Arnold Gehlen

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Prof. Dr. phil. Arnold Gehlen

Arnold Karl Franz Gehlen (29 January 1904 – 30 January 1976) was an influential conservative German philosopher, sociologist, and anthropologist. He was part of the "'Leipzig School" under Hans Freyer. Gehlen joined the NSDAP in 1933. However, even Wikipedia does not accuse him of supporting National Socialism ideologically and after "denazification" he was able to return to academia in the postwar period.


Arnold Gehlen was born in Leipzig. In 1923, he completed his Abitur at the Thomas-Gymnasium in Leipzig. After a stint (six months) as a bookseller (in his father's publishing house) and bank clerk, Gehlen studied philosophy, philology, art history, German and psychology in Leipzig and Cologne from 1924 to 1927. He received his doctorate under Hans Driesch with the dissertation topic on the theory of setting and the setting-like knowledge after Driesch (Zur Theorie der Setzung und des setzungshaften Wissens bei Driesch). He received his teaching qualification in 1930 with his habilitation thesis Real and Unreal Spirit. A philosophical investigation in the method of absolute phenomenology (Wirklicher und unwirklicher Geist. Eine philosophische Untersuchung in der Methode absoluter Phänomenologie).

From 1930 to 1934 he was a lecturer in philosophy at the Philological and Historical Department of the University of Leipzig. On 1 May 1933, he joined the NSDAP (membership number 2,432,246). In November 1933, he signed the Vow of allegiance of the Professors of the German Universities and High-Schools to Adolf Hitler and the National Socialistic State. In 1934, he succeeded his teacher Hans Driesch as professor of philosophy at the University of Leipzig. In this year he also became a member of the NS-Dozentenbund. He went to Königsberg in 1938 and from 1940 to 1944 was at the University of Vienna. In October 1941, however, he was first called up by the Wehrmacht to hold a position as war administrator (Kriegsverwaltungsrat) in the personnel inspection department of the Army Psychology Office (Personalprüfstelle des heerespsychologischen Amtes) in Prague until May 1942. Towards the end of the war, Gehlen was called up again and seriously wounded with the rank of lieutenant, for which he received the Wounded Badge.

In 1948 (other sources state 1947), he became professor of sociology and psychology at the Hochschule für Verwaltungswissenschaften at Speyer. After 1962 he was at the Technische Hochschule in Aachen. After the Second World War, his attitude was sharply criticized, especially by the Frankfurt School. He was a member of the Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften and recipient of the Konrad-Adenauer-Preis der Deutschland-Stiftung für Wissenschaft in 1971.


Gehlen defines man as an "acting, anticipatory, nondetermined, self-delimiting being—a product of culture." Like other philosophical anthropologists, Gehlen views man, compared with other animals, as a vulnerable, deficient being, lacking the powerful instincts and natural weapons of survival of other animals. Man's fabled power of thought is an artificial substitute for his weak instincts. He is reduced to dependence on technical means for his survival. For survival and to liberate himself from anxiety he has had to develop tools and techniques including language, myth, and magic, and has had to create a common, habitual, and stable cultural environment. This cultural environment is perpetuated in institutions, the historically evolved realities of state, family, law, economy, and so forth. To be "legitimate" an institution need not be useful but must be derived from man's nature as expressed in the cultic, nonutilitarian experiences of ecstasy, trance, and asceticism. Institutions are comprehensive and abstract structures that, through their principle of order, impart autonomy to the individuals participating in the collective entente secrète. The utility of social and cultural institutions is a secondary by-product of their development. Gehlen contrasts unreflective, spontaneous, self-sacrificing action, which he describes as noble (vornehm und edel), with self-interested and utilitarian action (including its sublimated forms in art, philosophy, and literature), which he designates as base (gemein). Like certain pragmatists, Gehlen stressed action as the determinant of valid thought. While defining truth in terms of inner coherence and correspondence with facts, Gehlen also distinguished another aspect of truth, which he calls "inner truth." "Essentially irrational, non-scientific and not directly controllable experience has its truth: that is certainty. And it has its form of acting: non-experimental action based on tradition, instinct, habit and conviction" (Der Mensch, p. 330). These illogical, ethical certainties are valid without rational or experimental justification—as a matter of mere "appositeness" or inner sanity. Rational knowledge (Wissenschaft) cannot take over the function of the idées directrices of society that are the product of Urphantasie, the divinity and energy of the animal component of man.
Gehlen's analysis of his age was unrelievedly somber. His times, according to Gehlen, were marked both by the dissolution of institutions and a shift in individual and social consciousness from irrational certainty to an anarchic intellectualization. This change took place against a historical background in which organic agrarian society was giving way to organized industrial society. The cultural rupture transforms social organisms into "colonies of parasites" riddled with subjectivism, mechanization, a turn toward abstract and mathematical methods in art and science (desensualization), and experimental thinking. Rising living standards, far from representing progress, create new urges for limitless satisfactions. Such changes lead away from ethical obligation deriving from man's nature to goal-directed efficiency deriving from man's method. These changes entail making the spiritual sphere political and robbing the political sphere of its religious aura. Since science is esoteric, the mass of the people are condemned to be primitive. The eclipse of the nation-state and the trend toward supranational organization and peace will leave a legacy of unresolved conflicts that may lead to a complete loss of individual freedom. Only two very unlikely circumstances could reverse the trend: an unexpected return to legitimate, nonrational values that are not amenable to conscious volition or the rise of a creative personality to provide a new kind of institutional leadership. According to Gehlen, the philosopher's task in such a world situation is to point to signs of decline and to emphasize the "legitimate" elements in national heritages as expressed in the institutions of state, church, and law. Although present-day society is increasingly alienated from these heritages, they alone represent society's legitimate "reality." Reality has therefore to be sought in the archaic forms of the past.[1]

