Elizabeth Cykowski: Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss

Heidegger's Metaphysical Abyss: Between the Human and the Animal Book Cover Heidegger's Metaphysical Abyss: Between the Human and the Animal
Oxford Philosophical Monographs
Elizabeth Cykowski
Oxford University Press
2021
Hardback £55.00
208

Reviewed by: Hikmet Unlu (Middle East Technical University)

In Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss, Beth Cykowski provides a novel discussion of Heidegger’s views on animality. In his 1929–30 lecture course The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics (hereafter FCM), Heidegger presents three controversial theses: the stone is worldless, the animal is world-poor, and the human is world-forming. In her charitable interpretation of Heidegger, Cykowski pays special attention to the second thesis, according to which the animal is limited in its capacity to access the world. In so doing, she tries to defend Heidegger against what she calls the hierarchizing charge, which is advanced by several philosophers who have criticized Heidegger for attempting to secure human uniqueness by reinstating traditional hierarchies concerning the order of nature. One virtue of Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss is that it tries to offer a comprehensive overview of FCM without divorcing the sections on animals from their wider context and thereby tries to lay bare Heidegger’s broader philosophical agenda. Despite its several merits, however, the book is at best a partial success (i) because Cykowski’s attempt to dissociate Heidegger from the world-poverty thesis is not sufficiently backed up by textual evidence and (ii) because the book fails to clarify the traditional conception of the order of nature against the background of which Heidegger’s views on animality need to be understood and evaluated.

At the beginning of her monograph, Cykowski summarizes the different ways in which FCM has been interpreted and criticized by subsequent philosophers. She notes that some scholars have maintained that Heidegger’s reflections on animality are incompatible with the findings of evolutionary biology, others that despite his protestations to the contrary Heidegger ends up “succumbing to the traditional hierarchy of the scala naturae” (23; all references are to Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss unless otherwise indicated). Cykowski explains moreover that insofar as this latter charge is concerned, some commentators like David Krell have argued FCM to be an aberration in the (otherwise unproblematic) Gesamtausgabe (18), whereas for others like Derrida the evaluative prejudices contained in the lecture course are consistent with Heidegger’s reflections on animality over the course of his career (19). Cykowski points out that yet another charge levelled at Heidegger concerns his tendency in these lectures to treat all animals under one heading; she paraphrases the interpretation endorsed by Alasdair MacIntyre, according to whom Heidegger presents “a grossly oversimplified depiction of animal life” (24), disregarding “the many and complex differences between species” (35), which in turn amounts to overlooking the ways in which different species of animals can be said to have different kinds of world-relation.

One virtue of the opening chapter is that it familiarizes the reader with the scholarship on Heidegger’s reflections on animality. There is hardly any serious engagement with the argumentation of Heidegger’s critics, however, in the absence of which their conclusions seem too uncharitable to Heidegger. Moreover, the introduction as well as the first chapter of the book would have been the perfect place for Cykowski, who frequently refers to the “traditional hierarchies” concerning the order of nature, to offer a discussion of what, exactly, these hierarchies are and who, exactly, ends up endorsing them, yet the author remains silent on these questions throughout her study.

In Chapter 2, which arguably contains the strongest sections of the book, Cykowski provides a discussion of Heidegger’s analysis of the concept of metaphysics. In one of his papers Walter Brogan has criticized those commentators who would consider “Aristotle as the metaphysician par excellence and…those who would understand Heidegger’s own work as an overcoming of the oblivion of being that begins with Aristotle’s distortion of Greek thinking” (Brogan 1984, 250). Cykowski’s Heidegger adopts neither an anti-metaphysical nor an anti-Aristotelian perspective. “Ancient philosophy thus meets its ‘acme’ with Aristotle,” Cykowski writes, rephrasing Heidegger, but “it has since been in a state of decline” (55), in the sense that the insights gained from metaphysics have long been obscured and trivialized (43), in which case, she argues, it is no wonder that the 1929–30 lecture course contains an attempt to uncover the profundity of the original conception of Aristotelian metaphysics.

In this part of her work, Cykowski stresses two important points about metaphysics. First, she correctly describes the Heideggerian view according to which the question of what metaphysics is sits within the question of what the human being is (45). Second, she spends a great deal of time discussing Heidegger’s remark that the human speaks about nature from within nature. As she puts it:

The human embodies a peculiar ambivalence to the extent that it is both part of physis and capable of ‘speaking out’ about physis in the logos.…Its own form of life is such that it ‘exists among’ natural beings, and it is also the being that, via its participation in the logos, is the medium through which physis is given expression. (47–48)

More or less the same idea can be found in a later passage, where Cykowski writes that “as a result of its endowment of logos, the human ‘speaks out’ about the totality of beings while belonging to this very totality” (97). In these and similar passages, Cykowski provides an interesting analysis of the strange predicament that the human being finds itself in, yet when she contrasts this “Greek” conception of the human’s position in nature to the life/spirit divide that allegedly characterize the contemporary epoch, which exemplify “the more superficial conceptions of the human” (54), it is not immediately clear how the two conceptions are supposed to be alternatives of each other, unless we are forced to make the further assumption that life and spirit—unlike physis and logos—are two alien realms that can never share anything in common. However, we are not forced to make this further assumption (nor is it clear that Heidegger makes it); it would be highly implausible to ascribe to all philosophers after antiquity a position according to which life and spirit are irreconcilably distinct concepts.

The next chapter picks up from the previous one, and Cykowski once again begins by rephrasing Heidegger’s remarks concerning the nature of metaphysics. This sets the stage for Cykowski to discuss Heidegger’s interpretation of the Kulturphilosophie of his time and, more specifically, of the views held by thinkers whom Heidegger considers to be the four spokespeople of the then contemporary epoch: Oswald Spengler, Ludwig Klages, Max Scheler, and Leopold Ziegler. In the lecture course, Heidegger briefly summarizes their “worldviews” so as to show that they all turn on the relation between the fundamental concepts of life and spirit. Cykowski correctly points out that “this foray into Kulturphilosophie is included because the four thinkers represent the received view concerning key characteristics of contemporary thinking, and not because they are philosophically enlightening on their own” (65) but adds in the same breath that “this examination is critical for piecing together the overarching metaphysical context of FCM” (65), which gives the impression that Heidegger’s treatment of the Kulturphilosophie of his time can serve as a model that encapsulates the essential orientation of FCM as a whole—that, in other words, the entire lecture course can be seen as an extended attempt to lay bare the fundamental concepts and the hidden assumptions operative in contemporary philosophy and science.

