Opracowania po¶wiêcone Helmuthowi Plessnerowi
Agata Bielik-Robson - Blessing of the Limits: Helmuth Plessner's Contribution to the Habermas - Taylor Debate on the Nature of Human Freedom

The aim of this paper is to place Helmuth Plessner's anthropology within the fundamental debate on the nature of freedom which has taken place between the liberals and the communitarians; what I have in mind here, however, is not just a simple juxtaposition but a proposal of a more dialectical solution which can be drawn from Plessner's reflection on human Mangelwesen and its paradoxical, dynamic eccentricity.

As a founding concept of modern liberalism, the first model - emancipation - hardly needs any clarification: it is a freedom defined negatively as a liberty from all kinds of limitations and conditionings. On the other hand, the freedom as articulation is a relatively fresh concept; it has emerged within the communitarian perspective, most notably in writings of Charles Taylor. But, although it is Taylor to whom the credit of inventing the name "articulation" should go, the very idea which lies behind it is, in fact, very old. The articulatory model of freedom has already been used against the emancipatory one by early romantics, especially by Herder.

Emancipation offers a model of identity which is based on the absence of constraints; first, we must be free, only then we become ourselves, we gain identity by choosing it. Contrary to this, articulation offers a model of identity which is based on recognition of some constraints as absolutely primary and indispensable: first, we must be in order to enjoy freedom; we must acknowledge and recognise what we are - in Nietzsche's words, wir müssen werden was wir sind - and only then we can develop our sense of autonomy: by articulating the primary constraints, by bestowing on the blind factors which shaped our existences discursive, representative form, a form that gives us a chance to discuss them, reflect on them, acquire a minimal, narrative distance from their determining power. The emancipatory theory is led by a regulative idea of absolute Unbedingtheit, a strong ethical ideal based on what Peter Berger, quite rightly, called "false anthropology" [1] - whereas the articulatory model is far more modest, perhaps too modest in fact, so it isn't sure if it gives us, by the automatic force of a sheer contrast, what we might call with clear conscience a "true anthropology". They both seem dangerously one-sided, going radically in one direction only: emancipation pushes the notion of abstract, intellectual self-control to its extremes, while articulation believes in the unlimited power of dense and concrete "life narratives".

Using Plessner's famous distinction on two types of communities we could easily substitute these two forms of radicalism for, on the one hand, die Gemeinschaft der Sache and, on the other, die Gemeinschaft der Blut. Emancipation, especially when seen from the angle of Habermas' post-Hegelian Kantianism, consists in achieving a formal, intellectual point zero of consciousness in which all living content becomes a matter of rational argumentation: his universal community of unconstrained, liberated discourse resembles closely the Plessnerian utopia of the Gemeinschaft based on common rationality which disregards local colouring, perceived then merely as a distortion. On the other hand, Taylor's communitarian model of articulation, his peculiar romantic Hegelianism, may be regarded as a sophisticated version of die Gemeischaft der Blut which takes for granted subject's situatedness within his/her local tradition and thus, allowing for nothing more than just a variation of individual life narratives, severely underestimates the antagonistic aspect of human freedom.




The emancipatory model derives from the classical, Cartesian ideal of self-transparency and its later transcendental-idealist avatars. In his Knowledge and Human Interests, Jürgen Habermas defends the "emancipatory power of reflection" according to the characteristic Cartesian-Transcendental trinity of concepts: reflection, self-consciousness, self-transparent subjectivity. The only difference here is that Habermas forms his theory of the "emancipatory interest" already in response to the critiques of subjectivity coming from the anti-subjectivist School of Suspicion: subjective freedom is not a matter of fact (as it is still the case of naive Cartesianism) but an ideal one strives for thanks to his reflective powers and achieves by "becoming transparent to oneself in the history of one's genesis" (1972, 197).

