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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 critique of Husserl. Plessner interprets Husserl’s (1998) transcendental turn as an attempt to keep the phenomenological method from becoming arbitrary. In principle, Plessner points out, any object could be subjected to phenomenological description. The phenomenology of the carpet is, in principle, of equal value as the phenomenology of death. While intuition tells us that the latter is of greater significance than the former, this can no longer be substantiated by the phenomenological method (cf. Plessner 1985, 143 ff.). This is where Plessner introduces his notion of critical disciplining, according to which not everything merits phenomenological observation equally but only that which can be considered relevant according to the theory of life. Here Plessner explicitly rejects Husserl’s subject-oriented transcendental turn (cf. also Plessner [1932] 1981). Instead of placing the subject at the center as the condition of the possibility of knowledge, Plessner gives priority to the object. So, for him, it is a matter of determining the conditions that must be given on the side of the object in order for it to be recognizable as an object with a particular set of characteristics. This theoretical turn distinguishes Plessner’s approach from other phenomenological authors who use Husserl’s notion of mundanization to develop further Husserl’s (1998) transcendental perspective. Besides Husserl (1970) himself, this includes such thinkers as Merleau-Ponty (1962) and Sartre (1992), who understand the lived body as a mundanization (or making worldly) of the transcendental subject—thus maintaining a subject-oriented perspective. Plessner, on the other hand, comprehends the lived body (Leib) as a specific manifestation of animate bodies (Körper ). He understands the lived body as a subjective phenomenon that must be grasped as such by approaching it from the outside.

The Living Body as Evolved Manifestation of Life

Given the priority of the object, Plessner does not ask what conditions the lived body or a bodily consciousness must meet in order for a world to appear to it but, rather, how something must appear so that it appears as [End Page 277] a lived body. Plessner treats neither vitality nor bodily consciousness as a self-evident starting point for study. Instead he starts out with the hypothesis that animate things differ from inanimate ones by virtue of the specific way in which they delimit themselves from their surroundings and hence their specific form of independence from their surroundings. That, in a nutshell, is the theory of positionality. Plessner uses this theory to develop ways in which vitality, being a lived body (Leiblichkeit), consciousness, and personhood can be understood as specific and distinct positional conditions (Sachverhalte).

Plessner explains the independence of both inanimate things and living beings by pointing to the self-referentiality of individual encountered entities. Even inanimate things appear as independent from perceiving consciousness only because they are constituted by an internal referential context of individuation. This referential context, according to Plessner, must be distinguished from the concrete form in which a physical thing appears. In the perception of the form, the individual elements spontaneously come together to create a whole, a unified form (Gestalteinheit). If, however, the unity of the thing were to be equated with its unified form, it would be impossible to combine different forms into one whole. Only by distinguishing the two can we understand form transformation (Gestaltwandel) and change.

Plessner analyzes change by looking at the example of cigar smoking. First the smoker holds the cigar in his hand, then he smokes it, and finally there is nothing left but a little pile of ashes. If there was only the unified form and not the overarching unity of the thing, which creates a whole out of the two gestalt phenomena cigar and ash, it would be impossible to say that the ash is the ash of the cigar (cf. Plessner 1975, 84–85). The unity of the thing is guaranteed as long as the point of unity, which turns the different appearances into appearances of something, remains distinct from the appearing form.

Plessner describes the relationship between the point of unity, which does not appear, and the individual appearances as one between a core and sides with properties that relate to each other in a divergence of direction from inside and outside. The sides with properties refer to an inside, the core, around which they are constructed and which does not appear itself. The core is not directly accessible but refers to the appearing exterior. The fundamental self-referentiality of the thing can be analyzed phenomenologically but is not positively ascertainable in the same way as are individual [End Page 278] qualities, such as color or shape, that appear as properties of the thing. The self-referentiality of the thing as it relates to its core can only be described as something that is distinct from its gestalt. Neither the core of the thing nor the referential context of the sides with properties can be accessed by the senses. Even if one tried to cut open the thing, one would only ever find new gestalt appearances of the thing but never the core itself.

“Thing” in this context means a structuring principle of physically ascertainable appearances. Plessner regards this structuring principle as something that belongs to that which appears, which is a thing insofar as it appears in accordance with this structure. As a thing an appearing object is independent of consciousness inasmuch as it evades consciousness. A thing cannot be completely perceived but, rather, directs perceiving observation around itself, to its sides with properties that refer to it—the thing.

