Helmuth Plessner was a child of the German Empire. He was born the son of a physician in 1892 in Wiesbaden. He entered university in 1912, studying zoology and philosophy in Heidelberg, Berlin, and Goettingen. Plessner undertook the balancing act of studying the “physiology of starfish” by day and writing his first philosophical work on the metaphysics of the “scientific idea” by night. In his development as a philosopher, Plessner drew mainly on the philosopher and biologist Hans Driesch, neo-Kantian philosophers such as Wilhelm Windelband, Emil Lask, and Max Weber, and phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. His experience of revolutionary politics in postwar Bavaria and his engagement with the modern visual arts (Kandinsky) also shaped his thinking. After his habilitation in 1920, Plessner was hired as associate professor of philosophy at the newly founded Cologne University. In addition to his own writings, Plessner made his mark with a noted journal, Philosophischer Anzeiger (published from 1925 through 1930), which championed the “cooperation of philosophy with the individual sciences.” The contacts he made through this journal propelled him into the epicenter of German philosophy. His productive interactions with Max Scheler, Nicolai Hartmann, Martin Heidegger, and Georg Misch contributed to Plessner’s own successful breakthrough with his inception of philosophical anthropology—one that, however, brought with it the collateral damage of personal offense and disappointment. During the final years of the Weimar Republic, he pursued a great variety of interests, including, for example, the Bauhaus, Karl Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge, and the political theory of Carl Schmitt.
Dismissed from his position in 1933 due to his father’s Jewish descent, Plessner, after a detour via Turkey, found asylum in the Netherlands thanks to his friend, the animal psychologist F.J.J. Buytendijk. Under difficult circumstances, Plessner taught sociology in Groningen beginning in 1936, but Germany’s invasion of Holland in 1940 put him in danger again. Plessner survived by going underground with the help of Dutch friends and students. He was able to resume his work when the war ended. In 1946, the University of Groningen appointed him chair of philosophy. By way of Buytendijk, Plessner’s philosophical anthropology came to have an indirect influence on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology.
In 1951, after having spent seventeen years in exile, and now sixty years of age, Plessner returned to Germany to accept the newly founded chair of sociology at Goettingen. That same year he married Monika Tintelnot, who adopted his last name. Plessner, who brought some cosmopolitanism with him upon his return to what was a still isolated Germany, took active part in the academic community. He helped build the sociology department in Goettingen, taught philosophy, and at the request of Adorno and Horkheimer participated as a managing staff member at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. In Goettingen he promoted the development of the sociology of sports and initiated comprehensive empirical research in the sociology of higher education and community. During his presidencies of both the German Society of Sociology and the German Society of Philosophy, Plessner had to work to bring together, and, in some cases, establish necessary boundaries between, emigrants who had returned and those who had stayed in Germany during the Third Reich. He had to perform the same balancing act with regard to divergent philosophical schools.
Plessner was not only a great inspiration for the sociology of his time; in his exchanges with biologists like Adolf Portmann, he also introduced philosophical anthropology as an academic discipline. At the same time he had numerous intellectual clashes with his antagonist yet fellow philosophical anthropologist Arnold Gehlen. These debates made philosophical anthropology increasingly attractive for members of the younger generation such as Juergen Habermas and Odo Marquard. In addition, Plessner actively engaged with existentialism and critical theory. For all these reasons Plessner was, beyond his circle of students, a leading figure of the awakening mind of the German Federal Republic. After his retirement, Plessner was the first holder of the Theodor Heuss Professorship at the New School for Social Research in New York. This professorship had been established in return for the institute’s support for German academic exiles during the Third Reich. Plessner’s position there led to a productive engagement with phenomenological and interpretative sociology in the tradition of Alfred Schuetz (Peter L. Berger, Thomas Luckmann).
In the mid-Sixties, when Plessner was spending his retirement in Switzerland, he was surprisingly offered another teaching assignment, this time by the University of Zurich. He taught philosophy there for the next several years, amazing his young students with his openness to new ideas, while at the same time continuing to develop the work he had set out in the 1920s. Plessner continued to publish until 1975. His colleagues appreciated him for his agile curiosity and his personal and noetic charm. At the end of his life, Plessner suffered a long illness, but still lived to see the publication of his collected works by Suhrkamp Verlag just before he died in Goettingen in 1985.