Freedom is thus a state we do not possess, but it also is not an impossible utopia, as it is claimed by reductive hermeneutics of the School of Suspicion: rather, it is a task we complete by fostering our "emancipatory interests", that is, by overcoming our primary - given, inherited and imposed - constraints. Habermas' definition of self-transparency is therefore no longer oriented towards the "punctual self-knowledge" of pure cogito but towards "self-knowledge in biographical context", towards the process of gaining a reflexive cognition of one's own unconscious, habitual, conventional conditionings, towards "the model of pure communicative action":

"According to this model - says Habermas - all habitual interactions and all interpretations relevant to life conduct are accessible at all times. This is possible on the basis of internalising the apparatus of unrestricted ordinary language of uncompelled and public communication, so that the transparency of recollected life history is preserved." (1972, 232-3; italics mine)

This transparency - or, "accessibility at all times" - can be achieved only thanks to critical distance the individual gains towards his substantial determinants, i.e. towards everything which influenced his existence before he could consciously oppose this influence. It creates a space in which the subject can become his own impartial observer, himself free of any determining content; instead of being one with his formative factors, he gains an Abstand: literally, a stand-away. The distance is implied in the word "access" which is the key for the Habermasian understanding of self-knowledge: in order to retrieve all habitual interactions and relevant interpretations, the subject has first to objectify them, as if projecting himself away from all the contents which has constituted him so far.

This critical distance - a notion taken directly from Fichte, his Abstand von Dingen, which separated reine Ichheit, the purely formal aspect of self-consciousness from all material "impurities" of the empirical self - is not yet a full detachment, but it can easily become one. In the emancipatory reflection, the link between the liberated, reflexive self and its conditionings becomes loose; the self is absolutely free to decide whether it wants to pick up the direction these various determining forces made it to follow or whether it wants to break free and follow another path it chooses. The critical distance, in which the ideal of self-transparency finds its late modern, post-suspicious fulfilment, contains therefore a possibility of detachment - and, somehow, more than just a possibility, rather an implicit imperative of leaving behind the whole burden of our past constraints and limitations.

Thus, the critical distance which, for Habermas, is a sign of maturation, bears a seed of impeachment and negation of all the formative factors, as if they were just a sort of Wittgensteinian ladder that is used only in order to be pushed away. The consequence of this "emancipatory impulse" is somewhat paradoxical: the mature autonomy amounts to becoming free of everything that played a vital role in the individual's formative process, or rather, in turning everything which played such vital role into a dead, almost disposable weight of past encumberances. It is a moment of gaining a liberating distance towards everything that seemed significant before; true identity of a person reveals itself in its full subjective glory only when she dares to bid farewell to all her already acquired substance.




First redefinition of freedom as the power of articulation rather than emancipation occurs in Taylor's Hegel where he introduces his own, highly idiosyncratic definition of Sittlichkeit:

"'Sittlichkeit' - he writes - refers to the moral obligations I have to an ongoing community of which I am part. These obligations are based on established norms and uses, and that is why the etymological root in 'Sitten' is important for Hegel's use. The crucial characteristic of Sittlichkeit is that it enjoins us to bring about what already is. This is a pradoxical way of putting it, but in fact the common life which is the basis of my sittlich obligation is already there in existence... Hence in Sittlichkeit, there is no gap between what ought to be and what is, between Sollen and Sein." (Taylor 1975, 177-8)

Articulation, therefore, consists in ability to bring about what already is, or, to use a more romantic formulation, to breathe moral life into the petrified forms of customary and conventional rules; to find the most valuable core in the already given prescriptions. Articulation is an art of right enhancement, an art of pulling the right thread of cultural continuity from the initially entangled, non-transparent thicket of too many customs and conventions (Sitten). It has, therefore, its own, non-emancipatory version of achieving a some degree of transparency, of creating a space for free choice and action; it consists, however, not in breaking free from the disorienting abundance of social rituals, but in an ability to reduce them to few most effective, heuristic patterns. Taylor opposes this highly articulated Sittlichkeit to Kant's strictly formal Moralität which implicitly fosters an individualistic and, in consequence, possibly too antagonistic attitude. Taylor writes:

