German Anthropology Research Paper

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Although the development of anthropology as a philosophical discipline is, at least in Germany, closely connected to the anthropological turn that took place in the 1920s and 1930s, there has been a long tradition of the usage of the word anthropology in German thought. The term was first used in the writings of Magnus Hundt in Leipzig in 1501, and later specified by Johann Gottfried von Herder, who prepared the prospect of the human being as a creature deficient by nature. Herder did not consider himself an anthropologist but, rather, a theoretician of human culture. His work has proved to be highly influential, especially for the evolution of philosophical anthropology in the 20th century.

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Immanuel Kant

As one of the central disciplines of philosophy, anthropology was—in a strict sense—first established by Immanuel Kant. But Kant’s famous reflections on philosophical anthropology are to be found not in his Anthropology From a Pragmatic Point of View (1798), but in his Logik (1800). For Kant, the field of philosophy, in this cosmopolitan regard, is founded upon the following four questions: (1) What can one know? (2) What shall one do? (3) What may one hope? (4) What is the human being?

The first question is answered in metaphysics, the second question in moral philosophy, the third question in religion, and the fourth question by anthropology. Kant asserts that all these realms may well be subsumed under the name anthropology, because the first three questions refer to the last question.

In his Anthropology From a Pragmatic Point of View (1798), Kant also distinguishes between two kinds of anthropology. For Kant, physiological anthropology deals with the question, “What does nature make of a human being?” At the same time, pragmatic anthropology centers on the human as a freely acting being. It is exactly this distinction that gives rise to a philosophical anthropology attempting to derive a philosophical determination of humans from scientific knowledge. For Kant, this knowledge is primarily psychological. Hence, his Anthropology From a Pragmatic Point of View is, according to today’s standards, a work on empirical psychology rather than on philosophical anthropology. However, it is beyond doubt that, with this distinction, Kant anticipates the central question of 20th-century philosophical anthropology: How does scientific knowledge of a human as a biological being relate to self-conception as an intellectual being?

This question gained a tremendous new relevance through the evolution of 19th-century life sciences (medicine, physiology, pathology, zoology, morphology, anatomy, embryology, cell theory, etc.). The anthropological question was thus intensified by the rise of the natural sciences in the 19th century. On the other hand, the critique of traditional German philosophy (Kant, Hegel, Fichte, Schelling, etc.) led to questioning the determination of humans as rational animals. The reduction of humankind to a merely rational subject seemed to be insufficient without a theory of human behavior in the world. Thus, both the rise of the life sciences and the critique of traditional German philosophy led to the question of how, in a philosophical sense, the exceptional position of humankind within the biological world, and based on biological categories, could be justified.

The Anthropological Intermezzo: Philosophy of Life

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was especially the philosophy of life that tried to establish a fact-based, but nonreductive, theory of man and human culture. In an ongoing debate with leading biological theories, philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Simmel, Wilhelm Dilthey, Henri Bergson, and others have outlined a truly comprehensive theory of human culture under the conditions of a biological theory of the human species. It was, above all, the discipline of Volkskunde that played a tremendous role in the evolution of both Lebensphilosophie (life philosophy) and early philosophical anthropology.

The Foundation for Classical Philosophical Anthropology

The bloom of German anthropology is closely connected with the works of Max Scheler, Helmuth Plessner, and Arnold Gehlen. The main anthropological work of Scheler, Man’s Place in the Universe, appeared in 1928. Plessner’s work, The Stages of the Organic and Man, appeared the same year. Scheler, who had outlined his own anthropological concept in a lecture some years before, accused Plessner of plagiarism. While there are indeed numerous analogies in the problems, Scheler’s and Plessner’s given answers differ greatly.

Max Scheler

Both the philosophy of life (Bergson, 1896/1990, 1907/1983; Eucken, 1918) and Husserl’s (1901) phenomenology deeply influence Max Scheler’s anthropology. Scheler’s work, Man’s Place in the Universe (1928), can be considered the key text of modern German anthropology. Scheler starts with the essential difference between humans and animals; this is the exceptional position of man that derives from the fact that man, as opposed to animals, is the carrier of a mind. This primarily concerns the question of how humankind positions itself in the natural environment. According to Scheler, man is open to the world, which means that human beings, unlike every other group of animals, are not fitted into a natural environment in a strict sense; they are not determined by the limits of their environmental structure. This structure is, from a biological point of view, determined by a close interconnection between perception and action.

