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Reviewed by: Julien Kloeg (Erasmus University College)
Helmuth Plessner’s work has been subject to renewed interest for a few years, as evidenced by recent translations into English of his Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch (1928) and Macht und Menschliche Natur (1931). While the second edition of the former work was issued only on the occasion of Plessner’s 80th birthday (the fact that Scheler and Heidegger released key work in the same year is often cited), it is today an important source for scholars working in philosophical anthropology, philosophy of biology, and philosophy of technology. This has been the case for several decades, with the release of Plessner’s completed works serving as an important event in the ‘second’ reception of his work in philosophical anthropology. Plessner also has much to offer as a political philosopher, with not only the aforementioned Macht, which most consider a political supplement to the Stufen, but also Grenzen der Gemeinschaft (1924) and Die verspätete Nation (1934), as well as earlier political writings figuring in his sociological rather than anthropological work. Plessner’s work is multifaceted to say the least, and a considerable Nachlass remains to be explored which consists of writings in many fields, from aesthetics to biology. His work can be hard to penetrate not only because of its multifacted nature but also, as the editors of Plessner’s lectures note, because of its sometimes “forbidding” (sperrige) terminology (252). The eighteen lectures contained in this edition (supplemented by Plessner’s notes for a later lecture series) are the only full introduction into philosophical anthropology provided by Plessner, and also provide a type of final summary of Plessner’s own position within the discipline as relayed to his students in Göttingen (251), right before formally retiring and taking on the role of professor emeritus. The lectures are the only currently available source from which we can gain insight into Plessner as educator (ibid), and the style of his lectures are indeed characterized by “freshness and clarity” (252). Two factors enable this style to come across: Plessner’s own ease in using examples and weaving different themes together, and the editorial work undertaken on the present edition. The edition was based on two identical transcripts kept in the University Library at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, with handwritten notes by Plessner himself and the unknown secretary who produced the transcripts suggesting minor corrections (252-253). Subsequent changes made for the purpose of this edition are clearly marked in the text, most often through footnotes, while sometimes a word or two is added to increase the readability of the text – likewise clearly indicated. The first half of the very first lecture and the first part of the fifteenth lecture are not available: in place of the former Plessner’s lecture notes have been supplied.
The lectures date from 1961, the ninth of the ten years Plessner spent in Göttingen and the final time he lectured on philosophical anthropology there. They are titled simply Lecture: Philosophical Anthropology (Vorlesung: Philosophische Anthropologie, 250). While this may seem like an overly general theme, Plessner does his best to deliver on the apparent promise to cover the entire field in a single lecture series. The first three lectures and the final one reflect on the nature of philosophical anthropology as a field of study. Lectures four to six concern ‘the problem of language’; lectures seven to nine introduce the themes of Welt/Umwelt/Umfeld. Lecture ten then uses the shape of philosophical anthropology that has emerged during the first half of the series to discredit a particular way of thinking about human nature. Lectures eleven to fourteen connect the more biological themes of the first half to sociological themes of personhood, roles and role-playing. The biological and sociological aspects of Plessner’s philosophical anthropology are brought together in the three lectures preceding the final one, which concern laughing and crying as aspects of iterative “personification” (Verkörperung) and then death as “depersonification” (Entkörperung) (197). The final lecture, as mentioned above, is a reflection on philosophical anthropology. However, rather than the considerations on proper subject matter and role vis-à-vis the human sciences featured in the first three lectures, Plessner here insists on the contemporary relevance of philosophical anthropology by connecting it to the world of 1961. For Plessner himself, the Göttingen years marked a homecoming of sorts. Having become a professor by special appoint at Cologne in 1926, he was subsequently relieved of his duties in 1933 because of the Jewish heritage of his father. He fled to Turkey and subsequently to the Netherlands, where he lectured at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen on themes in sociology and philosophy. Following the invasion of the Netherlands by Nazi Germany in 1940, Plessner was again relieved of his duties in 1943, going into hiding until the end of the Second World War in 1945. Having declined to resume his professorship in Cologne, Plessner became a philosophy professor in Groningen in 1946 and then became professor at the newly founded Institut für Soziologie in Göttingen in 1952, remaining in the post until his formal retirement in 1962. The Plessner we encounter in the lectures is thus in an optimal position to reflect on his own young and mature works, the tradition of philosophical anthropology more broadly, but also the cultural and political outburst of totalitarianism. As I will discuss below, in lectures one to three and eighteen Plessner manages to combine all three of these points of reflection, and that is surely not only a highlight of this particular edition but also a succinct statement of the importance of philosophical anthropology that is still capable of making an impression today.
