“Where we are looking for truth,
we are looking for the One”

The henological fundament of Jaspers’s On Truth

Tolga Ratzsch (University of Heidelberg)

1. Nature and purpose of a philosophical logic

In the Introduction to his Philosophical Logic, Karl Jaspers discusses his considerations in choosing the title of that work and of its first volume, which he eventually published under the name On Truth (Von der Wahrheit)[1]. Instead of “On Truth”, he had initially considered the title “The Multitude of truth and the One” (Die Vielheit des Wahren und das Eine). That title would have mirrored famous titles such as Critique of Pure reason or The Phenomenology of Spirit in pointing out the general theme and method of the work beforehand. Instead he chose a title that he intended to emphasize the universal expanse of his subject, a title that at the same time recalls several classical works “de veritate”, thus indicating the continuity of Jaspers’s thought with the tradition of European philosophy.

Nevertheless, On Truth is essentially an investigation into the multitude of what Jaspers calls the modes of truth and, more specifically, an investigation of the way they are all related to the one, archetypical truth. In the course of his argument Jaspers identifies that one truth with “the One God” (pp. 690–695 et passim), also called “the One” (pp. 680–683 et passim), as in the Platonist tradition[2], or Transzendenz, signifying a transcendent reality[3]. The One, however, is not only a central subject matter in On Truth; rather, the thought process itself owes its course, as Jaspers puts it, to an “enthusiasm of the One” (p. 166) that Jaspers considers to be an essential feature of human reason (Vernunft). In the following article, I will outline (1) how Jaspers’s distinctly henological understanding of reason leads him to his conclusions concerning the nature of truth and (2) how Jaspers comes to identify truth and the One. In this way, I aim to demonstrate the fundamentally henological nature of Jaspers’s second major work, On Truth[4].

The theoretical focus on unity is present in On Truth from the first page. It may be worth noting that Jaspers begins his Logic with sharp critical comments on what one might call, in Jaspers’s words, the “intellectual situation”[5] of his age (pp. 1–2). More specifically, Jaspers laments a general “straining of the awareness of truth” (p. 2) and an associated “disorder (p. 2) of life” afflicting the western world in the 20th century. The main symptom of this straining is, according to Jaspers, a loss of awareness of the unitary character of truth. This way, “the emptiness of intellect [Verstand] and the blindness of living experience” (p. 2) are perceived, mistakenly, as opposing forces, which leads to an “unreliability and changeability of both” (p. 2). Jaspers contrast this negatively with the apparent orientation of human life towards the transcendent One that has dominated European thinking until far into the 19th century, an orientation which, so Jaspers implies, also guaranteed a unitary notion of truth (pp. 1–2). This contemporaneous loss of awareness of truth can, according to Jaspers, lead to an existential self-loss of the human being: “Dispersing himself he [the human being] relies alternately on mere intellect and on mere instinct and, consequently, never is really there as himself” (p. 2). On Truth, then, is to be understood as an existentially-motivated attempt to develop a unitary concept of truth while at the same time keeping intact the philosophical insights of the modern era, especially Kant’s refutation of metaphysical dogmatism[6] and the revaluation of individual human existence[7] most prominently put forward by Kierkegaard.

Jaspers further diagnoses his age as afflicted by a paradoxical coexistence of dogmatic skepticism and fanaticism, both connected by the seeming impossibility to grasp objective truth and the assumption that, if there is no truth, any opinion can equally be claimed as true and, where necessary, enforced by violence (p. 33). The dogmatic character of said skepticism for Jaspers consists mainly in the fact that, while discarding the very notion of truth in its “rigidifying” (p. 728) doubt, it is nevertheless unready to call into question the superficial common sense interpretation of fundamental logical concepts like being, knowledge and truth (p. 34). The central method of On Truth is thus, ex negativo, established: the “elucidation” of the three aforementioned logical concepts, treated in the three sections of the volume: “The being of the encompassing” (pp. 45 sqq.), “The encompassing of knowledge” (pp. 223 sqq.), and “Truth” (pp. 451 sqq.).

Being intended as volume one of a two-volume Philosophical Logic, On Truth contains an Introduction detailing the nature and purpose of philosophical logic, which is key to an appropriate understanding of the scope of Jaspers’s work. Logic, accordingly, is essentially an elucidation of the “self-awareness of reason” (p. 9). As dedicated to the elucidation of the three fundamental concepts being, knowledge and truth, philosophical logic must comprehend more than a mere theory of formal reasoning or even of cognition, on the contrary, it can be expected to include a theory of being, i.e. metaphysics, insofar as “every genuine thinking is of the kind that being is present in thinking” (p. 7), as well as a theory of truth, which Jaspers conceptualizes as a disclosure of being (ἀλήθεια, Seinsoffenbarkeit, pp. 226, 458). As metaphysics, logic is able to “by means of its abstractness, touch a ground of all reality, which becomes aware to us only through the experience of this thinking” (p. 7). Philosophical logic comprises, in other words, a philosophical theology[8]. As such it is the first philosophy (prima philosophia, pp. 10, 186–187), not in temporal sequence but in rank.

