Friday, 16 December 2011

Kirkbright's Life of Jaspers, part 2

Kirkbright observes that Jaspers’ letters home to his parents when he was an undergraduate ‘recorded how his mother was the ideal partner with whom from the start he rehearsed a process to which he was later to give the name “existential communication”’. The first part of the second volume of Jaspers’ Philosophy, titled Existential Elucidation, addresses such intersubjectivity in terms of Jaspers’ idea of ‘loving contest’. In his early essay ‘Solitude’, he had already formulated this idea as ‘the contest in the state of love’ (‘der Kampf in der Liebe’), so as to evoke (in Kirkbright’s words) ‘a new possibility of overcoming potential inequality between individuals through the intensity of communication’. Likewise, Jaspers’ work on the late lectures of Schelling articulated his interest in ‘communication as something more intense than dialogue, as something moving beyond the Platonic dialogue’; something which can foreground the disharmony attendant upon recognition of the relativity of truth. ‘No one who is in definitive possession of the truth, can speak properly with someone else – he breaks off authentic communication in favour of the belief that he holds’ [The Perennial Scope of Philosophy].

In statements which are chillingly prophetic of today’s stultifyingly careerist, ‘best practice’, academic bureaucracies, Jaspers’ 1946 lecture ‘About the Living Spirit of the University’ reflected on the sort of false, conciliatory communication which characterized Nazi times: a communication ultimately dedicated to self-preservation in an unreflective climate of nihilist drift. This is the communicative false harmony imposed by an authoritarian society.

‘Instead of an intellectual community in loving contest, what emerged, on the one hand, was a wariness of the common ground of social camaraderie, and on the other hand, endless rounds of discussion consisting of chance opinions, vain self-promotion and sophistry. Everywhere, a secret code of behaviour was valid: everything is still undecided; things are not to be taken so seriously. Conciliatory behaviour was the condition for being regarded as a decent human being.’

Kirkbright’s biography demonstrates how the opposition between a ‘secret code of behaviour’ and open, contestatory communication, was implicit already in Jaspers’ early Husserlian contributions to thinking about psychiatric therapy. As Kirkbright notes, Jaspers’ understanding of the task of therapy was centred on the patient-doctor relationship, and a concomitant awareness of the limitations of formal professional or disciplinary codes. She explains how Jaspers’ 1912 essay on ‘The Phenomenological Approach in Psychopathology’, a dry run for his classic textbook General Psychopathology, understood phenomenology both as ‘a descriptive practice by means of which a psychiatrist could assess patients’ communications, as derived through interviews or scrutiny of their biographies’, and as ‘a process of understanding the patient-doctor relationship’. ‘To investigate that perception of the confidential context of clinical practice was to clarify the repertoire of tools available for connecting a psychiatrist’s perception of the causes of patients’ afflictions and the patients’ need for understanding and an open exchange of information.’

Jaspers’ early involvement with Husserl’s thinking, as Kirkbright suggests, thus generated a conception of a hermeneutic, reflexive psychiatric method, which can enable what we could call reciprocal therapy. Jaspers, Kirkbright writes, focussed in on the limits of diagnostic technique: ‘the psychiatrist’s problem was essentially his craving for knowledge in his claim to understand another’s words’. Authoritarian definition of diagnostic truths is to be replaced by an opening to clinical communicative relativity: approaching both clinicians’ and patients’ statements on the same level. This is something that was still being called for by service users in a recent meeting at Hammersmith & Fulham Mind, almost a hundred years after Jaspers’ essay; that they be worked with , and not be regarded simply as the passive recipients of medication. ‘What Jaspers extracted from Husserl’s notion of “intentionality” was a principle that words and meanings are all, on some level, subjected to transposition by individual preference.’ This means that – once a divergence between the psychiatrist’s and the patient’s intentions is recognized – phenomenology can be taken as a reflexive, therapeutic hermeneutic. ‘The doctor was to be trained to apply interpretational methods to his cases, on condition that he might turn the tables upon himself. Hence, the psychiatrist is not only the subject in control of the process, but a legitimate target for self-reflection.’ As Jaspers puts it in the General Psychopathology:

‘The most vital part of the psychopathologist’s knowledge is drawn from his contact with people. What he gains from this depends upon the particular way he gives himself and as therapist partakes in events, whether he illuminates himself as well as his patients. The process is not only one of simple observation, like reading off a measurement, but the exercise of a self-involving vision in which the psyche itself is glimpsed.’

