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1 Theory, Technology, Praxis

The Change in the Meaning of Theory

The Impact of Technology on Modern Man

The Primacy of Practice

The Task of a Comprehensive Science of Humankind

2 Apologia for the Art of Healing

3 The Problem of Intelligence

4 The Experience of Death

5 Bodily Experience and the Limits of Objectification

6 Between Nature and Art

7 Philosophy and Practical Medicine

8 On the Enigmatic Character of Health

9 Authority and Critical Freedom

10 Treatment and Dialogue

11 Life and Soul

12 Anxiety and Anxieties

13 Hermeneutics and Psychiatry



It has always been a particular occasion that has prompted me to speak about problems of health care and the art of medicine. The results are gathered together in this small volume. It should not be a cause for surprise if a philosopher who is neither a doctor nor feels himself to be a patient nevertheless wishes to participate in the discussion concerning the broad range of problems which arise in the field of health in the scientific and technological age. Nowhere else do the advances of modern research enter so directly into the sociopolitical arena of our time as they do in this area. The physics of our century has taught us that there are limits to what we can measure. And in my opinion this fact alone merits strong hermeneutical interest. This is even more the case when we are concerned not just with the quantifiability of nature but with living human beings. The limits of what can be measured and, above all, of what can be effected through human intervention reach deep into the realm of health care. Health is not something that can simply be made or produced. But what then is health itself? Can it become an object for scientific investigation in the same way that it becomes an object for the individual when the balance of health is disturbed? For the ultimate aim after all must be to regain one’s health and thereby to forget that one is healthy.

At the same time, the domain of science constantly extends into the realm of life itself. When it is a question of applying scientific knowledge to our own health, it is clear that we cannot be treated solely from the perspective of science. Here everyone has their own experiences and expectations. This is particularly true for all those disputed marginal areas of medical science such as pyschosomatic medicine, homoeopathy, so-called natural healing methods, hygienics, the pharmaceutical industry and all the ecological aspects involved. And this is also true for the care of the chronically ill and the old in the community. The ever growing costs involved here effectively demand that health care once again be acknowledged and recognized by the entire population as their shared responsibility.

The contributions offered here are not simply addressed to doctors, although most of them were originally presented to them as lectures, or again solely to patients, but rather to each and every one of us who must take care of our own health through the way in which we lead our lives. This particular responsibility which each person bears expands into a much broader dimension of responsibility in our highly complex civilization. Everywhere we find ourselves in possession of intensified human technical capacities which are as astounding as they are disturbing and the task is to integrate these new capacities into the social and political order as a whole. For centuries our entire culture has neglected to face up to these new demands. We have only to recall the humanitarian optimism which animated the eighteenth century and compare that with the general mood at the close of the twentieth century in this our age of mass civilization. We might think here of the immense increase in weapons technology and the destructive potential it harbours; or of the dangers posed to the conditions of human life by the technological progress from which we all benefit; and then again of the arms trade, which is as difficult to control as the drugs trade; and not least of the deluge of information which threatens to engulf our human faculty of judgement.

The enigma of health is just one small example from the range of problems which confront us. Everywhere it is a question of finding the right balance between our technical capacities and the need for responsible actions and choices. Within this whole area the problem of cultivating and caring for health represents something which directly concerns everyone. Thus we are forced to recognize that there are limits to what we can do, limits which are taught to us by illness and death. Care for our own health is an original manifestation of human existence.