In Chapter 4, Cykowski examines Heidegger’s discussion of the three forms of boredom. Lest it remains unclear how this excursus, how this journey through boredom pertains to the general progression of the lecture course, Heidegger maintains that profound boredom, which is one of the three forms of boredom discussed in FCM, is the fundamental attunement, the basic mood of the contemporary epoch. In Heidegger’s view, it is precisely this boredom, this indifference to beings as a whole that compels us to pursue the kind of insipid cultural diagnoses provided by Spengler and others. According to Cykowski, Heidegger’s message here is that for a philosophical restoration we must first begin to understand the fundamental attunement of our contemporary context of philosophizing. In her view, this understanding is meant to be part of Heidegger’s “philosophical restoration project, part of his attempt to bring about a philosophical confrontation with ourselves, a genuine ‘living philosophising’” (74).

The next chapter is the longest of the book, which should not come as a surprise given that Cykowski here tackles Heidegger’s reflections on the essence of animality. Cykowski understands the structure of the Heideggerian text to be one that proceeds from a discussion of the insipid worldviews held by Spengler, Klages, Scheler, and Ziegler to a discussion of the fundamental attunement of the contemporary epoch (profound boredom), which then would help explain their insufficient understanding of the fundamental concepts of life and spirit as well as the relation between them. Cykowski points out that “Heidegger’s critique of Kulturphilosophie…was an examination of the ‘outer expression’ of the contemporary situation…[and] is then replaced by an exposition of the internal character of the fundamental attunement that determines it” (96). If this is right, however, one may also expect what follows in the lecture course to be an attempt by Heidegger to steer us in the right direction this time and engage in a genuine living philosophizing—and what raises such expectations all the more is that Heidegger’s unmistakable praise of Uexküll, the famous biologist whom Heidegger next focuses on, starkly contrasts with his strong dismissal of the philosophers of culture—but this is not Cykowski’s interpretation. While she does not turn a blind eye to the passages where Heidegger speaks well of Uexküll, she maintains nevertheless that Uexküll, while in some respects wiser than his contemporaries, is nevertheless unaware of the metaphysical prejudices of his biology, in which case the principal objective of Heidegger’s discussion of Uexküll is to uncover the hidden assumptions behind contemporary science. As Cykowski puts it, “Having looked at the ‘worldview’ side of this dichotomy in his analysis of Kulturphilosophie in Part One, Heidegger now wishes to explore aspects of the ‘science’ side in Part Two” (99). In a later passage she adds even more clearly that “Heidegger is treating Uexküll in the same manner as he treats the four philosophers of culture he discusses in Part One” (121).

It is important to come to grips with what Cykowski believes to be the internal progression of Heidegger’s lecture course because the main message of Chapter 5 can only be understood from within this wider context. Simply put, for many of the key passages of FCM, which happen to be the very passages for which Heidegger has been criticized in the literature, Cykowski will claim that these do not reflect Heidegger’s own position, that in these passages Heidegger is in fact only describing the metaphysical prejudices operative in contemporary science. “If we pick up The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics (FCM) and turn straight to Heidegger’s analysis of biology,” she writes, Heidegger will seem “uncharacteristically…to frame his discussion within a hierarchical understanding of life…[and to endorse] an evaluative ontology of life” (99). What she means to say here is that it would be wrong to ascribe to Heidegger this evaluative hierarchy; it would be more correct to understand Heidegger as trying to bring out into the open the metaphysical prejudices upheld by the scientists of his time.

In a nutshell, the main motivation behind Cykowski’s argumentation is to foist what she understands to be the difficulties associated with the thesis concerning the word-poverty of the animal to contemporary biology. Cykowski asserts in no uncertain terms that the thesis at issue here “is not Heidegger’s own distinct formulation” (123) but rather an attempt by Heidegger to lay bare the metaphysical presuppositions of biologists like Uexküll. Her view is that in such passages Heidegger is not clarifying his own position but rather rephrasing others, but arguably she makes this point without sufficiently showing the relative merits of this alternative reading, which dissociates Heidegger from the world-poverty thesis. While Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss does contain many refences to FCM, there are hardly any references in this section of the book to back up Cykowski’s specific interpretation, in the absence of which she seems to rely too much on Heidegger’s treatment of Kulturphilosophie, which she believes serves as a model for the entire lecture course.

In FCM, Heidegger talks about the possibility of establishing a “communal cooperation” (Heidegger 1995, 190) and a “mutual understanding” (Heidegger 1995, 191) between science and philosophy. He writes, for example, that we can “discover a proper stance with respect to the connection between living philosophy and living science only if we can sow among us the seeds of an appropriate mutual understanding” (Heidegger 1995, 191). It is therefore natural to assume, especially considering Heidegger’s praise of Uexküll, that in the former’s discussion of the latter an attempt is being made to sow the seeds of a collaboration between science and philosophy, but according to Cykowski, Uexküll is not the profound biologist whose works can be utilized to render possible this communal cooperation and mutual understanding between science and philosophy. Rather, Uexküll is at best a successful biologist who “unwittingly renders explicit some of the defining themes of the contemporary zeitgeist” (120). If this is right, Uexküll must be credited not with important insights that enable a collaboration between science and philosophy but with an “incidental articulation of this zeitgeist” (120). In other words, Uexküll unwittingly and incidentally happens to be “one of the clearest articulators of the implicit metaphysical commitments of contemporary biology” (127).

Cykowski wants to stress time and again that the thesis that the animal is world-poor is not Heidegger’s own thesis, that it does not reflect Heidegger’s own position on the issue. As she puts it, “Heidegger’s thesis that the animal is ‘poor in world’ is an attempt to express, as specifically and baldly as possible, precisely what is metaphysically implicit in this Uexküllian account” (115). In a later passage she adds: “Heidegger bases his claim that the animal is ‘poor in world’ on what he considers to be metaphysically implicit in Uexküll’s depiction of the organism as confined to a surrounding environment” (122). In a word, this controversial thesis must be ascribed not to Heidegger but to Uexküll. More precisely, the thesis in question explicates what is metaphysically implicit in Uexküll’s biology. Hence, if there is something wrong with the thesis, we cannot blame Heidegger because, in Cykowski’s view, Heidegger was not speaking in his own voice.

