Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Hamann and Jaspers, part 2

Freeing Human Transcendence from Law

Thornhill’s comparison of the two philosophers also traces ‘key distinctions’ between them. He begins by noting that Hamann’s thinking constituted an attempt to supplant Kantian epistemology with what W. M. Alexander called a ‘theological epistemology’, which relied on what Thornhill calls ‘Hamann’s conception of the linguistic cipher as pure divine disclosure’. ‘For Hamann’s pantheist hermeneutics, the relation to God (and therefore to human transcendence itself) is positively cast as an unalterable and dogmatic fact of history: as revelation.’ Viewed from Jaspers’ position, here Hamann – Thornhill stresses – ‘follows a logic of false objectivization […] which crudely encloses transcendence in material forms’. Whereas Hamann suggests that the ciphers of transcendence reveal (in Thornhill’s words) ‘the positive divinity of humanity’, Jaspers maintains that such ciphers indicate, as Thornhill puts it, ‘only the possible transcendence of humanity’. Jaspers’ critique of any false objectivization of transcendence, and refusal of positivizing religion, Thornhill sees, is grounded in Kant’s assertion of the limitedness of all knowledge. Thus as Thornhill writes, ‘even when he seeks to derive from Hamann a corrective to Kant’, Jaspers remains a Kantian when he argues that ‘revelation can never disclose in stable terms the potential transcendence of humanity, and truthful communication is rendered impossible wherever it assumes itself to be objectively in possession of truth’.

Jaspers’ agreement with Hamann’s attempts ‘both to give experiential substance to Kant’s subject, and to interpret transcendence as a full possible experience of humanity in history’, Thornhill importantly sees, means that – like Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Rosenzweig – Jaspers adopts from Hamann’s thinking ‘an epistemological structure which opposes experiential revelation to transcendental subjectivity’. Yet Jaspers also maintains – contra Hamann – that the revelation of transcendence is never, as Thornhill puts it, ‘tenable as a source of cognitive authority’. Whilst holding with Hamann to ‘the concept of revelation as a hermeneutic of possible transcendence’, and whilst he ‘draws heavily on the anti-idealist, anti-metaphysical and hermeneutical components of revelation theology (especially in its figuring by Hamann)’, Jaspers, Thornhill clarifies, argues that revelation ‘must ultimately be understood as an appearance of human historical relativity and limitation, not as the all-constituting axis of history’. This is because Jaspers ‘rejects the christological attempt (of which Hamann’s work is an example) to propose Jesus Christ himself as the unifying and sense-giving centre of human history, disclosed through the occurrence of revelation’. Jaspers’ position on revelation is also determined by his nature as a Kantian thinker, and by the grounding of his thinking in Kantian epistemology. As Thornhill emphasizes, ‘the foundation of Jaspers’ theological position might be viewed as a dialectical reading of Kant and Hamann’; Jaspers’ ‘theological reflections are […] premised in an implicit endeavour to effect a productive fusion of Hamann’s hermeneutics and Kant’s epistemology’:

‘Running through his entire debate with theology is a simultaneous attempt both to salvage the historical presence of transcendence in his theory of ciphers (influenced by Hamann’s linguistic theology), and yet also to understand this presence as a mere index of a possible non-realized unity of thought (influenced by Kant’s idealism). […] Hamann’s hermeneutics (for Jaspers) can indicate the transcending limit of human-being in a manner which is simply not possible for Kant’s formal epistemology. Despite this, however, Hamann cannot truly interpret this transcending limit as a limit, for his religious hermeneutics has no critical means for reflecting on where the ends of human reason are located.’

Thornhill also describes Jaspers' implicit fusion of Hamannian hermeneutics and Kantian epistemology by referring once more to Jaspers’ view of revelation or transcendence as mere ‘appearance’:

‘The hermeneutic of revelation […] has its profound validity in its ability to signal that the ideal limits of cognition do not reflect the absolute limits of being itself. Nonetheless, with Kant, Jaspers also argues that transcendence can only be knowable as a mere appearance of the possible unity of knowledge: true transcendence, thus, is inevitably beyond the limits of human thought.’

