Helmuth Plessner

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Plessner in Groningen (1939)

Helmuth Plessner (also Helmut Plessner or Hellmut Plessner ; born September 4, 1892 in Wiesbaden , † June 12, 1985 in Göttingen ) was a German philosopher and sociologist as well as a main exponent of philosophical anthropology .


Helmuth Plessner was born in Wiesbaden in 1892 as the only son of the doctor Fedor Plessner and his wife Elisabeth Plessner. In 1910 he began studying medicine and zoology a . a. with Hans Driesch , later in philosophy in Freiburg im Breisgau , Göttingen and Heidelberg . His teachers included Wilhelm Windelband , Max Weber and Edmund Husserl ; accordingly his thoughts were influenced by neo-Kantianism and phenomenology . In 1913 his first philosophical publication appeared: "The scientific idea, a draft of its form" . His philosophical dissertation ( Erlangen ) followed in 1916 : "Crisis of transcendental truth in the beginning ". In 1920 he completed his habilitation at the new University of Cologne with the thesis " Investigation into a Critique of Philosophical Judgment " for philosophy. With “ The unity of the senses. Basics of an Aesthesiology of Mind ”(1923) announced a further focus of his thinking. In 1924 his socio-philosophical study Frontiers of the Community appeared. A Critique of Social Radicalism . In 1926 he became an associate professor in Cologne in the immediate vicinity of Max Scheler . In 1928 his main work was published: “ The stages of the organic and the human. Introduction to Philosophical Anthropology ”. A political expansion of this approach followed in 1931: “ Power and human nature. An attempt at the anthropology of the historical worldview ”.

In 1933 Plessner was dismissed from office on the basis of the so-called law to restore the civil service and the Jewish origin of his baptized father. He first emigrated to Turkey , where he stayed in Istanbul until the end of 1933 , but expressly does not want to call this trip an emigration. In early 1934 he fled to Groningen ( Netherlands ) with the help of the anthropologist FJJ Buytendijk . From March 1934 he held lectures on sociological and philosophical topics at the University of Groningen (RUG). From a series of lectures during this time, the book “The fate of the German spirit at the end of its bourgeois epoch” (1935), which was later titled The belated nation . About the political seducibility of the bourgeois spirit ” (1959) became known. In 1941 his book “Lachen und Weinen. An Inquiry into the Limits of Human Behavior ” , which continues the anthropological direction of his thinking.

In May 1940 the Wehrmacht occupied the Netherlands. In 1943, Plessner was dismissed from the RUG and went into hiding in Utrecht and Amsterdam until the end of the war.

In 1946 he was appointed professor of philosophy at the University of Groningen after he had refused to return to his chair in Cologne. On the III. German Philosophers' Congress after the Second World War in Bremen In 1950 he was elected the first President of the General Society for Philosophy in Germany , which was founded there .

During this time he met his future wife Monika, whom he married in 1952.

From 1952 until his retirement in 1962 he was a professor at the newly founded Institute for Sociology in Göttingen. In the meantime he was head of the “Institute for Social Research”, that is, the Frankfurt School around Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno . From 1955 to 1959 he was chairman of the German Society for Sociology . In 1960/61 he was rector of the University of Göttingen . In 1956 he was elected a full member of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences .

Plessner was emeritus at the New School of Social Research in New York and had a teaching position for philosophy in Zurich. Until 1975, when he was 82 years old, he published mainly essays, articles and treatises on very different fields of philosophy and society, from biology to aesthetics . His students in sociology included Günter Dux , Christian von Ferber and Christian Graf von Krockow . From 1960 to 1965 he was a member of the Advisory Board of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom .

In 1985 he died in Göttingen. His grave is in Erlenbach in Switzerland.



