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Recent and Early Concerns for Banning the Bomb: Günther Anders and the Actuality of his Philosophical Anthropology

On July 7, 2017, the UN adopted the treaty to ban nuclear weapons. A majority of states has voted in favor of eliminating and banning those weapons because of their devastating effects on human health and the environment. Even though the pathway towards their actual abolition may be another arduous task, this development surely marks a significant step in delegitimizing nuclear arms. It thus highlights a long awaited result of continuous and concerted efforts undertaken by disarmament proponents. In this article, I will discuss the gaining importance of the term ‘human security’, which is usually dated to the end of the Cold War and often said to be too vague a concept for addressing security issues in politics effectively. Instead, I will argue that the concern for human security has accompanied nuclear history from its beginning. Not only have the development of nuclear weapons and the atrocious bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki initiated a new kind of peace movement, but also lastingly influenced reflection and debate on science and technology and thus also the philosophy of technology. I will provide insights in the works of an early representative and co-founder of the anti-nuclear movement: Austrian philosopher Günther Anders (1902-1992), who has dedicated large parts of his life and writings to the engagement of nuclear disarmament. By relating the human condition to technology and to nuclear arms in particular, he left us thoughtful scientific views on our ‘nuclear condition’, which proved to be still relevant today.

According to Matthew Bolton, the adoption of the treaty to ban nuclear weapons indicates the “most significant shift in nuclear politics since the end of the Cold War and a policy victory to human security.” (Bolton, 2017) However, other scientists and experts have raised doubts and expressed various concerns about the treaty’s text, for example, about how safeguards problems are addressed (Carlson, 2017), or about the treaty’s relationship to other treaties. Also, suggestions have been made that the treaty’s final text should enhance its HS dimension and incorporate references to human rights and environmental law (Bolton, 2017).

After the end of the Cold War new security concepts have emerged and the field of security politics has widened its focus and gradually incorporated other topics than military ones as well as other objects of reference than the state like the economy, ecology, and humanity, juxtaposing and challenging the realist approach. On the one hand, these processes are to be understood as effect and as cause of political change and thus, history. On the other hand, a problem can only become a matter of security policy, if it is successfully established in security discourse (Daase, 2010). Hence, civil society plays a crucial role in exerting influence through repeatedly expressing concerns about the danger that nuclear weapons pose to humans (respectively living beings) and the environment. I will argue, that the beginning of the post-Cold War era allowed for a change in security discourse that gradually altered discursive formations and thus power relations ascribed to statements made. With respect to human security, this change opened a discursive space which also offers to shed new light on already existing knowledge referring to the relationship between the human condition and nuclear weapons.

An early and often cited statement of human security was given in the annual publication of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) called the Human Development Report in 1994. It argues: “The concept of security has for too long been interpreted narrowly: as security of territory from external aggression, or as protection of national interest in foreign policy […] Forgotten were the legitimate concerns of ordinary people who sought security in their daily lives” (HDR, S. 22). The report goes on to define two aspects of human security: “It means, first, safety from such chronic threats as hunger, disease and repression. And second, it means protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily life” (S. 23). These also include freedom from unemployment, crime, social conflict, political repression and environmental hazards (S. 22). This definition is so broad that some have argued it has lost purchase by addressing virtually “any kind of unexpected or irregular discomfort” (Paris, 2001, 89). Nevertheless, it offers guiding traditional principles including of “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” (S. 3), and thus also freedom from violence, that reorient the search for human security toward development, not arms” (S. 1).

