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Return to Nature?An Ecological Counterhistory$

Fred Dallmayr

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780813134338

Published to Kentucky Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813134338.001.0001

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(p.171) Appendix B The Return of Philosophical Anthropology

(p.171) Appendix B The Return of Philosophical Anthropology

Some Personal Reflections

Return to Nature?
University Press of Kentucky

The issue of “human nature” has been a perennial concern of both philosophical and social-political inquiry. In the well-known classical formulation, “man” was defined as a “rational animal,” a definition that left obscure or fuzzy the relation of human beings both to nature at large and to the “divine.” During the nineteenth century, with the development of modern social science, the issue became the central preoccupation of what came to be known as “philosophical anthropology.” The concern continued unabated into the next century. For a number of reasons, however (especially certain anti-humanist tendencies), the topic fell out of favor in recent decades— to the point that it virtually ceased to occupy the attention of both philosophers and professional anthropologists. This neglect stands in stark contrast to the situation prevailing in Europe during the early and mid-twentieth century—which can be described as the heyday of philosophical anthropology.1 The basic aim of the present pages is to rescue the topic from oblivion and more specifically to recover the older European legacy while also transforming it in the light of more recent experiences and intellectual developments.

Traditional Humanism and Philosophical Anthropology

It so happens that my own youth and early intellectual development stood strongly under the influence of the cited European legacy. A major intellectual figure shaping my early years was that of Max Scheler (p.172) (1874–1928)—certainly a leading mentor of philosophical anthropology at the time. It was Scheler's central ambition to overcome the dualisms marking modern Western thought, including the bifurcation between a shallow empiricism and an abstract (Cartesian/Kantian) rationalism—an aim that brought him into the proximity of the early Heidegger. Through his study Die Stellung des Menschen im Kosmos (The Human Place in the Cosmos, of 1927), Scheler established himself as the leading protagonist of a perspective in which the more elusive-universalist accents of Enlightenment philosophy were fruitfully combined with the more concrete concerns of anthropology and human biology. Above all, his notion of the human “person” or “personhood”—a notion opposed both to the Cartesian cogito and to all forms of empirical reductionism—allowed Scheler to emerge as protagonist of a spiritual, yet concretely situated “humanism,” a humanism able to serve as an ethical benchmark during the darker years of European history. In correlating philosophy and human life, his thought did not subscribe to an indiscriminate amalgam, but rather envisaged a complex texture of dimensions corresponding to different levels of human experience. One aspect of this texture was the triadic structure of human knowledge, where Scheler differentiated among empirical-instrumental knowledge (Leistungswissen), humanistic understanding (Bildungswissen), and reflective-speculative insight (Erlösungwissen), a structure departing in important ways from the traditional dichotomy of natural and human sciences.2

To be sure, Scheler was not alone in inaugurating and solidifying philosophical anthropology. His efforts were ably supported, and also modified, by a number of other European intellectuals. Foremost among the latter were Arnold Gehlen (1904–1976) and Helmuth Plessner (1892–1985).3 The differences between the two were striking, testifying to the broad range of possible conceptions of philosophical anthropology. Basically, Gehlen's conception was more restrictive and closed, while Plessner's view was flexible and dynamic, pointing toward open-ended horizons and possibilities. Both thinkers accepted the thesis of the “premature birth” of humans and their resulting instinctual deficiency and vulnerability; however, their conclusions were radically divergent. For Gehlen, instinctual deficiency was something to be overcome or domesticated, and the latter could be achieved (p.173) only through the resolute institutionalization of social and cultural patterns and the routinization or standardization of role expectations; from this vantage point, human frailty urgently needs to be compensated through social and political stability. By contrast to this “conservative” outlook, Plessner favored a more “liberal” or emancipatory perspective, viewing human beings as precariously located between nature and culture, a position requiring constant creative adjustments in light of deeper aspirations for “meaning.” One of Plessner's central notions was that of the “eccentricity” or “eccentric positionality” of human existence, a notion not far removed from Heidegger's thesis of the “ek-static” quality of human being-in-the-world.4