Logic is not a science, according to Jaspers, as it does not generate any objectual knowledge. Instead it brings to a state of clear awareness (“elucidates”, p. 5 et passim) what is inherent to all human thinking qua self-awareness (p. 9). Philosophical logic therefore can, despite every objection, be considered to be the “most true to life” (lebensnächste) form of thinking (p. 5). It can serve as the “enabling of the freedom of becoming oneself” (Ermöglichung der Freiheit des Selbstwerdens, p. 6) and is thus, according to Jaspers, of the highest existential relevance.

2. Jaspers’s logic as a philosophy of the encompassing

Jaspers’s theory of knowledge is based on his analysis of our thinking process, which, according to that analysis, is characterized by its irreducibly intentional structure (p. 231). Intentionality, as such, implies a duality of subject and object, which Jaspers calls the “subject-object-division” (SubjektObjektSpaltung, p. 231). This division is, as he argues, an essential feature of all our thinking. Intentionality, on the other hand, cannot be understood as mere division; on the contrary it also constitutes an irreducible relatedness of the subject and its intended object: “there is no object without subject, no subject without object” (p. 232). Furthermore, while all our thoughts are invariably directed at objects, our cognitive acts must, as Jaspers argues, be understood as establishing some kind of correspondence between subject and object (pp. 235–240). While all our thinking is afflicted by the subject-object division, the very act of stating such a division, according to Jaspers, already points at the possibility of reaching beyond that division and thematizing the underlying structure of reality, which, to allow for the existence of phenomena such as thinking and knowledge, must comprehend both sides of the subject-object-division (pp. 247–251). Jaspers fittingly calls that underlying reality “the encompassing” (das Umgreifende, p. 248 et passim), i.e. the encompassing of subject and object.

According to Jaspers, it is precisely the henological character of reason that causes us to investigate the underlying unitary structure beyond the subject-object-division: “Reason, according to its nature, is that which, in its universal openness, strives towards the One. It does not want to let anything sink into relationlessness or stand alone for itself” (p. 131, cf. pp. 244–245). To elucidate the encompassing, our thinking must turn away from its usual focus on external objects, reverse its direction, as it were, and address its own activities: “A transcending is necessary, by means of which this reversion of our knowledge towards itself, away from its natural direction towards objects, can take place” (p. 10). This non-objectual mode of thinking is the methodological basis for Jaspers’s philosophy of the encompassing, or, in Greek, periechontology.

The encompassing, consequently, can not to be thought of as a determinate entity that could be grasped in fixed definitions; much rather all phenomenal entities and all definitions presuppose the notion of an encompassing. Neither can the encompassing be identified with any specific “horizon” of understanding. Rather, if we stick to the metaphor of such horizons, the encompassing would represent the space in which all specific horizons of understanding are encountered (pp. 37–39, cf. p. 247). Indeed the most fitting circumscription of the encompassing refers precisely to its indefinability: “the encompassing […] is that which always only annunciates itself” (was sich immer nur ankündigt, p. 38).

However, in thus expounding his notion of the encompassing, Jaspers has not yet completed the task he initially set for himself, i.e. an elucidation of the unitary character of truth. While the notion of the encompassing is necessary in order to develop an adequate understanding of thinking and cognition, the encompassing itself can be and has been historically conceived of in heterogeneous, even contradictory ways. This reveals that the encompassing is in itself not a unitary notion; on the contrary, Jaspers shows the encompassing itself to be divided into different “modes” (Weisen des Umgreifenden, p. 47 et passim). When we are trying to conceive of the encompassing, we can, as Jaspers argues, conceptualize it quasi-subjectively, i.e. as “being that we are” (p. 47), or quasi-objectively, i.e. as “being that is being-in-itself” (p. 47). This division, however, does not indicate a return of the “subject-object-division” on the level of the encompassing, rather it indicates the possibility to conceptualize the encompassing as being that can be comprehended based on our self-experience, or, on the other hand, as being that we are facing as something entirely different from our own being.

If we think of the encompassing as “being that is being-in-itself”, we can conceptualize it, on the one hand, as Transzendenz, or God, and, on the other hand, as the world, or nature. Otherwise, if we conceive of the encompassing as “being that we are”, we can, depending largely on the notion we have of our own being, conceptualize it as being-there (Dasein), consciousness-in-general (Bewußtsein überhaupt), spirit (Geist) or Existenz (pp. 47–52). The content gasped in each mode of the encompassing is to be shortly recapitulated in the following: Being-there represents the human being as embodied phenomenal consciousness. Consciousness-in-general represents the human being in his ability to think abstractly and methodologically. Spirit represents the human being in his ability to holistically understand what is essential and meaningful. Existenz represents the human being in his self-being and in his freedom. – The world is the origin from which all phenomena occur to the human being. Transcendence is the ultimate ground of reality and, more specifically, the ground of human Existenz, which can, according to Jaspers, only exercise its freedom if and insofar as it relates to Transcendence, or God.