The German term for environment, Umwelt, means (in this sense) that every perception of an animal refers to a possibility to fulfill a certain set of actions and every action is determined by the limits of perception. In his work Environment and Inner World of Animals (1909), Johann V. Uexküll develops a comprehensive theory in which environment (Umwelt) is specific to every animal depending on its individual capability to perceive its world. All animals are equally and perfectly fitted into their environment by their capacity to perceive. This perceptibility is furthermore determined by their sense organs. As Scheler puts it, on the basis of Uexküll: Whatever an animal can perceive and grasp from its environment lies in the safe fences and limits of its environmental structure.

This close interconnection between perception and action, which is (according to Uexküll) characteristic for every animal in a biological sense, can be overcome by the human mind (Geist). Mind, in this sense, is a nonbiological determination, and Scheler goes so far as to describe it as contrary to every life—even human life. But the central point of Scheler’s determination of human behavior is not only expressed in the human being as a possessor of a mind, but also in behavior toward the world, which is specified by world-openness.

According to Scheler, the close relation between the environment and a living being is, in the case of human beings, abolished and transcended. For Scheler, man is the animal able to react to the world in such a world-open way; this means that man’s reactions are not determined by the stimuli of his world. Scheler clarifies this with the linguistic distinction between living in and having a world: An animal lives in an environment; man has a world. To stand in (and live in) an environment means, for Scheler, to be determined by the natural stimuli. That man has a world means, in opposition to that, the ability to distance himself from this stimuli; man is able to free himself from these stimuli. This freedom derives from his mind (Geist). Mind is the ability to act in a world-open way. This refers to a double way of openness: First, it means that the pool of possible reactions to a stimulus is not limited by instincts. Second, it means that the world itself is open to humans because it is not limited by individual perceptibility. An animal can react only to stimuli that are perceivable by its sense organs. Humankind, in contrast, has a principally unlimited ability to perceive thanks to their technical equipment.

Hence, the technical culture abets for Scheler one of the main accomplishments of mind: the ability to objectify. Objectivation means, as Scheler puts it, to convert the centers of opposition into centers of objectivation. Thus, objectivation is the main activity of the human mind. According to Scheler, every living creature is an individuality, and therefore represents a self-limiting, ontological center. Accordingly, this self-limitation is nothing specific to humans, but concerns all living creatures. Yet, only humans are able to objectify themselves, thus constituting a person. To be a person means, according to Scheler, to transcend the antagonism of organism and environment.

It is interesting that Scheler locates the difference between man and animal in a different spot than contemporary biologists, as did (at that time prominent) Hans Driesch (1929). For Driesch, the essential difference lies between living creatures and nonliving things. For Scheler, the line of demarcation runs between living creatures (animals) and persons (humans) objectifying their environment, thus creating a world: The essence of man and what could be called his “exceptional position” stands highly above what is called intelligence and the ability of choice. Also, it would never be reached even if this intelligence and ability of choice were imagined as enhanced to any given measure, even to the infinite. It is therefore neither intelligence nor freedom of choice that constitutes the exceptional position of humankind, but rather humans’ special way of behaving toward their world. Scheler even goes so far to state that there is only a gradual, not a substantial, difference between a smart chimpanzee and Edison, if the latter is considered solely as a scientist.

This somewhat surprising statement coincides with Scheler’s view on whether or not it is legitimate to attribute some kind of intelligence to some groups of animals. Scheler answers this question in the affirmative, stating that not every accomplishment is to be explained by instincts and associative processes. On the contrary, Scheler attributes some kind of practical intelligence to some groups of animals by defining intelligence in the following way: A creature acts intelligently if it fulfills, without trying, a behavior in a new way, that is, neither a typical nor an individually specific situation independent from further attempts to solve a hormic determined task. In order to corroborate this hypothesis, Scheler affirmatively refers to the contemporary work of the German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler (1917), who illustrated in his highly regarded research that some kind of practical intelligence must be attributed at least to some anthropoids. Scheler agrees with this view, stating that in some cases, some of the animal’s acts are true acts of intelligence.

