Existence and the One[1]

Some thoughts from Karl Jaspers

Stefania Achella
(Gabriele D’Annunzio University of Chieti-Pescara)

1. The horizon of transcendence

Asking the question about the relationship between existence and One in the reflection of Karl Jaspers means dealing with the wider issue, certainly central to his philosophy, concerning the relationship between existence and transcendence. As Jaspers repeatedly makes clear in all his philosophical works, to define what ‘existence’ is, one must necessarily deal with ‘transcendence’. The latter, however, in Jaspers’ discussion, presents not a few ambiguities.[2]

In order to achieve a clarification of these complex terms of Jaspers’ philosophy, we shall begin with an analysis of the meaning he attributes to the terms ‘existence’ and ‘transcendence’. We shall then focus on the different meanings that the term ‘transcendence’ assumes at various levels of Jaspers’ work, from psychopathology to philosophy to the political sphere, thereby seeking to identify the anthropological perspective that lies at the basis of this relationship. Finally, we shall try to understand whether the Jaspersian anthropological concept can still today represent an element of stimulus within the contemporary reflection on human being.

In some illuminating pages of Von der Wahrheit, Jaspers says that existence is manifested when “I myself am wherever I do not assume more than one point of view that I understand also rationally, and can therefore substitute, but I become identical to myself in an irreplaceable way, thus transforming myself into an inexhaustible infinity”.[3] Existence is therefore not an object knowable through the intellect; it cannot be universalised, nor traced back to general categories. Existence, to borrow another Jaspersian expression, is “the insuperable and obscure origin of the authentic being in its unlimited will to become clear and transparent”.[4] Existence is therefore the ever-agent possibility that coexists with being-there, but which does not make use of the same cognitive methods as the latter, instead finding its expression in freedom, or, rather, in an effort to become free. This mobile existence, marked by the character of the search for freedom, is given only in the relationship with transcendence. The horizon of transcendence is therefore that dimension which refers to the possibility of freedom, because it allows the overcoming of the given. Here, though, the first problematic area opens up. What does Jaspers intend with this overcoming? As he himself makes clear, we are not dealing with an existing world in a beyond, nor with a reference to an object or even to a particular story. Transcendence is the guarantee that the dimension of being-there (Dasein) is not the only one, and is not sufficient. With the reference to transcendence, however, we are not comparing the sphere of being-there with a predefined idea, a parallel world. In this sense, as has been said, transcendence refers, rather, to an absence, of which only existence may then be the interpreter. “I never get to know, substantially, what is. Yet this abyss, a void for the intellect, can fill up for Existenz[5] – and, we might add, in a different way for each individual existence.

It is precisely in relation to transcendence, then, that being-there can rise to existence and establish an authentic relationship with its being. Ex-sistere is to de-situate oneself from where one is located, through an opening up to the possible. In this horizon of meaning, transcendence is the occasion at the base of the de-situating tension that belongs to human being by nature. Transcendence shows the necessity in every human being, just as soon as he lifts himself from his mere presence, to refer to something that goes beyond what is perceived and historically ordered.[6] That is why, says Jaspers, “Existenz is either in relation to transcendence or not at all. In this relation lies its discontent or else, with temporal existence voided, its chances of satisfaction”,[7] since, as he later expresses, “pure immanence without transcendence remains nothing but deaf and dumb existence”.[8]

The presence of transcendence, we can say in the last instance, testifies to the ever-existing gap between what is and what can be, giving form to the open structure of human being, who is constantly searching, or, as Jaspers says on several occasions, who is always “auf dem Weg”,[9] on the way.

From this first sense of transcendence, let us go one step further and try to understand better what exactly Jaspers means by transcendence.