The larger part of On Truth is concerned with detailing these “modes of the encompassing” and exploring the way in which they are related to each other. Any of the aforementioned modes of the encompassing can, depending on the philosophical perspective of a given thinker, appear to him as the principal, the actual, the essential origin of being (p. 124), thereby giving birth to such philosophical world-views as naturalism, vitalism, rationalism, idealism, existentialism, and acosmism, the latter representing a one-sided, abstract philosophy of Transzendenz that, as it were, annihilates the phenomenal world (p. 165). Ultimately, it is nevertheless impossible for Jaspers to accept a decomposition of philosophy into different word-views, each abstractly clinging to only one mode of the encompassing. For that reason, Jaspers is careful not to subscribe to any of those competing world-views. On the contrary, he claims: “I consider my thinking to be the natural and necessary conclusion of all occidental thinking up until now; an impartial synthesis by virtue of a principle that in its broadness is able to integrate everything that is true in any sense” (p. 192).

The One must, as this shows, not be grasped “prematurely” (vorzeitig, pp. 166–167, 516). Looking for the one truth, it would be fatal to just pick out one of the modes of the encompassing and without any further investigation claim it to be the One, thereby ignoring the significance of the other modes and thus originating an intolerant, one-sided, and possibly even intellectually “violent” (gewaltsam, p. 657) kind of “philosophy” (in truth merely an irrational world-view). Still, it would be equally unacceptable to conceive of the modes of the encompassing as a mere disjointed multiplicity. Rather, that view would lead to the same nihilistic arbitrariness that Jaspers intended to counter with On Truth (pp. 654–655). On the contrary, reason demands, according to Jaspers, that we must not hold the isolation and opposition of the different modes of the encompassing to be the ultimate reality (p. 51). Jaspers therefore describes reason as the “bond” (Band, pp. 50, 114) that prohibits such a decomposition of the encompassing (pp. 50–51, 113–120). Since neither a mere disjointed multiplicity nor a “premature” unitary view is acceptable for Jaspers, the only remaining option is to look for an order, for a systematic structure of the modes of the encompassing. Only if we can conceive of such an order may we be able to grasp the “one origin” (p. 51), not directly but rather as “the One which which becomes manifest for us only indirectly through the woven fabric of the multitude” (p. 163).

3. The one truth in the ground of reality

Owing to Jaspers’s transcendental approach, the question concerning the way the different modes of the encompassing are related to each other can be reformulated more comprehensively as a question relating the way that truth is manifest in each of the modes. Understanding the relations of the different senses of truth that are manifest within each mode then allows for a clearer view of the relations of the modes themselves (p. 122). These considerations lead to the most fundamental question that Jaspers poses in On Truth, namely the question concerning the nature of truth itself. The notion of truth has, as Jaspers argues, a much broader scope than mere truth of judgment, although the latter is in some respects a paradigmatic example of truth (p. 457). On the contrary, Jaspers argues that any “being-for-us” (Sein für uns, p. 461) qua being-for-us carries the potential for truth or falsehood (pp. 460–461). When truth, for Jaspers, is fundamentally the disclosure of being in thought, then only being-for-us can be true in a general sense, being-in-itself, on the other hand, can not be directly grasped by us and can therefore be true only insofar as it becomes apparent within a mode of being that is being-for-us. For that reason, neither God nor nature can be said to be true in themselves, but only insofar as they become apparent in being-there as phenomenal experiences, in consciousness-in-general as abstract intellectual concepts, in spirit as ideas or in Existenz as the freedom of self-being (pp. 461, 624–625).

Within each mode of the encompassing “that we are” truth has, as Jaspers points out, its counterpart in the “possibility of error and deception” (both Täuschung in German, p. 461). While Jaspers conceptualizes truth in terms of correspondence of thought and being, the fact that our thinking and the objects that we intend remain substantially different entities means that their correspondence can become contorted in a number of ways (p. 461). Since the fallibility of all our object-related knowledge is based on the disparity of thinking and truth, an infallible truth can, according to Jaspers, only be conceptualized in the speculative thought of a coincidence of thinking and being. It is only by virtue of this speculative thought that we may gain the notion of a “truth […] without the possibility of error” (p. 461). While this conception for consciousness-in-general is a mere limiting notion (p. 461), for human Existenz, on the other hand, it is of vital necessity as any pursuit of truth would be utterly meaningless were it not based on the conviction that, at a fundamental level of reality, being and thinking are interconnected and indeed identical: “Being that is not being-known would not actually be. – Were it not in itself knowledge – what would knowledge be for the knower other than an illusion?” (p. 459).

The one truth, thus conceptualized, can be thought of as “the ground of being” (p. 459), obviously in the sense that every being must be thought to participate in this truth insofar as it is a possible object of thought. For that reason, according to Jaspers, even the most minor truth carries a “shimmer” (p. 462) of that one truth and, vice versa, the one truth can be thought of as the “final aim of being-true” (p. 461). The one truth, then, according to Jaspers, is not only the final aim of our cognitive acts (“the ground and aim of our pursuit of truth”, p. 462) but also the final aim of all particular truths in themselves. For this reason, Jaspers does not hesitate to call the one truth the “actual reality” (p. 462) and the “Deity” (p. 461). Here, if anywhere, Jaspers finds the cause of the validity of the medieval theory of transcendentals (p. 459–460): Actual being must be true being, “omne ens est verum”, from this follows “omne ens est unum” because unity is an essential prerequisite for being as well as for being thought. The verity of being then also constitutes its goodness: “omne ens est bonum”.

