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The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, by Hans Jonas

Organic Thinking

The Phenomenon of Life. Toward a Philosophical Biology.
by Hans Jonas.
Harper & Row. 303 pp. $6.00.

Professor Jonas has collected here eleven essays, and nine shorter discussions which are interpolated as appendices to some of the essays. One must say at the outset, it is unfortunate that the title suggests a more unified, if not systematic work. “Essays in Philosophical Biology” would have been less misleading—though even then the reader would scarcely expect within these covers an essay on gnosticism and existentialism, or on Heidegger and theology. Still, that is a superficial weakness: Professor Jonas's essays are well worth having in book form, whatever their title. They do present, moreover, aspects of a single enterprise; as he puts it in his foreword: “they . . . express in various facets one philosophy of organism and life.” The statement here of the “emergent essence” of that philosophy is important for two reasons.

First, a number of the individual essays constitute significant original contributions to philosophy, particularly to the history of thought. This is especially true of the two essays mentioned above. Professor Jonas's critique of the (mis)application of Heideggerian concepts to theology is masterly, and refreshing among all the current nonsense about dead gods and new gods. In the gnosticism essay, he brings his great learning in this field to bear on the problem of modern nihilism, and we find our present intellectual crisis falling beautifully into historical perspective. The same holds for the opening essay, “Life, Death and the Body in the Theory of Being.” Many writers, this reviewer included, have laid their present philosophical troubles at the door of Cartesian dualism, and have seen in the foundations of biology the most pressing ontological problem they have to face; but Professor Jonas puts this common theme elegantly and convincingly into a more sweeping historical perspective than most of them have done. Also, many writers, this reviewer again included, have written critiques of Darwinism; but Professor Jonas expresses better than most of us, I feel, that strange union of belief in chance and in necessity which characterizes thinkers of this ilk all the way back to the Greek atomists. Apart from these historical excellences, moreover, several of the essays, particularly those on the “Nobility of Sight” and on “Image-Making and the Freedom of Man,” are important contributions to the phenomenology of organic, and human, existence. And even in some of the less striking, or less original, essays there are illuminating aperçus. For instance, in a note on “Causality and Perception” there is an interesting assessment of Hume's argument, based on Whitehead's distinction between “causal efficacy” and “presentational immediacy.” Or in a note on Whitehead, there is the fascinating suggestion that what Whitehead's cosmology lacks is a theory of death and evil. I have myself suggested that what it lacks is an epistemology, and I wonder whether these are not the same lack. Finitude, and the awareness of finitude; the need to make sense of the world and the risk of failing: this is, it seems to me, the central theme of epistemology and of ethics. And what the “organically” minded philosopher needs to do with Whitehead is to find his way from ethics or epistemology, in other words, from some axiological direction into the metaphysics of process.


Over and above such points of detail, moreover, there is a more general reason why Professor Jonas's collection of essays is important. It brings substantial reinforcements to the intellectual revolution which constitutes the principal task of philosophy in the 20th century. Academic philosophy here and in Great Britain still, in the main, goes merrily forward in the manner described by Michael Polanyi as that of a doctor continually sharpening his tools in the hope of eventually curing the patient. Yet an increasing number of writers, some of them even in university philosophy departments, are beginning both to feel the need for, and to implement, an escape not only from the triviality of most contemporary philosophy, but from the larger intellectual situation which has produced this disaster. We are in revolt not, indeed, against the truths of modern naturalism, but against its false, and pernicious, consequences. We are trying to rethink our basic categories in such a way as to overcome the impoverishment of our image of ourselves and the world produced by the predominance of a distorted objectivism over our thought. Professor Jonas describes his book as “an ‘existential’ interpretation of biological facts.” Existentialism and biology? This is by no means so bizarre a combination as it may at first appear. For it is in terms of the “existential” concept of “being-in-the-world” that we can best hope to transcend the Cartesian dichotomy of mind and nature, and, a fortiori, the truncated Cartesianism which, abandoning mind, reduces everything, itself included, to the blind, brute succession of physico-chemical events. Thus, Professor Jonas's enterprise, as he describes it, fits happily, and with distinction, into the growing number of works which attempt just such a synthesis.

It will be asked, however, why Professor Jonas fails to mention—except for Whitehead—the others who are engaged with him, in a strikingly convergent way, on a single task of conceptual reform. I have hesitated to ask myself this, I suppose, because then I must also ask myself why I have not in my own writing mentioned Professor Jonas. I have to plead ignorance: until recently I have been far away in the fastnesses of British philosophy, and am only beginning to discover what is going on in the world. But Professor Jonas must know. For example, he quotes from an essay by Erwin Straus, but makes no mention of Straus's book Vom Sinn der Sinne, which in 1934 undertook a reform in philosophical biology that is, in some ways at least, strikingly congruent with his own. He pleads for the concept of “organic body” with no mention of Merleau-Ponty's “lived body,” which is becoming positively fashionable in some philosophical circles (and again, Merleau-Ponty's two definitive books date back to the 40's). His essay on “The Animal Soul” puts rather slightly what Plessner argued much more solidly about plants and animals in Die Stufen des Organischen und Der Mensch in 1928. And so on.

But I think we should forgive him (and not only because I want to forgive myself). There are fundamental problems which, as Descartes said, every man must work out for himself. And in any event philosophy does not “progress” as science does, or is alleged to do; it is not a question of priority in this or that discovery, but of a basic rethinking of perspectives in which a whole generation is engaged. In such a situation, parallel or convergent evolution can only be applauded: it not only reinforces our confidence that we understand our common problem, but reassures us that in broad outline, at least, we can see ahead the shape of the solution which, whether separately or together, we are all trying to achieve.

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