- Series: Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
- Paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Northwestern University Press; 1 edition (February 28, 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0810117495
- ISBN-13: 978-0810117495
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #789,390 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy) 1st Edition
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After the first 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 with a transitional essay he entitles "From Philosophy of the Organism to the Philosophy of Man" in which he redirects us to "the gulf that is 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 . . . . 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," he writes. "This work goes on as long as man is alive as man. . . . With the emergence of this possibility, history succeeds to evolution, and biology cedes the field to a philosophy of man." p. 187
In the second half of the book he proceeds to introduce a number of themes which are less well focused and cohesive than those in the earlier essays. 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 these three explanatory approaches), to a difficult to follow essay on "Heidegger and Theology," followed by a somewhat better effort, "Immortality and the Modern Temper" (examining the different concepts of immortality that have interested and excited human beings throughout the ages), he finally arrives at something akin to the moral picture he seemed to promise at the start. 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 the state of acting within a larger sense of timelessness. 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 when once 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 as 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. He argues -- though perhaps that's too strong a term, for he does not set out to make a logical case but to suggest (to create a picture) -- that the way to get at this is custodial relation 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
Thus he argues that ethics, to be real and compelling for us, must be grounded in something that is objectively true about things and not just in our preferences and predispositions as particular entities in the world. For this significance he offers up a metaphor, derived from the Gnostic picture of the universe, which proposes that the godhead, the source of all existence, voluntarily surrenders itself, 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 himself through physical reality and, finally, through us. The world is thus a process of 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 expression. Jonas suggests that 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 ourselves 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 and in the existentialists who reject morality in its traditional sense as inauthentic because it is imposed from without, or argue for a higher morality of self-realization to supplant the externally imposed variety (Nietszche), either through a Sartrian embrace of radical human freedom or a Heideggerian sense of thrownness (of finding 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 offers a different interpretation though, arguing for meaning in the human being because man stands not just at the apex of existence, its unplanned result, but as the fullest manifestation of existence and thus (in modern parlance) he 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, Jonas' approach gives us no way to distinguish between good and bad, for death, he reminds us, is an inseparable part of life, finitude (the limits imposed in time and space) is in the nature of things having any kind of place at all 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 ultimately forego form and function and, indeed, awareness itself). Jonas is greatly troubled by the deaths of innocents, in the Holocaust and other human disasters, especially, and clearly believes perpetration of such things a great wrong. To do so, on his view, 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 in general, are as inevitable as are the joys and excitement of being alive in the world, of feeling and and of 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 even its quality. But he gives us no reason for why we should care about other individuals, who are momentary aspects of the vast universe, as we are.