Hans Jonas on the perils of progress and the recovery of Metaphysical speculation

Nicholas Allen Anderson


Hans Jonas’s establishment of an ethics of responsibility entails the simultaneous rejection of the modern notion of progress and the recovery of a form of “metaphysical speculation” that aids man in his search for an objective standard of value. Looking mostly at Jonas’s philosophical biology in The Phenomenon of Life and Mortality and Morality, this paper shows how Jonas’s thought on value judgments rests upon his critique of progress and science. The ethics of perfectibility and progress, Jonas shows, leads to a predicament in which the modern mind must navigate between the dangers present in the hubristic hopes of technological progress and the nihilism he finds in the thought of Martin Heidegger. Jonas’s philosophical biology serves as a critique of these positions that opens up an alternative orientation toward nature—one that grounds not only the ethics of responsibility but the uniquely human activity of reflection. The critique of progress serves, then, as a propaedeutic to the ethics of responsibility and the recovery of an image of man as the reflective animal. Such a recovery of metaphysical speculation from the dogmas of the physical sciences helps encourage a “new humility” in the face of man’s technological power. Jonas hopes to replace man’s desire for self-overcoming with the fear that his “Promethean immoderation” will lead to the biosphere's destruction. This fear acknowledges the limits of man’s knowledge and is thereby accompanied by a posture of Socratic ignorance and the reengagement with the philosophia perennis. That is, a less hubristic ethical theory depends upon a modest philosophical stance toward the whole. Only on the grounds of this epistemological modesty can we hope to proceed into the future with both caution and wisdom.


progress; responsibility; modern science; technology; metaphysical; nature

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.26694/pensando.v11i24.11374

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