Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

The Political and Intellectual Influence of Hans Jonas

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

The Political and Intellectual Influence of Hans Jonas

Article excerpt

The sudden success of Hans Jonas's The Imperative of Responsibility (in the German original Das Prinzip Verantwortung, published in 1984) came as a surprise to the author himself and to the German intellectual and philosophical community at large. Within a decade this book, in which Jonas developed a theory of ethics for the technological age, had to be reprinted nine times. The author's name and the book's title found their way into countless speeches and addresses given at forums as diverse as ecological groups in remote villages to the Bundestag, the federal parliament in Bonn. This infusion of philosophical thought into public discourse itself was surprising, because a tradition of exchange between philosophical thought and public affairs had practically ceased to exist. Not since the time of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, whose 1807 and 1808 Reden an die deutsche Nation (Speeches to the German Nation) helped to promote national feeling against Napoleonic oppression, and Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, whose Nuremberg School Lectures of 1812 to 1816 informed the structuring of the German educational system, had the work of philosophers so influenced public life. In our own times, as an exception to the rule, Carl-Friedrich von Weizsacker, the elder brother of the former Bundesprasident Richard von Weizsacker, served for some years in the late seventies as adviser to the social-liberal government of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. He had by then come close to acquiring the reputation of being a praeceptor Germaniae, a person whose name was never mentioned without the decorating description "the physicist and philosopher." As a physicist he had explained the operation of the nuclear fusion reaction cycle as the source of energy production in the sun; as a philosopher he had published and lectured at Hamburg University on the philosophy of nature. Weizsacker later became director of the Max Planck Institute for Research into Future Developments and World Problems and had some influence with moderate statements on the debate over nuclear energy. But even he never attained the degree of attention received by Hans Jonas during the 1980s.

Timing, Approach, and Style

The reasons for Jonas's truly spectacular popularity were not always philosophical in kind. He appeared on the German scene at the right moment and with the right approach. At the end of the seventies there was a vague but widespread feeling that the cultural revolution that had started in 1968 had ended in disappointment. The "principle of hope" expounded by the neomarxist philosopher Ernst Bloch had itself proved to be only a temporarily inspiring utopia, one which faded away under the realization that "the new man" was still not at hand and was unlikely ever to emerge. In contrast, Jonas described real dangers rather than engendering unfounded hopes. Although these dangers had already been foreseen by a number of prophets of the ecological movement, Jonas developed the theory and defined the problem with precision: an explosion of technology driven by human intellect and boundless economic enterprise in a limited world. He was able to explain by philosophical deduction why the present generation ought to preserve the conditions of life for the generations to come.

Although the need to think of future generations had become a piety of public rhetoric by that time, no cogent answer had been formulated in response to the question of why present generations should be responsible for the unborn, who have neither been historically represented nor been subjects with personal rights in civil legislation. Did former generations--for instance, by voting for Hitler--care for the present one? Jonas avoided a short-term mentality of that kind and provided a well-founded answer with his concept of an ethics for the preservation of being (das Seiende) based on nothing other than because it is. Polemicizing against Bloch's "principle of hope," he proclaimed his "imperative of responsibility. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.