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Some Parts of a Larger Whole: David J. Levy and Hans Jonas

Some Parts Of A Larger Whole: David J. Levy And Hans Jonas

Hans Jonas: The Integrity of Thinking. David J. Levy. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002.


David Levy’s Earlier Scholarship

David J. Levy describes his own scholarship as “analysis and exploration.” It is marked by sustained attention to the task of interpreting human experience in light of the “problem of maintaining a balance between man and the world whose being he must now sustain. . .”1 Levy’s first book, Realism, was a discussion of the aspirations and limitations of “interpretative sociology.” He drew on the thought of various phenomenological thinkers to address the following question: “What is social reality?” Realism concluded by answering that social reality is “political existence.” The way towards this end includes rational rejection of positivistic and Marxist sociological approaches, and their substitution with “realism.” Incorporating realism into the human sciences, Levy says, results in “the historically and archaeologically warranted assumption that a relatively stable human nature exists which combines aggressive and cooperative elements, and that political orders, in all their variety, reflect the nature of the human animal who makes them up.”2

Levy’s second book, Political Order, picked up where Realism ended, explicating and justifying the previous anthropological and ontological assumptions. To do so, Levy drew first on the philosophical anthropology of Max Scheler, the ontology of Nicolai Hartmann, as well as on some of their disciples, and then he discussed the philosophy of history and consciousness of Eric Voegelin. Aware that these two approaches were distinct— that the latter even provides correctives to the former – Levy nonetheless determined them sufficiently complementary and thus both useful in attempting to understand the order and disorder of modernity; for, “the existential state of technologically advanced modernity is . . . no more than the embodiment of a certain cluster of possibilities of nature and human nature.” This premise, which becomes a conclusion through consideration of the distinct but complementary perspectives, provides “a vantage point from which we can perceive the fatef ul limitations of a modern world that sometimes seems to imagine that it is free from fate and limits alike.”3

A third book by Levy, The Measure of Man, continued his anthropological analyses and explorations in a valuable collection of essays consisting of pieces focused on individual thinkers like Eric Voegelin, Arnold Gehlen, Carl Schmitt, Hans Freyer, and Paul Ricoeur, on the one hand, and of thematic studies engaging, for example, liberalism, technology, Zoroastrianism, and Manichaeism, on the other hand.4 Problems of interpretation and balance were again highlighted, as exemplified in the closing lines of a thoughtful essay on Voegelin’s relation to philosophical anthropology: “the life of order remains in tension with the order of life and must do so as long as things may last. That is the enduring problem of man and the final word of an anthropology that takes his being, in the plenitude of its openness, as its object of inquiry.”5

The Final Study: Hans Jonas

Levy’s fourth and final book was intended as part of a broader project on “The Hermeneutics of Order.” Unfortunately, this larger whole remains incomplete as severe illness cut his life short in 2003 at the age of 56. This  book, entitled Hans Jonas: The Integrity of Thinking, is the subject of this review. In it Levy argues that Jonas was “among the most important” thinkers of the twentieth century, and that his philosophy “provides a perspective on the present position and future prospects of mankind that is, in its power and wisdom, unequalled in the work of any of his contemporaries,” despite the general lack of familiarity with his work outside of Germany.6

Certainly aware of the boldness of his claim, Levy attempts to convince by outlining the “unified logic of informed concern” that links the diverse areas of Jonas’s philosophical work while illustrating that it is “eminently practical,” the latter characteristic as something Levy assesses to be absent in far too many of Jonas’s contemporaries. In fact, he emboldens further: “If Kant can be considered the preeminent moral philosopher for an individualized bourgeois world, Jonas may just be an equivalent figure of equal significance for an age of technologically conditioned globalization from whom we must learn if right is to continue to be done and the integrity of man and earth preserved for generations to come.”7

The design of Levy’s work follows the chronological development of Jonas’s own thinking so as to demonstrate its remarkable “integrity” (hence the book’s subtitle). What Levy means by this is twofold: there is an “enviable honesty of approach” and so too a “unity of rational inquiry . . . anchored in the circumstances of Jonas’s life.”8 So far as honesty is concerned, Levy notes that Jonas engages issues directly and does not resort to “mystifying technicalities or pseudopoetic outbursts” that mar, say, Heidegger’s work.

