Hans Jonas


As a philosopher, ethicist, and scholar of religion, Hans Jonas has in many ways defined what it means to be a part of the intellectually dynamic community that formed the basis of the New School. Born into a German-Jewish family in what is today Mönchengladbach, Germany, in 1903, Jonas’ early life—not unlike many other members of the New School—was defined by the social and political turmoil of early 20th century Europe. After graduating from his local high school, Jonas enrolled in the philosophy program at the Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg in 1921, where he studied under Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. (Husserl’s archives are located at the New School.)

Captivated by Heidegger, Jonas followed him to the University of Marburg in 1923. Jonas’ time at Marburg would prove to be highly formative for him in a number of ways, as he developed both an interest in theology and religious studies (specifically in Gnosticism, the topic of one his most widely-known works) as well as a lifelong and often tumultuous friendship with a fellow student and future colleague at the New School, Hannah Arendt. In 1928 Jonas completed his PhD in Philosophy with a concentration in Gnosticism. However, shortly after the completion of his doctorate Jonas emigrated to London in an attempt to escape the growing anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany, and by 1934 he relocated to Jerusalem. During his time in Palestine, Jonas met Eleanore Weiner, with whom he developed both a romantic and intellectual relationship. Jonas would later marry Weiner in 1943.

In 1940, Jonas returned to Europe to fight in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army. While Jonas was stationed in Italy for the majority of his time in the British Army, he also fought in Germany in the final days of the Second World War. Following the end of the war, Jonas returned to Palestine, where he secured a position as a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Notably, as an avowed Zionist for most of his life, Jonas briefly took up arms again for Israel in the 1948 War of Independence.

With the end of the war in 1949, Jonas decided to accept a fellowship at McGill University and leave for Canada. One year later, Carleton University of Ottawa offered Jonas a second fellowship, which he accepted. Jonas remained at Carleton until 1955, at which time he was appointed Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research.

Hans Jonas remained at the New School from 1955 until his retirement in 1976, teaching courses primarily on religion and philosophy. Jonas was also remarkably prolific while working at the New School, publishing a number of renowned works on Gnosticism, the philosophy of biology and technology, and ethics. Given the length of Jonas’ tenure at the New School as both a visiting professor and, later, the Alvin Johnson Professor of Philosophy, one could argue that his interests and expertise in wide range of disciplines fit well into an intellectual environment in which radical ideas and interdisciplinary approaches to studying the world were not only welcomed, but often pioneered.

At the age of 89, Jonas died on February 5, 1993 in his New Rochelle, New York home. Information on courses Jonas taught during his time at the New School as well as some of his non-academic writings have been preserved in the New School Archives, found here.

Records pertaining to Hans Jonas can be found in the New School Archives in the New School faculty vertical files collection.


Hans Jonas, undated, photographer unknown, source: wz-newsline.de.