Among the various protagonists, my own distinct preference at the time was for Plessner—even to the point of trumping my admiration for Scheler's work. As I pointed out in an essay of 1974—meant as a contribution to celebrate his eightieth birthday—Plessner's writings signaled for me a resolute stride beyond the Cartesian mind/matter or spirit/nature dualisms, a paradigm that still lingered in recessed form in Scheler's “spiritualism.” What attracted me particularly to Plessner's approach was his ability to correlate (without total fusion) the natural-biological situatedness of human beings with their capacity for creative interpretation and transformation. This aspect was clearly illustrated in The Unity of the Senses (of 1923)—a study that, as I came to see later, anticipated in many ways Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception. How was it possible, the book argued, for phenomena to have an impact on human sensory organs unless the latter are seen as interpretive and sense-finding organs (and not simply as passive instruments)? Rather than being viewed as mute receptacles, sensory organs had to be seen as sensible media in the distillation of meaning out of the multitude of opaque stimuli. In some of his later writings—especially The Stages of the Organic World and Man and Conditio Humana—Plessner articulated the concept of human “eccentricity,” a quality partially attributable to the “erect position” of humans. Seen in this light, the human condition for Plessner was “doubly mediated and ‘reflexive’ by virtue of man's ‘ex-centric’ status in regard both to himself and his environment. … Rather than being safely enmeshed in a life-cycle or the stimulus-response nexus, man has to ‘lead’ his life by designing a web of cultural and symbolic meanings—patterns which provide him at best with a fragile habitat.”5

(p.174) The “end of Man”?

As mentioned before, philosophical anthropology fell on bad days in the later part of the last century. Several factors account for this development. Not aiming to be exhaustive, I want to single out two main factors: the first of a chiefly philosophical nature, the second of a more political or geopolitical character. The first is related to the rise of (what is loosely called) “postmodernism” after 1968, with its pronounced anti-humanist bias. During its early phase, the postmodern agenda resounded with such catchphrases as “the death of the subject” and “the end of man”—slogans coined as countermottos to the earlier reign of existential “humanism” and that clearly implied also the end of philosophical anthropology. No one was more eloquent and zestful in proclaiming this agenda than Jacques Derrida. In an essay of 1968 provocatively titled “The Ends of Man,” Derrida took aim at two possible meanings of the phrase: one accentuating “end” in the sense of goal or telos, the other accentuating “man” as a finite creature. Under the first rubric, the essay “deconstructed” the idea of a philosophical or historical teleology of the human species; under the second rubric, the accent was shifted from telos to finitude, ending, or termination. Despite a complex interlacing of meanings, it was the second aspect that finally overshadowed and dominated the essay's argument. Taking his lead from Nietzsche's Zarathustra, especially the distinction between the “higher man” and the “overman,” Derrida affirmed that the latter “overcomes” the human itself and thus is no longer “humanist” in any sense. Rather than cultivating past memories, the overman “burns his text and erases the traces of his steps; his laughter then will burst out, directed toward a return which no longer will have the form of a metaphysical repetition of humanism.”6

Referring to the events of 1968 and their aftermath, Derrida at the time noted a radical rupture of philosophical dispositions. Prior to these events, he wrote, it was “the tide of humanism and anthropologism that covered French philosophy.” During that earlier period, it was humanism and anthropologism that served as “the common ground of Christian or atheist existentialisms, of the philosophy of values (spiritualist or not), of the ‘personalisms’ of the right and left, and [even] of Marxism in the classical style.” Using a broad brush, he asserted that humanist anthropologism was “the unperceived and uncontested common ground of Marxism and of Social Democratic or Christian-Democratic (p.175) discourse.” Since 1968, however, things have changed. What followed were an “anti-humanist and anti-anthropologist ebb” and an intense “questioning of humanism.” In fact, the critique of humanism and anthropologism became “one of the dominant and guiding motifs of current French thought” (at the time of Derrida's writing). Inspired by the “new” Nietzscheanism, what Derrida complained about was not this critique itself, but rather its half-hearted character and the lingering persistence of humanist traces in current discourse. What particularly chagrined him was the continued humanist reading of such thinkers as Hegel, Husserl, and even Heidegger, a reading tending to “amalgamate” these thinkers with “the old metaphysical humanism.” As he pointedly observed: “Among those who do practice this amalgamation, the schemas of the anthropologistic misinterpretation from Sartre's time are still at work, and occasionally it is these very schemas which govern the banishment of Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger into the shadows of humanist metaphysics.”7

