The Unfathomable Principle: on Helmuth Plessner’s Political Anthropology (2019). By Gerardo Muñoz

Joachim Fischer tells us in the epilogue of Helmuth Plessner’s 1931 Power and Human Nature, now translated as Political Anthropology (Northwestern, 2019), that this short book is very much the intellectual product of its time. It is a direct consequence of Plessner’s elaboration of a philosophical anthropology in the wake of the “philosophies of life” that dominated German philosophical discourse during the first decades of the twentieth century. More importantly, it is also a reflection very much tied to the crisis of the political and parliamentary democracy experienced at the outset of the years of the Weimar Republic. Plessner’s own intellectual position, which suffered tremendously due to his unsuccessful major work, The Levels of the Organic and the Human (1928), occupies a sort of third space in the theoretical debates on the political at the time, carving a zone that was neither that of a romantic impolitical position (the George Group, Thomas Mann, and others), nor that of liberal legalism perhaps best expressed by Hans Kelsen.

Curiously, Plessner’s understanding of the political cohabitates quite conformably in Carl Schmitt’s lesson, albeit in a very particular orbit. On his end, Schmitt himself did not miss the opportunity to celebrate Plessner’s defense of the political as grounded on his friend-enemy distinction elaborated just a few years prior. Indeed, for Schmitt, Plessner’s Political Anthropology drafted an epochal validation to his otherwise juristic formulation, going as far as to write that: “Helmuth Plessner, who was the first modern philosophizer in his book dared to advance a political anthropology of a grand style, correctly says that there exists no philosophy and no anthropology which is not politically relevant, just as there is no philosophically irrelevant politics” (Plessner 104).

Schmitt captures the essence of the convergence between the philosophical anthropology project and the nature of the political as a consequence of modern “loss of center” in search of a principle of autorictas (a “new political center” that the Conservative Revolution will soon try to renew) [1]. In this sense, Plessner, like Schmitt but also like Weber, is a thinker of legitimacy as a supplementary principle, although he declined to craft a theory of legitimation. Unlike Weber, Plessner does not defend charisma as the central concept of political vocation. The nature of the political coincides with the nature of the Human insofar as it is a constitutive element of conflict, and univocally, a “human necessity” (Plessner 5). Hence, Plessner’s theory of political was the ultimate test for philosophical anthropology, given that the general historical horizon of the project was meant to provide a practico-existential position within concrete conditions of its own historicity, responding to both the Weimar Republic and the belated nature of the ‘German national spirit’ [2].

We are to do well to read Plessner’s political anthropological elaboration in conjunction with his other book The Belated Nation (1959), in which he draws a lengthy intellectual genealogy of the decline of the German bourgeoisie as a process of spiritual embellishment with impolitical fantasies. In a certain sense, both Political Anthropology and The Belated Nation (still to be translated into English) are a response to the Weimar intellectual atmosphere of the “devaluation of politics”. There is no doubt that Plessner is thinking of Thomas Mann’s unpolitischen here, but also of the poetic fantasies that Furio Jesi later referred to as the mythical fascination with the “secret Germany” [3]. The impolitical repression from political polemos to consensualism always leads to worse politics (Plessner 3). Politics must be taken seriously, and this means, for Plessner, a position that not only goes against the aesthetes, but one that is also critical of the dominant ideological partisanship preparing the battleground for gigantisms, of which classic liberalism, Marxism, and fascism were manifolds of philosophy of history. Plessner wants to locate politics as a consequence of the Enlightenment (Plessner 9). For Plessner, this entails thinking the conditions of philosophy anew in order to escape the dualistic bifurcation of an anthropological analysis grounded in either empiricism or a transcendental a prori. The conventional biologist program of anthropological analysis never moved beyond the scheme of “mental motivation”, which is why it never escaped the limits of a “pure power politicized, predominantly pessimistic, anti-enlightenment and in that respect, conservative” (Plessner 10).

