Karl Jaspers: An Introduction to His Philosophy

Karl Jaspers: An Introduction to His Philosophy

by Charles Frederic Wallraff

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The thought of the late Karl Jaspers, co-founder of the existentialist movement, has long exerted a powerful influence on world opinion. But, surprisingly, though translations of his writings have appeared in over 160 editions in 16 countries, his strictly philosophical work has hitherto been largely inaccessible to American audiences. Even where adequate English


The thought of the late Karl Jaspers, co-founder of the existentialist movement, has long exerted a powerful influence on world opinion. But, surprisingly, though translations of his writings have appeared in over 160 editions in 16 countries, his strictly philosophical work has hitherto been largely inaccessible to American audiences. Even where adequate English translations exist, the difficulties imposed by Jaspers' involved reasoning, intricate style, and ingenious neologisms are such that few unfamiliar with Continental philosophy can hope to acquire an understanding of his ideas on their own.

To overcome these barriers, Professor Wallraff as mediator, interpreter, and translator provides a clear exposition of the main themes of Jaspers' Existenzphilosophie and prepares the reader for effective study of his writings. As the first book-length introduction to Jaspers' philosophy in English, this will be an indispensable companion for anyone desiring to take up the challenge of the "loving struggle" toward the truth that Jaspers invites us all to engage in.

Originally published in 1970.

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Karl Jaspers

An Introduction to His Philosophy

By Charles Frederic Wallraff


Copyright © 1970 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07164-0


Introduction: Disputed Topics

* * *

Heirs to the tradition deriving from Locke and his enlightened followers tend to be antipathetic to the varieties of philosophy that have appeared on the Continent — whether idealistic, materialistic, or existentialistic. Ideologically the English Channel is, as it were, wider than the Atlantic Ocean, and one might even say that the same climate of opinion that unites the Americans with the English alienates both from the turbulent atmosphere of Continental thought. British and American followers of Wittgenstein and Austin, for instance, who are sufficiently ethnocentric to find it natural, as one English writer does, to identify "modern philosophy" with "that present-day version of our traditional empiricism which is known as linguistic analysis" have remarkably little in common with the exponents of Existenzphilosophie who believe with Karl Jaspers that "the contemporary philosophical situation is determined by the fact that two philosophers, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche ... have continually grown in significance ... [and] stand today unquestioned as the authentically great thinkers of their age." Intellectual leaders but a few miles apart live in quite different worlds and "do philosophy" or philosophize, as the case may be, with astonishing indifference to each other. This is acknowledged at once by the above-quoted empiricist when she turns her attention to Sartre. "The 'world' of Ryle's The Concept of Mind," Iris Murdock writes, "is the world in which people play cricket, cook cakes, make simple decisions, remember their childhood and go to the circus; not the Existentialist world in which they commit sins, fall in love, say prayers or join the Communist Party."

Gaining acquaintance with the world of the existentialists requires considerable orientation, especially on the part of representatives of other standpoints who must proceed ab extra. However sympathetic such readers may be, still the insights that they encounter first are bound to seem strained and far-fetched until they can be placed within the mental context that constitutes their proper setting. Meanwhile this enveloping whole, being composed of these insights in addition to a great many still to come, is not initially available at all. This difficulty, known on the Continent as the "hermeneutic circle," is, of course, unavoidable. The reader can only hope, by gaining partial insights and patiently bringing them together, gradually to constitute the necessary whole.

If acquisition of the context required to make existentialism at least tentatively thinkable is difficult and slow, momentary exclusion, somewhat after the manner of Descartes, of disturbing preconceptions can be comparatively easy. One can for a time, in other words, experimentally call into question, or "bracket out" some of the familiar views that obscure and distort the existentialist outlook. Such a move in the direction of sympathetic understanding would seem to be especially necessary when one is confronted by an original thinker who, like Socrates, requires a radical questioning of entrenched beliefs. Naturally Existenzphilosophie makes no sense when taken together with the very doctrines which it denies, including, as it happens, several currently fashionable views which, through the medium of textbooks, anthologies, college outline series, and the like, have come to be taken for granted by an entire generation of students. It must be emphasized, however, that something less than refutation is here intended. The philosophies which Jaspers rejects are of course not houses of cards which collapse at a touch, and one cannot in a single chapter — in part for reasons which this chapter offers — demonstrate the falsity of half a dozen widely accepted views. In this introduction it must suffice to point out that none of the views here in question are sacrosanct, that all of them can meaningfully be criticized, that the existentialists who contest them have their reasons for doing so, and that, in contesting them they are, as a rule, in excellent company. To accomplish this much is, I believe, considerably to facilitate the understanding of Jaspers' philosophy.

