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

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.

Gabor Csepregi: In Vivo: A Phenomenology of Life-Defining Moments

In Vivo: A Phenomenology of Life-Defining Moments Book Cover In Vivo: A Phenomenology of Life-Defining Moments
Gabor Csepregi
McGill Queen University Press
Paperback $29.95

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

This book is a contribution to phenomenological anthropology and to contemporary philosophy more broadly.  Above all, it is the unique instance of a philosophical work that immediately contributes to knowledge for life without burdening the reader with technical vocabulary and complex argumentation.  Avoiding a scholarly approach, it is not a theoretical treatise that analyzes the notion of a life-defining moment conceptually.  Proceeding through the phenomenological method, Gabor Csepregi explores the first-person experience of moments or changes that often are definitive for the course of one’s life and personal development.  To this end, as the author states in the Introduction, the work aims to further the philosophy of the human person (5).  Written in a lively and accessible style, Csepregi’s book employs illuminating examples from literature, biography, and memoir.  It also contains much thoughtful engagement with the work of other continental philosophers of the human person, most notably Max Scheler, Helmuth Plessner, and Eugène Minkowski to name a few.

The notion of a “life-defining moment” is the phenomenon most pregnant with ambiguity in the book’s premise.  However, as Csepregi clarifies in the Introduction, this is not a concept whose occurrence can be identified with precision or marked out in the existential terms of an instantaneous “augenblick,” as characterized by historical philosophers like Heidegger and Kierkegaard.  Csepregi understands the notion of “moment” in a quasi-Hegelian sense, as an often prolonged, but nonetheless definitive period or process of change in one’s life.  Csepregi remarks that as an example, his college years stand out to him as a life-defining moment (9).  Thus, a moment that is life-defining can be understood as an extended period of personal growth or change in perspective, where one is an ostensibly different person before and after.  Entrance into spiritual or aesthetic transcendence may also be involved.  Generalizing, Csepregi writes: “By moment, I mean a certain duration that, thanks to its deeper importance and transforming effect, stands out with regard to the past and to the future in our personal becoming and may even transport us into a timeless dimension” (10).

But what does it mean to talk of such moments as “life-defining”?  In Csepregi’s account, life-defining moments are those in which possibilities sharply manifest themselves to one.  Life-defining moments occasion a unique manner of temporal disclosure, such that in these moments we are lucidly able to perceive the relation of our own selves to the disjunctions in our life-courses.  Life-defining moments often involve an encounter with the foreign, inviting the human subject to enter different ways of thinking and being.  Phenomenologically decisive about these moments, the author writes, is that they reveal the primacy of sharp turns in development as inherent to human life in its highest realization.  As such, they involve possibilities inherent in every person (7).  Csepregi writes: “One of the implicit contentions I make in this book can be stated briefly: there is, in every human life, a possibility of transformation and of renewal” (Ibid.).  Also decisive is that these moments are of a kind that reveal human life to transcend the fatalism posed by the external forces that often shape one’s fate.  In other words, a life-defining is moment is one each of us has the potential to undergo in our role as agents of freedom.  This is a phenomenon encountered in first-person experience, particularly when such moments present to us our own potential to shape the outcome of our lives.  Csepregi writes “In this sense, we may become aware, under the pivotal impact of these experiences, of an invitation to shape our destinies” (Ibid.).  A life-defining moment, then, is one in which a person distinctly perceives that they have standing before them an important and transformative change, a change they can undergo if they make the choice to do so.

Csepregi proceeds in the main body of the text by focusing on the first-person experience embodied in six unique types of life-defining moments.  As he emphasizes in the Introduction, his interest is to highlight moments that occur in the positive sphere of life.  He deliberately omits among his paradigm cases the bleaker sorts of transformative experiences that might come to mind, such as receiving a diagnosis of a terminal disease.  More broadly, this reflects his wish to emphasize life-defining moments that manifest sheer possibility, modification of one’s own destiny, and new horizons of fulfillment.  He comments “I wanted to single out those experiences that we find not only enriching but also invigorating on all levels of our existence, experiences that open up the future for us and offer occasions for steering our lives into a new direction” (6).  On this score, the six types of life-defining moment Csepregi dissects are, respectively, making a moral decision; “breaking away” from one mode of life in order to enter another; being inspired by a model person in an educational context; immigrating to a foreign country; the experience of transport found in hearing beautiful music; and witnessing or performing an ethically worthwhile action, particularly in a situation of providing selfless generosity to a vulnerable other.  In what follows I will briefly summarize four of Csepregi’s six types of life-defining moments.