In Chapter 6, Cykowski focuses on the spirit side of the life/spirit divide. This section of her study also features what appears to be Cykowski’s sole criticism of the 1929–30 lecture course, which she calls “Heidegger’s problematic neglect of anthropology in FCM” (141). She complains that whereas Heidegger “dedicates four chapters to life and biology, he is finished with anthropology after one or two sentences” (138). More precisely, Heidegger’s mistake is to turn a blind eye to “the connection between contemporary anthropological and ancient philosophical thought” (151). Cykowski argues that Heidegger’s quick dismissal of the philosophical-anthropological tradition is unwarranted because a closer analysis of the works of Scheler et al. could have paved the way toward a fruitful dialogue between philosophical anthropology and Heidegger’s own attempts to retrieve the insights gained in antiquity but has long since been trivialized. As she puts it,

had Heidegger looked with a more charitable, thorough, and imaginative eye at Scheler and the philosophical-anthropological tradition, he would have found that it is not only mindful and critical of the metaphysical prejudices that have been inherited throughout history, but that it reads, at certain points, like a direct rearticulation of the Greek conception of the human as a being that “speaks out” about physis from within physis, which he takes to be so illuminating. (151)

Let us keep in mind that, according to Cykowski, Heidegger “does not see any profound affiliation between biology and his own philosophical project” (150). It would have been natural, in fact, for the Heidegger that Cykowski has in mind to dedicate more pages to a discussion of Scheler than a discussion of Uexküll—the latter of whom only “unwittingly” and “incidentally” explicates the metaphysical prejudices of his time—so it is not difficult to understand Cykowski’s objection. It may be argued, however, that there is a simple reason for why Heidegger spends much more time on biology than on anthropology. Namely, the reason could be that the concept of world-poverty is, indeed, a Heideggerian concept and that, in his discussion of Uexküll, Heidegger is actually trying to sow the seeds for a “communal cooperation” and a “mutual understanding” between science and philosophy. After all, Heidegger states in no uncertain terms that Uexküll’s investigations have not been sufficiently appreciated for their true worth, that they “have not yet acquired the fundamental significance they could have if a more radical interpretation of the organism were developed on their basis” (Heidegger 1995, 263). In the same vein, Heidegger adds a few lines later that “the engagement with concrete investigations like this is one of the most fruitful things that philosophy can learn from contemporary biology” (Heidegger 1995, 263). Arguably, these insights to be gained from biology exemplify the communal cooperation between philosophy and science, in which case they cannot be confined to expressions of the metaphysical prejudices operative in contemporary thought.

In the final chapter of her book, Cykowski once again contrasts the original Greek conception of speaking about nature from within nature to what she calls “the delusions of modern metaphysics” (166), which is marked by “the derived, simplistic life-spirit categories” (162) as well as a “false dichotomy” (165) between these two concepts. This echoes her earlier discussion of “the divisions and categorisations that comprise the history of metaphysics” (151), which in turn is associated throughout her study with “the tradition.” What Cykowski has in mind with the tradition seems to be an undefined and ambiguous range of post-Greek thinkers, so it only seems natural to raise the following questions: Does this post-Greek tradition include Aristotle’s medieval commentators whom the Cartesians were reacting against? Does it include Hegel, whose philosophy of mind appropriates the Aristotelian model? Does it include Husserl and the entire phenomenological tradition? Cykowski does not provide an answer but suggests instead that somewhere along the way (and apparently without any exceptions) the profound philosophy of the Greeks has become trivialized. Cykowski’s unstated assumption is that—at least insofar as the human-animal relation is concerned—all the Greek philosophers had more or less the same view, but this is highly misleading. Nor is there a convergence between the views held by all philosophers after antiquity. At the risk of oversimplification, I should say that in discussions of life, soul, mind, and the like there are, in the main, two traditions: the Aristotelian tradition and the Cartesian tradition. Cykowski does not try to disentangle the one from the other, but the lack of such an attempt obscures her interpretation of Heidegger.

What further complicates things, however, is that Cykowski understands the tradition to be the source of hierarchies, and one would assume that in saying this she has in mind post-Greek philosophy in general, especially because she also writes that “the originary Greek conception…does not flatly, unambiguously promote the ontological superiority of the human” (168). But this is confusing, to say the least, for there is an even more unambiguous hierarchy—that is, an unmistakable ordering of the grades of soul—in Aristotelian philosophy. If so, however, how would a return to Aristotle help with the abolishment of hierarchies? The question is not addressed because, unfortunately, no sections of her monograph are devoted to the Greek conception of the soul, which is regrettable both because it would have helped clarify the background context in the light of which Heidegger’s discussion of animality can be better understood and because in a number of his lectures the early Heidegger himself devotes many passages to the analysis of the psyche.

To provide some of the missing context, Aristotle’s conception of the soul is one that incorporates a multi-layered structure. As Charles Kahn puts it,

Aristotle is not a dualist but a quaternist: he takes for granted four fundamental categories, not two. The conceptual scheme for Aristotle’s philosophy of mind is best represented by a pyramid with four distinct levels. The lowest level is that of body…[while] the three upper levels are marked off by different forms of psyche or soul: nutritive, sensory, and rational. (Kahn 2004, 194)

To state these levels more precisely, corporeality (i.e., the merely material/inorganic level of nature) contains in itself a suitability for life to emerge, life provides the foundations for the emergence of sentience/perception, and sentient life serves as the enabling condition for thinking to arise. In the words of Frederick Weiss, “Each grade of life has for its condition the grade below it, and in turn is a further development of that grade” (Weiss 1969, 14). In Hegel’s philosophy, Weiss adds, this would mean that “each grade of soul is aufgehoben in the grade above it” (Weiss 1969, 15). What is important to realize here is that the Aristotelian understanding of the actualization of that which exists potentially is such that the aforementioned levels are not “opposed” to one another in any straightforward way; what is at issue here, rather, is an appropriation (i.e., “further development”) of a suitable structure. Similarly, the sublation (Aufhebung) that Hegel speaks of can be understood in this context as an emergence of a grade of life from a lower stage (or “moment”) wherein the latter is preserved in the former.

This way of thinking is strictly antithetical to the Cartesian conception of the two substances (res extensa and res cogitans), which are two alien entities that somehow confront each other and that otherwise share nothing in common with one another. On this model, entities no longer fall under four categories (bodies, living things, animals, humans) but under two: extended substances (bodies, living things, animals) and thinking substances (humans). Hence, the Cartesian tradition perfectly exemplifies what some believe to be an unwarranted conception of “human uniqueness” that Cykowski often talks about, so she is quite correct, after all, in maintaining that a return to the Aristotelian model would provide a remedy in this context, but not by way of shattering hierarchies or abolishing essences, as her study sometimes seems to suggest.

There is an important extent to which Heidegger believes much of modern philosophy to be on the wrong track, and there is some extent to which the early Heidegger believes Aristotle and the phenomenological tradition to provide a remedy (on the condition, of course, that they are correctly interpreted). In my view, this is the background against which we must try to make sense of Heidegger’s attempts to uncover the hidden metaphysical assumptions lying behind much of contemporary philosophy and science. The biggest drawback of Cykowski’s work is the absence of an attempt to articulate this historical background, which she sidesteps to jump directly to a defense of Heidegger who she claims to have been unjustly subjected to a hierarchizing charge by several commentators. However, a sufficient evaluation of this charge would itself demand a more thorough discussion of the question of what, exactly, these hierarchies are and who, exactly, ends up endorsing them, but the demand is not met in the confines of her study.