4. Truth within the different modes of the encompassing

Building on this notion of absolute truth, Jaspers examines the ways in which truth manifests in each of the modes of the encompassing. Truth exists, according to Jaspers, only in the modes of the encompassing “that we are”: if truth is the disclosure of being within thinking, then there can be no truth within nature as well as within Transzendenz where there is no thinking (p. 624). However, the nonexistence of truth within the encompassing that is being-in-itself has a heterogeneous, even contrary, sense for Transzendenz on the one hand and the world, or nature, on the other hand. Jaspers explicates this as follows: “the world deceives us through its knowability, in which it is not the world but mere appearance, a vision it presents to us, as it were, to hide behind it. God does not deceive us through knowability, on the contrary, he obviously hides and allows us to be certain about him, though without knowing or understanding” (p. 90). I.e., where the world deceives us, as it were, through its seeming knowability, we can reach certainty about God precisely in realizing his unknowability, by which he reveals himself as the Absolute.

The world, according to Jaspers, is not knowable to us as such but only in its phenomenal appearances (p. 625). Therefore the world as such can neither be called true nor false. On the contrary, a truth value can only be ascribed to our thoughts about the world (p. 627). Transzendenz shares with the world the characteristic of being known to us only through its manifest appearances. Jaspers calls these the “ciphers of Transzendenz” (p. 643), which as such are not objective facts but symbolic references to Transzendenz that can only be “read” by Existenz (p. 631). While we do experience Transzendenz – insofar as we are Existenz, we experience it positively as the ground of our self-being, insofar as we are consciousness-in-general, we experience it negatively as an absolute limit for all knowledge – both of these ways do not constitute any objectual knowledge of Transzendenz (p. 631). This unknowableness forbids it to ascribe any kind of truth value to Transzendenz. Nevertheless, it is exactly its transcendence over the dichotomy of truth and falsehood that allows us to think of Transzendenz as the one absolute truth, which, as noted earlier, may be conceptualized as “truth […] without the possibility of error” (p. 461). Therefore the impossibility of ascribing a truth value to Transzendenz does not constitute any kind of imperfection on part of Transzendenz: “Truth and falsehood are inapplicable here”, Jaspers states, “because in the ground of being all divisions have ceased” (p. 638). But it is precisely that transcendence over all divisions that characterizes Transzendenz as what Jaspers paradoxically calls the “truth […] before all truth” (p. 461).

The notions truth and falsehood are, as these considerations show, only applicable in those modes of the encompassing that are our being, i.e. in being-there, consciousness-in-general, spirit, and Existenz. Jaspers describes in some detail the way in which we can speak of truth in these different modes:

Within being-there truth and falsehood exist only in a limited sense (p. 604) and, so to speak, unconsciously (p. 63). Truth here manifests foremost as the adequacy of our being-there in relation to our lifeworld: “Being-there wants to sustain itself and to expand itself: true is whatever supports being-there (life), that which is useful; untrue is whatever damages, restricts, paralyzes it” (p. 608). Truth within the encompassing of being-there is, as this shows, essentially pragmatic and relative to this particular being at that certain point in time. Truth in the sense of formal truth of judgment, on the other hand, is meaningless for mere being-there. Even in its interactions with other individuals, anything can be considered “true” for mere being-there as long as it suits its own interests: be it the ruthless “struggle for life” (Kampf ums Dasein, p. 317), or be it a community of interests, which can only exist temporarily (p. 609). Even then, a community of interests is, Jaspers points out, always more powerful than the individual in the long run. This thought leads to what one may call a dialectical turning-point in Jaspers’s conception of being-there. While the human being as mere being-there is essentially an individual committed solely to its own well-being, it must nevertheless rely on a collective to survive. The collective, then, is the ultimate truth within the encompassing of being-there. The individual must bow to the needs and customs of the collective, which it is essentially unable to understand (because understanding pertains to spirit, not to mere being-there). Where the alternative would be instant destruction, being-there must allow itself to be used and, over time, consumed by the collective (p. 609). “The exceptional human being” (die Ausnahme, p. 610), on the other hand, who poses a threat or at least an irritation to the collective, is quickly eradicated.

