Hans Jonas

Category : Philosophy


Hans Jonas (May 10, 1903 – February 5, 1993) was a German-born philosopher who was, from 1955 to 1976, Alvin Johnson Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City.

Jonas’s writings were very influential in different spheres. For example, The Gnostic Religion, based on his early research on the Gnosis, but first published in 1958, was for many years the standard work in English on the subject of Gnosticism. The Imperative of Responsibility (German 1979, English 1984) centers on social and ethical problems created by technology. Jonas insists that human survival depends on our efforts to care for our planet and its future. He formulated a new and distinctive supreme principle of morality: “Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life”.

While The Imperative of Responsibility has been credited with catalyzing the environmental movement in Germany, his work The Phenomenon of Life (1966) forms the philosophical undergirding of one major school of bioethics in America. Murray Bookchin and Leon Kass both referred to Hans Jonas’s work as major, or primary, inspiration. Heavily influenced by Martin Heidegger, The Phenomenon of Life attempts to synthesize the philosophy of matter with the philosophy of mind, producing a rich existential understanding of biology, which ultimately argues for a simultaneously material and moral human nature.

His writing on the history of Gnosticism revisits terrain covered by earlier standard works on the subject such as Ernesto Buonaiuti’s Lo gnosticismo : storia di antiche lotte religiose (1907), interpreting the religion from an existentialist philosophical viewpoint. He was one of the first philosophers to concern himself with ethical questions in biological science.

Jonas’s career is generally divided into three periods defined by the three works just mentioned, but in reverse order: studies of gnosticism, studies of philosophical biology, and ethical studies.

Jonas was born in Mönchengladbach, on May 10, 1903. He studied philosophy and theology in Freiburg, Berlin and Heidelberg, and finally achieved his Doctor of Philosophy at Marburg where he studied under Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Rudolf Bultmann.[4] In Marburg he met Hannah Arendt, who was also pursuing her PhD there, and the two of them were to remain friends for the rest of their lives.

When Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in 1933, Jonas took it personally[citation needed] as he was Jewish and an active Zionist. He left Germany for England in the same year, and from England he moved to Palestine in 1934. There he met Lore Weiner, to whom he became betrothed. In 1940 he returned to Europe to join the British Army which had been arranging a special brigade for German Jews wanting to fight against Hitler (See The Jewish Brigade). He was sent to Italy, and in the last phase of the war moved into Germany. Thus, he kept his promise that he would return only as a soldier in the victorious army. In this time he wrote several letters to Lore about philosophy, in particular philosophy of biology, that would form the basis of his later publications on the subject. They finally married in 1943.

Immediately after the war he returned to Mönchengladbach to search for his mother but found that she had been sent to the gas chambers in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Having heard this, he refused to live in Germany again. He returned to Palestine and took part in Israel’s war of independence in 1948. Jonas taught briefly at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before moving to North America. In 1950 he left for Canada, teaching at Carleton University. From there he moved in 1955 to New York City, where he was to live for the rest of his life. He was a fellow of the Hastings Center and Professor of Philosophy at New School for Social Research from 1955 to 1976 (where he was Alvin Johnson Professor). From 1982 to 1983 Jonas held the Eric Voegelin Visiting Professorship at the University of Munich. He died at his home in New Rochelle, N.Y., on February 5, 1993, aged 89.

Source: Wikipedia. Web. 07 Nov 2014.

Photo: wz-newsline.de. Web. 07 Nov 2014.