In the last few pages of her book, Cykowski calls Heidegger “an authority on the concealed danger of metaphysical prejudices” (180) and notes that one of the primary objectives of the lecture course is “to get us to appraise metaphysical principles that are buried in the recesses of contemporary thinking” (188). She concludes that FCM “aims, not at the institution of hierarchical principles, but at the indication of ones to which we are already held fast” (188). In her view, while it is true that Heidegger ascribes to human beings the unique capacity to speak out about physis from within physis, this does not entail that Heidegger is attempting to pursue “the idea of human uniqueness and superiority simply for its own sake” (171). According to Cykowski, FCM still presents us with “a hierarchical picture of things, but it is not one that simplistically celebrates human existence” (186). If we pay attention to the broader context of FCM, she argues, we will come to realize that the contrary is true, that “Heidegger is describing human Dasein as a being that must learn to cope with the fact that its life is not an animal life” (172). If so, the hierarchizing charge levelled at Heidegger is mistaken; it misses the nuances of Heidegger’s reflections on animality.

Despite the complexity of FCM, Cykowski’s discussion of the 1929–30 lectures features a clear prose that remains consistent throughout the work. In general, Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss does a good job familiarizing the reader with the scholarship on Heidegger’s reflections on animality and the ways in which he has been criticized by subsequent philosophers. One of the most important virtues of Cykowski’s monograph is that it tries to offer a comprehensive overview of FCM without divorcing the sections on animals from their wider context. Unfortunately, however, Cykowski does not provide us with sufficient textual evidence to support her specific interpretation of this context, in the absence of which she seems to have overstated the extent to which the entire lecture course can be seen as an attempt to uncover the fundamental concepts and the hidden assumptions operative in contemporary philosophy and science. Moreover, and perhaps even more importantly, Cykowski’s construal of the history of philosophy in terms of the difference between Greek and post-Greek thinkers is somewhat too simplistic; her study would have benefited from a deeper engagement with the history of philosophy, which arguably comprises several different traditions concerning the conceptualization of the order of nature and our place in it.

Bibliography:

Brogan, W. A. 1984. “Heidegger’s Interpretation of Aristotle: The Finitude of Being.” Research in Phenomenology 14: 249–58.

Heidegger, M. 1995. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Translated by W. McNeill and N. Walker. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Kahn, C. H. 2004. “Aristotle versus Descartes on the Concept of the Mental.” In Metaphysics, Soul, and Ethics in Ancient Thought: Themes from the Work of Richard Sorabji. Edited by R. Salles. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weiss, F. G. 1969. Hegel’s Critique of Aristotle’s Philosophy of Mind. The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff.

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David Haig: From Darwin to Derrida: Selfish Genes, Social Selves, and the Meanings of Life, MIT Press, 2020

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Dawne McCance: The Reproduction of Life Death: Derrida’s La vie la mort

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Reviewed by: Dong Yang (The University of Georgia)

“This book is not a translation of La vie la mort,” McCance states in the introduction of The Reproduction of Life Death—a study of Jacques Derrida’s series of lectures conducted at the ENS from 1975 to 1976– “Nor is the book an exegesis of the seminar” (McCance, The Reproduction of Life Death, 5). Without offering further clarification, the author seems to have posed a curious riddle for the reader: after all, this work appears to be a translation of sorts, given the multiple inserted and interlaced quotations from various seminal works of Derrida; and it appears to be an exegesis of Derrida’s consistently deconstructive effort within and beyond the seminar to problematize the oppositional logic that renders the form of reproduction as a repetition of the identical and that lends theoretical and scientific force to the eugenic movements, exemplified chiefly in the thoughts of Aristotle, Hegel and François Jacob, by tracing the lines of thought of Nietzsche and Freud that consider the relational difference between life and death as interdependent and mutually inclusive. Already there is a curious aporia between the author’s aim and the organization of the text, a struggle that perhaps reflects McCance’s careful effort to keep her study of La vie la mort from becoming an ironic proof of what Derrida attempts to refute in the seminar: a programmed form of inheritance that strictly follows a predetermined nonliving model and consequently subjects difference to identity. Hers is a dynamic double gesture of both reworking the Derridian positions on biology and pedagogy and breaking the spell of “technoscientific and philosophical ‘modernity,’” a time of experimental science in which “invention has become less a ‘discovery’ than a ‘production’” (9). Following the author’s winding attempt to decode a work of Derrida’s that defies simplistic explication, therefore, surpasses the intellectual pleasure of the source text, especially when Derrida’s principle task—to critique the mode of biological or educational reproduction as repetition of an identical model–seems to echo what Gilles Deleuze formulated in Difference and Repetition years before Derrida’s seminar. In that work, Deleuze strives to overturn the ruling primacy of identity in the history of philosophy and thereby restore the significant function of difference in weaving together an image of thought prior to any static formation of concepts and repetitions. In such a spirit Deleuze writes, for instance, “When we define repetition as difference without concept, we are drawn to conclude that only extrinsic difference is involved in repetition; we consider, therefore, that any internal ‘novelty’ is sufficient to remove us from repetition proper and can be reconciled only with an approximative repetition, so called by analogy” (Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 27). The invisible Deleuzian presence in La vie la mort thus weakens the joy of deconstruction one usually feels when reading a Derridian text, but at the same time, it separates McCance’s study from its source text and continues the inquiry into its nature and grounding, as the publication of this neither-translation-nor-exegesis precedes the real English translation of the seminar. McCance’s overall methodology of approaching Derrida’s seminar in a thematic rather than a linear way implies a relational inquiry, that is, instead of treating La vie la mort as a stand-alone text, McCance examines how Derrida’s central thesis fits into his oeuvre, and it is the rhizomic effort to trace the course of the envelopment of an idea that constitutes the primary significance of the book.