Reorienting security around development had an impact on other and older concepts like Humanitarian Arms Control or, used synonymously, humanitarian disarmament. Humanitarian arms control focusses on the mitigation of human suffering caused by different types of weapons. Its objective is to prohibit or to constrain use of weapons that do not distinguish between civilians and military personal, that create unnecessary suffering and that have lasting effects beyond the war.  The Legal Framework of humanitarian disarmament is humanitarian law which aims at preserving the maximum of humanity possible in times of war, limiting the choice of weapons, and legitimating only the weakening of the military of the enemy (Brehm, 2017). In political practice, the efforts of humanitarian arms control have met some notable successes like the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) which both reinforce the Geneva Protocol of 1925. Furthermore, especially Canada and Norway have tried to incorporate the humanitarian approach in their foreign policy initiatives that have led to the Ottawa Process, culminating in the adoption of the 1997 Anti-personnel Mine Ban Treaty and the Oslo Process, culminating in the adoption of the 2008 Convention of Cluster Munitions. It also applies to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) which refers explicitly to the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from any use of nuclear weapons” and states that existence and any use of nuclear weapons, either inadvertently or on purpose, pose “risks [that, AR] concern the security of all humanity” (TPNW, Preamble). Subsequently, aspects are listed that were already mentioned in the Human Development Report: “human survival, the environment, socioeconomic development, the global economy, food security and the health of current and future generations.” What is also referred to in the preamble is the “the unacceptable suffering of and harm caused to the victims of the use of nuclear weapons (hibakusha) as well as of those affected by the testing of nuclear weapons” (Ibd.). The adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was preceded by three conferences in Oslo (2010), Nayarit (2013) and Vienna (2014) culminating in the Austrian or Humanitarian Pledge “to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” (2014) which led to opening negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

Humanitarian arms control changes the security discourse of arms control away from stability and towards human security. It has been argued that this change affects the politics of multilateral arms control: it empowers smaller powers like NNWS to build new coalitions and exert leadership, it reinforces the UN General Assembly to sanction new agendas, forward new negotiation formats, but also to adopt new treaties and, particularly significant, it enhances the role of civil society and NGOs that are more active and have more access to negotiations and hence, exert more influence. (Brehm, 2017)

Again I would like to stress, that a reframing of the nuclear order was initiated by switching the reference object from the state to the individual, which in turn was made possible by the changing political situation after the Cold War. Thus, security discourse has changed and with it the rules of its discursive formations of what can be said and what is accepted as truth, as norm or else as deviation. In the history of nuclear technology, concerns about the unparalleled destructive force of nuclear weapons have been voiced from the beginning by physicists, scientists, the anti-nuclear movement and the public, but with state-centered security as dominant security concept could easily be overheard and dismissed as left-wing weirdness. With the transformation of security thinking towards humanitarian approaches, things change, and accumulated expertise can now develop new momentum.

Thus it is worth revisiting the work of philosopher Günther Stern alias Anders (1902-1992), who dedicated large parts of his own life and writings to disarmament and to the dangers posed by nuclear weapons.

In Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (The Outdatedness of Human Beings), published in 1956, he relates his philosophical anthropology to the conditions, human life is exposed to in the nuclear age. His thought on the human condition can thus be seen as the thematic basis and central issue for his later work, which he defines as “philosophical anthropology in the age of technocracy” (Anders, 2002, Preface). The second volume of The Outdatedness of Human Beings was published as late as in 1980 and in the preface he excuses that delay with his activities for the anti-nuclear movement. “Indeed, the late publishing of the second volume is caused by the fact, that I found it inappropriate to deal with the apocalyptic threat only academically” (Anders, 1985, VII).

The effects nuclear weapons have on human life and how they changed the relation between humans and technology kept him occupied. In 1958 he visited Japan – Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and he participated in the Fourth International Congress against A- and H-Bombs and for Disarmament in Tokio in August 1958 what he perceived as very encouraging. In 1959 he published The Man on the Bridge which is a philosophical diary of this journey. In 1959 he started a correspondence with the former Major of the US Air Forces Claude Eatherly, who was a pilot in the Hiroshima squadron. This very interesting and widely known correspondence was published in Germany in 1961 titled Off limits für das Gewissen. Der Briefwechsel Claude Eatherly Günther Anders and 1962 in English as Burning Conscience. Eatherly had shown conspicuous behavioral changes after the Hiroshima bombing and committed crimes of bizarre nature. For Anders that was the evidence that Eatherly failed to handle his participation in the Hiroshima bombing and so Eatherly came to symbolize Anders’ philosophical thesis of the so called Promethean Disparity, which means that we are able to produce weapons with effects, which neither can be imagined nor handled by us any longer and also the thesis of the Promethean Shame, which means that there is a mental disorder regarding the identification of the self when related to the always superior efficiency of machines, apparatuses and objects. (Anders, 1985, 23ff.)