Philosophy and Life

That philosophy should deal with life's problems is of course a very old-fashioned doctrine, and the reasons why ambitious academicians are chary of it are now generally known. Philosophy can only measure up to rational cognitive standards, and the techniques used in "doing philosophy" can only be reliable and teachable so long as philosophy is assigned to some limited field within which confirmation and disconfirmation are possible.

At the same time, philosophy's past cannot be ignored. "We find in some of the earliest philosophers, ..." as Walter Kaufmann reminds us, "a striking unity of life and thought. ... In the Socratic schools and in Stoicism a Utile later, philosophy is above all a way of life." The same, of course, could be said of the Epicureans. And for nearly two millennia Christian thinkers have assumed the relevance of philosophy to far-reaching human issues.

Even in Anglo-American countries today one may note a general reluctance to admit that philosophy has become effete. Many of the introductory textbooks in the field receive such honorific titles as The Enduring Questions (Rader), The Things that Matter Most (Flewelling), Living Issues in Philosophy (Titus), and Philosophies Men Live By (Davidson), or conceal behind as uninformative a title as A Modern Introduction to Philosophy a large number of classic pronouncements on such traditional topics as freedom, the mind or soul, God, and a priori knowledge (Edwards and Pap). The big questions are now as importunate as ever.

Jaspers does not believe that today's philosophers can meaningfully continue in the pre-Kantian manner: "To answer the question of the nature of ultimate reality by providing a picture or conceptual construct of the world in its entirety is, and has always been, a mistake," he says. But whatever our methodological innovations, philosophy need not relinquish its concern with the traditional problems, turning them over for consideration to preachers of innumerable faiths, self-appointed sages and seers, and those unscrupulous representatives of exotic cults who prey upon the poor in spirit. Since the "death of God," which the masses are now belatedly discovering, philosophy alone is left to provide a suitable foundation for the lives of "the great mass of denominationally nonbelieving youth." The faith for which philosophy's martyrs (including Socrates, Boethius, Bruno) were willing to die is not outmoded. Jaspers would still subscribe, with minor modifications at most, to the enthusiastic accolade which as a young man he placed near the beginning of his first philosophical treatise:

Philosophy has always been more than universal contemplation: it has provided impulses, erected tables of values, given human life its meaning and goal, offered man a world within which he could feel secure, and, in a word, furnished a Weltanschauung. ... Philosophers have not been idle and irresponsible observers, but movers and reformers of the world.

Philosophy is not the property of any single group; it is "for everyman," and "philosophers are, as it were, only the creators and keepers of the archives...." "There is no escape from philosophy. The question is only whether a philosophy is conscious or not, whether it is good or bad, muddled or clear. Anyone who rejects philosophy is himself unconsciously practising a philosophy." And finally, whoever I may be, philosophy concerns me profoundly, for it enters into my very being: it constitutes "the truth which I not only think about, but live with, which I not merely know but am convinced of and actualize; the truth which, far from being a mere possibility for thought, is reconfirmed whenever it is actualized."

The Pre-eminence of the Contemporary

The present, for obvious psychological reasons, tends to assume precedence over the past. "Every moment," says Hegel, meaning every present outlook, "being a moment of the essential process of reality, must [logically] arrive at the stage where it comes to look upon itself as the sole representative of the essential process." And Hegel himself appears to have regarded his own system as the completion of all that went before. William James remarked that when pragmatism triumphed, old-fashioned philosophers (whom he called those of the "ultra-rationalistic type") would be "frozen out." Husserl was downright contemptuous of the unscientific essays of all pre-phenomenological thinkers, and frank to say that prior to the revolution which he himself inaugurated philosophy had accomplished nothing. When the Wiener Kreis, ignoring pragmatism as well as Husserl's phenomenology, promoted a revolution of their own, they plumed themselves upon having "the tools to solve those problems that in earlier times [had] been the subject of guesswork only." And P. F. Strawson would seem to express a similar attitude on the part of his colleagues when he writes: "The gains and advances made [by English philosophers] in the dozen years which followed the war were probably as great as any which have been made in an equivalent period in the history of the subject. A new level of refinement and accuracy in conceptual awareness has been reached." This self-congratulatory pride in present achievement has been considerably heightened by increased professionalization, requiring, as it does, that philosophic problems be tackled by knowledgeable and unbiased experts, skilled in the use of rigorous methods, and ready to submit their judgments to the criticism of their peers.

Claims such as these have seldom, if ever, stood the test of history. The idealists who aroused James's indignation were never quite "frozen out," while the phenomenology of Husserl (never prominent on the American scene) is best known to most of us through the existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre. The logical empiricism of the Wiener Kreis, having, as they say, "run its course" (or "spent its force"), has been consigned to its place in the recent past (De mortuis nil nisi bonum!). And, somewhat oddly, the success of linguistic analysis in dealing with its critics seems to derive in large part from a growing disunity which no longer allows it to present a clear target. It appears that, as Ved Mehta says, "the Oxford school is breaking up. ... There isn't going to be an orthodoxy much longer...."