The opening passages of the first chapter, entitled “The Logic of Exception,” invite the reader to consider situations of life that involve finding oneself at a crossroads, where one knows a certain and decisive choice must be made that will exclude its alternative (13-15).  In such instances, a unique temporal mode of disclosure opens up for one.  One is able to envision one’s past, present, and most importantly, future self, in reference to each decision that stands to be made (15).  One has a decision to make.  But what is it that causes a decision to become a life-defining moment?  Many day-to-day choices do not involve making a “decision” in this deeper sense.  Csepregi clarifies that a “decision” involves encountering a moment of life in which one genuinely cannot rely on a pregiven framework to determine which course to take.  “We…make a decision when we can no longer rely on a habit, a code of conduct, a custom, or a law that clearly and unambiguously tells us what we should do.  In these cases, we find ourselves outside the realm of personal or institutional rules” (16).  Csepregi cites Hermann Lübbe here, to highlight that the logic of decision is the “logic of exception” (Ibid.).  In other words, decisions in the robust, moral, and individually-realized sense are really instances of taking an exception to the social and habitual codes with which one is ingrained.  Of significance here is the linguistic manifestation of the phenomenology involved in decisions.  As the author highlights, expressions such as “I make up my mind, je me decide, Ich entscheide mich” reveal that making decisions entails a way of aligning one to oneself, of evaluating one’s own responsibility in the context of free choice (17).  In this way, by committing to a decision, one reinforces one’s freedom, by consciously choosing one course of action whilst knowing that other possibilities will become closed.

This phenomenology of making decisions also entails steering through uncertainty.  As Csepregi emphasizes, the difficulty of deciding one course of action over another is a fraught enterprise (21), often leaving one more inclined to shrink from making a choice at all.  Decisions can be decisive moments in one’s life precisely because one can be unprepared to navigate the uncertainty of outcomes (24); making a decision entails making a genuine break with life as one has known it.  As a result, not every person will make decisions when the right time comes.  Many persons will cower in indecision, or else choose not to decide at all.  Csepregi suggests that contemporary society in fact suffers from a dearth of passionate commitment to decisions, where the commonplace approach is constantly to “keep one’s options open” or otherwise to attempt to hold onto conflicting, irreconcilable possibilities (23).  In other words, Csepregi comments, many people suffer from a kind of “miserliness” of decisions in their unwillingness to commit to definite life-decisions for themselves.  And this disposition can have the result of a lack of personal development, by virtue of one having eschewed freely-chosen realizations of one’s self.  “When a person does not learn to make a distinction of value between various possible views of the world – but rather considers them equivalent, and thus fails to express a firm attachment to any of them – the ability to make a lasting commitment in favor of a particular life path and purpose becomes atrophied” (24).  Today, we know this factor has import for the education of children, as young people benefit from learning how to make independent decisions.  Personal development can suffer if one’s decision-making is done for one ahead of time, or when decisions are overly curated in safe spaces and secure environments (25).