2. Transcendence in General Psychopathology

To achieve greater clarity with respect to the meaning of transcendence in Jaspers, paradoxically we must start from his writings on psychopathology. In his earliest work, when he was still a volunteer assistant at the university clinic in Heidelberg, Jaspers dealt with Husserl’s philosophy, trying to apply the phenomenology as a method for understanding psychopathology. Precisely with respect to the concept of transcendence, in these texts we see that Jaspers distances himself from Husserl.[10] For the phenomenologist, transcendence indicates, in the first instance, that which transcends the immanent level of consciousness, and which is therefore placed outside the intentional relationship between noesis and noema: consciousness is aimed at objects that are beyond the experiences of consciousness itself. For Husserl, the reference to the transcendental or objective experience is that which refers to the object itself, and which is therefore outside the experience of consciousness. As Husserl himself puts it, in explaining the difference between the immanent and the transcendent experience, “the immanent experience is according to its existence (Dasein) absolutely indubitable; the transcendent experience is not. It would be foolish to doubt the being of the pleasure, desire, representation or thought that I grasp in the reflective gaze. It is quite another thing with regard to the transcendent experience. Passing from one new experience to another, it may happen that the external thing will prove to be deceptive, as an illusion or the like”.[11] Of the immanent experience for the experiencing conscience there can therefore be no error; the error can be determined only in experiencing that which is external to consciousness and transcends it, knowledge of which is entrusted by Husserl to the objective sciences. For Jaspers, the horizon of transcendence, already in these early years, refers instead to what transcends the possibilities of the knowing subject’s understanding, not because it is placed outside consciousness, but because it is unrepresentable, inconceivable, such that, in short, it goes beyond the possibilities of understanding the knowing subject. In the field of psychopathology this inaccessibility is the ultimate and overall meaning of existence of the individual; it is the human being in his entirety. Husserl, like Jaspers, questions compelling knowledge, but if for Jaspers this knowledge has taken on the immanent dimension of being-there, for Husserl it inhabits the knowledge of that which transcends consciousness.

The critique of compelling knowledge, and thus the need for a form of knowledge that goes beyond the plane of immanence, and which certainly represents the epistemological presupposition of Jaspers’ whole analysis, is taken up in the last section of General Psychopathology, in the sphere of the relationship between psychiatry and philosophy. Here Jaspers makes clear that philosophy must not be opposed to science, and place itself above it.[12] The level of transcendence helps one not to remain a victim of the horizon of finiteness, and to retrieve the unique and open nature of human being.

3. From the One to the One God

How is transcendence thought of, rather, in Jaspers’ philosophical work? As the specific object of the third section of Philosophy, dedicated to Metaphysics and thus to that logic that undermines the rigidity of the reflective knowledge of the intellect, Jaspers clarifies that transcendence cannot be investigated in universally valid terms, cannot be translated into opportunities, and therefore is not empirical reality – because in the empirical reality there is always a difference between the real and the possible – and for the same reason, it is not a decision – “because the possibility of decision expresses the defects of Existenz in the temporal existence”.[13] Finally, it not otherworldly reality either. This duplication would, indeed, be deceptive, “The beyond as just another reality is an untenable illusion”.[14]

It is evident that the term transcendence as understood in these pages refers to a signifying horizon much broader than that attributable to the sphere of religion. Compared to the transcendence of tradition, Jaspers in fact reiterates the need for existence to find its link with transcendence within the world in which it lives.

This conception returns also in the third book, dedicated to Metaphysics. Here, writes Jaspers, we can experience transcendence only “on the rupture of immanence, on the break in which Existenz at the historic moment encounters being. Transcendence is located neither in this world nor in another. Its location is a boundary – but a boundary on which I face transcendence if I truly am.”[15] On the contrary, reiterating that transcendence is given only by dissolving any form of objectification, Jaspers clarifies, with respect to transcendence, that its scope is “being in a beyond, which would be nothing but another world detached from ours. The satisfaction lies in the being which appears presently to itself: for us, transcendence is real only as presence in time.”[16] And, in the section dedicated to Ciphers, he affirms that transcendence “is being for us if it has a voice in existence. A pure beyond is empty; it is as if it were not. Hence the possibility of experiencing being proper requires an immanent transcendence.”[17] He continues, “Once immanence and transcendence have become completely heterogeneous, we drop transcendence. With transcendence and immanence conceived as downright otherness for one another, they must – if transcendence is not to go down – evolve their own present dialectics for us in the cipher, as immanent transcendence.”[18]

As is evident, the meaning of transcendence is, in these passages, very close to that identified in the writings on psychopathology. When Jaspers then moves on to the description of the non-objectifying forms of manifestation in which transcendence appears to existence, he refers to the language, to the tradition into which we are born, to the forms of transmission and understanding such as mythology, theology and philosophy, and to the understanding of history as a whole. Based on these three major spheres of manifestation of transcendence, it is clear that for Jaspers it is all that breaks the immanence understood as a horizon of empirical and contingent knowing, which reduces human being to a thing, to a specific knowledge. If we develop these statements more explicitly, transcendence is therefore the unobjectifiable historical horizon within which we have always been placed, and which constitutes the continual invitation to overcome the predetermined and concrete situation in which we find ourselves from birth, through an act of appropriation. Such an act is not intended to pursue a different world – a beyond – but it is an invitation to recognise the given world as truly our own. In this sense, then, the possibility of a reading intended in the direction of a culturalisation of the term transcendence would not be too far away. The operation of transcending is in fact an act of self-determination that can be accomplished only because as existence we become aware that we always find ourselves inscribed within a spiritual horizon that goes beyond us and predetermines us (history, culture, language, other persons, etc.), through whose appropriation we can reach our individual freedom. Such a spiritual horizon cannot, however, be the object of a universal knowledge or of any conceptualisation.

