Plessner, Helmut (1892–1985)

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Helmut Plessner, was, with Max Scheler, the founder of modern philosophical anthropology. Born in Wiesbaden, Germany, he studied medicine, and then zoology and philosophy, at the universities of Freiburg, Heidelberg, and Berlin. He received a doctorate in philosophy from Erlangen in 1916 and his Habilitation in philosophy with Scheler and Hans Driesch at Cologne in 1920. His academic career in Germany was terminated by the National Socialist regime, and in 1934 he went to Groningen, the Netherlands, first as a guest of the Physiological Institute (where he was associated with F. J. J. Buytendijk), then as Rockefeller fellow, and from 1929 to 1942 as professor of sociology. Again dismissed by the Nazis, he was reinstated at Groningen by the Dutch in 1945 and occupied the chair of philosophy from 1946 to 1951. In 1951 he accepted the chair of sociology at the University of Göttingen in Germany. He became professor emeritus in 1962 and lectured as a visiting professor at the New School for Social Research in New York in 19621963. He received an honorary doctorate from Groningen in 1964.

Plessner's workhe published twelve books and approximately ninety monographs, essays, and papersranges over an extraordinarily wide area, including animal physiology, aesthetics, phenomenology, the history of ideas, the history of philosophy, sociological theory, sociology of knowledge, sociology of education, and political sociology. Most of these studies are linked to the problems of philosophical anthropology, the discipline to which he devoted his most important publications. His background in zoology and physiology, his phenomenological training under Edmund Husserl, and his sociological orientation led him to redefine the problems and findings of the modern sciences of man.

Plessner agrees with the view that man artificially creates his nature, or more precisely, that what man makes of himself is contingent on history. However, man is bound by the structural principle of his position in the world; in contrast to the centricity of animals, who are, simply, what they are as organisms, in their Umwelt, man is "eccentric." Plessner rejects the dualism of spirit and matter present in Scheler's anthropology. He sees man as being a body (with such organically determined traits as upright posture, impoverishment of instincts, and drive surplus) and consequently exposed to his environment, and also as having a body and acting by means of it, as being open, within certain limits, to the world. Man is both "inside" and "outside" himself. Social and historical order is based on the precarious balance of these two dialectical moments. This order enables man to maintain a distance from things, from situations, and from himself, making it possible for him to use language and to plan actions. Man's eccentricity leads him to enter history, "to make himself" in history. However, when man faces ambivalent or insuperable situations, the balance on which order is founded is disrupted; planned action, speech, and all historically determined "orderly" ways of coming to terms with the world are blocked. His indirect, socially mediated relationship with the world momentarily breaks apart. In such marginal situations man responds in a prehistorical, presocial, and yet peculiarly human manner: by laughter or by tears.

See also Driesch, Hans Adolf Eduard; Husserl, Edmund; Philosophical Anthropology; Scheler, Max.


Plessner's most important works are Die Einheit der Sinne (Bonn: Cohen, 1923), Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch (Berlin and Leipzig: de Gruyter, 1928; 2nd ed., Stuttgart, 1964), Das Schicksal deutschen Geistes im Ausgang seiner bürgerlichen Epoche (Zürich and Leipzig: Niehans, 1935; 2nd ed. published as Die verspätete Nation, Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1959), Lachen und Weinen (Munich, 1941), and Zwischen Philosophie und Gesellschaft (Berlin and Munich, 1953).

For literature on Plessner see Jürgen Habermas, "Anthropologie," in Fischer Lexikon, Vol. II, Philosophie, edited by Alwin Diemer and Ivo Frenzel (Frankfurt, 1958).

other recommended works

Essbach, Wolfgant, et al. Plessners "Grenzen der Gemeinschaft": eine Debatte. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2002.

Marx, Werner, and Helmut Plessner. Das Spiel, Wirklichkeit und Methode. Freiburg i. Br., Schulz, 1967.

Schultz, Walter, and Helmut Fahrenbach, eds. Wirklichkeit und Reflexion: Walter Schulz zum 60. Geburtstag. Pfullingen: Neske, 1973.

Thomas Luckmann (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael Farmer (2005)