The second chapter, on the subject of “breaking away” from one way of life and adopting another, continues in the vein of the first’s chapter’s focus on decision-making.  Of emphasis in the second chapter is the first-person experience of, as Csepregi describes it, “taking leave from a form of existence, rooted in a specific social and cultural condition, and adopting a new form of existence” (37).  There is “a break in the temporal unfolding” (Ibid.) of one’s life, such that one’s course of life is fundamentally different before and after the break.  One’s way of being and acting may have transformed, or one may have entered an altogether different world, into which one gradually adapts.  For instance, religious conversion appears to comprise such an avenue.  Conversion involves a “discernible change in convictions and attitudes which deeply affects the person’s life orientation in the world” (44).  In its religious guise, conversion may entail an act of surrender to powers greater than oneself, such that one submits to reorientation from guidance beyond oneself (47).  Similarly, conversions not be religious or spiritual; they can occur through “radical change in the principles and values guiding decisions and actions and affecting the meaning of human relations, of professional achievements, or of personal interests” (45-46.)  Examples include the turn in allegiance sometimes shown by political leaders and soldiers in times of distress, as well as philosophical conversions (46-47).  In sum, crucial in the phenomenon of breaking away is a “caesura,” a fresh start, a realignment of the principles by which one guide’s one’s life, and which in turn define one’s destiny (46, 63).  Here Csepregi cites Eugène Minkowski to highlight the distinction of destiny and fate.  Whereas fate comprises forces to which one is inevitably subject, destiny lay in “human becoming intimately tied to personal decisions” (41).  Csepregi rounds out the chapter by raising the question: what prompts one to complete an act of breaking away? (51)  In general, he suggests that breaking away often is occasioned by one’s realization of the adequacy of one’s living conditions, such as when a young person leaves their place of birth in order to achieve aspirations only achievable elsewhere.  Csepregi summarizes that breaking away is indeed a phenomenon seemingly built into the human condition, where it can be triggered when necessary.  Citing Kierkegaard, Csepregi highlights “a fundamental anthropological truth about the temporality of human existence,” namely, that breaking away from a stifling world can often be the only means one has for recovering one’s own possibilities” (52).  Or to put it simply, human beings are existentially constituted to experience disclosures that reveal a way out, a way to save one’s future possibilities, in times when life becomes unbearable.

The third chapter, entitled “Moments of Real Learning,” explores the phenomenology bound up with inspirational, model personalities that strongly shape the course of a person’s life and development.  These individuals are not necessarily what we often call “role models” so much as they are those personalities we encounter in our development who prompt us to change our worldview or otherwise inspire us to change ourselves.  Most paradigmatic in Csepregi’s reckoning here are teachers and other mentors, although the concept of models is not limited to these.  Decisive about such model individuals is that “we may come to realize what these persons added to our existence: they made us more passionate, more skillful, and more cultured.  They are men and women who strongly affect the way we think, act, feel, and relate to our fellow human beings” (67). These individuals are those who have inspired us to “think and act in their manner of thinking and acting” (73).  As in Chapter Two, this chapter articulates a moment in human experience that ostensibly expresses the potency for great personal change and development.  As Csepregi observes, models are not merely people we like, admire, or emulate, but persons who inspire an entire adaptation of our being (68, 70).  We re-orient our goals in light of the model’s achievements and values.  Moreover, such models are not chosen because of characteristics we appraise in them.  Rather, Csepregi remarks, we are drawn to them through a kind of seduction, through an inevitable intuition that the model is someone whose example we should follow (Ibid.).  The values they invite us to adopt are attractive to us, though we may not yet know how to embody them (79).  Realizing the value of the model for our life occurs for us as a kind of disclosure; it represents a distinct way in which select human beings are given to us.  Csepregi finishes this discussion by highlighting the importance of models in educational settings.  In one light, models help us to understand and work toward ideals (85).  Models can lead us to appreciate intellectual and scientific rigor.   In a deeper regard, “There is also a fundamental human impulse for self-realization, which can hardly be satisfied in the absence of the guidance and inspiration of models” (86).  The educational development of young people shows that exposure to excellent models rather than mediocre or morally questionable individuals makes all the difference.