Before delving fully into the seminar, McCance begins the first chapter with a detour of Derrida’s suspicious attitude towards the telos of modern experimental science by revisiting his account of the change of meaning in the notion of invention in Psyche: Inventions of the Other. No longer is invention related to unearthing something new, rather, it has become a mode of production that follows a programmed and oppositional logic (9-10). McCance then helpfully underscores the key line of thought in Derridian philosophy, the concept of heritance, and then links it to a provocative work of biological science—La logique du vivant— by Nobel Laureate biologist François Jacob, provocative because of its declaration of “biology’s release from metaphysics and its coming of age as a science” (11). With McCance’s careful reminder of the unsatisfactory English title of the book, The Logic of Life, which obscures the departure of the study of life from its metaphysical tradition, we come to understand the inherent opposition in modern biology that aims to demystify living life via nonliving entities (that is, DNA), an effort that consequently establishes juxtapositions between life/living and death/nonliving. She captures what is at stake in Derrida’s account: the relation between life and death, be it connective or predicative. As already suggested in the title of the seminar La vie la mort, inserting an undecidable difference or “trait blanc” is thus necessary—Derrida speculates in the spirit of Freud and Nietzsche—for launching a qualitative transformation of the dynamism between life and death from oppositional or dialectical to supplementary. McCance writes “Derrida chooses the titles La vie la mort, he says, not in order to suggest either that life and death are not two, or that one is the other, but rather that the difference at stake between the two is not of a positional (dialectical or nondialectical) order” (11-12). Situating the book back in the mid-70s context where poststructuralist momentum was thriving in France, such an attempt to break with binary oppositions would not seem revolutionary or overly creative; rather, it reads more like an affirmation of philosophical trends of the era. But McCance extends our interest by drawing on the power of such oppositional logic in the process of auto-reproduction by associating La vie la mort with Derrida’s critique of the Hegelian family in Glas, where Hegel claims the privilege of the father-son lineage while crossing out the role of the female. It is precisely this coded mechanism in familial reproduction that finds its echo in the writing of François Jacob and Georges Canguilhem, where the meaning of heritage becomes understood as mere transmission of hierarchical information (26-27), with the result that eugenic measures would proceed to eliminate unwanted differences. The grounding of such a critique comes from Derrida’s explication of an analogy Jacob makes between DNA and text, a view that helps him initiate the accusation of phonologocentrism in Jacob, and McCance concurs: “Indeed, to refer to DNA as a ‘text’ is to borrow a metaphor, in Jacob’s case, an all but outdated metaphor of text drawn from structuralist semiotics, a metaphor through which he reduces ‘text’ to a phonologocentric communicative entity” (30). Hence Derrida’s understanding of DNA’s function: it is the difference along with sameness that get processed and extended through sexual reproduction (31).

Derrida’s critical objective in the seminar not only aims at cultivating an awareness of the problem of inheritance in biological science, but also—and perhaps more interestingly and convincingly—at highlighting the application of such an oppositional logic in biology in modern philosophical institutions, in particular the ENS, where Derrida—teaching then as an agrégé-répétituer–likens the way the philosophy program operates at the institution to the concept of genetic program Jacob proposes, a logos-like message that instructs and repeats generation after generation. Drawing on this theoretical resemblance, in the second chapter McCance then walks us through Derrida’s theory of pedagogy and reemphasizes the unavoidable power inherent in the process of teaching where structural signs are passed along. One problematic function of teaching, especially teaching philosophy, as Derrida diagnoses in his essay “What Is a Teaching Body,” is exactly the auto-productive program that transcribes the coded and repetitive information via the teaching body of the agrégé-répétituer. The act of teaching, therefore, must base its effectiveness on a kind of machinic institutional power “presented as a defense against mutant or contraband influences that threaten the death of the biological or institutional body” (47). By highlighting the mutually supportive roles of the two Derridian texts, McCance, instead of overly emphasizing the rather trite thesis of La vie la mort regarding the oppositional logic of the repetition of the same, directs our attention to the analogy that reveals the pervasiveness of such a biological model on which Jacob relies in educational institutions; we learn from her concluding statement that:

In his reading of Jacob’s program as an apt description of the aggregation program, Derrida demonstrates that both the biological and pedagogical institutions, attempting to ward off difference, constitute reproduction as repetition of the same, although as he remarks every reproduction involves selection and thus the failure of philosophical-biological-pedagogical metalanguage. (50).

Given Derrida’s predicament regarding the presence of ideological power in both academic and scientific institutions, McCance unpacks further the working mechanism of such effort to automate and rigidify the process of teaching and biological reproduction in the following chapter, by invoking Derrida’s curious rendering of Nietzsche’s name and philosophical legacy in The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation. This reading of Nietzsche’s autobiography Ecce Homo functions as an apology for Nietzsche’s posthumous negative influence by arguing that the dissemination of the autobiography depends not on the author’s own signature but the ear of the other who cosigns with differences in hearing or translating the original text. The riddle with which Derrida begins his text—the death of Nietzsche’s father and the life of his mother at the moment he is born—helps foster the sense of self in Nietzsche’s course of life, which, in turn, leads to Derrida’s association of Nietzsche’s description of his life with the process by which one obtains an identity and becomes oneself. Such a process is represented through the development of the name:

“There, this is who I am, a certain masculine and a certain feminine. Ich bin der und der, a phrase which means all these things. You will not be able to hear and understand my name unless you hear it with an ear attuned to the name of the dead man and the living feminine—the double and divided name of the father who is dead and the mother who is living on” (Derrida, The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, 16).

But the continuation of the name after death—the living, namely—depends not on the bearer of the name but on the persons who listen to the name and revive it in the process of infinite eternal return; hence, according to Derrida, one cannot ascribe to Nietzsche the atrocities that the Nazi perpetrated: “One can imagine the following objection: Careful! Nietzsche’s utterances are not the same as those of the Nazi ideologues, and not only because the latter grossly caricaturize the former to the point of apishness” (30). To emphasize the fluidity of life death that refuses any form of consolidation of Nietzsche’s thought under the unity of his proper name, as Heidegger reads and interprets Nietzsche through the “Aristotelian-Hegelian tradition” (The Reproduction of Life Death, 57), McCance aptly connects the three seminal concepts Derrida exploits to contest the institutional or scientific subjectivity grounded by oppositional and hierarchical logic: autobiography, the ear, academic freedom (53), of which the ear is given special emphasis in the rest of the book. After a brief characterization of the Hegelian-Heideggerian line of thought that shares a synthetic tendency to fold and classify an identity within an unchanging personal proper name, McCance explains the Derridian alternative that sees heritance as a process, with the remark that

“The temporal deference upsets the linear notion of time, making the writing of autobiography an ongoing life death affair, an alliance between the living and the dead, a case of death in life […]” (61).