Nevertheless, in Scheler’s view, this is not an argument for an ethical equalization of man and animal. On the contrary, it shows that this difference is not found in intelligence capacities, but rather in man’s specific behavior, referred to previously, called world-openness. With this central concept of world-openness, Scheler expresses that the distinction between man and animal lies neither in their different capability of understanding, nor in their ability to fabricate tools, nor in man’s technological culture altogether. Rather, it is a different kind of behavior that discerns man from animal. This specific behavior is facilitated by man’s mind (Geist). According to Scheler, the principle mind is defined by this ability to dissolve from the organic bond.

Thus, mind, in Scheler’s anthropology, does not only refer to a cognitive capability, but also to humankind’s ability to put themselves outside the natural world. Thus, mind stands for Scheler outside the principle of life. With this statement, Scheler (1928) refers to a long tradition in the philosophy of mind in Germany. Unlike the later philosophy of mind, the former tradition focused on the question of how mind (Geist) relates to life. In Hegel’s (1807/1977) early philosophy, mind evolves from life just as it is the case in Schopenhauer’s (1818/1966) philosophy of the will (to mention only two philosophers). On the other hand, there are philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Simmel, and Ludwig Klages who claimed that the mind is opposed to life. Thus, when Scheler determines mind as a power standing outside natural life, he refers to this ongoing debate in Germany’s 19thcentury philosophy. He rejects both what he calls the classical and the negative theory of mind. According to Scheler, the former theory claims that the cosmos is built in a way that the higher forms—from materia bruta up to divinity—are at the same time the more powerful ones. In opposition, the negative theory of mind claims that all the culture-building activities of humans derive from their negation of the natural world. Hence, according to the negative theory of mind, this negation is the real culture-building power.

Scheler rejects both competing theories of mind.According to Scheler, mind as an independent anthropological and metaphysical factor owns no power and activity at all; yet, contrary to this, the mind does own substance and laws but no original, owned power. Thus, the activity of mind consists in the negative act of constraining and at the same time directing the natural drives. To denominate the negative theory of mind, Scheler refers to Buddha, Schopenhauer, Sigmund Freud, and the German anthropologist Paul Alsberg. It is especially Alsberg, who has, in his book The Mystery of Humankind (1922), developed a theory of supercompensation in order to explain the specific biological configuration of human beings. Scheler refers to Alsberg’s work in order to affirm his position critically. According to Alsberg, the human mind is nothing but a surrogate for the insufficient adaptation to the natural environment. Humans lack prehensile feet, claws, coat, eyeteeth, and many other features. In order to compensate these naturally given deficiencies, humans switch off, or rather disconnect, their organs from the Darwinian struggle for life by using tools, language, and mental concepts instead. Thus, the so-called mind compensates or, rather, as Scheler puts it with regard to the Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler (1956), overcompensates it. With this affirmative reception to Alsberg’s theory of insufficient organic adaptation of humankind, Scheler puts forward one of the central points of philosophical anthropology: The lack of natural adaptation to the natural environment is compensated or rather overcompensated by some mental power, such as mind (Geist).

Scheler’s theory of mind in particular, and his philosophical anthropology in general, can thus be understood as a criticism of Darwinism. Insofar as the mind overcompensates the natural lack of human fitness, the principle of mind overrules and abrogates the Darwinian survival of the fittest. Thus, according to the main representatives of philosophical anthropology such as Scheler, Plessner, and Gehlen, the Darwinian rules are not generally applicable to the human world, and especially, to human culture.

However, this is not the only point in which Scheler criticizes Darwinism and biological anthropology. According to Scheler, mind cannot be objectified with any methods and therefore not with scientific methods. Mind is the only being that is itself unable to be objectified; it is pure actuality, and has its being only in the free execution of its actions. In the same way, person is defined as a mere center of actions. According to Scheler, a person is nothing that can be objectified or subsumed under the categories of the natural sciences. A person, in Scheler’s view, is a constellation of regulations, which means that a person is nothing substantial. A person consists in its actions and is nothing else but its actions. With this definition, Scheler develops a radical nonsubstantial view of personality. Personality is nothing else but a way to behave toward the world.

