The Life & Mind Seminar Network

CFP: Artificial by Nature

Posted in CFP by Tom Froese on March 24, 2009

This conference might be of interest. It looks like we have another bio-philosopher like Hans Jonas to re-discover!


Artificial by Nature: Philosophy of Life and the Life Sciences and Helmuth Plessner’s Philosophical Anthropology

Invitation and call for papers for the IVth International Plessner Conference, Erasmus University, Rotterdam

Wed. 16-Fr.18 September, 2009


Helmuth Plessner (1892-1985) is one of the founders of twentieth-century philosophical anthropology. His book Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch. Einleitung in die philosophische Anthropologie [The Stages of the Organic and Man. Introduction to Philosophical Anthropology], first published in 1928, inspired several generations of philosophers and life scientists. Here, ‘life sciences’ is understood in a broad sense, as encompassing all those endeavours within sciences and humanities in which human life and its expressions are investigated from an anthropological perspective. This perspective is also a typical stream of thought of continental European philosophy. Since the sixties the work of Helmuth Plessner was also increasingly received in the Anglo-Saxon scientific scene (see e.g. Grene, 1966, and 1986) even though Plessner’s philosophical and sociological works only started appearing in English translation in the early 1970s (Plessner 1970, Plessner 1999).

At present a renewed interest in (the contemporary relevance of) Plessner’s philosophy can be witnessed. In part this renewed interest is related to a more general revival of phenomenology within philosophy and to the emergence of phenomenology as an important perspective for the life sciences (in the aforementioned broad sense), which has resulted, for example, in renewed appreciation of Merleau-Ponty by philosophers in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. But in addition to this development, Plessner’s philosophical anthropology turns out to have a specific relevance for some of the key issues in contemporary research within the life sciences and humanities. This ‘Plessner Renaissance’ is not only apparent in a growing number of publications (Eßbach and Fischer, 2002; Ernste, 2002; De Mul, 2003, 2007; Holz, 2003; Kockelkoren, 2003; Lindemann, 2004; Gamm, Gutmann and Manzei, 2005; Lindemann and Krüger, 2006; Mitscherlich, 2007; Oldemeyer, 2007, Coolen, 2008), but also finds its expression in the foundation, in 1999, of the international Helmuth Plesser Association[1], in the three International Plessner Conferences that have been organized until now (Freiburg, 2000; Krakow, 2003; Florence, 2006), and in the growing number of MA- and PhD-theses devoted to various aspects of Plessner’s work.

Main Objective

The IVth. International Plessner Congress, entitled ‘Artificial by Nature’, that will be organized in cooperation with the Helmuth Plessener Gesellschaft, aims at a fundamental exploration of the relevance of Plessner’s philosophical anthropology for the philosophy of (organic and artificial) life and (the philosophy of) the life sciences and technologies today. It is the aim of the organizers to bring together a carefully selected group consisting of both philosophers and philosophically oriented life scientists (in the aforementioned broad sense) into an interdisciplinary discussion, which is explicitely not confined to Plessner experts, but rather extended to those interested in the philosophical issues of life sciences Helmuth Plessner has worked on. To facilitate the international interdisciplinary exchange English will be the conference language and several prominent scholars also from the English speaking world whose work shows affinity with Plessner’s anthropology are invited. The conference will be, just like the preceding ones, a small but fine, in depth, three-day event.

It is no coincidence that this conference takes place in the Netherlands. As Plessner lived and worked in The Netherlands for almost two decades, several of his Dutch students – Jan Sperna Weiland, Jan Glastra van Loon (†2001), Lolle Nauta (†2006), to mention just a few – played a prominent role in the study and application of Plessner’s philosophical anthropology. Glastra van Loon and Nauta also contributed to the present revival of Plessner’s philosophy. The Helmuth Plessner Archives are also located in the Netherlands. (see also:

In the last decade a new generation of scholars that study and apply Plessner’s philosophical legacy in their work has entered the international stage and have created a bridge between the continental and Anglo-Saxon world. In the last decade also Merleau-Ponty’s existential phenomenology, which relates to Plessner’s philosophical anthropology in various ways, has received increasing attention amongst philosophers and the life scientists in their search for a more fruitful alternative for the increasingly criticized empiricist-rationalist paradigm, and makes it worthwhile to explore the relationships between these bodies of thought.

Plessner’s philosophical anthropology
The central question for the congress is whether Plessner’s philosophical anthropology is relevant for contemporary developments in the philosophy of (organic and artificial) life and (the philosophy of) the life sciences and technologies today, and if so, in what way and to what extent. Since the domain covered by this question is rather wide, the congress will focus on five specific themes. Plessner’s philosophical anthropology will provide the conceptual framework that will connect the questions under examination with regard to the five themes. For that reason, before introducing these themes, a short introduction to this conceptual framework will be provided.

