The Institution of Life in Gehlen and Merleau-Ponty: Searching for the Common Ground for the Anthropological Difference

Human Studies 41 (3):371-394 (2018)
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The goal of our article is to review the widespread anthropological figure, according to which we can achieve a better understanding of humans by contrasting them with animals. This originally Herderian approach was elaborated by Arnold Gehlen, who characterized humans as “deficient beings” who become complete through culture. According to Gehlen, humans, who are insufficiently equipped by instincts, indirectly stabilize their existence by creating institutions, i.e., complexes of habitual actions. On the other hand, Maurice Merleau-Ponty shows that corporeal relationship to the world is already indirect because it is based on preestablished and readjusted “standards” or “norms” of interaction with the environment. Merleau-Ponty then calls these norms “institutions” and views culture as readjustment of institutions which operate already on the level of corporeal existence. The anthropological figure of confronting humans and animals thus cannot produce, as in Gehlen, a contrast between an allegedly “direct” relationship to the world in animals and a supposedly “indirect” relationship to the world in humans. The Herderian approach can be meaningfully retained only if interpreted as an invitation to confront the norms of indirect interaction with the world in animals and in people, that is, if viewed as a comparison of their respective institutions.

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Jan Halák
Palacky University


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