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Care, Social Responsibility & Foundations

Hans Jonas, Wittgenstein & Dogen Zenji

Geoffrey Hunt BSc(Hons) MLitt PhD
Professor of Ethics & Global Policies
University of Surrey, UK.

Paper presented at Shizuoka National University, 21st October 2004.


Introduction: Does Care about the Human Future need a Metaphysics, or an Orientation?
1. Hans Jonas’ theory and metaphysics
2. The real historical foundation of Future-Care is sufficient.
3. Wittgenstein’s critique of foundationalism.
4. An open orientation, and catharsis.
5. Zen already provides open orientation and catharsis.
Conclusion: The Jonas Paradox

Introduction: Does Future-Care need a Metaphysics, or an Orientation?

Does caring about the future of humanity1a need a metaphysics, or an orientation?

That is, does it need a rational ground, or does it need a direction, a coherent change
of assumptions? Jonas says it does need a theoretical ‘ground’:

[The] urgency of the quest for foundations: establishing them as best we can
is … of practical importance already for the sake of the authority which the
prescriptions flowing from them can assert in the battle of opinions – an
authority which the mere plausibility of emotional appeal of (e.g.) the
proposition ‘We should have the future of man and the planet at heart’ is
insufficient to yield.1

Following Wittgenstein and Zen (particularly Dogen Kigen Zenji)2 I challenge this
claim that a rational (philosophical) foundation is needed, or even possible. Certainly,
an ethics of care for the future of mankind (future-ethics) is emerging from our
current historical human situation – it is an intellectual-moral-emotional response to
real and felt needs of mankind, namely environmental, economic and political
insecurity. This, I maintain is the foundation of future-care ethics (FCE), and is
sufficient as a ‘foundation’. Wittgenstein in particular has shown, very convincingly,
that all attempts at creating purely ‘rational’ (philosophical or metaphysical)
foundations are misconceived.
FCE does however need a fundamental orientation. An orientation (attitude,
posture, direction, indication) is not at all the same thing as a rational foundation. I
will call this orientation an ‘open orientation’, which may be achieved by individuals
and groups through a ‘cathartic practice’ such as a form of Zen. Ludwig

Wittgenstein’s anti-philosophical work is cathartic in a related way, intellectually
cathartic because when one has really understood him one is able to ‘let go’ of
philosophising in the metaphysical sense. What I would like to show (with apologies
for being too ambitious) is that 1) Wittgenstein’s work shows us that a FCE - like any
other endeavour – does not need a rational foundation (metaphysics). 2) that FCE
does need an open and cathartic orientation, and 3) that Japanese Zen already provides
the heart of an open and cathartic practice, that has a kinship with Wittgenstein’s
I believe that it is a pressing contemporary worldwide cultural programme to
make connections between FCE, Zen-type practices, and the anti-foundationalism of
Wittgenstein. If you prefer, it is a programme of linkage between global sustainability
policy, moral-emotional life practices of enlightenment, and intellectual clarity.

1. Hans Jonas’ theory and metaphysics of future-care ethics

In The Imperative of Responsibility Jonas argues that the global impact of human
activity ‘raises moral issues for which past ethics… has left us unprepared’ and that a
‘new reflection on ethical principles’ is needed. Responsibility for human fate has
moved into ‘centre of the ethical stage’. Responsibility must go with our power, and
must be informed by a ‘scientific futurology’. Therefore he gives a ‘theory of
responsibility’ (my underlining). Religion, which is in ‘eclipse’ he says, no longer
gives us an ‘image of man’, so we need a rational theory of being, and ‘metaphysics
must underpin ethics’, so as to bridge the scientific or factual ‘is’ and the moral
‘ought’. This metaphysics will help us ‘discriminate between legitimate and
illegitimate goal-settings to our …power’. Our current scientific/technological view of
the world ‘emphatically denies us all conceptual means to think of Nature as
something to be honoured, having reduced it to the indifference of necessity and
accident, and divested it of any dignity of ends’. Ethics must be pushed ‘into the
doctrine of being, that is, metaphysics, in which all ethics must ultimately be
While I broadly agree with Jonas’ about the need to re-think ethics in terms of
future-care 4, and his pubic concern is to be commended, I believe he is confused in
thinking that ethics can have, should have, or needs to have a theory of responsibility
and a grounding in metaphysics. This confusion has been typical of most Western
philosophy, and is not confined to Jonas’ work. I think it is particularly important
address Jonas’ confusion, however, because his book has been very influential in
addressing the issue of FCE but, paradoxically, suffers from some of the same
symptoms of the ‘technocratic’5 worldview that he is most concerned to criticise. So,
to complete Jonas’ programme requires a critique of Jonas. I will not in this essay go
into the details of Jonas’ rational theory and metaphysics (with its neo-Kantian and
neo-Spinozan features), but simply confine myself to challenging the very idea that
such things are necessary. If this is correct, then the detail becomes irrelevant.
Jonas does seek a new ethical perspective, and I have suggested that the
principles of public accountability (and the precautionary principle) are the ‘ready
doctrine’ he is looking for.6 However, I hasten to add that ‘public accountability’
(and its eighteen aspects) is not meant as a theoretical or metaphysical foundation, let
alone a superior theory to Jonas’. It is meant instead as a heuristic (educative)
framework that is meant to encourage a new way of thinking, and a new attitude, in
the face of the global problems we have at this point in history. It is these historically