Transcendence, in these pages, is shown, then, as an expression of the necessity of a level that exceeds that of scientific knowledge, of historical immediacy, of singularity closed in itself, and which invites human being to go beyond himself, to open himself up, thereby discovering himself constitutively determined by this reality that has always preceded him and forms him, and which is his origin and foundation, without, however, that the reality can be known and formalised as an objectivity with a given content. We can therefore sum up that transcendence is the whole horizon of action, practice, reflection and analysis, of always being placed in a communicative, reflective, intersubjective context which generates the centuries-old knowledge that speaks to all, albeit learned in different forms and ways by every individual who receives it. That is why Jaspers can say that transcendence is “the inconceivable unity of the general and the particular that has nothing distinguishable without or within. Where it is conceived in distinctions or seen as an image, transcendence is already a historic phenomenon and not universal.”[19]

If one looks, instead, at the later conception, such as that expressed in Von der Wahrheit, or even in the series of lectures that Jaspers held on Bavarian radio, later published as Kleine Schule des philosophischen Denkens, the reference to transcendence in a traditionally religious connotation becomes undoubtedly stronger, although the level of an immanent transcendence remains. Leafing through the pages of Von der Wahrheit, one immediately delineates a first substantial ambiguity.[20] When, in addition to the negative definition of transcendence, Jaspers seeks to offer a positive determination of it, he no longer limits himself to coded, figurative, symbolic language, but introduces the names that transcendence has given to the tradition: ‘being’, ‘authentic reality’, ‘deities’, ‘God’.[21] These names indicate, in their own way, the meaning that transcendence takes on in different spheres. If we think of it, then it will take on the features of being, although in this case it will apply only to abstract transcendent thought. If, instead, we live it, it will take on the dimensions of authentic reality, and then it will serve as a support to our lives. If we interpret it as that which demands something of us, surrounds us and dominates us, then we are in the sphere of deities. And finally, if we establish a personal, singular relationship with it that touches us, transcendence coincides with what we call God.[22] Almost as if on a phenomenological path, Jaspers seems to indicate different levels of relationship with transcendence that are gradually deepened until he reaches the religious one. Along this course, the individual stages do not express the same ontological structure, however. Identifying transcendence in authentic reality is in fact quite different from identifying it in God. As Jeanne Hersch has rightly pointed out, these two conceptions that cross Jaspers’ vision of transcendence in a hidden way, but which cannot be traced to a unitary perspective, seem to prefigure an evolution within his conception.[23] If one looks at the perspective expressed in Philosophy, the idea of an immanent transcendence seems to dominate, but if we read the subsequent works, the call to transcendence as God is much more determined.

Besides the identification between transcendence and God, in the Kleine Schule des philosophischen Denkens radio lessons Jaspers reiterates the total separation between the two levels: the authentic relationship with transcendence is not gained in this world, but human being goes beyond himself “no longer entering into insatiable restlessness, always renewing itself, of his worldly existence, but in the peace of eternity, in time across time”[24]. It is the Kierkegaardian moment, that in which this peace is achieved: “such peace is contained in transcendence, our being assumed by which, together with our companions of fate, constitutes our meaning. The immutability of God is a figure of this peace. In it, human being seeks to go beyond himself, no longer advancing in the world, but towards transcendence, closed to our knowledge, almost unmentionable.”[25] God thus becomes a figure of transcendence – the highest of the figures, prefiguring a relationship separated from the world and from reality.

We must not, however, let ourselves be alarmed by this ambiguity, which remains a constant cipher in Jaspers’ conception: that of the contradiction between a philosophical view and a deeply religious one.