"Here [in Kant's ethics] we have an obligation to realise something which does not exist. What ought to be is in contrast with what is... Kant presents an abstract, formal notion of moral obligation, which holds of man as an individual, and which being defined in contrast to nature is in endless opposition to what is... Kant saw the right as forever opposed to the real; morality and nature (containing also objectified social norms - ABR) are always at loggerheads." (ibidem, 178)

Taylor uses the word "articulation" explicitly in the theoretical introduction to his Sources of the Self, where he argues in favour of "articulating the hidden horizons of modernity", and in one of his later essays, "Lichtung or Lebensform: Parallels between Heidegger and Wittgenstein". Here articulation is defined as an activity which brings forward the concealed, half-conscious, habitual background of our reflection:

"In this activity of articulating - says Taylor - I trade on my familiarity with the background. What I bring out to articulacy is what I 'always knew', as we might say, or what I had a 'sense' of, even if I didn't 'know' it." (Taylor 1997, 69); "The background... - he continues - can be represented as a kind of implicit understanding, or 'pre-understanding' in Heidegger's term. To bring it to articulacy is to take (some of) this and make it explicit. But... the idea of making the background completely explicit, of undoing its status as background, is incoherent in principle." (ibidem, 69)

The background, although submitted to the reflexive power of articulation, is thus to be left, at least partially, non-transparent. Hence the distance, in which the subject exercises its freedom, can never be complete; it cannot "objectify" the background and therefore cannot dominate it, become a master of the rules that before mastered him, as it is in case of Habermas' emancipation paradigm. A little bit of the sedimented, inarticulable rudiment of the primary background remains - and it is just enough to make this reversal of power impossible. Das Ich will not be able to dominate das Unbewußte; the separate punctual self will not reject its primary dependencies on others; the individual will not emancipate himself from the ties of his communal loyalty.

Yet, there immediately emerges the following question: is this articulatory model, which is to replace the "false anthropology" of the emancipatory one, satisfactory? Or, putting it bluntly, is this a model of freedom at all? For although Taylor takes a lot of pain to emphasise that ciriticism of one's own tradition is not only possible but required, normal, and expected, the room left for its exercise diminishes radically. The individual self is and will always remain only what it's been made by its local, social conditioning, and the only act of autonomy that is left to it boils down to a rhetorical manoeuvre of emphasis: the selective, and, in fact, rather limited power to bring about what already is.


Between the Two Poles: Helmuth Plessner


Plessner is equally indebted to Herder but it is mainly Herder's dynamic anthropology of Mangelwesen which is his source of inspiration. Plessner understands that, both, emancipation and articulation meet their limits which is due to the fact that neither of them reflects the whole truth of human subjectivity. Plessner's position is therefore more dialectical than Habermas' or Taylor's, but it isn't a Hegelian dialectic of mediated evolution, rather a typically romantic dialectic of insoluble antagonisms which underlies Hegel's systematic model as its prototype (which eventually re-emerges, two centuries later, in the post-Hegelian negative dialectic of Adorno). This romantic, precursory dialectic originates in Herder's dynamic duality of human self as always oscillating between two contradictory poles - of lack and compensation, distance and situatedness, abstract emptiness and concrete predication - and later takes on the form of the romantic irony as defined mostly by Friedrich Schlegel: the Fichtean movement of Schweben, the constant oscillation, becomes the distinctive feature of subjectivity as such, ironically negotiating its troubled reality built on inner antagonisms. Irony, pictured as a dynamic state of oscillation, doesn't allow any of the two opposite poles to develop into an unambiguous position: the absolutely free and distanced self is always checked by its empirical, bedingt (conditioned) counterpart, and the reverse; the subject can never plunge completely into its Geworfenheit for it is dragged away from its direct situatedness by the pole of subjective Liberalität. The limitations of both movements - the emancipation and the articulation - are therefore not external to the self but belong to its very nature; these two poles pose the limits on one another's tendency to achieve unequivocal, fully pregnant realisation. The limits of emancipation come from subject's necessary situatedness in the world; the limits of articulation come from subject's necessary excentricity and elusiveness.

