.  The plant can only cope with the conditions posed by its surroundings by harmonizing with them, developing in coexistence with what the surroundings offer.  In contrast, the animal is characterized by exhibiting a “closed” form.  The closed form has its essence in the living thing sectioning itself off from its surroundings and maintaining a higher degree of self-reliance (209).  In its closed form, the animal relates to its surroundings in a mediate fashion as opposed to the plant’s immediate contact with its surroundings (213).  Particularly with animals possessing a central nervous system, which harmonizes the operation of organs and routes sense-data to the brain for processing, the closed form entails concentration of powers and drives, but at the expense of the immediate satisfaction of needs (215-16).  For instance, whereas plants are able to obtain all nutrition from their immediate surroundings, animals must make provisions for themselves by finding their food.  Finally, a feature of the closed form of life unique to animals which Plessner suggests is illustrative of the relationship between living things at large and their surroundings is the phenomenon of instinct.  As Plessner describes it, instinct refers to a mapping of the animal’s sensations and needs to its lived surroundings, revealing a necessary coexistence between the animal’s body and the organized field of its surroundings (240).  The occurrence whereby an animal’s instinct on one hand directs it to exhibit a kind of automatic intelligence or programmed behavior, and on the other hand, the ease whereby these patterns can be disrupted by the most miniscule changes in the animal’s field (ex. bees unable to find their hive if it is moved slightly), indicate that living thing and surroundings are reciprocal sides of being that cannot be separated.  Plessner summarizes: “the living thing has itself and its positional field in advance” (236).  The crux of this point is that, pace the theory of natural selection, the living thing’s surroundings are not a force that works against it or threatens its survival (240).  The animal’s surrounding field simply is reflective of what its body perceives and uses; what the animal does not engage with by and large has no meaning for it.

Plessner’s account comes to a climax with his description of human beings in the final chapter.  While this final chapter is the book’s briefest, the account of human beings also has implicit reference to all of the preceding material.  Now that he has accounted for all manner of living things except the human, Plessner’s final task is to highlight what the human level of life possesses in addition to the preceding levels.  In addition to unsurprising human features Plessner takes up here (memory, intelligence), a decisive move comes at the end of the book’s penultimate chapter, in which Plessner describes animal being.  While animals and human beings share in the experience of the “lived body” (an experience not afforded to plants), nonhuman animals lack insight into the contrast of the invisible and the real.  They lack categorial intuition of what is present but not perceived.  Whereas human beings plainly possess this quality.  Upon discussing Wolfgang Köhler’s experiments performed on chimpanzees, Plessner summarizes as follows: “The most intelligent living being in the animal kingdom, the animal most similar to the human, lacks a sense of the negative” (250).  In brief, animals cannot penetrate the excess of negativity in their perceptions; they cannot intuit the “backs” of things (251).  Here, Plessner shows a strong influence from Husserlian phenomenology on the features of human consciousness, although he does not acknowledge so.  This observation paves the ground for Plessner’s principal thesis regarding the human being.  This thesis holds that the human is defined by an “excentric” positionality (271), which is a way of saying that the human being is un-centered, removed from possession of itself, in contrast to the way that nonhuman animals are completely “centered” or at home in themselves positionally speaking.  The nonhuman animal’s self does not exist at any remove from its lived body; these are one.  As a result, interestingly, Plessner’s anthropology, while predicated on the elements of the philosophy of life leading up to it in the text, also contains a strongly Heideggerian overtone by virtue of its insight into the human being’s inherent disconnect with itself (what Heidegger labels in Being and Time with terms like “uncanniness,” “thrownness,” “falling,” and so forth).  One can also observe some rudiments of the early Jean-Paul Sartre regarding the inherent ungrounded negativity of consciousness.  But to reiterate, nonetheless different in Plessner’s model is the out-and-out derivation of the anthropological from the phenomenon of life, where human existence is founded in the lived body.