Eccentric positionality

Helmuth Plessner is - alongside Max Scheler and before Arnold Gehlen - one of the main representatives of philosophical anthropology . This is the name of a philosophical movement that formed in the first third of the 20th century and undertook a new justification of the question of man and his position in the world, history and nature. It developed in confrontation with other philosophical tendencies of this time ( phenomenology , neo-Kantianism ) as well as with natural sciences, especially biology . In contrast to Scheler, Plessner does not ask about a timeless nature of man; unlike Gehlen, he does not primarily define people as “ defective beings ” (according to Gehlen's basic word taken from Herder ).

Plessner's anthropology, which he systematically developed in his work “The stages of the organic and the human” , is based around the basic category of eccentric positionality. It can be reconstructed using two key questions.

  1. What is the difference between animate and inanimate phenomena?
  2. How are living phenomena organized?

The first answer can be found in the concept of limit : in contrast to inorganic bodies, organisms have a relationship to their environment that is regulated by their limit. Plants and animals are "border-realizing" beings. The second answer lies in the concept of position : Plessner differentiates between the three organizational forms (or “levels”) of living things: plants, animals and humans, according to their respective positionality. Plants are openly organized, they have no central organs. Animals are organized centrally: they live from a central point. On the other hand , the human organizational form is eccentric because the human being can enter into a reflexive relationship to his life at any time. One aspect of this reflexive relationship is self-confidence , which Plessner does not treat as a spiritual phenomenon, as is customary in philosophical tradition, but develops from its biological roots. It analyzes the organization manner than double aspect : as people have we a body and are also one body.

Anthropological laws

The analysis of the eccentric positionality leads Plessner to the (initially) three of what he calls "anthropological laws":

  1. The law of natural artificiality.
  2. The law of mediated immediacy.
  3. The law of the utopian location.

According to this three-way division, the world opens up to man as the outer world, inner world and co-world, which in turn open up the dimensions of culture, history and society. In the later text “Power and Human Nature” , Plessner finds yet another anthropological law, the law of the unfathomable of man, which opens up the dimension of the political. Based on an interpretation of biological facts, Plessner arrived at a philosophical foundation for sociology and related sciences.

The objection that is often heard that anthropological thinking revolves around an ahistorical conception of the essence of human beings does not catch on in his case. Rather, the concept of the law means that we humans are dependent on our physical constitution (equipment, roots) to open up to the world and to shape it "artificially", historically and socially.

With regard to the problem of delimiting the natural sciences and the humanities , Plessner pointed out the wrong way of dealing with the “double aspect” of the basic human situation: that man is and has his body / physical existence at the same time, that he is around himself as a spiritual being and knows as a body thing. Since Descartes, Western thinking has overcome this difficulty in such a way that it is faced with the decision of a primacy of the spiritual or the physical ( mind-body problem ). This traditional way of thinking absolutizes either the spiritual or the physical world of experience, instead of seeing both in relation to each other or interlocked with each other at every moment. However, a split in the view of nature and the view of consciousness tears up the natural and human sciences just as much as it irritates the holistic self-image of people. Plessner counters this problem by consistently maintaining the double perspective of entanglement. His philosophy, based on biological facts, constantly repeats the insight into the paradoxical fundamental constitution of human experience of the self and the world.

Sociological writings

The belated nation

Plessner wrote a number of important socio-philosophical and intellectual history studies, of which " The belated nation " achieved the greatest importance. In his 1934 work, Plessner developed a study of the history of ideas of the development of the German spirit since the 16th century and sought to uncover reasons why the bourgeoisie in particular was ready to support a ruler like Hitler . Western Europe, for example, began its democratization in the 17th and 18th centuries, while the fall of the Reich fell for Germany during this period . This break with tradition loaded into Germany until the 20th century, since Germany in the Empire - in a phase in which the Enlightenment had no strength - not rely on a democratic constitutional state tradition but could only look on pre-democratic structures.

