Philosophical anthropology

This article is about philosophical anthropology. For other uses, see Anthropology (disambiguation).
Vitruvian Man or the perfect man by Leonardo da Vinci

Philosophical anthropology, sometimes called anthropological philosophy,[1][2] is a discipline dealing with questions of metaphysics and phenomenology of the human person, and interpersonal relationships.


Ancient Christian writers: Augustine of Hippo

Augustine of Hippo was one of the first Christian ancient Latin authors with a very clear anthropological vision, although it is not clear if he had any influence on Max Scheler, the founder of philosophical anthropology as an independent discipline, nor on any of the major philosophers that followed him. Augustine has been cited by Husserl and Heidegger as one of the early writers to inquire on time-consciousness and the role of seeing in the feeling of "Being-in-the-world".[3][4]

Augustine saw the human being as a perfect unity of two substances: soul and body.[5] He was much closer in this anthropological view to Aristotle than to Plato.[6][7] In his late treatise On Care to Be Had for the Dead sec. 5 (420 CE) he insisted that the body is essential part of the human person:

In no wise are the bodies themselves to be spurned. (...) For these pertain not to ornament or aid which is applied from without, but to the very nature of man.[8]

Augustine's favourite figure to describe body-soul unity is marriage: caro tua, coniux tua – your body is your wife.[9] Initially, the two elements were in perfect harmony. After the fall of humanity they are now experiencing dramatic combat between one another.

They are two categorically different things: the body is a three-dimensional object composed of the four elements, whereas the soul has no spatial dimensions.[10] Soul is a kind of substance, participating in reason, fit for ruling the body.[11] Augustine was not preoccupied, as Plato and Descartes were, with going too much into detail in his efforts to explain the metaphysics of the soul-body union. It sufficed for him to admit that they were metaphysically distinct. To be a human is to be a composite of soul and body, and that the soul is superior to the body. The latter statement is grounded in his hierarchical classification of things into those that merely exist, those that exist and live, and those that exist, live, and have intelligence or reason.[12][13]

According to N. Blasquez, Augustine's dualism of substances of the body and soul doesn't stop him from seeing the unity of body and soul as a substance itself.[7][14] Following Aristotle and other ancient philosophers, he defined man as a rational mortal animalanimal rationale mortale.[15][16]

Modern period

Philosophical anthropology as a kind of thought, before it was founded as a distinct philosophical discipline in the 1920s, emerged as post-medieval thought striving for emancipation from Christian religion and Aristotelic tradition.[17] The origin of this liberation, characteristic of modernity, has been the Cartesian skepticism formulated by Descartes in the first two of his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641).

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) taught the first lectures on anthropology in the European academic world. He specifically developed a conception of pragmatic anthropology, according to which the human being is studied as a free agent. At the same time, he conceived of his anthropology as an empirical, not a strictly philosophical discipline.[18] Both his philosophical and his anthropological work has been one of the influences in the field during the 19th and 20th century.[19][20] After Kant, Ludwig Feuerbach is sometimes considered the next most important influence and founder of anthropological philosophy.[21][22]

During the 19th century, an important contribution came from post-kantian German idealists like Fichte, Schelling and Hegel,[19] as well from Søren Kierkegaard. From the late 19th century till the early 20th century, influential contributors have been Friedrich Nietzsche, John Dewey and Rudolf Steiner.

Philosophical anthropology as independent discipline

Since its development in the 1920s, in the milieu of Germany Weimar culture, philosophical anthropology has been turned into a philosophical discipline, competing with the other traditional sub-disciplines of epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics.[23] It is the attempt to unify disparate ways of understanding behaviour of humans as both creatures of their social environments and creators of their own values. Although the majority of philosophers throughout the history of philosophy can be said to have a distinctive "anthropology" that undergirds their thought, philosophical anthropology itself, as a specific discipline in philosophy, arose within the later modern period as an outgrowth from developing methods in philosophy, such as phenomenology and existentialism. The former, which draws its energy from methodical reflection on human experience (first person perspective) as from the philosopher's own personal experience, naturally aided the emergence of philosophical explorations of human nature and the human condition.

1920s Germany

Max Scheler, from 1900 till 1920 had been a follower of Husserl's phenomenology, the hegemonic form of philosophy in Germany at the time. Scheler sought to apply Husserl's phenomenological approach to different topics. From 1920 Scheler laid the foundation for philosophical anthropology as a philosophical discipline, competing with phenomenology and other philosophic disciplines. Husserl and Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), were the two most authoritative philosophers in Germany at the time, and their criticism to philosophical anthropology and Scheler have had a major impact on the discipline.

