Humans Are Nature’s Eccentrics—Laughing and Crying Show Why

Remarkably, the acts of laughing and crying reveal there are no givens for individual behavior nor blueprints for human society.

Think about the last time you laughed and about the last time you cried. Not about the thing that made you laugh or cry but about the experience of being a body that is laughing or crying. Try to remember—from within—whatever convulsions, breathing, vocalizations, or leakage happened then. Now try to picture yourself crying or laughing from the outside, as you would have appeared to an observer. I’m asking you to divorce the idea, the content of your laughter and tears, from its effects on your body.

Laughing and crying are some of the most familiar experiences any of us have, second, perhaps, only to shitting or eating, and they stretch back before the most nebulous depths of childhood. But laughing and crying are also highly ambiguous. Consider how other expressions that mobilize the body and the face—rubbing the belly to indicate hunger, shaking a fist to show anger or threat—translate an intention or need into bodily language. But that’s not the case with laughing and crying. They aren’t symbolic, they just are. Moreover, it is true that particular cultures and individuals can modulate, tune, discipline, repress, or nourish laughing and crying; even so, they are also universal across cultures, somehow essentially human.

Stereotyped and genuine, universal and private, physical and mental: laughing and crying are, paradoxically, all of the above. Both possess a quotidian self-evidence, yet when treated as a dilemma—what are laughing and crying? Why do they occur, and why do they occur as they do?—they open questions that unsettle the categories habitually used to think about human behavior. Which branch of knowledge is even responsible for them? Psychology? Anthropology? Aesthetics, neuroscience, physiology, philosophy?

Writing in exile in the Netherlands during World War II, Helmuth Plessner argued that laughing and crying were the body’s response to unanswerable situations: moments when the body takes over from the self, because the balance between self, body, and world—precarious at the best of times—has become untenable, and must be restored. In his slim 1941 book, Laughing and Crying: A Study of the Limits of Human Behavior, Plessner shows how laughing and crying, in all their intimacy and physicality, cannot be understood unless one establishes what kind of beings humans are, compared to other kinds of organic life. Crucially, these expressions of emotion both underscore and undermine the strict dualism between mind and body that long organized the Western concept of the human being. Laughing and crying are bodily activities as well as mental ones, but their very nature unsettles this distinction.

Long obscured by better-known philosophical schools, Plessner’s work has been garnering well-deserved attention in recent years precisely because it explores human behavior in ways that can today seem radically fresh in their ambition and polymathic transdisciplinarity, while offering useful leverage in grappling with a wide range of pressing issues.

The core tenets of Plessner’s approach—as the eccentrics of the natural world, humans are “naturally artificial,” meaning that there are neither givens for individual behavior nor blueprints for human society and that humans must therefore constantly reinvent themselves and seek equilibrium—can help us think about things like pluralism, the inescapability of politics, the relationship between culture and biology, and ecological crises that remind us of our strange predicament as both part of nature, yet not like the other parts. By seriously grappling with the legacy of Cartesian dualism, Plessner’s work offers a compelling picture of human behavior that coherently joins mind and body, and it does so by rethinking the human relationship to nonhuman nature and reflecting on the disciplinary situation that stemmed from dualism.

Plessner’s work attacked the legacy of this Cartesian dualism between physical matter and the intellectual realm, both because it unhelpfully dichotomizes the human into physical body and immaterial mind, and because by the early 20th century, the disciplinary legacy of this dualism amounted to a situation in which the natural sciences were tasked with accounting for the physical world in terms of quantity and measurement, and the humanities were assigned the supposedly immaterial world of quality and meaning. Early on in Laughing and Crying, Plessner indicts

a crucial prejudice which constantly finds fresh sustenance from the exact natural sciences: the belief that human nature must be experienced and investigated under two fundamentally irreducible aspects because it is composed of two substances, the body (as extended thing) and the mind (as thinking thing). This model, fashioned by Descartes, prevented the reconciliation between the human as a natural thing and the human as a moral and intellectual being.1

