It’s not uncommon to hear someone propose the ethical injunction to “treat people like individuals.” It’s mostly used in reference to the complicated ethico-political problem of negotiating intersecting group dynamics: ages, genders, sexes, races, classes, ethnicities, religions, abilities, capabilities. What does it actually mean? Continue reading
Following the previous installment in this series, this episode continues the elaboration of Han Jonas’ updated version of Aristotle in a philosophy that integrates the insights of Whitehead and Heidegger. In particular, it’s time to talk about degrees of freedom and the uniqueness of humans. Let’s begin by thinking with Jonas’ philosophical biology.
While animals have perception and some sort of capacity to form images or tools, they apply their potential for merely vital, practical ends (Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life , 158). However, image-making in its proper sense is only achieved in the new level of freedom attained by humans (170). To be able to make an image entails the ability to behold an image. This means one must be capable of discerning differences between the image, imagined, and the material substratum of the image. Nonhuman animals cannot perceive mere likeness, and thus cannot distinguish between the image, the imagined, and the material substratum. It can see something as other or the same, but not similar. Thus, animals can imagine in the limited sense of bringing together images, but these images are bound up with sensation.
In human beings, the image of a thing is understood as a separate presence. It necessarily follows, then, that humans can alter and make images, for they see them as separate things. In the mind of human beings, form becomes completely separable from matter. Humans have more control over form because they understand form by itself, but this means humans—with metabolizing bodies—also experience great distances through their apprehension of form by itself.
The human understanding of form is also evident in the human capacity for naming—that is, ordering the world according to the general forms of things. “The generality of the name is the generality of the image” (173). Humans can know that a thing is “this” and not “that” by comparing the forms of things ordered in naming. The new degree of freedom witnessed in human beings is what makes possible the experience of theoretical and practical truth.
Like Aristotle, Jonas argues that the ascending degrees of freedom inherent in organism and the becoming of natural bodies in general might have its origins in some divine act (275). Ultimately, however, Jonas argues that the mystery of origins is closed to us (3). The divine act Jonas imagines is the original giving up of the divine essence to the venture of becoming and experience. This venture keeps matter oscillating between forms. Somehow form gains freedom from matter as organic life begins to stir. As form gains freedom in higher organisms, form comes to experience its own form and divinity.
The divine venture is undertaken for the sake of the identity of divine form; all becoming is the preservation of divine form. The freedom of human beings allows form to be completely itself. Humans can neglect the call issuing from freedom, forget the origin of truth, and forget the divine venture. Indeed, humans are given the precarious task of completing the image of divinity, for better or worse.
Jonas’ interpretation of human freedom relies upon the distinctions between matter, life, and mind (intellect) set forth by Aristotle, but updated with a blend of Heideggerian existential phenomenology and Whiteheadian panexperientialism. Both Aristotle and Jonas begin their investigations with a view to their contemporaries and current opinions about their questioned subject matter. The opinions inherited by each philosopher provide the groundwork upon which they develop their arguments and terminology. Their own accounts attempt to get beyond whatever impasses are preventing a complete understanding of the subject matter. Aristotle tries to get beyond the impasses of the theories of the natural scientists and mathematicians of his day with his account of an intertwined matter and form of the complete, independent thing. Jonas tries to get beyond impasses concerning the relationship between mind and life with his existential interpretation of biological facts, which discloses the reciprocal participation of organism in mind and mind in organism.
For both Aristotle and Jonas, any living thing—plants, animals, and humans—stays itself and maintains its form by metabolizing, acting upon and being acted upon by the things in its surrounding world. Humans have a unique degree of freedom through which we have a particularly great abundance of things in our world, not the least of which are images. If form is the work of divinity, human imagination and contemplation share in divine activity, and indeed, all becoming is an ongoing divine venture. But that’s a big if.