Chapter 1 appeared originally in Neue Anthropologie, ed. Paul Vogler and H.-G. Gadamer, vol. 1 (New York and Stuttgart, 1972), pp. 9–37. It was slightly modified by the author for its first publication in English under the title ‘Theory, Technology, Practice: The Task of the Science of Man’, translated by Howard Brotz, in Social Research, vol. 44 (Fall 1977), New York. The publishers are grateful for permission to reproduce that translation here, where it appears with modifications.
Chapter 2 appeared originally in Festschrift für Paul Vogler (Leipzig, 1965) and was also published in vol. 1 of H.-G. Gadamer, Kleine Schriften (3 vols, Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1967), pp. 211–19.
Chapter 3 was given as a lecture to a meeting of the Gesamtverband Deutscher Nervenärtze in Wiesbaden in September 1963 and appeared as ‘Philosophische Bemerkungen zum Problem der Intelligenz’, Der Nervenarzt, vol. 7 (Heidelberg, 1964), pp. 281–6.
Chapter 4 was given as a radio broadcast for the Heidelberg studio of the Süddeutscher Rundfunk on 10 October 1983 and appeared in H.-G. Gadamer, Gesammelte Werke (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1985–), vol. 4, pp. 288–94.
Chapter 5 appeared in Festschrift aus Anlaß der Verleihung des Dr. Margit Egnér-Preises 1986 (Dr Margit Egnér Foundation, 1986), pp. 33–43.
Chapter 6 appeared in Viktor von Weizsäcker zum 100. Geburtstag (Schriften zur anthropologischen und inter disziplinar en Forschung in der Medizin, vol. 1), ed. Peter Hahn and Wolfgang Jacob (Berlin and Heidelberg, 1987), pp. 45–50.
Chapter 7 appeared in Das Philosophische und die praktische Medizin (Brücken von der Allgemeinmedizin zur Psychosomatik, vol. 4), ed. Helmut A. Zappe and Hansjakob Mattern (Berlin and Heidelberg, 1990), pp. 37–44.
Chapter 8 appeared in Erfahrungsheilkunde, Acta medica empirica: Zeitschrift für ärztliche Praxis, vol. 40, no. 11 (1991), pp. 804–8.
Chapter 9 appeared as ‘Über den Zusammenhang von Autorität und kritischer Freiheit’ in Schweizer Archiv für Neurologie, Neurochirurgie und Psychiatrie, vol. 133, no. 1 (Zurich, 1983), pp. 11–16.
Chapter 10 was given as a lecture to a conference on the work of the neurologist and psychiatrist Prince Alfred Auersperg in September 1989 in Oettingen.
Chapter 11 was given as a lecture at the University of Zurich in the summer of 1986.
Chapter 12 was given as a lecture to the Heidelberg Colloquium on the Problem of Anxiety chaired by Hermann Lang in 1990.
Chapter 13 was presented in an English translation before the Conference of Psychiatrists in San Francisco in 1989.


Theory, Technology, Praxis

The Change in the Meaning of Theory

‘There is no doubt that all our knowledge begins with experience.’ This famous beginning of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason surely holds too for the knowledge we possess of human beings. To begin with this includes the sum total of the ever progressing results of natural scientific research, which we call ‘Science’. But then there is the empirical knowledge of so-called practice that everyone accumulates in the midst of life – the doctor, cleric, educator, judge, soldier, politician, worker, employee, official. Not only in the professional sphere but also in everyone’s private and personal existence the experience that people develop out of the encounter with themselves and their fellow human beings continually grows. Beyond the domain of this experience, furthermore, there is that vast wealth of knowledge which flows towards each and every human being in the transmission of human culture – poetry, the arts as a whole, philosophy, historiography and the other historical sciences. To be sure, such knowledge is ‘subjective’, that is, largely unverifiable and unstable. It is, nevertheless, knowledge that science cannot ignore. As such, a rich tradition of this knowledge exists from time immemorial, from the days of Aristotle’s ‘practical philosophy’ to the Romantic and post-Romantic age of the so-called Geisteswissenschaften or human sciences. In contrast to the natural sciences, however, all these other sources of experience have a common quality: what we learn from them becomes experience only when actually integrated into the practical consciousness of acting human beings.

In this regard scientific experience possesses a unique status. The experience that can be validated as certain by the scientific method has the distinction of being in principle absolutely independent of any situation of action and of every integration into the context of action. This ‘objectivity’ conversely implies that it is able to serve every such possible context. It is precisely this ‘objectivity’ which was so quintessentially realized in modern science and which transformed broad expanses of the face of the earth into an artificial human environment. Now the experience which has been reworked by the sciences has, indeed, the merit of being verifiable and acquirable by everyone. But then, in addition, it raises the claim that on the basis of its methodological procedure it is the only certain experience, hence the only mode of knowing in which each and every experience is rendered truly legitimate. What we know from practical experience and the ‘extra-scientific’ domain must not only be subjected to scientific verification but also, should it hold its ground against this demand, belongs by this very fact to the domain of scientific research. There is in principle nothing which could not be subordinated in this manner to the competence of science.