4. Existence and the One

At this point we can better understand the ambiguity reflected in the structure of the relationship, also contradictory, between existence and One. As Kurt Salamun clearly summarises, “Jaspers does not interpret the relationship between man and God in either an atheistic or agnostic sense, nor even a theistic one. He does not presuppose the “death of God”, but also does not deny the relationship with transcendence, as happens in Nietzsche, Marx, Sartre and Camus. However, the Jaspersian image of man is not traceable to an interpretation of God, which we have at the base of a religious confession, such as that of the Christian religion.”[26] Once again we find ourselves faced with only negative definitions that indicate in what the relationship between human being and God does not consist in Jaspers. To arrive at a positive definition, we shall therefore focus on two other passages. One is drawn once again from the pages of Von der Wahrheit, and the other, for its polemical force, refers to the strong confrontation that Jaspers had with the theologian Karl Barth in Rencontres Internationales de Genève, 1949, on the significant argument for a new humanism.

In Von der Wahrheit Jaspers dedicates himself to the encompassing being, understood in all its dimensions, from the being of the spirit. Here he introduces the theme of reason and its drive towards unity. Along Kantian lines, he acknowledges that reason “is directed, beyond all comprehensible unities of the intellect and beyond all accomplished spiritual unities, towards a deeper unity, for which all unities of the intellect and of the spirit are just tools and metaphors”. But, making a leap beyond Kant, he says that “reason seeks unity – not some unity simply for the sake of unity, but the One in which there is everything”.[27] And reason, precisely as existence, becomes truly real only by making a leap beyond the immanence of being. And – and here Jaspers moves away once more from the level of immanent transcendence – if existence “is the encompassing that we are as an impetus to seek and realise the one, then this embracing has a transcendent origin, even though it always shows only in the stimuli, in the claims, in the effects that we express immanently”.[28]

To clarify what Jaspers means by metaphysical transcendence, we can refer to the previous pages of Von der Wahrheit, dedicated to the One (der Eine).[29] Here the One is no longer the Kantian idea, but God. And, says Jaspers, “the One of existence can be understood only in relation to the One God […] Without the One God, the existential One is entirely relativised as merely directed, imposed by custom and law, as a natural psychological and sociological element”.[30] Existence is therefore realised only in a relationship with a transcendence that does not refer simply to that which transcends being-there, and thus brings out of its empirical and individual dimension; but the transcendence in these pages refers to a much more religious dimension: God. As Jaspers later affirms, only in relation to the One God “are existence and reason possible […] reason would lose all confidence if it did not constantly feel itself in search of the One, the foundation and purpose in the One of transcendence. Every other unit is immanent and therefore doomed to failure”.[31] Here, therefore, the relationship between transcendence and existence indicates the traditional relationship between human being and God.

We come now to the clash with Barth. Here the focus of discussion was the reconstruction of Europe after the time of the concentration camps. How could they escape from the crisis to which the experience of totalitarianism and the extermination camps had led them? How could they ignore the fact that at the base of the countries in which these heinous crimes had been committed there was a conception of human being constructed on centuries of culture? On the basis of what model of human being, and in relation to what values, could they imagine a new humanity? In the interesting debates that took place during these meetings, at stake was the question of whether to break the continuity with European tradition and its idea of humanism. During the Cold War, the comparison translated also into an ideological clash between communists, liberals and Catholics, each offering a model of humanism that was antagonistic to the others. Jaspers had already taken part in discussions held in Geneva in 1946, at which the most heated confrontation had been with the champion of Marxist orthodoxy, György Lukács. At the meetings held in 1949, his main battle was with the Barthian religious vision. Jaspers provocatively asked Barth:

1. Where does God speak to us? And, more precisely, does God speak directly or indirectly? Does He speak directly through revelation or indirectly through the voices of everyday experience? We who philosophise and do not have this Christian faith, and who therefore have no awareness of living against it but, on the contrary, in constant relationship with that which could constitute its source, and in knowing that we are given to ourselves, can we, too, therefore have we some indirect communication with God? 2. Does God always speak clearly, distinctly, or, conversely, sometimes unclearly? Can we always distinguish between what God says and what is contained in our consciousness, etc.? Are we sure of the univocal word of God in revelation, or do we remain insecure, deprived of security, groping in the dark? When we affirm the univocity of God, do we not risk losing ourselves in all-too-human worries? 3. Does God speak to every man, as the Protestants believe, or does He speak globally, all in one breath to all humanity, through a single revelation?[32]