Jaspers' attitude toward this situation can be summarized as follows. The overbearing confidence of philosophy's leaders is not surprising, for everyone must have some view or other, and to have a view is to be convinced that that view is true. But since there are many views, the probability of the truth of any given view is minimal. There is, as Wilhelm Dilthey saw, an "antinomy between the claim of every philosophical Weltanschauung to universal validity, and the historical consciousness of the variety of such Weltanschauugen." Or, in Jaspers' words: "While one must invariably have a standpoint if he is to think at all, one can never accept the objective validity which every standpoint claims." It is science rather than philosophy that offers "compellingly certain and universally recognized insights." To those who find such relativistic fallibilism incompatible with any sustaining faith or firm commitment, Jaspers says: "Humans do not find it impossible but only infinitely difficult psychologically ... to carry out their own beliefs and at the same time to accept as valid for others what is invalid for them."

Confidence in the supremacy of the present derives largely from pressing an indefensible analogy. That science has made steady progress and that the science of today sublates and surpasses that of all previous times is undeniable. But in philosophy it is typical that "the new is not encompassed in what went before. The successor often relinquishes the essence of the earlier thought, sometimes he no longer even understands it." In fact, the history of philosophy is more like that of art than of science. As in art, certain lines of development, certain periods and schools are discernible. "For example: from Socrates to Plato and Aristotle, from Kant to Hegel, from Locke to Hume." Furthermore, "the history of philosophy resembles the history of art in that its supreme works are irreplaceable and unique." Like art it goes through periods of decadence. And success in philosophy depends less upon rigorous training than upon talent.

If the progress of science suggests a staircase, the procession of philosophies resembles a chain of hills and valleys. "We are far more advanced than Hippocrates, the Greek physician. But we are scarcely entitled to say that we have progressed beyond Plato. We have advanced beyond his materials, beyond the scientific findings of which he made use. In philosophy itself we have scarcely regained his level."

Philosophy, unlike religion, has no institutional embodiment, and no one should have the effrontery to ask to be known as a philosopher. Rather, "the reality of philosophy is the great philosophers themselves. What we call their doctrine permeated their lives and comes to life again in those who hear what they have to say." They "encourage us and make us humble. [They] want no disciples, but men who are themselves." "Wherever men engage in philosophical thinking, an acceptance of the great philosophers and their works — similar to the canon of the Holy Scriptures — takes shape. ... It is in their company ... that we can attain to what we ourselves are capable of being." "It is only through these men that we can enter into the core of philosophy. ... They are like eternal contemporaries."

The Philosophical Unavailability of Clarity

"Our discussion will be adequate," says Aristotle, "if it has as much clearness as the subject matter admits of. ... It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits...." Nevertheless, modern thinkers have repeatedly singled out clarity (sometimes adding distinctness) as an indispensable criterion of truth or significance. During the prewar years, instrumentalists, operationists, and logical positivists championed a kind of conceptual clarification suggestive of Hume's empiristic skepticism and Peirce's early "pragmaticism." And when existentialists entered the picture after the war, English philosophers began to dismiss them with such condescending comments as: "The thing wrong with the Existentialists ... is that they haven't had their noses rubbed in the necessity of saying exactly what they mean."

As though one could always say exactly what he meant! "Clarity," unfortunately, badly needs to be clarified. It is an unusually obscure term, and, in the opinion of some authorities, impossible to define. Originally metaphorical, it relates first of all to the well-illuminated, unclouded, transparent, pellucid, brilliant, lustrous, and shining. Thus conceived, it quite naturally suggests the "illumination" or "elucidation" which Jaspers strives for throughout his lengthy Existenzerhellung. But this is not what is meant in English-speaking countries.

Clarity as understood by Hume, Peirce, and their followers, i.e., a clarity achieved through precise definition, or a formal system of logical signs, is, says Jaspers, a scientific rather than a philosophical ideal. It is to be found in phenomena and the logical and mathematical tools used in dealing with phenomena, but it is not a possible characteristic of the cognitive vehicles by which we approach the transcendent. Jaspers' position on this matter derives directly from the latter part of Kant's first critique. Just as Berkeley abandons "ideas" for "notions" when he passes from science to theology, so Jaspers emulates Kant in dismissing all "concepts of the understanding" in favor of the "ideas of reason" when he passes from scientific knowledge of empirical objects to the "nonknowledge" of philosophical faith in the noumenal, the psychical, and the divine.


Excerpted from Karl Jaspers by Charles Frederic Wallraff. Copyright © 1970 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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