Biying Ling presents on Life Science, Holism, and Hans Jonas

Wednesday, February 28, 4:30-6:00pm. Haskell 101

The Medicine and Its Objects Workshop presents:

Biying Ling (Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science):

The Logic of Science versus a Holistic Worldview? Context and Critique of Hans Jonas’s The Phenomenon of Life

            Hans Jonas is best known as a historian and philosopher of the Gnostic religion and as a bioethicist. Between his first book on Gnosticism and his third on ethics in the technological age, is the 1966 The Phenomenon of Life, a collection of his philosophical reflections from teaching in Jerusalem in early 1940s and from encountering the life and mind sciences in North America in mid-20th century. Jonas considered it as his most important work and the philosophical foundation for his theory of ethics. It was intended as an “existential interpretation of biological facts,” as an effort to bridge the Cartesian dualism that he believed to characterize the modern worldview. The ancient Gnosis attitude, with its radical rift between God and man, between man and nature, was recapitulated in the modern dichotomy between a materialistic natural science and an anthropocentric philosophy of human existence. The same critique, according to Jonas, applied to molecular biology and cybernetics of the mid-century. To counter this inherently nihilistic situation, Jonas intended to recover value and meaning in the concept of organism. By providing a non-mechanistic, non-materialistic and subjective interpretation of the organism, he assumed that ethics could be issued from science, and values could be grounded in reality.

The book was largely neglected until Jonas’s 1979 Das Prinzip Verantwortung provoked wide discussions. The current paper argues that Jonas’s “modern Gnosis” reiterates a branch of cultural criticisms during Weimar Germany, where Jonas came to intellectual maturity. Common to such criticisms was the identification of the ills of modernity with mechanistic scientific methodology. Like Weimar intellectuals, Jonas sought a cure from holistic concepts that could potentially unify science and humanity. But according to the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, Jonas was wrong with respect to biological facts and the logic of biological sciences. If we accept Mayr’s critique, how should we reevaluate Jonas’s contribution and how should the 1966 book be productively interpreted? By contextualizing Jonas’s views, this paper argues that his critique should be read as an intervention in the mid 20th century reductive metaphors popularized by biologists and cyberneticists, which treated life as a coding-problem.

To receive the paper, or if you have any questions or require assistance to attend, email the workshop coordinator: Kieran Kelley (

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