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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


JASPERS

(1883 — 1969)

 

EXISTENTIALISM

Karl Jaspers was born in Oldenburg, Germany. His father was a lawyer and banker. He studied law at the universities of Heidelberg and Munich and then medicine at Berlin and Göttingen. He gained his medical doctorate from Heidelberg in 1909, specializing in psychiatry, and his Habilitation in psychology in 1913. He became professor of psychology at Heidelberg in 1916, but having transferred his interests to existential issues was appointed to a professorship in philosophy there in 1921. He was not permitted to teach from 1937 onwards (his wife was Jewish) but he was reappointed at the end of the war. In 1948 he took up a post at Basel University in Switzerland.

 

PHILOSOPHY OF MAN/ METAPHYSICS/ RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY

[1] [See his three volume Philosophy for the most comprehensive presentation of his thought.] Jaspers employed the phenomenological method but rejected attempts to develop philosophy as a 'rigorous science' [a]. Philosophy has to be lived; philosophy, he said, does not cognise objects but elucidates, makes actual the being of the thinker. He starts by analysing and describing 'first person' experiences, that is, sensibilia, all kinds of intuitions, feelings, and emotional states such as anxiety, love, despair. However, to achieve a deeper analysis he makes use of a number of key concepts. Firstly he distinguishes between Existenz and Dasein. These modes are interdependent. Dasein relates to man's existence in time as revealed through perception and knowing. But this does not address the 'real' self or origin (Ursprung) which for Jaspers possesses Existenz. This refers to man's eternal 'inner' nature, the 'transcendental ego', through and in which he experiences authenticity, freedom, and value, as well as his loneliness, and through which he realizes his possibilities. In these possibilities and choices the self is inexhaustible and thus not analysable in scientific terms. Thus the real self cannot be grasped through the theoretical concepts employed to discover Dasein; it is accessible only through lived experience [b].

In the course of such experience man runs up against paradoxes or conflicts relating to freedom and dependence, good and evil, true opposed to false. In such circumstances he encounters Existenz as a 'boundary'. Chance, suffering, guilt and death are therefore called 'boundary situations' (Grenzsituationen). These Jaspers sees as sources of anxiety which man experiences existentially and which characterize his 'alienation' from a world in a state of continuous temporal and spatial flux. But at the same time he regards anxiety and the feeling of loneliness as sources for hope; for awareness of this condition can produce a sense of urgency and can give man courage to live authentically and with integrity now, in the present moment. Despair can therefore be transformed into hope. Jaspers also introduced a second 'boundary' concept — 'Transcendence', which arises from our encounter with the more specific paradoxes and antinomies engendered by scientific thinking when it seeks to describe or explain our empirical selves, our existence, and the world as a totality. In reflecting on our sense of freedom we become aware both of our finitude and our grounding in an ultimate 'horizon' or dependence on a power which the world points to as a 'beyond'.

In his later writing [Reason and Existenz and Existenz-Philosophy] Jaspers became concerned with what he saw as the limitations of the concept of Existenz, believing it to characterize a 'centre of action' but which tends to become isolated from the world. Accordingly he related it to his central concept of the 'Encompassing' (das Umgreifende) which allows for the interdependence of selves, intersubjectivity. He distinguishes three modes of perspectives of the Encompassing. (1) The empirical world, the world of our everyday experience: this offers us some understanding of the ultimate and unlimited Encompassing of Being-as-such; (2) Existenz within ourselves. We are, as it were, the Encompassing in so far as it is Being-as-it-is-for-us — part of our consciousness; (3) The Encompassing can be considered as the totality of Being itself — of which each of us is a part. Thus we can say that the Encompassing in general is to be understood as the totality of the world as 'object' and of our ourselves as 'subjective egos' in it. Existenz and Transcendence are thus inseparably interlinked, interdependent by virtue of their being established in the concept of the Encompassing [c].