Trained in zoology and actively engaged in contemporary philosophical debates from phenomenology to vitalism, Plessner was ideally equipped to address the Cartesian split. Moreover, he began his career in the Weimar Republic during a generative disciplinary and epistemological crisis, specifically the “deep tensions between natural science and philosophy” that he identifies as the impetus for his 1928 magnum opus, The Levels of Organic Life and the Human.2 Within the contemporary life sciences, for example, Plessner found a curious paradox: on the one hand, rapid progress, on the other, a deepening mystery of what even constituted “life” in the first place.3

For Plessner, biology underpins culture in a very precise and nonreductive, nondeterministic way: human nature is to have no fixed nature.

To address this moment, Plessner drew on the approach made available by philosophical anthropology, a largely neglected intellectual tradition from interwar Germany. Even a century later, the school remains fascinating, because it identified an important problem: the gap between the natural sciences and the humanities resembled the gap between matter and mind, with an adequate and full account of human existence falling through the cracks. Accordingly, the task Plessner’s work would set itself would be to theorize the human in ways that satisfied the demands of biology as well as those of philosophy.4

And so, Plessner’s solution to the Cartesian split was to situate the meaning-making, mental side of human life squarely within the development of organic life, rather than treat them as disparate realms. The very features of human life that distinguished humans from the rest of nature are, for Plessner, the result of an inherent development within nature itself, albeit and counterintuitively a development centering on embodiment rather than consciousness.

Human beings exist in a precarious equilibrium between body, self, and world such that there are no givens for behavior: the need for equilibrium is something that confronts humans at every moment; it is a problem for us as it is not for animals or plants. The human being is a vexed organism that has “to first make himself into what he already is, to lead the life he lives.” And this means, among other things, that humans cannot simply respond to internal or external stimuli, nor even just make instrumental choices to pursue a goal. Instead, we’re riven, cursed to be aware of the necessity of these things at the same time we must do them: watching ourselves watching ourselves decide how to act, knowing always that it might be otherwise, and that each move is necessarily arbitrary, arbitrarily necessary.

This is obviously awkward; normally we manage; sometimes we can’t. Then laughing or crying result.

When the self is confronted with a situation that broaches no response, the body takes over. Although laughing and crying can be viewed from the perspective of either mind or body, neither on its own is sufficient to understand them. A physiological analysis of what the body undergoes might measure and describe the processes and movements involved but it cannot assemble them into a coherent whole, nor can it account for why human bodies do these things, or how they signify: how they are understood by other humans, how they are caused by sad or funny occasions that necessarily have some meaning for the person who laughs or cries. At worst, the purely physiological approach amounts to a reductive mechanical materialism. Looking only at the ideas, emotions, or situations that occasion laughing or crying, on the other hand, long the domain of aesthetics and later of psychology, can link laughing and crying to questions of meaning, but they cannot get us very far in understanding them as bodily reactions.

The key point is that laughing and crying have to be understood as emerging from the complex situation of human embodiment. Plessner’s central concept here is the border or boundary: all living things have a functional relationship to the borders of their own bodies, while nonliving things do not. Even a single-celled organism has a stake in its own boundary, as that which both separates it from and connects it to its environment. At a level far below and before consciousness, living organisms must necessarily both preserve their boundaries (to remain intact) and transgress them (to eat, to excrete, to breathe, to multiply; to live). Plessner’s concept of “positionality” differentiates the ways in which various forms of life relate to their own bodily border. This allows him to think of embodiment at a level of abstraction where something like a self—whatever “it” is that has a relationship to its own body—can emerge independently of consciousness, mind, or vital spirit.

Uniquely in the natural world, humans for Plessner are characterized by their “eccentric” positionality, in the sense that being aware of a center is inherently decentering. Like plants, humans are their bodies; like animals, they are and they have their bodies; and, uniquely, they are their bodies, they have their bodies, and they are aware of this situation. Self-awareness here is a kind of recursive doubling: aware of yourself, you are also necessarily aware of your awareness of this, and thus cannot simply be in your body and its possibility of action in the world, but are always looking over your own shoulder.

