Part One (by Leon R. Kass)1


1. This passage is copied from the beginning of Leon R. Kass, Appreciating the Phenomenon of Life, 23 graduate face. phil. j. (The New School), 51-52 (2001). On Dr. Kass, see Gary Rosen, Who’s Afraid of Leon Kass?, commentary, January 2003, at 28.


            It is now more than thirty years since I first met Hans Jonas in the pages of his book, The Phenomenon of Life:   Toward a Philosophical Biology. I was then a practicing biochemist working at the National Institutes of Health. But I was a somewhat eccentric biochemist, both because I had acquired a moralist’s interest in the meaning of the new biology and, even more, because I had a vague interest in the philosophy of organism, secretly harboring inarticulate yet definite non-reductionist prejudices. My closest friend, having read Jonas’ “Is God a Mathematician? (The Meaning of Metabolism),” strongly recommended that I read The Phenomenon of Life, whose paperback edition had just appeared. I took the book with me on our family vacation in West Virginia, and pored over it steadily for two weeks. It left me out of breath from the intellectual effort needed to comprehend the dense and sophisticated philosophical arguments (and the author’s Germanic style). At the same time, I was thrilled to discover that there was indeed a way to philosophize non-reductively about living nature (including man) even in the face of the great accomplishments of modern biology.

            A few months later, in the autumn of 1969, I met Hans Jonas in the flesh. I had organized the first NIH Symposium on Ethical Issues in Biomedical Advances and, mainly because I wanted to meet him, invited Jonas to be the moderator. “Look for a short man with a briefcase, holding a cigarette in the European manner,” said my prescient wife as I left for the airport to meet my esteemed guest. Following her advice, I picked him out immediately and we soon fell into lively conversation. The next few days were exhilarating. Jonas not only moderated with skill and grace; with his opening and closing remarks and his other substantive interventions, he gave the whole proceedings the wished-for and fitting tone of moral and philosophical seriousness. I recall the special delight he took in George Anastaplo’s devastating Socratic cross-examination of B. F. Skinner, which revealed even to the meanest capacity the epistemological and moral self-contradictions inherent in the behaviorist’s claims for the truth and beneficence of behaviorism.

Part Two (by George Anastaplo)2


2. This passage is copied from human being and citizen (Swallow Press, 1983), at 282-83 n.7. The essay drawn upon, “In Search of the Soulless ‘Self,’” was prepared for a symposium, “Research in Neuro- and Psycho-Biology, Prospects and Social Implications,” delivered at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, on October 17, 1969. The symposium panel included Hans Jonas (Moderator), Gardner Quarton, B.F. Skinner, and George Anastaplo.


My exchange with one of the Bethesda panel bears upon the argument of this essay (I am the first speaker in the following excerpt):

Anastaplo: . . .You used, on at least two occasions, [in comparing us moderns with the ancients], the notion of progress, that “we” are better than “they.” I find that heartening because any serious notion of progress has some place, if only dimly, for an awareness of what the best is. Are you prepared to say there is a best?

Skinner:    I thought I was addressing that question in my talk this afternoon. There are ways in which we act to make things as we call them, “better,” and we do say that this is good and that is not good, and so on. And I suppose that if you have good and better, you have a best, but the notion of the evolution of a species or of culture never gives you the opportunity of foreseeing the final state. If it’s a question of eschatology, I pass.

Anastaplo:    May I comment on that? Look, you can’t talk about the better or the good without a notion of the best. I think you do have a notion of the best. I think you have a notion of the best by which you guide your life and on which your own comments just now are based. Your notion of the best, I think, whether you recognize it or not, is a full development of the human reason, primarily with a view to understanding man and the world around him. I think that’s your secret best. It that is so, then we can being to talk seriously about which societies, which cultures, are more apt to contribute to that, and which ones are less apt to contribute to that. We don’t talk about survival as [the basis for] judgment. For instance, you observed that survival is the only value by which we will be judged. That simply is not true. That is not a fact. We know—we look back over ancient “cultures” (as we call them) and we see some that we judge and judge very highly, and by any ordinary notion of survival, they have failed, compared to the trivial or bestial, barbaric culture which overwhelmed them. And yet I think you would say that they were better than the ones that conquered them. If you don’t say it, I think that you would have serious problems talking about progress. It you do say it, then, as I say, we can begin talking seriously about what makes for the best man, what the proper questions are and how one goes about discovering what [the answers to] those questions are.

Skinner: I take survival to be a value not only in a survival framework, and if you like to call that begging the question, you can. . . . You can’t judge a culture simply by choosing those particular features that you admire, and say that Greek culture was great because of its law and its sculpture and so on. It was extremely weak in many respects and it happened to be weak because it overlooked the fact that it made itself extraordinarily attractive to barbarians, and that was a weakness. . . . In the long run, I think the culture which abandons its interest in surviving is not going to survive and in that sense it is a weak culture, and not a good culture.

Part Three (by Laurence Berns)

I thought your response to Skinner very fine:  passionate, clear, eloquent and deep, especially your articulation of his “secret best,” “a full development of the human reason, primarily with a view to understanding man and the world around him,” and how his and other intellectuals’ talk about “survival” is not what people talk about when they “talk seriously about which societies, which cultures” they want to strive for or to avoid.

When I finished the little piece, the first thing I thought of was:

The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,

Though to itself it only live and die;

But if that flower with base infection meet,

The basest weed outbraves his dignity.

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds,

Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

–the final sestet of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94. But the fragility of beauty and human nobility raises “survival” questions that Skinner might not be prepared to deal with. The efforts human beings make, for examples, to refine sound into music and poetry, sketches into pictorial and sculptural art, to search for and to disseminate truths found in old books. are both prodigious and wonderful.

If Skinner wanted a serious discussion, he might have responded, “You have come close to articulating my own personal goals, but I don’t confuse my own personal goals with the principles that determine all animal, including human, nature.” Part of the problem with modern scientists like Skinner (like Hobbes?) is that in the search for principles valid for all animate nature, they don’t sufficiently examine the questions inherent in the differences of animal natures, especially, of course, the human difference. The general problem, I think, is the impoverished notion of nature they work with and the mathematical orthodoxy they adhere to. They can’t do justice even to the principles by which they themselves live, because they lack a more comprehensive notion of nature, say, like Aristotle’s, based on a distinction between potency and act. I’m thinking of his marvelous remark in the Politics about the origins of the more advanced political society: “It comes into being for the sake of life [preservation-survival], but it is for the sake of the good life.” The fulfillment of a more primitive potency opens the way for an even more fulfilling potency, all according to nature.


Parts One and Two of this collection are taken from George Anastaplo, “Constitutionalism and the Good:   Explorations,” 70 Tennessee Law Review 737, 796-98 (2003). Part Three is a letter of March 27, 2006 from Laurence Berns (St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland) to George Anastaplo (Chicago, Illinois).

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