situated problems that are the foundation of the public accountability framework, and
it stands in need of no other framework or any other kind of test of its ‘validity’.

2. The real historical foundation of future-care is sufficient

Jonas’ work was written because it is a response to a historical set of conditions, and
it was received so well because there is a widespread need to make sense of our
current global predicament. However, this predicament is not a sign that an old
philosophical theory of responsibility needs to be replaced with a new one, or that an
old ‘metaphysics of being’ needs replacing with a new one. The fact that Jonas’ work
has received such a positive response does not indicate that his theory is in any way
‘better’, but only that many people sense that there is a deep human problem and also,
largely without understanding the Jonas’ ‘difficult philosophical arguments’, sense
that he is talking about some kind of deep (metaphysical) solution. It is very unusual
to have 200,000 copies of a professional philosophy book sold (in Germany, in this
In an interview Jonas was asked: ‘Do you think that the many people who
have purchased The Imperative of Responsibility have actually read it? It is a difficult
book, after all’. He answered: ‘Read all chapters? Look, with how many books have
we done that? I know I could name a number of books which I really have read more
than once in their entirety. But there aren’t so many. In many even very important
books one selects one's chapters or one’s passages or one's subdivisions, or don’t you
do that?’. Maybe the interviewer shpould have asked if the readers had understood the
There is no doubt that intellectual products that are involved in directing
people to the global problems of mankind in a general way are very much in demand
at present because of those problems, and the real foundations of those problems lie in
policies, regulation and policy implementation, persuasive programmes of NGOs and
other movements of civil society to frame and implement and follow up such policies
– the Kyoto Protocol on global warming for example. It is existing human practices,
and human practical responses to the failing or counterproductive asepcts of those
practices, that are the true foundations of and stimulus to our intellectual products.
What can be shown, although I will not attempt it here, is that Jonas’
philosophical theory and metaphysics rest on the universalising of certain
decontextualised concepts taken from our ordinary language, concepts which are the
boundary of a specific (in this case a modern Western) conception of reality, such as
‘responsibility’, ‘ends’, ‘values, ‘nature’. There is nothing confused about explicitly
promoting certain ideas as a call to change our reality (which is what I do with ‘public
accountability’ and ‘precaution principle’), but it is wrong to suggest that
philosophers have some special rational (theoretical) technique for doing so which
gives them priority. Their proposals are simply on a level with the proposals of other
social ‘change agents’.

3. Wittgenstein’s critique of foundationalism (metaphysics).

In the light of what we have learned from the critique of philosophy undertaken by
Ludwig Wittgenstein we can for the sake of brevity characterise Jonas philosophical
work as ‘foundationalism’. Foundationalism is any attempt to formulate a rational