The second main factor accounting for the “ebb” of humanism and philosophical anthropology was the accelerating pace of globalization. Although incipiently heralded by two “World Wars,” globalization in the second part of the last century took the form of an increasingly relentless pursuit of global economic, cultural, and political-military agendas. Under the impact of steadily expanding markets and communications networks, national and cultural traditions or frames of reference were inevitably placed under siege; the same developments also put pressure on older conceptions of humanism and of philosophical anthropology. Given the growing awareness of cultural and religious differences (fomenting a possible “clash of civilizations”), how was it possible to discern something like a shared humanity or humaneness—beyond the level of a technological homo faber and the global uniformity of consumerism? Were all assertions of a universal “human nature” not inevitably tainted by an ethnocentric, perhaps Eurocentric, bias? Under these circumstances, how was it possible to renew a conception of philosophical anthropology that does not elope into an abstract transcendentalism (or spiritualism), while at the same time resisting the lure of biological or ethnological reductionism? As it appears, humanism as well as philosophical anthropology was bound to be stranded on the proverbial “horns” of the dilemma (p.176) between universalism and reductive particularism—unless an alternative path were found, a path that cannot invoke any “top-down” formula, but must rely on the experiential process of “globalization from below.”8

Resurgence of a Chastened Humanism

In the meantime, the “ebb” of antihumanism and antianthropologism (diagnosed by Derrida) is itself beginning to ebb. What we are experiencing today is not, to be sure, a high tide of old-style humanism, but the tentative resurgence of a subdued, self-critical and non-Eurocentric (that is, nonhegemonic) view of the “human” on the far side of absolute affirmation and absolute negation. Several factors again account for this resurgence. One is the danger of antihumanism to slide into in-humanity and the denial of human rights—a slide that is utterly unacceptable given the upsurge of new forms of imperialism, of state-sponsored and privately sponsored forms of “terrorism,” and of the widespread violation of elementary standards of human rights in many parts of the world. Another factor is the immense pressure placed by advances in the biological sciences on acceptable conceptions of the “human” or “humaneness”—a pressure evident in the programs of genetic engineering, cloning, and stem-cell research. What also needs to be taken into account is the rediscovery and revitalization of such resources of philosophical anthropology as social phenomenology, hermeneutics, and various modes of social psychology.

All these factors combined have inspired a number of writers to pay renewed attention to this domain of inquiry neglected for some time. A prominent example is Jürgen Habermas, a participant in the earlier vogue of philosophical anthropology. In a series of essays on “the future of human nature,” Habermas has directly confronted the challenge posed by certain ambitions of genetic engineering. As he observes, in the face of these ambitions, it is “an urgent matter” to initiate “a public discourse on the right understanding of cultural forms of life. And philosophers no longer have any good reasons for leaving such a dispute to biologists or engineers intoxicated by science fiction.” Without explicitly invoking the label, Habermas's intervention clearly gives a boost to the resurgence of philosophical anthropology at this new stage of development. In his view, what philosophy can (p.177) contribute in this context is its capacity for reflective judgment, its ability to illuminate the “ethical self-understanding of the species”— certainly no small matter. In the assessment of Nikolas Kompridis, Habermas's intervention has in a way corrected his own leanings toward a rationalist universalism: “By speaking in the name of the human future, Habermas has helpfully (if unintentionally) exposed the cost of adhering to a merely proceduralist conception of philosophy.” In doing so, it has exposed the “limitations of a sharp distinction between morality and ethics, between justice and the good life,” by showing that the morality of reason is itself sustained “by a prior ethical self-understanding of the species shared by all moral persons.”9

