Artificial by Nature
Philosophy of Life and the Life Sciences and Helmuth Plessner’s Philosophical Anthropology
IVth International Plessner Conference, Erasmus University, Rotterdam.
Wed. 16-Fr. 18 September, 2009
Helmuth Plessner (1892-1985) is one of the founders of twentieth-century philosophical anthropology. His book Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch. Einleitung in die philosophische Anthropologie [The Stages of the Organic and Man. Introduction to Philosophical Anthropology], first published in 1928, inspired several generations of philosophers and life scientists. Here, ‘life sciences’ is understood in a broad sense, as encompassing all those endeavours within sciences and humanities in which human life and its expressions are investigated from an anthropological perspective. This perspective is also a typical stream of thought of continental European philosophy. Since the sixties the work of Helmuth Plessner was also increasingly received in the Anglo-Saxon scientific scene (see e.g. Grene, 1966, and 1986) even though Plessner’s philosophical and sociological works only started appearing in English translation in the early 1970s (Plessner 1970, Plessner 1999). At present a renewed interest in (the contemporary relevance of) Plessner’s philosophy can be witnessed. In part this renewed interest is related to a more general revival of phenomenology within philosophy and to the emergence of phenomenology as an important perspective for the life sciences (in the aforementioned broad sense), which has resulted, for example, in renewed appreciation of Merleau-Ponty by philosophers in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. But in addition to this development, Plessner’s philosophical anthropology turns out to have a specific relevance for some of the key issues in contemporary research within the life sciences and humanities. This ‘Plessner Renaissance’ is not only apparent in a growing number of publications (Eßbach and Fischer, 2002; Ernste, 2002; De Mul, 2003, 2007; Holz, 2003; Kockelkoren, 2003; Lindemann, 2004; Gamm, Gutmann and Manzei, 2005; Lindemann and Krüger, 2006; Mitscherlich, 2007; Oldemeyer, 2007, Coolen, 2008), but also finds its expression in the foundation, in 1999, of the international Helmuth Plesser Association (www.helmuth-plessner.de), in the three International Plessner Conferences that have been organized until now (Freiburg, 2000; Krakow, 2003; Florence, 2006), and in the growing number of MA- and PhD-theses devoted to various aspects of Plessner’s work.
The IVth. International Plessner Congress, entitled ‘Artificial by Nature’, that will be organized in cooperation with the Helmuth Plessener Gesellschaft, aims at a fundamental exploration of the relevance of Plessner’s philosophical anthropology for the philosophy of (organic and artificial) life and (the philosophy of) the life sciences and technologies today. It is the aim of the organizers to bring together a carefully selected group consisting of both philosophers and philosophically oriented life scientists (in the aforemen-tioned broad sense) into an interdisciplinary discussion, which is explicitely not confined to Plessner experts, but rather extended to those interested in the philosophical issues of life sciences Helmuth Plessner has worked on. To facilitate the international interdisciplinary exchange English will be the conference language and several prominent scholars also from the English speaking world whose work shows affinity with Plessner’s anthropology are invited. The intended congress will be, just like the preceding ones, a small but fine, in depth, three-day event.
It is no coincidence that this conference takes place in the Netherlands. As Plessner lived and worked in The Netherlands for almost two decades, several of his Dutch students – Jan Sperna Weiland, Jan Glastra van Loon (†2001), Lolle Nauta (†2006), to mention just a few – played a prominent role in the study and application of Plessner’s philosophical anthropology. Glastra van Loon and Nauta also contributed to the present revival of Plessner’s philosophy. The Helmuth Plessner Archives are also located in the Netherlands. (see also: wereldaanboeken.ub.rug.nl/?p=37)
In the last decade a new generation of scholars that study and apply Plessner’s philosophical legacy in their work has entered the international stage and have created a bridge between the continental and Anglo-Saxon world. In the last decade also Merleau-Ponty’s existential phenomenology, which relates to Plessner’s philosophical anthropology in various ways, has received increasing attention amongst philosophers and the life scientists in their search for a more fruitful alternative for the increasingly criticized empiricist-rationalist paradigm, and makes it worthwhile to explore the relationships between these bodies of thought.
Five conference themes
Against this framework of Plessner’s philosophical anthropology, the conference will focus on the following five related, and partly overlapping themes, each of which is connected with different philosophical sub-disciplines and different life sciences.
1. Evolution and human life (philosophical anthropology, philosophy of biology)
Although the biophilosophy that Plessner offers in Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch should be understood as a typology of the different fundamental modes in which living beings maintain themselves as relatively self-sustaining organisms in their environments (i.e. as plant, animal and man), rather than as a theory on the evolution of life, nevertheless many parallels can be drawn between his philosophy of the organic and Darwinism. From this perspective one could address the question in which way the relation between Homo sapiens’ nature and that of (other) animals should be understood, and especially the question what the philosophical scope is of the thesis that man has emerged from animals in an evolutionary sense. There are also several interesting connections between his biophilosophy, the cultural sciences and technology studies. Also, his basic anthropological law of ‘natural artificiality’ provides us with an interesting perspective on the controversial topic whether natural selection in the evolution of hominids is indeed gradually being replaced by artificial selection, i.e. one in which technological and cultural developments dominate.
The key questions within this thematic domain are: What are the implications of the notion of eccentric positionality for the study of the special position of Homo sapiens amongst other living beings? How does the notion of ‘natural artificiality’ affect the standard Darwinian view of evolution, with respect to both animals and humans? And finally, perhaps the most intriguing question of all: what, actually, is life?