One of the virtues that characterizes the edition as an introduction to philosophical anthropology is its gradual logical mode of progression, which finds man as prehistoric tool wielder and expands into language, culture and sociological analyses. Plessner makes sure to ease the transition into each new topic broached by explaining the connection between old and new topics twice: at the end of a concluding lecture on a first theme, and once more at the beginning of a lecture introducing a second theme. This systematic approach makes it perhaps harder than it should be to stomach the fact that half of the very first hour was not recorded (“At the top of the page in Plessner’s handwriting: ‘second half of the first hour since machine did not work’. On three (appended) pages, Plessner noted keywords that were “apparently “(offensichtlich) at the basis of the first lecture”). The keywords give only a general thematic impression of the first lecture. The first lecture as recorded starts at a consideration of the problem of the double nature of man (the first theme in the notes is the ‘exceptional position of man as organism’) (9). Plessner immediately proceeds to give a historic reference for the problematic status of this double nature with the rise of the independent science of psychology. Psychology was able to give an account of man’s ‘internal world’, and with the rising complexity of the science it became increasingly vexing that it could not be connected to the outside world of concrete objects. Such an attempt, Plessner notes, was made by Gustav Theodor Fechner, “by the way a contemporary of Darwin”, in the form of the science of psychophysics (10). Plessner notes he is only interested in the attempt as a historical example, and adds the further, not historical but purely explanatory, example of taste. A taste experience is related to an external stimulus, and ideally science would be able to exactly measure the relationship between the two. This way of proceeding stresses two separate points that are relevant throughout the edition: first, Plessner goes to great length to supply historical illustrations and intuitively plausible examples, sometimes one at a time but often in the same breath, to support a single argument or point. Second, related more directly to the content of the lectures, Plessner is primarily interested in defining philosophical anthropology with reference to the independent human sciences. Plessner does go into Descartes, but only after noting that Fechner-style attempts to unify internal and external world have the tendency to produce a single entity with two substantial aspects (e.g. body and mind), which has an interesting prehistory in pure philosophy. Plessner thus elegantly steers philosophical anthropology in between a scientistic reduction on the one hand and a philosophically-minded neglect of science on the other hand, thus keeping an open perspective with respect to the “multiplicity of reality” that is represented by the development of many separate sciences (30); in particular through the onset of biology, psychology and physiology, historical science, and sociology (32-35), all of which presuppose a knowledge of what is human. Inquiring after these presuppositions is a matter of “epistemological and methodological questioning” (erkenntnistheoretische und methodologische Fragestellung) (35). Philosophical anthropology positions itself in terms of such questioning, which varies because of the different starting views on mankind that different human sciences offer. But Plessner observes that said starting points produce problems that cannot be resolved within the human sciences themselves. For instance: in evolutionary biology, when specifically can we say that mankind has evolved? (37) In order to do that the biologist must go beyond biology in its determination of external characteristics and inquire into specifically human “monopolies” that point towards a “metabasis”, a shift towards another dimension. For instance, what is it that constitutes specifically human use of instruments or language? (37) These are the philosophical-anthropological questions Plessner develops in the remainder of the first half of his lectures, as discussed above. They in fact offer Plessner’s own set of answers in response to the epistemological and methodological questioning connected to the foundations of the various human sciences.