Scheler defined the human being not so much as a "rational animal" (as has traditionally been the case since Aristotle) but essentially as a loving being. He breaks down the traditional hylomorphic conception of the human person, and describes the personal being with a tripartite structure of lived body, soul, and spirit. Love and hatred are not psychological emotions, but spiritual, intentional acts of the person, which he categorises as "intentional feelings." Scheler based his philosophical anthropology in a Christian metaphysics of the spirit.[24] Helmuth Plessner would later emancipate philosophical anthropology from Christianity.[24]

Helmuth Plessner and Arnold Gehlen have been influenced by Scheler, and they are the three major representatives of philosophical anthropology as a movement.

From the 1940s

Ernst Cassirer, a neo-Kantian philosopher, has been the most influential source for the definition and development of the field from the 1940s till the 1960s.[25] Particularly influential has been Cassirer's description of man as a symbolic animal,[25] which has been reprised in the 1960s by Gilbert Durand, scholar of symbolic anthropology and the imaginary.

In 1953, future pope Karol Wojtyla based his dissertation thesis on Max Scheler, limiting himself to the works Scheler wrote before rejecting Catholicism and the Judeo-Christian tradition in 1920. Wojtyla used Scheler as an example that phenomenology could be reconciled with Catholicism.[26] Some authors have argued that Wojtyla influenced philosophical anthropology.[27][lower-alpha 1]

In the 20th century, other important contributors and influences to philosophical anthropology have been Paul Häberlin (1878–1960), Martin Buber (1878–1965),[20] E.R. Dodds (1893–1979), Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002), Eric Voegelin (1901–85), Hans Jonas (1903–93), Josef Pieper (1904–97), Hans-Eduard Hengstenberg (1904–98), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80), Joseph Maréchal (1878–1944), Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–61), Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005), René Girard (1923–2015), Alasdair MacIntyre (1929–), Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002), Hans Blumenberg, Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), Emerich Coreth (1919–2006), Leonardo Polo (1926–2013).

Anthropology of interpersonal relationships

A large focus of philosophical anthropology is also interpersonal relationships, as an attempt to unify disparate ways of understanding the behaviour of humans as both creatures of their social environments and creators of their own values. It analyses also the ontology that is in play in human relationships – of which intersubjectivity is a major theme. Intersubjectivity is the study of how two individuals, subjects, whose experiences and interpretations of the world are radically different understand and relate to each other.

Recently anthropology has begun to shift towards studies of intersubjectivity and other existential/phenomenological themes. Studies of language have also gained new prominence in philosophy and sociology due to language's close ties with the question of intersubjectivity.

Michael D. Jackson's study of intersubjectivity

The academic Michael D. Jackson is another important philosophical anthropologist. His research and fieldwork concentrate on existential themes of "being in the world" (Dasein) as well as interpersonal relationships. His methodology challenges traditional anthropology due to its focus on first-person experience. In his most well known book, Minima Ethnographica which focuses on intersubjectivity and interpersonal relationships, he draws upon his ethnographic fieldwork in order to explore existential theory.

In his latest book, Existential Anthropology, he explores the notion of control, stating that humans anthropomorphize inanimate objects around them in order to enter into an interpersonal relationship with them. In this way humans are able to feel as if they have control over situations that they cannot control because rather than treating the object as an object, they treat it as if it is a rational being capable of understanding their feelings and language. Good examples are prayer to gods to alleviate drought or to help a sick person or cursing at a computer that has ceased to function.

See also


  1. K. Wojtyla's anthropological works: K. Wojtyla (1993). Love and Responsibility. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. ISBN 0-89870-445-6.; K. Wojtyla (1979). The Acting Person: A Contribution To Phenomenological Anthropology. Springer. ISBN 90-277-0969-6.


