Friday, May 9, 2014

Hans Jonas

Several students and faculty members have formed mini-academy at Northern.  We have been reading and discussing an essay a week.  Last week we read Leo Strauss’ essay on liberal education.  Our meeting was an example of what Strauss was talking about. 
Next week we will discuss an essay chosen by yours truly: “Life, Death, and the Body in the Theory of Being,” by Hans Jonas.  You can read it for free online at the link above and, if your library has Jstore, you can download it.  It’s magnificent.  I first read it in a collection of essays by Jonas‑The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology.  If I were to judge a book not only by its precision, clarity, purity, and depth, but also by its timeliness, it might be the best book I have ever read. 
In the essay, Jonas gives us a history of human thought that encompasses the most pressing matter for both philosophers and for all human beings.  He divides the history of thought into three eras. 
In the first and longest, human beings thought that everything was alive: not only people, pad feet, and plants, but also rocks, streams, and the heavenly objects.  As the oak flourishes and withers, so the moon waxes and wanes. 
In the third, human beings (or at least, the tribe of scientists and philosophers) largely agree that everything is dead.  The kosmos is full of matter in motion, colliding and transforming in purely mechanical ways.  Even living organisms are composed of molecules, which are as dead as boiling porridge. 
Between these two eras, dualism was dominant.  Jonas finds its origins in Gnosticism specifically and Christianity more generally.  In this view, body and soul are distinct substances.  The material world is dead while all genuinely living things are possessed of an immaterial soul.  It reaches its clearest expression in the work of Rene Descartes, who substituted mind for soul. 
Jonas argues that all three positions are inherently unstable, subject to a problematic.  The animism of the first period could not account for death.  It could only make an uncomfortable peace with it by the cult of the funeral and the tomb.  The dualism of the second period allowed materialism to expand its sway over all the kosmos outside the mind, just at the moment when our understanding of the kosmos was expanding across vast distances.  Sooner or later the prophylactic wall that dualism built around the mind was bound to be breached.  That led to the third period, which was enormously successful in modeling complex phenomena. 
However, the tables then turned.  As animism could not comfortably account for death, so materialism cannot comfortably account for life.  How is it possible that, in a dead world, there should be things that struggle and resist and care one way or another? 
Jonas thinks that two of the more important positions in ontology‑materialism and idealism‑are attempts at evasion.  Materialism simply pretends that life doesn’t exist while idealism pretends that there is nothing but mind.  Both the materialist and the idealist account of life are essentially lifeless.  They miss the most important phenomenon. 
Jonas thinks that a philosophical biology must revise our view of matter to show that it is potentially alive and our view of soul to show that it is actually material.  I am very certain that he is right. 

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