One aspect of these answers that is striking, and one that is not explicitly mentioned in the present edition, is that each individual approach to problems as diverse as language and role-playing is seen as essentially continuous with a concept that was central to the Stufen: excentric positionality. Plessner does mention it in the lectures without really explaining it, seemingly using it synonymously with “distance” and “apartness” (e.g. 196), as well as referring to the “broken unity” of human nature (e.g. 221). Yet even in such terms, the theme of excentric positionality is only developed as an illustration of the themes under discussion, while in fact the discussion itself is structured almost in its entirety by a sequence of considerations on extrinsic positionality in various domains of human existence. Plessner’s discussion of language illustrates this well. “While the ‘production of sound’ (Lautproduktion) is an important condition of ‘language’ (das Sprechen), it nevertheless seems to be a merely external prerequisite” (52). Sound is as yet the domain of animals, and hence of the biological sciences. Yet at the same time it points beyond itself: determining where sound ends and language or speech begins necessitates the drawing of a boundary between animal and human being, which in turn raises the question what it means to be human. So what is it that distinguishes language from sound, and hence, in the linguistic dimension, the human from the animal? It consists in the removal of specificity from sound: absolution from the “situation at hand”(Situationsentbindung), which permits variation and recombination of sounds to form “word formations” (Wortgebilde) (53). Absolution from the situation at hand in turn requires “objectification” (Versachlichung), in this case of sounds; “and in this sense language and speech stand on exactly the same level as (…) toolmaking”; “objectification, namely, of objects (Sachverhalten)” (59). In these and other cases, what is at stake is the uniquely human ability to relate to oneself, which is given by excentric positionality. For instance, the ability to “separate (one’s own) expressed sound as a There from a Here, as an object, is a fundamental precondition for its instrumental manipulation and imitation in fixated formations, which (the human being) makes use of and has at its disposal as with things” (63). In an edition such as this one, it would seem useful to add an introduction that would note the importance, even if implicit, of excentric positionality to the lectures. It is at least a crucial question to the interpretation of the lectures how Plessner’s use of terms like ‘distance’ and ‘broken unity’ fits with the use of the language of positionality in earlier written work. While the lectures are welcome invitations to further scholarship on Plessner’s philosophical anthropology and its development, the edition does not equip its readers with the tools to understand the lectures in that wider context. In that sense, it is an open question to both Plessner himself (to be asked of the content of the lectures themselves) and the editors (with respect to the decision not to provide an introduction) why an introduction to Plessner’s philosophical anthropology would make so little explicit reference to perhaps its most crucial concept, without reflecting on the implications of its relative absence.
As with language and toolmaking (and the invention of tools), so it is with man’s relationship with his world (as Umwelt) – at a certain point in the development of children, we can see that “the objectification of surroundings has (…) begun and continues, following the lead of increasing linguistic articulation” (am Leitfaden der wachsenden sprachlichen Artikulation) (91). Plessner develops different aspects of a specific theme for each of his ‘triads’ of lectures in almost dialectical fashion: for the theme of Umwelt, the theme is developed first at the problem of how mankind relates to his surroundings, then, second, as an articulation of what is specific about mankind’s relationship with his world, and finally, third, as a reflection on the necessarily limited character or “horizon structure” of any such world (102). This is an interesting consideration of the limits that accompany human existence, which offers a restatement of Plessner’s thought on this matter in written works. The analysis of objectification as the distinguishing feature of the human is in essence continued on another level.
