Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, has been elected the first laureate of the Helmuth Plessner Award.
The awarding committee had excellent reasons to elect Michael Tomasello. It considers Tomasello to be a pioneer of philosophical anthropology in the 21st century. In his work, Tomasello makes sophisticated ontogenetic comparisons between the genetically close primates and human beings, with a special focus on human children. Tomasello thus continues, in an impressive experimental and interpretative fashion, the tradition of contrastive comparisons between human beings and animals which also characterized Plessner’s Philosophical Anthropology. Tomasello examines the distinctive character of human ontogenesis on the basis of the human monopoly on the pointing gesture. Of all primates only human beings point out things to each other and to their children, and children point out things to each other and to adults. According to Tomasello, the tight connection between objectivity and intersubjectivity which is instituted by the pointing gesture, allows for a ‘shared intentionality’ which forms the basis of all human communication, especially of the use of language, and thereby of cooperation. Shared intentionality is therefore a unique phenomenon in evolutionary history. With respect to contemporary sociological and philosophical discussions related to the dominance of naturalism, it is important to note that Tomasello regards nature as an enabling structure for the sociocultural world. Tomasello’s view is thus emphatically not a form of determinism, reductionism, or Darwinism.