Hans Jonas’s Mortality and Morality

Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 19 (2/1):315-321 (1997)

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Abstract
Hannah Arendt, who was Hans Jonas’s lifelong friend, always stressed the importance and rarity of the independent thinker. The independent thinker is the thinker who has the imagination to break new ground, who does not follow current fashions, and has the courage to pursue thought trains wherever they may lead. Her model was Lessing, but she might have considered Hans Jonas to be an outstanding twentieth century exemplar of the independent thinker. Although Hans Jonas was a student of both Heidegger and Bultmann in the 1920’s, he did not become a disciple of anyone. Both of these teachers encouraged him to pursue his research into the history of Gnosticism. Jonas’s path-breaking achievement can be compared with what Gershom Scholem did for the study of the Kabbalah. For Jonas literally created a new field of research in the history of religions. His study of Gnosticism became one of those rare twentieth century landmarks that opened up our understanding of Gnosticism and revealed its powerful subterranean influence throughout the history of the West. The first volume of Jonas’s study, Gnosis und spätantiker Geist was published in Germany in 1934 only after he fled from Nazi Germany and decided to emigrate to Palestine. If Jonas had never published anything else he would be known today as the major twentieth-century scholar of Gnosticism.. But Jonas was much more than an original scholar. He was a creative thinker—and he remained one until his death in 1993, shortly before his ninetieth birthday. During the Second World War, he fought in the famous Jewish Brigade of the British army. It was during this period, when he faced death all around him on the battlefield, that the phenomenon of life in all its ramifications became his central philosophical preoccupation. Jonas had been compelled to suspend his scholarly research during the war years, but he never suspended his independent thinking. He felt it was his obligation to fight the Nazis, but his dream was to return to his true vocation—philosophical speculation. After fighting in the Israeli War of Independence, he accepted a fellowship at McGill University in Canada in 1949, and eventually accepted a position at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research in 1955. The line of inquiry that he began when he was able to return to philosophical study resulted in the publication of The Phenomenon of Life. Jonas’s project was to understand what is distinctive about living organisms, and the emergence and consequences of life in the cosmos. But in order to do this, Jonas had to engage in a systematic radical critique of the dualisms of matter and mind, body and soul, which have dominated and shaped so much of modern thought. From Jonas’s perspective, even those philosophers who had rejected dualism were still tainted by the misguided ontology of dualism. The variety of monisms that arose in reaction to dualism tended to move to the extremes of materialism or idealism. Neither of these extremes is adequate for illuminating what is distinctive about bios. In German idealism there was a failure to do justice to the needs and character of the lived body. And in the varieties of “reductive materialism” that have been—and continue to be—so fashionable in twentieth century there is also a failure to appreciate what is distinctive about dynamic metabolic processes. To engage in a critique of dualism and its legacy, it was also necessary to rethink what can be learned from the biological sciences, and especially, the theory of evolution. Here we also witness the philosophical daring of Jonas. A dominant prejudice of the twentieth century has been that philosophy as a discipline has nothing significant to contribute to our understanding of biological processes. All that philosophy can do is to reflect on the methodological and epistemological status of the sciences because, presumably, the only legitimate source of knowledge about living organisms is what we learn from the natural sciences. Jonas argues that this prevailing prejudice has led to disastrous intellectual consequences. Of course, philosophers qua philosophers cannot and should not engage in “armchair” scientific speculation. Furthermore, they must be fully informed about the hypotheses and claims of the best biological research. But at the same time it is a philosophical endeavor to understand critically the meaning of what we learn from the sciences, and to develop an adequate philosophical account of the meaning of nature. Philosophers cannot and should not abandon this task. There is an important distinction to be drawn between the scientific achievements and the philosophical reflection on their meaning—a distinction that too frequently is forgotten or neglected.
Keywords Contemporary Philosophy  Continental Philosophy  History of Philosophy
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ISBN(s) 0093-4240
DOI gfpj199719/202/115
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