In the tenth lecture, “On the utopia of a lost primeval form of mankind” (Zur Utopie des verlorenen Wildform des Menschen), Plessner uses the notion of horizon against those who would postulate a ‘true’ and ‘original’ form of human existence that was subsequently lost. This turn to the lifeworld, as Odo Marquard would put it, is arguably one of the highlights of the lecture series. The stakes of Plessner’s consistent, tightly argued, but seemingly ‘merely’ theoretical inquiries into the human in the first nine lectures come into full view for the first time. Plessner harks back to “Husserl’s famous pencil” (114) discussed in the previous lecture to describe the simultaneous availability and unavailability of things (to put it simply: we can never see all sides of the pencil at once). Plessner now adds: “There exists a correlativity between thing-structure and self-structure, a strict correspondence” (ibid). The ‘I’ is something that is one the one hand identical with oneself, but also something that is, on the other hand, removed from oneself (115): as we do not see a thing in its entirety, so we do not fully, but only partially, coincide with ourselves. Referring to Ernst Bloch, Plessner uses the phrase: I am, but I do not have myself (ibid). This correspondence of self-structure to thing-structure is evident to us in our “needs” (Bedürfnisse), Plessner continues (117). In addition to the biological needs we share with animals, human beings that have satisfied this first ‘layer’ of needs add a second one, and so on, with each new layer opening up a new world: for instance, of goods, clothing, dwellings, weapons, to name a few. It is up to us whether to stabilize this process or to allow ourselves to be handed over to ever-new phases of new needs. This, Plessner says, is Marx’ insight in a nutshell (118). The ensuing situation is only possible because we are not in fact consigned to a biological cycle of enforced needs and ends. We are too “biologically underprivileged” for such a consignment, and more specifically, too “weak in instinct” (119). Plessner intelligently uses this insight to argue that the tropes of “Overman”, “post-historical man”, “natural man” as well as the accompanying critiques of the “decadence” of the “degenerate” (entartet) and “domesticated” man of the present all belong together (124). And they all fail for the same reason, as none of them is able to recognize the “structural brokenness in the relation of man towards himself and the world” (ibid). Plessner’s analysis shows that this brokenness, which utopians of natural man associate with some exit from paradise (123, 125), applies to mankind as such and is in fact its distinguishing characteristic. What then of “the creature of power, the creature of war, the creature of domination”? Plessner adds considerable rhetorical flourish to this culmination point of the analysis so far: “Well, ladies and gentlemen, the Blonde Beast stands in the stables!” (126) This is of course a critique of national socialism and its aims, but it equally discredits, as Plessner also notes, followers of Rousseau and Marx in stipulating a perfect and thus self-identical (non-broken) human being at either the beginning or end of history. In bringing home the argument more explicitly when reflecting on it in the next lecture, Plessner comes even closer to saying ‘excentric positionality’: “Mankind has never been natural anyway. His naturalness has always been a secondary naturalness, which was provided for him thanks to his “artificial capabilities” (künstliche Fähigkeiten)” (128). This seems a clear restatement of the first anthropological law from the final chapter of the Stufen: the law of natural artificiality. (The law of mediated immediacy is mentioned explicitly one page further on: “(…) its characteristic excentricity, in this ‘mediated immediacy’ (vermittelten Unmittelbarkeit) of its form of life” (129).
In the second half of the lecture series, Plessner applies the theme of domestication, but not in the vein of the misplaced cultural pessimism cum utopian optimism that had justified National Socialism. Instead, he follows it up in the context of continuing his inquiry after the separation between human and animal. Plessner here considers the question of personhood, which in his analysis is tied up with role-playing: our name designates our first role rather than the ‘I’ (135). For instance, our name declares that we possess a certain heritage or have specific attributes: it connects us to something beyond ourselves, in a real sense. This is in its essence what personhood is, and lays the foundation for the creation of institutions: both the person and the institution bring a specific structure to the “shared social world” (sozialer Mit-welt) (137). Plessner understands both types of structure as “personification” (Verkörperung)(146). The distinction between the functional and anthropological notion of role-playing is familiar from the aforementioned Grenzen der Gemeinschaft and once again turns on the absence or presence of the ability of the human being (as role-player) to reflect on her own activity (role-playing) – the presence of said ability distinguishes the anthropological notion of role-playing.
The fifteenth and sixteenth lecture illustrate a different aspect of personification (161), namely laughing, crying and smiling. These lectures essentially provide a succinct and clear introduction to Plessner’s Lachen und Weinen (1941), in which he sets forth these themes as extreme possibilities of being human. More specifically, as Plessner puts it in the present edition, they are “witnesses of man’s personificatory relationship with himself (Verkörperungsverhältnis des Menschen zu sich)” (194). In the seventeenth and second to last lecture, Plessner considers that “depersonification” (Entkörperung) or death is, specifically within human existence, given with the experience of life. The simultaneity of both experiences “once populated the human world with magical powers and mythical creatures, practices and rites” that through the onset of a “mechanical understanding of nature and the society of laborers carried through by the former” is no longer accessible to us (207). Yet the stubborn avoidance of death in our time cannot entirely hide the fundamental human “motivation” (Ansatz) for the production of a “counterworld, however conceived” (Gegenwelt, wie immer auch geartet) (208).