In the field of political theory, William Connolly recently has launched an initiative whose parameters mesh with philosophical anthropology broadly conceived. In his study entitled Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed (of 2002), Connolly endeavored to reconnect and mutually interpolate “nature”—traditionally the domain of exact science—with “culture,” the central domain of the humanities and philosophy. As he writes there: “Every theory of culture bears an implicit relation to biology and biological theory”—a relation that has tended to be sidelined by both hard scientists and cultural “idealists,” giving rise to various kinds of one-sided reductionism. “In their laudable attempt to ward off one [biologistic] type of reductionism,” he adds, “too many cultural theorists fall into another: they lapse into a reductionism that ignores how biology is mixed into thinking and culture and how other aspects of nature are folded into both.” Among philosophers, Connolly invokes chiefly the legacies of Henri Bergson, William James, Merleau-Ponty, and Gilles Deleuze, while in the field of neuroscience his chief mentors are such practitioners as Antonio Damasio, Joseph LeDoux, and V. S. Ramachandran. The reconnection that his text envisages is not so much a harmonious symbiosis, as rather a fragile and tension-ridden bond where insights garnered from different fields rub against each other and thereby release new energies and horizons. In its emphasis on openness, contingency, and shifting horizons, the text in a way harkens back to earlier philosophical anthropology, especially to Plessner's notion of the “eccentric positionality” of human existence.10

Of late, my own thinking has also returned to the issues raised by Scheler, Plessner, and other protagonists of half a century ago. In (p.178) my case, the return was mainly prompted by the debilitating effects of a radical antihumanism celebrating the “death of the subject,” effects evident especially in the areas of public life and political agency. Another motivating factor was a resurgent interest in the legacy of Merleau-Ponty, a legacy sidelined for several decades by the “post-modern” vogue.11 These and related motives led me back to perhaps the central concern of philosophical anthropology: that of “human nature” and the meaning of humanism. Chastened by the experiences of intervening decades, my endeavor was to renew some older teachings without, however, validating their frequent derailment into a compact, self-possessed, and hegemonic (perhaps Eurocentric) humanism. In an essay titled “Who Are We Now? For an ‘Other’ Humanism,” I have sought to clear a path beyond anthropocentrism and antihumanism, a path that also avoids derailment into (biological or idealistic) modes of reductionism.12

As it seems to me, the interlude of antihumanism may actually have served the salutary purpose of cleansing humanism of some of its traditional arrogance. Seen from this angle, the presumed “end of man” is in effect “nothing else but the continuous and ever renewed beginning of a journey”—a journey in search of the “human.” What the deflation of anthropocentrism makes possible above all is “a released openness to others, to nature, and the recessed ground of being(s).” I invoke at this point Heidegger's famous Letter on Humanism, where we read: “If we do keep the label, the term ‘humanism’ signifies that human nature is indeed crucial for the truth of ‘being’—but crucial precisely in a way where everything does not depend on ‘man’ alone or as such.” In lieu of this dependence, what comes into view here is a complex mode of interdependence among humans, nature, and the world—perhaps in the direction of the “cosmotheandric” perspective articulated by Raimon Panikkar and the different “mediations” thematized by Thomas Berry.


(1.) Regarding the original meaning of philosophical anthropology, I still find Jürgen Habermas on target when he writes that it “integrates and digests the findings of all those sciences which—like psychology, sociology, archeology or linguistics—deal with ‘man’ and his works” while it is “not in turn a specialized discipline.” Perched “between empiricism and theory,” its task is “to interpret scientific findings in a philosophical manner.” See his article “Anthropologie,” in Fischer-Lexikon: Philosophie, ed. Alwin Diemer and Ivo Frenzel (Frankfurt-Main: Fischer Verlag, 1958), 18, 20.

(2.) See Max Scheler, Die Stellung des Menschen im Kosmos (Bern: Francke Verlag, 1927), translated by Manfred S. Frings as The Human Place in the Cosmos (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2009); and his Die Wissensformen und die Gesellschaft (Bern: Francke Verlag, 1926). Cf. also Manfred S. Frings, Max Scheler (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1965); and Wilfrid Hartmann, “Max Scheler's Theory of Person,” Philosophy Today 12 (1969): 246–261. In a way, the present paper is also meant as a tribute to Manfred Frings, who passed away in 2009.

