Rand and Jonas

Anonymous Guest's picture
Submitted by Anonymous Guest on Fri, 2010-02-05 21:53

Ayn Rand considered herself as original thinker. She never acknowledged any philosophical debt to any philosopher, except Aristotle. However I found striking similarities between certain ideas of Rand and Hans Jonas, who was her contemporary.
Here are few passages from his book “The Phenomenon of Life” compared with citations from Rand. Could it be that these similarities are pure co-accident, or these two thinkers influenced each other? To answer this question would be a proper task for any serious researcher of Objectivism’s history.

TPL: “Thus life appears in its very means…as its own achievement” (pg45)

“Only a living entity can have goals or can originate them. And it is only a living organism that has the capacity for self-generated, goal-directed action.” (The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, 16

TPL: “The living substance …has taken itself out of the general integration of things in the physical context, set itself over against the world, and introduced the tension of "to be or not to be” into the neutral assuredness of existence.” (Pg 4).

“There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms… It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death.” (Galt’s Speech, For the New Intellectual, 121)

TPL: “Pure consciousness is as little alive as the pure matter confronting it…both are fusion products of the ontology of death to which the dualistic anatomy of being had led” (pg 21)

“They have taught man that he is a hopeless misfit made of two elements, both symbols of death. A body without a soul is a corpse; a soul without a body is a ghost…” (Galt’s Speech, For the New Intellectual, 138)

TPL: “The body as such is the grave of the soul and bodily death is the latter’s resurrection” (pg 13)

“…soul belongs to a supernatural realm, but his body is an evil prison holding it in bondage to this earth—and that the good is to defeat his body, to undermine it by years of patient struggle, digging his way to that glorious jail-break which leads into the freedom of the grave.” (Ibid)

( categories: )


Leonid's picture

"What is your agenda, really?"
I found another philosopher's work with ideas similar to that of Rand. He was Rand's contemporary. Rand's ethical philosophy was unique by that time as well as Jonas'. So we deal here with simultaneous appearance of two unique phenomena. I think that it's important to investigate the possible connection between them.

"but Ayn Rand did not need the "rescue" you are shooting for."
That only she could say.


John Donohue's picture

That's a lot of presuming and hoping. And persisting; you are on about this. What is your agenda, really?

The congruence with this other thinker is still interesting, but Ayn Rand did not need the "rescue" you are shooting for.


Leonid's picture

"Can you cite her using material from academic journals prior to the release of Atlas?"
No. I'm not a historian; I don't have an access to archives. You probably in far better position to do that. I only can presume that Ayn Rand did read contemporary philosophy before the release of Atlas because she evidently did it after that. For example in her letter to Leonard Read dated August 1, 1946 she mentioned Hayek, which means she read him. (Letters pg 299). I think that popular perception of Rand as a lone thinker completely disconnected from the world of mainstream philosophy is not so accurate. I don't claim that Rand simply used Jonas' ideas. That would be preposterous. The question is: did she know about his work at all? I'd like to think that she did. That could help her to develop her own philosophy and, more importantly, to rescue her from intellectual vacuum, in which she lived. As she used to say: " this is a great pleasure to see brilliant achievement which is not my own"


James S. Valliant's picture

I am aware of all of that.

I wrote, "in the 1950s."

Can you cite her using material from academic journals prior to the release of Atlas?


Leonid's picture

"Rand was not reading academic journals in the 1950s, for, in general, she did not read that kind of material, and, at the time, she was neck deep in writing Atlas."

Actually, Rand was reading contemporary philosophy. She read and reviewed Skinner's “Beyond Freedom and Dignity"-see "The Stimulus", Ayn Rand Letter vol.1, no 8.
She read "An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis" by John Hospers ( Letters of Ayn Rand pg 503); "Reason and Goodness" by Prof B Blanshard (Ibid pg 629). In IOE she quotes Wingenstein, Ayer, Barret, Becket, Heidegger and Hawton.
She even attended a conference on “methods in Philosophy and the Science" in May 1961 and recorded it in her journals (pg 683).

"And all of this assumes that their work is really so similar in the first place, and we will still need to substantially flesh out both thinker's ideas for that, won't we?"

Jonas wasn't Objectivist, that for sure. He was a student of Heidegger, but eventually rebelled against him. However his ethics have the same foundations as that of Rand. I wonder why she didn't notice him (or maybe she did and we simply don’t know about that?)


James S. Valliant's picture

You are missing the point: Rand was not reading academic journals in the 1950s, for, in general, she did not read that kind of material, and, at the time, she was neck deep in writing Atlas.

So, when you ask, how could she have missed or ignored(?!) his work, you've put the shoe on just the wrong foot. No, the question we must ask is this: how would Rand have been aware of his work in academic journals? Indeed, at this stage, he is far more likely to have been aware of her popular work than she of his work -- especially before it was published in a book, don't you think?

And even this is still not enough, is it? As John begins to observe, we need to know which bits were published when, not just that some (or even most) had been published in the 50s -- even for this preliminary step.