That science not only arises from experience but according to its own methodology can be called ‘experiential’ or, more familiarly, ‘experimental science’ – an expression applicable to science only since the seventeenth century – was also articulated as a principle of modern philosophy. In the nineteenth century it led to the general conviction that people had entered into the age of ‘positive’ science and had left metaphysics behind. This conforms manifestly to philosophical ‘positivism’ in all its varieties, which rejects conceptual construction and pure speculation. But it also applies to those philosophical theories such as the Kantian which expressly point to the a priori elements in all experience. The philosophy of neo-Kantianism thus developed into a systematic theory of experience. The concept of the thing-in-itself, this ‘realistic’ element in the Kantian theory, was rejected by neo-Kantianism – as it was by Fichte and Hegel – as dogmatic, and reinterpreted as a concept marking the limit of the understanding. According to this theory, the object of the understanding poses an ‘endless task’ for definition.1 An endless task: that is the only epistemologically tenable meaning of givenness and object. This theory has the decided merit of demonstrating the hidden dogmatism of the sensualist foundation of knowledge. The so-called givenness of perception is not given at all but presents knowledge with its task. The only ‘fact’ that merits this name is the fact of science.

There were, to be sure, extratheoretical spheres of validity, such as the aesthetic, which demanded recognition and thus brought forth within the neo-Kantian theory of knowledge the theme of the irrational. But that made for no change in the systematic restriction of all empirical knowledge to scientific experience. Nothing which is capable of being experienced can remain withdrawn from the competence of science. If we encounter anything unpredictable, accidental, contrary to expectations, the claim of the universality of science remains uncontestable for these things as well. What seems to be something irrational is, in the eyes of the scientist, a phenomenon on the frontier of science; this is how phenomena appear on that border where science finds applications to practice. What occurs in practice as the unexpected and mostly undesirable consequences of the application of science is seen as something altogether different from the irreducible irrationality of chance. According to the essential character of science, this presents nothing more than a task for further research. The progress of science is sustained by its continual self-correction. And practice which is based on the application of science likewise requires that science further and further improve, by continual self-correction, the reliability of the expectations placed upon it.

But what does practice in the above sense mean? Is the application of science as such practice? Is all practice the application of science? Even if the application of science enters into all practice, the two are still not identical. For practice means not only the making of whatever one can make; it is also choice and decision between possibilities. Practice always has a relationship to a person’s ‘being’. This is reflected in the figurative expression, Was machst Du denn?, which does not ask, literally, what are you doing but, rather, how are you? From this point of view an irreducible opposition between science and practice becomes evident. Science is essentially incomplete; whereas practice requires instant decisions. The incompleteness of all experimental science thus means that it not only raises a legitimate claim of universality, by virtue of its readiness to process new experience, but also is not wholly able to make good this claim. Practice requires knowledge, which means that it is obliged to treat the knowledge available at the time as complete and certain. The knowledge known from science, however, is not of this sort. There is thus a fundamental difference between modern science and the premodern aggregate of knowledge, which under the name ‘philosophy’ comprehended all human knowledge. This difference is precisely that what we know from ‘science’ is incomplete and, therefore, can no longer be called a ‘doctrine’. It consists of nothing other than the current state of ‘research’.

