Biography

Helmuth Plessner was a child of the German Empire. He was born in 1892 in Wiesbaden, the son of a physician. From 1912 onwards he studied zoology and philosophy in Heidelberg, Berlin, and Göttingen. Plessner undertook the balancing act of trying to study the ‘physiology of starfish’ by day and writing his first philosophical work on the metaphysics of the ‘scientific idea’ by night. In his development as a philosopher, Plessner drew mainly on the philosopher and biologist Hans Driesch, Neo-Kantian philosophers like Windelband, Lask, and Max Weber, and on phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. Experiences with revolutionary politics in postwar Bavaria and the examination of the modern visual arts (Kandinsky) also shaped his thinking. After his habilitation in 1920, Plessner became associate professor for philosophy at the newly founded Cologne University. Besides through his writings, Plessner made his mark with a remarkable journal, called the Philosophischer Anzeiger (published from 1925 through 1930), which championed the ‘cooperation of philosophy and the scientific disciplines’. The contacts he made through this journal led him to become part of the epicenter of German philosophy. Within the productive polygon between Max Scheler, Nicolai Hartmann, Martin Heidegger, and Georg Misch, Plessner successfully achieved his own breakthrough to philosophical anthropology, which also entailed some personal offenses and disappointments. During the final years of the Weimar Republic, he had a great variety of interests, including, for example, the Bauhaus, Karl Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge, and the political theory of Carl Schmitt.

Dismissed from his office due to his father’s Jewish descent, Plessner, after making a detour via Turkey, found asylum in the Netherlands thanks to his friend the animal psychologist F.J.J. Buytendijk. Under difficult circumstances, Plessner taught sociology in Groningen from 1936 onwards, but after 1940 he was again in danger because of the German invasion of Holland. Plessner survived by going underground with the help of Dutch friends and students. When the war ended Plessner was able to resume his work. In 1946 the University of Groningen awarded him the chair of philosophy. Through the work of Buytendijk, Plessner’s philosophical anthropology had an indirect influence on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology.

In 1951, after having spent 17 years in exile, and now 60 years of age, Plessner returned to Germany to accept the newly founded chair of sociology in Göttingen. In the same year he married Monika Tintelnot, who adopted Plessner’s last name. Plessner, who brought home some worldliness to the still isolated Germany, took part in many activities. He contributed to the institutional setup of the sociology department in Göttingen, taught philosophy, and at the request of Adorno and Horkheimer participated as a managing member of staff at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. In Göttingen he promoted the development of the sociology of sports and he initiated comprehensive empirical research into higher education and in community sociology. During his presidencies of both the German Society of Sociology and that of Philosophy, Plessner had to enable compromises between and in some cases inevitably separate from one another returned emigrants and those who had stayed in Germany during the Third Reich. He had to perform the same balancing act with regard to substantially divergent philosophical schools.

Plessner was not only a great inspiration for the sociology of his time; in a positive exchange with biologists like Adolf Portmann, he also introduced philosophical anthropology as an academic discipline. At the same time he had numerous intellectual clashes with his antipode but fellow-philosophical anthropologist Arnold Gehlen. These debates made philosophical anthropology increasingly attractive for members of the younger generation like Jürgen Habermas and Odo Marquard. In addition, Plessner was in a constant debate with existentialism and critical theory. For all these reasons Plessner was, beyond his circle of followers, a leading character of the awakening mind of the German Republic. After his retirement, Plessner was the first holder of the Theodor-Heuss-Professorship at the New School for Social Research in New York. This professorship had been established in return for the institute’s support for German academic exiles during the Third Reich. This led to prolific contacts to phenomenological and interpretative sociology in the tradition of Alfred Schütz (Peter L. Berger, Thomas Luckmann).

Around 1965, when Plessner was spending his retirement in Switzerland, he was surprisingly offered another teaching assignment, this time by Zürich University, and henceforth held lectures on philosophy for the next couple of years where he amazed the younger generation with his openness towards anything new. But he also further developed his own thoughts and ideas of the 1920s and kept publishing until 1975. His colleagues appreciated Plessner for his agile curiosity and his personal and noetic charm. At the end of his life Plessner suffered long illness, but he lived to see the publication of his collected works by Suhrkamp Verlag just before he died in Göttingen in 1985.

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