Plessner, educated as a biologist and philosopher, defines life in terms of the notion of boundary. In his biophilosophy, he explains how the cell becomes animate through its membrane within an inanimate environment. Only when a living organism takes up a relation to its boundary, does it become open (in its own characteristic way) to what lies outside and to what lies inside[2]. Only then does it allow its environment to appear in it, and allow itself to appear in its environment. Taking his bearings from this biophilosophy in Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch (1928), Plessner establishes the foundation of his philosophical anthropology, moving from plants through animals to man. He defines human beings as that kind of living being that is centrally positioned in its direct embodied and unreflected relationship with the environment, and, at the same time, as that kind of living being that is located outside of this boundary and is, thus, open to the world­what Plessner calls being eccentrically positioned. From such an eccentric position, humans must establish artificial boundaries and embody them. Because of his eccentric positionality, human beings are artificial by nature. Plessner verifies the thesis of eccentric positionality in the areas of philosophy, society, history, politics, language, art and music and in the expressivity of the human body (Fischer, 2000).

Helmuth Plessner

Eccentric positionality does not imply the reproduction of the classical Cartesian dualism with is separation of bodily existence and human consciousness. On the contrary, it is an essential consequence of Plessner’s theory that these are two sides of the same coin. The divide between body and mind, so common in modern philosophy, has to be overcome, if existence: man is his body (as living body) and has his body (as physical object). Human life is constituted by continuously having to find a settlement with respect to these two aspects. The human being is both structured as centred and eccentred. This view is partly reiterated by Maurice Merleau-Ponty , in his Phénoménologie de la perception (1945) . In this book human existence is explained in terms of man being a ‘body-subject’ which in all its movements and expressions is attuned to its world, or, using an expression by Merleau-Ponty himself (1945, p. 117), man can only have a directedness to the world insofar as his body exists towards the tasks and opportunities in the world in which he lives. (See further: ).

Five conference themes

Against this framework of Plessner’s philosophical anthropology, the conference will focus on the following five related, and partly overlapping themes, each of which is connected with different philosophical sub-disciplines and different life sciences.

1. Evolution and human life (philosophical anthropology, philosophy of biology)
2 Embodied cognition (philosophy of mind, philosophy of cognitive sciences and neuroscience)
3. Bio-ethics (medical anthropology, ethics, medical science)
4. Living culture (philosophy of culture, aesthetics, cultural sciences)
5. Beyond man: protheses, cyborgs and artificial life (philosophy of technology, AI and AL, robotics)
(See further:

Tentative programme

The conference will consist of five plenary sessions, each of which will be devoted to one of the five themes. In each session four papers will be presented, leaving a substantial amount of time for discussion. In addition to the plenary sessions a series of parallel sessions and a series of master classes will be organized, in which other scholars or PhD/master students, respectively, will present their research or work in progress (related to one of the five conference themes). Each parallel session or master class is chaired and supervised by one or more invited speakers. Besides the invited speakers up to 125 other scholars and PhD/master students can attend the conference.

Wednesday September 16, 2009
08.30-12.30 Session 1: Evolution and human life
13.30-17.30 Session 2: Embodied cognition

18:30 Conference dinner

Thursday September 17, 2009
08.30-12.30 Session 3: Bio-ethics
13.30-17.30 Parallel sessions and Masterclasses

Public lecture (time and theme to be announced)

Friday September 18, 2009
08.30-12.30 Session 4: Living culture
13.30-17.30 Session 5: Beyond man: protheses, cyborgs and artificial life

The conference will take place at the conference centre of the Erasmus University: see also:

Call for papers
If you would like to participate and present a paper at one of the parallel sessions/master classes, please send an abstract of about 500 words to, before May, 15, 2009. Please also mention your preference for one of the themes of the conferences. Around mid June, 2009 (or earlier), the final programme will be made up and announced and your participation will be confirmed. The conference language will be English.
(See further: ).

Conference fee
PhD/master students € 50.­ per person*
Senior participants € 100.­ per person*
* including conference dinner
(See further:

Organization committee
– Dr. T.M.T. Coolen, Department of Philosophy, University of Amsterdam
– Prof. Dr. H. Ernste, Department of Human Geography, Radboud University Nijmegen
– Prof. Dr. H.-P. Krüger, Department of Philosophy, University Potsdam
– Prof. Dr. J. de Mul, Department of Philosophy, Erasmus University Rotterdam
– Dr. Jan Gulmans, Enschede

The scientific organization committee is supported by a Board of Scientific Advice:
– Prof. Dr. B. Accarino (Florence, Italy)
– Prof. Dr. Cao Weidong (Bejing, China)
– Prof. Dr. W. Eßbach (Freiburg, Germany)
– Prof. Dr. J. Fischer (Dresden, Germany)
– PD Dr. H. Kämpf (Darmstadt, Germany)
– Prof. Dr. Z. Krasnodebski (Bremen, Germany)
– PD Dr. G. Lindemann (Berlin, Germany)
– Dr. M. Plessner (Göttingen, Germany)
– Prof. Dr. Walter Sprondel (Tübingen, Germany)

[2] More recently we find a similar view expressed by cognitive biologists Varela and Maturana (1987, 1991) and sociologist Niklas Luhmann (Luhmann, 1990), who speak in this context of emergent autopoetic systems.


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