The Lived Human Body from the Perspective of the Shared World (Mitwelt)
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The Lived Human Body from the Perspective of the Shared World (Mitwelt)
Translated by Millay Hyatt

The lived body (Leib) in the phenomenological tradition tends to be thought as the living body of the acting and perceiving subject, which is then analyzed by way of subjective self-reflection. This is true for Husserl (1970) as well as for Merleau-Ponty (1962) and Sartre (1992). When, however, the lived body is made the starting point of analysis in this way, it becomes a general and thus transhistorical condition of experience, and it is only in a second step that social relations and historical formation can be inscribed into it.

Plessner’s concept of the lived body (Leib) differs in two ways from this view predominant in phenomenology. First, Plessner does not approach the lived body in terms of a reflection of subjective experience. Rather than taking as his object the lived body of an ego that experiences it, Plessner seeks to understand from the outside the fact that there is an ego that experiences his or her living body. Second, Plessner’s (1975) theory of ex-centric positionality regards the structure of bodily experience from the perspective of the Shared World (Mitwelt), that is to say, the relationship to the other. Thus the starting point of his analysis of experience is not the lived body but the lived body as shaped by the Shared World. In other words, the personal [End Page 275] relations of bodies to each other form the starting point of the analysis and not the individual lived body and its relationship to its environment.

In order to understand these modifications in the analytical treatment of the lived body, we must first reconstruct the methodological structure of Plessner’s theory and the way in which he conceives of the emergence of the Shared World in the context of his theory of ex-centric positionality. Next I will ask whether Plessner’s theoretical program can serve as a foundation for integrating social theory and the theory of the living body. In this discussion I will draw on Hermann Schmitz’s (1965) work on the history of bodily experience as well as on Barbara Duden’s (1991) and Thomas Laqueur’s (1992) work on the history of the body.

The Theory of Ex-centric Positionality

The key to understanding Plessner’s concept of the living body lies in his theory of positionality, which he developed in his book Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch (The Levels of the Organic and Man [1975]). The complex methodological construction of the theory is of particular importance (Beaufort 2000; Lindemann 2009a, chap. 2; Mitscherlich 2007). I will thus turn first to Plessner’s methodological approach of the “Levels” and then move on to his theory of the Shared World.

The Methodological Construction of the “Gradations of the Organic”

Plessner’s methodological approach combines a Kantian, critical perspective with a phenomenological and a hermeneutical one, with the goal of keeping his philosophical study of life as close as possible to scientific research. Plessner bases his theory of life, which he considers to have validity only if it can be substantiated with phenomena, on a phenomenological analysis of object perception (Dingwahrnehmung). He thus must also solve the problem of how to determine what is to be considered a phenomenon and how phenomena are to be related to the theory.

Plessner’s approach could be described as follows: he formulates a theory of the object to be treated. Since this theory is only to be considered valid if it can be empirically substantiated, he also has to provide a theory of observation and a theory of interpretation. According to Plessner’s understanding of methodology, phenomenological observation and description [End Page 276] have the status of a theory of observation. They determine how to observe the object. The hermeneutical process enters the picture once it is a matter of determining how to relate the observed phenomena to the theory of life (theory of interpretation [cf. Plessner 1975, chaps. 2–3]).

The theory of life itself takes on the function of critical disciplining, the relevance of which must be understood in the context of Plessner’s...