From the advent of speech to the continued need for a counterworld in industrial society, Plessner’s lectures have unfolded for us his perspective on the story of the human, insofar as it is human. In the final lecture, Plessner makes clear that he has taken us exactly to 1961. He reads a long quote – the first time this has occurred in the lecture series – from a reputable biologist who comments on the success of artificial “selection” (Auslese) in domestic animals and suggests that we owe it to ourselves (my paraphrase) as “friend(s) of mankind” to apply the same insight to the perfection of mankind itself, and we would need a type of world government in order to enable the experiment (210). When the quote ends, Plessner immediately remarks that this suggestion surfaces “after a time which has thought about this in exactly the same way and which has brought the greatest misery upon our country. Exactly with the same kind of idealism in the background that also speaks through these words. You see then, ladies in gentlemen, that the past in Germany has not been overcome, and (this is the case) for the greatest minds of our science. That should give one pause” (211). Plessner also compares the biologist’s proposal to the atom bomb, since both “rob mankind of the possibility of existing and being human” – yet while the atom bomb continues to be hotly debated, Plessner says the proposal has not given rise to discussion (212). After commenting on Darwinism, social Darwinism, and Nietzsche as well as picking apart the political conditions of the proposal, Plessner confronts the latter with key insights from the lecture series: the necessarily “broken unity” as the “specific position of man” (218). And here we see how far we are from Descartes: he too saw a break, but only as a “conjunctum”, whereas Plessner emphasizes the element of broken unity (219). The biologist and the “biological politicians of the nineteenth century and their students in the Third Reich” share the theme of domestication, although they travel in the opposite direction (221) – national socialism operates under the idea that the domestication of mankind needs to be undone, whereas the biologist’s proposal is that we should finally face up to the responsibility of domesticating ourselves. Plessner’s final comments are the densest part of his lectures and are certainly deserving of close study. He seems to say that the drive to evil itself is a function of our brokenness, in other words, of the fact that there is no primeval or completed human being. Whereas both the biologist under consideration and the proponent of the blonde beast call on us to overcome certain (“ethical or moral or other”) “inhibitions” (Hemmungen) (ibid), it is ourselves and these very inhibitions of ours we should call on in overcoming our own “criminal disequilibrium” (kriminelle Ungleichgewichtigkeit) (ibid). Plessner finishes on this “moral apotheosis” to which he says he is not normally disposed, and hopes that it was not so abstract after all – that it shows how these theoretical observations of his are truly topical (222).
The appendix contains notes taken at the occasion of Plessner’s lectures on the history of anthropology from 1956. These provide useful focal points for the 1961 lecture series, as well as significant variations. These are all presented in highly condensed and aphoristic form. A notable example of variation is provided by the sustained and interesting reflections on aesthetics (“Kandinsky’s thought of playing music in colors has its limits”, 238), which is not part of the 1961 lecture series. Consider also the following: “Existential philosophy does not know of nature, nor of the world (Die Existenzphilosophie ist naturfremd und weltfremd)” (226).
As an introduction to Plessner’s work, this edition is a great success and a valuable addition, with the qualification of the understated organizing principle of excentric positionality raised above. In a similar vein, it would seem useful to point out (dis)similarities between the content of the lectures and Plessner’s written work more consistently than is the case in the edition. Footnotes of this kind are limited in number and mostly concern Plessner’s introduction on Conditio humana (1961), for which the lecture series served as the “material basis” (251) according to the editors. As it stands, the edition calls out for and has certainly prepared the way for additional scholarly work to make these lectures into an integrated part of Plessner’s oeuvre, albeit with the additional task of taking seriously the specific quality of these lectures qua lectures. They show the capabilities of Plessner during a pivotal time in his life, displaying in particular both his theoretical prowess and his ability to connect philosophical anthropology to the needs of his time. The combination of these aspects of his work, as brought out by this edition, make Plessner an important thinker for his time and ours.
 Page numbers refer to the reviewed edition of Plessner’s lectures. All translations from German are my own.