foundation or ground for ethics, knowledge, reality, religion, art and so on. Since Kant,
foundationalism has also taken the more tenuous form of trying rationally to
formulate the nature of the limits of our ethics, knowledge etc.8 I shall not be
concerned with the distinction between pre-Kantian and post-Kantian foundationalism.
And, I shall use the word ‘metaphysics’ quite generally to refer to all the foundational
varieties of philosophising, and ignore the sometimes important differences between
Wittgenstein still has not been well understood, even by professional
philosophers. And many philosophers continue as though Wittgenstein’s
revolutionary work never existed, even though it completely undermines their own
work. When one first reads his Philosophical Investigations,9 for example, one has a
strange sensation of understanding all the words and sentences (he has a simple and
lucid style), but having no idea why he is saying what he is saying, and indeed
whether he is saying anything of any importance. It seems easy to read, but it is not.
Wittgenstein himself said: ‘What we say will be easy, but to know why we say it will
be very difficult’.10 One might have the same sensation in hearing or reading the
words of an accomplished Zen teacher. Indeed, as we shall see, I believe there is a
kinship between Wittgenstein’s approach in philosophy, and the Zen approach in life.
Wittgenstein is not at all concerned with creating a theory or metaphysics but only in
showing us why it is deeply confused to create philosophical theory and metaphysics
in the way that philosophers have, and that indeed philosophical theory and
metaphysics always arise in deep conceptual (what he calls ‘logical-grammatical’)
confusion and this is in itself all that his work does. But, just as in Zen, untangling a
knot, is very transformative for human life.
Wittgenstein, in fact, was not a philosopher at all, in the traditional sense. He
explained many times that he was not himself offering a philosophical theory, for
example, a theory of the ground of our language:

‘We never arrive at fundamental propositions in the course of our

investigation; we get to the boundary of language which stops us from asking
further questions. We don’t get to the bottom of things, but reach a point
where we can go no further, where we cannot ask further questions’.11

This ‘point’ is where the intellect stops, or should stop, and mere acceptance or
insight (one has to be careful in choice of words here, otherwise misunderstandings
will flourish) should arise. The problem with philosophy is that it refuses to stop, and
Jonas has refused to stop where he ‘should have’.
So what is Wittgenstein doing, what is his ‘method’? This is as hard to explain
as it is hard to explain what a Zen master is doing. Is there a method at all? It has been
described as ‘perspicuous presentation’. This is about helping us to see the differences
in the use of concepts (e.g. the differences in the use of ‘responsibility’), so as to
avoid misleading generalisation. It is about getting the readers to ‘see’ for themselves
that apparent philosophical profundities are often absurdities based on the misuse of
language (thought). It is about helping them to make or grasp the connections between
contexts and concepts that they had not noticed.
I would agree with Jonas that in FCE a lot of work needs to be done in
changing attitudes and helping people make connections of understanding in what is
now a complex world overlaid with complex ways of misunderstanding things by
seeking ‘scientific’ or ‘technical’ explanations where such explanations are
unnecessary and misleading (I sometimes calls this, for brevity, ‘explanationism’).

When we have the clarity of ‘perspicuous presentation’ of some part of a discourse
then the complications (the ‘myriad things’ referred to in Buddhist texts) fall away.
Speaking of the proliferation of mathematical explanationism (such as Russell and
Whitehead’s logicism), Wittgenstein said:

Philosophical clarity will have the same effect on the growth of mathematics
as sunlight has on the growth of potato shoots. (In a dark cellar they grow
yards long.)12

The most significant element of Wittgenstein’s thinking for my radical critique of

Hans Jonas’ theory of responsibility and metaphysics is Wittgenstein’s insistence that
reasons, justifications, explanations must come to an end. We ought to know when it
makes no sense to ask a question and ‘remain silent’. This does not mean that all
reasons, justifications, explanations are meaningless, but that they have their meaning
only ‘inside’ a specific context or ‘language game’, and that it always results in
intellectual confusion (or absurdity, and even pretentious theorising) to attempt to go
beyond those boundaries with an explanation or justification of the context itself.
When we reach rock bottom, then it is doing and acting (social practices) that take
priority over reasoning and intellect.
For example, Hans Jonas tries to ground ‘value’ in ‘nature’; but this is
confused. Reasons come to an end, and it is precisely at the point that they come to an
end that we might point to something that can be described as a ‘value’ or that which
is a value or what is valuable. Some things must be taken as self-evident, as obvious,
as assumptions, within a particular ‘language game’ or discourse. What is valuable to
me does not rest on something else, for the assumptions behind my way of speaking
are already an acknowledgement of the foundation (if we must speak of
‘foundations’). To complain that it is not a ‘rational’ foundation is simple to
misunderstand how ‘giving reasons’ (rationality) works. Jonas simply needs to assert
his values (as I do in my writings on public accountability), and show them in what he
says and more importantly what he does, such as urging that governments adhere to
the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.
If someone asks ‘Why should we stick to the Kyoto Protocol?’ then there
might be some disagreement about the facts. But imagine this: there isn’t
disagreement about the facts, and we are agreed that human survival is at stake, and
then we are asked the further question, ‘What is so important about human survival?’
We would be deeply puzzled by such a question. We assume that people want the
human race to survive. Someone who asks such a question is either a theoretical
philosopher or a person who is working with very different assumptions or no firm set
of assumptions. No metaphysical framework can help us to answer such a question,
and indeed if we think it can, then such thinking in itself may be a symptom of the
very same disorientation that accounts for the environmental difficulties we have
unwittingly created for ourselves. That is, explanationism is the dominant mode of
thought in a technocratic and now self-destructive form of civilization. To let go of
explanationism is to let go of self-destruction.
To give a simpler and more dramatic example: If someone asks for ‘one good
reason why I should not kill my mother for her money’ then an appropriate response
is shock and revulsion (call the police or the psychiatrist), not the provision of reasons.
‘Because she is your mother!’ is an appropriate response, and is sufficient. If it is not
sufficient, then nothing else will be persuasive. Would a ‘theory of motherhood’ help?
Thus what is good, just, fair, right, etc. does not have or need a foundation, for what

