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« Is Goodness Intrinsic? How Wittgenstein Saw It | Main | Right and wrong in the light of modern approaches to morality; has the Christian perspective anything to offer? »

Morals and Metaphysics

It took me much longer than I'd expected but I just finished The Phenomenon of Life by Hans Jonas this weekend. Jonas was a student of Heidegger who broke with his teacher over Heidegger's embrace of Nazism though the biographical material in the book suggests he later forgave the older man and did continue to take Heidegger seriously as a thinker. Jonas was Jewish so it's not entirely surprising that he would have had some issues here. He apparently left Germany some time after the rise of Hitler and fought with the Jewish Brigade under British leadership out of Palestine during World War II. He later fought for Israeli independence in 1947-48 and then, in the fifties, emigrated to the United States where he settled in to teach and do philosophy, most prominently at the New School for Social Research. As his educational background suggests, he was drawn to phenomenology and existentialism and this book reflects that.

I picked it up some years ago out of an interest both in existentialism and moral philosophy since the blurb on the book's back cover suggests it's an ethical inquiry of a sort. However, I never got into it until quite recently when I picked it up again in order to learn about and consider another philosophical tradition's approach to Ethics. But I fear the book was a little disappointing. It consists of a series of essays Jonas wrote in the 1950s and early sixties and the first half of the volume is actually quite good. The problem is that the second part fails to sustain the quality of insight and reasoning of the first.

In the first part, Jonas offers insightful analyses of the nature of life and its relation to non-life in the universe, some of his ideas, such as the notion that life is not merely a serendipitous occurrence in a non-living universe but a natural occurrence, being particularly suggestive. While life did not have to arise, Jonas points out, under certain conditions it is the natural next step in the process that is matter he argues. And as life goes so goes mind, for mind -- or consciousness, sentience, awareness -- he seats firmly in the continuum of life. Given this, he proposes that the level of sentience we attain, i.e., the condition of cognitive functioning, of intelligence, must be seen to naturally arise from the sentient itself. None of this is entirely new but Jonas offers some interesting ways of understanding this phenomenon of life in a universe of non-life. Where is the ethical in all this though, for sentient beings which also have sapience* may be quite inured to ethical concerns?

This brings us to the essays in the second half of the book which are somewhat less satisfying. After a series of essays addressing the role of life within non-life and the levels of life itself and man's special capacities as grounded in the living modality in which he stands, Jonas ends the first section with a transitional essay he entitles "From Philosophy of the Organism to the Philosophy of Man." That piece ends with a refocusing on the thought systems of human beings as part of human history.

It is in the gulf opened by this confrontation of oneself with oneself, and in the exercise of the relation which in some way or other always has to span the gulf, that the highest elations and deepest dejections of human experience have their place. As are the data of his external senses, so are the findings of his reflection the mere material for continuous synthesis and integration into a total image. This work goes on as long as man is alive as man. Quaestio mihi factus sum, "a question have I become unto me":religion, ethics and metaphysics are attempts, never completed, to meet and answer the question within an interpretation of total reality.
With the emergence of this possibility, history succeeds to evolution, and biology cedes the field to a philosophy of man. p. 187

And here he proceeds to introduce a number of themes which are less well focused and less cohesive than those in the earlier essays which examined so perspicuously the functionalities of living organisms in a non-living world. Ranging from a somewhat abstract and esoteric essay on "The Practical Uses of Theory" to a discussion he calls "Gnosticism, Existentialism and Nihilism" (in which he examines and draws out the connections between those three explanatory approaches), to a barely coherent essay on "Heidegger and Theology" which he follows with a somewhat better effort, "Immortality and the Modern Temper" (examining the different concepts of immortality that have interested and excited human beings through the ages), he finally arrives at something akin to a moral picture. And here, in his final essay he argues that the notion of immortality can best be understood not as personal survival (which he thinks makes no sense given what we currently know of the universe in which we stand) but as acting within a larger sense of timelessness. And this, he suggests, has moral implication.

The personal self that we are must fall away with our individual demise, of course, but the actions we take, he suggests, stand in a timeless sense within a larger reality, a reality we grasp if we come to understand the world rightly. And that understanding means recognizing our human selves as a part of this larger universe, but not just a contingent part, not just an accident in the flux of physical phenomena, but as a natural arising within that flux. We are, he suggests, the apogee of the material universe, its inevitable outgrowth when conditions are right for that. And as such, he proposes, we are not just one element among many, one type of entity among many types, but a continuation of the types from which we sprang. We are not apart from the phenomena of the universe, not adrift in an alien world, but the natural and so the rightful custodians of that world, that universe. He argues -- though perhaps that is too strong a term for he does not set out to make a logical case here but to suggest, to create a picture for us -- that the way to get at this is via metaphor, a metaphor that implies the mystical but which he explicitly rejects as a call to mysticism. Rather, he explains,