On the issue of unity Levy argues that despite the fact that Jonas engaged a rather disparate number of subjects – including but not limited to work on the Gnostic religion, essays on philosophical biology, engagement with Heidegger’s philosophy, existentialism and nihilism, and reflections on ethics and theology – his life’s thinking hangs together as a whole: all of it comes to bear on understanding and addressing dilemmas of the contemporary world. While study of ancient religion might especially seem far afield from immediate engagement with today’s issues, Levy argues that in fact Jonas’s study of Gnosticism – due to his contrasting it with “the integral cosmic religiosity of ancient Greek paganism,” which is “much more radically opposed” than Voegelin’s contrast with medieval Christian orthodoxy – helped guide the way towards his subsequent philosophy of nature, philosophical biology, and conception of ethics.

The Ghost of Heidegger

While the case for honesty and unity are plausible enough on the surface, the grandeur Levy attributes to Jonas is unconvincing and the real practical (or prudential) application of Jonas’s ethics remains an open question. In fact, the real case Levy seems to be making is that of Jonas’s superiority over Heidegger, particularly in terms of rationality and ethics, in both speech and deed. Heidegger’s name appears at least once on over 60 of the 142 pages of text. Levy never tires of repeating how Jonas offers an alternative reading to Heidegger’s history of Being and the modern predicament of nihilism. In various ways he reiterates that it is in Jonas’s concrete philosophical anthropology and biology, with its concordant ethics, rather than in Heidegger’s fundamental ontology “that our best answers may be found.”9

Does the case for Jonas’s importance necessarily rest upon his relationship with Heidegger? Is the “bold” thesis regarding Jonas as equivalent to Kant (or something of a new St. Thomas, perhaps) dependent upon surpassing Heidegger? Should any but self-professing “Heideggerians” even be so concerned? Spending as much time as Levy does on the Jonas-Heidegger matter rather than focusing deeply and comprehensively on Jonas’s texts leads readers to conclude that the bold claim follows only if one accepts that Heidegger is in fact the only great thinker in our time.10

Levy himself never substantiates this claim either, but instead twice refers to Leo Strauss’s remarks on Heidegger as “the only great thinker in our time.”11 And yet, surprisingly, Levy also writes the following: “I do not know if Jonas is, in Strauss’s sense, a great thinker proportionate to Heidegger – only time will tell.”  The fact that time should tell seems to indicate that history, not reason, will be the ultimate judge of the integrity of Jonas’s thinking, which is in fact the very opposite of what Levy erstwhile seeks to establish.

Levy’s introduction to Jonas allows readers to raise further questions about the applicability of Jonas’s work on ethics, or the prudence of his ethics. He refers to Jonas’s book, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, as “his masterwork.” It is said that we find in this collection of essays “a framework for debate” for our current situation. Our situation is described as one in which the relationship between technology and ethics has changed, suggesting that we can no longer rely on traditional modes of thinking. Modern technology’s power has significantly changed the “dimensional range of possible human actions, extending the consequences of our decisions spatially, temporally, and even ontologically into regions that previously lay beyond human interferences or control.”12

While many have recently advocated the “precautionary principle” when making decisions about applications of technology and the research agenda of science, “Jonas puts matters rather more strongly than that.” Indeed, Jonas proposes that we be guided by what he calls a “heuristics of fear.” Technological innovation should be pursued with an ever-present mindfulness of the worst possible consequences of our actions. Levy states that what appears to be an “unbalanced recommendation” is intended to stand as a polemic and counter position to Marxist theorist Ernst Bloch’s “principle of hope.”

