2014 Award Recipient: Michael Tomasello

Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, was the first recipient of the first Helmuth Plessner Award.
In Michael Tomasello, the awards committee has chosen to honor a pioneer of philosophical anthropology in the 21st century. In his work, Tomasello makes sophisticated ontogenetic comparisons between the genetically close relatives non-human primates and human beings, with a special focus on human children. In his impressive experimental and interpretative approach, he carries forward the tradition of contrastive comparisons between human beings and animals which also characterized Plessner’s Philosophical Anthropology. Specifically, Tomasello analyzes the distinctive character of human ontogenesis on the basis of the human monopoly on the pointing gesture. Humans are the only primates to point things out to each other and to their children, and human children are the only ones to point things out to each other and to adults. According to Tomasello, the strong connection between objectivity and intersubjectivity instituted by the pointing gesture allows for a “shared intentionality,” a unique phenomenon in evolutionary history which forms the basis of all human communication, especially of the use of language, and thus of cooperation. In view of contemporary sociological and philosophical debates concerning the dominance of naturalism, it is important to note that Tomasello regards nature as an enabling structure of the sociocultural world. Tomasello’s view is thus emphatically not a form of determinism, reductionism, or Darwinism.

Joachim Fischer’s speech in honor of Tomasello, September 4, 2014 (in German).

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