It is only in the medium of consciousness-in-general that human consciousness, which, as the preceding considerations show, exists in an alienated state as long as it understands itself as mere being-there, comes to itself: “I resurge, as it were, from the randomness of a manifold, accidental, and arbitrary subjectivity, as which I am not actually aware of being myself” (p. 607). Within the encompassing of consciousness-in-general, truth is manifest in the strictest (but not in the highest) sense, as a correspondence of judgment and fact that can be methodically verified, as a compelling “validity of propositions” (p. 605). Truth in this sense is “universally valid”, “absolutely certain” and “unchangeable” (p. 602). For consciousness-in-general every truth can be, in principle, sufficiently justified by referral to logical evidence and mathematically quantifiable experiences (pp. 605–606). Through its focus on generalizability, consciousness-in-general also has an ethical dimension, as opposed to mere being-there, the ethics of which amount to nothing more than the law of the strongest. Consciousness-in-general, on the other hand, is able to evaluate morally any conceivable course of action based on the sole criterion if one could wish for everyone else to act the same (the Kantian moral law, pp. 649, 895). Nevertheless, even within the encompassing of consciousness-in-general the human individual suffers, as Jaspers argues, from a distinct kind of self-loss. While the truths to be discovered here are indifferently true for everyone, it is exactly that same feature that makes them indifferent in a pejorative sense, too. Within consciousness-in-general “I” may come to know “what is”; nevertheless, “I” remain unable to comprehend “who I am” (p. 606). That is why “as pure ‘consciousness-in-general’ I lose myself and despair, […] not only of myself but of all being” (p. 607). For that reason, Jaspers argues: “That truth that is essential for us begins where the compelling power of consciousness-in-general ends” (p. 607).

Unlike the truths of consciousness-in-general, those of spirit are not indifferently valid for everyone. This, however, does not diminish the truths of spirit, as Jaspers argues: “While the validity of truth within being-there is less than intellectual validity”, i.e. the validity of consciousness-in-general, “the validity of spirit is more” (p. 610). Spirit “interfuses, […] guides, organizes and ensouls” (p. 610) the abstract, merely intellectual thinking of consciousness-in-general. Contrary to mere intellect, spirit does not lose itself in indifferent infiniteness but exists as a “coherent whole” (geschlossenes Ganzes, p. 610), owing to the self-referential “circular motion” (kreisende Bewegung, p. 617) of its ideas. While consciousness-in-general is able to discern what is universally valid and true, it is only as spirit that the human being can grasp “the essential” (p. 611), the idea of a thing as a whole (p. 611). Only where the human being is himself guided by the idea, is communication in real mutual understanding possible (p. 611–612). Only here is he able to do systematic research as opposed to merely listing particular truths (p. 612–613). – As spirit, the human being is at the same time an individual and the moment of a general community, not as a mere agent of a collective but rather as one particular spirit within the spirit of a culture, a nation, a profession, which he understands by virtue of his participation in its ideas and which he helps to shape with his actions according to those ideas (p. 616). Within spirit everything can be considered true that “effects the wholeness of the idea, which comes forth from it or leads towards it” (Ganzheit der Idee bewirkt, aus ihr herkommt, in sie hineinnimmt, p. 610). I.e., truth here is essentially the dynamic conformity of the idea with itself and, together with that, the conformity of the manifold of ideas with the one universal idea. Within spirit, the human being seems to have finally found himself. Having overcome the potentially destructive duality of intellect and living experience, he can, or so it appears, finally apprehend himself as a holistic person. But, as Jaspers argues, the holistic comprehensiveness of spirit, taken by itself, is illusionary, insofar as spirit can never completely master or even understand the forces of nature or the arbitrary willfulness of being-there (pp. 619–620). Furthermore, spirit can never, not even in mere reasoning, reach the flawless unity of truth that is characteristic of Transzendenz only (p. 619). The truth of spirit, while captivating, therefore is defective. Wherever it is postulated to comprehend all being, it suffers failure (p. 619).

Because spirit must ultimately “experience failure in reality” (p. 619), it has the only possible source of its strength in the unconditional freedom of the human individual, i.e., in Jaspers’s terminology, it has its origin in Existenz. Existenz can, so Jaspers argues, recreate the idea of spirit from the “desert” of its “mere possibility” (p. 620), even when all formations of spirit, be it institutions or idealistic philosophical systems, seem to have collapsed. Jaspers conceptualizes the truth of Existenz as heterogeneous to all other modes of truth. It can only be insufficiently expressed by the words: “I am” (p. 621). No “objectual fixation” (gegenständliche Fixierung, p. 621) of this truth seems possible. It is in essence not persistent being but actualization, not fact but task; a task that is to be completed ever anew by the individual[9], and that can reach fulfillment in temporal existence only momentarily in an experience of “absolute consciousness” (absolutes Bewußtsein, pp. 175–177, 697–700)[10]. Existenz, as such, is not being but “potentiality-for-being” (Seinkönnen, p. 621), is not positive reality but the infinite possibility that is the token of human freedom. Within the encompassing of Existenz the division of being and knowledge is at least partially suspended, as the “free willing” of Existenz is in itself the “disclosure of its essence” (Wesensoffenbarung, p. 621). It is only by its need for communication with other Existenz that Existenz is subject to the subject-object-divide because, according to Jaspers, Existenz can realize its self-being only in communication with other Existenz (pp. 622–623). While Existenz needs to “seize” (p. 623) the ideas to manifest its potential in temporal existence, it is yet more originary than the ideas, being itself the origin from which all spiritual life emerges (p. 621). Existenz therefore rejects any “absolutization” of the ideas (p. 623); it knows itself, on the other hand, to be absolutely dependent on Transzendenz. In fact, it is exactly its independence against all facts within this world, which indicates to Existenz the reality of Transzendenz. It is the unconditionality of the One that enables Existenz to realize the unconditionality of its own self (p. 691). The relation to Transzendenz therefore, according to Jaspers, becomes essential to Existenz wherever it elucidates its own nature: “Only in relation to Him [God] Existenz […] [is] possible. Existenz in its historicity experiences at once with its elucidation the being of Transzendenz and is not without it for an instant” (p. 702, cf. p. 632,691).

