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
Plessner’s philosophical anthropology
The central question for the congress is whether Plessner’s philosophical anthropology is relevant for contemporary developments in the philosophy of (organic and artificial) life and (the philosophy of) the life sciences and technologies today, and if so, in what way and to what extent. Since the domain covered by this question is rather wide, the congress will focus on five specific themes. Plessner’s philosophical anthropology will provide the conceptual framework that will connect the questions under examination with regard to the five themes. For that reason, before introducing these themes, a short introduction to this conceptual framework will be provided.
Plessner, educated as a biologist and philosopher, defines life in terms of the notion of boundary. In his biophilosophy, he explains how the cell becomes animate through its membrane within an inanimate environment. Only when a living organism takes up a relation to its boundary, does it become open (in its own characteristic way) to what lies outside and to what lies inside*. Only then does it allow its environment to appear in it, and allow itself to appear in its environment. Taking his bearings from this biophilosophy in Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch (1928), Plessner establishes the foundation of his philosophical anthropology, moving from plants through animals to man. He defines human beings as that kind of living being that is centrally positioned in its direct embodied and unreflected relationship with the environment, and, at the same time, as that kind of living being that is located outside of this boundary and is, thus, open to the world—what Plessner calls being eccentrically positioned. From such an eccentric position, humans must establish artificial boundaries and embody them. Because of his eccentric positionality, human beings are artificial by nature. Plessner verifies the thesis of eccentric positionality in the areas of philosophy, society, history, politics, language, art and music and in the expressivity of the human body (Fischer, 2000). Eccentric positionality does not imply the reproduction of the classical Cartesian dualism with is separation of bodily existence and human consciousness. On the contrary, it is an essential consequence of Plessner’s theory that these are two sides of the same coin. The divide between body and mind, so common in modern philosophy, has to be overcome, if existence: man is his body (as living body) and has his body (as physical object). Human life is constituted by continuously having to find a settlement with respect to these two aspects. The human being is both structured as centred and eccentred. This view is partly reiterated by Maurice Merleau-Ponty , in his Phénoménologie de la perception (1945) . In this book human existence is explained in terms of man being a ‘body-subject’ which in all its movements and expressions is attuned to its world, or, using an expression by Merleau-Ponty himself (1945, p. 117), man can only have a directedness to the world insofar as his body exists towards the tasks and opportunities in the world in which he lives.
Against the background of the eccentric positionality and the accompanying ‘dual-aspectivity’ of man, Plessner formulates three constitutive anthropological laws:
- the law of natural artificiality, indicating that man being has to create his own life in order to compensate for the natural place he has lost. Man is ‘artificial by nature’. Unlike animals and plants man’s existence is beyond the centric condition of the animal. As a result, he is homeless, he has no natural place in the world. The constitutive lack of equilibrium of the human positionality is the driving force of all culture. Because it belongs to man’s nature to be artificial with respect to nature, which implies that he depends on supplements such as language, houses, institutions, science, and technologies for his survival, man always has been a cyborg (cf. Clark, 2003, De Mul, 2003);
- the law of mediated immediacy, according to which the relation between human eccentric beings and their environment is actively mediated by the human corporeality, enabling them to objectify (and subjectify) themselves and the environment; to create a distance to himself and to the environment. Our cognitive consciousness of objects in the world presents an illusion of unmediated, direct and objective perception of the objects as we forget the mediating role of our senses. The mediatedness of this relation to the environment can be revealed through reflection from the eccentric position. But the bordered body is not just an interface but also a face, an instrument of human expressivity. Human being and human life are essentially and necessarily (inter-)active, and again mediated expressions of oneself, of one’s identity as a human-being. These expressive actions are bound to the media in which they are realised and through which they are communicated. The subjective intention is biased by the intersubjective media and obtains a meaning and creates a sense, which is not in line with its original intentionality any more. Or in action-theoretic or post-structuralist terms: its effect becomes an unintended and unpredictable consequence and a potential playing ball for the power of discourse. Therefore human beings never know what they are doing and will only learn what they have done through history. In Plessner’s view this does not mean, however, that they are disempowered by this fact. Rather, the notion of this contingency will initiate new actions, linking former ones to future ones and as such create an ever-continuing search for sense;
- finally, the law of utopian standpoint, which points to our eccentric positionality, from where we are at a distance to our own physical existence and to our passive experience in a world of praxis. Because of his eccentric positionality every human being experiences his or her ‘constitutive rootlessness’, which impels him or her to transcend the achieved and thus to keep searching for the unreachable ‘home’, a position of unambiguous fixation, a place in this world and a clear identity for the self and the world around it. The eccentric positionality leads to a positioning in a counterfactual utopian home, a kind of counterfactual ‘non-place’. From there we experience the traces of the ‘other’ excluded from our own factual being, doing and saying. This detachment, which is constitutive of personhood is also the power of putting oneself in the place of any other person, indeed of any other living thing. Where there is one person, Plessner says, there is every person. The specific particular being, in one’s own limited, parochial situation, is a concretion, as every particular human being is, of this utopian generality providing a firm basis for the sociality of human actions in general.
* More recently we find a similar view expressed by cognitive biologists Varela and Maturana (1987, 1991) and sociologist Niklas Luhmann (Luhmann, 1990), who speak in this context of emergent autopoetic systems.
(Click here to download a short video documentary produced by 3Sat (190MB in German) at the occasion of the first international conference of the Helmuth Plessner Association)