[2] The faculty which allows us to point towards Transcendence (the world here being considered as a totality) and authentic existence is Reason (Vernunft) — as against understanding (Verstand), which Jaspers regards as analytical, as separating or fragmenting our comprehension of the world (and thus far is deemed to be 'nihilistic'). He nevertheless accords a positive role to science as grasped through the understanding in that it is undogmatic and grounded in experience. However, he stresses that the Encompassing, or Being as such, which he comes to regard as pointing to God, cannot in its essence be grasped conceptually through Verstand or Vernunft. The role of philosophy as metaphysics then is to help us to interpret all the 'signs' or cyphers (symbols) which we encounter everywhere — in nature, art, myths, theological dogmas, philosophical systems, and in our reflections on life and death — and which he regards analogously as the language of God — though he rejects standard proofs for God's existence [a]. And although there is no progression towards a final, eternally valid ultimate system, or a completely reliable methodology of interpretation (for Jaspers there is no progress in the history of philosophy), our investigations of our relationship to the world through psychology, epistemology and ethics can illuminate the Encompassing as transcendent — towards which we are thereby open. This openness to transcendence and to God (as Being but not as moral law), and our striving to overcome our finitude to reach for the infinite — all this constitutes what Jaspers calls 'philosophische Glaube' (belief/ faith). (And implicit is our acknowledgement of our freedom to choose, which is valuable in itself and is to be respected.) However, personal commitment, the 'leap of faith' cannot in the last analysis be justified rationally [see Philosophical Faith] [b].

 

KNOWLEDGE

[3] Jaspers' account of knowledge must be understood in the context of his view that philosophy has to be 'lived'. In so far as one's first person experiences revealed phenomenologically can be compared to those of other 'selves' they do provide a basis for verification and knowledge. But he accepts that such knowledge is uncertain — though it has to be admitted that natural science cannot provide certainty either, because it takes no account of the observer and is grounded in unexamined or incomplete assumptions. Complete knowledge of the world by the transcendental self, characterized by intentionality, requires not only scientific and phenomenological methods but also the recognition that the world points beyond itself [see sec. 2] [a].

 

ETHICS

[4] As already implied, Jaspers' existential philosophy has an ethical dimension, and central to this is his concept of freedom. Our recognition of personal freedom to choose not only illuminates Existenz but also is the basis of spontaneous action; and in action we are aware of our 'self' and the values associated with it. However, our freedom is not absolute in so far as our perception of the world and our actions are limited by our 'historicity' [a]. Nevertheless we must make choices within these limitations. This gives rise to our experience of guilt because we are always aware of a conflict between the demands of our authentic existential possibilities and extraneous considerations; and we also recognise that whatever choice we make in a particular situation binds us to a corresponding set of consequent choices. We cannot avoid this guilt. Jaspers rejects any external absolute standards which might remove from us the burden of choice. Rather we must accept it, and it is in so doing that we can be said to be responsible. Recognition that we may not realize our authentic possibilities or that we have run up against the limits of thought brings about our experiences of anguish or fear of the consequences of choice. For Jaspers there are a number of ways we can respond to this. We can, for example, ignore the 'abyss' before us. Or we can dismiss the problems as meaningless. But ideally we should accept the challenge of the experience of anguish and summon up the courage to act authentically so as to realize our full potential as Existenz [b].

Ethics for Jaspers thus clearly has a central place in his existential philosophy in so far as in choosing and acting, in realizing value we are engaged in the process of 'self-disclosure'. But he stresses that ethics is not just a matter of self-regulation of individuals in a community. Both that I 'am' and my self-disclosure depend on my being reflected in other selves or existences. I can be free only to the extent that I have a view to achieving such a relationship [c] — Jaspers talks of the 'loving-strife' of communication. But by this he means more than just friendship or professional relationships. True existential communion is 'ineffable', transcending space and time. This is of course an ideal; we cannot escape our finitude and the inevitability of death. But it is in the conflict between endless striving to pass beyond the limits of our existence that we discover such transcendence.