5. A hierarchy of truths

Being-there, consciousness-in-general, spirit, and Existenz realize truth, as this shows, in completely heterogeneous ways. The question now is: how can these converse modes of truth be understood as manifestations of the one truth, which Jaspers has earlier identified as Transzendenz, or the Deity? The conception according to which they form a mere “aggregate” (p. 654) proves unsatisfactory. Not only is it, as noted above, contrary to the nature of reason, rather, as Jaspers argues, any such conception must fail because positive as well as negative relations between the modes of the encompassing are undeniable: e.g., the exact knowledge of consciousness-in-general can be useful to being-there; consciousness-in-general can on the other hand appear to “paralyze” (p. 228, cf. p. 655) being-there through its endless reflections.

In the contrariety of the modes of the encompassing the human being can seem to be forced to take the side, as it were, of one of the modes. He then clings to one sense of truth as if it were the only one possible, but this, as already mentioned, leads to intolerant and one-sided world-views (pp. 655–656, 661–666.). All the more so, Jaspers considers it an existential necessity to comprehend the different modes as an organized whole, as an ordered structure. As Jaspers’s characterization of the different modes and of the way that truth becomes manifest within each of them has already indicated, such an ordered structure must have the character of a “ranking order” (Rangordnung) or “hierarchy” (Hierarchie, p. 674).

Jaspers describes the hierarchical relations between the different modes of the encompassing in the following way (p. 674): The lower levels of the hierarchy need the “guidance” of the levels that are higher in respect to them. They then realize their deeper purpose in becoming the medium of those higher modes of being. The higher modes, as it were, “ensoul” (p. 674) the lower modes. In this way, e. g., the brutal senselessness of mere living, or being-there, experiences a “deepening of its being” (p. 674) where it becomes a medium for the methodical clarity of consciousness-in-general, where it partakes in the ideas, where it ultimately becomes the appearance of Existenz. The indifferent endlessness that characterizes consciousness-in-general, on the other hand, experiences a deepening on its part where it accepts the guidance of the ideas of spirit. Spirit, then again, receives its inner life only from the unconditionality of Existenz.

The existence of a hierarchy of such kind does not, however, imply that the lower levels are dispensable. On the contrary, the higher modes need the lower ones as their medium. Only in taking the lower modes into their “service” (p. 674), by determining and regulating them, can the higher modes appear in temporal reality. This implies a relation between the higher and the lower modes of the encompassing that is analogous, albeit not identical, to that of form and material in the phenomenal world[11]. Specifically, all modes of the encompassing that we are must have a “material” basis in being-there to become manifest in the phenomenal world (p. 678). Consciousness-in-general can gain universally valid knowledge only based on concrete experiences. Similarly, spirit needs being-there as the medium of its material and consciousness-in-general as the medium of its mental realizations. Existenz needs spirit as the medium in which its freedom can find realization in theoretical and practical activity. Existenz is, as this shows, the highest mode of the encompassing that we are, but, even so, it does not exist by virtue of itself but only thanks to Transzendenz. It is through Existenz then, that all modes of the encompassing that we are are related to Transzendenz.

6. Truth and the One God

Transzendenz this way constitutes the ultimate point of reference of the hierarchy of the modes of the encompassing. This completes and concretizes the picture earlier developed according to which Transzendenz, as the one truth, is the ground and aim of all particular truths. Specifically, Transzendenz proves itself to be not only ground and aim of all phenomena within the modes of the encompassing but also of the order of the modes of the encompassing as a whole. The modes of truth owe their commensurability solely to Transzendenz. As such, Transzendenz, or God, is the ultimate ground for the unity not only of all particular phenomena but also of the modes of the encompassing, which constitute the transcendental space in which they appear. Therefore Jaspers calls Transcendence the One (pp. 680–683, 690–695), thereby reviving a conception of the Absolute that has been of pivotal importance to the Platonist tradition of European philosophy.