we take these to be in practice is already ‘foundational’ i.e. questions and answers
stop there. Ethics requires no explanation, and none that people attempt to give could
possibly provide the final and ultimate explanation required, but only more cause for
argument and confusion.

4. An open orientation, and catharsis

One can readily understand that one motive a person may have for wishing to provide
a theoretical underpinning for ethics is that there is so much ethical disagreement
around. It is sometimes believed that all or most of this could be cleared up if only we
had the right theory of ethics. This appears to be what Jonas thinks (see the first
quotation above). As Johnston points out, if social and cultural fragmentation is now
manifest in deep ethical disagreements this not a problem to ‘whose solution the
philosopher qua philosopher can make a special contribution’.13 The same point
could be made about ‘social responsibility’, which is Jonas’ main concern. The
solution may lie, for example, in open-minded cross-cultural dialogue in which people
make an effort to understand other points of view, make compromises or give up
previous attitudes. It may lie in educational and religious means of enhancing social
responsibility (see below). It may lie in passive resistance. Violence too may be seen
by some as another kind of solution (mistakenly, I believe).
Caring for the human future, and taking responsibility for it, may not need a
theory or metaphysical ground, but it does need the promotion of a coherent set of
action-oriented principles (precautionary principle, public accountability) and,
furthermore, it needs a fundamental intellectual-moral-emotional orientation. The
orientation (attitude, posture, direction, indication) of the coming age, if we are to
survive, is to be an ‘open orientation’. This is an orientation which is:

Intellectual: a letting go of explanations and theories where they are inappropriate

(pushed beyond the boundaries of sense)
Moral: a letting go of attachment (clinging) to moral, political and religious
Emotional: a letting go of the bodily-emotional sources of attachment.

This letting go, which I call ‘catharsis’, results in an openness of mind and spirit, the
kind of openness that will go hand in hand with the FCE that Jonas hopes for. A
central feature of an ethical stance on the policies needed to deal with our
contemporary global problems is a non-dogmatism, a non-moralising approach, a
non-attachment to boundaries and divisions, and an appreciation of when it is entirely
appropriate to stop explaining and theorising and get back to persuasion, resistance
and action.
This open orientation is to be found in several different forms in world-
historical cultures. The two I wish to draw attention to here are Zen practice in
relation to the moral-emotional dimension and Wittgenstein’s critique of philosophy
(perspicuous presentation) in relation to the intellectual dimension. As someone who
was trained in Wittgenstein’s philosophy (and taught by Rush Rhees, and
‘Wittgensteinians’ at Swansea University), as well as now being involved in efforts to
‘Westernise’ Zen practice (what I call ‘Modern Zen’), I find it illuminating to show
the kinship between Zen and Wittgenstein. (There are important differences, of