Here Jaspers’ argument is aimed at the claim that Catholic theology is superior to that of the Protestants. Catholic theology considers its revelation superior because it is shown not in the spiritual life of the individual, but in an objective truth. But Jaspers asks himself what destiny is reserved by Catholic theology for those who have not been given this revelation. If they are destined to destruction, then there is no possibility of dialogue between Catholics and non-Catholics: “Does this radicalism of your faith not make you fall into the radicalism of the extreme, into the radicalism of a kind of magic and a kind of authoritarian power, while we remain without help, but continually reawakened, continually renewed […] without any definitive security? To Barth’s proposal to recite The Lord’s Prayer together, I would like to oppose another proposal. Why do you not renounce, you theologians, your exclusivism, the exclusivism of your faith? At that point we shall agree on everything.”[33]

The tones that in the contemporary Von der Wahrheit seem, in the last resort, to refer to a religious faith change completely in this discussion with Barth. Jaspers denies the possibility that human fulfilment can be linked to a faith-based element. The necessity of a metaphysical foothold may constitute a step in the construction of the idea of human being, but transcendence can never be grasped in an unambiguous way. It refers to an encoded sense horizon in which there are no ciphers superior to others. Human being cannot find support only in the One that is revealed openly, as dictated by Catholic theology, but the relationship with the One is constructed also through the reference to transcendence understood as the overcoming of contingent relationships. And this happens also through a relationship of appropriation with tradition. “As the symbols go through history, they congeal into general validities; to regain their original voice they need to be animated by each individual in the personal historicity of his fate. […] Only emancipation from this required obedience will bring the individual so to himself that he can dispense with intermediaries in grasping his transcendence.”[34] The realisation of existence in its relationship with transcendence cannot, that is to say, be transmitted and constructed on an act of faith, but must be the result of an ever-new appropriation by the individual. There is thus no revelation which alone frees man, but man’s liberation consists in aspiring to an undefined transcendence that allows him, however, to leave the level of immanence.

It is, therefore, also a form of relationship with transcendence that presupposes an appropriation of its own tradition, its own past. And it is precisely in this that the philosopher also grasps the possibility of overcoming the impasse into which Europe has fallen during the Crisis. To this end it is necessary, however, that Europe free itself from a monumental historical conception. For the European spirit, now determined only by negative definitions – dissolution of memory, lack of dominant fundamental knowledge, bewilderment in the face of an uncertain future – the recovery of its past becomes essential for reaching itself in the present. Man is called to recognise himself in that which has been, but such a common past can no longer be Catholicism, whose authority over the masses is no longer such as to allow them a decisive force at a critical time. The fundamental equalising knowledge must be sought by all and be for all, and must be born from the vision, the thought and the contemporary language. Jaspers seems to identify the possibility of redemption for Europe only in philosophy and in the philosophical faith. In the question “Where does God speak to us?”[35] Jaspers recognises a key role for philosophy, precisely because of its equivocal relationship with transcendence. Transcendence must therefore be understood as an invitation to “a listening with the risk of not understanding, a tension that remains also in the awareness, a certainty that persists in the uncertainty”.[36] Philosophy is therefore superior to religion because it comes to the aid of those who do not enjoy the support of a Church. It does not offer truth but, in clarifying, it helps to open the eyes; “it can make conscious the operations of thought”, through new categories, new methodologies, a new epistemology. Philosophy can thereby liberate human being from the idea of being able to know an absolute objectively, as the theological tradition claims to do.

5. Human being as an open project

What anthropological model derives, then, from this relationship between existence and transcendence? In Jaspers’ reflections there are many elements, sometimes even too many. On several occasions, indeed, as we have tried to show, his perspective changes. He establishes different and not always clear relationships between the levels of transcendence and immanence, between a philosophical dimension and a strictly religious one. Moreover, it would be wrong to want to remove the radical antinomy and ambiguity from the way in which Jaspers thinks about the relationship between religion and philosophy. Their relationship is complex and sometimes conflictual. It can be said that the need of the religious dimension represents, for Jaspers, only one of several modes that the relationship with transcendence may assume. Next to religion, there are in fact also art and philosophy. Art, religion and philosophy are all spheres in which the relationship between existence and transcendence manifests itself. It is precisely the ambiguity of this relationship, which takes several forms, that allows us to understand how, for Jaspers, transcendence is essentially the world that goes beyond the individual existence and thus delineates it. It is thus possible also to approach an understanding of another complex concept of Jaspers’ philosophy: das Umgreifende, the encompassing – a term with which Jaspers intends to indicate the horizontal dimension of the relationship between transcendence and existence, and the enveloping nature of this relationship. The surrounding, the embracing, envisages, indeed, not only a vertical relationship, but also necessarily a horizontal one. The individual existence always lives within a historical horizon that determines it and surpasses it; it lives in relationship with others that mark and surround it; it lives a language that envelops and structures it. This lattice, to which Jaspers refers even in his Psychology of World Views, refers to a complex relationship with transcendence. When a tightening of this relationship occurs, shells (Gehäuse/cages) are generated that lead human being to his finitude. When, instead, this relationship constitutes a point which makes a lever with which to rise beyond his own finitude, it opens the possibility of the realisation of existence as freedom.

