Plessner’s Theory of the Excentric Positionality of Humans

The human,” Helmuth Plessner tells us, “lives only insofar as he leads a life” (Plessner 2019, 316–17). Our way of life does not seem to be given in our nature, in the routines and instincts of animal existence. There is no obvious pathway or blueprint for us to adopt, though we have tried to invent many. There is no answer, but a continuous question hanging over our heads that shakes our foundations even as we work to establish them.

For some, this predicament was liberating. The Renaissance philosopher, Pico della Mirandola, spoke of how God “took up man, a work of indeterminate form, and placing him at the midpoint of the world” told him he may “sculpt [himself] into whatever shape [he prefers]” (Mirandola 1998, 5) It led others to the rather dispiriting realisation of the absurdity of existence, with Camus likening us to Sisyphus toiling with his eternally returning rock.

Whatever the existential conclusion may be, the pertinent question to an anthropologist is why this peculiar animal, the human, should come to have such a relationship with its existence and the world it finds itself thrown into. Why indeed cannot the human lead a purely natural life, but is consigned to a puzzling and inescapable artificiality? This problem rests at the center of Plessner’s project of philosophical anthropology. The crux of the answer lies in the concept of excentric positionality, in his view a hallmark of the human species. In this essay, I will interpret the key aspects of this theory.

Boundaries and Living Beings

Plessner begins by looking at what constitutes a living thing in the first place, or put another way, what makes a thing a being. If things are unities of parts, what is unique about the unity of living things that they should imply a “wholeness beyond gestalt” (Plessner 2019, 121)? Why should a living being be more than just an assortment of parts? The chief difference lies in the manner in which a being relates to its environment. Things have borders, contours, the points at which they are separated from their environment, where the one ends and the other begins. Paraphrasing Plessner, a non-living thing goes as far as it goes; and then it ends, and is no longer anything. As Ošlaj (1995) points out, these borders are not truly parts of these things: they are properties that we, as observers, establish. Things themselves have no relationship with their environment. They do not discern it and there are no two aspects of “outer” and “inner” to their worlds.

Meanwhile, the worlds of living things are marked with varying levels of this double-aspectivity. It occurs because instead of mere borders, the organism has boundaries (Plessner 2019, 94). These are established by an active effort at the core of organisms as they generate and sustain the transition between themselves and their environment. To sustain such boundaries basically means to live. Their challenge is not merely to protect their being from intrusion by the environment, to create a barrier between the two, but to simultaneously construct a channel through which the organism can communicate with the environment and procure from it what it needs on its own terms and eject what it does not. A boundary is, as Plessner says, much like a skin (Plessner 2019, 123), separating and protecting the flesh from the environment while enabling us to sense, perspire etc.

Whereas things are simply located at a certain point in time and space – by some observer –, living beings claim it for themselves (Bernstein 2019, l). They actively adapt and situate themselves in their environment, spatialising it so that it means something in terms of their needs. They do so in a continuum of time generated by their own internal rhythms.

Entering a relationship with the world, they must differentiate between what they are and what the world is, how far their inner world reaches, and where the outer begins, a relationship with its requisite boundaries, some of which can be crossed, and others that cannot for integrity to be maintained. This boundary, separating the inner and the outer aspect, is the neutral ground, neither outside nor inside, that serves as the basis of the double-aspectivity (Ošlaj 1995, 145).

 The establishment and maintenance of the boundaries of living beings is clearly not a passive property, ascribed by an outside observer, but a biological activity that constitutes them. They are essentially “boundary-realizing bodies” (Plessner 2019, 126). As they set their boundaries, negotiating the waters between themselves and their surroundings, between the inner and outer aspect, between what they are and what is around them, they assume a point of view, a position in regards to it from which they come to terms with it and face it in their particular manner. This is what Plessner terms positionality. It is the standpoint of the living being relating itself both to itself and to the world, the navigator’s mark on the map as he tries narrow down the location of his ship in the ocean.

(Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Projektion 3, source)

Open and Closed Forms of Organisation

The boundaries the organism sets up can be more or less porous, or in terms Plessner borrowed from Hans Driesch, more or less closed. Their degree of closure determines the kind of positionality the organism is going to assume, the point of view it is going to take of the world and itself. Its form is open if

“the organism in all of its expressions of life is immediately incorporated into its surroundings and constitutes a non-self-sufficient segment of the life circle corresponding to it.” (Plessner 2019, 219)

If we look at plants, they are in incessant contact with their environment. Without a center coordinating their system, such as the central nervous system, they have no ability to represent the whole of their bodies to themselves, so as to be able to oppose something to the environment (Ošlaj 1995, 147). They cannot separate themselves from it. As such, they cannot develop any sense of primordial individuality, no center things would gravitate around for them. Their boundaries are highly pervious, integrated with their surroundings and losing themselves in what Ošlaj calls their “functional network”.