This specific behavior is further characterized as a form of ascetism. Ascetism means that humans are able to negate the real world as perceived by the senses. By virtue of this negation, humans are able to abolish the character of reality from the world; they are the animals that, by virtue of their minds, are able to behave toward their world in an ascetic way. Thus, the term ascetism, or ascetic behavior, does not primarily refer to a theological theory (although Scheler himself converted to Catholicism in 1899, and has since then avowed himself to the Catholic doctrine), but to a specific way of human behavior, as a central determination of anthropological theory.

This way of ascetism, as it refers to the specific way of mind-guided human behavior, could best be described as a second-order guidance. According to Scheler, mind relates to the animal drives in a twofold way: It blocks and deblocks them (nonfiat and non nonfiat). Thus, the regulation of drives brought about by the mind is based not on a suppression of these drives, but on the ability to behave oneself toward them. This is what Scheler means with his central concept of sublimation. Sublimation means, as Scheler explains with reference to Freud, that the hardware of lower energies is put into the service of the software of a more complex but powerless guidance.

According to Scheler, the main task of philosophical anthropology is to show how all activities and works of humankind evolve from this framework. Scheler has himself applied his anthropological theory to the fields of philosophy, sociology, and psychology.

Helmuth Plessner

In the reception of philosophical anthropology, Helmuth Plessner takes a somewhat exceptional position. After having stood in the shadow of Scheler and Gehlen for the longest time, the recent debate on anthropology in Germany is to a better part centered on Plessner’s theory of the eccentric position of man. This might be due to the fact that Plessner’s work shows, in an impressive way, that the anthropological reception of the concept of life aims toward founding a philosophy of culture on a comprehensive and layered organic model. This model was meant to contain approaches to a systematical unity of natural sciences on the one hand, and the humanities, especially philosophy, on the other.

Plessner studied both philosophy and biology. He attended Hans Driesch’s lectures on medical science and zoology in Freiburg, Germany, and later changed to philosophy. Among his philosophy professors were the neo-Kantian Wilhelm Windelband and the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. After having finished his professorial dissertation in Cologne, he published works such as The Unity of Senses (1923) and The Limits of Community: A Criticism of Social Radicalism (1924). His main anthropological work is The Stages of the Organic and Man: Introduction Into the Philosophical Anthropology (1928). A political application of this theory appears in Power and Human Nature: An Approach to the Anthropology of the Historical World-View (1931). Under the National Socialist regime, Plessner was laid off because of his Jewish ancestry and had to emigrate to Turkey and the Netherlands, where he taught sociology. His highly regarded work, The Belated Nation: On the Seducibility of the Civic Mind, appeared in 1959.

Plessner’s philosophical and sociological approach commits to biological science, in the sense that the empirical results apply to a theory of positionality, which explains the specific human behavior in culture, politics, and sociology. In the foreword to The Stages of the Organic and Man (1928), Plessner agrees to the characterization of Egon Freiherr von Eickstedt, who described Plessner’s anthropological approach as biophilosophy centered on the position of man. In order to draw upon his philosophical anthropology, Plessner refers to biologists such as Lodewijk Bolk, Adolf Portmann, Hans Driesch, and Konrad Lorenz, to system theoreticians such as Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Erwin Schrödinger, and Nehemiah Jordan, as well as to neo-Darwinians such as Theodosius Dobzhansky and August Weismann.

Plessner states that the theory of humanities needs a philosophy of nature. But this reference to the philosophy of nature is not to be understood as a speculative reflection on the true character of nature and life in general, as undertaken by the idealistic philosophy of nature (e.g., Schelling and Hegel, but as a reflecting adaptation of the given empirical results of life sciences). At the same time, Plessner strongly rejects his teacher, Hans Driesch. Driesch’s neovitalism claimed that life processes are not to be explained by physical or chemical analysis, but only by a factor called entelechy, which, according to Driesch, is made inaccessible to verification by the natural sciences. This vitalism ignores, according to Plessner, the interim development of the life sciences.

Plessner’s central anthropological concepts, namely the eccentric positionality and the double aspectivity of life, reflect this more affirmative attitude toward the natural sciences. The double aspectivity of life refers to the fact that the principally divergent outside-inside relation characterizes living creatures. Thus, to be alive means to stand in and relate to this perpetual relation between inside and outside.

