Karl Jaspers was an early existentialist thinker who coined the term Existenzphilosophie as a description of his philosophy. Although often being overlooked as a philosopher of merit and heavily criticised by other philosophers of his time, he formulated a number of key ideas that would become central to later existentialist thought.
Jaspers often used the word ‘philosophize’when talking about philosophy to capture the idea that it is not a static endeavour or a fixed body of doctrines to be studied. He was very insistent that philosophy not be thought of as a theoretical activity to be performed with an attitude of “indifference” nor was its final goal that of knowledge acquisition.
So that’s what philosophy isn’t, what is it then? In one place, Jaspers describes it as an “an experience which is not the cognition of anything in particular but which brings an experience of Being through the very act of thinking. It is like a working of thought which transforms the man but brings forth no object.” There are a few things we can tease out of this definition.
First, philosophy is an experience, not a cognising. Obviously we need to think and know things in order to do philosophy (or do anything really) but for Jaspers, these things are very much tools we use to gain an experience of something more profound and more meaningful.
Second, philosophy doesn’t seek to understand any particular object in the world. It is instead directed at the source of all particular objects (Being), which is precisely why its target therefore can’t be one of them. Since the structure of all cognition is subject/object, and since philosophy’s goal is not an object, philosophy is an attempt to apprehend something fundamentally inapprehensible. This is why the only way philosophy can complete its goal is through experience, not knowledge.
Third, philosophy is transformative for the individual. The end result of philosophy is not a doctrine or theory to be accepted or cognitively understood, but a felt, lived realisation; not a treatise or system (Jaspers had no use for system-building, which was an endeavour he thought Kierkegaard and Nietzsche had thoroughly discredited) about life, but a way of living.
Fourth, since philosophy is practical, or lived, and very much an individual undertaking, it is also historical in nature. This means that, inasmuch as people and cultures vary across time, the philosophical questions we ask and problems we face will also vary. Life in Ancient Greece was very different to life in the Middle Ages, which was itself very different to modern life. Philosophy, being an experience, will also naturally be different in each period. This doesn’t mean it is arbitrary but it does mean it is not absolute. In particular, when we study the writings of earlier philosophers, Jaspers advises that we cannot simply adopt their solutions because they were responding to different problems and questions than we are. Instead, we need to take their insights and translate them so they have meaning in our own time. In short, we need to make them our own.
Fifth, a completed philosophy is impossible. We have seen how philosophy is intimately tied to existence. Since existence is never complete (at least not while we exist) philosophy, as the discipline which contemplates existence, can also never be complete. As long as we are, philosophy is.
Now, I’ve said a little bit about philosophy here but you are probably still hazy on exactly what it is supposed to be. I don’t think Jaspers would see this as a problem. On the contrary, if you had a clearly formulated, well-defined conceptual understanding of philosophy, Jaspers would probably say you most certainly don’t understand what it is. Philosophizing is not an activity concerned with one of those concrete, objective things in the world. Rather, it aims “to catch sight of reality at its origin and to grasp it through the way in which I, in thought, deal with myself – in inner action.” Philosophy isn’t looking to understand something, it’s looking to grasp the ungraspable, Being itself, and effect a change within the individual that lets us live authentically and finally attain our own self.
The idea of the Encompassing lies at the heart of Jaspers’ philosophy. All objects we can know are particular and determinate in nature so while they have being, they therefore cannot be Being itself. Importantly, the sum of these objects is also not Being. Rather, Being is what encompasses all of these objects as the source from which they spring. Every particular being derives its being from its relation to the Encompassing.
At one point, Jaspers compares the Encompassing to a horizon within which we come to know particular things. If we then try to change location to see (‘know’) the horizon itself, we find the horizon simply moving with us. No matter how far we travel, we are always surrounded by the horizon as the limit of our knowledge and which we can never grasp in its entirety. This metaphor should however, be understood in relation to another comment Jaspers makes about the Encompassing not being a horizon, precisely because it is that within which every particular horizon is enclosed but which itself is not visible as a horizon.
There are two basic divisions of the Encompassing. The first is the Encompassing that I am and this is comprised of existence, consciousness as such, and spirit. The second is Being itself which Jaspers calls world. Jaspers calls all of these divisions in the Encompassing, modes.
World is the arena within which we are and the things before which we stand. It denotes that aspect of Being itself which appears to us. And who does world appear to? To us, as the Encompassing that I am:
Existence (Dasein) – The particular, empirical existents that we are; our individual human lives as physical organisms.
Consciousness as such – The abstract, cognitive aspect of our lives in which we comprehend connections between universal concepts.
Spirit (Geist) – The will to become whole, to unite all elements of ourselves under a single totality or Idea.
These four modes, world, existence, consciousness as such and spirit, make up the immanent modes of the Encompassing but there are two more transcendent modes; Transcendence (or Deity) and Existenz. World is the mode of the Encompassing we are not (Being itself) that appears to us, albeit always indirectly. Transcendence, on the other hand,is that mode of Being itself which never appears before us, not even indirectly.