Ciphers, for example, though also decisive ‘moments of experience, embedded and disclosed in human historical life’, are for Jaspers (as Thornhill puts it) ‘only the fleeting appearance of guiding ideas – akin to Kant’s transcendental ideas – which give shape to, but do not encompass, the ultimate underlying unity of human life and knowledge’. For Jaspers a truthful hermeneutic of ciphers ‘always also requires a critical-epistemological approach’ – Thornhill emphasizes – which with Kant and against Hamann, posits God as ‘an “idea”, which illuminates the limits of human consciousness, but which is never the realized experience of human transcendence’. Thornhill sees that for Jaspers, it is indeed ‘only because the idea of God is not the experience [but the] appearance of transcendence that it is interpretable as transcendence’. You could say that mere appearance lends the quality of definition (or decision) to Jaspers’ visionary hermeneutics – in Thornhill’s words, ‘it is the (epistemological) recognition of the limits of human knowledge which makes the (hermeneutical) disclosure of transcendence, in ciphers, so radical and truthful’.

Thornhill usefully redescribes Hamann’s opposition of experiential revelation to transcendental subjectivity, as an opposition of ‘theological hermeneutics to transcendental epistemology’ which represented ‘the key theological debate at the heart of the German Enlightenment’, and which ‘is also at the heart of Jaspers’ work’. Thornhill thus identifies Jaspers sustaining a ‘balance’ between Hamann and Kant, and occupying ‘an unresolved and uncertain dialectic’ between the two ‘conceptions of human being-in-the-world’:

‘The hermeneutical approach has no truth without epistemology, and epistemology has no truth without hermeneutics. Both epistemology and hermeneutics forfeit their truth, however, when they consider themselves in possession of it: either as the disclosed law of revelation or the formal law of cognition.’

Thornhill thus sees more to Jaspers than a relativization of the truths of hermeneutics and epistemology. For, Thornhill argues, in that he can be seen to ‘turn simultaneously against both Hamann and Kant’, Jaspers shows that both earlier thinkers ultimately falsify metaphysics – and in doing so falsify humanity.

Hamann sought to objectively manifest the truth of metaphysics by interpreting God as a fact of worldly existence and certainty, whilst Kant sought both to ideally manifest the truth of metaphysics by transposing metaphysical ideas into elements of human consciousness and praxis, and to limit the truth of metaphysics by formally limiting such idealist human elements against metaphysics. In contrast to these ‘formal-ideal and objectivizing responses to metaphysics proposed by Kant and Hamann’, Thornhill writes, Jaspers’ thinking suggests that all attempts ‘either objectively or ideally to manifest or limit the truth of metaphysics can only ever be false truths’. Thornhill clarifies that both Kant’s formal-ideal and Hamann’s objectivizing reactions to the metaphysical legacy, are ‘in one respect paradoxically identical: both examine the human relation to transcendence as a juridical form’. The options are merely that human consciousness ‘either legally determines its inclusion of, and difference from, metaphysics (Kant), or accepts the objective disclosure of God’s will (Hamann)’. By positing an ultimately juridical human relation to transcendence in these ways however, Thornhill observes, both epistemology and hermeneutics falsify the truths of both metaphysics and humanity. It is the juridical human relation to transcendence which we can find Jaspers contesting. ‘The truth of metaphysics and humanity, for Jaspers however, is only in the ongoing and relative (self-)interpretation of humanity as metaphysical.’ Jaspers’ concept of philosophical belief is thus distinguished by the fact that, precisely whilst it fuses epistemology and hermeneutics (or philosophy and revelation), ‘it also seeks to disclose human truths in a manner which neither hermeneutics nor epistemology alone can accomplish’.       

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