Philosophische Anthropologie, philosophical anthropology, anthropologie philosophique, antropologia filosofica

A renaissance of philosophical anthropology has been underway since the 1990s. The Helmuth Plessner Society seeks to facilitate this revival by supporting scientific and philosophical research in the field of philosophical anthropology. This new theoretical work of philosophico-anthropological reflective practice leads to a new kind of thinking, which is also interested in reflecting on its own history. Looking at the cognitive resources of philosophico-anthropological thinking invites a return to the German philosophy of the 1920s, where we can distinguish between two strands of philosophical discourse: on the one hand we have the emergence of “Philosophical Anthropology” in a narrow sense (which we distinguish here with capital letters), i.e., a group of thinkers surrounding Max Scheler, Helmuth Plessner, and Arnold Gehlen; at the same time, there is the establishment of a philosophical subdiscipline called “philosophical anthropology” in a broad sense, involving various disciplines and approaches. Assessments of this history in traditions outside of Germany (e.g., in the English-, French- and Italian-speaking worlds) also point to these two meanings of philosophical anthropology dating back to 1920s German philosophy. The Philosophical Anthropology/philosophical anthropology bibliography on this website follows this distinction.

I. Philosophical Anthropology
Philosophical Anthropology in the first, narrow sense is a twentieth-century philosophical approach followed by thinkers as diverse as Max Scheler, Helmuth Plessner, and Arnold Gehlen. Others associated with this current of thought are: Paul Alsberg (mostly as a precursor), F.J.J. Buytendijk, and Erich Rothacker; later also Adolf Portmann and Dieter Claessens. Because this group of thinkers was beset with differences and rivalries, any attribution or categorization remains controversial, however. The history of Philosophical Anthropology differs depending on whether it is recounted from the perspective of Scheler, Plessner, or Gehlen. There are good reasons for emphasizing the considerable philosophical disparities between the authors; at the same time, it is commonly accepted in the history of philosophy that they share enough theoretical traits (and maybe even a theoretical program) to justify the unifying term “Philosophical Anthropology.” 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 poststructuralism. Philosophical Anthropology tried to meet the challenges of modernity—“modernity” both in the sense of the dominance of the empirical sciences (especially biology, but also ethnology and its empirical demonstration of the diversity of social cultures) and in the sense of a specific public and political constitution of society, one that was experienced as crisis. It developed unique categories and theorems on the interconnection of body, psyche, culture, and sociality, of which Plessner’s concept of “excentric positionality” is only the most prominent example. One conviction that these thinkers share is that human beings transcend nature in various ways, so that recognizing their place in nature, i.e., affirming their organic “roots,” does not imply a relapse into naturalism but on the contrary allows for a more substantiated demonstration of their specificity. Here we find 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. The broader strain tried to locate itself in relation to and in competition with other disciplines of philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of language, etc.). It developed in four dimensions: (A) a number of related disciplines contributed to its development, such as psychology, ethnology, biology, sociology, the science of technology, and cultural studies. (B) Various intellectual approaches and schools intersect in the discipline of philosophical anthropology: besides Philosophical Anthropology in the narrow sense, Lebensphilosophie, phenomenology, the philosophy of culture (Cassirer), structuralism, historical materialism, psychoanalysis, and others had an impact. (C) Philosophical anthropology as a discipline has from the outset been subject to criticism from adherents of existential philosophy, critical theory, analytic philosophy, poststructuralism, and systems theory, who have, on systematic grounds, called into question its interpretative power and very possibility. (D) Philosophical anthropology reflects upon and documents its own history. It reconstructs the historical background of important anthropological questions and conceptual distinctions, and identifies the authors that were essential to its development, such as Protagoras, Pico della Mirandola, Hobbes, Rousseau, Herder, and Schiller, but also Feuerbach, Marx, and Hermann Lotze. Philosophical anthropologists also study conceptions of the human being, i.e., implicit anthropologies that have dominated in various ages and cultures.

Determining 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) reveals that the renaissance of philosophico-anthropological thinking, while engaging with new issues and questions, amounts to a revival of 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 surrounding Scheler, Plessner, and Gehlen. On the other, there are new ideas and approaches being articulated within the discipline of philosophical anthropology. The renaissance of Philosophical Anthropology/philosophical anthropology faces a constellation of simultaneous challenges, the four most important of which are: (1) the advance of biology, and specifically neurobiology and genetics, which has come to monopolize conceptions of human nature while discarding prescientific and philosophical definitions, (2) the development of artificial intelligence, whose models of cognition are coming to replace, at least in part, conceptions of the human mind, (3) the decline of the linguistic turn in favor of other “turns” (the body turn, the emotional turn, the iconic turn, etc.), and (4) the fading significance of certain projects concerning modernity in the field of the philosophy of history.

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