  1. Fikentscher (2004) pp.74, 89
  2. Cassirer (1944)
  3. Husserl, Edmund. Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness. Tr. James S. Churchill. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1964, 21.
  4. Heidegger, Being and Time Trs. Macquarrie & Robinson. New York: Harpers, 1964. 171. Articulating on how "Being-in-the-world" is described through thinking about seeing: "The remarkable priority of 'seeing' was noticed particularly by Augustine, in connection with his Interpretation of concupiscentia." Heidegger, quoting the Confessions: "Seeing belongs properly to the eyes. But we even use this word 'seeing' for the other senses when we devote them to cognizing... We not only say, 'See how that shines', ... 'but we even say, 'See how that sounds'".
  5. Gianni (1965), pp. 148–49.
  6. Hendrics (1954), p. 291.
  7. 1 2 Massuti, p.98.
  8. Augustine, Aurelius de Hippo, De cura pro mortuis gerenda CSEL 41, 627 [13–22]; PL 40, 595: Nullo modo ipsa spernenda sunt corpora. (...) Haec enim non-ad ornamentum vel adiutorium, quod adhibetur extrinsecus, sed ad ipsam naturam hominis pertinent; Contra Faustum, 22.27; PL 44,418.
  9. Augustine, Aurelius de Hippo, Enarrationes in psalmos, 143, 6; CCL 40, 2077 [46] – 2078 [74]); De utilitate ieiunii, 4, 4–5; CCL 46, 234–35.
  10. Augustine, Aurelius de Hippo, De quantitate animae 1.2; 5.9
  11. Augustine, Aurelius de Hippo, De quantitate animae 13.12: Substantia quaedam rationis particeps, regendo corpori accomodata.
  12. On the free will (De libero arbitrio) 2.3.7–6.13
  13. Mann, p. 141–142
  14. El concepto del substantia segun san Agustin, pp. 305–350.
  15. De ordine, II, 11.31; CCL 29, 124 [18]; PL 32,1009; De quantitate animae, 25, 47–49; CSEL 89, 190–194; PL 32, 1062–1063
  16. Couturier (1954), p. 543
  17. Apostolopoulou, Georgia The Problem of Religion in Helmuth Plessner's Philosophical Anthropology, in Reimer, A. James and Siebert, Rudolf J. (1992) The Influence of the Frankfurt school on contemporary theology: critical theory and the future of religion, pp.42–66. Quotation from p.49:
    Philosophical anthropology is a kind of thought arising in times of crisis. The main anthropologists, Max Scheler and Helmuth Plessner, share the same opinion [that it] has appeared as a consequence of the shaking of the Middle Age's order, the roots of which were Greek tradition and Christian religion.
  18. Thomas Sturm, Kant und die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (Paderborn: Mentis, 2009).
  19. 1 2 Grolier (1981) The Encyclopedia Americana, Volume 21 p. 768
  20. 1 2 Buber, Martin (1943), Das Problem des Menschen [The Problem of Man] (in German).
  21. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Poolla Tirupati Raju (1966) The concept of man: a study in comparative philosophy p. 490
    Feuerbach interpreted philosophical anthropologism as the summary of the entire previous development of philosophical thought. Feuerbach was thus the father of the comprehensive system of anthropological philosophy.
  22. Judith Deutsch Kornblatt, Richard F. Gustafson (1996) Russian religious thought p. 140 quotatoin:
    In modern thought, according to Buber, Feuerbach was the most important contributor to philosophical anthropology, next to Kant, because he posited Man as the exclusive object of philosophy...
  23. Fischer (2006) p.64, quotation:
    Ende der 1920er Jahre prominent geworden, weil damals aus verschiedenen Denkrich- tungen und Motiven die Frage nach dem Menschen in die Mitte der philosophischen Problematik rückte. Die philosophische Anthropologie wurde so zu einer neuen Disziplin in der Philosophie neben den eingeführten Subdisziplinen der Erkenntnistheorie, der Ethik, der Metaphysik, der Ästhetik
  24. 1 2 Wilkoszewska, Krystyna (2004) Deconstruction and reconstruction: the Central European Pragmatist Forum, Volume 2, p.129
  25. 1 2 Schilpp, ed. (1967), The philosophy of Martin Buber, p. 73, It was a neo-Kantian philosopher, Ernst Cassirer, who perhaps more than anyone else contributed to the definition and development of philosophical anthropology in recent decades. Particularly relevant here is Cassirer's conception of man as a symbolizing and mythologizing animal.
  26. Tymieniecka, Anna-Teresa, Phenomenology world-wide, p. 487.
  27. Köchler, Hans (1982), "The Phenomenology of Karol Wojtyla. On the Problem of the Phenomenological Foundation of Anthropology", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 42: 326–34.


Further reading

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