5. Japanese Zen already provides a cathartic life-practice

We generally think one of two things. One, we cannot change the world, so must get
what we can or simply suffer our lot in life. Two, we can change the world, and when
we have done so our lot will then improve. There is a third way: to change yourself is
to change the world. To begin to bring peace to yourself is to begin, really begin, to
bring peace in the world. Giving up on changing the world is to fall into ignorance,
fear and despair. Trying to change the world without self-change is unskilful, fruitless
and at worst harmful.
Wittgenstein recognised that ‘the edifice of your pride has to be dismantled.
And that is terribly hard work’.14 This was not an incidental matter for Wittgenstein,
for he thinks pride, or perhaps arrogance, somehow lies behind the metaphysical
theorising of philosophers. It is pride that gets in the way of understanding so often,
not a lack of intelligence or cleverness. This, of course, is a central insight of Zen, and
indeed all Buddhism.
What is the connection between Zen (meditation) and social responsibility?
Meditation is the sustained practice of cultivating awareness and concentration in
order to see for oneself that the ‘boundary around my self’ (what makes me ‘me’) is
an awkward and temporary construction. To have a human identity, a sense of self,
means that something (I, me, mine) is separate from everything and everyone else).
As this boundary serves to maintain my sense of identity, at the very same time it
necessarily obstructs the continuity or interdependence between ‘me’ and everyone
else (and everything else); it obstructs the truth that I am of the world, and the world
is of me. (To illustrate the point simply: When I am completely absorbed in watching
or doing something fascinating then the boundary appears to disappear, or dissolve, or
at least become very thin and wispy. When I love someone, there is the same
weakening or disappearance of the boundary, a self-sacrificing.
Becoming human, becoming a distinct person, becoming whoever one is, is a
lifetime of constructing, protecting, strengthening and adjusting this boundary. In
sustained meditation we are undoing a lifetime of self-construction, and letting go of
the boundary. This does not mean that after sustained meditation one has permanently
and completely lost the boundary. It means that when one returns to the boundary (to
the ‘me’ that I am) it is with a changed attitude. One has changed oneself. One sees
that there is no solid wall between oneself and others (and other things) but only a veil
that has spun oneself, in a social context of veils, over the years of one’s reaching
maturity. With this changed attitude one sees that other people are a lot more like
oneself, and a lot more like each other, than they are different. The veil is arranged
differently from one to another, that’s all.
To use another metaphor: pour water into a bowl, bucket, vase, pot, and
saucepan. Are they the same or different? The boundary around the water is different,
but the water is always just that – water. I had been so focussed on the boundary-thing
around the water, that I overlooked the water itself. Water has no boundary – it settles
within a boundary and takes its shape. In itself it has no shape – no left, right, up,
down, before, after. I know that being told this is not very convincing – it’s rather
abstract. (And there is a danger of taking it literally, and thinking there is a ‘soul
inside the body’ like water in a pot, etc.) Through meditation one may see the truth of
it, and seeing this truth changes one’s life. It changes one’s attitude to oneself, to

others and to everything (to ‘the world’). I see you in me and me in you, I see
everything in me and me in everything, you in everything and everything in you.
Social responsibility is accepting as one’s own the difficult experiences of
other human beings, difficulties largely a result of human activity itself. Nelson
Mandela was one with high degree of social responsibility, and so was Mahatma
Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Hans Jonas too, in his own way, was also on this
path, until he fell into the philosophical trap. No one told these people that they must
see the difficulties of others as their own – they simply did so. Their self-boundary
was not so thick that it excluded others – it was thin and porous, it included others.
This kind of seeing or insight may have come easily to them, but not so easily to most
of us. Not coming so easily, we suffer anxiety, in the way in which both Christ and
the Buddha saw that we all suffer. But meditation can cultivate this insight, can help
this thinning out of self-boundary.
There’s the connection. To thin out one’s self boundary through meditation is
at once to see clearly that we are one. Social responsibility comes through meditation.
The insight attained through meditation is social responsibility. To let go of one’s self
is to embrace others. Responsibility, then does not require attaching to the theory of a
philosopher. As Dogen Zenji expressed it:

… because we cannot perceive it [truth/reality] directly, we are prone to beget

random intellectual ideas, and because we chase after these as if they were real
things, we vainly pass by the great state of truth. From these intellectual ideas
emerge all sorts of flowers in space [imaginings]..15

Social responsibility is not a theory or intellectual idea, but a personal act of letting go:

And the scale of this [realization] is the scale of not committing. For people of
just this reality, at the moment of just this reality … wrongs can never be
committed at all. The power of not committing is realized, and so wrongs
cannot voice themselves as wrongs, and wrongs lack an established set of