2. Embodied cognition (philosophy of mind, philosophy of cognitive sciences and neuroscience)
For some time, now, it has become impossible to imagine present day debates on skills and cognition, viz. as they are taking place within the philosophy of mind, without recurrent references taking place to Merleau-Ponty’s account of human corporeal intentionality in his Phénoménologie de la perception (1945). But In Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch (1928) Plessner had already developed a sophisticated critique of Cartesian dualism, which has not yet been incorporated in these debates. However, his philosophical anthropology may very well turn out to be highly relevant in this context. Of course, in his critique Plessner rejects the opposition between body and mind as a fruitful starting point for explaining human behaviour altogether: for him a human being has to be understood as a psychophysical unity. A human being’s life is constituted by its continuously having to find a settlement with respect to the relation between being one’s living body [Leib] and having one’s body as a body thing [Körper]. The key questions to be addressed in this domain are: To which extent does Plessner’s philosophical anthropology, which systematically takes into account the findings of the empirical scientific research of human action and animal behaviour, find confirmation in the empirical findings of current cognitive and neurological sciences? What are the similarities and differences between Merleau-Ponty’s later existential-phenomenological approach of human beings and Plessner’s philosophical anthropology, which itself had already incorporated many insights from phenomenology? What can be said about the role of embodied cognition in current theories on human knowledge, skills, action and expression, which are developed by the cognitive and neurological sciences, based on the perspectives of these two philosophers?
3. Bio-ethics (medical anthropology, ethics, medical science)
Although Plessner, as a philosopher who tried to uncover the fundamental principles of (human) life, he did not develop an elaborate ethical theory, his philosophy of life and his philosophical anthropology do have far-reaching implications for questions concerning the normative and ethical aspects of human life. The three anthropological laws disclose man’s finitude. Because human life is characterized by mediated immediacy, even in those cases that one would know what is good or healthy for one’s life, there always remains a gap between the goal that one is pursuing and the end point one is actually realizing. One has to learn from the history of one’s pursuits. As humans are artificial by nature, any naturalistic account of what is good or healthy for someone will necessarily fail. Plessner’s view that man’s standpoint with respect to transcendence is necessarily utopian, entails, that humans, in any situation that demands an answer of a normative kind, can never have resort to a given, last or absolute, set of values. The key questions within this thematic domain are: If one takes man’s eccentric positionality into account, which import does this have for an understanding of human freedom? And what are the implications for the notion of health, in both physical and mental respect, although, of course, they are intertwined? How can humans, given the law of utopian standpoint, find and defend legitimate justifications for the morality of their actions? How is human morality tied up with man’s finitude and historicity, as understood in Plessner’s anthropology of eccentric positionality?
4. Living culture (philosophy of culture, aesthetics, cultural sciences)
Since humans are artificial by nature, culture and art are not supplements, but integral elements of human life. At present, the disciplines which study art and culture seem to oscillate between two poles: the existential-phenomenological and hermeneutical approaches in which the human ‘subject’ is understood in terms of self-clarification and self-interpretation, and the post-structural and constructivist approaches in which the ‘subject’ seems to disappear behind a variety of material and discursive structures. Plessner seems to propose a more balanced view by stressing the eccentric positionality of human existence, which on the one hand entails that human beings are confined and restricted to their current environmental structures and material realisation, while on the other hand human experience remains inherently contingent and undeter-mined, as a consequence of which humans live in a world of choice and sociality. Culture can thus be seen as the result of materialisation and embodiment, but also of choices in a field of mediated realisations. Thus, human activity, as well as human identity, is characterised by its situation-, institution- and medium-bound narrative and performative structure. This perspective also blends the distinction between culture and nature and conceives human actions as (eccentrical) ‘networks’. These ideas are confirmed by modern actor-network and non-representational theory. The key questions in this thematic domain are: How is Plessner’s concept of eccentric positionality to be the basis of human sociality? How do human actions and practices deal with the different kinds of positionality, which according to Helmuth Plessner are so crucial for human being(s)? What would Helmuth Plessner’s contribution to the social scientific debate on the relationship between structure and agency look like? What is the relationship of non-representational social theory and Helmuth Plessners multi-facetted concept of positionality? How does the restrictiveness of the embodied nature of human being create a fundamental drive towards overcoming these restrictions and a longing for a more anonymous, undetermined, cosmopoli-tan, world of flows and generality (a world of non-places) and a longing for unrestricted recognition and trust? How would Helmuth Plessner conceptualize the mediality of (post-)modern human being as an expression of life?
5. Beyond man: protheses, cyborgs and artificial life (philosophy of technology, AI and AL, robotics)
The notion that human beings are ‘artificial by nature’ is also relevant for those sciences that study the restoration, normalisation, reconfiguration, enhancement or even replacement of (aspects of) human life by technical means, such as protheses, artifical organs, cyborgs and artifical life forms. How should we evaluate these sciences from the perspective of Plessner’s philosophical anthropology? Although the law of natural artificiality does not provide any reasons to repudiate these technological developments as unnatural, the laws of mediated immediacy and of utopian standpoint warns us for being too optimistic about both the controllability of these developments and about their contribution to human happiness. Key questions in this thematic domain are: To what extent can the figure of the cyborg be seen as a further exploration of man’s eccentric positionality? Can the basic law of natural artificiality provide us with a framework to understand contemporary movements like transhumanism? And do they, in turn, place Plessner’s philosophical anthropology in a new light? I.e., is a kind of positionality that lies beyond eccentric positionality conceivable, and if so, how will it affect the cognitive, volitional and emotional capacities of mankind?
Call for papers
If you would like to participate and present a paper at one of the parallel sessions/master classes, please send an abstract of about 500 words to firstname.lastname@example.org, before May, 15, 2009. Please also mention your preference for one of the themes of the conferences. Around mid June, 2009 (or earlier), the final programme will be made up and announced and your participation will be confirmed. The conference language will be English.
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