Plessner derives important philosophical, social, and historical consequences from humans’ eccentric positionality. Human beings are the organism that is “artificial by nature,” living in “mediated immediacy.” And because the human being is an ineluctably open question, each human group must answer for itself anew the question of how to live.

Thus, for Plessner, biology underpins culture in a very precise and nonreductive, nondeterministic way: human nature is to have no fixed nature. As Bernstein paraphrases it, “Humans can only have a biological life by leading a cultural life.”

So what does this all mean for laughing and crying? Return to the scene of laughing or crying: recall the last time you laughed, and the last time you cried. These outbursts can be spontaneous, uncontrollable. In another mood, you might have responded to the situation by speaking, acting, or simply by letting the moment pass. Laughing and crying, however, are eruptive, and in some ways they’re symmetrical: laughing begins with an exhalation, crying by inhaling; laughing turns toward others while crying turns the weeper in on himself.

“We laugh and cry only in situations for which there is no other answer,” writes Plessner. By this he means two things: first, that laughing and crying are limit phenomena that result from situations in which the usual frames of reference or possibilities of meaning-making fail us, “disorganizing” the relationship between a human and her body; but that, second, these outbursts in the face of unanswerable situations are themselves a kind of answer, a tactical retreat from the relationship between a self and its body into a kind of automatism that preserves the self.

More simply, the human being’s eccentric positionality and ambiguously undetermined nature mean that we cannot not get into situations that have no answer. Laughing and crying both express the lack of a coherent response and, by handing control over to the body, ensure that we’re not stuck in limbo once the situation passes.5 “And just as it is the human’s prerogative to get into such impossible situations—impossible for her as a person, but unavoidable for her intellectual nature, i.e. her eccentricity—so it is also her prerogative to let her body answer in her place.”6

To be sure, Plessner’s approach can sometimes feel dated, in ways that are frustratingly unnecessary and don’t live up to what his own theory promises, often in the very same work.7 To give just two examples: though he is concerned with decentering European culture as a universal ideal (this as an explicit consequence of his recognition of humanity’s biologically constituted pluralism), his framework often remains plainly Eurocentric. Second, it is true that his account of human eccentric positionality (in taking up embodiment from a fairly abstract, species-level perspective, rather than being concerned with the experiences and differences of particular human bodies) is gender-neutral: all humans occupy a fundamentally eccentric position despite individual differences, when compared to animals. But even so, Laughing and Crying occasionally seems to claim that women are more susceptible than men to being overcome by emotion; which is then partly hedged as Plessner says that this difference may just be a culturally specific stereotype.

These are irritations that no reader today would fail to notice. Moreover, they are all the more frustrating given that Plessner’s core premise—human embodiment is unique in the natural world by being essentially, inescapably problematic—could so obviously be mobilized for queer, trans, feminist, or psychoanalytic projects.

Yet despite these obstacles—and the occasional (albeit elegant) density of his writing—works like Laughing and Crying, Levels of the Organic and the Human, and Political Anthropology can offer real insight into questions that have only become more pressing with time, questions including the centrality of politics to human life, or the role of culture within evolution.8 Plessner reminds us, moreover, that it is a problem when the natural sciences and humanities fail to communicate. Though they necessarily work in different modes, both together are needed to begin to understand humans and our place in the world, our “natural artificiality.” This concept, in turn, which names the strange situation of a species that is an animal yet different, of nature yet somehow outside it, is also useful for parsing the fact that humans are dialectically ensnared in an ecological catastrophe of our own making. His approach helps us avoid the pitfalls of a false dualism: on the one side the hubris that humans can somehow stand outside or above nature, and on the other the quietism that results when no distinctions are drawn between human agency and the natural world.9