An intriguing idea that appears near the end of the third chapter and runs throughout the rest of the book—perhaps the most memorable elements of the text—is the (re)formulation of Derrida’s view that the study of the relation between life and death demands an interdisciplinary effort. Modern biologists’ efforts to decode the living by treating it as text, Derrida argues, by no means simply the methodology; quite the contrary. The texualization of life inserts a third term—the text—between life and death, and thus, “the referential subject/object paradigm no longer suffices, a changed situation for all disciplines—or at least, a change that would be required for revitalization of the academic institution” (69). An interdisciplinary transition of the academic institution–in the spirit of Nietzsche–is necessary for the future collaborative study of life, a key point McCance proposes here: “The radical ‘interdisciplinarity’ that, for want of a better term, I read La vie la mort to recommend is as much needed today as it was in the 1970s and as it was in the German university of Nietzsche’s day” (69). In such a spirit, Chapter 4 traces the transdisciplinary effort of an oppositional logic that may be found in Marxist political economy, the Jacobian biological theory of life, Alexander Graham Bell’s speech reproduction theory, and the eugenics movements in American history. Centering on the notion of production that entails man’s distinct cerebral ability to control products and eliminate the redundant and undesirable, Derrida surmises that interchanging usages of production and reproduction in Jacob’s work indicates his belief that “man distinguishes himself from animals by assuming control over the products of evolution” (77). In a similar fashion, McCance adds, phonetic speech is reproduced via Bell’s invention of the phonautograph, a speech producing apparatus preceding the appearance of the telephone that makes visible the phonetic signs by a “mechanical theory of hearing” (87). Bell’s essentialist momentum of reproducing the same speech by reducing its abnormal patterns finds its echo in the American eugenics movement, where inheritance is controlled in accordance with a mechanical model that helps produce offspring of desired types.

Chapter 5 develops in detail an essential line of thought Derrida addresses in La vie la mort, the dangerous power of scientific knowledge that is in part unavoidable. McCance finds inspiration in Derrida’s final seminar, “The Beast & the Sovereign,” where a consciousness of knowledge-as-sovereign is always present alongside the process of scientific inquiries, a demonstration of man’s hierarchical and theological power over the beast that lends force to a Catholic ethics, one that “reproduces a double body, an imperishable life worth more than natural or animal life, even as, paradoxically, the church reduces ethics to the automaticity, to the technics or technical reason, from which, at least since Vatican I (1869-1870), it has sought self-protection” (116). However, for Derrida, such a religious goal of self-protection or immunization—standing in line with the oppositional logic criticized in La vie la mort—causes an internal conflict: “religion’s efforts at immunization end up attacking, as an external contaminant, what is already internal to its own body, and indeed necessary for its survival” (116). This self-destructive tendency within religious bodies (similar to the concept of “the politics of politics” that Geoffrey Bennington has recently proposed) finds its secular recurrences in the contemporary “non-speciesism” ethical theories developed by Peter Singer and Tom Regan, two modes of thought that primarily concern the rights of the animal. Conjoining other works of Derrida, such as The Animal Therefore I Am, The Beast & the Sovereign, McCance returns to the principal theme in La vie la mort and contends that Derrida’s formulations provide “a critical resource for developing non-sovereign, non-prescriptive, non-oppositional and non-anthropocentric approaches to ethics in the age of the Anthropocene” (122).

By way of Freud’s implicit counter to the Hegelian and Jacobian oppositional logic of the living in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, McCance offers a holistic account of an earlier theme that the study of life requires an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach that is beyond the capacity of science or philosophy. Derrida was intrigued by the Freudian methodology of speculation, a view that tends to explicate the meaning of pleasure in terms of the variation of quantitative energy, an economic theory that concentrates on the relation between two quantities with unknown essences (130). Grounded by such a model, Derrida moves on to note that the Freudian theory of life death—or Eros Thanatos—defies the Hegelian-Jacobian program that reproduces only the same. On the contrary, Freud writes with a sense of confusion that also surprisingly breaks with the logocentric convention of the production of sameness: “[…] Derrida reads Freud’s account of reproduction in Beyond as offering an alternative ‘logic’ to Jacob’s, an alterity on the side of life and living on” (146). Life, therefore, is not opposed to death in the form of an either/or, but supplements and becomes interdependent with it, with a nexus of difference that always moves beyond disciplinary boundaries and binary judgements.

The Reproduction of Life Death is a strange book, precisely because McCance writes it in deconstruction but at the same time out of Derrida. We read an anxious awareness of the not-so-spectacular source text with a rather trite thesis along with a rhizomic effort of McCance’s to move beyond the scope of La vie la mort—just as Derrida tries to move beyond the limitations of the life/death opposition in the process of the continuation of heritance—to make the seminar itself an intertextual nexus in relation to Derrida’s oeuvre. McCance rigorously highlights the necessity of an interdisciplinary approach to the study of life and the living—a central theme of La vie la mort and, perhaps most importantly, reveals Derrida’s courage in the text to confront the dogmatism and sacredness of modern science, a spirit of the spur that is increasingly difficult to find in the weakening voice of the humanities.

References:

McCance, Dawne. The Reproduction of Life Death: Derrida’s La vie la mort. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.

Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Derrida, Jacques. The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation. Trans. Peggy Kamuf and Avital Ronell. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

Helmuth Plessner: Philosophische Anthropologie

Philosophische Anthropologie: Göttinger Vorlesung vom Sommersemester 1961 Book Cover Philosophische Anthropologie: Göttinger Vorlesung vom Sommersemester 1961
suhrkamp taschenbuch wissenschaft 2268
Helmuth Plessner. Edited by Julia Gruevska, Hans-Ulrich Lessing, Kevin Liggieri
Suhrkamp Verlag
2019
Paperback 20,00 €
256

Reviewed by: Felipe Catalani (University of São Paulo)

A Chapter of the Philosophical Anthropology in Germany: Helmuth Plessner

The discipline of philosophical anthropology can be described as the work of an historically specific group of conservative German intellectuals, with figures such as Max Scheler and Arnold Gehlen who exerted a relatively large influence in the philosophical debate of the first half of the 20th century. At the same time, in an explicitly leftist and anti-conservative milieu, something of a “negative anthropology” was developed (in an independent manner) by authors such as Günther Anders, Theodor Adorno, and Ulrich Sonnemann, whose intent was to think dehumanization without a positive image of what the human is. Due to his entry into the German intellectual debate of the 1920s, Helmuth Plessner is typically included among the first group, despite the somewhat modest and mostly local reception of his work and his rather moderate and anti-radical political positions. As a Jew, he fled Nazi Germany (while Gehlen’s career was advancing in Frankfurt and then in Leipzig during the period of Hitler) and survived the war hidden in the Netherlands (curiously, in his reflections on language in his lectures, Plessner employs often quite particular examples from Dutch). Although he later received a Lehrstuhl in sociology in Germany, the author of Die verspätete Nation remained relatively isolated in the academic scenario of post-war Europe.