In hindsight all modes of truth can, as Jaspers argues, be understood as manifestations of the One (p. 680–681): Consciousness-in-general can grasp an object only if and insofar as it is one unitary entity and the ideas of spirit are essentially unifying forces operative in our thoughts and actions. Reason, specifically, is to be understood as an outreach of our thinking towards the One, and Existenz can, as above noted, only reach fulfillment if it relates to the One of Transzendenz. It might be added that being-there, too, is dependent on its physical and psychical unity to remain alive. It is implicit in this conception (though Jaspers does not seem to state it outright) that, within the hierarchy of truths in the encompassing, the higher modes “guide” the respective lower modes exactly by virtue of their greater unity. This is also implied by Jaspers’s analogous use of the categories form and material in the same context because form, as Jaspers states, generally is that which transforms its material into one being (p. 234): Mere being-there can be characterized as manifold and dissipated by Jaspers, the intellectual activity of consciousness-in-general is directed at uniting the dissipate experiences of being-there under general concepts and at uniting its dissipate volitions under the moral law. The unifying character of spirit in relation to consciousness-in-general, too, has been pointed out above. Existenz, within which there is no divide between self-being and self-disclosure, seems to be the highest form of unity that is possible within the encompassing that we are. Nevertheless all these modes of unity are imperfect compared to the One of Transzendenz: “True absolute unity is the One God alone” (p. 690).

The notion of truth, then, is founded within this notion of absolute unity, or the One. According to Jaspers, it is that absolute unity, along with its many analogous manifestations, that we are trying to grasp wherever we are looking for truth: “Where we are looking for truth, we are looking for the One” (p. 680), as he states concisely.

While the One is, according to Jaspers, the transcendent ground and aim of all unity, truth, and goodness within each of the modes of the encompassing, we are nevertheless unable to grasp it immediately. For that reason, while “the true unity as the pivot of all unity lies in Transzendenz alone, […] it is accessible to us only by means of all the unities in all the modes of the encompassing” (p. 705). In this context, Jaspers emphasizes the primacy of negative theology in any intellectual engagement with the One: “The One God evades thinkability […] He evades representation and perception […] Where we speak of Him we say what he is not, but in this negativity He is the most positive one as the most seizing reality to which alone we are ready to devote ourselves without any reservations” (p. 691). Jaspers’s notion of God, while being conceptually negative, is, as this shows, nevertheless positive insofar as it allows for an existential experience of the One God, a “living experience of the One” (p. 681)[12]. Because the One is unfathomable by conceptual thinking, the philosophical elucidation of the One cannot, according to Jaspers, constitute a “doctrine” or a “world-view” (p. 681). Rather it is meaningful only as a “remembrance or an anticipation” (p. 681) of the “living experience of the One”.

Of that experience Jaspers never seems to speak without a certain sublime emotion: “The experience of the Unity is the height of the human being. In the One he comes to himself” (p. 680). “The One God is the most ravishing thought, the innermost believe, the deepest awareness of being, the most seizing reality and the most comforting certainty. He is the only truth of Transzendenz” (p. 690). For Jaspers, it is “the most decisive factor for the whole of our consciousness” (p. 1049) if we can achieve an “ascent to the one Deity” (p. 1049)[13] and if subsequently the “reality of God becomes the measure of all things for us” (p. 1049). True to the quasi-Neoplatonic spirit of these thoughts, Jaspers ends On Truth with a reflection on the scope of philosophical thought in general that can well be read as an indirect reference to Plotinus: In philosophizing we cannot grasp the One: “everything is a simile [Gleichnis], an indicator [Zeiger] at best” (p. 1052, cf. Plotinus Ennead VI 9, 11, 26–28). All logical and metaphysical reflections, then, can at best serve to “awaken” us, to “point out ways” and “prepare” us (p. 1054, cf. Ennead VI 9, 4, 11–15) for the experience of the One that can ultimately only be granted to us by the One itself.

7. Conclusion

In the preceding discussion, the notion of the One has been demonstrated to be a pivotal concept of On Truth, as one might indeed guess from the alternative title. It carries and shapes large portions of the work, namely in the following six ways, which I will recapitulate below:

  1. The notion of the One is the starting point, the guiding principle and the final aim of Jaspers’s train of thought. (a) Jaspers’s logical elucidations primarily serve to rehabilitate the awareness of truth’s unity, which has traditionally been founded on an awareness of the One of Transzendenz. (b) Several of the key concepts of On Truth, most notably that of the encompassing itself, are motivated by attempts to find a unitary notion that connects multiple seemingly disparate phenomena. Since logic, for Jaspers, constitutes an elucidation of the self-awareness of reason and reason, fundamentally, is a form of thinking that strives towards the One, this is hardly surprising. (c) The final aim of all philosophical thought, according to Jaspers, is an “ascent” to the One that Jaspers describes as a life-changing experience of utmost existential importance.
  2. In On Truth Jaspers shows that truth essentially means a unity of thinking and being. (a) Truth in an absolute sense, therefore, is the indifferent identity of both thinking and being, which Jaspers identifies with the One God. (b) Within each mode of the encompassing, truth is manifest only if and insofar as thinking and being correspond at least partially. Thus each truth mirrors the one absolute truth in an analogous way and owes its own character as truth to that analogy. (c) Among the modes of the encompassing, a hierarchy exists that structures the different modes in a relation analogous to the relation of form and material, which means the higher levels of the hierarchy “guide” their respective lower counterparts by virtue of their greater unity. Furthermore, through Existenz, the highest mode of “being that we are”, all lower modes are ultimately related to the One of Transzendenz.