This double aspectivity shows, first and foremost, in the morphogenesis of creatures: The vital morphogenesis is as an autonomous, automorphic one to be contrasted with the dead one which is heteronymous, heteromorphic. With the term vital morphogenesis, Plessner refers to one of the most influential disciplines within early 20th-century psychology attempting to describe perception (in contrast to behaviorism) as a holistic process. Thus, by referring to this discipline, Plessner describes his theory of life as a specific, holistic phenomenon.

The exceptional position of creatures derives from their special behavior to their limits. Creatures are, according to Plessner, limits actualizing bodies, which primarily means that the limits of the body belong to this very body itself: The body is its own and in this regard it is against the self and the other. From this, to be put against the environment derives the positional character or the positionality of the organic.

The determination of creatures as “limits actualizing” implies, according to Plessner, the ability to put itself at a distance. Every living creature is able to distance itself from itself. This ability is not specific to humans, but to all living creatures. The determination specific to human life lies in the term eccentricity. Whereas the life of the animal is centric, the life of the human is, without being able to break through this centering, eccentric. Eccentricity is the form characteristic for humankind’s positioning against the surroundings. Although Plessner does use the term surrounding instead of environment, it is quite clear that, even though he avoids using the biological term (environment), this theory has strong biological implications. Whereas every animal stands in and is centered within its environment, humans are able to transcend this centeredness by means of his reflection. This center of positionality is distant from itself: A human, as the living thing that is put in the middle of its existence, knows this middle, experiences it, and is for this reason beyond it. This means that humans do not have a natural environment, but instead they make their own surrounding. Placeless, timeless, put into nothingness, the eccentric life-form creates its own ground. Only insofar as this life-form creates it, it has ground, and is carried by it.

Here we have a conception very similar to existentialist theories of man. If, for example, Martin Heidegger (1927/1962) mentions that man is (in a very contingent way) thrown into the world, then the positions seem to be very similar on a first glimpse. (The same seems to be true for Sartre and Camus’s existentialism.) Yet, these existentialists consider themselves (and, in fact, are) strictly nonor antinaturalist thinkers. Even though they agree to Plessner’s point that there is no such thing as a given human essence, all of the mentioned existentialist thinkers do (despite their other diversities) in fact deny that biological research can add to the true knowledge of man.

Plessner refers in detail to Heidegger’s criticism. According to Plessner, the crucial point lies in Heidegger’s methodical primacy of the existence. This would imply (according to Heidegger) that the philosophical analysis of existence antecedes the biological analysis of nonhuman life-forms. Thus, the analysis of life would only be accessible by analysis of the reflecting entity. But even though humans are this very eccentric life-form, they remain animals from a biological point of view. Therefore, Plessner’s inquiry takes the opposite direction, as he explains in his annotations to his aesthesiology of mind: As long as humans are not understood as living forms of existence in their nature-grown way and are not submitted to a preempiric (i.e., not scientifically attached inquiry), they cannot hope to be above raised questions, such as which layers of the entity they stand in essential coexistence with and how they, as a life unity, have to experience themselves and the world in order to receive a comprehensive answer.

Plessner’s aesthesiology of mind aims at examining humankind as a personal life unity in all layers of his existence. The analysis of culture follows this examination and results from it. According to Plessner, three anthropological laws characterize culture: (1) the law of natural artificiality, (2) the law of mediated immediacy, and (3) the law of utopian place:

  1. The law of natural artificiality. Man only lives insofar as he leads a life. This principle means, in Plessner’s interpretation, that man has to produce his own existence by means of culture. Thus, culture is understood as man’s distancing from natural liveliness. Plessner explains this artificiality as follows: As an eccentric creature not being in equilibrium, placeless, timeless standing in nothingness, constitutively homeless, he has to become something and create his equilibrium. This implies furthermore a criticism of the so-called naturalist-vitalist explanation of culture, according to which culture is the outcome of a vital climax as assumed by Friedrich Nietzsche (will to power), Georg Simmel, Alfred Adler, and others, most notably radical political tendencies (e.g., in the late 1920s, and early 1930s, emerging National Socialism). With reference to the latter, Plessner states that although the vital climax seems to celebrate orgies in favor of striving for power, it must not be made the foundation for the origin of culture; instead, it must itself be understood as a symptom of the eccentric positionality. Here, it becomes clear that Plessner tries to invent, with this concept of eccentric positionality, a truly fundamental law of human existence. At the same time, Plessner understands his theory of eccentricity as a criticism of the Darwinian theory of culture. According to Plessner, all of these mentioned theories lack a sufficient explanation of culture. Because this vis a tergo explanation has proven to be insufficient, we need, therefore, a vis a fronte explanation to explain human culture from his eccentric positionality.
  2. The law of mediated immediacy. This second law points in a similar direction, but stresses more the aspect of communication, expressivity, and sociability. According to Plessner, every technical invention is an example for expressivity; it is an encounter of man and object. The inventor does not find something new; rather, he expresses what is already there. But the expressivity derives from the human necessity of expression and therefore from the eccentric positionality itself. This necessity is not only a personal-subjective need but also derives directly from this very fundamental law of human nature. Insofar as man stands in this twofold way toward his world, he despairs of his situation. This despair leads to the necessity of expression. According to Plessner, man expresses himself not because he is lonely or because he needs his fellow humans in order to survive, but because he despairs of his eccentric situation. Only by means of this expressivity can man become a zoon politikon—a social creature.
  3. The law of utopian place. This law transfers the aforementioned determinations to the question of God and belief. Like Scheler, Plessner argues in favor of a theomorphism according to which man, despite his eccentric positionality or rather because of it, is reliant on God for arranging himself in the world. His eccentricity puts him into an indissoluble conflict. His place is utopian, but at the same time he craves a The eccentricity of his life-form, his standing in nowhere, and his utopian position force him to aim his disbelief of divine existence against the unity of the world.

Arnold Gehlen

Arnold Gehlen is commonly considered a very distinguished, yet controversial, anthropologist because of his conservative attitude and his attitude toward National Socialism. Gehlen studied philosophy, history of arts, and philology in Leipzig and Cologne. Influenced mostly by Max Scheler, Nicolai Hartmann, and Hans Driesch, Gehlen received his doctoral degree with Driesch, and in 1930 his habilitation degree with a phenomenological work. He then taught as a private lecturer in Leipzig. In 1933, Gehlen joined the National Socialist party in 1933 and was an active member until 1945. He taught philosophy, psychology, and sociology at the universities in Frankfurt, Leipzig, Koenigsberg, Vienna, and (after an only 2-year compulsory break) in Speyer and Aachen. Gehlen is not known to have been an anti-Semite but he undoubtedly used his membership in the National Socialist party in order to pursue his career goals.

After World War II, Gehlen was one of the leading figures in both philosophy and sociology. His theory of institutions has been very influential, just as his moral theory (Moral and Hyper Moral, 1969) and his philosophy of technology (The Soul in the Technological Age, 1957) have been. Gehlen’s main anthropological work is Man: His Nature and His Position in the World (1940). This anthropological theory is at the same time the key to Gehlen’s philosophy of culture, morals, and technology. For Gehlen, culture in general is an anthropo-biological concept.

This refers to Gehlen’s central anthropological concept that determines a human as a creature deficient by nature.As mentioned above, this idea (but not the expression itself) can be traced back to Herder, but it is Gehlen who brings this concept together with the question of humankind’s exceptional position. Gehlen explains that this exceptional position is closely linked to humans’ deficient biological configuration. In opposition to Scheler, Gehlen interprets humankind’s world-openness as a biologically determined openness of human actions, which is mainly determined by the fact that both men and women are unspecialized regarding their bodily organization and their instincts. According to Gehlen, humankind’s morphological setup is mainly determined in an essentially negative way, namely by shortcomings that are, in an exact biological sense, to be characterized as nonadaptiveness, and nonspecializedness as primitivisms (i.e., as something undeveloped). According to Gehlen, all of these shortcomings (lack of pelage, of escape and attack organs, but also the instinctive weakness and the long need for protection) are compensated and overcompensated by human culture.