As a result, the nation-state could not appeal to an idea (such as freedom, equality, brotherhood ), but only to nationality as a common basis. While one can become French or English by accepting the values ​​of modern society, one cannot, on the other hand, become a "Volksdeutscher" by making up one's mind if one was not one from birth.

Plessner identifies a further problem strand in the specific development of Lutheranism , which, through the compulsory state organization in the regional church, prevented the individual from bringing his religious interest into the community creatively and instead encouraged a secularization of religious impulses. This results in a break between inwardness (realization as a person) and the public or politics, which ultimately leads to an apolitical attitude that is indifferent to their authorities.

Community limits

During the turmoil of the Weimar Republic to Plessner is in borders of the Community against efforts, especially the co- jointly , rather than socially organize. To this end, Plessner strengthens parts of his philosophical anthropology, which was just emerging at the time and which began with his work “The Unity of the Senses” .

Plessner considers a community of cause, such as communism or National Socialism, for example, the peaceful unification of people, to be an illusion. It can only be achieved for brief moments, as at the outbreak of war in 1914. Anyone who demands that such a state last longer is violating the human soul, which always requires a distance from other people in order to develop as a person. Elias Canetti later describes this distance in mass and power, causally with the archaic fear of the individual of being touched by other people. According to Plessner, privacy and distance form the limit which communal demands must not cross. In public, the human being plays a role , he is the bearer of a function and uses a scheme of manners to fill it out. This guarantees him that as a public official, civil servant, statesman etc. he does not have to put his whole self at risk. In public, one wears a mask behind which the soul protects itself from being hurt by others. On the other hand, to demand complete openness and unreservedness is inhuman, if this demands from the other to become visible in all his vulnerability, to put himself at risk as an individual and to expose himself to the risk of ridicule. The public space is thus determined by Plessner as a place of shame , which can only be suffered through mask, armor, play, diplomacy and tactful interaction.


Some of Plessner's writings were only received by experts during his lifetime. In particular, the main work “ The stages of the organic and man ” from 1928 was overshadowed for a long time by Martin Heidegger's “Being and Time”, which appeared a year earlier. In addition, there was an accusation of plagiarism shared by many from Max Scheler , whose work "The Position of Man in the Cosmos", published in 1927, anticipated Plessner's essential thoughts.

Plessner's exile in the Netherlands and the political situation in the German Reich made it almost impossible for him to take part in the academic discourse in National Socialist Germany. During this time he wrote “The fate of the German spirit at the end of its bourgeois epoch” (1935), a work that appeared in 1959 under the well-known title “The belated nation”, and the work “Das Lachen und Weinen. An Inquiry into the Limits of Human Behavior ”(1941). These and other of his titles were not generally known, unlike, for example, the work of Arnold Gehlen . In addition, after the war, philosophical anthropology was considered obsolete and "bourgeois" and was downright opposed by Jürgen Habermas and the Frankfurt School . It was only with the publication of the ten-volume “ Gesammelte Schriften ” (1981–1985) that Plessner was rediscovered as an important philosopher. Since then, his work has been one of the most discussed approaches in philosophical anthropology. Plessner's cultural studies and social studies - for example “ Limits of Community. A Critique of Social Radicalism ”- has received increasing attention since the early 1990s.

Helmuth Plessner Society

The Helmuth Plessner Society supports research on Plessner's work ideally, organizationally and, to a limited extent, materially. The Helmuth Plessner Archive and the Helmuth Plessner Fund are associated with the Helmuth Plessner Society. The archive manages Plessner's legacy, which has only been partially cataloged and is in the manuscript department of the library of the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen . The Helmuth Plessner Fund is organized as a foundation and promotes research on Plessner's extensive estate.

Wiesbaden Helmuth Plessner Prize

In 2014 the city of Wiesbaden donated a prize in honor of Helmuth Plessner. It serves to promote and recognize outstanding scientists and intellectuals who have worked in the sense of Plessner (in the field of philosophy, sociology, anthropology, biology or aesthetics). It is awarded every three years and is endowed with 20,000 euros.