Following Dries’ explanations on Anders’ anthropology, the human condition is characterized by a fundamental distance between the individual and the outside world. This distance becomes manifest in indeterminacy on the one hand and dependency on the other. But exactly this gap offers a space for possible action to create ethically acceptable living conditions which may help to improve human security. Instead of positing that the human individual has at his or her disposition experiences a priori because of his or her cognitive predisposition, Anders claims that the individual is dependent upon experience that he or she can only make retrospectively by creating the relationship between him- or herself and the opposite world (Dries, 2009, 24f.).

And of Anders’ utmost concern is the kind of position the individual must have in the world to be able to make these experiences. In contrast to animals which are naturally wholly in the world, human beings are ontologically within the world, but at the same time they maintain a distance to it. This condition is called “Weltfremdheit” (unworldliness). Human beings are part of the world, but also strangers in the world. Human Identity is thus not always the same but its essential nature is its lack of determinability. However, this condition also generates “Weltoffenheit” (openmindedness) or else “Freiheit” (freedom, liberty) because it opens up various options of making experiences that help overcome the distance retrospectively. We are creating a world according to our demands. To live in the world, he writes, “we have to make a world of our own, a second world. A >superstructure<” (Anders, cited in Dries, 2009, 26).

These >modern superstructures<, influences and changes individuals are faced with, mark the basis for his views on technology. And the question he raises in this context is, if humans are at all able to keep up with the superstructures, they have built up. In negating the answer he develops the above mentioned concepts of the Promethean Disparity and the Promethean Shame. The Promethean Shame, that is the failure of the self-identification, is increasing tremendously with the atomic bomb. With the atomic bomb, we are entering a new era, the nuclear age. In a kind of negative theology he stresses the destructive omnipotence of the bomb, the capacity of a “reduction ad nihil” (total annihilation) of mankind. And incapable of annulling the knowledge of its construction, we are forever at its mercy. For Anders, the bomb is an object “suis generis”. It is a monstrosity, which resists any positive definition. It is not a “mean” because its least effect exceeds any political or military end. It poses a threat not only to a constructed enemy but also to those who possess them.

With nuclear testing the atomic bomb becomes a monstrous pseudo-mean: until testing of nuclear weapons, experiments were conducted in laboratories. Now, the difference between preparation and application is annulled in that the whole world is coextensively turned into a laboratory. It becomes an irreversible historical event: what is thought of as experiment may turn into a biological emergency for current and future generations. (Anders, 1985,  258ff.) Radioactivity does not respect national boarders, milestones or curtains. (Anders, 1981,  95)

It has been suggested by Christian Dries, to take Anders’ anthropology as starting point of an ethic for the technological civilization which includes the shaping of our relationship to the environment as habitat of plants, animals, and humans. (Dries, 2009, 100) Anders’ writings may serve as elaborate and norm setting reflections, and even though some aspects may clearly be considered documents of their time, others proved to be clairvoyant to this day. Against the backdrop of human security his anthropology could serve as an obligation to take over responsibility and participate in creating conditions which serve the common good and help improve the quality of life of everybody.


Anders, G. (2002[1980]). Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen. Band II. München: Beck.

Anders, G. (1985[1956]). Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen. Band I. München: Beck.

Anders, G. (1981). Die atomare Drohung. Radikale Überlegungen. München: Beck.

Austrian Pledge (2014). Retrieved from Visited on July 2, 2017.

Bolton, M. (2017). The Nuclear Weapons Ban and Human Security for All. Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. Retrieved from Visited on July 10, 2017.

Brehm, M. (2017). Humanitarian Arms Control. HSFK eLearning course EU, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. Learning Unit 09. Retrieved from Visited on July 14.

Carlson, J. (2017). Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty – Serious Safeguards Problems. Retrieved from Visited on July 10, 2017.

Daase, C. (2010). Der erweiterte Sicherheitsbegriff. Working Paper 1|2010. Retrieved from Visited on July 11, 2017.

Dries, C. (2009). Günther Anders. Paderborn: Fink.

Paris, R. (2001). Human Security. Paradigm Shift or Hot Air? In International Security, Vol. 26. No. 2, pp. 87-102.

Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Retrieved from Visited on July 12, 2017.

United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report (1994). Oxford: University Press.


Annette Ripper