Philosophische Anthropologie, philosophical anthropology, anthropologie philosophique, antropologia filosofica

Since the nineties of the twentieth century we are seeing a renaissance of philosophical anthropology. The Helmuth Plessner Society facilitates this revival by supporting scientific and philosophical research in the field of philosophical anthropology. This new theoretical work in the sense of a philosophical-anthropological reflective practice leads to a new kind of thinking which is also interested in the validation of its history. To remind ourselves of the cognitive sources of philosophical-anthropological thinking, it is worthwhile to return to the German philosophy of the 1920s and distinguish between two strands of philosophical discourse: on the one hand we have the emergence of ‘Philosophical Anthropology’ in a narrow sense (which we here write in capitals), i.e., a group of thinkers around Max Scheler, Helmuth Plessner, Arnold Gehlen, and others; at the same time we have the establishment of a philosophical subdiscipline called ‘philosophical anthropology’ in a broad sense, in which various sciences and approaches are involved. The assessment of the history of philosophy in the English-, French- (anthropologie philosophique), and Italian-speaking domain (antropologia filosofica), are based on these two meanings of ‘philosophical anthropology’ from 1920s German philosophy. The bibliography on this website follows the distinction mentioned.

I. ‘Philosophical Anthropology’

‘Philosophical Anthropology’ in the first, narrow sense is a philosophical approach in the twentieth century to which quite diverse thinkers like Max Scheler, Helmuth Plessner, and Arnold Gehlen belong. One might also include in this current of thought: Paul Alsberg (mostly as a precursor), F.J.J. Buytendijk, and Erich Rothacker, and later also Adolf Portmann and Dieter Claessens. This group of thinkers is fraught with differences and rivalries, so that any attribution or categorization remains controversial. When retelling the history of Philosophical Anthropology, it makes a difference whether it is told from the perspective of, for instance, Scheler, Plessner, or Gehlen. There are good reasons to emphasize the considerable philosophical disparities between the authors. But it is commonly accepted in the history of philosophy that we can recognize common theoretical traits (maybe even a theoretical program) among these thinkers which justifies the unifying term ‘Philosophical Anthropology’ for their work. Their similarities led these philosophers and scientists to define themselves in relation to (i.e., often distinguish themselves from) other philosophical approaches, such as Neo-Kantianism, phenomenology, hermeneutic philosophy, analytic philosophy, existentialism, naturalism, or post-structuralism. Philosophical Anthropology tried to meet the challenges of modernity, i.e., both ‘modernity’ in the sense of the dominance of the empirical sciences (especially biology, but also ethnology and its empirical exhibition of the diversity of social cultures) and ‘modernity’ in the sense of a time in which a specific public-political constitution dominated, a time which was experienced as a crisis. In doing so, it developed unique categories and theorems on the interlacement of body, psyche, culture, and sociality—of which Plessner’s concept of ‘eccentric positionality’ is only the most prominent example. One thing that holds this group of thinkers together is the thought that giving the human being her place in nature, i.e., affirming her organic ‘roots’, does not imply a relapse into naturalism, because it is acknowledged that the human being at the same time transcends nature in various ways. In this way, addressing the human being’s natural being only makes Philosophical Anthropology more inclusive. We see here an important similarity with American pragmatism (James, Dewey, Mead).

II. ‘philosophical anthropology’

‘Philosophical anthropology’ in a broad sense refers to the discipline which emerged at the same time as ‘Philosophical Anthropology’ in the narrow sense discussed above. Philosophical anthropology tries to locate itself in relation to and in competition with other disciplines of philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of language, etc.). It develops in four dimensions: (A) A number of related disciplines contribute to this development, such as psychology, ethnology, biology, sociology, technology, and cultural studies. (B) Various intellectual approaches and branches interlace in the discipline of philosophical anthropology: besides ‘Philosophical Anthropology’ in the narrow sense, there are influences from the philosophy of life (Lebensphilosophie), phenomenology, the philosophy of culture (Cassirer), structuralism, historical materialism, psychoanalysis, and others. (C) Philosophical anthropology as a discipline has from the outset been subjected to criticism from existential philosophy, critical theory, analytic philosophy, post-structuralism, and systems theory—which have all, on systematic grounds, called into question the possibility and revealing power of philosophical anthropology. (D) One characteristic trait of philosophical anthropology is the fact that it reflects upon and records its own history. It retraces the historical background of important anthropological questions and conceptual distinctions. It examines which authors are essential to the development of philosophical anthropology. Here we can think of Protagoras, Pico della Mirandola, Hobbes, Rousseau, Herder, or Schiller, but also of Feuerbach, Marx, or Lotze. And it reconstructs conceptions of the human being, i.e., implicit anthropologies, of various ages and cultures.

When we determine the difference between ‘Philosophical Anthropology’ in a narrow sense (as a theoretical approach or paradigm) and ‘philosophical anthropology’ in a broad sense (as a discipline), we see that, while being challenged by new issues and questions, the renaissance of philosophical-anthropological thinking amounts to a revival both strands of the discourse. On the one hand there is a revival and reconstruction of ‘Philosophical Anthropology’ in the sense of the group of thinkers consisting of Scheler, Plessner, and Gehlen. On the other hand there are new outlines and combinations of approaches within the discipline ‘philosophical anthropology’. The renaissance of Philosophical Anthropology/ philosophical anthropology faces a line-up of simultaneous challenges of which at least four need to be mentioned: (1) biology, and specifically neurobiology and genetics, which monopolizes human nature, thereby discarding prescientific and philosophical conceptions of human nature, (2) the development of artificial intelligence, whose models of cognition substitute certain performances of the human mind, (3) the decline of the linguistic turn in favor of other ‘turns’ (the turn to the body, to emotion, to icons, etc.), and (4) the fading of certain projects in the field of the philosophy of history which focus on modernity.

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