As organisms differentiate further, developing sensorimotor capacities that allow them to sense the environment and act upon it, the situation changes. Their newfound abilities call for a central coordinating facility, which we find in the central nervous system, establishing a center for the animal, the beginnings of a “self”. In this centre, the body of the animal is presented to it, and it becomes a medium between the animal and the world, one which mediates by means of its senses and actions. Plessner speaks of an emerging chasm between the animal and this “medium as the other” (Plessner 2019, str. 232), the “other” implying the increasing foreignness, otherness of the environment.

Yet though the animal has already taken a stance towards its environment, though it is now an independent body with a center around and through which the world revolves, it has not yet truly taken a stance towards this body, towards this center, towards itself. Plainly speaking, the animal is not self-aware.[1]Though we might perhaps take exception with Plessner here, as some species do seem to experience a kind of self-awareness. See Chang et al. (2017), Plotnik, Waal, and Reiss (2006) It is not yet distanced from itself nor can it know its own nature for it is not given to it; it is submerged in it, in its routines and automatic processes. It is not aware that it has a body, but simply is that body. As Plessner says, “the living thing is itself–in itself” (Plessner 2019, 237). Though it has a center, it is equal to it, unable to depart from it to ponder it. This animal is not yet a self-reflective creature; it is Narcissus admiring the stranger in the waters, unable to identify the physical body it finds out there among other bodies with the body in which it is living.

The Excentric Position

As Bernstein (2019) elaborates, some animals differentiate further to ascend on their back feet, standing up straight, freeing their hands from immediate practical needs and uses. Their brains expanding rapidly, they are born into instinctual impoverishment to be nourished, vulnerable for far greater periods than other animals, their coordination maladjusted to the world they are thrown into. To fully develop, they need society and education, developing symbolic communication and language along the way. The stimulus loses its obvious behavioural response, actions are freed from the yoke of instinct. So the human slowly emerges, but it is not just his body which has changed, but the way he relates to it and its circumstances.

The human takes a stance towards himself; he steps out of the swamps of his nature to gaze at it, to look at his body and see it as a thing at once separate and yet commensurate with him. He is no longer merely a body, but has a body in full awareness of it. He steps out and behind the centre around which he has thus far organised himself. Aware of his centricity he is no longer quite in the center. Copernicus has usurped Ptolemay. The human’s positionality has become excentric.As one reviewer pointed out, and as attested by Bernstein (2019), it is nonetheless not entirely clear what is it that causes humans to become “self-aware”, to assume the excentric positionality. Plessner points mainly to the prerequisites for this process.

On one hand, we experience the world through the medium of our body with which we can identify ourselves. Plessner calls this body Leib, which roughly means “the lived body”. But we also come to see ourselves as the possessors of this body, as a kind of instrument, and therefore at a distance to it; Plessner calls such a body Körper, the physical body, a body among other bodies. We are decoupled from our bodies. We become strangers to them. Aware of ourselves as the center of our experience, the very fact of becoming aware of it actually destabilises our center, putting us at a remove just as we reach for it. We may not be able to step above or out of the center: but we cannot help but step behind it. We can never return completely to ourselves as living beings. But where are we if not at our center? In a kind of nothingness, a no-space, a “nowhere-never” (Plessner 2019, 292)?

Our relationship to ourselves is no longer univocal but equivocal, as physical as we are lived body. We are our bodies as much as we have them. To be a body means to find yourself at one with it, to live through it and as it, to experience the body from the inside. To have it, however, means to see it as a tool outside us, a body among bodies. The double-aspectivity of positionality appears in full strength. We are both on the inside and outside, seeing the inner and outer simultaneously, never quite knowing their frontiers. Out of this ambiguity arises “an actual break in [our] way of existing” (Plessner 1970, 32).

As lived bodies, we inhabit a world of immanent practicality; in Bernstein’s words, it is like “a table set for [our] use” (Bernstein 2019, lix). As possessors of physical bodies, however, we find ourselves stranded on an island of alien items whose practicality is no longer instinctively obvious to us, but must be discovered, or rather, invented. Chopsticks only become eating utensils through a particular cultural process.

The world ceases to be natural: it becomes unnatural, artificial. Because we are still things of nature, but finding ourselves displaced from within it even as we are in it, we are naturally artificial. Our nature is no longer simply given to us, but must be made by us. This leads Bernstein to paradoxically say that “[h]umans must become the living beings they already are” (Bernstein 2019, lx). We are strangers to our own lives even as we live them; we are life finding itself detached from itself.