And moreover, although Plessner’s analysis doesn’t really engage with concepts like capitalism, his theory could readily offer the philosophical, biological, and anthropological underpinnings to a critique of political economy. Because Plessner provides a biological foundation to human indeterminacy and pluralism—it is for biological, not metaphysical, reasons that the human being is necessarily an “open question”—his work offers a powerful rejoinder to defenses of the status quo that rely on facile, deterministic views of human nature (as naturally violent, conquering, or acquisitive, for example). Though unmentioned in either recent book, Plessner’s work could therefore fit really well with Martin Hägglund’s discussion of species being in This Life, or Graeber and Wengrow’s excavation of the proliferation of socio-politico-ecological experiments that marked past human societies in The Dawn of Everything.

In other words, Plessner wasn’t a leftist, but his theory of the human offers surprisingly good answers to questions about “human nature,” answers that might invigorate liberatory political projects: there is no fixed model for individual human behavior nor for human societies that is set by nature, indeed nature in Plessner’s view establishes precisely that there can be no fixed model for human behavior or societies. Renovation, experimentation, dynamism, and freedom are thus written into Plessner’s concept of the human at the biological level, albeit precisely in a nondeterministic way. And his thoughtful consideration of affect, feelings, and expression from his earliest work to Laughing and Crying, which always seeks to ground these in the precarious situation of human embodiment, can be mobilized for affect and body studies, and aesthetic theory. (That said, here especially Plessner’s recognition that human embodiment in general is fundamentally eccentric needs to be complemented by theorizing how particular human beings experience their bodies in radically different ways, shaped by historical vectors of gender, racism, ability, and others). Anthropologically, we’re all eccentrics, but some bodies are rendered more problematic than others at certain times and for certain reasons.

So the next time you laugh or the next time you cry, spare a moment if you can to appreciate the weirdness of it: how laughing and crying blend our biological and our cultural lives, how they signal at once a loss of bodily control and the momentary handing of control over to the body, so that the ever-precarious relationship of body, sense, and self can be stood back on its feet, dusted off, and set on its way again. Plessner can help us think about things ranging from the private moment of eruptive affect to the much larger questions of the human relationship to nature, why there’s no blueprint for human society, and why humans have therefore always been compelled to experiment, experiment, experiment. icon