I take Dogen Zenji to be saying (and this needs more exegesis) that ethics is largely
about not doing, about not committing, and that responsibility is about letting go, not
(as so often in the West) attaching to some idea of the good or right and then trying to
impose it on everyone. Dogen Zenji is clear about this:

… there has never been any kind of right that is realized beforehand and that
then waits for someone to do it. There is none among the many kinds of right
that fails to appear at the very moment of doing right. The myriad kinds of
right have no set shape, but they converge on the place of doing right faster
than iron to a magnet…17

So, as you let go, ‘rightness’ starts appearing everywhere around you. Sadly, I think
the West has forgotten the meaning of its own great religious teachings. This is the
meaning of the ‘love’ of which Christ speaks (caring for all humanity), and the
‘compassion’ that the Buddha and all the great teachers speak of. This is not self-
directed, gainful love, but selfless love. Can it be an accident that Christ and Buddha
both had the boundary-less insight of meditation (sometimes called ‘contemplation’ in

the Christian tradition) and both felt deep responsibility for all humankind? Of course
Zen teachings explain that we human beings are naturally inclined to four
‘natural’ ways of struggling to sustain our sense of self. Unthinking ways or reactions
that mould our lives and cause anxiety and dissatisfaction, and also present obstacles
to an ethics of future-care. These are seeking praise and avoiding blame, seeking
pleasure and avoiding discomfort and pain, seeking popularity and avoiding
unpopularity, and seeking gain and avoiding loss. On this basis we have a tendency to
greed (wanting more things or people), hatred (not wanting certain things or people),
and ignorance and fear (not knowing what we want, why we want them, or whether
we shall lose them.) Preoccupied in this way, we can have little care or compassion or
responsibility for others.
The fundamental human anxiety, which is the Buddha’s starting point, is not
hard to understand. It is our indistinct recognition that our self-boundaries are
constructions, but we do not want to admit it. We want to make them stronger, harder,
permanent. We crave more, to have more and be more, and to ‘live forever’. And all
to no avail; the more we crave, the unhappier we become, and self-destruction looms.
Frustration mounts, and life as we have understood (misunderstood) it, seems to be
futile. Building up our sense of separate self, even at the expense of others, gets us
nowhere. Self-subduing through ethical practice (right speech, action and livelihood)
and through mental training (meditation), is the subduing of this craving. It really is
possible to subdue it, and people who have done so are instantly identifiable by their
inclusiveness, equanimity, joy, wisdom and kindness. Different people may subdue it
to different extents, but even a slight subduing has immeasurable benefits in
dissolving the anxiety - bringing one nearer to peace and wisdom, as well as to more
care for others however remote they may be.
In the Buddha’s teaching, the ethical practice is not something separate from
the meditation; it is part and parcel of one single orientation. It is all about loosening
up that apparently ‘solid’ self-boundary, admitting its impermanence (and thus the
impermanence of all things), and coming to see how holding onto boundaries is the
source of suffering and dissatisfaction in all things. Life as we know it, is constructed
out of such boundaries, and thus ‘suffering’ is structured into the very nature of things
as we experience them. We cannot both be ‘alive’ as we normally understand it and
abolish all boundaries at the same time; but we can see, understand and accept the
flimsy, transitory nature of such boundaries and thus transform our very
understanding of life itself. I sense that there is some affinity here with Wittgenstein’s
criticism of the philosophical response: responding to the flimsiness of our boundaries
by trying to create an even more solid one, a rational foundation that everyone must
The question about the connection of meditation and social responsibility is
the same as a question about the connection of the ethical component of the Buddha’s
teaching and the meditational component. This has often been misunderstood. People
sometimes speak of ‘Buddhist ethics’ as though there were some list of principles of
conduct that are a kind of add-on to meditation. However, one cannot really meditate
and at the same time hang on to actions (and deliberate omissions), speaking and
writing, and work or employment that are deceptive, manipulative, exploiting, harsh,
demeaning, bullying, lustful, spiteful, and angry. That would simply be inconsistent.
To inspect the boundary of self, and learn its ways of protection, consolidation and
extension is to watch and get to know the greed, hatred, ignorance and fear that live

