Project (2010-2012)

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

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.