Hans Jonas' Critique of the Modern Concept of Causality

By Joao B. Farias Jr
2016, Vol. 8 No. 01 | pg. 1/1


Hans Jonas main objective in his book The phenomenon of life is to offer an interpretation of the phenomenon of Being that is neither conditioned to dualism nor to a partial conception of being, such as those developed by idealism and by materialism. This essay presents some considerations concerning the Jonasian critique of the concept of causality as formulated by Kant and by Hume. After all, Jonas maintains that, because his ontology is based in the organic phenomenon of life, it requires a revision of what one understands as causality. The senses, or rather, the body that senses itself, is what will ensure us a more accurate understanding of what causality is.

In his philosophy of biology, Hans Jonas expresses a severe criticism of dualist metaphysics and of partial monisms that were elaborated throughout the history of western philosophy as parameters to an interpretation of the phenomenon of being. Even monist interpretations, mainly the post dualist ones that arose in Modernity, viz., Idealism and mechanist Materialism, fail their tasks because they defend a sphere of Being to detriment of the other.

Dualism is present in Western philosophical tradition since the very origins of Philosophy. However, according to Jonas, it is from Modernity on that one can notice dualism reaching its most robust and complex form. This way, even the idealist epistemology would be impregnated of a dualist conception. Jonas subscribes to the thesis that both pure consciousness and pure matter would be incapable of generating enough context to account for the phenomenon of life1. Both result from the ontology of death, heritage of dualism. Thus, he also assumes the role of reviewing, in his philosophy of biology, the role of causality.

The fate of the causality problem in idealist epistemology on one hand and in materialist physics on the other bespeaks the fact that both positions, considered ontologically, are fragmentary, residual products of dualism, and both are merely consistent when they, each by its own kind of scepticism, acknowledge the inevitable outcome of their isolation, to wit: the inexplicability of that which through the sundering has become inexplicable (PL 21).

The Problem to Jonas

With respect to the problem of causality, to Jonas' mind, two philosophers stand out and lead Jonas to study the implications of the conception of causality to the comprehension of nature and of life in modern thought: Hume and Kant were responsible, largely, by the elaboration and the success of the notion of causality in Modernity. It is to them that Jonas needs to return in order to demonstrate the consequences of such notion over ontology, as well as to revise it2.

Hans Jonas

Kant says it was Hume who interrupted his dogmatic slumber3. By that, he specifically refers to Hume's criticism of the notion of causality. Hume was interested in demonstrating that causality, which was constantly attributed to the very contents of perception, probably consisted only in relationships coined by habit.

According to Hume, the relation between cause and effect could not provide us with actual safe knowledge concerning the nature of things, because the relationship would only be a way of relating objects through experience4.

Such passive perception is the only mode in which the outer world is originally "given" - so that even of our own bodily activity we only know by our receptivity [...] (Pl 26).

According to Jonas, the difference between Kant's and Hume's theories regarding perception lies only in the source and in the nature of the material addition offered by the senses, addition which is performed by perception5. Hume presents habit as the responsible for the associations, while Kant posits causality in the very structure of understanding. However, to both of them, perception has a passive role in relation to the content apprehended by the senses6.

Such explanation, according to Jonas, would be insufficient:

And although psychological compulsion or suggestion, such as their automatism may engender, can indeed mislead thought into making wrong connections, as well as accidentally prompt the right ones, the "original" of such connection must be available from its own source before either proper or improper use can be made of it under any prompting. (PL 27)

In the end, Jonas suggests that what Hume identifies as "power of habit" can perhaps come to be identified in some physical cause, for instance, in some brain mechanism, thus arriving at finding its explanation, ironizes Jonas, exactly in that which he once intended to ignore.

Whilst Hume bets on a psychological source, Kant attributes a “transcendental” origin to causality. As the efforts made against Hume's conception, Jonas argues that the Kantian solution would also be incomplete. That which perception would produce, viz., a "formal necessity", would be completely different from the "natural necessity" found in the world. To Jonas, a rule of necessary connexion produced by understanding would itself presuppose that of which it is to be the rule.

This being-forced, given entirely in particular experience, is something entirely different from the "necessity" of the rule to which such instances "must" (a priori – else, are found to) universally conform (PL 27).

Jonas says, regarding Kant's intention: ‘Its essence, I take it, is to ground, not the factuality and contingent (single) experience of causation, but the validity of a universal law of causality for experience as such’ (PL 28). Jonas, however, is summary about Kant's intention of establishing such law: ‘Whatever the answer, a law of experience can never substitute for primary experience itself’ (Pl 28).

The Core of Jonas' Criticism

The most relevant thing to comprehend in Jonas' critique to Humean response and to Kantian response is that both subjugate experience7. And it is the experience that Jonas wishes to protect. It is only in the body and with the body that experience is possible, by means of an effort of common action to what is alive, albeit in varying degrees, and that allows us to overcome the precepts of an anthropomorphized ontology.

‘Both doctrines with to substitute internal for external dynamics, spurious for genuine origin: both on the assumption, born of the silence of "perception" under the seclusion of the cognitive monopoly thrust upon it, that there is no first-hand knowledge of force, transitivity, and the dynamic bonds of things’ (Pl 27-28).

Jonas reformulates the question regarding understanding and causality. To do it, he starts from what Hume and Kant have in common: both consider neutral the causal change of that which is apprehended by the senses. Thus, the problem is to understand how this neutral apprehension comes to be. In order to do that, Jonas reflects upon what Whitehead calls “presentational immediacy” to answer the question. Whitehead's formulation is not enough for a through explanation8. Jonas thinks that a complete answer to this question should use both a genetic analysis of the senses organs and a phenomenological analysis of the processes performed by those organs9. Jonas points out that the body as the best mean by which we can comprehend causality's role in it. The possibility of perceiving "cause and effect" is only given to the body through the objective reality of the body itself and the power used by it.