within all of us. Meditation is intrinsically an ethical activity, an engendering of social
When I discover the truth of my internal oppression then I see how we are all
doing it most of the time, and each is doing it to himself/herself and to everyone else
at the very same moment. See the suffering in the world and see the oppressor /
oppressed at work. It is each one of us. To meditate is to support the oppressed and
let go of the oppressor – in oneself and in the world – the very same thing. ‘Peace in
oneself, peace in the world’, says Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.
‘Meditation’ and ‘peaceful resistance’ are one and the same thing. When I support the
victim and at once help the oppressor or abuser to let go of the oppressor within
himself then I am meditating, and I am peacefully resisting.
To change yourself is to change the world. Trying to change the world without
self-change is unskilful, fruitless and at worst harmful. To begin to bring peace to
yourself is to begin, really begin, to bring peace into the world. Thus Dogen Zenji
makes clear that responsibility begins with you, and it is of a ‘negative’ kind i.e. a
letting go of the small clinging self:
Life can be likened to a time when a person is sailing in a boat. On this boat, I
am operating the sail, I have taken the rudder, I am pushing the pole; at the
same time, the boat is carrying me, and there is no I beyond the boat. Through
my sailing of the boat, this boat is being caused to be a boat – let us consider,
and learn in practice, just this moment of present. … So life is what I am
making it, and I am what life is making me. … What has been described like
this is that life is the self, and the self is life.18

Conclusion: The Jonas Paradox

I conclude with words which express a sentiment I share, and which Jonas might have
benefited from, words from a Japanese Zen philosopher (theologian) who has entered
into dialogue with Western theology:

Currently, we have different peace, human rights, and other social reform
movements. If these movements are pursued only from a political and social
standpoint without a basis in our deep realization of the true Self, however,
such an approach may not yield adequate solutions … they can create more

Abe’s expression is here in danger of misleading us into a theory or metaphysics of

‘True Self’, but I take him to be only pointing to the Zen practice rather than trying to
provide a foundation for it. Abe, at least, has tried to open an East-West dialogue.
A far-reaching dialogue needs to be opened between Zen (and Zen-like
practices in other traditions) and modern science and technology, modern psychology
and psychotherapy, modern organisational change management and policy studies,
and modern society generally. Traditional Zen now has its own historical, cultural and
institutional difficulties and is dying in its own homeland. I believe we need a
‘Modern Zen’ for the problems of modern world that Hans Jonas has so effectively
Paradoxically, Jonas’ conviction that a rational foundation (theory,
metaphysics, ultimate ground) is possible and necessary is a crucial supporting
assumption of the very kind of technocratic civilization that he wishes to criticise and

transcend. It is the very civilisation that clings to ‘explanationism’ as the very basis of
its self-destruction. Wittgenstein pointed out that in a technologically successful
society it is easy for ‘a kind of idol worship [to develop], the idol being science and
the scientist’.20 He added that ‘the fatal thing about the scientific way of thinking,
which the whole world employs nowadays, is that it wants to produce an explanation
in answer to each anxiety’.21
This explanationism is a hallmark of a self-destructive technocratic civilisation,
and it is also found in the works of philosophers, and even in the work of a
philosophical critic of this civilization such as Hans Jonas. While Jonas’s heart is in
the right place, his intellect is partially confused. A coherent and consistent critic of
this civilisation has to be a critic of explanationism, and here the approach of Zen is
most appropriate. It shows us how the global problems we face are not just problems
of environment, economy, politics, they are first and foremost our problems. The
difficulty lies with our clinging to what we think we are.
Wittgenstein understood that philosophers may hope for a ‘change of aspect’
(attitude) in people, a turning away from a technocratic society, but he knew that this
does not require a theory, and even if it did people would not understand it or accept it:’s possible, moreover, that such an admonition [to see things differently]
can achieve nothing in any case and that the impetus for such a change in the
way things are perceived has to originate somewhere else entirely.22

Zen practitioners may recall how ‘Right View’ sometimes comes about. A change of
attitude may be the result of a shout or even a compassionate blow with a stick.

