Vital Knowledge of Life

Vital Knowledge of Life: A Systematic Comparison of Helmuth Plessner and Georges Canguilhem

Thomas Ebke

Other involved Scholars: 

Hans-Peter Krüger (thesis advisor, University of Potsdam)

Cooperation Partners: 

University of Potsdam

This dissertation project systematically compared the historical epistemology of Georges Canguilhem (1904–95) with the philosophical anthropology of Helmuth Plessner (1892–1985). In so doing, the project explored a relationship between two poles that have never been related before: these two authors did not even know each other’s names. While the tradition pushed forward by Canguilhem under the name of a histoire des sciences continues to represent a uniquely French direction of thought, the current of a philosophical anthropology that was decisively shaped by Helmuth Plessner since the 1920s still reputed to be a development whose significance is restricted to the history of German thought in the twentieth century.

Against that background, Ebke’s project evolves the following thesis: Georges Canguilhem and Helmuth Plessner brought about, each in his own way, a structure that could be characterized as a vital knowledge of life. With diverse means, and on the basis of very different intentions, Plessner and Canguilhem complete three steps: first of all, they disclose the epistemic originality of life as opposed to what can be conceptualized as nature. Secondly, they elaborate a knowledge of life (a fact that allows them to differ from vitalisms of classical provenance: In both cases this refers to a specific type of rationality that is able to seize life as life. This rationality does not merge into the one practiced by the operative life sciences themselves, but acts as a corrective with regard to them. Third, and finally, Plessner and Canguilhem converge to the extent that both subject this knowledge of life to a peculiar turn into the vital: both thinkers show a way that would allow the knowledge of life to be described not only as an appropriate access to life, but as an expression of life. Within the structure of a vital knowledge of life, life takes on the double role of genitivus obiectivus and genitivus subiectivus.


  • Ebke, Thomas. Doppelaspekt des Lebens und Zwiefachheit der Physis: Ein systematischer Vergleich zwischen Helmuth Plessner und Martin Heidegger. München: Meidenbauer, 2008.
  • Ebke, Thomas. “Die Doppelaspektivität des Lebendigen und die Zwiefachheit der φύσις. Zum Ansatz eines Vergleichs zwischen Helmuth Plessners Philosophischer Anthropologie und Martin Heideggers seinsgeschichtlichem Denken.” Internationales Jahrbuch für Philosophische Anthropologie, Vol. 2: Philosophische Anthropologie im Aufbruch, eds.: Ralf Becker, Joachim Fischer, Matthias Schlossberger. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2008, pp. 294-309.
  • Ebke, Thomas. “Lebenswissenschaft bei Georges Canguilhem.” Philosophische Rundschau 55/3 (2008), pp. 252-261.