To corroborate his theory, Gehlen refers to the contemporary biologists Driesch, Uexküll, Lorenz, Bolk, and others. Gehlen’s concept of an anthropo-biological determination of man implies that man’s deficient bodily configuration needs to be seen together with his very complex and complicated inwardness. According to Gehlen, all former anthropological theories have failed because they ascribed specific human characteristics only to particular properties. In opposition to this, Gehlen tries to think man’s deficient bodily configuration together with his determination of culture. Gehlen’s central concept is exoneration. According to Gehlen, exoneration is a key concept of anthropology. Culture exonerates man from the biological necessities; it removes his burden. For Gehlen, man is a free being because his actions are free. But this freedom emerges from exoneration, namely from the liberation from biological forms of behavior and fitness. In this sense, exoneration means that the concentration in human behavior falls increasingly into the “highest,” namely the most effortless, only adumbrative functions—surely the conscious or mental ones.

This activity of condensation accomplished by consciousness takes place in the symbolic fields of viewing, speaking, and imagination that allow for a progressive indirectness of human behavior by reducing the stimulus overabundance to a minimum, but a minimum of highest potential developability. Hence, exoneration distances humans from nature, enabling culture and a cultural community. Consequently, Gehlen’s concept of exoneration exhibits a deeply dialectic structure insofar as every exoneration must be seen, at the same time, as an additional burden because it inevitably detaches and thus alienates humans from nature.

One outcome of his theory of exoneration is Gehlen’s concept of background satisfaction. It means that in higher evolved cultures, the satisfaction of human wishes and needs becomes durable and stable, and is thus displaced in the background in a twofold way: The satisfaction does not need to be conscious, and it does not need to take place in singular actions. The consciousness that the satisfaction of a need is possible at any time we call background satisfaction, whereupon, in the extreme case, the suppositional need does not transfer into an action-positioning actuality.

Thus, Gehlen’s concept of background satisfaction is a central element of his theory of institutions. For Gehlen, the freely acting position of man is the main fact of human existence. But according to Gehlen, institutions mainly facilitate this freedom. On the other hand, the allegation cannot be dismissed that Gehlen’s determination of human existence results in an apologetic justification for existing institutions. This conservative and apologetic attitude has brought him many criticisms from other philosophers.


After its foundation through Scheler, Plessner, and Gehlen, philosophical anthropology in Germany has become one of the most regarded disciplines in the academic community. It also plays an important role in contemporary pedagogic theories. In an ongoing, rivaling debate with existentialism, many philosophers and biologists have managed to outline an up-to-date framework for a philosophical theory of humankind that tries to examine and evaluate its special (deficient) biological configuration, its ability to build a culture, and its exceptional position in the world.

One of the most quoted anthropologists is the Swiss biologist Adolf Portmann. He has coined the phrase “extrauterine early year.” According to Portmann (1944), a newborn human is unfinished and needs, compared to other animals, to catch up on the individual evolution in his or her first year on earth. Thus, the human being is a “secondary nidicolous bird.” Portmann has, in his books and also in many popular articles, tried to make this theory known not only in the academic field but also among the nonacademics.

Ernst Cassirer conceptualized a theory of man based on his cultural philosophy. According to Cassirer (who also refers to the biological works of Uexküll), the exceptional position of man is characterized by his ability to write forms. With this determination, Cassirer applies his philosophy of symbolic form to an anthropological theory. Only man is able to build and to understand (symbolic) forms. Especially in his work An Essay on Man (1944), Cassirer outlines this anthropological theory of symbolic forms. The philosopher Josef König (1937) established a theory of a Hermeneutic logic in which the anthropological aspect (determination of man’s position in the world) plays a central role.

The neediness of man is also the central building block of Wilhelm Kamlah’s anthropology. Kamlah (1972) understands this neediness not only as a biological determination but also as an ethical one. The insight that one’s fellow humans are needy creatures summarizes for Kamlah the practical fundamental norm of his moral philosophy and ethics.

Based on the cultural theory of Georg Simmel, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1923/1958) evolved a dialogical anthropology. The central category of this dialogic is the between that actualizes in the encounter of “I” and “you.” Buber’s dialogical philosophy sees the existence of man in two different relationships: I-it and I-you. Whereas the former is the regular, all-day relation to the (natural or cultural) environment, the latter is the central category of encounter in which everybody manifests all of their essence. For Buber, this encounter of I and you is only possible because a dialogue between man and God is possible.


  1. Adler, A. (1956). The individual psychology of Alfred Adler. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
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