One must make clear the full significance of the innovation which came into the world with the experimental sciences and their underlying idea of method. If one contrasts ‘science’ with the whole of that knowledge of former times derived from the heritage of antiquity and which was still dominant throughout the high Middle Ages, it is apparent that the conceptions both of theory and of practice have fundamentally changed. Naturally there was always application of knowledge to practice, as indicated by the very terms ‘sciences’ and ‘arts’ (epistemai and technai). ‘Science’ was after all but the highest intensification of the knowledge that guided practice. It understood itself, however, as pure theoria, that is, as knowledge sought for its own sake and not for its practical significance. It was in the Greek idea of science that the relation between theory in this precise sense and practice first came to a critical point as a problem. While the mathematical knowledge of the Egyptian geometricians or the Babylonian astronomers was nothing other than a store of knowledge that had accumulated out of practice and for practice, the Greeks transformed this know-how and knowledge into a knowledge of principles and thus into demonstrable knowledge which one became aware of to enjoy for its own sake out of, so to speak, a primary curiosity about the world. Out of this spirit arose Greek science and mathematics, as well as the enlightenment of Greek natural philosophy and, despite its essential relation to practice, Greek medicine as well. Here for the first time science and its application, theory and practice, parted ways.

Yet this divergence can hardly be compared to the modern relation between theory and practice, which was formed by the seventeenth-century idea of science. For science is no longer the totality of the knowledge of the world and of humankind, which Greek philosophy, whether as philosophy of nature or as practical philosophy, had elaborated and articulated in the communicative form of language. The foundation of modern science is experience in a wholly new sense. With the idea of the unitary method of the understanding, as formulated by Descartes in his Rules, the ideal of certainty became the standard for all understanding. Only that which could be verified could have validity as experience. In the seventeenth century, experience thus ceased to be a source or starting point of knowledge but became, in the sense of ‘experiment’, a tribunal of verification before which the validity of mathematically projected laws could be confirmed or refuted. Galileo did not happen to acquire the laws of free-falling objects from experience but, as he himself says, they came from conceptual projection: ‘mente concipio,’ that is, ‘I conceive’ – or, more precisely, ‘I project in my mind.’ What Galileo thus ‘projected’ in the idea of a free-falling object was certainly no object of experience: a vacuum does not exist in nature. What he understood, however, precisely by this abstraction were laws within the skein of causal relationships, which are intertwined and cannot be disentangled in concrete experience. The mind isolates the individual relationships and by measuring and weighing determines the exact contribution of each; it thereby opens up the possibility of intentionally bringing out factors of a causal kind. It is thus not altogether wrong to say that modern natural science – without detracting from the purely theoretical interest that animates it – means not so much knowledge as know-how. This means that it is practice.2 It would appear to me more correct, however, to say that science makes possible knowledge directed to the power of making, a knowing mastery of nature. This is technology. And this is precisely what practice is not. For the former is not knowledge which, as steadily increasing experience, is acquired from practice, the life situation, and the circumstances of action. On the contrary, it is a kind of knowledge which for the first time makes possible a novel relation to practice, namely, that of constructive projection and application. It is of the essence of its procedure to achieve in all spheres the abstraction which isolates individual causal relationships. This is the unavoidable particularity of its competence which it has to accept as part of the bargain. What in fact emerged, however, was ‘science’, with its new notion of theory as well as practice. This is a true event in the history of humankind, which conferred a new social and political accent on science.

The Impact of Technology on Modern Man

It is thus not for nothing that one calls our present age an age of the sciences. There are above all two grounds on which to justify this assertion. First, the scientific-technical mastery of nature has at this moment acquired proportions which qualitatively differentiate our century from earlier centuries. Science, obviously, has become today the primary productive factor of the human economy. But beyond this its practical application has created what is in principle a new situation. No longer is it limited to the premodern implications of techne, namely, to filling out the possibilities of further development left open by nature (Aristotle). It has moved upward to the level of an artificial counterpart to reality. Formerly, the modification of our environment was due more or less to natural causes, for example, change in climate (the Ice Age), the influence of the weather (erosion, sedimentation, etc.), droughts, formation of swamps and the like. Only occasionally was it due to the intervention of human beings. Such interventions were perhaps the deforestation of woods, which turned into barren lands as a consequence, the extinction of animal species through hunting, the exhaustion of soils through cultivation, the drying up of the resources in the ground as the result of exploitation. These were always more or less irreversible modifications. In such cases, however, mankind either saved itself by finding new places to live or learned to prevent the consequences in due time. As for the rest, the contribution of human labour, of the gatherer, the hunter, or the farmer, brought about no real disturbance to the equilibrium of nature.