Human being is therefore a finite subject, in constant tension, dedicated to the overcoming of a finiteness that nevertheless marks him and makes him what he is. And as deficient and inadequate and fragmentary this search may be, it represents the journey from finite being towards transcendent being.[37] It is at this point, however, that the Jaspersian reflection assumes an interesting twist. Here arises, in fact, the relationship with respect to the origin. If it is true that human being can always go beyond himself, then he must have an origin from which he is not necessarily conditioned. This origin, which is left undefined and partly obscure, allows us to think of human being as a genuine possibility. The essentialism in the anthropological theories comes, in the end, to the denial of a true space of freedom. On this point the Jaspersian reflection demonstrates, instead, a much more complex and possibly more fruitful position than the anthropological reflection of his time. Jaspers places the essence of human being not in an already given origin, but in the process of liberation from his finitude, in his unceasing aspiration to an infinity which, however, he can never achieve. This is a true anthropological turning point, which places the anthropogenesis not in a transcendent principle – as in Hegel’s model of unhappy consciousness – but in transcending intended as a mere possibility of the overcoming of naturalness, of locatedness, of conditionality.[38] Human being is thus an open form, an open possibility,[39] and the way in which this shape is moulded, filled and determined belongs to the selection, decisions, and individual history of each person.[40] Both the end and the origin remain unknown, but they direct the journey.

This aspect is exemplified in the investigations on history. In defining the historical origin of human being, and hence in trying to understand whether there is a physical or metaphysical principle upon which to anchor man’s nature, Jaspers appears as a critical thinker with regard to the origin. “The idea of mankind”, we read in The Origin and Goal of History, “becomes concrete and perceptual only in real history as a totality.” The idea of human being becomes Zuflucht, a refuge in the original, but “the origin brings the demand for communication in an unrestricted sense”.[41] The origin is always to be questioned anew. That is why, as Jaspers later explains, the relationship with the origin must show itself not as an empty repetition, which reproduces the phenomena without reviving them each time from their origin, but as an essential repetition, always original, always authentic. Human being, unlike animals, is an incomplete being. His origin and his end remain open, and his impossible task consists precisely in continually trying to complete this incompleteness. The goal of philosophising and living is continually to reinterpret ourselves beginning from our origin, exposing ourselves to failing, but also opening up the possibility of freedom. The complex relationship between existence and transcendence refers to all of this.

To the initial question, then, whether it is possible for Jaspers to think of an existence without transcendence, one can only respond negatively. But, as we have tried to show, we are dealing with a transcendence that has little or nothing to do with the sphere of faith. Indeed, this possibility that human being has to determine himself as existence in relationship to the transcendent must necessarily come to terms with the world and with all that resists it, and of this he is constantly called upon to decide.[42] Precisely in the recognition of the centrality of the decision in structuring of existence, Jaspers’ philosophy breaks with the tradition of knowledge as representation (Darstellung), moving towards a practical philosophy intended as a decision (Entscheidung). If there were a model, a goal to achieve or an origin to which to return, the Jaspersian idea of human being would remain anchored to an ideal dimension, not at all different from that proposed by idealism. The turning point of Jaspers consists, instead, precisely in identifying the place of man’s fulfilment in his reaction, in his decisions in response to the shock that comes from the world, which, as such, remains always individual. Such decisions determine human being in a completely unpredictable, independent and free way. Human being’s development does not take place according to a sequence that follows either the evolution of the level of knowledge, as in Hegel’s phenomenology, or evolution as the perspective of Darwinian biology. The passage from being-there to existence is linked to a choice that is always practical and individual, but which must always reckon with the reality of the world. Through the decision, that which is subtracted from the scire per causas can become real. An authentic Existenzerhellung therefore needs a clear appropriation of the sense of objectivity and of truth. With this last step it becomes clear how, for Jaspers, the attempt to understand human being is made on the basis his open structure. To this structure belongs the subjective experience of the overcoming of objectivity – i.e., of the empirical elements of its sensible nature, as well as of the world in which we live, and with respect to which we are continually called upon to take a position. Only man’s passage through the harshness of reality, be it understood as an external world or as determination of Dasein, allows the jump to existential philosophy, to the authentic being ourselves (Selbstsein), and to freedom. This thinking about life as an attempt, as an authentic trying out, “carries with it the seriousness of the real”, accepting the risk of failure which, however, only allows us to say “yes” to existence. “To walk towards the future means […] to let ourselves be guided by a star that leads us, though, only through the clarity of our decisions.”[43]