Two final features of Plessner’s account of the human in this last chapter of the book that are notable for their overlap with themes in German thought of the same period are “artificiality” and “expression.”  These themes are treated amidst a subsection of the final chapter entitled “The Fundamental Laws of Anthropology.”  Like Heidegger, Plessner observes that artificiality or technology is an ineradicable component of the human situation.  However, different in Plessner’s view is that artificiality is a phenomenon driven directly by human finitude whereby human beings, given existential freedom (294), are driven to create in order to secure a stronger permanence beyond themselves.  Plessner writes: “Since the human is forced by his type of existence to lead the life that he lives, to fashion what he is – because he is only insofar as he performs – he needs a complement of a non-natural, non-organic kind.  Therefore, because of his form of existence, he is by nature artificial” (288).  Similarly, “[t]he human wants to escape the unbearable excentricity of his being; he wants to compensate for the dividedness of his own form of life, and he can achieve this only with things that are substantial enough to counterbalance the weight of his own existence” (289).  One particular direction this urge for creation pushes the human being is to create what Plessner terms the “unreal,” or the antithesis of the impermanence of the real.  Ultimately, Plessner maintains, this eventuates in the creation of culture (289).

“Expression,” which Plessner regards as an ontological precursor to language, reveals a phenomenological law of “mediated immediacy” (298-99).  Expression is the phenomenon in which the human being articulates the correlativity between the situation of one’s self and the world.  It is not limited to interpersonal communication or language in the conventional sense, but more broadly includes any type of creative, inventive act.  Plessner calls this occurrence the “fortunate touch,” insofar as it metaphorically manifests a moment of human contact with or grasping of the world (299).  As with the account of artificiality, which parallels Heidegger’s description of technology, similarly here with the notion of expression there is an overlap with bread-and-butter phenomenological accounts of language or signification read as the mode through which the human articulates the state of understanding, or the presencing of what is given in one’s intentional state.  Notable about Plessner’s overlap with Heidegger on these issues and several others are the fact that Heidegger is the philosopher Plessner criticizes the most in this work’s prefatory materials, especially the Preface to the Second Edition.  There is much one could explore here regarding the grounds of Plessner’s criticism, which to its credit is well-informed by the central claims of Being and Time.  However, the brunt of Plessner’s critique of Heidegger appears to lay in the latter’s failure to include any look at embodied life in his account of Dasein.

Much more could be said about Plessner’s account of the human, which, although relatively brief in the grander scheme of the book, covers significant ground and offers many avenues for further exploration.  This relative brevity is also what I see as a shortcoming of the book’s treatment of the human.  This treatment is almost too brief, to the point of being underdeveloped, although, as Plessner asserts in various prefatory passages of the text, this work aims to describe the human specifically as a manifestation of life and as one “level” or form among living things.  So Plessner cannot be blamed too much on this angle, especially given that the final chapter of this text sets the stage for the premise of his next work, Macht und menschliche Natur (published in English translation as Political Anthropology), which appeared shortly after Levels of Organic Life in 1931.  Another challenge posed by the book is its difficulty.  Because the author frequently neglects to include examples, much of the writing is quite abstract (in the vein of the more difficult texts of G.W.F. Hegel or Hans-Georg Gadamer), requiring focused concentration from the reader.  A further complicating factor here is that Plessner frequently adopts the voice of a position he in fact aims to criticize without making this move explicit or providing citations to outside texts and authors.  As a result, in many instances the reader can easily be given the impression that Plessner endorses a given position that he actually means to undercut.  With these challenges in mind, the reader will be advised not to pick this book up casually; one should be prepared for many hours of close reading and revisiting of passages.

This book’s foremost asset is its rich account of the philosophy of life and the various structures that correspond to the “levels” of organic life.  It is a major work in the history of the philosophy of life and should be read alongside other seminal works in the subject, such as Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution, Hans Jonas’ The Phenomenon of Life, and the writings of Hans Driesch.  In addition, its lively engagement with major philosophers of early 20th-century German thought provides a wonderful snapshot of the intellectual atmosphere of the time and the influence of Husserl, Heidegger, Scheler, and many others during their own lifetimes.  Levels of Organic Life was published one year after Heidegger’s Being and Time and in the same year as Scheler’s The Place of the Human in the Cosmos.

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