Today, however, the technical exploitation of natural resources and the artificial transformation of our environment has become so carefully planned and extensive that its consequences endanger the natural cycle of things and bring about irreversible developments on a large scale. The problem of the protection of the environment is the visible expression of this totalization of technical civilization. Obviously, more significant tasks fall upon the shoulders of science, and it must plead in their behalf before that public consciousness which the effects of our technical civilization are beginning to reach. On the one hand this leads to the emotional blindness with which a mass critique of culture reacts to these phenomena, and it is necessary to avert in time the iconoclasm which threatens from this quarter. On the other hand there is the superstitious faith in science which strengthens the technocratic unscrupulousness with which technical know-how spreads without restraint. In both respects science must carry on a kind of demythologization of itself and indeed by its very own means: critical information and methodical discipline. Issues such as the city, the environment, population growth, the world food supply, problems of the aged, etc., thus justly acquire a privileged place among the scientific themes of our knowledge of man. The atom bomb proves itself more and more to be only a special case of the self-endangering of human beings and their life on this planet to which science has led, and which it has to do its utmost to avert.

Within science itself, however, there is also the threat of a similar danger of self-destruction which arises directly out of the perfection of the modern business of research. The specialization of research has long since moved away from that orientation towards the whole which as late as the eighteenth century still made possible an encyclopedic knowledge. Even in the beginning of our own century there were still enough paths of well-organized information which made it widely possible for the layperson to partake of scientific knowledge and for the researcher to partake in other sciences. Since then, however, the worldwide expansion of research and its increasing specialization have led to a deluge of information which turns against itself. Professional librarians today carefully consider how they should store and administer – and administration means here expansion – the masses of information which increase alarmingly year in and year out. Specialized researchers find themselves in need of an orientation which is similar to that of the layperson in general as soon as they look beyond the most limited range of their area of work. And this is often necessary for the researchers who find themselves no longer able to do justice to the new problems which they take up with the older methods of their own science. It remains altogether necessary for laypeople who for their political action want not only to be guided by prepared information but to form a judgement. In this flood of information the orientation of the layperson is peculiarly mediated and, hence, dependent.

With this we come to the second sphere in which science has become a new kind of factor in human life, and this is its application to the life of society itself. Today the social sciences aspire towards fundamentally altering the practice of human living together that was shaped by traditions and institutions. Science raises the claim – and it does this on the basis of the technical state of civilization today – of putting social life as well on rational foundations and of freeing the unquestionable authority of tradition from taboo. This occurs explicitly in the case of ideological criticism when it seeks to transform social consciousness by emancipatory reflection, seeing repressive compulsions at work in the structure of economic and social authority. More effective yet, however, because it touches each and every one, is the silent form in which more and more areas of human life are subjected to technical domination, where rational automata take the place of the personal decision of individuals and groups.

This represents a fundamental alteration in our life. It is the more remarkable in so far as it is a question less of scientific-technical progress as such than of resolute rationality in the application of science, which overcomes with a new uninhibitedness the durability of custom as well as the restraints present within a ‘world view’. Formerly the consequences opened up for us by the new possibilities of scientific progress remained limited at every step by the norms which prevailed, unquestioned and self-evident, in our cultural and religious tradition. One may perhaps recall what emotions were unleashed in the past by the struggle over Darwinism. It took decades until dispassionate, objective discussion became possible; and even today Darwinism still moves people’s passions. The natural scientific knowledge of Darwin is, of course, today uncontested; but its application to social life remains exposed to manifold objections. Without taking a stand about the question in this case, one may establish as a principle that the application of scientific understanding to areas where what is called today the self-understanding of man is at stake not only often leads to conflict but also necessarily invokes extra-scientific considerations which defend a right of their own.

Thus today one sees science itself in conflict with our human consciousness of value. I am thinking here of the horrifying perspectives which have been developed on the basis of modern genetics pointing to the alteration of heredity and planned breeding. That does not, indeed, have the dramatic power to shock that Darwinism formerly had. It also does not have the horrible obviousness such as that which the use of atomic energy had for the destruction of human life in Hiroshima. But in the consciousness of all researchers the warning has been emerging that they possess a heightened responsibility for the future of mankind.

