Arnold Gehlen (1904-1976) is known as a cofounder of philosophical anthropology and was one of Germany’s leading postwar sociologists; he was also a significant time diagnostician. His understanding of man as an organically “deficient being” paved the way for a theory of institutions that is not only substantial but also empirically adaptable. His anthropological views served asa foundation for his contemporary analyses of Western industrial societies, which were farsighted and, as a result of his conspicuous conservatism, also controversial at the same time.
Gehlen received his PhD in 1927 after studying under the philosopher and biologist Hans Driesch; 3 years later he qualified for a tenured professorship under, among others, Hans Freyer, after having written his habilitation. During the Third Reich, Gehlen had a shining career and quickly received professorships in Leipzig, Königsberg, and Vienna. After serving in the army’s administrative council (1941-1942), he was sent to the front and was severely wounded. In 1947, after his denazification, he received his first teaching position as a university professor in Speyer, then later in Aachen, where he taught sociology from 1962 until his retirement.
Like most of his colleagues from Leipzig, Gehlen joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and became a member of the National Socialist German University Lecturers League. He demonstrated his approval of the National Socialistic regime in several ways; for example, in his inauguration lecture in Leipzig 1935. His reference to the “highest systems of leadership” in his first anthropological study (1940) can also be understood as opportunistic. Such declarations of loyalty were never part of Gehlen’s scientific thinking, however. His understanding of man as a deficient being (Mangelwesen) did not refer to any racial differences. In his opinion, from a biological point of view the “Aryan” is as inadequate as every other human race. Consequently, Gehlen’s anthropology was contrary to official Nazi ideology from the beginning; and he himself was always considered an “uncertain type” by Nazi leadership.
Gehlen’s ideological home was not totalitarian National Socialism. It was the world of conservative thinking and order. So it is possible to find him referring specifically to the tradition of political thought where the state was the center of focus—as in the work of Hobbes or Hegel. But Gehlen’s philosophy was also influenced by many other ideas that were quite diverse: His first phase was shaped partly by existentialist ideas, which are dealt with in his 1931 dissertation. His intensive study of German idealism, especially Fichte, influenced his theory of the freedom of the will and characterized, to a certain extent, the second phase of his work. His anthropological phase began specifically in the mid-1930s. During that period of time Gehlen was one of the first German philosophers to discover American pragmatism, particularly citing the works of John Dewey and George Herbert Mead. The philosophy of life (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bergson) had a major influence on Gehlen’s research; he also dealt with Driesch’s concept of neovitalism in his dissertation. In the end, the idea of combining philosophical and anthropological studies may have been enhanced by the transdisciplinary atmosphere at the University of Leipzig, which included, among others, the sociologists Hans Freyer and Helmut Schelsky, the psychiatrist Hans Bürger-Prinz, and the philosopher Gotthard Günther.
Works and Ideas
Gehlen’s main anthropological work, Man, His Nature and Place in the World, was first published in 1940 and has been reprinted several times. In his study of late-modern civilization (1956) Gehlen worked on the deficits of his concept of action, which had essentially been instrumentally conceived, and presented a differentiated institutional theory. His highly acclaimed writings Man in the Age of Technology (1957) and his 1969 work on ethics were particularly relevant from the perspective of critical time diagnostics.
The main concern of philosophical anthropology consists of discussing questions that deal directly with the way humans see themselves. According to Gehlen, it is in this context that it is of primary importance to cast off idealistic ballast and to overcome the dualism of the body and the soul. Gehlen begins with a concept of action: Like Nietzsche, he sees in man the “still undetermined animal,” a being whose life is at risk. Man cannot feel secure in his environment because he lacks protective instincts. As a result of his deficient biological makeup there is no natural environment for him. Everything and everyone can be his enemy. So man has no other alternative but to create his own relationship to the world around him and to himself through his actions. Man’s nature is civilization: Man not only has a life, he needs to lead a life—and thus compensates for his deficient being.