Edited by Julia Gruevska, Hans-Ulrich Lessing, and Kevin Liggieri, the transcripts of Plessner’s lectures on philosophical anthropology held at the University of Göttingen in the summer of 1961 have been published by Suhrkamp. This course is comprised of 18 lessons. The first three lessons are dedicated to the idea and the definitions of philosophical anthropology. In the second block of three lessons, Plessner works on the problem of language. Afterwards, a third block of the course proceeds to the relation of man and his environment (Umwelt). After a lesson dedicated to the “utopia of the lost wild form of man,” in which the conceptions of natural man (derived mostly from Rousseau) are criticized, and another lesson on the concept of person, Plessner approaches in three lessons the concept of role, thought in its theatrical, anthropological and functional sense. In the fifth block of the course, Plessner exposes the main points of a study already been published in English under the title Laughing and Crying: A Study of the Limits of Human Behavior, in which he works out the relation between expressivity and human condition, comparing these with examples from empirical sciences such as biology and zoology. At the end of the course, two lessons address the problem of disembodiment [Entkörperung] and the human consciousness of death. The last one approaches the actuality of philosophical anthropology, with Plessner reviewing the questions worked through during the semester.

Those are already familiar with the work of Plessner will not find new theoretical material, as these lectures are the basis for his work Conditio humana. But the book certainly permits a different access to Plessner’s formulations on philosophical anthropology, in a similar manner as in recent decades the publication of lecture transcripts of authors such as Foucault and Adorno have thrown new light on their work. Plessner (like Adorno) shows a generous and pedagogical clarity with the students, in strong contrast to the technical jargon present in some of his texts. The spontaneity of spoken thought, the constant evocation of the second person (and also of the we) and a text marked by the contingency of a lecture produce a different complicity between author and reader, the latter of whom is treated as a listener.

First, we should highlight the context of the philosophical anthropology. This discipline saw its high point in Germany after the First World War and began losing relevance in the mainstream intellectual scene around the 1970’s. The relationship between the essential determinations of man and the experience of the first enormous catastrophe of the 20th century is a question not ignored by Plessner. In a strict materialistic sense, Plessner says that “this science [philosophical anthropology] made significant progress with the experiment of brain injuries occasioned by the First World War” so that “the war worked as a violent experimenter” (12). The war “opened up” man for insight in different senses, but also literally. The image of mutilated human beings revealed that it was not any longer evident what “man” was: this was the moment of the rise of philosophical anthropology. In the notes to the first lesson of the course, Plessner writes: “Ph[ilosophical] A[nthropology] is the expression of the uncertainty of man about his ‘determination’ [Max Scheler]” (9). The reference is probably to the essay The Human Place in the Cosmos from 1928 (the same year of the publication of Plessner’s Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch), where Scheler writes that “in no historical era has the human being become so much of a problem to himself as in ours.”[1] Already in his Die verspätete Nation (first published in 1935 and then reedited in 1959), which was an attempt to understand the genealogy of fascism, he quoted Golo Mann, who said: “The question of what Germany is, and what should be done with it, was an inevitable one hundred years ago. But time worked fast… What man is, and what man should do with himself: that is the question of the future.”[2] It is also no accident that the new period of ontological uncertainty coincided with a rebirth of conservative humanism (centered in the figure of Scheler).

The historical delimitation of philosophical anthropology as a discipline is something that Plessner approaches explicitly in his lectures: he criticizes openly the idea that there has always been philosophical anthropology, so that it must be seen as an anachronism to speak of a philosophical anthropology in Plato or Saint Augustine. He situates it rather as a late product of bourgeois society that begins to appear in the 19th century, as well as in sociology (that presupposes itself a philosophical anthropology and that has a concept of man diverse from the medical and natural sciences). However, it is effectively in the 1920’s, and as a sibling of the “philosophy of existence,” that philosophical anthropology sees its rise. He says: “Let me say something about the date of origin of philosophical anthropology, in the sense that we want to gradually develop here, and of the philosophy of existence. It is not an accident that both emerged in the 20’s of this century, and at the same time. The first works on philosophical anthropology –  if I don’t think of the predecessors in the 19th century, that actually exist, especially Feuerbach – appear after the First World War, that is, in the beginning of the 1920’s. The problem developed there” (27). Also, the early philosophical anthropology of Günther Anders was named by commentators as a hypostasis of the Homo weimarensis,[3] in which the existential condition of not being completely merged with the world (that is, the “world-estrangement of man”) was at the same time the condition for man’s freedom.  (The latter was, however, “pathological,” as this freedom was a result of man’s “non-identification” and contingency relatively to world – in opposition to animals, that have in the world their “natural place.”) The proximity to Plessner’s formulation of the “ex-centric positionality of man” is evident.[4]

Plessner approaches this motif of the “deficitary nature” of man, of man as a Mangelwesen, a motif that can be traced back to the 19th century, at least back to Herder: Herder would speak of man as an animal without claw, horns, poison fang, or strong bite. That means that the biological existence of man, his instincts, are not enough. If this natural weakness of man was something to be denied – and eliminated – by fascist naturalism (legitimized by the doctrine of race, which was, as Plessner points out, a dominant philosophical anthropology of the 1930s that wished to affirm the natural and “original” force), this separation from nature is, on the contrary, what Plessner wants to affirm: “Man is, before everything, instinctually weak [instinktschwach]” (119). What is not openly said by Plessner, but which we could interpret in this way, is that the instinctual realm carries a historical trauma, the same way as German backwardness appears as an excess of nature, as the “biological fall of man” [biologischer Sündenfall] (as Habermas says in his interpretation of Die verspätete Nation). A moral problem, linked to a specific historical experience as the problem of “evil” (understood as aggression), appears between these lines of philosophical anthropology, which does not wish to naturalize the bestiality happened in the past. Therefore, Plessner’s intention is not to understand fascism as a “destiny” written in human nature – although in these lectures, specifically, Plessner’s reference to German fascism, are quite lateral. In this sense, in a less pessimistic manner as Freud in his Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, the essential determinations of man lie in the fact that he is not subordinated to his instincts (as animals are). The essential is not instinct, but its restraint (the “super-ego,” Freud would say). Plessner became, as it is known, an expert in biology and in other fields of the natural sciences. But at the same time, his interest lies in the limits of nature: a constant procedure of philosophical anthropology is the comparison between man and animals, in order to distinguish them.

What underlies Plessner’s considerations is an anti-Nietzscheanism (in other texts he names the origin of three radicalisms he despises: Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche), and also the critique of what he calls the “utopia of the lost wild form of man,” for him a “biological interpretation of civilization and culture as precisely the fall of man [Sündenfall] from nature” (124). As Habermas points out, Plessner’s vision of human Sündenfall is its involvement in nature, not in civilization (as Rousseau sees it). Plessner certainly doesn’t follow the Frankfurtian interpretation of the Dialectics of Enlightenment and doesn’t see the civilized restraint of the instinctual realm in a pathological manner. Rather, such restraints are what characterize the specifically human and should be positively affirmed. Social norms, which are not identical to vital and biological norms, have a “regulative braking function” [regulierende, bremsende Funktion] (121). “To be human therefore means to be guided and inhibited by norms, to be quickened and braked, directed and at the same time limited. That is, to be human means to be a represser [Verdränger]” (122). A defense of these “humanizing” brakes as a defense of civilization shows an inversion of Rousseau that we could call Plessner’s “utopia of the lost civilized form of man,” that has a special meaning during the Reconstruction and Denazification of post-war Germany. Man may be a “blond beast” – but the “blond beast is in the stable” (126). In a certain manner, Plessner’s philosophical anthropology is a praise to the success of domestication of man.

