Philosophical Anthropology and Biology: Between History and Evolution

September 11, 2024 - September 13, 2024
University of Hradec Králové

Hradec Králové
Czech Republic

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The aim of the international workshop Philosophical Anthropology and Biology: Between History and Evolution is to find a new answer to the old question: who is the Human and what does it mean to be human? In what position is the Human in relation to other organisms on Earth? Can we philosophically think of the animal as a category, or do we need a nuanced approach to different species and entire taxa? How does the Umwelt term resonate with current approaches to the interaction between an organism and its environment? The basic framework for the relevant considerations will be the approaches of the leading thinkers of Philosophical Anthropology, who had an overlap with the biological disciplines, or whose disciplinary background was directly based on them (Plessner, Buytendijk, Portmann, Goldstein, Grene).

Philosophical anthropology as a specific paradigm was founded by a lecture given by Max Scheler in Darmstadt on the theme of Sonderstellung des Menschen (“The Special Position of the Human”) in 1927. The founders of this movement believed that while animals fully belong to the sphere of nature and their behavior is subject to firm rules, Human is characterized by the sphere of culture (associated with symbols, the use of language, morality), where free acts are possible, as opposed to instinctive behavior. At the same time, they wanted to distinguish themselves from the adherents of German idealist philosophy, which posited an unbridgeable gap between the human being and the natural world. Therefore, the goal of German philosophical anthropology was to stress the anthropological difference not through the identification of a specific ontological element, but through the determination of the qualitative difference that presents human’s relationship with the sphere of life. In other words, the human differs from the relational mode that characterizes other living beings and, in particular, animals. In this framework, many philosophers used Uexküll’s concept of Umwelt precisely to describe the operational context of animal being, that is, to elaborate the theoretical background from which to determine (by opposition) the human Sonderstellung. Uexküll’s thought, which is characterized by a substantial continuity between human and animal, was thus employed against his intentions to draw a clear distinction between the environmental constraint of animals (Umweltgebundenheit) and the openness to the world (Weltoffenheit) of humans. Similarly but not identically, Scheler, Plessner, Gehlen, Buytendijk and Portmann emphasized then the closed nature of animal environments, to which they opposed the human capacity to open up to the world.

During the second half of the 20th century, philosophical anthropology became a mainstream philosophical movement and, thanks to its interdisciplinary reach, it now plays a significant pedagogical role in university philosophy departments. At the same time, however, as it drew closer to other disciplines in the humanities, its links to biological sciences (the backgrounds of Plessner, Buytendijk, and Portmann were in academic biology) weakened, just as their development began to rapidly increase. An effort to update the foundations of philosophical anthropology in light of results from current comparative cognitive research was clearly shown in 2014 when the Helmuth Plessner Award was given to Michael Tomasello. Tomasello holds a naturalistic perspective, but as he includes the emergence of phenomena such as normativity and the use of symbols in natural history, his methodology does not exclude approaches from the humanities. However, the comparative cognitive project of searching for the anthropological difference has been questioned by certain representatives of cognitive ethology (de Waal), cultural primatology (Boesch), and biosemiotics (Magnus & Kull), through the phenomenon of animal cultures. In assessing the relevance of these objections, one must also consider that Uexküll’s concept of Umwelt, which is foundational to philosophical anthropology’s theory of life, came to be inspirational for both classical ethology and, in recent decades, for biosemiotics, which has gained significance in biological research. In the process, new potentials of this model have been revealed, as have new questions, and the interpretation of humans living in an “open world” and animals being closed in a species-specific environment has been increasingly questioned.

Based on this historical and theoretical background, the workshop Philosophical Anthropology and Biology: Between History and Evolution will create an interdisciplinary platform for discussing the intersections and tensions between philosophical anthropology, philosophical biology, and evolutionary approaches. The interdisciplinary focus of the workshop calls for a plurality of methodological approaches: a) the cultural-historical perspective of philosophical anthropology, b) evolutionary approaches going beyond neo-Darwinism (e.g. extended evolutionary synthesis, biosemiotics, evolutionary anthropology), c) empirical findings from developmental and comparative psychology, as well as cognitive ethology.

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