Philosophical Anthropology

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Philosophical Anthropology


(1) In the broad sense of the term, the study of the nature, or essence, of man.

(2) In the narrow sense, a trend in Western European and primarily German philosophy in the first half of the 20th century. This school of thought was based on W. Dilthey’s idealist Lebensphilosophie (philosophy of life) and the phenomenology of such thinkers as E. Husserl; it sought to re-create the integral concept of man by utilizing and interpreting data of various sciences, including biology, psychology, ethnology, and sociology.

The birth of the philosophical school of anthropology is associated with the publication of M. Scheler’s The Place of Man in the Universe (1928) and H. Plessner’s Stages of the Organic and Man (1928); the central concern of these works is the difference between the human and the animal mode of existence. For Scheler, the difference lies in man’s capacity to free himself of the pressure of biological needs and to distance himself from the environment. The ruling principle of man’s existence, according to Scheler, is the infinite “spirit” that restrains and sublimates the natural drives of the living organism. In Plessner’s view, man’s specific attribute is “excentricity,” or his constant transcendence of the immediacy of existence; moreover, this “excentric” quality is not an attribute of some higher “stratum” of man’s being, but is rather the organizing principle of man’s being as a whole, beginning at the lowest vegetative levels.

Scheler’s ideas are further elaborated by A. Gehlen, who considers man as already differentiated from the animals in the elementary pairings of perception and movement. For Gehlen, the source of human activity is man’s biological “inadequacy”—that is, his imperfect organs as compared to the animals’ highly specialized ones, his reduced instinctual capacity, and the general lack of specificity in his makeup, which conditions human adaptability. As distinct from the animals, man is open to perceptions that have no inherent signaling function. Because of this greater freedom, man’s perception overflows with nonspecific stimuli that must be “unloaded,” and such unloading is achieved when the stimuli are symbolically processed to acquire their final form in language. The liberation of man from the pressure of his instincts is based on the gap between stimulus and action; man, according to Gehlen, is a “culturable” creature.

The concept of cultural anthropology proposed by E. Rothacker comes close to Gehlen’s ideas. This school of philosophical anthropology regards man as being determined by culture, or, in M. Landmann’s formulation, as “creating and being created by culture.” Scheler and his followers—for example, H. Hengstenberg and F.-J. von Rintelen—retain the concepts of traditional idealist metaphysics (such as spirit and eternity) in their interpretation of man; other philosophical anthropologists, largely influenced by Husserl’s phenomenology, are inclined to describe man’s specific attributes in presuppositionless and essentially positivist terms.

Philosophical anthropology after World War II has been generally characterized by a complex interaction with existentialism, pragmatism, depth psychology, and structuralism. J.-P. Sartre is representative of those who have sought an eclectic union between the anthropological approach and the principles of Marxism; attempts have also been made to apply the anthropological point of view to a revisionist interpretation of Marxism.


Korneev, P. V. Sovremennaia filosofskaia antropologiia. [Moscow] 1967.
Burzhuaznaia filosofiia XX veka. Moscow, 1974.
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