When we ask ourselves how this general state of our consciousness is reflected in the main positions assumed by present-day students in anthropology and philosophy, the answer is very varied. A certain more or less well-known standpoint still remains the critique of the traditional assertion of the special place of humankind in the cosmos, which in the face of the progress of the natural scientific understanding unmasks itself more and more as a residual prejudice of theology. It enters into the themes of our knowledge of man, wherever the characterization of human beings relative to animals is at issue. This may be precisely the reason why research into behavior today is now enjoying an unaccustomed resurgence of publicity, formerly in the work of Uexküll, today in that of Lorenz and his pupils.3

No one today can imagine that we are really able to perfect the integration we require for our knowledge of humankind. Our progress of knowledge is subject to the law of increasing specialization and, hence, to increasing obstacles to comprehensiveness. The action of human beings – that is, the conscious use of human knowledge and know-how for the preservation of health or social equilibrium, particularly peace – manifestly lacks a unified scientific basis. It is inevitable that it seeks at times to create this for itself by means of assumptions about a world-view. In retrospect we easily perceive what takes place quite unperceived in the present, namely, how certain insights acquire the power of fascination and then become magnified into a general frame of reference. Such, for example, is the superstructure of the science of mechanics and its transfer to other areas, with all its further developments – with others still to come – produced by cybernetics. Similar in its dogmatic character is the prevalence of the concepts of consciousness and will. The concepts of consciousness, self-consciousness and will, in the form to which they were led by philosophical Idealism, dominated both the theory of knowledge in the nineteenth century and its psychology. This is an outstanding example of the significance which theoretical concepts can possess for applications to the study of man.

This is not the place to analyse the dogmatism in the concept of consciousness as well as in the concept of the soul, a dogmatism which lies in the concept of representation or the content of consciousness on the one hand, and in the concept of the faculties of the soul on the other. It suffices to note the fate of the principle of self-consciousness. This principle, in Kant’s concept of the transcendental synthesis of apperception, lay at the basis of the Idealistic position. It radiated back as far as Descartes, and forward to Husserl. It succumbed to a critique which began with Nietzsche and became victorious in various ways in our century – for example, through Freud or Heidegger.

For present purposes this critique means, among other things, that the social role of individuals rather than their self-understanding moves into the foreground. What does the self-maintaining identity of the ego mean? Does the ego that vouches for itself in self-consciousness even exist? What is the source of the continuity of its self-sameness? One answer is the ‘struggle for recognition’, which Hegel described as the dialectic of self-consciousness. Or – antithetically – there is the Christian inwardness for which Kierkegaard, in the sense of ‘choice’, laid the basis with the ethical concept of continuity. Or is the ego but a subsidiary creation of unity between alternate roles? One thinks here of how Brecht, in The Good Person of Szechuan as well as in his theory of the epic theatre, disputes the legitimacy of the old dramaturgical idea of the unity of character. The direction of behaviourist research also presents an example of this dedogmatizing of self-consciousness. The abandonment of the ‘internality of the psychical’, which is the basis of it, is a positive indication that behaviour patterns are now being studied which are common to animals and humans and which are wholly inaccessible via such a concept as self-understanding.4