Plessner develops the theory in form of a dialectical deduction, whose principle lies in the following. The theory begins with a hypothesis about the state (Sachverhalt) of “vitality” (Lebendigkeit). This state is characterized by a distinctive self-referentiality understood to be the condition of vitality. A dialectical deduction of a more complex form of the living involves the self-referential structure for carrying out life (Vollzugsstruktur) reflexively relating to itself again. The resulting more complex categorial structure of the living constitutes the outcome of the dialectical deduction.

Plessner (1975, 127 ff.) formulates his starting hypothesis of the specific independence of living things based on the, as it were, passive self-referentiality of the thing. When one is looking at an inanimate object, the sides with properties send the observer to the core, to the nonappearing inside, which in turn points to the sides with properties, the exterior of the thing. The exterior sides of the inanimate thing are its boundary contours. In contrast, the living thing is distinguished by the fact that it executes this self-referential structure itself. For Plessner this is the decisive leap that differentiates the phenomenon of the living from the phenomenon of the inanimate. The boundary contours of the living thing are not only its visible exterior sides but also evidence that the living thing, in a specific sense, has its own boundary.

In the case of the living body, the boundary has a twofold function. The living body uses its boundary to close itself off from its surroundings, to make itself into its own self-organizing domain. At the same time, the living body relates to its surroundings by means of its boundary. This boundary allows it to independently enter into contact with its surroundings. [End Page 279] Plessner calls this boundary phenomenon (Grenzsachverhalt) positionality. The positionality of the body, then, is made evident not in the isolated body but only in the body in relation to its surroundings. A living thing that sets its own boundaries is its own self-regulating domain in relation to its surroundings. As regards material phenomena, the question is: Do bodies and their relations to their surroundings exhibit observable phenomena that can be understood as an indication of this kind of independent realization of boundaries? In order to explore this question, Plessner (cf. 1975, chap. 4) undertakes a phenomenological analysis of metabolic processes, the organic differentiation of living bodies, as well as of the processes of development, aging, and dying.

Building on the notion of boundary realization, Plessner expands further his theory of positionality by systematically developing the execution or performance of self-referentiality and the resulting complexity in the body’s relationship to its surroundings. The simply living thing distinguishes itself from its surroundings by creating boundaries and enters into contact with its surroundings by means of these boundaries. This is intensified by the fact that the living thing not only distinguishes itself but itself is involved with performing or realizing its own boundary. The living thing thus relates to the fact that it relates to its surroundings by means of its boundary. On that condition, there can be different ways for the living thing to relate to its surroundings. Plessner makes use here of the classical differentiation between “perceiving” and “effecting,” whereby effecting includes every form of expressive behavior. In this case the living being has the task of distinguishing between its different ways of relating to its surroundings and of coordinating these different ways with each other. Plessner refers to such a being as a self. If a living being is a self, the complexity of the structure of its surroundings changes. The living self is confronted with objects perceived in relation to the self’s own actions: things that can be taken hold of, grabbed, or bitten; sometimes it also encounters things that themselves are able to run, bite, or grab. A living self that perceives its surroundings in this way and relates to these surroundings based on its perceptions must be able, on the one hand, to distinguish between what it perceives and its own actions and, on the other, to mediate its own perception and activity (Plessner 1975, 230 ff.).

Plessner refers to the overall structure of the self and its relationship to its surroundings as centric positionality. A being whose relationship to its environment is that complex is conscious of its surroundings and can [End Page 280] behave intelligently. It can learn from its experiences and adapt its behavior to a changing environment (Plessner 1975, 272 ff.). The things with which the living self is confronted can include things with their own perception and activity. How to deal with such givens in the environment can also be learned.

At this point I would like to emphasize again that the positional structure as such is made evident not in the isolated body but only in the relationship of the living self to the things in its environment. The lived body is part of this positional structure. For Plessner it is the means by which the self relates to its surroundings. The self’s corporal body (Körper) is not an ontically separate thing from its lived body (Leib), and it impacts on the different ways that the self’s lived body relates to its surroundings. The lived body is for the self the means of perception and functioning, and the self feels the condition of its body in the sense of being hungry, in pain, and so on. The positional structure as a whole refers not only to the lived body but also to the structure of the environment that can be given for a lived body.

