The Helmuth Plessner Society
The Helmuth Plessner Society understands itself as a forum for the newly awaken diversity of interests in Plessner’s thought, work and life and in philosophical anthropology in general. It would like to support the application of Plessner’s thought for interdisciplinary research and to support the wide public dissemination of his ideas. The society offers conceptual, organizational and to a limited extent financial support for scientific research in connection with Plessner’s work. Moreover, the society understands itself as the first scientific society systematically to promote philosophical anthropology as a discipline in its own right, that is, as a discipline that studies the highly complex interconnections between biological, cultural and social anthropology. In this sense, the society renews what Plessner himself had achieved in his own time.
The Helmuth Plessner Society is associated with the Helmuth Plessner Archives and the Helmuth Plessner Funds. The archive at Rijksuniversiteit Groningen comprises all of Plessner’s unpublished scientific work, which has only been in part made available for research. After a generous initial donation the Helmuth Plessner Fund is available to finance research at the archive. Contributions to the fund are welcome. Applications for support will be examined by the President of the Society in consultation with the administrative committee.
The Helmuth Plessner Society supports research on the work of Helmuth Plessner and seeks to establish contact among its members. The Society will publish a newsletter once a year. Currently, three activities stand at the center of concern to the Society. First, it is our intention to supplement the collected works (Suhrkamp Verlag) with missing additional texts that are difficult to obtain. Second, it is our intention to endeavor to make internationally accessible through translations Plessner’s works, especially the ‘Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch (Levels of Organic Being and Man)’. And finally, the Society plans symposium and congresses so as to bring together academic researchers on Plessner and philosophical anthropology who up till now have been working in isolation.
The Helmuth Plessner Society is an independent non-profit organization. New members are welcome. Annual fee: EUR 52,-; reduced: EUR 25,-. The presiding comitte decides on applications for reduced fee.
Prof. Dr. Joachim Fischer
Institut für Soziologie
Technische Universität Dresden
D-01062 Dresden (GER)
Ass.-Prof. Dr. Marco Russo
Universita d. Studi di Salerno
Dipartimento di Filosofia
Via Ponte Don Melillo
I-84084 Fisciano (SA)
Dr. Olivia Mitscherlich-Schönherr
Institut für Philosophie
Am Neuen Palais 10
D-14469 Potsdam (GER)
Universität Koblenz-Landau - Campus Landau
Inst. für Erziehungswiss./Philosophie
76829 Landau (GER)
Scientific advisory board:
Prof. Dr. Jos de Mul (Rotterdam)
Dr. habil. Heike Delitz (Bamberg)
Katharina Günther (Hannover-Isernhagen)
PD Dr. Gregor Fitzi (Oldenburg)
PD Dr. Mikhail Khorkov (Moskau)
Prof. Dr. Zdislaw Krasnodebski (Bremen/Warschau)
Prof. Dr. Hans-Peter Krüger (Potsdam)
Prof. Dr. Gesa Lindemann (Oldenburg)
Prof. Dr. Karl-Siegbert Rehberg (Dresden)
Dr. Matthias Schlossberger (Potsdam)
Prof. Dr. Volker Schürmann (Köln)
Prof. Dr. Walter Seitter (Wien)
The Thought of Helmuth Plessner
To define life in terms of the notion of border or limit was Plessner’s good fortune. In his biophilosophy from 1928, he explains how the cell through its membrane becomes animate within an inanimate environment. Only first when a living organism takes up a relation to its border, does it become open (in its own characteristic way) to what lies outside and to what lies inside. Only then does it allow its environment to appear in it and it to appear in its environment. Taking his bearings from this philosophy of organic being (Stufen des Organischen, 1928), Plessner establishes the foundation of his philosophical anthropology, moving from plants through animals to man. He defines human beings as that kind of living being that is placed in the border between its body and a corresponding environment — what Plessner calls being positioned - and, at the same time, as that kind of living being that falls outside of this border and is, thus, open to the world—what Plessner calls being excentrically positioned. From such an excentric position, humans must establish artificial borders and embody them. Plessner verifies the thesis of excentric positionality in the areas of society, history, politics, language, art and music and in the expressivity of the human body.