Between the Outer and Inner Worlds

Shipwrecked in our excentered existence, our worlds are split asunder. The double-aspectivity of life we mentioned in the beginning comes into full effect here. Negotiating between the lived and the physical body, between the inner and outer aspects, humans as excentric living beings experience two kinds of worlds. There is on one hand the outer world of physical bodies, unsaturated with our meanings and perspective, the world as we “have it”, and on the other, the surrounding world, the outer’s internal correlate as it has been made sense of through the coordination of our sensorimotor capacities, the world as we “live it”. Oscillation between these aspects has two key consequences.

Firstly, it means that whenever we are trying to make sense of the world, for example in trying to explain it, we are caught in the web of the surrounding and outer worlds, between the internal and outer world, between the subjective and objective point of view, between idealism and realism. Things are out there as we observe and use them, but the very moment we try to describe them the way they are they already bear our subjective mark. So scientists, philosophers, and artists find themselves constantly warring over this precarious terrain and producing seemingly incommensurate descriptions of the world. Neither can be properly escaped or ignored for they are both vital parts of human existence. The eliminativist who thinks boiling phenomena down to their most fundamental physical building block will produce the total explanation is as reductionist as the idealist worshipping the subjective experience.

The predicament we find ourselves also has an existential character. Stuck in the chasm, spirit breaking from nature, bound and determined by it and yet nurtured by it into perplexing freedom, our existence loses any obvious trajectory, such as was given in the instincts of the lived body. We can no longer simply live. There is no track for us to follow that is not actively produced by ourselves and by other humans. The human “has to act in order to be”, Plessner points out (Plessner 2019, 316–17). He has to lead his life rather than simply live it, navigating its oppositions and its tensions, an Odysseus who is further from home the closer he gets to it.

(Nam June Paik, TV Garden, source)

Hierarchy of Life

Does all this imply that some species are more developed and therefore superior to others? We might be tempted to interpret Plessner’s theory in this manner, applying an anthropocentric value hierarchy on living beings. It is not, however, Plessner’s actual view. He staunchly opposes a teleological evaluation of nature, emphasising the differences are merely a matter of degree.

Furthermore, he opposes the view, which Ošlaj (1995) finds in Scheler, that the onset of the excentric positionality implies an ontological break in the structure of nature, as some kind of transcendent entity, like a Spirit, ushering in the advent of a metaphysical dualism. The difference is purely one of a degree of reflexivity within the same kind of nature, without a need for additional substances.

The “radical break” of excentric positionality is a category established retrospectively by humans. The chasm appears only insofar as the human creates it “for himself”, in his own experience. This allows Plessner to establish the criterion by which he is able to explain the difference between different beings, especially our human experience of the chasm, without having to dig an immanent abyss into the very structure of being. The break is, as Ošlaj points out, “secondary, the work of the specificity of human nature” (Ošlaj 1995, 149).

Recentering

Plessner summarises the circumstances humans find themselves in with three so-called laws of anthropology.

Firstly (1), humans are naturally-artificial beings who are “constitutively homeless”; they “must become something’ and create [their] equilibrium” (Plessner 2019, 288). This law answers the question of how a human lives in trying to deal with his particular nature, his positionality. Using religious imagery, we might say it describes how humans are striving to return to their primordial home, to the paradise of immediacy and oneness, before the devil drove us to taste the fruit of self-reflection.

Having cast ourselves out of nature, we can only do so with the use of things outside nature, with what we ourselves produce, even as we are conscious of this production. We are trying to return to nature with things we make ourselves, but since in doing this we are self-aware, everything we do seems artificial to us. We are building castles with dry sand. Even as we shape one into form, we are already looking at it at a distance and watching it collapse. To stand stable, our actions need to “take a weight of their own”. we must determine how and what gives meaning to our lives, and then educate these fragile maps through societal norms to give them credence. Culture, as Bernstein phrases it, is the effort of negotiating between the natural and artificial aspects of humanity:

“[I]t must from out of its own resources demonstrate how its diverse forms of significance can and should matter, how customs and practices can sustain the meaning they express and project, how utility and meaningfulness coordinate in a sustainable manner. […] In effect, every culture is a working through and an effort to reconcile the irreconcilable duality between culture and nature.”” (Bernstein 2019, lxii)

Outcasts as we are, looking for new lands to settle while pining for the old, we build a new world on top of the natural one. We try to regain the direct, immediate relationship with the world, but we can only do so with further intermediates, with our own artificial creations. Our tie with it consequently remains only indirect. The “immediacy” is mediated; that is why Plessner calls this second (2) law the law of mediated immediacy (Plessner 2019, 324). In trying to uncover the veil from the world, to look past it, we are actually wrapping it even tighter:

“Appearance is not to be thought as a leaf or a mask concealing the real behind it and detachable from it, but is like a face that conceals by revealing.” (Plessner 2019, 305)

Our excentric position does not seem to be a comfortable one. We seek to regain our centricity, to return to ourselves, but, as Bernstein says, “against a continuing possibility of rupture and dispersal” (Bernstein 2019, lviii). Our particular positionality does not only make us aware of having a body, and of being a body, but of the schism between these two aspects, as well as instilling in us a seeming desire to bring them back in alignment. The (3) law of the utopian standpoint expresses this yearning for a return to nature, to ourselves, to life, to sail to a place which turns out to be, just like the word utopia suggests, a “no-place”. Here lies the kernel of religiosity, as the promised land of completeness, the center we gravitate towards, the still place where we may at last rest, possible only in this world of hope. History, in contrast, is the reality and consequence of our voyage in the straits of our excentric positionality (Ošlaj 1995).