The further development of the theory follows the same principle. The reflexive structure of centric positionality is again reflexively related back to itself. This modifies the execution/performance of the bodily self as well as the structure of its surroundings. The “ex” in ex-centric positionality thus refers to an individual self’s carrying out its life by relating back to itself. Since, however, it is a matter not just of the individual bodily self but also of the creation of relationships with its environment, the “ex” refers also to the things in the environment and the possible other selves contained in them.

The enacting or execution (Vollziehen) of the bodily self performs the mediation of the self’s sense of its own condition, perception, and activity. If this enactment is related to itself, it creates a distance to itself in the execution of this enactment. In the execution of the mediation of perception and activity, the bodily self once again refers back to itself. This necessarily means that it is not completely absorbed in the execution or performance but maintains a certain distance to it. It is this distance or being somehow outside that Plessner (cf. 1975, 292) refers to as ex-centric. An ex-centric self not only experiences itself and its environment but also experiences itself experiencing.

There is a corresponding structural transformation for the environment. As noted above, the bodily self can be confronted by things that relate to its own actions. These things can include things that perceive and are independently active. If the overall structure of centric positionality [End Page 281] becomes reflexive, this means that the structure of the environment as a whole also refers back to itself. This is the condition for an ex-centric self to have the possibility of experiencing other ex-centric selves in its environment. If this is the case, a self can recognize itself as a self facing another self. This means that if a living being’s relationship to its environment is ex-centric, it can occur in this relationship that a self perceives another self and realizes that it finds itself as a self facing another self. Thus selves positioned ex-centrically have access to a distinct domain of relationships that differ in character from the relationships to things. Plessner refers to this domain as the “Shared World (Mitwelt)” and to beings that relate to each other in the Shared World as persons.

The Theory of the Shared World (Mitwelt)

The theory of the Shared World (Mitwelt) differs from theories about the existence of the other ego in that it does not start with the ego and then attempt to use it to explain the existence of the other ego. The ex-centric relationship to the structure of centric positionality rather means that it is given from the beginning that for a self that experiences itself as a self, other ex-centric selves are always possible. An ex-centric self experiences itself from the beginning as a member of the Shared World. This constitutes a fundamentally different approach than those theories of the lived body that begin by reflecting on the subjectively experienced ego-endowed lived body. These theories presuppose a body-subject (Leibsubjekt ) that can reflect on itself and then in a second step enters into a relationship with the other. They begin with the ego-endowed lived body and then develop from it ways in which the bodily ego can encounter another bodily ego. Since Plessner understands ex-centric positionality as a becoming-reflexive of the overall structure of centric positionality, in his work the Shared World is co-original with ex-centric positionality. The self experiencing itself at the same time experiences itself as a member of a Shared World.

This concept of the Shared World has two other important characteristics. First, the Shared World has an open structure, which means that it is not clear from the outset who is a member of the Shared World. It is thus an open question what entities belong as persons to a particular historical sphere of the Shared World. In this sense it is possible to speak of a “contingency of the Shared World.” Second, the Shared World has priority over the [End Page 282] given fact of one’s own living body and the given fact of the outside world. One’s relationship to oneself and to the outside world is mediated by the Shared World.

The contingency of the Shared World derives from the fact that the theory does not define from the outset who can be a member of the Shared World. In other words, it is not determined from the beginning who belongs to the sphere of persons and what is excluded from this sphere.

Plessner writes, “The assumption of the existence of other egos is not the transference of one’s own mode of being, the way in which a human being lives for himself, onto other things only corporeally present to him—in other words, an extension of his personal sphere of being—but rather a restriction and limitation of the sphere of being that was originally not localized and resists localization to ‘human beings’” (1975, 301). This limitation to the category of “human beings,” he argues, is the result of a “process of disenchantment brought about by rational culture” (1975, 301). Accordingly Plessner distinguishes between the Shared World (Mitwelt) in general, the “we-sphere,” and different “groups or communities [historically] separated from the we-sphere that could refer to themselves as ‘we’” (1975, 303). The Shared World as a we-sphere in general is the condition for being able to recognize oneself in one’s position as a member of a Shared World (cf. Plessner 1975, 303). This must be distinguished from the fact that persons see themselves as members of a particular, historically differentiated Shared World. Thus every historical Shared World is characterized by the way in which it is limited and how it defines the sphere of possible persons.