The socio-philosophical perspective demonstrates how humans cope with their precarious border situation—open to themselves, but reciprocally open to the penetrating gaze of the other—through conceding to each person the right to wear masks and through creating a public sphere that is founded on tact and tactics. In such a public sphere lie the Limits to Community (Grenzen der Gemeinschaft,1924). In his ‘political anthropology’ (Macht und menschliche Natur, 1931 (Power and Human Nature)), Plessner describes how entire human groups, culturally speaking, follow the principle of an ‘artificially foreshortened horizon’: in light of the creative or productive difficulties that arise from indeterminate relations to themselves, to others and to the world, humans establish spheres of trust and acknowledge among themselves a duty for ‘politics’, that is, a duty to maintain the sphere of trust against what is foreign or strange. Through awareness of their own permutations and the way in which others build their own horizon, human groups can not fail to understand that their own culture de facto expresses the unmediated being of man in a mediated way and also that, by virtue of this artificial mediation, their own culture hides such being. Insight into the structural obscurity of the self (homo absconditus) is insight into the openness of man, enabling humans to accept the possibility of alternatively formed horizons without thereby compelling them to abandon their own.
Plessner pursues this ‘border problematic’ of humans between construction and expression not only in the social dimension, but also in the objective dimension. His Ästhesiologie des Geistes, 1923 (Aesthesiology of Spirit) and his Anthropologie der Sinne, 1970 (Anthropology of the Senses) demonstrate how the different senses prefigure a cognitive access to the world for an excentrically positioned form of life. Through sense-based information about the condition of its body, an excentric form of life establishes contact or relation with its self. Through information received from the eyes, an excentric form of life structurally establishes an objective distance to naturally given objects. And through information received through the ears, an excentric form of life structurally establishes a resonance with (not a distance to) what is given. Positioned excentrically between mind and body, the person is capable of rationally abstracting from his sensuous existence. But he is not able to extricate himself from the senses entirely. Indeed, the opposite is the case. An excentric form of life pushes the different senses to ever greater accomplishments( in mathematical geometry, fine arts, music), thereby pushing himself into the extremes of distance and resonance. Because of these extremes, man can only produce an ‘artificial unity of the senses’. In this sense, language forms a precarious center between distance-producing representation and expression.
Finally, the notion of excentric positionality takes us to an anthropology of the subjective dimension. In the enigmatic and ineffable expression of a laughter bursting with joy or an uncontrollable weeping (Lachen und Weinen, 1941, Laughing and Weeping) Plessner identifies forms of behavior that are only suitable for a living subject who, in a permanently fragile relation to his own body, must find an orienting control of the self in all possible life situations. In times of crises, that is, in those ‘border predicaments’ that do not make sense and therefore are ‘unanswerable’ the (independent) body takes over from the mind the function of managing existence. Laughing and weeping are at least just as decisive for the constitution of humans as the capacity for language. Such forms of behavior represent perhaps an even stronger objection to Cartesian dualism than the linguistic capacity, as they demonstrate that humans form an unity that is, no doubt, broken and intermittent but not split between body and mind. And so too the ‘smile’, which does not refer to a crisis situation, shows this characteristic ‘distance in expression to expression’.
Plessner’s anthropological , socio-theoretical and aesthiological studies also represent work on the myth of the German Spirit’. The book, Die Verspätete Nation, 1935/1959 (The Belated Nation) documents his efforts on this topic. From a socio-cultural perspective, Plessner describes a historically contingent—albeit rich in consequences—specific structure of the ‘bourgeois spirit’, to which he refers as ‘wordly piety' (Weltfrömmigkeit), a protestant preference for ‘inwardness’ over the externality of politics. In a secular form, such a preference awakens the greatest expectations with regard to the inner resources of philosophy to overcome contradictions in the medium of spirit, thus bringing forth the very best in man. To the extent that this bourgeois spirit of idealism contains no valid standard to employ in matters of public concern, it can not oppose the force of final solutions in times of great practical upheaval.
From its very first confrontation with Kant’s critical philosophy (Krisis der transzendentalen Wahrheit im Anfang, 1918 (Crisis of transcendental truth in its origin)), Plessner’s philosophical work has been directed towards formulating a ‘concept of philosophy’, in terms of which the final point of philosophical reassurance lies not in knowledge guaranteed by pure reason, nor in the primacy of action, but in a ‘philosophical power of judgement' (1920). Such a power of judgement would effect a delicate balancing act on the ‘border’ between what is inner and what is outer and would be thus most suitable to the precariousness of ‘human dignity’. And finally this power of judgement would paradigmatically instantiate the practice of an effectively realized form of skepticism.