'The experience of living force, one's own namely, in the acting of the body, is the experiential basis for the abstractions of the general concepts of action and causation; and the "schematism" of directed bodily movement, not of neutrally receptive intuition, mediates between the formality of the understanding and the dynamics of the real' (Pl 22-23).

In these terms, the causality is not an a priori basis of experience; in other words, it cannot be understood solely as a part of the transcendental structure of understanding as Kant wants. Causality, argues Jonas, is itself a basic experience that occurs in the body.

‘Thus causality is not the a priori of experience in the understanding but the universal extrapolation from propriobodily prime experience into the whole of reality. It is rooted in just the point of actual, live “transcendence” of the self, the point where inwardness actively transcends itself into the outward and continues itself into it with its actions. This point is the intensive-extensive body in which the self exists, at once, for itself (intensive) and in the midst of the world (extensive). Causality is primarily a finding of the practical, not of the theoretical, self, of its activity, not of its perception – an experience of the one, not a law of other’ (Pl 22).

Concluding Thoughts

In the excerpt just quoted, Jonas ratifies his proposal: the enterprise of an integral monism consolidated by the philosophical interpretation of the concrete phenomenon of life, in which inwardness and outwardness, matter and mind, are taken as parts that complement each other, and not as two irreconcilable substances.

After dualism, what was left is a concept of nature divided into two elements. In addition to that, causality as understood by the moderns produced some serious implications. In Jonas' words:

We can see as this situation, in which the vengeance of the cognitive denial of the body is present, expresses itself ontologically by means of a suppression of the nature of final causes, the first victim of the veto regarding anthropomorphism, and after that by turning acting causality epistemologically invisible, the object of the problem of causality in Hume and Kant (JONAS, 2004, p.35).

Unfortunately, we cannot describe in details Jonas' discussion about the phenomenology of senses. For now, it fits us to underline that it is through the clarification of the processes carried out by the senses that Jonas seek after defending the position of the liberty of the organism. The concept of freedom is responsible for uniting humanity with nature, reclaiming for the latter the notion of value.


Belvedere, B. "Did Kant Rescue Causality? An Overview of Kant’s Response to Hume." Filosof 1, no. 1 (2010): 14-20. Accessed December 10, 2015. http://www2.fiu.edu/~filosof/Site/Archives_files/FILOSOF Vol 1-1.pdf.

Hume, D. (1983). Enquiries concerning Human Understanding and concerning the Principles of Morals. L. A. Selby-Bigge, (3rd ed.). Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Jonas, H. (2001). The phenomenon of life. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

Jonas, H. (2004). O princípio vida: fundamentos para uma biologia filosófica. Petrópolis: Editora Vozes.

Kant, Immanuel. (2004). Prolegomena to any future metaphysics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

León, Alberto S. "Elementos Principales De La Crítica De Hans Jonas a La Modernidad." Mayéutica 38, no. 85 (2012): 103-09. Accessed December 23, 2015.

Oliveira, Jelson. (2014). Compreender Hans Jonas. RJ, Petropolis: Vozes.

Watkins, Eric. (2005). Kant and the metaphysics of causality. New York: Cambridge University Press.


  1. Cf. JONAS, 2001, p.30.
  2. In the words of OLIVEIRA, Jelson. Compreender Hans Jonas. RJ, Petropolis: Vozes, 2014, p.69: ‘the body is described as the "centre of force" and it is the corporeal experience that constitutes the base to every conceptual abstraction, such as action and causality (cause and effect). It is in the body that the main link between the formalism of understanding and the dynamics of reality (theoretical objects analysed insufficiently by Hume and Kant according to Jonas) are established, evidencing that evidencing that "causality is not an a priori basis of experience, but itself a basic experience’ (Pl 23).
  3. Cf. Kant, I. Prolegomena to any future metaphysics, translated by Gary Hatfield, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 10.
  4. In other words “Hume’s critique, of which the argument against knowledge of cause-and-effect was just a part, thus called into question the entire discipline of metaphysics.” (BELVEDERE, p. 16).
  5. Cf. JONAS, 2001, p.26.
  6. Due to the inviability of a deeper debate on the matter of causality in Kant and Hume, we briefly presented only the interpretation Jonas does of both of them for the benefit of comprehending how he shows the need to rethink the phenomenon of life as well as the processes knowledge.
  7. Jonas states that, because of Kant, we see the dualism present itself both in a theoretical and a practical way, which is, in other words, a serious epistemological and moral problem. In Mussatos' words (2009, p. 81): “Jonas' claims seem to point to a dualism that involves theory and practice or theoretical subject, and I practise, in the difficulty of thinking clearly, the dimension of human action and its possibilities.” Or in the original: “Le considerazioni di Jonas sembrano indirizzare verso un dualismo che coinvolge teoria e prassi ovvero soggetto teorico e io pratico nella difficoltà a pensare in tutta evidenza la dimensione dell’agire umano e delle sue possibilità.”
  8. Whitehead maintains that the subject does not apprehend passively, as Hume stated, the images apprehended of an object in a snapshot. Regarding this, check: SMITH, Olav B. The Social Self of Whitehead’s Organic Philosophy. European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy, 2010, II, 1, p.5.
  9. Cf. JONAS, 2001, p.28.

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