Plessner’s theory of the Shared World (Mitwelt) only allows us to conclude that it is necessary to draw a line between persons and other entities. It gives no indication of the concrete way this process of drawing borders takes place. My conclusion is that social institutions have to be created in order to historically and concretely guarantee the borders of the Shared World (Lindemann 2005, 2009b).

The second characteristic of the Shared World (Mitwelt) is that it functions as the structuring condition of self-awareness as well as of the perception of the outside world. The theory of the Shared World founds the notion of the “social constitution of nature”—the title chosen by Jan Beaufort (2000) for his study of Plessner.1 We can only understand this argument if we consider the correlative changes in bodily selves and the environment surrounding them that occur as a result of the ex-centric-reflexive turn from centric positionality, namely, bodily selves become persons. They relate to [End Page 283] each other and to themselves mediated by others. In other words, their relationship to themselves, to other persons, and to the things in the outside world is mediated by other persons. Plessner (1975, 304) also refers to the fact of this mediatedness as Geist (mind or spirit). It is the Shared World sphere of Geist that ensures the constitution of an outside world.

These characteristics of the Shared World give rise to new questions about the connection between bodily experience and the Shared World. Plessner’s concept leads us to ask how the Shared World is limited in concrete historical terms, as well as whether and how the structure of bodily experience is related to the particular historical structure of the Shared World.

The Boundaries of the Modern Shared World (Mitwelt): The Anthropological Square

Turning to European history with these questions in mind leads to an unexpected discovery: the assumption that only living human beings can be considered social persons is a recent historical development. Premodern societies regarded not only human beings as legitimate social persons but also plants, animals, and gods. If we base our understanding of the premodern world on our modern assumptions according to which only living human beings can be legitimate persons, we see that world as one made by human beings. As such, human beings, from our perspective, can also attribute or deny other beings the (derivative) status of social person. The alternative would be to take seriously nonmodern societies’ historical understanding of themselves by acknowledging that the sphere of possible actors was or is defined differently in these societies than in modern Western societies (Lindemann 2005; 2009a, chap. 3; 2009b).

We can understand the modern Western human being in terms of a four-way boundary, which I refer to as the “anthropological square” (Lindemann 2009a, chap. 3; 2009b). For one, there is the question of when a human being is alive enough to enjoy the specific protection rights established by human rights law. The question can be posed this way: At what point is a human being alive enough to have a right to life? This leads to the well-known boundary-definition problems surrounding the question of when life begins. What status does an embryo, a fetus, a premature baby, or a newly born child have? Along the same lines are the questions arising at the end of life: At what point is a human being no longer alive [End Page 284] enough to be considered a person accorded protection rights? The common boundary questions asked in regard to the end of life are: When is a human being dead? When can a treatment be discontinued? Both of these boundary definitions concern borders that can be crossed. In the case of the beginning of life, something that is not yet a human person becomes one. In the case of the end, a human person becomes something that is no longer a human person: a corpse. We can also identify two borders that cannot be crossed: the human being/machine distinction and the human being/animal distinction.

I would like to propose that the human being since the eighteenth century has come to be understood in terms of these four border definitions as an earthly, natural being. It is important to recognize that these are not unequivocally defined borders but have rather been contested from the beginning. The anthropological square does not describe fixed boundaries but, rather, dimensions in which the borders of human life are drawn and argued over. In this historical period, the human being has come to be understood as a living, earthly being who begins to live at an identifiable point in time for a limited duration, is not on the same level as an animal, and is not a machine. Other distinctions have become meaningless for the general understanding of the human (such as the human/God or human/demon distinction). This anthropological differentiation is decisive for modernity in that it makes it possible to draw the borders of the social that are binding for modern society. This understanding of the human is the cognitive condition for being able to speak of the “human” in a general sense, meaning all human beings without reference to particularities of class, culture, or religious relationship to the beyond.

The biologically living human being can thus be considered the border institution of modernity. This institution determines the borders of the sphere of possible persons by distinguishing between a living human being and other entities. The question arises as to whether there is historical evidence of a connection between the limitation of the Shared World (Mitwelt) and the structure of bodily experience.