Fonts (selection)

  • Collected Writings. Edited by Günter Dux u. a. 10 volumes. 1980-1985
  • The scientific idea, a design through its form. 1913
  • Crisis of the transcendental truth in the beginning. 1918
  • The unity of the senses. Basic lines of an aesthesiology of the mind. 1923
  • Community limits. A Critique of Social Radicalism. 1924 (New edition: Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2002, ISBN 3-518-29140-8 )
  • The stages of the organic and man. Introduction to philosophical anthropology. 1928
  • Power and human nature. An attempt at the anthropology of the historical worldview. 1931
  • On the anthropology of the actor. 1948
  • Laugh and cry. An examination of the limits of human behavior. 1941
  • The smile. In: Pro regno, pro sanctuario. Festschr. for G. van der Leeuw 1950
  • About the world - environment - human relationship
    • Translated by Marc de Launay: Sur le rapport entre monde et monde environnant chez l'homme, in Trivium 25, 2017 full text ; subsequently Commentary by ed. Thomas Ebke, Guillaume Plas
  • The belated nation. About the political seducibility of the bourgeois spirit. Stuttgart 1959, first Zurich 1935 (udT The fate of the German spirit at the end of its bourgeois era )
  • The question of the human condition . 1961
  • The emancipation of power. 1962
  • Anthropology of the senses. 1970
  • With different eyes. Aspects of a Philosophical Anthropology . Reclam, Stuttgart 1982 ISBN 3-15-007886-5


  • Self-presentation. In: Ludwig J. Pongratz (Hrsg.): Philosophy in self-portrayals. Volume I, Meiner, Hamburg 1975, ISBN 3-7873-0341-3 , pp. 269-307.