Of course, the solution is always given on the basis of the individual who, while in himself evanescent, nevertheless represents “the substance and the real factor of what humanity will become. […] The future resides in the present of each individual.”[44] This aspect of Jaspers had already been criticised by the young Sternberger, and had met with far stronger tones in the pages of Lukács. Jaspers was accused of thinking that the only way out was in the individual alone, and in the concluding part of his lecture of 1949, he felt the need to defend himself against this accusation. “Our reflection on the struggle for inner independence had targeted, lately, men as individuals. Does this not risk sounding as if the individual were all? The opposite is true: the individual appears in the flow of things, an evanescent being, and is himself only to the extent to which he finds himself in communication with other beings and with the world.” But “it is equally true that everything depends on this evanescent ‘I’, since it is on the foundation of personal reality that I can live with others, for the totality, which would otherwise remain pure imagination, for the community, be it in a narrow range, in the State or in all humanity”.[45]

For Jaspers there exists, therefore, only one path, an individual one, that leads us towards a horizon that we cannot dominate with our gaze. There is no totality that now or in the future we shall be able to grasp. But this must not take away our responsibility. The experience of the symbol of the shipwreck, the cross, becomes, instead, the chance to beat this anguish, if not to avoid it from the beginning. The “humanism to come”, the kommendes Humanismus, of which Jaspers speaks relies on the fact that “we are not faced with an image of man that is valid once and for all, as in the deceptive ideal of the historian”,[46] but with his path that must be oriented towards communication, loving struggle, rejection of force. Aware that these words might indicate a concrete way, but might also lend themselves to an abstract and powerless interpretation, he tries one last defence: “If it is insinuated that the philosophy of existence would be a dream to be exalted, I dare to respond that if this is a dream, it is perhaps one of the dreams in which we have always kept the essence of humanity, and for which it is worth living.”[47]


