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.” 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.” 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, 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.
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.” 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) 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,” 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”. 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.” To sum it up, Plessner interprets Germany’s backwardness as a lack of spirit: in its excess of nature, Germany “lacked political humanism.” 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.”
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.
 Max Scheler, The Human Place in the Cosmos. Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2009, p. 5.
 Apud Jürgen Habermas, Politisch-philosophische Profile. Frankfurt am Main: Surhkamp, 1984, p. 133.
 Günther Anders, Die Weltfremdheit des Menschen: Schriften zur philosophischen Anthropologie. München: Beck, 2018.
 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.
 Helmuth Plessner, Die verspätete Nation. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1982, p. 11.
 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.
 Plessner, Die verspätete Nation, p. 48.
 Ibid., p. 52.
 Ibid., p. 59
 Ibid., p. 19.
 Jürgen Habermas, Politisch-philosophische Profile. Frankfurt am Main: Surhkamp, 1984, p. 134.
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.