1a Caring about the human future is global in geographical extent, it is directed to the
future and is therefore policy-oriented, and it might be described as an ethical concern.
Therefore we could use the phrase ‘Global Policy Ethics’ to mean the same thing.
1. Hans Jonas. The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the
Technological Age. University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1984.
p. 25. Hereafter referred to as ‘IR’. Also see: Hans Jonas. The Phenomenon of Life:
Towards a Philosophical Biology. Harper & Row, 1966; University of Chicago Press,
1982; Northwestern UP, 2001. I am grateful to Prof. Morishita, Naoki for his paper
‘Nanotechnology and Life: A Philosophical Perspective’, presented at First Annual
International Workshop on ELSI of Nanotechnologies’ 2nd April 2004, St Mary’s
College (a college of the University of Surrey), UK.
2. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), born in Vienna, went to Cambridge University
in 1911 to work with Bertrand Russell, reluctantly became Professor of Philosophy at
Cambridge. Most influential work is probably: Wittgenstein, L. Philosophical
Investigations, ed. G E M Anscombe & R Rhees, Blackwell, 1st edition, 1953; 3rd
revised edition, 2001. Dogen Kigen (1200-1253), spiritual founder of the Soto School
of Zen, born in Kyoto. I have used the English translation of his ‘Shobogenzo’:
Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, trans. G Nishijima & C Cross, London & Tokyo, 1997,
four volumes.
3. IR, pp. x-xi, 8.
4. Hunt, G. ‘Nanotechnologies & Global Policy Ethics: Hans Jonas, Precaution &
Public Accountability’, Paper presented at Tokyo University, Japan on 22nd October
2004 (13.00-14.30 hrs).

5. By ‘technocratic’ I mean the political, economic and ideological rule by means of
technology. See also: Hunt, G. ‘The Role of Philosophy and Philosophers in Modern
Healthcare’, Studies in Comparative Philosophy (Japanese Association for
Comparative Philosophy, Tokyo) No. 28 (March 2002) pp. 1-8 (ISSN 0286-2379);
Hunt, G. ‘Good Nursing, Nursing the Good: Kitaro Nishida’s Philosophy & Nursing’,
Quality Nursing: The Japanese Journal of Nursing Education & Nursing Research Vol.
9 No. 1 (January 2003), pp. 63-73.
6. IR, pp. 7-8.
7. Scodel, H (2003). ‘Interview with Professor Hans Jonas’, New School for Social
Research. Available at:
8. Kant decided that the nature, functions and limitations of human mental capacities
such as ‘reason’ needed to be investigated before progress could be made in
philosophy. The conditions of the very possibility of knowledge are his concern, but
his approach still suffers from ‘foundationalism’ of a kind.
9. See note 2.
10. Wittgenstein, L. Wittgenstein’s Lectures: Cambridge 1932-35, ed. Alice Ambrose,
Blackwell, 1979.
11. Wittgenstein, L. Wittgenstein’s Lectures: Cambridge 1930-32, ed. Desmond Lee,
Blackwell, 1980, p. 34. On the critique of foundationalism also see: Wittgenstein, L.
On Certainty, ed. GEM Anscombe & GH von Wright, Blackwell, Oxford, 1969.
12. Wittgenstein, L. Philosophical Grammar, ed. Rush Rhees, Blackwell, 1974, p. 381.
13. Johnston, P. Wittgenstein and Moral Philosophy. Routledge, London, 1989, p. 89.
This book has given me some useful general guidance on Wittgenstein’s ‘ethics’.
14. Wittgenstein, L. Culture & Value. 2nd edition (English), Blackwell, Oxford, 1980,
p. 26.
15. Shobogenzo [see note 2 above], vol. 1 (Bendowa), p. 10, sec. 32.
16. Shobogenzo [see note 2 above], vol. 1 (Shoaku-makusa), pp. 99-100, sec. 6.
17. Shobogenzo [see note 2 above], vol. 1 (Shoaku-makusa), p. 103, sec. 14.
18. Shobogenzo [see note 2 above], vol. 2 (Zenki), p. 286, sec. 232.
19. Abe, Masao. Zen and the Modern World. University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu,
2003, pp. 32-33.
20. Wittgenstein, L. Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and
Religious Belief. Blackwell, Oxford, 1970, p. 27.
21. Quoted in Kenny, A. The Legacy of Wittgenstein. Blackwell, Oxford, 1984, p. 43.
22. 14. Wittgenstein, L. Culture & Value. 2nd edition (English), Blackwell, Oxford,
1980, p. 61.

Works by Rush Rhees (For your interest)

Wittgenstein and the Possibility of Discourse, ed. D Z Phillips, Cambridge U.P., 1998.
There like our Life, ed. D Z Phillips (forthcoming?)
Discussions of Wittgenstein. Routledge, London, 1970.
Without Answers. ed. D Z Phillips, Routledge, London, 1969
On Religion & Philosophy. ed. D Z Phillips, Cambridge U.P., 1997.