  1. Eng. tr.: Julian Locke.
  2. The ambiguity that Jaspers himself gives to this term is found also in the recourse he makes to the expression “philosophical faith”. As Andreas Cesana rightly notes, “philosophical faith is profoundly private; it is therefore an existential faith”; and he concludes: “if Jaspers had chosen this concept as the title of the book [e.g., Philosophical Faith Compared to Revelation], the history of the reception would probably have been different”, A. Cesana, La fede filosofica e l’autoaccertamento, in “Studi jaspersiani”, No. 1, 2013, p. 186. Such substantial ambiguity has favoured, moreover, a reading of Jaspers’ thought in completely religious terms, overlooking his internal effort to reach a horizon of thought that, transcending the empirical perspective of the sciences, relies upon a type of thought distinguished as faith, but which has nothing to do with religion.
  3. K. Jaspers, Von der Wahrheit, Piper, Munich 1947, p. 83.
  4. Ibid.
  5. K. Jaspers, Philosophie, Springer, Berlin 1932, hereafter cited as Ph followed by the number of the volume, here Ph III, 3; English transl. Philosophy, Vol. III, by E.B. Ashton, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London 1971, hereafter cited as P followed by the number of the volume, here P III, p. 4.
  6. Cf. U. Galimberti, Il tramonto dell’Occidente nella letteratura di Heidegger e Jaspers, Feltrinelli, Milan 2005, in particular Chapter 80, pp. 569 ff.
  7. Ph III, p. 6; P III, p. 7.
  8. Ph III, p. 12; P III, p. 13.
  9. K. Jaspers, Was ist Philosophie? Ein Lesebuch (1941), edited by H. Saner, Piper, Munich 1976; on this aspect, cf. S. Achella, Rimanere in cammino. Karl Jaspers e la crisi della filosofia, Guida, Naples 2011.
  10. On the relationship between Jaspers and Husserl, cf. A. Donise, La comprensione fenomenologica dell’altro nella psicopatologia di Karl Jaspers, in Id., Ragione e sentimento. Ricerche di etica tra neokantismo e fenomenologia, Editoriale scientifica, Naples 2008, pp. 153-168.
  11. E. Husserl, Psychologie und Phänomenologie (1917), in Husserliana XXV, Nijhoff, The Hague 1986, § 2.
  12. K. Jaspers, Allgemeine Psychopathologie. Ein Leitfaden für Studierende, Ärzte und Psychologe, Springer, Berlin 1959; English transl. General Psychopathology (hereafter GP), by J. Hoenig, M.W. Hamilton, Manchester University Press, Manchester 1963, p. 772.
  13. Ph III, 9; P III, 10.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ph III, 12; P III, 13.
  16. Ph III, 19; P III, 18.
  17. Ph III, 136; P III, 119.
  18. Ph III, 137; P III, 120.
  19. Ph III, 23; P III, 21.
  20. Cf. K. Jaspers, Von der Wahrheit, cit., p. 110. Jaspers writes, with regard to existence: “I am free only if I reach in myself an independence from the whole world system and from my own being-there – that is, if, over against every being-there, consciousness and spirit, I find myself in front of transcendence as in front of that which truly is. Only to transcendence can I abandon myself without hesitation, while every abandonment of oneself to a world system, however unconditioned it may be, cannot but remain exposed to determined conditions”.
  21. Ivi, p. 111.
  22. With respect to this multiplicity of meanings, cf.: K. Salamun, Karl Jaspers, in Wie soll der Mensch sein? Philosophische Ideale vom wahren Menschen von Karl Marx bis Karl Popper, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2012, pp. 102-126, here p. 118.
  23. J. Hersch, Karl Jaspers. Eine Einführung in sein Werk, Piper, Munich 1990, p. 36 ff.
  24. Lesson on Man, § 9.
  25. Ibid.
  26. K. Salamun, Karl Jaspers, p. 18.
  27. K. Jaspers, Von der Wahrheit, p. 118.
  28. Ivi, 119, emphasis mine.
  29. Jaspers distinguishes between das Eine (neuter), intending with this the One as totality, and der Eine (masculine) intending the God of revelation. Also in this case, because the genitive and dative are indistinguishable in the German language, in the text there remain some contexts in which the use of the term maintains an irresolvable ambiguity.
  30. K. Jaspers, Von der Wahrheit, cit., p. 691.
  31. Ivi, p. 702.
  32. Pour un nouvel humanisme, Les Éditions de la Baconnière, Neuchâtel 1949, pp. 243-244. All the proceedings of the Rencontres are consultable on line. For the volume in question: http://www.rencontres-int-geneve.ch/volumes_pdf/rig04.pdf.
  33. Ivi, p. 244.
  34. Ph III, 28; P III, 26.
  35. Pour un nouvel humanisme, cit., p. 240.
  36. Ivi, p. 241.
  37. Here the theme of situations-limits and limits in general becomes central, as a clash against the other, from where is determined the experience of man exposed to sinking, but at the same time his unique essence. Cf. D. Di Cesare, G. Cantillo (eds.), Filosofia Esistenza Comunicazione in Karl Jaspers, Loffredo, Naples 2002.
  38. C. Fiorillo, Fragilità della verità e comunicazione. La via ermeneutica di Karl Jaspers, Aracne, Rome 2003, in particular 153-212, here p. 163.
  39. “The human being is an open possibility, incomplete and incompletable. Hence he is always more and other than what he has brought to realisation in himself”, GP, p. 766.
  40. “Erst wo im Menschen aus der Entscheidung ein in sein Wesen übergegangener Entschluß herrscht, ist er eigentlich – existentiell – Mensch”, K. Jaspers, Allgemeine Psychopathologie, p. 637, GP, p. 765.
  41. K. Jaspers, Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (1949), English transl. The Origin and Goal of History, by M. Bullock, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 1953, p. 269.
  42. Jaspers writes: “All experience of reality, therefore, has a root in the practice of living. But the reality itself which we meet in practice is always an interpretation, a meaning, the meaning of things, events or situations. […] This brings to us awareness of the reality with which in practice we have to reckon and deal, to which we have to accommodate every moment, which fills us with expectation and which we believe in as something which is”, GP, p. 94.
  43. Pour un nouvel humanisme, p. 244.
  44. Ivi, p. 245.
  45. Ivi, p. 244.
  46. Ivi, p. 211.
  47. Ibid.


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