The Modernization of the Body

The theory of ex-centric positionality leads to the assumption that the structure of bodily experience is also constituted by the Shared World [End Page 285] (Mitwelt). In this sense we would understand bodily experience as the subjective execution of the social positions mediated by the Shared World. In order to develop this idea further, we must first explicate more precisely the concept of the lived body on the level of ex-centric positionality. On the level of centric positionality, the lived body is a self insofar as it has itself as a means of relating to its environment. The lived body is understood here as means, which implies two things. For one, a centrically organized body can have itself, meaning that it can be aware of itself. This is the condition for being able to feel one’s own impulses, pain, or fear. For another, the living body is the means for becoming aware of the environment and affecting it. On the level of ex-centric positionality, the structure of having oneself is related back to oneself again: one experiences the experienced possession of one’s own lived body and experiences one’s experience of the environment. The experience of feeling one’s own lived body appears as the experience of the actual state of an ex-centric self and as the experience of one’s bodily relationship to one’s environment. In the following, I will present two examples that demonstrate that this is a productive perspective for material, historical research: Hermann Schmitz’s (1965) analysis of the experience of the lived body described in the Iliad and Barbara Duden’s (1991) and Thomas Laqueur’s (1992) studies on the gendered body.

The structure of bodily experience developed by Schmitz (1965, §79) in his analysis of the semantics of the Iliad must strike modern readers as extremely alien. It is a form of experience presumably belonging to a period before the changes Jaspers (1953) refers to as the axial age. The heroes described in the Iliad do not act in a way that would suggest the existence of an ego with central control of its body and actions. Corresponding to the absence of an ego, there is also the lack of a word referring to the body as a whole. There are only plural forms that refer to a number of bodily members without thereby describing a unity (Schmitz 1965, 443). The body as biological unit does not appear in the Iliad at all, only individually felt bodily members. These are not, as noted, controlled by a center; on the contrary, it is the members that act. The feet carry the hero. According to Schmitz there is also no mention in the Iliad of psychological processes that could be described as incorporeal or distinct from the body. There are, however, very precise descriptions of inclinations—bodily states that can impel or restrain the hero: an urge to fight spreading in the intestines or in the diaphragm area, the phrenes; hands quivering on a spear. These kinds of drives are felt, as it were, in a decentralized, bodily way. There is no central [End Page 286] drive, only drive centers felt in the body and spread out all over it. Gods can intervene into this decentralized living body as external powers; they can refresh tired limbs or send an angry impulse or battle frenzy into a bodily region, such as the breast, the diaphragm area, or the intestines. The felt impulse then leads the hero’s bodily members to act.

Understanding these descriptions of a decentralized living body as a description of lived bodily experience reveals to us a world very different from our own. The sphere of possible persons is not limited to living human beings. Gods and other powers are generally recognized as social persons. Their intervention into the living bodies of earthly beings is not seen as particularly surprising. Bodily experience is open in the sense that external powers can intervene into it. This openness corresponds with a phenomenon that from today’s perspective looks like a lack of central control. The dispersed bodily drive centers act independently. They are not coordinated and do not seem to be in the service of the whole person.

Conditions such as these occur in modern societies as well. They are not, however, recognized as legitimate forms of experience but are pathologized. Human persons with experiences such as those described above are categorized as abnormal. An attempt is made to identify the cause of the illness, whether it be psychological or neurological. In any case an explanation is required that is compatible with the assumption that only biologically alive human beings can be legitimate social persons and that human beings normally develop a centralized entity responsible for their actions. As a rule, the lived body of a modern human being should be adequately shielded against intervention by external powers. Only then can bodily experience make evident that only living human beings can be social persons. The reverse is most likely also true: only bodily experience that is open in a specific way can make evident that there are gods that can act effectively as external powers.

The separation of the religious from the nonreligious appears to be a characteristic aspect of the evolution of society and religion. This leads to a tendency to exclude from everyday life the direct influence of actors from the beyond. A first step in this direction seems to have been taken in the era Jaspers (1953) refers to as the axial age, when the influence of actors from the beyond came to be restricted to the religious realm. Arbitrary powers from the beyond could now hardly interfere in earthly events (Luhmann 1984, 21 ff.). One aspect of this development was the emergence of monotheistic religions, such as Christianity in Europe. In Christianity, the God-given [End Page 287] order determines who can be considered a personal actor and in what way. Human beings, animals, and plants as well as angels and devils or other beings are integrated in a unified, hierarchical system. In cases of doubt, the local representatives of the hierarchical order have to decide who can be considered a social person (cf. Lindemann 2009a, chap. 3; 2009b).