  • Jos de Mul (Ed.): Plessner's Philosophical Anthropology. Perspectives and Prospects . Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam 2014, ISBN 978-90-8964-634-7 .
  • Tilman Allert, Joachim Fischer (ed.): Plessner in Wiesbaden . Springer VS, Wiesbaden 2014, ISBN 978-3-658-05451-9 .
  • Wolfgang Biales: Political Humanism and Belated Nation. Helmuth Plessner's examination of Germany and National Socialism (= writings of the Hannah Arendt Institute for Research on Totalitarianism . Volume 42). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2011, ISBN 978-3-525-36918-0 .
  • Hermann Braun: The susceptibility of the principle. Existential philosophy and philosophical anthropology before and after 1933. In: Perspektiven der Philosophie. New Yearbook 1991, pp. 345–383.
  • Christoph Dejung: Plessner. A German philosopher between the German Empire and the Bonn Republic . Rüffer & Rub, Zurich 2003, ISBN 3-907625-11-0 .
  • Carola Dietze : Life made up for. Helmuth Plessner 1892–1985 . Wallstein, Göttingen 2006, ISBN 3-8353-0078-4 (Hedwig Hintze Prize of the German Association of Historians) ( review ) (2nd edition 2013)
  • Gerhard Ehrl: Helmuth Plessner's limits of community as a social criticism. In: Dialectic. 2004, pp. 89-115.
  • Wolfgang Eßbach : The eccentric position of humans . In: Freiburg University Gazette. Anthropology as human history of nature and art . No. 139 , 1998, pp. 143-151 .
  • Wolfgang Eßbach: The center outside. Helmuth Plessner's Philosophical Anthropology . In: Günter Dux , Ulrich Wenzel (Hrsg.): The process of intellectual history . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1994, p. 15-44 .
  • Joachim Fischer : Philosophical anthropology - a school of thought of the 20th century . Alber, Freiburg / Munich 2008.
  • Joachim Fischer : Eccentric positionality. Studies on Helmuth Plessner . Velbrück, Weilerswist 2016.
  • Kai Haucke: Plessner for an introduction . Junius, Hamburg 2000, ISBN 3-88506-326-3 .
  • Hans-Ulrich Lessing, Almut Mutzenbecher (eds.): Josef König , Helmuth Plessner: Correspondence 1923–1933. With a letter essay by Josef König about Helmuth Plessner's "The Unity of the Senses". Alber, Freiburg / Munich 1994, ISBN 3-495-47778-0 .
  • Hans-Ulrich Lessing: Hermeneutics of the Senses. An investigation into Helmuth Plessner's project of an "Aesthesiology of the Mind" together with a Plessner Ineditum (= Plessner's unpublished " voluntary disclosure" of the " Unity of the Senses "). Alber, Freiburg / Munich 1998, ISBN 3-495-47871-X .
  • Utz Maas : Persecution and emigration of German-speaking linguists 1933-1945. Biographical entry on Helmuth Pleßner (accessed: April 15, 2018)
  • Olivia Mitscherlich: nature and history. Helmuth Plessner's broken philosophy of life. Akademieverlag, Berlin 2007, ISBN 978-3-05-004248-0 .
  • Stephan Pietrowicz: Helmuth Plessner. Genesis and system of his philosophical-anthropological thinking. Alber, Freiburg / Munich 1992, ISBN 3-495-47720-9 .
  • Hans Redeker: Helmuth Plessner or the embodied philosophy . Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1993.
  • Stascha Rohmer , The Idea of ​​Life. On the concept of the border in Hegel and Plessner , Freiburg / Munich: Karl Alber 2016. ISBN 978-3-495-48768-6 .
  • Wolfgang Schulenberg: Plessner, Helmuth. In: Wilhelm Bernsdorf , Horst Knospe (Ed.): Internationales Soziologenlexikon. 2nd Edition. Volume 2, Enke, Stuttgart 1984, pp. 671f.
  • Walter Seitter : Concepts of people. Studies in epistemology . Boer, Munich 1985, ISBN 3-924963-00-2 . (Second edition: with a foreword by the author and an essay by Friedrich Balke. Velbrück, Weilerswist 2012, ISBN 978-3-942393-29-4 )
  • Kersten Schüßler: Helmuth Plessner. An intellectual biography . Philo, Berlin a. a. 2000.
  • Oreste Tolone: God in Plessner's Anthropology. In: Yearbook for Philosophy of Religion. 10, 2011, pp. 71-90.
  • Oreste Tolone: Plessner and Adolf Portman. On the philosophical determination of humans through eccentricity and premature birth. In: Kristian Köchy , Francesca Michelini: Between cultures. Alber, Freiburg / Munich 2015, pp. 141–160.

Lexicon article

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. z. B. Walter Tetzlaff: 2000 short biographies of important German Jews of the 20th century. Askania, Lindhorst 1982, ISBN 3-921730-10-4 ; Kaznelson : Jews in the German cultural sphere. Berlin 1962.
  2. ^ Letter to Josef König dated October 14, 1933, in the correspondence between the two.
  3. Carola Dietze: Nachgeholtes Leben. P. 132.
  4. Monika Tintelnot , b. Atzert, born on May 18, 1913 in Osnabrück, was married to Plessner for the second time at the end of 1952. She was previously the first director of the adult education center in Lemgo, cf. Peter Biresch, Jürgen Scheffler: The beginnings of the Lemgo adult education center and the Lippisches Volksbildungswerk after 1945. Lemgo 2013, pp. 23–38.
  5. www.uni-goettingen.de
  6. Holger Krahnke: The members of the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen 1751-2001 (= Treatises of the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen, Philological-Historical Class. Volume 3, Vol. 246 = Treatises of the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen, Mathematical-Physical Class. Episode 3, vol. 50). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2001, ISBN 3-525-82516-1 , p. 191.
  7. ^ News from sociology: Helmuth Plessner Society founded. In: Sociology. No. 4/1999, pp. 99-101.