Monday, 21 May 2012

Hamann and Jaspers

Possibilities of Human Transcendence

In my next posts I want to present a summary of Chris Thornhill’s account, in his Karl Jaspers, of the relation between the thinking of Hamann and that of Jaspers. Thornhill’s analysis identifies ‘deep symmetries’ between the two thinkers. ‘Hamann’s philosophy anticipates both Jaspers’ partial theological critique of Kant, and even certain features of his theory of communication and his transcendental hermeneutics.’

Thornhill observes that scant attention has been paid to ‘Hamann’s prefiguring of the critique of Kant which underpins existential philosophy’; which is unfortunate, because Hamann’s argument that (in Thornhill’s words) ‘the claims of reason cannot be separated from historical and linguistic horizons’ anticipates ‘the reflections on Kant set out by Jaspers, Heidegger and other thinkers in the existential line’. Because Hamann, like Heidegger, indicated that ‘cognition does not occur independently of existing practical relations, and that it is at all times pre-structured by language’, Hamann’s ‘attack on Kant’s epistemological abstraction […] represents a proto-Heideggerian assault on the conception of the thinking subject as an isolated being’. As Thornhill puts it later in his book, ‘Both Heidegger and Jaspers follow Hamann in conceiving of language as a non-formalized mode of cognitive agency, which counteracts the epistemological stasis of Kant’s transcendental reason.’ Unique to his anticipation of Jaspers, however – Thornhill notes – is Hamann’s conception of communication. Whilst ‘certainly foreshadowing both Heidegger and Rosenzweig’, Thornhill writes, ‘Hamann’s reflections on language alter the Kantian concept of the transcendental subject in a manner which equally strongly resembles Jaspers’ linguistic and hermeneutical theory’.

Hamann, Thornhill sees, supplants ‘the isolation of the Kantian subject’ with ‘a relational theology of language, in which human communication always involves a hermeneutical disclosure, or revelation, of the possibility of human transcendence’:

‘Like Jaspers after him, he argues that human reason interprets its own truthful possibilities in linguistic processes which confront reason with vital, practical, sensory and transcendent modes of experience. In language, thus, reason is able to conceive of its transcendence as a linguistic experience of, and a participation in, its own unifying origin, which is divine creation. In these reflections, Hamann prefigures the existential-communicative conception of being developed by Jaspers.’

As Thornhill observes, Jaspers’ theory of language is ‘an important corrective to Heidegger’s practical-linguistic critique of Kant’. Whilst Heidegger argued that language (in Thornhill’s words) ‘defines and constitutes the practically disclosed horizon of the world’, and thus ‘expressly excludes all ideal components from experience’, Jaspers by contrast maintained that language ‘always positions human consciousness in a relation (albeit existentially uncertain) to its primary ideal unity (its transcendence), and it thus permits an ideal/practical disclosure of this unity’. Like Hamann, Jaspers indicates that (as Thornhill writes) ‘language, and the written documents of language, always illuminate a primary unity of practical, sensory and transcendental experience to human life’.

Hamann’s thinking thus anticipated Jaspers’ transcendental hermeneutics by evolving a conception of language in terms of what Thornhill calls a ‘unifying originary hermeneutic’. ‘Indeed, Hamann’s attempt to undermine Kant’s (allegedly) false purification of reason by presenting language as a unifying originary hermeneutic, points most evidently in the direction of Jaspers’ attempt to refigure metaphysics and idealism as hermeneutics.’ Jaspers’ thinking proposes a hermeneutical renewal of metaphysics, or what Thornhill elsewhere [here] describes as a ‘hermeneutical transformation of idealism into a metaphysics of symbolic interpretation’. This is a move anticipated by Hamann, as Thornhill observes when he notes that Hamann suggested that (as Thornhill puts it), ‘In the images (Bilder) of language, […] documents of transcendence are preserved which always await interpretation’. ‘Like Jaspers after him, Hamann re-orders metaphysics as an immanent, yet transcendent process of communication and interpretation.’

As Thornhill sees, Jaspers does not follow Hamann in maintaining ‘an expressly theological argument’ on the transcendentally symbolic content of language. Yet the very fact that Hamann posits such content means that he prefigures the basis of Jaspers’ theory of the ‘ciphers of transcendence’. Jaspers proposed ciphers of transcendence (Chiffren der Transzendenz) as uncertain, yet decisive, symbolic forms – as opposed to reified doctrinal or scientific proof-forms – in which (Thornhill writes) ‘the possibility for transcendent self-realization is reflected to human thinking in fleeting moments of (self-)interpretation’. There is a ‘cipher of God’, but natural life and historical, cultural, mythological and philosophical artefacts also supply ciphers of transcendence. As Thornhill notes, ‘These ciphers, although not giving finally valid form to transcendence, remain as ephemeral presences, on the ground of which the most truthful existence occurs, and in which humanity experientially interprets itself as meta-physical.’ Our interpretation of such ephemeral presences is a necessarily unstable, uncertain hermeneutical process, which is attended by a ‘relative process of communication’ (Thornhill). Precisely the fraughtness of this existential, hermeneutic-communicative forcefield generates its force, its certainty. ‘Philosophical belief’, for Jaspers (Thornhill writes), ‘has its only hold in the ciphers of transcendence: yet the interpretation of these ciphers is only existentially binding because they do not stabilize transcendence as certainty, but merely refer humanity to its own possibilities, and thus invite communication on these’. Moreover, in this way the ‘false [reified] truths of theology, Jaspers thus intimates, become true again in the secular-existential praxis of our communicating about them’.

To be continued.

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