These considerations also support the thesis of a continuity of Jaspers’s thought with the henological tradition of European philosophy and by that especially with Platonism, which Jaspers received through seminal thinkers such as Plotinus[14] and Nicholas of Cusa[15] early in his philosophical career. On the other hand, the preceding considerations show that Jaspers’s philosophy is by no means a mere replication of that tradition. Rather, Jaspers uses concepts emerging from the traditions of European philosophy in order to address the pressing philosophical issues of his day, such as experiences of self-loss, the nature of scientific knowledge and the dangers of totalitarian collectivism.


  1. K. Jaspers, Philosophische Logik, vol. 1: Von der Wahrheit, NE, Piper, München 1958.
  2. For an overview see W. Beierwaltes, Denken des Einen. Studien zur neuplatonischen Philosophie und ihrer Wirkungsgeschichte, Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main 1985.
  3. I will in the following use the German “Transzendenz” for Jaspers’s concept of a transcendent reality, thus reserving the English word transcendence for the state of being transcendent or the act of transcending a finite reality. – For the relevance of that distinction in the context of Jaspers’s thought compare M. Enders, “Transzendenz/Transzendieren” II, Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, ed. Ritter, J. and Gründer, K., vol. X, Wissenschaftl. Buchges., Darmstadt 1998, cols. 1447–1455; “Zum Ort der Einheits-Metaphysik im Denken von Karl Jaspers”, Pensées de l’”Un” dans l’histoire de la philosophie. Études en hommage au professeur Werner Beierwaltes, ed. Narbonne, J.-M. and Reckermann, A., Vrin, Paris 2004, pp. 522–549. For a discussion of the historical and systematic significance of the notion of transcendence compare J. Halfwassen, “Metaphysik und Transzendenz”, Auf den Spuren des Einen, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2015, pp. 27–36.
  4. See Enders 2004, who places Jaspers within the henological tradition of European philosophy. On the methodological side, compare A. Kiel, “Karl Jaspers und die philosophische Logik”, Karl Jaspers. Grundbegriffe seines Denkens, ed. Yousefi, H. R. et al., Lau, Reinbek 2011, pp. 199–213, who identifies adaption (Anverwandlung) and synopsis as the central methodical approaches of Jaspers’s logics and contrasts this to Heidegger’s and Derrida’s methods of destruction and deconstruction, respectively.
  5. Compare K. Jaspers, Die geistige Situation der Zeit, De Gruyter, Berlin 1965.
  6. For an evaluation of Kant’s influence on Jaspers and the character of Jaspers’s thought as distinctly post-Kantian metaphysics see U. Sonderfeld, “Die Periechontologie als eine neue, nach-kantische Ontologie und ihre erkenntnistheoretische Grundlegung”, Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Karl-Jaspers-Gesellschaft 3/4 (1990/91), pp. 118–131.
  7. As with Transzendenz, I will in the following, for the sake of clarity, use the German “Existenz” when discussing Jaspers’s existential thinking.
  8. Compare K. Jaspers, Philosophie, 3rd ed., 3 vols., Springer, Berlin 1956, vol. 1, p. XXXIV.
  9. Compare Jaspers 1956, vol. 1, pp. 13–19.
  10. See also Jaspers 1956, vol. 2, pp. 255–291.
  11. See K. Jaspers, Einführung in die Philosophie. Zwölf Radiovorträge, Piper, München 1969, p. 51: “In the realization of the unconditional, being-there becomes the material of the idea, of love, of fidelity, as it were.”
  12. In assuming such experiences Jaspers sometimes seems to approach mysticism. It must nevertheless be noted that he did not understand himself as a mystical thinker. For a balanced discussion see T. Nakayama, “Jaspers und die Mystik”, in Karl Jaspers’ Philosophie: Gegenwärtigkeit und Zukunft – Karl Jaspers’s Philosophy: Rooted in the Present, Paradigm for the Future, ed. Wisser, R. and Ehrlich, L. H., Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2003, pp. 179–184.
  13. The notion of an ascent to the One has its origins in the thought of Plato and Plotinus, see J. Halfwassen, Der Aufstieg zum Einen. Untersuchungen zu Platon und Plotin, 2nd ext. ed., Saur, Leipzig 2006.
  14. K. Jaspers, Philosophische Autobiographie, Piper, München 1977, p. 125; C. Michaelides, “Plotinus and Jaspers: Their Conception and Contemplation of the Supreme One”, Diotima 4 (1969), pp. 37–46; F.-P. Hager, “The Neoplatonic Background of the Metaphysics of Karl Jaspers and Its Impact on His Moral Philosophy”, Neoplatonism And Contemporary Thought, ed. Harris, R. B., vol. I, State Univ. of New York Press, Albany, NY 2002, pp. 347–386.
  15. See R. Wisser, “Nicolaus Cusanus im ‘lebendigen Spiegel’ der Philosophie von Karl Jaspers”, Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung 19 (1965), pp. 528–540.


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