And, then, we're STILL not done, are we? Just as the original date for some of Jonas's ideas may be pushed back, so, too, Rand's notes also show that most of her related ideas had been already formed in the 1940s! Were you aware of that?

And all of this assumes that their work is really so similar in the first place, and we will still need to substantially flesh out both thinker's ideas for that, won't we?

I had already guessed that some of his work was published in some earlier form, or at least been part of his lectures, despite seeing only later dates in that article -- and if my nudge helped get you to do some of the first steps of the necessary leg-work, I am gratified.

Until then, there is NO reason to believe that either knew of the other's work at all.


Leonid's picture

"what is the orginal publication date (not the republishing in the book) of the "Ontology may yet..." quote please."
I don't know. I quoted it from the book. My primary interest in this matter is the origin of Objectivist ideas. I think that for the historian of Objectivism this topic could be much more fascinating than investigation of Frank O'Connor's drinking patterns, Ayn Rand's drugs of choice or Nataniel Branden sexual habits.

what is the orginal

John Donohue's picture

what is the orginal publication date (not the republishing in the book) of the "Ontology may yet..." quote please.

That is certainly interesting. I give not a fig if Ayn Rand read this guy or not, if his thinking influenced her or not. I do like it that another intellectual on this earth at least gets in the ballpark of the correct foundation of ethics. That is so rare in modern times.


Leonid's picture

I'm not a scholar of Jonas and have been introduced to his work only recently. TPL has been published in 1966 as you mentioned. However TPL is a collection of essays, which had been published as articles in different journals before 1966. For example : The Journal of Philosophy ( 47,1950); Measure (2,1951), Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (14,1953); Social Research (19,1952; 20,1953; 26,1959; 29, 1962); University of Toronto Quarterly (21, 1951). So chronologically Rand could have been exposed to the Jonas' ideas of ethical foundationalism before she wrote AS and VOS. Indeed, one of the essays in TPL called “Nature and Ethics” in which Jonas postulates: "a philosophy of mind comprises ethics-and trough the continuity of mind with organism and of organism with nature, ethics becomes part of the philosophy of nature" (TPL pg 282). Jonas' position on the problem of "is" and "ought" is similar to that of Rand's.
"Ontology may yet relocate the foundation of "ought" from the ego of man, [that is-subjectivism-Leonid] to which it has been relegated, to the nature of being in general...an ethics no longer founded on divine authority must be founded on the principle discoverable in the nature of things..." (TPL, pg 283-4). Wasn't that what Rand just did? Now, I don't claim that Rand was influenced by Jonas or vice versa. It’s often happening that different people discover the truth independently. But all the same, the question remains-how Rand could miss or ignore a philosopher who was her contemporary and his line of reasoning was so similar to her own? Maybe I'm wrong, but as far as I know Rand never mentioned Jonas and his ideas.

Sorry, Leonid

James S. Valliant's picture

Assuming that Wikipedia's article on Jonas is correct, and that's as much efforts as I'm willing to exert at this point, there appears to be no chance that Rand could've been influenced by his work. Rand's arguments had been worked out by the publication of Atlas Shrugged in 1957. The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology was first published by Harper & Row in 1966, and, then, by Northwestern University Press in 2001. It is later than even The Virtue of Selfishness. Most of his work in English appears to have been published later as well, even his influential The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God & the Beginnings of Christianity (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), which seems to have been the first.

With the exception of Gnosis und spätantiker, Geist (1–2, 1934–1954), even his work in German appears to post-date Rand's.

But he sounds like a very interesting fellow, Leonid.

English books

The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God & the Beginnings of Christianity (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958) ISBN 0-8070-5801-7
The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (New York, Harper & Row, 1966) OCLC 373876 (Evanston, Ill. : Northwestern University Press, 2001). ISBN 0810117495
The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of Ethics for the Technological Age (trans. of Das Prinzip Verantwortung) trans. Hans Jonas and David Herr (1979). ISBN 0-226-40597-4 (University of Chicago Press, 1984) ISBN 0226405966
Philosophical Essays: From Ancient Creed to Technological Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974) ISBN 0226405915 [skipping contents]
Mortality and Morality: A Search for Good After Auschwitz ed. Lawrence Vogel (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1996). ISBN 0810112868
With Stuart F Spicker: Organism, medicine, and metaphysics : essays in honor of Hans Jonas on his 75th birthday, May 10, 1978 ISBN 9027708231
On faith, reason and responsibility (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978. New edition: Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont Graduate School, 1981.) ISBN 0940440008
Memoirs (Brandeis University Press, 2008) ISBN 9781584656395

English monographs

Immortality and the modern temper : the Ingersoll lecture, 1961 (Cambridge : Harvard Divinity School, 1962) OCLC 26072209 (included in The Phenomenon of Life)
Heidegger and theology (1964) OCLC 14975064 (included in The Phenomenon of Life)
Ethical aspects of experimentation with human subjects (Boston:American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1969) OCLC 19884675.

See how difficult that was?

Dates, Please

James S. Valliant's picture

I am only aware of his work on the history of Gnosticism and Christianity.

As an easy first step, could you provide us with the publication dates of his other work? And please note the publication dates in English, as well.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.