Hans Jonas on Heidegger’s Paganism


While my students were feverishly writing their responses to their final exam I decided to have another look at Hans Jonas’ essay I mentioned yesterday.  It’s far more polemical than I remembered.  It’s quite enjoyable to read, actually.  Early on in his essay, “Heidegger and Theology,” (in the wonderful collection of essays entitled Phenomenon of Life republished by Northwestern fairly recently) Hans Jonas suggests that what it so tempting to Christian theologians, especially given the late Heidegger, is the “seeming, false humility of Heidegger’s shifting initiative to Being.” What lies behind or beyond this false humility?  Here’s Jonas: “the most enormous hubris in the whole history of thought.”  Whoa (and this is almost 25 odd years prior to the “Farias revelations” in which many Heideggerians ran for Levinasian cover).  Jonas sees Heidegger’s humility as fundamentally immoral, akin to what Levinas might call “participation” in that which is, and therefore, must be, rather than what should be. Jonas comments on Heidegger’s hubris:

For it is nothing less than the thinker’s claiming that through him speaks the essence of things itself, and thus the claim to an authority which no other thinker should ever claim.  And moreover it is the claim that in principle the basic human condition, that of being at a distance to things can be remitted, avoided, overcome.  The claim, that is, to a possible immediacy that perhaps has a place in the person-to-person relation, but no in the relation to impersonal being and things and the world.

Jonas continues:

Man: the shepherd of being–not, mind you, of beings!  Apart from the blasphemous ring which this use of the hallowed title must have to Jewish and Christian ears: it is hard to hear man hailed as the shepherd of being when he has so dismally failed to be his brother’s keeper.  The latter he is meant to be in the Bible.  But the terrible anonymity of Heidegger’s “being,” illicitly decked out with personal characters, blocks out the personal call.  Not by the being of another person am I grasped, but just by “being”!  And my responsive thoughtis being’s own event.  But called as person by person–fellow beings or God–my response will not primarily be thinking but action (though this involves thinking), and the action may be one of love, responsibility, pity; also of wrath, indignation, hate, even the fight to the death.  Such calls are drowned in the voice of being to which one cannot say No (257-258).

Although Jonas has a different aim with this criticism it jives well with critiques of Heidegger from both Levinas and Rosenzweig, namely, that Heidegger’s priority of language-thinking is at bottom, pagan.  I think what Jonas, Levinas and Rosenzweig share is a decentering of Heidegger’s insistence that Seinsfrage as the only question worth thinking. Hence, Rosenzweig’s declaration at the end of the Star: into life.  Though, I was reminded the other day –by something I either read or was told–of Heidegger’s interpretation of Kant’s notion of respect  and he has some interesting things to say about responsible types of acting there (in Basic Prob of Phenomenology), actually.  There are of course, important ways in which these four thinkers converge.  For one, it’s pretty clear that while Levinas (and Jonas) was critical of certain elements of Heidegger’s philosophy (particularly the death/authenticity relation, where he preferred death/enjoyment), his entire project depended in some way upon the world that Heidegger had opened up, with even such key terms as “dwelling” and such being appropriated by Levinas to reach another style of interpreting.  Even the business of the originating role of the other still doesn’t seem to me in any way completely antithetical to Heidegger, as Heidegger does say that authenticity is a modification of inauthenticity (thank you reader for pointing out my typo here). Perhaps one just needs to add some Kierkegaard here.  The relation between Rosenzweig and Heidegger is another story, and one that is quite interesting.  The two developed their most well known books around the same time and had very similar concerns, which of course, veer off in different directions at a certain point.  Peter Gordon’s book is very good on this. Anyway, I’m going to re-read the Jonas essay in tandem with both Heidegger and Richardson’s essays.  Interesting stuff

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