We could call this an archaic anthropology for political shortcuts. Obviously, Plessner places the project of political anthropology beyond the absolutization of the human in its different capacities. This was the problem of Heidegger’s analysis of existence, according to Plessner, since it stopped at “the conditions of the possibility of addressing existence as existence at the same time have the sense of being conditions of the possibility of leading existence as existence” (Plessner 24). This “essentialization of existence” (Plessner dixit) is only possible at the expense of concrete formilizable categories such as life, world, and culture (Plessner 24). It is only with Wilhelm Dilthey’s work that philosophical anthropology was capable of advancing in any serious way. It is only after Dilthey’s position against a ‘nonhistorical apriorism’ that something like the a characterization of the Human as an unfathomable principle was drawn. The battle against a priori absolutism entails the renunciation of philosophy’s “hegemonic position of its own epistemological conditions…to access the world as the embodiment of all zones and forms of beings” (Plessner 28). We are looking at a post-phenomenological opening of historicity that is neither bounded by existence qua existence (Heidegger’s position), nor by the Hegelian’s labor of the negative. For Plessner, the most interesting definition of the political lies here, but this presupposes the principle of unfathomability of the human. Undoubtedly, this is the vortex of Plessner’s political anthropology.

The principle of the unfathomable is neither precritical nor empirical, as it takes the human relation to the world as what “can never be understood completely. They are open questions” (Plessner 43). This schemata applies to the totality of the human sciences in their relation to life in the world as the only immanent force of history. Thus, for Plessner, this entails that “every generation acts back on history and thereby turns history into that incomplete, open, and eternally self-renewing history that can be adequately approach  the interpreting penetration of this generation open questioning” (Plessner 45). This materialism subscribes neither Marx’s synthetic historical materialism, nor the empirical history of progress. The unfathomable relates to a historicity that, in its reference and relation to the world, presents an “eternal refigurability or openness” (Plessner 46). This is an interpretation close to the definition of modernity as the self-assertive epoch of irreversibility, later championed by Hans Blumenberg. The irreversible, following the unfathomable principle, assumes the ex-centric positionality of the human. The unfathomable principle is what concretely binds the human to the phenomena of the world by means of a radical originary separation that carries an ever-evolving power for historical sense beyond absolute universality.

Of course, Plessner is thinking here of Max Weber’s important insights in Economy and Society regarding the process of legitimation and the separation of powers. The human of political anthropology becomes nothing but the means to “executive the value-democratic equalization of all cultures”, which is a common denominator of civil society pluralism (Plessner 47). But as life itself becomes indeterminate and unfathomable, power is rediscovered as a self-regulating mechanism of inter-cultural relations among human communities. In other words, insofar as the unfathomable principle drives the openness of the human in relation to the world and others, the human always entails a positing of the question of power as a form of a struggle in relation to what is foreign (Plessner 51). Here Plessner follows Carl Schmitt’s concept of the political transposing it to the human: “As power, the human is necessarily entangled in a struggle for power; i.e, in the opposition of familiarity and foreignness, of friend and enemy” (Plessner 53).

We might recall that Schmitt addressed the definition of the enemy from Daubler’s reference to “our own question” (Der Feind ist unsere eigene Frage als Gestalt), that is, with what is one’s most familiar, a sort of originary primal scene of his subjective caesura. For Plessner, as for Schmitt, the friend-enemy relation is an originary confrontation that makes the political an exercise of “every life-domain serviceable and just as well be made to serve every life-domain’s interests” (Plessner 55). The friend-enemy relation accomplishes two functions simultaneously: it takes power seriously in light of the unfathomable principle, and it dispenses conflict without ever reaching a stage of total annihilation. That is why Plessner emphasizes that the political has primacy in the ex-centric essence of the human (Plessner 60).

In fact, for Plessner there is no philosophical anthropology without a political anthropology. And here we reach a crux moment, which is Plessner’s most coherent definition of the political principle: “Politics is then not just a field and a profession…Politics then is not primarily a field but the state of human life in which it gives itself its constitution and asserts itself against and in the world, not just externally and juridically but from out of its ground and essence. Politics is the horizon in which the human acquires the relation that makes sense of itself and the world, the entire a prori of its saying and doing” (Plessner 61).