Chapter Four highlights a different flavor of life-defining moment than those in the first three: the experience of being a foreigner in a country not one’s own, and of adapting oneself and one’s worldview to this new place.  Csepregi does not mean here the experience of being a tourist or short-term visitor (89).  He means the process of relocating to a new country or culture and becoming absorbed into foreign ways of thinking, speaking, and perceiving, such that one’s very way of being alters.  The paradigmatic instance of this type of moment is the life-change experienced by an immigrant, for instance, Europeans who relocated to America during the economic boom of the early 20th century, or refugees who flee their home country during times of war or oppression.  Cspregi comments that this life-defining moment has informed his own experience; Hungarian by birth, he came to America with his family as a young man.  In Csepregi’s estimation, citing Eugen Fink, the experience of the foreign poses an encounter with other human beings across an initially unbridgeable gap.  Encountering individuals in a foreign culture involves experiences of another that are not one’s own.  Lacking is a community of shared experience (90).  Noteworthy, then, about adapting to a foreign place is the deep extent to which it reveals to one the complex structures underlying human community and interaction.  As Csepregi comments, “In order to actively feel and understand and, after an extended acquaintance, integrate the foreign, we have to enter into a more personal communication with individuals and their worlds, to find a common ground of interest in deeds and not merely in words” (91).

A few words about the remaining chapters of this book.  The fifth chapter discusses the life-defining moment that occurs through appreciation of beautiful music, particularly Western classical music.  Although the initial premise of this chapter is attractive, in its execution I found myself wanting the chapter to focus a bit less on technical aspects of music, and more on the specific phenomenology of how hearing music can be life-defining.  The author is clearly a musician himself as well as an least intermediate scholar of music theory.  Although I am knowledgeable about both the history of Western classical music and the technical vernacular of music, I was often at a loss to follow Csepregi’s account in his discussions that have a more technical register.  I believe some of this burden causes the phenomenological analysis to suffer.  The chapter probably succeeds better simply as a phenomenological account of music appreciation.  Perhaps more crucially, Csepregi neglects to discuss other kinds of music than classical, such as tribal music and popular music.  Insofar as his book aims to describe possibilities latent in every person, it may have been more apposite to give attention to the more common types of music appreciated by people in today’s world.  Focusing just on Western classical music seems to preclude the life-defining music appreciation experienced by those outside of academia and the fine arts.

Finally, the sixth chapter explores the life-defining moment of witnessing or performing an ethically worthwhile action, particularly in a situation of providing selfless generosity to a vulnerable other.  While philosophically rich and quite persuasive in its premise and execution, I found that this chapter seems to overlap with the scope and phenomenological accounting of the first two chapters.  I did not find the book’s aim to be advanced significantly by the inclusion of this chapter.

This book is a fine contribution to philosophical anthropology and will be accessible for readers of many persuasions, in both philosophy and other fields.  Educators and university administrators interested in the phenomenology of education may especially benefit from study of this work.  The book should invite readers to reconsider the question of what sorts of events do ultimately change the course and outcome of our lives.  Is one’s life ultimately impacted by one or more instantaneous moments that occur unnoticed or in the blink of an eye?  Or are the fundamental shifts that guide our lives more prolonged, more reflective, and more predicated on private decision-making and appropriation of one’s own possibilities?  Gabor Csepregi’s book invites us to reflect on the latter.

Helmuth Plessner: Philosophische Anthropologie – Göttinger Vorlesung vom Sommersemester 1961, Suhrkamp, 2019

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Helmuth Plessner. Herausgegeben von Julia Gruevska, Hans-Ulrich Lessing und Kevin Liggieri
Suhrkamp Verlag
Paperback 20,00 €

Guenther Anders: Die Weltfremdheit des Menschen: Schriften zur philosophischen Anthropologie, C.H.Beck, 2018

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Hardback 44,00 €

Helmuth Plessner: Les degrés de l’organique et l’Homme: Introduction à l’anthropologie philosophique, Gallimard, 2017

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Bibliothèque de Philosophie
Helmuth Plessner. Trad. de l'allemand par Pierre Osmo. Présentation de Didier Guimbail

Hans Blumenberg: Théorie de l’inconceptualité, Editions de l’éclat, 2017

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Philosophie imaginaire
Hans Blumenberg. Traduit de l'allemand par Marc de Launay
Editions de l’éclat
Paperback 15,00 €