Existenz is the correlative transcendent mode for the Encompassing which I am. It has no simple definition precisely because it is literally inconceivable. We cannot make of it a concept for our minds to grasp or know. However, this doesn’t mean we cannot say anything about it. Existenz is not another immanent mode of the Encompassing that we are (like existence, consciousness as such or spirit) because it transcends all of them, which in turn means that it represents our most genuine, authentic mode of being, the mode in which we truly become ourselves. In addition, unlike the immanent modes of the Encompassing that we are, Existenz is not given to us naturally (in fact, we usually think we are just our immanent modes). Because of this, Jaspers often refers to it as our ‘possible’ Existenz, the possibility we all have of returning to ourselves.
Existenz also sheds a little light on Transcendence (or Deity). Since the Encompassing which we are only exists in relation to something which we are not (world to existence, consciousness as such and spirit), Existenz can only be realised in relation to a transcendent mode of Being itself; namely, Transcendence.
Like Kierkegaard before him, Jaspers places great significance on the decision that faces us all; the decision whether or not to make the “leap” from immanence to transcendence. He talks about it in somewhat serious terms speaking of philosophizing as a resolution we must take upon ourselves to break free from immanence to the freedom and authentic Existenz of our transcendent selves.
Of course, Existenz is not a fixed goal we strive for and then achieve once and for all. We never stop living in the particular, immanent modes of the Encompassing and therefore we are always in tension and conflict within ourselves. Transcendence is best thought of as a way of ‘existing’ those immanent modes of our being so that we have risen beyond any one of them.
We usually think of truth as a relation between ideas and reality. A proposition, or concept, is true if it corresponds to the way the world really is as revealed by visual experience or logical evidence. For Jaspers, capital “T” Truth is something more than this and can perhaps best be defined as the genuine (or authentic) revelation of the being of the Encompassing. Since the Encompassing reveals itself to us in three immanent modes, truth manifests differently in each of them although no one of these has priority over the others:
Existence: Truth is always pragmatic and concerned with preservation of life and physical satisfaction. Anything that furthers our particular existence is true.
Consciousness as such: Truth is universal and based on logic and evidence. It is characterised by certainty. This is the truth of logical positivism and science.
Spirit: Truth is whatever produces wholeness and is characterised by conviction.
Existenz: In this transcendent mode, truth is a truth of being, not knowing, and the active ingredient here for Jaspers is faith. This is, of course, not a religious faith in a supernatural deity, but a faith that I am truly myself and have resolutely grasped the truths of the other modes of being.
Truth and Existenz ultimately go hand in hand. Existenz is our ever-present possibility of transcending the immanent modes of the Encompassing and it is only when we achieve this that Truth as a lived reality in turn transcends the particular truths of each mode. However, Jaspers does point out that the unity of the one Truth can never be a harmonious whole because the individual truths of each mode are constantly in tension and contradiction and moreover, this disharmony is necessary for the opening up of new possibilities for the possibility that is Existenz.
What Jaspers is saying is that we must disregard our common sense belief that truth is something fixed and immutable, something that exists outside, and independent of, us. Rather, truth only arises within a lived situation as a meaningful aspect of that reality. Truth is closely bound to other aspects of our existence including historicity (the idea that we exist in, and over, time) and this all means that truth is something which becomes, not is, and is therefore something which loses meaning outside of the historical moment that contains it. This is not to say that truth is relative or arbitrary (a statement like this already presupposes a fixed, external notion of truth valid for all people at all times), I cannot simply will truth to be whatever I wish, but rather, it is to emphasise that human existence is complex and subtle and anything which touches it must also reflect these qualities; truth in one historical era, in one mode of the Encompassing which we are, will not be the same as at other times or when considered from a different mode.
For Jaspers, a human being is not something which arises in isolation. In fact, it is only through community and communication with other beings like us, that our selves can be revealed and we can become human in the first place. This communication is not mere social intercourse; rather, it is a genuine bond established with another, a “constant urge towards total revelation”.
There are three features worth noting here. First, communication need not be with many people. It is enough that we achieve it with just one other. Second, like all things concerned with Existenz, communication is never complete. It is a never-ending process of mutual self-discovery carried out with other Existenzen (Jaspers’ word for authentic human beings as ‘transcendences’). Third, like truth, communication in each of the three immanent modes of the Encompassing is different. I have compared each of these to the way communication takes place as transcendent Existenz in the table below:
Communication in Immanence
Communication as Existenz
Existence – A kind of self-interested communication which often takes place out of conflict
Communication occurs in a struggle but one where my progress is the progress of others too
Consciousness as such – Communication is between identical, replaceable points
Communication occurs between irreplaceable individuals
Spirit – Communication is guided by membership to a common idea
Communication is aware of a crack in Being and is open for transcendence
Jaspers distinguishes between reason and understanding. The latter is cognition as it takes place in consciousness as such whereas the former is the will to unity. Understanding is therefore particularised within one of the modes of the Encompassing. Reason is the will to transcend each one of these modes, to go beyond the multiplicity and grasp the one truth. Most philosophy in history has been undertaken with understanding not reason.