. . . only an ethic which is grounded in the breadth of being, not merely in the singularity or oddness of man, can have significance in the scheme of things. It has it, if man has such significance; and whether he has it we must learn from an interpretation of reality as a whole, at least from an interpretation of life as a whole. But even without any such claim of transhuman significance for human conduct, an ethics no longer founded on divine authority must be founded on a principle discoverable in the nature of things, lest it fall victim to subjectivism or other forms of relativism. p. 284

And for that significance he offers up a metaphor, derived from the Gnostic picture of the universe, proposing a mythological account which has the godhead, the source of all existence, voluntarily surrendering itself, as the godhead, in order to become the world. Jonas doesn't argue that this is a true or empirically sound account of how the universe is made or what it is but only that we can best picture ourselves within the universal continuum by resort to symbolic stories of this sort. God, we may imagine, makes the world by remaking itself. The world is thus a process of God's remaking, of God's re-emergence from the physical contingencies of existence in the flux.

And here we stand, part of that flux but also its (perhaps final? yet Jonas doesn't say!) expression. As such, Jonas suggests, we find in the intelligent agency that characterizes our own form of existence (which is contrary to the modes of existence realized by less intelligent animals or the realm of vegetative life) a unique role as custodian of the world. We come, Jonas, thinks, to view our actions as expressions of the divinity of existence itself and, as such, they must accord with the good as we understand it of that existential manifestation.

In this way, Jonas proposes, we find moral obligation rather than invent it for we are obligated, once we come to see the world clearly, through these kinds of images, to look after not only our own selves and our particular lives but also the lives and non-lives of all existence. Of course, as an account of moral valuing, this demands some very specialized thinking. But Jonas supposes that this is really natural to mankind once we begin the project of grasping ourselves and our place in the world. He finds it in the history of philosophy as far back as the ancient Greeks and in the mystery belief systems of the ancient east. While some existentialists reject morality as inauthentic because it is imposed from without (Nietszche), or argue for a higher morality of self-realization to supplant the externally imposed variety, either through a Sartrian embrace of radical human freedom or a Heideggerian claim of thrownness (we find ourselves in the world, not outside it, always within a context over which we have no control and so must define ourselves through activity within it rather than by thought about it) or even a reverence for the absurdity of the alienated human being adrift in a meaningless world (as Camus had it), Jonas argues for meaning in the human being because man stands not just at the apex of existence but as the fullest manifestation of it (at least as far as we currently know) and thus (in modern parlance) man owns the universe as much as he is owned by it.

This moral case is a highly specialized one and, though it comes with some intriguing insights and implications, hardly seems adequate to sustain the kind of daily moral judgments we make and which we intuitively take to be justified, even when we may find ourselves at a loss to give others arguments for why we, or they, should accept some moral intuition (about not harming others, for instance). Indeed, if the world contains good and bad at all, Jonas' approach gives us no way to distinguish, for death, he tells us, is an inseparable part of life, finitude (the limits imposed in time and space) being in the nature of things having a place in the world. And humans are certainly of the world on Jonas' view.

If death is bad, it's also good on this view, for we could not be in the here and now (alive and aware as we are) if we were not, at some point, to not be (to forego form and function and, indeed, awareness itself). Yet Jonas is greatly troubled by the death of innocents, by the Holocaust and other human disasters, especially and clearly believes perpetrating such things a great wrong because to do so is to reject man's role as custodian of all that is, including his fellows. But surely such deaths, and, more often than we like to admit, the suffering that attends death, are as inevitable as are the joys and excitement of being alive in the world, of feeling and making ourselves felt. If ethics, if moral claims, are about anything they must at least be about what we as deliberative agents do to one another. And here, if the universe of which we are a part is impersonal and a source of our pain as well as our joy, then even doing things we count as "evil" can be understood as part of that same continuum. For evil is finally in the eyes of those who experience it and the moral question, which a view like that presented by Jonas cannot answer, is why should the human predator spare his prey if all of us, and all being, express the same underlying existential dynamic? Life lives on death, for plants devour the nutrients of decayed organic matter and animals devour other living things in order to keep themselves alive. Why should a man not devour his fellows, too, through those acts his fellows count as mistreatment of themselves, if we are all together in a common universe, if doing so is merely to express one aspect of the universe itself? Jonas' account tells us, perhaps, why we should guard the universe as a whole, why we should care about its continuance and quality, but not why we should care about other individuals who are momentary aspects of the vast universe like ourselves.


* As Robert Brandom puts it in Reason in Philosophy where he distinguishes between mere awareness and what he describes as humanity's intelligent awareness.

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