Yet the contribution of philosophical anthropology to the science of humankind remains considerable, even after the theology of the soul and the mythology of self-consciousness have succumbed to criticism. When seen within the totality of the research situation, the contribution of philosophical anthropology over against the scientific models which cybernetics and physics have to offer would still appear to be of greater heuristic fruitfulness. Indeed, modern theoretical and physiological research on the relationship of consciousness and body or soul and body shows an impressive methodical caution and a gift of invention. Likewise it is impressive to learn from biology and behavioural research how continuous are the transitions from animal to human behaviour and that one cannot so easily explain, purely from the standpoint of behaviour, the ‘leap’ to humanity by the specific peculiarities which distinguish humans from the other animals. The progress of research shows that the anti-evolutionary passion which burst forth in the struggle over Darwinism plays no further role today. But precisely when one pushes the human as near to the animal as the phenomena permit and require – and with regard to modes of behaviour, that is astonishingly far – the unique position of human beings surprisingly reveals itself in a particularly vivid fashion. Precisely in their full naturalness they appear as something extraordinary; and the evident fact that no other living being makes its own environment into a cultural world as does man, who became thereby ‘Lord of Creation’, has within it a new unbiblical power of revelation. It teaches no longer that the soul is of an otherworldly order but, on the contrary, that nature does not have the meaning which the investigation of nature of the past centuries required us to think it had, namely, as ‘matter subject to laws’ (Kant). The ‘frugality of nature’, which was a fruitful teleological key conception in the age of mechanics and even today still finds manifold confirmation, is not the only point of view from which to think about nature. For the evolution of life is just as much an event of enormous prodigality.

The standpoints both of self-preservation and of adaptation are losing their key function in research into living beings. The philosophy of institutions, in which Gehlen interpreted the latter as compensation for the biological deficiency of endowment of the ‘as yet undefined animal’, which according to Nietzsche is what man is, is also affected by this new tendency.5 Studies of biologists, ethnologists, historians and philosophers are in agreement that humans are not humans because they dispose of an additional endowment which relates them to an otherworldly order (Scheler’s concept of spirit).6 But they also all hold that the point of view of inherent deficiencies does not suffice to explain their distinctiveness. On the contrary, what is apparent is the profusion of human capacities and abilities for perception and movement, the unequal distribution of which is characteristic. Plessner called this the ‘eccentricity’, of human beings.7 It distinguishes them in that they expresses themselves in behaviour by means of the body – for example, in gestures – but also can, by willing and acting, go beyond the natural endowment of a living being. This is seen, for example, in their behaviour to other human beings and in particular through the ‘invention’ of war. In this regard, modern psychology also is once again taking a significant stand, precisely because it combines the methods of research of the natural and social sciences with the hermeneutical sciences and tests out the most different methods on the same object.

It is by virtue of the ‘eccentric’ constitution of human life that the differentiated modes originate in which human eccentricity is worked out. We call this humanity’s culture. Not only do the great themes of economy, law, language, religion, science and philosophy bear witness to it as the objective traces which humanity has left behind; there is also, as its other source, the knowledge of themselves which human beings acquire and transmit. Plessner comprehends all this in the formulation that man ‘embodies himself’.8 Here arises and flows forth that other source of knowledge of humankind which is prior to natural science and which has given and shaped as a theme for researchers into nature their manifold contributions to the knowledge of humankind. For thanks to the knowledge humans have of themselves, the ‘science’ which seeks to perceive everything that becomes accessible to it with its methodical means is confronted in a special way with the theme ‘human being’. Its task of understanding is posed to it as one that is unending, incomplete, continually in view.

What is this knowledge which human beings possess of themselves? Is it possible to understand ‘self-consciousness’ with the means of science? Does it represent a theoretical objectification of a person which may be compared to the mode of the objectification possessed by an artifact or a tool, which can be designed in advance from a blueprint? Manifestly not. It is true that human consciousness itself, in addition, can in a complicated way be made the object of natural-scientific research. Information theory and machine technology can become fruitful for research about human beings since they clarify the functional mode of human consciousness through their models. But this model construction does not claim to control scientifically the organic and conscious life of a person. It is satisfied to elucidate by means of simulation the highly complicated mechanism which permits living reactions and particularly human consciousness to function. Now one may ask whether this is not simply an expression of the fact that cybernetics is still stuck wholly at its beginnings and therefore is not yet adequate to its own goal, namely, the natural-scientific understanding of such highly complicated systems. It seems reasonable to me, however, to imagine for a moment a perfected cybernetics for which the difference between machine and living person had really disappeared. Our knowledge about humanity would then find its perfection in its ability to make such machines. With regard to this point one must take to heart Steinbuch’s warning that fundamentally there are ‘no insights of automation theory or language theory which make possible any differentiation between what man can do and what automatons cannot do’.