Yet, following Gehlen, man is not only at the mercy of his environment; he is also dangerous. Vague but driven by physical desires, he is latently subject to the danger of mutating, becoming an enemy of his own kind or even of himself. So he doesn’t just have to lead his own life, he also has to be led, in particular by institutions. Institutions are the substitute for missing instincts; they give man something to hold onto by requiring him to act in a certain way. Their “unquestioning manner” of guiding human behavior in certain directions relieves the individual of the duty to constantly make decisions. For instance, a letter must be answered—at least in times of postal communication; it requires contemplation, at best concerning the content; but this is also simplified by use of socially standardized forms of address, endings, gratitude, and more. In Gehlen’s opinion, institutions are therefore different from mere organizations. They don’t serve just one particular purpose and then lose their significance when the job is done. They are created by mutual social interrelations within a community that they also symbolize. Consequently, institutions possess an inherent worth that commits the individual and motivates him to act.
In his writings on time diagnostics, Gehlen especially points out the social processes that develop a force capable of destroying institutions: They are closely connected to a technology that pervades all areas of existence and leads to a degradation of human senses and an intellectualization of life. Everything seems possible, everything can be tried out—in this sense, “anything goes” exemplifies the typical contemporary attitude, in Gehlen’s opinion; it is of an experimental nature but also nonbinding and formal, supported by a subjectivism that constantly calls for self-identity: Everyone can imagine everything. The real world becomes virtual in the process of a continuous “psychologization.” In order to evoke a response, the cause has to be catchy and easy to remember, never subtle, and preferably shrill. Today’s world, as Gehlen said back then, is trivial and busy— unproductiveness at high speed, a racing standstill.
So it is easy to assume that modern society has come to an end. Things could still be recycled and combined, but man has essentially reached the end of history. Man in modern times has come to accept this inevitability from which he can no longer be lured—“rien ne va plus.”
Gehlen’s thesis has been extensively criticized, one objection to his anthropology of the deficient being is that it is too pessimistic. The deficits of man are exaggerated in comparison to his rational abilities, which enable him to be highly flexible and adaptable. Furthermore, by profoundly emphasizing the differences between man and animal, the variations of human existence are completely neglected. Specifically from an ethical point of view, it is of utmost importance to differentiate between the human and the inhuman, but Gehlen’s theory leaves no room for such thoughts. Similarly, a great deal of criticism targets the lack of criteria used in his institutional theory. Gehlen’s approach is concerned only with the stability and justification of the status quo. From today’s perspective, a large part of this criticism seems justified; basically it is necessary to criticize his philosophical as well as his sociological ideas for excluding substantial normative principles without omitting extensive critical evaluations of society. Nevertheless, people often do not realize that his action theory stresses man’s openness and productivity in his relationship to the world and to himself. In that sense, it is possible to imagine that his institutional theory can be critically reconstructed within the framework of a normative intention.
Gehlen’s primary achievement is that he developed a theoretical view of society that does not simply deal with individual rational actions or the structures of social systems. It also points out the links between the individual and the system that serve as the basis for his time diagnostic analyses. By using these analyses, it is possible to discover the grayness of an apparently modern conformity amidst the colorful world of new postmodernism.
Oliver W. Lembcke
See also Anthropology; Bergson, Henri; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Hegel, Georg Wilhel Friedrich; History, End of; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Schopenhauer, Arthur
Berger, P. L., & Kellner, H. (1965). Arnold Gehlen and the theory of institutions. Social Research, 32(1), 110-115.
Gehlen, A. (1978ff). Gesamtausgabe [Works]. (K.-S. Rehberg, Ed.). Frankfurt a.M.: Klostermann.
Gehlen, A. (1980). Man in the age of technology (P. Lipscomb, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press. (Original work published 1957 as Die Seele im technischen Zeitalter. Hamburg: Rowohl)
Gehlen, A. (1988). Man, his nature and place in the world (C. McMillan & K. Pillemer, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press (Original work published 1940 as Der Mensch: Seine Natur und Stellung in der Welt. Berlin: Junker and Dünnhaupt)
Thies, C. (2000). Arnold Gehlen zur Einführung [Introduction to Arnold Gehlen]. Hamburg: Junius.
Weiss, D. M. (Ed.). (2002). Interpreting man. Aurora, CO: Davies.