(3.) Other important figures were Jakob von Uexküll and Adolf Portmann. Uexküll's contribution resided especially in the demonstration of the closed ecological milieu of animals and the fixed linkage between their instincts and external stimuli, while Portmann's research documented the “premature birth” of human beings and their initial developmental retardation. Both writers left their imprint on the enterprise of philosophical anthropology. Cf., e.g., Adolf Portmann, Animals as Social Beings (New York: Viking Press, 1961); Portmann, A Zoologist Looks at Mankind, trans. Judith Schaefer (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990); Jakob von Uexküll, Theoretical Biology (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1926); Uexküll, Die Lebenslehre (Postdam: Müller and Kiepenheuer, 1930).

(4.) For some of Gehlen's major writings, see Der Mensch: Seine Natur und seine Stellung in der Welt (1940), 8th ed. (Bonn: Athenäum Verlag, 1966); Die Seele im technischen Zeitalter (1949), rev. ed. (Hamburg: Rowohlt, (p.205) 1957); Urmensch und Spätkultur (Bonn: Athenäum Verlag, 1956); and Moral und Hypermoral (Frankfurt-Main: Metzner, 1969). For some of Plessner's major writings, see Vom Anfang als Prinzip transzendentaler Wahrheit (Heidelberg: Winter, 1917); Die Einheit der Sinne: Grundlinien einer Ästhesiologie des Geistes (Bonn: Bouvier, 1923); Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch (1928), 2nd ed. (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1965); Lachen und Weinen (Bern: Francke, 1941); Conditio Humana (1961), reprint (Pfullingen: Neske, 1964); and Philosophische Anthropologie (Frankfurt-Main: Fischer, 1970). For a critique of Gehlen, mainly from Plessner's perspective, see Habermas, “Arnold Gehlen: Nachgeahmte Substantialität,” in his Philosophisch-politische Profile (Frankfurt-Main: Suhrkamp, 1971), 200–221. Regarding Heidegger, cf. Helmut Fahrenbach, “Heidegger und das Problem einer ‘philosophischen Anthropologie,’” in Durchblicke: Martin Heidegger zum 80. Geburtstag (Frankfurt-Main: Klostermann, 1970), 97–131.

(5.) Fred Dallmayr, “Social Role and ‘Human Nature’: Plessner's Philosophical Anthropology,” in Beyond Dogma and Despair: Toward a Critical Phenomenology of Politics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 69–93, at 73. My statement would need to be corrected for gender bias.

(6.) Jacques Derrida, “The Ends of Man,” in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 136.

(7.) Ibid., 116–119. As one should add, Derrida did not entirely absolve the work of the mentioned thinkers from harboring humanist leanings and thus encouraging the “anthropologistic misinterpretation.”

(8.) On “globalization from below,” see especially Richard Falk, “Resisting ‘Globalization-from-Above’ through ‘Globalization-from-Below,’” in his Predatory Globalization (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), 127–136.

(9.) Jürgen Habermas, The Future of Human Nature, trans. William Rehg, Max Pensky, and Hella Beister (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 15, 39–40. See also Nikolas Kompridis, Critique and Disclosure: Critical Theory between Past and Future (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 166.

(10.) William E. Connolly, Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002). Cf. in this context Damasio, Looking for Spinoza; Antonio Damasio et al., eds., Unity of Knowledge: The Convergence of Natural and Human Science (New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 2001); Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996); Le Doux et al., eds., The Self: From Soul to Brain (New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 2003); and V. S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee, Phantoms of the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind (New York: William Morrow, 1996).

(11.) See in this respect Diana Coole, Merleau-Ponty and Modern Politics after Anti-Humanism (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007); also (p.206) my “Return of the Repressed: Merleau-Ponty Redivivus,” Political Theory 37 (2009): 713–719.

(12.) Dallmayr, “Who Are We Now? For an ‘Other’ Humanism,” in The Promise of Democracy: Political Agency and Transformation (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), 211–236. Cf. also Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, 193–242.