This negation and repression of instinctual nature has a violent dimension. This theory of compensation of the biologically underprivileged condition of man (in which the spirit would result from the insufficiency of the body) finds in Gehlen’s philosophical anthropology a more authoritarian version, as man becomes not a peaceful creature when he leaves the natural condition of animal, but rather becomes a kind of ultra-strong animal. Plessner criticizes Gehlen in these terms: “Capacity of abstraction, language, intelligence become weapons. They become so to speak second order horns and claws” (120). We could even make a comparison on Adorno’s view of the violence of the abstraction as a “second-order” instinct of self-preservation (so that civilization appears as a continuation of the state of nature), but that would lead us too far. However, the compensation of the biological weakness for Gehlen is the social strength – the institutions. Plessner’s view on the break of the biological dimension is different, as he emphasizes language: “Where does man show himself as man, specifically? There where the breaking [Brechung] through language takes place, that is, there where he enters a totally other dimension as the purely biological dimension” (107). To become human means to leave nature behind. We could even identify a proximity with the Habermasian approach (formulated a decade later) on the communicative action as the “breaking out” of the dialectics of enlightenment, in which reason (understood by Adorno and Horkheimer as originally instrumental) is no longer a “second order” instinct, that is, a continuation of the history of violence. However, strangely enough, Plessner doesn’t make any reference to the Dialectic of Enlightenment, a text he certainly knew. When he understands language as a social structure, Plessner “sociologizes” his philosophical anthropology, in which this being for the other – the “communality” [Gemeinsamkeit] – is central. But Plessner never ceases to investigate the relation to nature and the form of the body. He is interested in the mouth, the tongue, and in the capacity to produce sounds. “Language and voice belong to each other” (73). His interests continuously flow from biology to sociology, and back, so that we notice a continuous tension between nature and society, although they always need to be separated.

If Plessner performs this double movement between biology and sociology, it is because his interest lies in the “determination of the double nature of man” (9): on the one side, the cultural and spiritual existence of man, and on the other side, his vital expressions in the biological world. And so he comes back to the discussion with Descartes and the separation of body and soul. This disruption as the essential determination of man is Plessner’s point of departure, and also the point to which he comes back in the last lesson: “a unity that has a break [Bruch] in itself” (219). It is interesting to note how this idea of a unity that breaks itself in two (the gap between body and spirit) is also present in his interpretations of the German historical process. The epigraph of the second edition of Die verspätete Nation (1959) was a quote from Thomas Mann in 1945: “There are no two Germanies, an evil one and a good one, but one, whose best turned to evil through a diabolical ruse.”[5] This was the classical question for German liberal humanists: how was so much hatred and aggression possible in the country of poets and philosophers?

It is difficult to say if Plessner applies his model of philosophical anthropology to understand Germany or the contrary, if his reflections on human nature are an attempt to explain a determinate historical experience. This German unity-in-duality (that in the 19th century allowed the modern rebirth of dialectics[6]) was represented by Marx as Germany’s small body (material and political backwardness) with its huge head (the advanced ideas). But in Plessner there is no dialectics produced by this gap between Germany’s body and spirit and his vision is not the same as Marx’s (neither is dialectics’ two the dualism of body-spirit). For him, Germany’s small body was actually a monster, it was a body without spirit: “Bismarcks Reich, eine Großmacht ohne Staatsidee,”[7] power and force without “idea.” The problem was not the State, incorporated in an idea, but rather an excess of nature. Instead of humanity (the spirit), in backward Germany appeared the organic body: the people, the German Volk. The problem was that the ideological national fundament was: “Nicht Staat, sondern Volk[8]. On the idea of Volk, which for Plessner represents the German anti-humanism, he affirms: “This category, shaped by Herder in opposition to the generalizing abstraction of the universal idea of humanity, in order to overcome the vacuum between the individual rational being and the general human reason, the generic human being, is romantic and flourished in the 19th century towards the significant reality, through which it today reveals the power of a political idea.”[9] To sum it up, Plessner interprets Germany’s backwardness as a lack of spirit: in its excess of nature, Germany “lacked political humanism.”[10] As Habermas affirms, in Plessner’s work “humanism, also the political humanism of the western world, should as a mere postulate continue to ethically maintain its force.”[11]

Although we speak of Descartes’ ontological separation of spirit and body, it is important to say that Plessner is not Cartesian, as he follows the break of the 19th century philosophy that brings nature under philosophical consideration. But following the humanist tradition of Enlightenment, evil is always related to what is not spirit: the organic res extensa (as Deleuze remarked about Kant). For Plessner, however, nature is not evil in itself: evil is a specific human tendency that appears in this division between nature and spirit. Man is no “beast of prey,” says Plessner. At the same time there are no murders in nature, properly said. Only man, in his particular “eccentric position,” can become a criminal. Plessner comes back to this problem in the last lesson of the semester: “Evil in this sense only becomes possible as reality through this peculiar disruption [Zerrissenheit] and brokenness [Gebrochenheit]” (221). It is a conception of human essential determinations, and at the same time we can’t avoid reading it as a response to historical problems. Plessner’s philosophical anthropology has its place in 20th century Germany.


[1] Max Scheler, The Human Place in the Cosmos. Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2009, p. 5.

[2] Apud Jürgen Habermas, Politisch-philosophische Profile. Frankfurt am Main: Surhkamp, 1984, p. 133.

[3] Günther Anders, Die Weltfremdheit des Menschen: Schriften zur philosophischen Anthropologie. München: Beck, 2018.

[4] On Plessner’s concept of “exzentrische Positionalität”, see: Joachim Fischer, “Exzentrische Positionalität: Plessners Grundkategorie der Philosophischen Anthropologie”. Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, 48, (2000) 2, p. 265-288.

[5] Helmuth Plessner, Die verspätete Nation. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1982, p. 11.

[6] For an interpretation of the relation between the modern rebirth of dialectics and the historical experience of backwardness in 19th century Germany, see Paulo Arantes, Ressentimento da Dialética: Dialética e Experiência Intelectual em Hegel. São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1996.

[7] Plessner, Die verspätete Nation, p. 48.

[8] Ibid., p. 52.

[9] Ibid., p. 59

[10] Ibid., p. 19.

[11] Jürgen Habermas, Politisch-philosophische Profile. Frankfurt am Main: Surhkamp, 1984, p. 134.

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