As concerns Christianity, it is clear that the one God gave rise to the immortal soul as an inner-worldly correlate, which then came to be regarded as a controlling entity. Within this framework, a person can be understood as a unity and as such have a good or a bad will guiding her body from a central position and can be held responsible. It was in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that the related notion of individual responsibility and guilt gained acceptance, in European secular law (Achter 1951). It remained undetermined, however, what entities could be considered to have free will. In Europe between the thirteenth and the first half of the eighteenth century it was considered possible, for instance, for animals to commit a criminal act out of ill will (Berkenhoff 1937; Evans 1906; Lindemann 2009a, chap. 3).

All in all, we can expect a surge of this kind in the development of the ego to be accompanied by a change in the structure of bodily experience, significantly differing from the structure described by Schmitz in the context of preclassical Greece. We can also observe a tendency toward closing off bodily experience against interference by powers from the beyond. This seems to have taken place by gearing the structure of bodily experience to the form of the visible body. The fact that the structure of bodily experience was increasingly oriented toward the visible body can be shown by observing the process through which the uteruses of European women became “fixed” in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (cf. Laqueur 1992, 110–11).

Anatomy scholars were still despairing well into the seventeenth century that despite all educational efforts, one could still hear nonsense about a wandering uterus. The process was a slow one. Uteruses had already started “settling down” in the sixteenth century, as anatomical illustrations started becoming more widespread. It was evidently the illustrations that succeeded in calming down the uteruses. Information that already existed in a spoken form did not suffice to modify the physical experience. This leads to the following hypothesis: Knowledge—in a concrete or vivid form—about the objectified body and knowledge of the experienced body have a relationship of reciprocal meaning. The visible and tangible gestalt of [End Page 288] the objectified body determines how the lived body is experienced, directly and without any reflection or propositional knowledge. To experience one’s own body in this way means that a person’s objectified body is his or her experienced reality. The experienced body thus carries the meaning, and the objectified body is the meaning itself. Conversely, knowledge about the objectified body tells the experienced body which form it should assume. In other words, having knowledge of what kind of objectified body I have means to me that the embodied self knows which form the experienced body should have. The reflexive relationship between objectified body and lived body is demonstrated to be a normative meaning relationship (cf., in more detail, Lindemann 1996). Experiences that contradict this rule, such as the above-mentioned “wandering uterus,” became marginalized and disappeared.

In her historical studies on the experience of pregnancy, Barbara Duden shows the effort it required to bring the bodily experience of women into a form compatible with nineteenth- and twentieth-century biological knowledge. Only in modern society, as it became established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, do we find the view comprehensively held that the biological body and the events made visible within it are a universally binding form of experience. It is thus only true for modernity that the experienced and experiencing body is brought into a form closed off to the interference of actors from the beyond in a universally binding and effective way.


Plessner’s theory of the Shared World (Mitwelt) and the bodily experience it mediates leads to a new perspective for research in cultural history. It allows us to ask the following question: What is the connection between the concrete experience of other persons and bodily experience? By referring to examples from the history of bodily experience I have shown that the structure of bodily experience and the structure of the Shared World are intrinsically connected. If the Shared World also includes beings from the beyond, such as gods, in a more or less everyday way, there is a need for living bodies that are open for interventions by such powers. Only for embodied persons that are open in this way can there be evidence for the reality of beings from the beyond. Accordingly, forcing beings from the [End Page 289] beyond out of the everyday into the religious realm corresponds to a closing off of the living body against external interference. It appears as if the lived body as more or less completely closed off to powers from the beyond is a product of Western modernity. This closing off of the lived body seems to have taken place by increasingly orienting the structure of bodily experience toward the form of the visible and palpable, scientifically researchable body. The biological body became the form of experience of the lived body. Only that kind of lived body seems to be immune enough to intervention by external powers. In the modern period, any kind of sporadic opening of this closed-off body must be diverted to especially circumscribed areas of experience, such as those of religion.

Gesa Lindemann
Carl Von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg


1. Plessner wrote a very sympathetic introduction to the German translation of Berger and Luckmann’s book The Social Construction of Reality (1966).

Works Cited

Achter, Victor. 1951. Geburt der Strafe. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann.
Beaufort, Jan. 2000. Die gesellschaftliche Konstitution der Natur. Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann.
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