Plessner's teaching about soul - especially from his Grenzen der Gemeinschaft but also from his anthropological essays, like "Homo absconditus" - draws heavily on typically romantic ambivalence and paradoxes but, nevertheless, finds its unique, highly original, theoretical expression (if anything, it bears some resemblance to only one notion of the soul that has been developed in contemporary humanities, namely to the psychoanalysis of the self conceived by D. W. Winnicott, the British pupil of Melanie Klein, also deeply indebted to his romantic heritage). In the fourth chapter of his book, "Das Kampf ums wahre Gesicht. Das Risiko der Lächerlichkeit", Plessner delivers his idea of the soul as a specific entity without essence, torn by inner contradictions and antagonisms, and precisely for this reason able to constitute a principle of individuation, principium individuationis. The soul is this unique instance of indivisibility that had been called already by Schelling "an indivisible remainder", i.e., the remnant which cannot be captured or exhausted by any straightforward attempt of delineation, be it the Cartesian-idealist definition of punctual cogito, be it more concrete, predicative definition of the situated self. However we try to articulate it, this "indivisible remainder" falls without our conceptual grasp. It defies any sort of - either abstract, or concrete - predication:

"Was ihn (den Mensch) wirklich erst individualisiert, von innen heraus unteilbar und einzigartig macht - says Plessner - ist das Bewusstsein vom Besitz einer Seele, das Leben im Zentrum einer empfindenden, wollenden, denkenden, der Umwelt und dem eigenen Leibe gegenüber eigenwilligen, an Tiefe und innerer Eigenschaftsfülle unvergleichlichen Innerlichkeit." (Plessner 2002, 61-62)

Note, however, that psyche, die Seele, merely resists and defies any sort of predication, no matter abstract or material, which does not mean that it is absolutely and safely free from being this or that. Resistance (to use more psychoanalytic idiom) or defiance (to use Schelling's original concept) are more complex, more dialectical operations which at the same time deny and affirm the necessity of definition. The soul is inescapably double in its inner structure; it is excentric, but its excentricity doesn't establish the psyche in a separate mode of existence that could render it free from a temporary fixedness:

"Der doppeldeutige Charakter des Psychischen - continues Plessner - drängt zur Fixierung hin und zugleich von der Fixierung fort. Wir wollen uns sehen und gesehen werden, wie wir sind, und wir wollen ebenso uns verhüllen und ungekannt bleiben, denn hinter jeder Bestimmtheit unseres Seins schlummern die unsagbaren Möglichkeiten des Andersseins." (ibidem, 63)

Winnicott, whose ideas follow closely, though unconsciously, the path already opened by Plessner, will later say about the deep self in his Playing and Reality, that "it is joy to be hidden, by a disaster not to be found" (Winnicott 1971, 32). Thus, by emphasising the concealed nature of the soul - "Seele ist ein noli me tangere für das Bewusstsein", he says [2] - Plessner goes against the most cherished dogma of expressivism, the doctrine which underlies both lines of modern thought mentioned above, the emancipation and the articulation alike. Expressivism defines subjectivity according to its power of self-expression, taking the form of, respectively, frei-schwebend cogito or a fully articulate, self-narrating situated self. Contrary to this expressivist prejudice, Plessner sees the soul as a being which stays true to itself only insofar as it resists full articulation. By speaking itself out too bluntly, the soul merely runs the risk of ridicule, die Lächerlichkeit, which is caused by the incongruence between its inner depth and the surface of phenomenal expression. The soul, says Plessner formulating one of his loveliest paradoxes, should express itself as it really is, that is, as hidden. As such, it needs mediation, an indirectness of a form:

"... dieses Zergehen in der Abbreviatur der Erscheinung - he says - macht Seelisches, wenn es nackt hervortritt, lächerlich. Es braucht eine Kompensation, welche solchen qualitativen Gewichtsverlust ausgleicht, es braucht Bekleidung mit Form, damit es auch an der Oberfläche bleibt, was es, in seiner unsichtbaren Tiefe genommen, ist." (ibidem, 72)

Now, we can begin to see clearly why and where precisely these two models of subjective autonomy - emancipation and articulation - miss the point. The freedom of the subject does not reside in its ultimate and true identification, for no identification for a genuinely free subject can ever be either final or true. Two versions of freedom offered by Habermas and Taylor merely elaborate two "points of fixation" within the spectrum of the psychic dynamic; they immobilise and hypostathise two opposite poles of the constant Schweben, the oscillation which, simultaneously, allows the psyche to be and not to be what it is, and thus to negotiate with the fixating oppressiveness of every possible predication. The Habermasian emancipated ego, which distances itself from concrete conditionings, achieves its final truth in abstract identity if Ich denke; the Taylorian articulate self, on the other hand, discards the moment of agonistic abstractness as illusion and forces the subject to exercise whatever's been left of its freedom in narrating its material Ich bin. In the former case, the subject truly becomes what it can never fully become, that is an entity defined in opposition to its Erscheinungen - in the latter, the subject finds its reality only in the sphere of manifestation, in "bringing about what already is".

In both accounts, the subtle eccentricity of human soul and its unique sense of autonomy gets lost; neither the Habermasian, nor the Taylorian self needs a play with the conventional form of its Erscheinung. Whereas the Plessnerian dialectical vision defends the self from falling into a trap of seriousness that results from the rigid identification (which is also the deepest psychological source of all radicalism) and maintains its freedom as a play between identities that constantly limit one another. The psyche can never actually fully become what it really is; here, the Nietzschean imperative of werden was man ist meets the limitation which is inscribed into the very nature of soul's inner indeterminacy. This limitation, however, so troubling for the philosophers seeking the ultimate identity of the human subject, reveals itself as a true blessing in disguise.

The praise of the subjective principle of indeterminacy is precisely "the blessing of the limits", the old mystical formula, which in Plessner's writings has found its uniquely modern echo.



Berger, Peter (1970) "On the Obsolescence of the Concept of Honour", European Journal of Sociology, XI 1970, pp 339-47

Habermas, Jürgen (1972) Knowledge and Human Interests, trans. by J. Shapiro, MIT Press, Boston

Plessner, Helmuth (2002) Grenzen der Gemeinschaft. Eine Kritik des sozialen Radikalismus, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main

Taylor, Charles (1975) Hegel, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Taylor, Charles (1997) "Lichtung or Lebensform: Parallels between Heidegger and Wittgenstein" in Philosophical Arguments, Harvard University Press, London

Winnicott, D. W. (1971) Playing and Reality, Basic Books, London

[1] See Peter Berger (1970, 340). In his essay "On the Obsolescence of the Concept of Honour", he claims that the enlightenmental vision of abstract individual who reaches his true, universal self only as far as he becomes free from the "alienation of social roles" is, simply, a "false anthropology". At the same time, however, he defends moral code of modernity which wouldn't be possible without this anthropological innovation. In a way, the articulatory model of freedom takes the same position: it wants to uphold "the vast moral achievements" of modernity, a.o. "the discovery of the autonomous individual" and the resulting potential of social criticism (ibidem, 157) but on the basis of a more adequate anthropological conception.

[2] Plessner would be pleased with Winnicott's development of the psychoanalytic theory, rather tangential to the leading intention of its founding father, Sigmund Freud, which was to replace the dark realm of the unconscious by the light of reflection. In the nature of the soul, says Plessner, lies the resistance to any effort to make it fully apparent: "Seele ist ein noli me tangere für das Bewusstsein, das in die Tiefe des Unbewussten strebt, um die ganze Kraft des Menschen zu mobilisieren, in einheitliche Richtung zu bringen und in den Dienst seiner Ziele zu stellen." (Plessner 2002, 65)

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