Philosophical anthropology is to be understood as a process of historical immanence and radical openness of the human’s ex-centric position in coordination with a metaphysical political principle that guides the caesura between thought and action. In fact, we could say that politics here becomes a hegemonic phantasm (very much in the same as in post-foundatonalist thought) that establishes the conditions for the efficacy of immanence, but only insofar it evacuates itself as its own determination. This is why we call it “phantasmatic”. In fact, Plessner tells us that the political principle has only a primacy because it relates to “the open question or to life itself”.

In other words, the movement that Plessner undertakes to shake the absolutism of philosophy’s abstraction over to anthropology has a prior determination that runs parallel: the fundamental absolutization of the political via the immanence of the principle of unfathomability. Under the cloak of the indetermination of the “philosophy of life”, Plessner ultimately promotes a prote philosophia (first philosophy) of the political even if “in no way subsist absolutely, immovable across history or underneath it” (Plessner 72). There is a paradox here that ultimately runs through Plessner’s anthropological project as whole, and which can be preliminary synthesized in this way: the radical unfathomable principle of the human is, at the same time, established as open and immanent, while it acts as a phantasmatic principle to establish the political. Hence, the political becomes a mechanism of amending originary separation and to provide form to the otherwise multiple becoming of the human. This is why politics, understood as political anthropology, ceases to be an autonomous sphere of action to coincide with the ‘essence of humanness’ in its struggle for the organization of the world. Politics becomes synonymous with the administration of a new legibility of the world and in this way reintroduces hegemony of the political unto existence. Plessner is clear about this:

“Politics is the art of the right moment, of the favorable opportunity. It is the moment that counts…That is why anthropology is possible only if it is politically relevant, that is why philosophy is possible only if it is politically relevant, especially when their insights have been radically liberated from all consideration of purposes and values , considerations that could divert an objective coherent to the last” (Plessner 75).

Fischer is right to remind us that at the heart of Plessner’s Political Anthropology lies an ultimate attempt at combining “spirit” and “power”, a synthesis of Weber and Schmitt for the human sciences inaugurated by Dilthey’s project. But what if the movement towards synthesis and unification of a political theory is the real problem, instead of the solution? Are we to read Plessner’s political anthropology as yet another failed attempt at an political determination in the face of the nihilism of modernity? And what if, as Plessner’s last chapter on politics as a site of the nation for the “human’s possibility that is in each case is own”, is actually something other than political, as Heidegger just a few years later proposed in his readings of Hölderlin’s Hymns? The dialectics between “spirit” and “power”, Weber and Schmitt, the precritical and the humanist empiricism, exclude a third option: a distance from the political beyond the disinterred apolitical thinking and acting, and its secondary partisanship waged around the Political. In this sense, Plessner is fully a product of the Weimar impasse of the political, not yet finding a coherent exodus from Schmitt, and not fully able to confront the ruin of legitimacy. As Wolf Lepenies has reminded us recently, even Weber himself in his last year was uncertain about strong “political determinations”, as Germany started descending into a ‘polar night’ [4].

The oscillation of antithesis – ontology and immanence, predictability and indeterminacy, historicity and the human sciences, politics and existence, nationality and the world  – situate Plessner’s essence of the political as a true secular “complex of opposites” that ended up calling for a ‘civilizing ethics’ (Plessner 85). This essence of the political reduces democracy to the psychic latency of drives of the social order, as the unergrundlich (unfathomable) becomes a principle of management in the form of an ethics. This is not to say that the “historical task” of philosophical anthropology remains foreclosed. However, political anthropology does not break away from the conditions of the crisis of the political that was responding to. For Plessner, these conditions pointed to a danger of total depolitisation. Almost a century later, one can say that its opposite has also been integrated in the current technical de-deification of the world.





  1. Armin Mohler in The Conservative Revolution in Germany 1918-1932 (2018) notes that: “[The Conservative Revolution in 1919]…considered calling themselves the “new Center”. The latter was meant to symbolically represent the need to create a comprehensive political…that would overcome the oppositions of the past”, p.95.
  2. Helmuth Plessner. La nación tardía: sobre la seducción política del espíritu burgués (1935-1959). Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva, 2017.
  3. See, Furio Jesi. Secret Germany: Myth in Twentieth-Century German Culture. Chicago: Seagull Books, 2019.
  4. See, Wolf Lepenies. “Ethos und Pathos”. Welt, February 16, 2019.

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