Conclusion

Plessner’s theory is attractive from several standpoints. In terms of methodology, it explains why humans should produce such a plethora of opposing explanations of their world. He provides the casus belli of the conflict between the realist and the idealist, the scientist and philosopher, hiding in the efforts of the excentric positionality to move between the inner and the outer world, between the objective and subjective factor.

At the same time, he offers a flexible framework to explain human phenomena while staying true to biology and nature and yet without forcibly reducing our spiritual aspects to facts of matter. He explains our dualism without becoming a dualist. He is a holistic philosopher like many close to his tradition, with interesting comparisons opening up to Kurt Goldstein, Merleau-Ponty and the more recent enactivist paradigm in cognitive science. These traditions emphasise the necessity for a dynamic treatment of organic life and of humans in all their facets, with a broad, non-reductionist methodology, sidestepping the one-sidedness of naturalism and vitalism.

But Plessner’s point is also profoundly ethical, even political. The excentric positionality goes to the root of our existential predicament, of our search for meaning and transcendence. Ošlaj (2008), whose diaphoric theory rests in part on Plessner’s foundations, explores this angle at length with a historical review of religions and other anthropological phenomena. The “diaphora” at the center of his theory is essentially his term for the self-reflexive experiential chasm that erupts with excentric positionality. The various forms of religion, the rise of the philosophical and then scientific worldview, art, as well as our precarious modern foray into the maws of nihilism can be elegantly interpreted with this framework as the history of the symbolic permutations of man’s excentric voyage towards and yet away from the proverbial paradise.

But the application of Plessner’s theory need not be purely theoretical. It may offer a vital tool to the psychotherapist, as Krüger (2010) hints. Plessner addresses the roots of our psyche uniquely and incisively, going beneath the veil of symptoms and perhaps into their well. Though psychology has had much to say on the roots of psychiatric illnesses, Plessner provides a non-reductionist explanation of their fundamental conditions. Similarly, the practical value may not be only individual, but political. If society is what determines and upholds the norms which we need and use in navigating our positionality, it makes sense why it may not enough merely to clean one’s own room.

We seem to be on the cusp of a Plessnerian renaissance (Mul 2014). Philosophy has frequently benefited from looking back at neglected or forgotten texts. Following this tradition, Plessner has much to offer to a variety of fields, theoretical and practical. As science continues to stretch the limits of our worldview, and our existential and political difficulties continue to mount, his anthropology might prove a useful aid in looking for a way forward.

Bibliography

Bernstein, J. M. 2019. “Introduction.” In Levels of Organic Life and the Human: An Introduction to Philosophical Anthropology, translated by Millay Hyatt. New York: Fordham University Press.

Chang, Liangtang, Shikun Zhang, Mu-ming Poo, and Neng Gong. 2017. “Spontaneous Expression of Mirror Self-Recognition in Monkeys After Learning Precise Visual-Proprioceptive Association for Mirror Images.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114 (12): 3258–63. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1620764114.

Krüger, Hans-Peter. 2010. “Persons and Their Bodies: The Körper/Leib Distinction and Helmuth Plessner’s Theories of Ex-Centric Positionality and Homo Absconditus.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 24 (3): 256–74. https://doi.org/10.1353/jsp.2010.0011.

Mirandola, Pico Della. 1998. On the Dignity of Man. Hackett Classics. Idianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Mul, Jos de, ed. 2014. Plessner’s Philosophical Anthropology: Perspectives and Prospects. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Ošlaj, Borut. 1995. “Plessnerjeva izpeljava filozofske antropologije iz temeljev organskega sveta.” Anthropos 27 (1/2): 143–65.

Plessner, Helmuth. 1970. Laughing and Crying: A Study of the Limits of Human Behavior. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

———. 2019. Levels of Organic Life and the Human: An Introduction to Philosophical Anthropology. Translated by Millay Hyatt. New York: Fordham University Press.

Plotnik, Joshua M., Frans B. M. de Waal, and Diana Reiss. 2006. “Self-Recognition in an Asian Elephant.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103 (45): 17053–7. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0608062103.

References

1 Though we might perhaps take exception with Plessner here, as some species do seem to experience a kind of self-awareness. See Chang et al. (2017), Plotnik, Waal, and Reiss (2006

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