In order to overcome the fractured immanence of the Encompassing and grasp things as a unity, reason utilises communication (as language) to constantly question and probe. To this end, Jaspers also calls reason the, “total will to communication”. Now it might seem that questioning and probing are more likely to produce unrest and disorder than unity. Actually both are true. For Jaspers, ‘unity’ doesn’t mean a static and harmonious whole. It means the transcendence of immanent modes as Existenz characterised by a constant dynamic interplay among them generating new possibilities for being.
While Jaspers is definitely moving away from an understanding of ‘reason’ as a pure logical, evidence-based ‘way of thinking’ and more as a ‘drive’ within us for a transcending unity that operates more out of curiosity and incessant questioning, it still possesses a clarifying (‘rational’) nature that acts as a counter to mere irrational impulse and whim.
Reason and Existenz
Reason and Existenz are two aspects of Jaspers’ philosophy which are particularly important and fundamental. In fact, he calls them the “great poles of our being, which encounter one another in every mode of the Encompassing”. They are mutually dependent and supportive in their interrelations. Reason, through the unrest its questioning and probing generates, is that which gives clarity to Existenz and which pushes it to authenticity, while Existenz, as the being which I am, is that which bestows content upon reason. Without the other, they each become impoverished; reason degenerating into mere understanding and Existenz into inauthentic irrational states of being.
Science and Religion
Jaspers is not dismissive of science but he does want to put it in its place. He recognises the value of scientific thinking, particularly the way it produces knowledge of objects, but notes that it is a cognition of things, not a cognition of being, and therefore cannot provide meaningful goals for human life (being).
He points out that (in the early 20th century) science had eclipsed philosophy and this had caused philosophy to try to compete with it by imitating it in certain respects. This situation also led to a polarisation whereby people either venerated science as holding all the answers or disparaged it for having none.
It would seem little has changed. Science has only become more central to our lives and now dominates intellectual life so much that if a thought doesn’t come on the back of some kind of experiment and yield a quantifiable conclusion, it doesn’t even count as knowledge, by definition. As a result of this, all too often these days we see philosophers desperately seeking legitimacy for their work and eager to show ‘progress’ by trying to replicate the formula of science, for example, by posing ethical dilemmas to people while they are getting an fMRI scan so they can conclude that X and Y areas of the brain were active at the time of consideration indicating that people normally weigh up ethical decisions by remembering past experiences… and so on and so forth. Needless to say, Jaspers would see this as a supreme levelling down of the philosophical endeavour.
In religion, on the other hand, Jaspers takes a more accommodating stance. In one of the lectures in Reason and Existenz he notes that philosophy must keep a balance between religion and atheism (the paradigmatic examples of which are Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, respectively), ignoring neither.
The value of religion, as Jaspers see it, is nothing to do with having faith in a loving Deity that rewards good behaviour and punishes bad or literal belief in people who perform supernatural feats. Religion has value for Jaspers because it has the same goal as philosophy; it just has a different route for getting there. That goal is transcendence and whereas philosophy can only approach it indirectly and always problematically, religion experiences it as certain, guaranteed by authority and apprehended in myth and revelation.
In order to express the inexpressible, religion must come up with a language that can take on the form of thought without being thought… hence myth and revelation; stories which are meaningless to rational analysis but which nevertheless possess great depth and are able to be interpreted in a near infinite number of ways. Philosophy, being grounded in reason, cannot take advantage of such imaginative, but certain, truths, but rather must rely on ciphers of being, signposts in the world which merely point to, or indicate, Being itself.
Again, to encounter that which cannot be encountered, religion finds transcendence in sensible and particular objects in the world, specifically the sacred object, which becomes endowed with transcendental meaning. This is impossible for philosophy where transcendence cannot be grasped in so concrete a fashion. In a way though, for philosophy everything is sacred in that all things point to Being, while no one particular thing becomes especially sacred.
Also, transcendence appears to philosophy as historical which means that it cannot acquire a fixed and absolute status, true for all people at all times. Religion, on the other hand, tends to crystallise transcendence in particular historical forms which then become objectively true for all eternity and acquire significance for everyone equally.
There is a tension I think, in Jaspers’ acceptance of religion here but his underlying intuition may be valid; namely, that religion is aiming at the same transcendent reality that philosophy is. Jaspers himself notes that religion and philosophy will always be in conflict because they are approaching transcendence from different directions but nevertheless asserts that one must not be considered higher or better than the other. In fact, he claims they both need each other.
It is also important to note that Jaspers, like Kierkegaard, whom he regarded as an intellectual hero of sorts, has a more refined understanding of religion than most who actually profess to be religious. He considered an empty belief in supernatural figures and glorious afterlives to be no more authentically religious than a philosophy that lacked Existenz could be authentically philosophical.