One cannot help but wonder whether this, after all, is the most rational position to adopt, namely a stance at the opposite extreme of a man Levy tells us is an “explicitly utopian Marxist theorist.” Does one extreme necessitate another? If indeed we are in the situation that both Levy and Jonas describe, is fear really our best guide? The rational and Aristotelian aspects of Jonas’s biological and anthropological work that Levy notes and praises seem to culminate in an ethics based on the passion Hobbes once said was the only one to be “reckoned on.” If reason leads us to rely on the sentiment of fear as we act and engage with nature, what kind of political order should we expect would follow?

Levy acknowledges that “an essential aspect” to the case of Jonas’s integrity as a thinker depends on highlighting the political dimension of Jonas’s thought (one imagines particularly in terms of the Heidegger contrast!). However, this is admittedly a “less developed” part of Jonas’s thought and one finds only “an implicit politics,” which Levy labels “a politics of human survival” (recall Hobbes once more).13 The very argument of The Imperative of Responsibility is “that man’s primary aim must be his own survival as a moral being and that this survival depends upon the care he takes to conserve the integrity of the nature on which his own depends.”14

It would be hard to deny the importance of this claim, but surely great integrity in thought requires equal consideration of traditional political problems and threats to, or between, particular regimes as well. In all fairness, Levy states that he ends his book somewhat abruptly, “leaving for a future work of political anthropology the task of developing further the implications for human practice” that Jonas’s thought seems to suggest. Whatever the shortcomings of his book on Jonas, Levy’s scholarship as a whole, with its sustained attention to important problems and his philosophical aspirations in desiring to extend the work of significant predecessors, exemplifies at least some of the integrity he attributes to Jonas. We regret he was deprived the chance to conclude his work.



1. David J. Levy, Political Order: Philosophical Anthropology, Modernity, and the Challenge of Ideology (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 194.

2. David J. Levy, Realism: An Essay in Interpretation and Social Reality (Manchester: Carcanet New Press, 1981), 102 [emphasis added].

3. Levy, Political Order, 139.

4. David J. Levy, The Measure of Man: Incursions in Philosophical and Political Anthropology (St. Albans: The Claridge Press, 1993).

5. Ibid., 55.

6. David J. Levy, Hans Jonas: The Integrity of Thinking (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002), 3, 77.

7. Ibid., 10; cf. 1-2.  Other audacious statements abound: “[I]f Heidegger is the preeminent Cassandra or Jeremiah of the age to come — a prophetic voice who should not be ignored — then Jonas is the practical educator to whom we should look in our search for salvation from potential disaster as we attempt to regulate our simultaneously creative and destructive capacities to guide the future course of being” (10).  In light of Voegelin’s observation that not another Thomist revival but a new St. Thomas is needed today, Levy suggests “there was about [Jonas] and his achievement something of just this sort,” [!] however much this “conjecture” might have shocked the “modest” Jonas (33).  All that said, Levy is led “to think that Jonas’s deepest philosophical affinities are with Aristotle” (5).

8. Ibid., 2, 3.

9. Ibid., 28.

10.  “[T]he challenge [of global technology] could only be met by answering the Heideggerian account of existence with one at once more rational and more humanly inclusive. This is what Jonas sought to accomplish and, in my view, succeeded in doing.” Ibid., 79.

11. Leo Strauss, “An Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism,” in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism: An Introduction to the Thought of Leo Strauss, ed. Thomas L. Pangle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 29.

12. Levy, Hans Jonas, 83-84.

13. And yet, rather contradictorily, Levy finds that Jonas’s “politics flows logically from the way he appropriates, modifies, and extends the lessons of his two great philosophical mentors [i.e., Husserl and Heidegger] in a single, rational, coherent, and inclusive philosophical vision,” which “alone [!] will justify the bold claim for Jonas’s exemplary significance as perhaps the preeminent practical thinker for our time” (135).

14. Ibid., 134.

Trevor ShelleyTrevor Shelley

Trevor Shelley

Trevor Shelley teaches at St. Mary's University in Calgary and is the author of Globalism and Liberalism: An Essay on Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Manent (St. Augustine's, 2017).

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