Memoirs: Hans Jonas

Edited and annotated by Christian Wiese
Translated from the German by Krishna Winston

Cover of "Memoirs: Hans Jonas"

When Hans Jonas died in 1993 at the age of 89, he was revered among American scholars specializing in European philosophy, but his thought had not yet made great inroads among a wider public. In Germany, conversely, during the 1980s, Jonas was a veritable intellectual celebrity, owing to the runaway success of his 1979 book "The Imperative of Responsibility," an extraordinarily timely work which meditates on the ever-widening gap between humankind’s enormous technological capacities and its diminished moral sensibilities. The book became something of a cultural shibboleth; Jonas himself became a celebrated public intellectual.

For Jonas, this development must have been enormously gratifying. In the 1920s, Jonas studied philosophy with Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger at universities in Marburgh and Freiburg, but the Nazi regime’s early attempts to Aryanize the universities forced Jonas to leave Germany for London in 1933. He emigrated to Palestine in 1935 and eventually enlisted in the British Army’s Jewish Brigade to fight against Hitlerism. Following the Israeli War of Independence, in which he also fought, he emigrated to the United States and took a position at the New School for Social Research in New York. He became part of a circle of friends around Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blucher, which included Adolph Lowe and Paul Tillich.

Because Jonas’ life spanned the entire 20th century, this memoir provides nuanced pictures of a host of important historical moments: of German Jewry during the Weimar Republic, of German Zionism, of the Jewish emigrants in Palestine during the 1930s and 1940s, and of German Jewish émigré intellectuals in New York. In addition, Jonas outlines the development of his work, beginning with his studies under Husserl and Heidegger and extending through his later metaphysical speculations about “God after Auschwitz.”

This memoir, a collection of heterogeneous unpublished materials — diaries, memoirs, letters, interviews and public statements — has been shaped and organized by Christian Wiese, whose afterword links the Jewish dimensions of Jonas’ biography and philosophy.

“Jonas’ memoirs… are replete with… observations in which the philosophical and the personal become thickly intertwined. They are peopled by personalities whose thought has become a familiar part of 20th-century intellectual and cultural sensibility. Above all, they trace the ways in which these quintessentially Weimar intellectuals were formed and then, faced with crucial political and intellectual dilemmas, variously chose to make their lives. It is a testament to Hans Jonas’ decency and honesty that in these matters he seems always to come out as a mensch.” —Times Literary Supplement review of original German-language Memoirs

“I felt I had to take the risk of suggesting that values were more than a matter of subjective choice, the risk of deriving certain obligations from being. That this question has now taken on global and planetary dimensions is a result of the expansion of our power. We’ve become doers, and have incurred responsibility for extremely far-reaching decisions with unpredictable consequences. We need a new ethics for the age of technology, one that confronts the challenges of our new era.” —Hans Jonas, from “On the Value and Dignity of Life” in “Memoirs”

“He had no fear of death, but held the view that he expressed in ‘The Burden and Blessing of Mortality’: As far as each one of us is concerned, the knowledge that we are here for but a short while, and that a non-negotiable limit is imposed on the time we may expect to have, may well be necessary as an incentive to count our days and to live them in such a way that they count for something.’ I believe that is what he did.” —Lore Jonas, wife of Hans Jonas, from the introduction

About the Author

Christian Wiese is director of the Centre for German-Jewish Studies and professor in the history department at Sussex University, U.K. He is also the author of “The Life and Thought of Hans Jonas: Jewish Dimensions,” published in 2007 by Brandeis University Press.