Hans Jonas

Hans Jonas
Born 10 May 1903
Mönchengladbach, Rhine Province, German Empire
Died 5 February 1993 (aged 89)
New Rochelle, New York, U.S.
Alma mater University of Freiburg
University of Berlin
University of Heidelberg
University of Marburg (PhD, 1928)
Notable work The Imperative of Responsibility
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Continental Philosophy
Main interests
Bioethics, Political Science, Religion

Hans Jonas (10 May 1903 – 5 February 1993) was a German-born philosopher, from 1955 to 1976 the 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 and 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.[3]

Jonas's career is generally divided into three periods defined by his three primary works, but in reverse order: studies of gnosticism, studies of philosophical biology, and ethical studies.[4]


Birth house of Hans Jonas in Mönchengladbach.
In front of the house, two Stolpersteine were installed in 2008. The left one commemorates the philosopher's mother Rosa Jonas, murdered in Auschwitz in 1942.

Jonas was born in Mönchengladbach, on 10 May 1903. He studied philosophy and theology at the University of Freiburg, the University of Berlin and the University of Heidelberg, and finally earned his Doctor of Philosophy in 1928 from the University of Marburg[5] with a thesis on Gnosticism entitled Der Begriff der Gnosis (The Concept of Gnosis) and directed by Martin Heidegger.[6] During his study years his academic advisors included Edmund Husserl and Rudolf Bultmann.[5] 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.

Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in 1933, which may have disturbed Jonas, as he was Jewish and an active Zionist. Certainly, in 1964 Jonas would repudiate his mentor Heidegger, for his affiliation with the Nazis.[7] He left Germany for England in 1933, 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.[8] He died at his home in New Rochelle, New York, on 5 February 1993, aged 89.[9]


English books

English monographs



Selected papers

Other papers

See also


  1. Theresa Morris, Hans Jonas's Ethic of Responsibility: From Ontology to Ecology, SUNY Press, 2013, p. 166.
  2. Drummond, Ron. "An Orrery in Search of an Ephemeris". Retrieved 13 January 2013. It was only when I discovered the Gnostic religious mythology initially from Hans Jonas’s The Gnostic Religion...that I was truly moved by a system of belief
  3. Levy, David J. (2002). Hans Jonas: The Integrity of Thinking. University of Missouri Press. ISBN 0-8262-1384-7.
  4. Scodel, Harvey. "An interview with Professor Hans Jonas." Social Research (Summer 2003)
  5. 1 2 H. Jonas, "Wissenschaft as Personal Experience," The Hastings Center report 32:4 (Jul–Aug 2002), 30.
  6. Wellistony C. Viana, Das Prinzip Verantwortung von Hans Jonas aus der Perspektive des objektiven Idealismus der Intersubjektivität von Vittorio Hösle, Königshausen & Neumann, 2010, p. 25.
  7. Hans Jonas, Influential Philosopher, Is Dead at 89, The New York Times, Eric Pace, 6 February 1993.
  8. The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin: Selected Correspondence, 1950-1984, University of Missouri Press, 2007, p. 168.
  9. Strachan Donnelley "Hans Jonas, 1903–1993 [Obituary]," The Hastings Center Report 23:2 (Mar–Apr 1993), p. 12.
  10. The influence of Alfred North Whitehead is plain. Cf. Michel Weber and Will Desmond (eds.). Handbook of Whiteheadian Process Thought (Frankfurt / Lancaster, Ontos Verlag, Process Thought X1 & X2, 2008)

Further reading

External links

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