2017 Award Recipient: Peter Sloterdijk

The Karlsruhe philosopher Peter Sloterdijk was the second recipient of the Helmuth Plessner Award in 2017.
After an intense discussion of three candidates proposed by the Helmuth Plessner Society, the awards committee decided by a majority on March 3, 2017, to bestow the honor on Peter Sloterdijk. The city of Wiesbaden’s press release explains this choice as follows: “Peter Sloterdijk is one of the most important contemporary German philosophers and cultural theorists. He studied philosophy, history, and German studies in Munich and at the University of Hamburg. His book Critique of Cynical Reason, first published in German by Suhrkamp in 1983, is one of the best-selling philosophical books of the twentieth century. In addition to his extensive publications, Peter Sloterdijk has in the past decades taught philosophy at numerous universities in Germany and abroad.”

Within philosophy and theory circles, Sloterdijk’s work is seen as an original contribution to “philosophical anthropology” and is debated throughout Europe. “Outside of Germany, Sloterdijk is seen as representing the legacy of philosophical anthropology because of his position against Heidegger’s anti-anthropology” (Marco Russo). This “anthropological elucidation” of the conditio humana can already be found in the first, foundational volume of his Spheres trilogy (Sloterdijk’s principal work to date, 1998-2004), which begins with the shared world as the constellation forming the human: the human as “dual being” in the prelinguistic, dialogical, I-thou-relationship between fetus and mother, in the “mother-child space.” In his subsequent essay Menschentreibhaus (“The Human Greenhouse,” 2001), Sloterdijk undertakes a systematic “anthropological elucidation” of the conditio humana—explicitly distancing himself from Darwinism on one side and culturalism on the other.

Sloterdijk elaborates a nexus of “anthropogenetic” mechanisms in the field of life in order to reconstruct the transition from primates to human beings phylo- and ontogenetically: the mechanism of “insulation” of primate groups with the creation of a specific shared world (a social climatic space); the mechanism of “shutting down the body” (Koerperausschaltung) with the development of throwing as a “distancing technology” from nature; the mechanism of “pedomorphosis” or “neoteny” with the prolongation and preservation of infantility in the human form; the mechanism of “transmission,” by means of which linguistic metaphors from the zone of familiarity gradually create “world openness.”
This theory is systematically and methodologically analogous to Plessner’s approach in his great essay Die Frage nach der conditio humana (“The question of the conditio humana,” 1960), in which he modified and reformulated The Levels from 1928 while preserving its essence. Plessner’s aim here is to clarify, in dialogue with biology and especially anthropology, the conditions of the possibility of the human in natural history, in the transition zone from animals: the mechanisms associated with the “human blueprint” of “imitation and reciprocity,” of the “reification” of their own bodies and the “repression” of their drives, of language as the “superelevation of the eye-hand-field,” of the boundary regulation of the “relation between world and environment.” Interesting here is the fact that Sloterdijk develops his constellation analysis of the conditio humana with reference to Paul Alsberg, Louis Bolk, Adolf Portmann, and Dieter Claessens—the same philosophical and anthroposociological network in which Plessner and Scheler were the main protagonists.

“Conferring the Helmuth Plessner Award on Peter Sloterdijk is a great honor for Wiesbaden,” says Rose-Lore Scholz, head of the city’s department of cultural affairs and chair of the awards committee. “With his articles and books Peter Sloterdijk has stimulated numerous debates in Germany and beyond and provided impetus for thought to broad segments of our society.”

The awards ceremony took place on September 4, 2017, Helmuth Plessner’s 125th birthday, in Wiesbaden’s city hall.

Wolfgang Eßbach’s speech in honor of Tomasello, September 4, 2017 (in German).
Acceptance speech of Peter Sloterdijk am 04.09.2017 (gekürzte Fassung im ›Tagesspiegel‹ vom 19.09.2017)

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