The Humanness of Burial

I was pleased to see Fr. Raymond de Souza’s piece in the National Post titled, “What happened at the Kamloops residential school was an offence against humanity.”

In it, he discusses the thought of Hans Jonas, a German Jewish philosopher about whom I wrote my undergraduate thesis.

Separately from that thesis but very much related to these themes, I wrote this short academic paper in 2017 about what it is that sets human persons apart from animals and machines.

Man’s Specific Difference:
A Comparison of Hans Jonas’s Philosophical Biology and Hans-Eduard Hengstenberg’s Phenomenology and Metaphysics of the Human Body

Hans Jonas (1903-1993) and Hans-Eduard Hengstenberg (1904-1998) were German philosophers with similar interests in the philosophy of the human person, which they respectively termed philosophical biology and philosophical anthropology. Addressing some philosophical underpinnings of the crisis of the pulverization of man manifested in the dehumanizing ideologies of the twentieth century, philosophers like Jonas and Hengstenberg sought to trace and recover the ontological ground of man’s dignity. Their reflections matter because, still today, many people do not think there is really any difference between human persons and animals. For example, the Indian Ministry of the Environment recently declared dolphins to be “non-human persons,”[1] and, artificial intelligence aficionados enjoy musing whether “a computer can act ‘more human’ than a person.”[2] Claims that human persons are superior beings are frequently met with accusatory cries of anthropocentrism. Hence, the question of man’s specific difference – if it exists and what it is – remains contentious. Jonas and Hengstenberg both think that man’s specific difference is not merely a matter of difference in terms of ontological degree but of kind. In this short paper, I explain what that means and sketch their common ground on this point. Next, I juxtapose the main points of Jonas and Hengstenberg to show where their views and approaches converge and diverge. Finally, I show how Jonas and Hengstenberg’s generally complementary ideas mutually enrich one another in bolstering a defense of man’s specific difference.

While classical and medieval philosophers articulated and defended the ontological unity of the person, the contributions of modern thinkers served to create new dualistic anthropologies, theoretically separating man’s spiritual and material dimensions. Jonas argues, “dualism itself represents so far the most momentous phrase in the history of thought”[3] and Hengstenberg agrees: “Descartes […] probably had a greater effect than anybody else upon the destiny of modern philosophy [with] another form of dualism, that of the res cogitans and the res extensa.”[4] The scientific theories of Charles Darwin also served “to advance the materialism monism of science”[5] although “the theory of evolution was not the first system of thought to inform us that human beings have much in common with animals.”[6] The dualisms of modernity, including Descartes’ spiritualistic monism and the philosophical consequences of Darwin’s scientific theory evolving into materialistic monism, have posed new problems to understanding man. This is because, while man has a body and depends on it, he is not reducible to his bodily organism.

In 2012, I travelled to Rwanda to study the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. At the Kigali Memorial, there is a room in which skulls and bones of victims are displayed. Looking at those skulls and bones, I thought about my own skull and my own bones. Then I reflected on how these bones and skulls fall short of representing the victims. The skulls and bones emphasize human universality and equality, but deemphasize particularity and personality. And so I reflected a bit on souls and it seemed obvious, then, that a strictly materialist concept of the person is wrong. Everyone knows a corpse is not a person, yet each one had been somebody’s. Then we saw items that had belonged to the victims—rosaries, shoes, ID cards, etc. These too are not persons, yet they are clearly personal. The human person is a material-spiritual unity, a psychophysical totality. Destroying this integrity of the person, in fact, involves destroying persons themselves. Thus, Jonas and Hengstenberg argue, because the nature of man involves the copresence of matter and spirit, only an anthropology accounting for the integral unity of both dimensions can adequately reveal to us man’s specific difference.

Rather than thinking that the dualisms of modernity signal doom or require reverting to previous notions, Jonas argues that “a new, integral, i.e., philosophical monism cannot undo the polarity [and we] must take up the problem which originally gave rise to dualism.”[7] Hengstenberg agrees insofar as he wants to ensure that matter, that the body, receives its due. Avoiding any potential charges of spiritualism, he proposes that materialism actually degrades matter by extricating it from its proper context of mutual service to the spirit.[8] Hans Jonas proposed three symbols of “what is beyond the animal in man”[9] which include: Tool, Image, and Grave. Next, I outline each of these symbols and discuss the equivalences to them in Hengstenberg’s understanding.

Jonas chooses the tool because it is among the earliest of human artifacts and “comes the closest to serving vital animal needs.”[10] The main features of a tool that he identifies include: 1) a tool is created artificially, 2) tools are made for recurring use, and 3) tools are created not from any organic function nor subject to any biological programming. He gives the examples of spider webs and bird nests to say that these are not truly artificial but simply natural. They display no creative freedom necessary for their invention.[11] Later he concludes, “But [man] does have himself, whereas no animal has itself.”[12] This corresponds to Hengstenberg’s distinction: “Animals are organisms; man has a body”[13] and “man, on the other hand, not only is a body, he also has a body, he has it at his disposal.”[14] Man, the toolmaker, reveals by his creative freedom that he can transcend the biological programming of organic determinism in order to meet his needs.