  1. Here and elsewhere I’ve modified the English translation, which consistently uses “Man” to translate “Mensch,” which is today better rendered as “human.”
  2. Helmuth Plessner, Levels of Organic Life and the Human: An Introduction to Philosophical Anthropology, translated by Millay Hyatt (Fordham University Press, 2019), p. 9. Yet as well-placed as Plessner was to articulate a theory of the human, his major publications also had the misfortune of catastrophic timing. The Levels of Organic Life and the Human, appearing in 1928, was overshadowed by Heidegger’s Being and Time and Max Scheler’s The Human Place in the Cosmos, and was further sullied by unfounded accusations that Plessner had lifted his basic idea from Scheler’s book. Laughing and Crying appeared in 1941, published on a continent preoccupied with other things. (In response to the 1933 book burnings, modernist author Alfred Döblin had written about the situation of writers in exile, cut off not only from their professional networks but from the readers of their language: “Why write, for whom?”) Moreover, Plessner’s work can be difficult; patient and meticulous, it rewards similar patience from his reader.
  3. See for example Cathryn Carson, “Method, Moment, and Crisis in Weimar Science,” in Weimar Thought: A Contested Legacy, ed. Peter E. Gordon and John P. McCormick (Princeton University Press, 2013), pp. 179–99, as well as Lynn Nyhart’s work on the disciplinary history of biology in the German context.
  4. Plessner’s “bio-philosophy,” as J. M. Bernstein describes it in his lucid introduction to the recent reissue of Laughing and Crying, thus pivots on a rigorous accounting of the paradox that humans are living beings subject to the same natural constraints as other living beings, and yet are also somehow unique within the natural world.
  5. Here too laughter and crying exhibit a kind of symmetry. They are both crisis responses to a boundary situation, in which no other behavior would make sense or fit the bill, but the nature of the crisis determines whether one laughs or cries. “Laughing responds to the thwarting of behavior by the irremediable ambiguity of cues to action, crying to the thwarting of behavior by the negation of the relativity of human existence” (152). This isn’t immediately transparent, but what Plessner means is that laughing results from the sudden awareness that multiple, clashing frames of reference can come into play at once, a description that handily fits things from semantic ambiguity (even the lowly pun), to the absurd, to physical comedy, to social embarrassment. In a sense, laughter foregrounds the relativity of human existence; crying, by contrast, happens when this relativity gets negated: by the finality of loss, for example, or the inescapable fact that one is this particular person and not another, in this particular body and this situation, and not in another. “What is decisive, however, is the locus of this unanswerableness. It is amusing if it is engendered by an irreconcilable multiplicity of sense, by an entwining, intersecting, mutually transparent nexus of relations of meaning. This structure makes for lack of seriousness. With crying, on the other hand, the helplessness results from a curious immediacy in the exposure to pain, in the sudden shift from tenseness to relaxation, and in being deeply moved. (…) Being moved emotionally, whether by the sublime and the powerful or the tender and the infirm, is to encounter the thing itself without mediation. Our behavior, oriented to relations and the relative, here comes to an absolute end” (143).
  6. In order to defamiliarize the presumed masculinity of the human, more ponderous in English than in the German original, I have also taken the liberty of modifying the translation by changing pronouns and possessives.
  7. Though Plessner has long been known in Germany especially for his sociological work, his thought has been largely absent from intellectual life in the Anglosphere. There are a few reasons for this. Foremost among these is likely the fact that his core project, articulating something like a unified theory of the human being that would satisfy the demands of scientific and humanistic modes alike, has been all but abandoned to the domain of reductive popular science, as academic specialization and the growing gap between C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” have moved the disciplines farther apart, with rigorous thinkers like Donna Haraway or N. Katherine Hayles, whose training and work spans the natural sciences and the humanities, as the rare exceptions that prove the rule. And even in my own field, German studies, a discipline that ought to have been accountable for digesting Plessner’s work, access to it has largely been obstructed by a highly influential misreading, Helmut Lethen’s 1994 Cool Conduct, which dismisses the importance of biology to Plessner’s work (seeing it, somewhat bafflingly, as merely a pretext) and conflating Plessner’s concept of the border with the trope of bodily armoring. Many people who might engage closely with Plessner only ever read Lethen’s Plessner. But recent translations and republications promise to introduce Plessner to a wider readership: in the last five years, this includes Laughing and Crying and Political Anthropology (Northwestern University Press) and Levels of Organic Life and the Human (Fordham University Press). And serious engagement with Plessner’s continued relevance for topics ranging from sociology to animal studies to psychology, and especially for philosophy, has marked a spate of recent scholarly works about Plessner. For example, Jos De Mul, ed., Plessner’s Philosophical Anthropology: Perspectives and Prospects (Amsterdam University Press, 2014) and Phillip Honenberger, ed., Naturalism and Philosophical Anthropology: Nature, Life, and the Human between Transcendental and Empirical Perspectives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). For the first-time reader of Plessner, J. M. Bernstein’s forewords to Laughing and Crying and Levels of Organic Life are the best introduction to Plessner’s thought and its contemporary urgency.
  8. On the generative roles played by culture, language, and social learning in human evolution, see, for example, Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb, Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (Bradford, 2014); Kevin N. Laland, Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind (Princeton University Press, 2017); and Michael Tomasello, Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny (Harvard University Press, 2019).
  9. In this sense, Plessner’s concept of “natural artificiality” complements contemporary approaches like Andreas Malm’s dialectical critique of the inability of New Materialism to distinguish between human actions and natural processes, opting instead for distributive agency and flat ontologies. See Andreas Malm, The Progress of this Storm: On Society and Nature in a Warming World (Verso, 2018).
Featured image: Photograph by Dave Moreno / Unsplash (CC0 1.0)