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Hans Jonas

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' writings were very influential in different spheres. For example, The Gnostic Religion, 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. Leon Kass has referred to Hans Jonas's work as one of his primary inspirations. Heavily influenced by 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 Gnosticism interprets the religion from an existentialist philosophical viewpoint. Jonas was the first author to write a detailed history of ancient Gnosticism. He was also 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 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. In Marburg he met Hannah Arendt who was also pursuing her PhD. there, and the two of them were to become friends for the rest of their lives.

In 1933, Heidegger joined the German Nazi party, which Jonas took personally as he was of Jewish descent and an active Zionist. The fact that the great philosopher was capable of such political folly made Jonas doubt the value of philosophy. 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, who had been arranging a special brigade for German Jews wanting to fight against Hitler. 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 as well as love. 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. So he returned to Palestine and took part in Israel's war of independence in 1948. However, he felt that his destiny was not to live as a Zionist, but to teach philosophy. Jonas taught briefly at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before moving to North America. In 1950 he left for Canada, teaching at Carleton University, and from there moved to New York City in 1955 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 1955 to 1976 (where he was Alvin Johnson Professor). From 1982-1983 Jonas held the Eric Voegelin Visting Professorship at the University of Munich.He died at his home in New Rochelle, N.Y., on February 5, 1993, aged 89.


English Books

  • The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God & the Beginnings of Christianity (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958) ISBN 0-8070-5801-7
  • The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (New York, Harper & Row, 1966) OCLC 373876 (Evanston, Ill. : Northwestern University Press, 2001). ISBN 0810117495
  • The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of Ethics for the Technological Age (trans. of Das Prinzip Verantwortung)trans. Hans Jonas and David Herr (1979). ISBN 0-226-40597-4 (University of Chicago Press, 1984) ISBN 0226405966
  • Philosophical Essays: From Ancient Creed to Technological Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974) ISBN 0226405915
  • Mortality and Morality: A Search for Good After Auschwitz ed. Lawrence Vogel (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1996). ISBN 0810112868
  • With Stuart F Spicker: Organism, medicine, and metaphysics : essays in honor of Hans Jonas on his 75th birthday, May 10, 1978 ISBN 9027708231
  • On faith, reason and responsibility (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978. New edition: Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont Graduate School, 1981.) ISBN 0940440008
  • Memoirs (Brandeis University Press, 2008) ISBN 9781584656395

English Monographs

  • Immortality and the modern temper : the Ingersoll lecture, 1961 (Cambridge : Harvard Divinity School, 1962) OCLC 26072209 (included in The Phenomenon of Life)
  • Heidegger and theology (1964) OCLC 14975064 (included in The Phenomenon of Life)
  • Ethical aspects of experimentation with human subjects (Boston:American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1969) OCLC 19884675.


  • Gnosis und spätantiker Geist (1-2, 1934-1954)
  • Technik, Medizin und Ethik - Zur Praxis des Prinzips Verantwortung - Frankfurt a.M. : Suhrkamp, 1985 - ISBN 3-518-38014-1 ('On technology, medicine and ethics' - On the practice of the imperative of Responsibility.' Not translated into English yet.)
  • Macht oder Ohnmacht der Subjektivität? : das Leib-Seele-Problem im Vorfeld des Prinzips Verantwortung ISBN 3458047581
  • Das Prinzip Verantwortung: Versuch einer Ethik für die technologische Zivilisation (Frankfurt am Main : Insel-Verlag, 1979). ISBN 345804907X


  • Le concept de Dieu après Auschwitz ISBN 2869307691
  • Evolution et liberté ISBN 2743605804
  • Le Droit de mourir ISBN 2743601043
  • With Sabine Cornille and Philippe Ivernel: Pour une éthique du futur ISBN 2743602902
  • Une éthique pour la nature ISBN 2220047954
  • With Sylvie Courtine-Denamy: Entre le néant et l'éternité ISBN 2701119235