Next, Jonas discusses man, the image-maker. An image-maker is “one that indulges in the making of useless objects, or has ends in addition to the biological ones, or can serve the latter in ways from the direct usefulness of instrumental things.”[15] Again he juxtaposes this to animals: “A footprint is a sign of the foot that made it, and as effect tells the story of its causation. [But a] picture, apprehended as picture, is a sign not of the painter’s motions but of the object depicted […] the image does not represent the causality of its own becoming.”[16] Hengstenberg agrees: “The animal is incapable of achieving anything that would not be in function of the whole organism within the whole organism, anything that would transcend the biological purpose of the organism.”[17]  By contrast, human beings transcend their biological purposes all the time. This he discusses as the “two-fold serviceability” of human organs and limbs, i.e., that these do not serve their biological function exclusively but can be in the service of others as well – an indication of man’s freedom, which he may choose to express through singing, dancing, music, sport, etc.

The “uselessness” of which Jonas speaks corresponds to the meaning of “objectiveness” in both Max Scheler and Hengstenberg. As an image-maker, man is also (and perhaps foremost) an image-beholder. Hengstenberg says, “Objectiveness means an attitude of readiness to let things lay claim on us in a manner free of any utilitarian motivation.”[18] Rainer Maria Rilke aptly describes this disposition poetically: “My looking ripens things and they come toward me, to meet and be met.”[19] There is an essential difference between beholding and possessing. Likewise, we can discern that the difference between contemplating a work of art and salivating at prey is not merely one of degree but of the kind of activity. Thus Jonas says: “The crudest and most childish drawing would be just as conclusive [in terms of evidence of man] as the frescoes of Michelangelo. Conclusive for what? For the more-than-animal nature of its creator; and for its being potentially a speaking, thinking, inventing, in short ‘symbolical being’. And since it is not a matter of degree, as is technology, the evidence must reveal what it has to reveal by its formal quality alone.”[20]

Lastly, Hans Jonas points out how man is unique among all other beings in his knowledge that he must die. Graves symbolize: 1) man’s existential precariousness due to being (and sensing being) situated in time, 2) a visible testimony of human beliefs in defiance of apparent mortality, and 3) that only man is open to despair and hope.[21] A grave, such as we can see in Lipowa Cemetery, with ornate decoration, a Latin inscription, a crucifix, a name and dates, and fresh flowers, is a surpassing sign of “biological superfluity or even uselessness.”[22] Thus Jonas’s interesting remark: “Metaphysics arises from graves.”[23] This is coherent with Hengstenberg’s observation that “objects possessed by animals are never objects ‘in themselves.’”[24] The grave is among the most eloquent symbols of man’s transcendence, a testament to the anthropological fact that “man is a unique comprehensive design of nature, a unity consisting of biological life and spirit.”[25]

“Metaphysics arises from graves.”

– HANS JONAS

In the work of Hans Jonas and Hans-Eduard Hengstenberg we can see how Jewish and Christian theology, respectively, inform their emphases in anthropological reflection. For example, Jonas discusses Adam’s giving of names in the Creation narrative as “the first distinctly human act” and “a step beyond creation.”[26] The image-making freedom of man is a “symbolic making-over again of the world”[27] and this can deepen our reflection of man as imago dei. For his part, Hengstenberg considers, “the highest dignity of the body [to consist] in its being the metaphysical word of the spirit.”[28] The body is the spirit incarnate. And this, for human persons, explains Hengstenberg, “is a permanent ontological event and not an episodic one.”[29] It is to be expected that reflection on Creation and the Incarnation will continue to produce fruitful insights for philosophical anthropology in the service of a correct idea of man and God since, as Emmanuel Mounier put it: “The indissoluble union of the soul and the body is the pivot of Christian thinking.”[30]

If you have not yet read Fr. Raymond de Souza’s latest piece, be sure to take a look.


[1] Saroja Coelho, “Dolphins gain unprecedented protection in India,” Deutsche Welle, May 24, 2013.

[2] Brian Christian, “Mind vs. Machine,” The Atlantic, March 2011.

[3] “The discovery of the separate spheres of spirit and matter, which split medieval monism asunder, created forever a new theoretical situation.” Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001), 16.

[4] Hans-Eduard Hengstenberg, “Phenomenology of the Human Body,” International Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 3, No. 2, May 1963, 165.

[5] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, 43.

[6] Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good after Auschwitz, Edited by Lawrence Vogel, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 75.

[7] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, 17.

[8] “To be a materialist necessarily means to degrade matter in its own being. In the long run there is only one way to overcome materialism […] by giving matter with all its reality its rightful place.” Hans-Eduard Hengstenberg, “Phenomenology of the Human Body,” 166.

[9] The title of this essay is “Tool, Image, and Grave: On What Is Beyond the Animal in Man.” Included in Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality, 75.

[10] Ibid., 78.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 84.

[13] Hans-Eduard Hengstenberg, “Phenomenology of the Human Body,” 167.

[14] Ibid.,168.

[15] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, 158.

[16] Ibid., 164.

[17] Hans-Eduard Hengstenberg, “Phenomenology of the Human Body,” 168.

[18] Ibid., 170.

[19] Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, (New York City: Riverhead Books, 2005).

[20] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, 158.

[21] Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality, 83-84.

[22] Ibid., 83.

[23] Ibid., 84.

[24] Hans-Eduard Hengstenberg, “Phenomenology of the Human Body,” 172.

[25] Ibid., 177.

[26] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, 173.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Hans-Eduard Hengstenberg, “Phenomenology of the Human Body,” 198.

[29] Ibid., 195.

[30] Emmanuel Mounier, Personalism, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1952), 4.

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