Kirkbright documents how Gertrud’s own experiences of caring for the mentally ill ‘marked out her capacity to understand Jaspers’ distinction between those used to suffering and those apparently indifferent’. Her sister Ida had suffered a nervous breakdown around 1904, and had been institutionalized in a sanatorium at Königstein im Taunus, where Gertrud nursed her along with other patients. Whilst working as an unpaid assistant at the Heidelberg Clinic of Psychiatry, Jaspers himself, as Kirkbright notes, bitterly regretted his inability to develop his career as a psychiatrist, owing to his physical incapacity to complete the rounds of patients. ‘In silent frustration, Jaspers’ imagination reinforced his impression that he was required to work twice as hard just to be accepted by his peers and his immediate superiors.’ But he was also attending Lask’s lectures, and already engaging with the ideas of Kant, Husserl and Weber. This meant that, as Kirkbright points out, ‘he was already working within the terms of philosophy, even during his training at the clinic.’ Indeed – Kirkbright maintains – it was precisely Kant who ‘introduced the element of humanity into Jaspers’ work as a scientist and thinker’. Kirkbright’s book stresses how Jaspers’ contact with Heidelberg’s philosophers taught him that ‘the clearest treatment of his study of the doctor-patient bond was not to be gleaned from psychology’. Instead, ‘his main aim was to preserve a calm atmosphere that might equally have derived from his study of Kant’s philosophy’. The General Psychopathology holds Kant to be the ‘true point of orientation’ (‘wahrer Orientierungspunkt’) for empirical psychiatric research.

Kirkbright’s life often refers to the importance, for Jaspers, of the attainment of a state of balance or harmony; or of ‘the calmness and clarity’, as he put it in a 1919 letter to his father, ‘which has been acquired in long, inner battles that have little to do with knowledge or reasoning but that traditionally is and deserves to be called wisdom’. Jaspers’ schooldays included a time of ‘almost abject misery’ precisely because then he was involved in ‘perpetual conflict’. The timelessness of meditative calm, by contrast, is associated in Jaspers’ thought with a communicative intensity moving towards intersubjective harmony. ‘One of the fascinations of Jaspers’ definition of communication remains […] an intimation of striving for harmony between two individuals so that the harmony achieves a timeless, eternal aspect.’ The Kantian and Platonist qualities of Jaspers’ thinking, intimated here, could be one reason why Arendt was concerned that he was – in Kirkbright’s words – ‘uninterested in politics because of his generation’s education in the humanities’. Yet, as this biography fully demonstrates, in fact Jaspers was deeply interested in politics: Kirkbright refers in particular to the ‘acute awareness of political affairs that is typical of his personal correspondence’. This is the philosopher who could remind his readers, prefacing the second edition of his Nietzsche in 1946, that ‘in the years 1934 and 1935, I […] intended to marshal against the National Socialists the world of thought of the man whom they had proclaimed as their own philosopher’.

Kirkbright’s book valuably shows how Jaspers’ understanding of the political context of Nazism attracted him to the sort of Eastern cultures which evolved ideas of meditative calm similar to his own. Jaspers’ relation to Eastern thought is a subject not covered by Thornhill’s study. Here it is shown to be rooted in his disgust at the barbarity of Western civilization. ‘Averting his gaze from the European continent, he ceased to believe that Germany automatically deserved a place amongst Europe’s civilized nations.’ Some weeks before Kristallnacht, Jaspers wrote to his sister, ‘For some time, I have felt such a strong need for humanity from faraway, if the source shares our roots and is indeed related to us – and I always have the globe in front of me on my desk.’ In the end Gertrud escaped deportation to the camps only by a personal intervention, at the last minute. Confined with her in internal exile at home in Heidelberg, but assisted by the Indologist Heinrich Zimmer, Jaspers started researching Indian and Chinese philosophies.

Kirkbright wonders whether his ‘perception of global landscapes was born only of silent yearning to be anywhere except in Hitler’s Germany’, recalling the later fascination of postwar, working-class German youth (and Krautrock musicians) with science fiction and outer space: anywhere ‘out there’. In releases such as Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’ and ‘Trans Europe Express’ electronic musicians dialecticized contemporary techno-futurism and European cultural tradition (even Hitler’s motorways); on Kraftwerk’s ‘Europe Endless’, the continent itself becomes out there, infinite. Similarly Jaspers, in seeking deeper and more open communication amongst world religions, was seeking to re-ground modern European cultural identity in the transnational spiritualities of what he called the ‘axial age’, and create a new present out of the resources of the past. Speaking at the Geneva Rencontres, Jaspers argued that, ‘If we wish to live on a European basis, then we must allow a deeper origin to take effect.’ Located in the axial age c.800-200BC, this deeper origin spanned (as Jaspers wrote in The European Spirit), ‘the time from Homer to Archimedes, the time of the great Old Testament prophets and of Zarathustra, the time of the Upanishads and of Buddha, the time from the Songs of Shiking to Laotse, Confucius, and Tschuang-tse’.

Jaspers’ lifelong project of the cultivation of meditative calm and intersubjective harmony thus emerges from this biography as being far from otherworldly. Particularly in his later thinking, as Kirkbright notes, Jaspers theorized the inherent interdependence of philosophy, science and technology, and argued that ‘the task was to incorporate modern technological advancements into a supranational framework of civilized existence’. Many would say that the electronic rhythms released by musicians like Kraftwerk and Pantha du Prince have enabled us to hear intimations of what this task might sound like. Kirkbright reminds us that it is now our global challenge to continue to bring such harmonies into actuality.

‘After experiencing totalitarianism in Germany, Jaspers’ emphasis on the ancient sources of mankind’s civilization was an attempt to discover in the dim and nebulous past an ever deeper revival of the original openness that he applauded during the “axial” period when tolerance seemed to be captured in a kind of Golden Age, with the parallel awakening of the world’s religions. To promote […] an increasing sense of common links between Europe, China and India was no longer an exclusively European task.’

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