Selected Papers

  • "The Right to Die." Hastings Center Report 8, no. 4 (1978): 31-36.
  • "Straddling the Boundaries of Theory and Practice: Recombinant DNA Research as a Case of Action in the Process of Inquiry." In Recombinant DNA: Science, Ethics and Politics, edited by J. Richards, 253-71. New York: Academic Press, 1978.
  • "Toward a Philosophy of Technology." Hastings Center Report 9 (1979): 34-43.
  • "The Heuristics of Fear." In Ethics in an Age of Pervasive Technology, edited by Melvin Kranzberg, 213-21. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1980.
  • "Parallelism and Complementarity: The Psycho-Physical Problem in Spinoza and in the Succession of Neils Bohr." In The Philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, edited by Richard Kennington, 121- 30. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of the Americas Press, 1980.
  • "Reflections on Technology, Progress and Utopia." Social Research 48 (1981): 411-55.
  • "Technology as a Subject for Ethics." Social Research 49 (1982): 891-98.
  • "Is Faith Still Possible? Memories of Rudolf Bultmann and Reflections on the Philosophical Aspects of His Work." Harvard Theological Review 75 (1982): 1-23.
  • "Ontological Grounding of a Political Ethics: On the Metaphysics of Commitment to the Future of Man." Graduate Faculty Philosophical Journal 10, no. 1 (1984): 47-62.
  • "Ethics and Biogenetic Art." Social Research 52 (1985): 491-504.
  • "The Concept of God after Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice." Journal of Religion 67, no. 1 (1987): 1-13.
  • "The Consumer's Responsibility." In Ecology and Ethics. A Report from the Melbu conference, 18-23 July 1990, edited by Audun 0fsti, 215-18. Trondheim: Nordland Akademi for Kunst og Vitenskap, 1992.
  • "The Burden and Blessing of Mortality." Hastings Center Report 22, no. 1 (1992): 34-40.
  • "Philosophy at the End of the Century: A Survey of Its Past and Future." Social Research 61, no. 4 (1994): 812-32.
  • "Wissenschaft as Personal Experience [brief memoir]," The Hastings Center report 32:4 (Jul-Aug 2002): 27-35 ISSN 0093-0334

Other Papers

  • "Causality and Perception," The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 47, No. 11 (May 25, 1950), pp. 319-324
  • "The Nobility of Sight," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Jun., 1954), pp. 507-519. (also in The Phenomenon of Life)
  • "Immortality and the Modern Temper: The Ingersoll Lecture, 1961" The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 55, No. 1 (Jan., 1962), pp. 1-20. (also in The Phenomenon of Life)
  • "The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics," The Journal of Religion, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Oct., 1962), pp. 262-273.
  • "Myth and Mysticism: A Study of Objectification and Interiorization in Religious Thought," The Journal of Religion, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Oct., 1969), pp. 315-329
  • "Freedom of Scientific Inquiry and the Public Interest," The Hastings Center Report, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Aug., 1976), pp. 15-17.


Further reading

  • Hans Jonas, "Wissenschaft as Personal Experience [brief memoir]," The Hastings Center report 32:4 (Jul-Aug 2002): 27-35 ISSN 0093-0334
  • Harms, Klaus: Hannah Arendt und Hans Jonas. Grundlagen einer philosophischen Theologie der Weltverantwortung. Berlin: WiKu-Verlag (2003). ISBN 3-936749-84-1. (de)
  • Scodel, Harvey. " An interview with Professor Hans Jonas," Social Research Summer 2003.
  • Trosler, Lawrence. "Hans Jonas and the Concept of God after the Holocaust," Conservative Judaism (Volume 55:4, Summer 2003)
  • Strachan Donnelley "Hans Jonas, 1903-1993 [Obituary]," The Hastings Center Report 23:2 (Mar-Apr 1993), p. 12.
  • Eric Pace: " Hans Jonas, Influential Philosopher, Is Dead at 89," New York Times (February 6, 1993)
  • David Kaufmann: " One of Most Relevant Thinkers You’ve Never Heard Of," Forward (Oct 17, 2007)
  • Strachan Donnelley (editor), "The Legacy of Hans Jonas," special issue of The Hastings Center Report 25:7 (Nov-Dec 1995). ISSN: 00930334
    • Leon R. Kass, "Appreciating The Phenomenon of Life," p. 3.
    • Richard J. Bernstein, "Rethinking Responsibility," p. 13.
    • Strachan Donnelley, "Bioethical Troubles: Animal Individuals and Human Organisms," p. 21.
    • Lawrence Vogel, "Does Environmental Ethics Need a Metaphysical Grounding?", p. 30.
    • Christian Schütze, "The Political and Intellectual Hans Jonas," p. 40.
    • "Not Compassion Alone: On Euthanasia and Ethics" (interview with Jonas), p. 44.

See also

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