Phillip Honenberger (Ed.): Naturalism and Philosophical Anthropology: Nature, Life, and the Human between Transcendental and Empirical Perspectives

Naturalism and Philosophical Anthropology: Nature, Life, and the Human between Transcendental and Empirical Perspectives Book Cover Naturalism and Philosophical Anthropology: Nature, Life, and the Human between Transcendental and Empirical Perspectives
Phillip Honenberger (Ed.)
Palgrave Macmillan

Reviewed by: Henry Dicks (Institute of Philosophical Research, University of Lyon)

Philosophical anthropology emerged as a systematic field of inquiry in Germany in the 1920s. Max Scheler’s, The Place of Human Beings in the Cosmos was published in 1927, Helmuth Plessner’s The Stages of the Organic and Man: Introduction to Philosophical Anthropology in 1928, and Arnold Gehlen’s Man: His Nature and Place in the World somewhat later, in 1940. The principal objective of this volume is to analyse philosophical anthropology, as set out by its German pioneers, in relation to more recent research in the field, the particular focus being the dominant theoretical stance of contemporary analytic philosophy: scientific naturalism.

As Honenberger explains in an admirably clear introduction, the volume may be seen as roughly divided into two parts. The first part (chapters 1-5) analyses the relation between the work of the classical philosophical anthropologists and various historically important figures, texts, or questions in philosophy. The first chapter, by Beth Cykowski, analyses the first major alternative to philosophical anthropology: Heidegger’s existential analytic of Dasein, as carried out in Being and Time (1927) and The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics (1929). Distancing himself from such contemporaries as Spengler and Scheler, Heidegger makes two major contributions to the theme of ‘philosophical anthropology and naturalism’: i) he argues that the basic positions which structure philosophical anthropology – the division between life and spirit, in particular – remain essentially determined by the tradition of Western metaphysics and thus fail to think through the concept of the human in a sufficiently radical manner: ii) he contends that the very concept of ‘nature’ is problematically determined by the standpoint of empirical science and, as such, again presents us from thinking in a more radical way, not about Nature, but rather about physis.

In the second chapter, Richard Schacht analyses the influence exerted by Nietzsche on Gehlen. Nietzsche, Schacht explains, sought to overcome religious and metaphysical accounts of the human as somehow situated at least partly outside of Nature, and instead to account for the emergence of the human in genealogical terms as a part of Nature. This way of thinking, Schacht convincingly argues, exerted a major influence on Gehlen. Schacht also explains, however, that Gehlen rejected certain aspects of Nietzsche’s thought, from what he considered his overly literary and insufficiently scientific style to his thinking of the ‘will-to-power’, which was jettisoned in favour of a focus on ‘survival’.

The principal philosopher analysed in the third chapter – by Vida Pavesich – is Hans Blumenberg. Influenced by both the phenomenological tradition (Husserl and Heidegger) and German (philosophical) anthropologists of the 1920s and beyond (Alsberg, Cassirer, Gehlen), Blumenberg puts forward a view of ethics as the self-preservation of the human, while at the same time showing the important role played by ‘consolation’ in both the genesis and the continued existence of humans: vulnerable by nature, human self-preservation depends on compensating for a constitutive “lack” by means of philosophy, religion, music, art, literature and so on.

The fourth chapter, by Philippe Honenberger, departs from previous ones by focusing not on a specific philosopher, but rather on various contemporary stances that may be taken with respect to philosophical anthropology, namely naturalism, pluralism, and ‘emergentism’, the latter being the position which Honenberger himself tends to favour.

In the fifth chapter, by Scott Davis, the focus is on Plessner, who is brought into dialogue with a variety of philosophers and thinkers, notably Ernst Mayr, Alfred Whitehead, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Pierre Bourdieu, the overall aim being to show that the fundamental concepts of philosophical anthropology – especially ‘life’ and ‘man’ – need to be understand in narrative terms and more specifically in the framework of what Davis calls ‘structural narratology’.

The second half of the volume focuses on contemporary debates in philosophical anthropology. Chapter 6, by Sally Wasmuth, provides a lucid and convincing argument for the pertinence of Gehlen’s philosophical anthropology for addiction treatment. Arguing that contemporary treatments often focus on remedying only the most pressing problems arising from addiction, and not the fundamental causes, Wasmuth shows how Gehlen’s theory of institutions can provide a theoretical framework for addiction treatment which stresses the importance not just of abstaining from addictive behaviour but also of reintegration into society, though without going to the opposite extreme of the slavish following of institutional norms.