Influenced by research such as that by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, Gehlen emphasized concepts such as the "world openness" of humans, referring to humans being much less specialized for a specific environment than other animals. Consequently, they also have weak specific instincts, but at the same time have strong more general instincts, such as non-seasonal sexuality. This may cause various problems for humans and their societies. Gehlen therefore emphasizes the importance of beneficial institutions and traditions for humans in order to give them and society positive meanings and purposes.


  • Arnold was the son of publisher Dr. phil. Max Gehlen (1868–1931) and his wife Margarete, née Ege. He was a cousin of Reinhard Gehlen. In 1937, he married his fiancée Veronika Marie Mathilde Melanie Freiin von Wolff (b. 1909), their daughter was Caroline, later married Freifrau von Lieven.[2]

Writings (excerpt)

  • Theorie der Willensfreiheit. Berlin: Junker und Dünnhaupt, 1933.
  • Der Staat und die Philosophie. Leipzig: F. Meiner, 1935.
  • Der Mensch, seine Natur und Stellung in der Welt. Berlin: Junker und Dünnhaupt, 1940; 6th ed., Bonn, 1958.
  • Urmensch und Spätkultur. Bonn: Athenaüm, 1956.
  • Die Seele im technischen Zeitalter. Hamburg, 1957.
  • Anthropologische Forschung. Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1961. A collection of articles. Bibliography, pp. 144–145.
  • Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung 6 (1951–1952): 589–593. A bibliography.
  • Zeit-Bilder; zur Soziologie und Ästhetik der modernen Malerei. Frankfurt am Main: Athenäum Verlag, 1965.
  • Theorie der Willensfreiheit und frühe philosophische Schriften. Neuwied, Luchterhand, 1966.
  • Der Mensch; seine Natur und seine Stellung in der Welt. Frankfurt am Main: Äthenäum Verlag, 1966.
  • Moral und Hypermoral; eine pluralistische Ethik. Frankfurt am Main: Athenäum Verlag, 1969.
  • Studien zur Anthropologie und Soziologie. Neuwied, Luchterhand, 1971.
  • Soziales und instrumentales Handeln; Probleme der Technologie bei Arnold Gehlen und Jürgen Habermas [von] Wilhelm Glaser. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer 1972.
  • Standorte im Zeitstrom: Festschrift f. Arnold Gehlen z. 70. Geburtstag am 29. Jan. 1974. Edited by Ernst Forsthoff and Reinhard Hörstel. Frankfurt: Athenäum-Verlag, 1974.
  • Adornos Philosophie in Grundbegriffen: Auflösung einiger Deutungsprobleme. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974.
  • Urmensch und Spätkultur: philosophische Ergebnisse und Aussagen. Frankfurt am Main: Athenaion, 1975.
  • Gesamtausgabe. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1978.
  • Die Frage nach der Technik bei Arnold Gehlen und Martin Heidegger. Aachen: Fotodruck J. Mainz, 1978.