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Despite his opaque style and the repetitiousness of much of his writing, Jaspers has made a significant contribution to existential philosophy — underpinned by a phenomenological methodology, and moderated by reason (in contrast to more extreme irrational varieties), but yet placed within a religious framework. He is important for his emphasis on commitment, authenticity, and freedom (albeit limited by the historical dimension) as central to his ethics; for his original concept of the 'encompassing' in its various manifestations; and also for his sceptical attitude to the epistemological claims of science. Nevertheless, a criticism often made is that his philosophy is an attempt to talk about what he himself said lies beyond the boundaries of Transcendence and Existenz. Many commentators are not convinced by his appeal to 'ciphers' and analogy (which, it may be remembered, is characteristic of many medieval and Renaissance philosophers).

 

READING

Jaspers: Philosophie (1932) (Philosophy, trans. E. B. Ashton), 3 volumes; Vernunft und Existenz (1935) (Reason and Existenz [sic], trans. W. Earle ); Existenzphilosophie (1938) (Philosophy of Existence, trans. R. F. Grabau); Der Philosophische Glaube (1948) (Philosophical Faith — trans. as The Perennial Scope of Philosophy by R. Manheim).

Studies

A. M. Olson, Transcendence and Hermeneutics: An Interpretation of the Philosophy of Karl Jaspers.

O. O. Schrag, Existence, Existenz and Transcendence: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Karl Jaspers.

C. T. Wallraff, Karl Jaspers: An Introduction to his Philosophy.

Collection of essays

P. A. Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Jaspers

 

[1a] Phenomenological method but philosophy not 'rigorous science'    Husserl [2a 2c]

 

[1b; cf. 4b] Dasein (cognitive) — (man's temporal existence); Existenz (existential) — man's eternal, authentic 'self-making' real self (accessible through lived experience not theoretical concepts)

   Kant

   Kierkegaard

   Nietzsche

   Husserl

   Scheler

   Heidegger

   Sartre

[2d]

[1d h]

[1b 2c]

[3d]

[5c]

[2a]

[3a]

 

[1c] 'Boundary' situations/ concepts: guilt, death, Existenz, Transcendence — [later] related through the 'Encompassing'

   Kant

   Kierkegaard

   Husserl

   Heidegger

[2d]

[1c]

[3d 5a]

[sec. 3]

 

[2a] Reason points to the transcendent, understanding underlies non-dogmatic science but fragments experience; rejects proofs for God's existence; metaphysics utilizes 'cyphers' (the encompassing not graspable conceptually)

   Plotinus

   Bruno

   Kant

   Schelling

   Wittgenstein

   Heidegger

[1a]

[1c]

[5d 10f]

[3c 6a e 5d]

[3b]

[5d]

 

[2b] Openness to transcendence, God as Being; philosophical belief/ faith; personal commitment not rationally justifiable

   Kant

   Kierkegaard

   Sartre

[5e 10f]

[1b f]

[3b]

 

[3a; cf. 2a 4c] Experience of self and other basis for verification and knowledge, but complete knowledge lies beyond world

   Husserl

   Sartre

   Merleau-Ponty

[1c 5a 5b]

[4a]

[3e]

 

[4a; cf. 4c] Freedom (limited by historicity) basis of action and awareness of self and values

   Kant

   Schelling

   Sartre

[5c]

[6c e]

[3a]

 

[4b; cf. 1b] Rejects absolute external standards; acceptance of 'anguish' → authentic action to realize our potential in Existenz

   Kant

   Kierkegaard

   Scheler

   Heidegger

   Sartre

[6b]

[1c f h]

[5c]

[2b h]

[5a]

 

[4c] Self-disclosure/ existence depends on reflection on other selves/ existence; freedom presupposed

   Sartre

   Merleau-Ponty

[4a]

[3e]