In chapter 7, Lenny Moss undertakes the ambitious project of putting forward a ‘new point of departure for philosophical anthropology’. Drawing on his theory that over the course of evolution Nature has created ever more complex norms of its own, Moss argues that there have been two major stages in human evolution: a ‘first detachment’, corresponding approximately to the emergence of homo erectus, and which consisted in the development of norms at the level of the group; and a ‘second detachment’, corresponding to the emergence of homo sapiens, in which individual norms come to mark a dramatic rupture with the group norms of the ‘first detachment’. There are, however, two major weaknesses to this argument: i) it is highly speculative and supported by only rather flimsy empirical claims: ii) Moss draws on Michael Tomasello, and yet Tomasello’s own two-stage theory of human evolution, based on a first transition to second-personal thinking (the view from ‘there’, in addition to the first-personal view from ‘here’) and a second transition to third-personal thinking (the view from ‘nowhere’) is hard to reconcile with Moss’s own two-stage model.

Chapter 8, by Hans-Peter Krüger, again discusses Tomasello, though the focus here is less on the content of Tomasello’s theory of anthropogenesis, and more on his philosophical stance, which Krüger calls ‘quasi-transcendental naturalism’. Drawing on a variety of disciplines including primatology, developmental psychology, and cultural psychology, Tomasello seeks to explain how it was that evolution could have given rise to mental phenomena that are not reducible to purely biological forms of causality, namely the emergence of ‘joint attention’ in the context of collaborative foraging. For Krüger, this introduces a quasi-transcendental dimension to the human, which is nevertheless explained in naturalistic terms, i.e., as a product of evolution by natural selection.

In chapter 9, Joseph Margolis analyses the relationship between biology and culture, putting forward a broadly convincing but not very original critique of reductionist attempts to explain culture biologically (genetic determinism, etc.).

Lastly, chapter 10 provides a sketch of the broad research framework of what its author, Sami Pihlström, calls ‘philosophical thanatology’, that is to say, the philosophy of death, dying and mortality. For Pihlström, there are a number of key authors to draw on in this field, from the obvious phenomenological thinkers (Heidegger and Levinas) to Wittgenstein, the pragmatists, and even analytic philosophers, like Thomas Nagel. If this chapter succeeds in its aims of providing an overview of a research field – philosophical thanatology – that is rarely considered as such, it would have been interesting to see the position Pihlström adopts, which he calls ‘transcendental pragmatism’, elaborated in slightly more detail.

Overall, it seems fair to say that this collection succeeds at two levels: first, it gives a broad feel for philosophical anthropology in both its historical and contemporary guises; second, at least in some cases, the individual contributions could prove highly useful for specialists interested in learning more about specific questions (Heidegger and philosophical anthropology, Nietzsche and Gehlen, philosophical anthropology and addiction, the relevance of Tomasello to philosophical anthropology, etc.). The limitations of the book centre around its focus on naturalism. If philosophical anthropology has always drawn on empirical science, it is also true that it has more often entered into fruitful dialogue with European philosophy (Nietzsche, Heidegger, etc.) than with the philosophical naturalism dominant in the analytic tradition, most of which provides ideological support for empirical and naturalistic approaches to anthropology but without really contributing very much to philosophical anthropology as such. The overall result is that, particularly in the second half of the book, the content is somewhat skewed towards rather tired and familiar debates around the truth of naturalism. This is obviously not to deny the importance of articulating empirical analyses – whether in biology, anthropology, psychology, or whatever – with philosophical reflexion, as is already the case in the excellent work of Tomasello, but only to say that it is limiting to see the importance of thinkers like Tomasello primarily in terms of their contribution to the question of naturalism. Moss’s article does of course attempt something more than this, but his argument is highly problematic.

This focus on naturalism in turn means that much of the most dynamic and innovative work in contemporary philosophical anthropology – Sloterdijk’s brilliant study of the genesis of the ‘clearing’ in “The Domestication of Being”, for example – is overlooked in favour of rather predictable attempts to answer the question of whether or not humans in some sense transcend life and Nature. Similarly, the overall philosophical polarisation that dominates the collection as a whole – Post-Kantian German philosophy (phenomenology, etc.) versus Anglo-American scientific naturalism – means that important and original contemporary French contributions to the debate, such as Bruno Latour’s “anthropology of the moderns”, Philippe Descola’s vast study of the ethnocentrism implicit in the very concept of Nature, and Edgar Morin’s quasi-Heideggerian attempt to re-unify the natural and human sciences via a renewal of Pre-Socratic thinking of physis, are not even mentioned. So, while the book is a valuable addition to the field of contemporary philosophical anthropology, there is certainly scope for further work in this field that does not take the traditional – and Heidegger would no doubt add ‘metaphysical’ – opposition between the empirical and the transcendental as the fundamental issue to be resolved.