Heidegger and(/or) Jonas

Two philosophers have dominated my attention from my undergraduate degree through to my PhD and beyond. The first is Martin Heidegger, and the second is his one-time student, Hans Jonas.

I hadn’t encountered Heidegger’s work prior to becoming an undergraduate, and at that time was instead impressed by other great ‘Continental’ European philosophers: Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, and – in particular – Nietzsche. Given these interests it’s probably no surprise that I would become fascinated by the final figure in this lineage of Great Philosophers, who in many ways built on and then surpassed their achievements: Heidegger.

Heidegger, to my mind, succeeded in combining the breadth of historically-oriented thinkers such as Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche with the descriptive depth of Kant, Kierkegaard, or Husserl. And, yet more remarkably, he managed to do this through reawakening the largely dormant yet fundamental ‘question of the meaning of being’ – i.e., what it means to be. Posing – and to some extent answering – this most essential of philosophical questions in the fashion described is a philosophical feat that puts Heidegger firmly in the company of the greatest philosophers in Western history – or so I would argue.

Partly as a result of Heidegger’s genius, he both attracted and cultivated a generation of brilliant students, including Hannah Arendt, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Emmanuel Lévinas, and Herbert Marcuse, to name but a few. But the member of this group who really caught my attention was Hans Jonas. When I first stumbled across Jonas’ The Imperative of Responsibility as a Masters student I felt as though I’d discovered a philosophical kindred spirit, one whose thought contained both a love of the phenomenon of life and a fear for its future in the light of certain technological threats, all expressed in a marvellous, high rhetoric of the kind that is rarely found amongst intellectuals today.

These two figures, Heidegger and Jonas, represent the poles that my philosophical interests and thinking have moved between. The problem is that it’s not entirely obvious how compatible their thinking is, nor is it clear (to me, anyway) which of them is correct. In my book on Jonas I presented his criticisms of Heidegger quite forcefully, while still giving credit to the latter for opening up and following avenues of thinking in a manner that is quite possibly peerless in the 20th century. In the year since I published the book, however, I have come back around to Heidegger and rethought Jonas’ critique of him.

According to Jonas, Heidegger’s neglect of both the body (as well as living nature more broadly) and ethics are the result of a ‘Gnostic’ tendency in his thinking that regards the physical world as devoid of values, and the isolated individual as condemned to face existence in the absence of any overarching obligations. Jonas believes that this existentialist picture is a peculiarly modern feature of Heidegger’s (early) thought, deriving from an inadequate engagement with the phenomenon of life. A study of the latter, however, which both gives non-human nature its due and preserves the uniqueness of humanity, shows, according to Jonas, that nature does harbour values and that since human beings alone can recognise this they may take up an overarching responsibility for living beings. Now that human beings face the possibility of their own transformation at the hands of biotechnology and extinction through anthropogenic climate change, this obligation takes on an incontrovertible force. (This is, in short, the imperative of responsibility to which Jonas’ work refers.)

It’s a powerful critique, and certainly gets something right about Heidegger’s early thought (i.e., his work up to and including Being and Time in 1927). But Heidegger’s later, post-Being and Time thinking moved away from existentialist themes and into a new historically-oriented engagement with the question of the meaning of being. This phase of his work, I now think, probably has the resources to step beyond Jonas’ critique and indeed allow for a powerful criticism in return.

The late Heidegger would, I think, suggest that Jonas’ work is situated ‘this’ side of the ontological difference between being and beings, offering a metaphysics of the latter rather than a ‘fundamental ontology’ concerned with being. As I said in a footnote in my book, Jonas’ use of the word ‘Being’ (which I always capitalise in this context) is metaphysical since referring to beings as a whole. Human existence is accordingly understood as something to be accounted for through its position in physical nature, courtesy of its corporeality, rather than as the being residing in the open in which beings come to presence (the latter is roughly what Heidegger means by Dasein). Dasein cannot, according to Heidegger, be understood in Jonas’ way without one having tacitly assumed a metaphysical stance that interprets beings as objects produced by fundamental laws to be known by the subject – and such a metaphysics (indeed, any metaphysics) is precisely what his fundamental ontology throws into question and exposes as one possible (self-)interpretation taken up Dasein.

The Jonasian in me is resistant to this conclusion, though – or at least a crude version of it. Heidegger is right to say that the interpretation of human beings in their corporeality, borrowing from the findings of the biological sciences which are themselves underpinned by a modern metaphysics, is possible only against the backdrop of the present stage in the historical unfolding of Western metaphysics. But it is not just a manifestation of this, surely – as though such an understanding of (human) beings has no more or less legitimacy than any other. The reason for this is that, as Heidegger always said, the power of the physical sciences lies in their offer of an ‘exact’, ‘precise’ account of beings rather than an arbitrary one; they grant ‘certitude’ – or at least a decent chance of it – regarding the sphere of reality that they interrogate.

I wonder, as a result, whether some sort of quasi-reconciliation between Heidegger and Jonas is possible. The philosophical biology and anthropology offered by Jonas would represent the best-informed and best-justified account of human beings (and non-human life) possible within the domain of metaphysics (connecting as it does to the physical sciences and underlying subject/object distinction). But this remains a metaphysical position, nonetheless, and so ultimately delimited by an account of Dasein and the broader question of the meaning of being. Such a rapprochement would rescue, or at least find room for, the whole philosophical-anthropological and ethical enterprise which Jonas undertook – at the same time as acknowledging that Heidegger’s fundamental ontology ultimately goes beyond it and underpins it.

I think this is, roughly, where I would say my philosophical sympathies now lie.

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