The Biography of Helmuth Plessner
Born in 1892, the son of a physician, Helmuth Plessner was a child of the ‘Kaiserreich’. Beginning in 1911, he studied zoology and philosophy in Heidelberg, Berlin and Göttingen. He sought to educate himself along two lines: during the day he researched the ‘physiology of the starfish’; and during the night he attempted to formulate his first philosophical work on the metaphysics of the ‘idea of science’. His philosophical learning process was influenced by the following figures: the philosopher and biologist, Hans Driesch, the neo-Kantian thinkers Windelband, Lask and Max Weber, and the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. Experiences with revolutionary politics in postwar Bavaria along with a confrontation with modern art (Kandinsky) were also of significance for Plessner. After his habilitation in 1920, the next significant step in his career was to accept a position as an instructor (privatdocent) in philosophy at the newly formed university in Cologne. In addition to his own publications, he made a name for himself as the editor of a pioneering journal dedicated to publishing ‘interdisciplinary work between ‘philosophy and the individual sciences’ (Philosophischer Anzeiger, 1925-1930). Work on this journal brought him into contact with the epicenter of contemporary German philosophy at that time. Under the influence of Max Scheler, Nicolai Hartman, Martin Heidegger and the hermeneutic philosopher Georg Misch, Plessner was able to achieve an original breakthrough to his own philosophical anthropology, a breakthrough which brought personal attacks and disappointments. The last years of the Weimar Republic saw Plessner engaged in a multiplicity of activities and contacts: with the Bauhaus; with the scientific sociology of Karl Mannheim; and with the political theory of Carl Schmitt.
Because of the Jewish origin of his baptized father, Plessner was dismissed from the university in 1933. After a short detour through Turkey, Plessner received asylum in Holland due to the recommendation of a personal friend, the animal psychologist, F. J. J. Buytendijk. From 1936 and under difficult conditions, he lectured as a sociologist at the university in Groningen. In 1940 his life was once more put in danger by the German occupation. Plessner managed to survive in the underground through the aid of his friends and students in Netherlands. In 1946 he was appointed to a chair in philosophy in Groningen. Plessner was able to influence indirectly French anthropology through Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who was introduced to Plessner’s ideas by Buytendijk. In 1951 after seventeen years, the sixty year old Plessner returned to Germany to assume a newly founded chair in sociology in Göttingen. One year later he married his wife Monica. Bringing a spirit of cosmopolitanism with him to Germany, which was still not quite open to the world, Plessner took up many projects. He took part in the institutional development of sociology in Göttingen. At the same time, he taught philosophy. At the request of Horkheimer and Adorno, he became for a while a leading co-worker at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. Plessner also set underway large-scale comprehensive empirical studies on the university, on the sociology of community and education and on the sociology of sport. Due to his presidency of the academic societies for sociology and for philosophy, Plessner was required to establish new contacts between the remigrants and those who stayed behind as well as to establish the unavoidable boundaries between the various substantive positions.
Plessner was a central figure in consolidating the opening of the Republic in the following respects: he stimulated the development of modern sociology and brought philosophical anthropology into exchange with biologists like Adolf Portman; he became attractive to a younger generation of intellectuals like Juergen Habermas and Odo Marquard through his constant tension with Arnold Gehlen, his opposing figure in philosophical anthropology; he engaged in ideological debates with existence philosophy and critical theory; and he had a wide influence through his own circle of students. After his retirement he served as the first Theodor-Heuss-Foundation professor at the New School for Social Research, which had been created to honor the German-speaking intellectuals who had emigrated during the war. As a result of his stay in New York, Plessner established fruitful contacts with phenomenological and interpretive sociologists working in the tradition of Alfred Schütz, such as Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann.
In the middle of the sixties Plessner, who already had retired to Switzerland, surprisingly was awarded a teaching position in Zürich. Plessner taught philosophy for many more years with an openness to new ideas while maintaining permanent continuity with the philosophical tradition from the twenties, a combination of past and present which astounded the younger generation of students. Plessner published actively up until 1975. His contemporaries could still experience his agile curiosity and personal charm even in his nineties. Before he died in 1985 in Göttingen after a long period of sickness, he saw the publication of his collected works.
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