Friday, 15 June 2012

Existential Communication

Here I want to lay out some noteworthy features of Jaspers’ theory of existential communication, as outlined by Thornhill in his writings on Jaspers. An obvious virtue of Thornhill’s comparative, synoptic method of intellectual history is that it enables us to begin to situate Jaspers’ work on existential communication in relation to the communication theories of a range of philosophers.

Communication as passion and transformation:
 P K Dick, Martian Time-Slip, Hebrew edn
Jaspers’ theory of existential communication is perhaps best summarized by Thornhill when, in Karl Jaspers, he describes Jaspers’ ‘philosophy of communication’ as ‘a doctrine of committed existential relativity, which charges all absolutizing or totalizing world-views with a primary falsehood, and which attempts to give an account of human freedom which resists both formal-idealist and objectivist preconditions’. In his SEP entry on Jaspers [here], Thornhill notes that the concept of existential communication was introduced in inchoate form by Jaspers in his early psychological work of 1919, Psychology of World Views. Jaspers argues that, in Thornhill’s words, ‘the freedom of consciousness to overcome its limits and antinomies can only be elaborated through speech’. Speech is posited as ‘a process in which consciousness is elevated beyond its limits through intensely engaged communication with other persons, and in which committed communication helps to suspend the prejudices and fixed attitudes of consciousness’. Thornhill sees that this means that, importantly, ‘Existentially open consciousness is therefore always communicative, and it is only where it abandons its monological structure that consciousness can fully elaborate its existential possibilities.’ With this ‘early doctrine of communication’, Thornhill observes, Jaspers ‘helped to shape a wider communicative and intersubjective shift in German philosophy’, and in this way ‘the resonances of his existential hermeneutics remained palpable in the much later works of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur’.

Thornhill underscores the innovatory character of Jaspers’ dialogical model of communication, citing Arendt’s remark that Jaspers is the ‘first and only philosopher who ever protested against solitude’. For Jaspers, Thornhill writes, ‘The attempt to think existence without relation to other existence merely limits existence to a sub-category of objectifying cognitive systems.’ He goes on, in Karl Jaspers, to quote from the second volume of Jaspers’ Philosophy. ‘The “being of existence is not an objective category”, Jaspers explains’:

‘I can speak out of possible existence, as far as another person hears me – then the existence of both is for each other, but this being-for-each-other is not given for their knowledge. Existence as conviction, belief, absolute consciousness cannot be known.’

Jaspers’ emphasis on dialogue, which derived from his early psychological theorizing and psychiatric work, meant that though it was – as Thornhill puts it in SEP – ‘assimilating Kierkegaardian elements of decisiveness and impassioned commitment’, Jaspers’ version of early existential thinking took Kierkegaard’s ‘cult of interiority, centred in the speechlessness of inner life’, to represent ‘a miscarried attempt to envision the conditions of human authenticity’. ‘The decision for authentic self-overcoming and cognitive unity can only occur, he argued, through shared participation in dialogue.’ Jaspers, like Adorno and Michael Theunissen after him, Thornhill notes, maintained that ‘the closed inwardness of the despairing Kierkegaardian subject remains ensnared in the formal problems of Kantian idealism’. Kierkegaard’s existentialism, for Jaspers, hence ‘fails in its intention to connect reflexivity to experience’, and ‘to provide an account of thinking existence (or existential reason) which is decisively different from formal reason’. For Jaspers, Thornhill writes, it is ‘only in speech which reflects experience that subjectivity can truly escape the idealist and dialectical formalization against which Kierkegaard protests’.    

Thornhill usefully elaborates on how Jaspers’ theory of communication operates as a critique of the idealist process of reification. He stresses that Jaspers viewed true communication as motivated by a post-metaphysical quest to disclose truth. ‘The genesis of true communication, Jaspers asserts, occurs when we recognize that the transcendent source of human legitimacy (metaphysics) has been obscured, but nonetheless attempt to disclose a distinct realm of essentially human truthfulness.’ Humans, he suggests, ‘become truthful through the spoken disclosure of a relation to their ideas, not through the prior formalization of this relation’. Speech is theorized as (enabling) a type of cognition which can resist reification, without becoming submerged within experience. Anticipating Habermas, as Thornhill notes, Jaspers’ thinking ‘implies that speech is a mode of agency in which human reflection places itself in relation to underlying ideas, but does not formalize these as unitary components of its own original structure’. Speech therefore, for Jaspers, (Thornhill writes) is ‘an eternally unfinished event (not a prior or ideal unity) in which humans relate most truthfully to their own practical and epistemological determinants (ideas)’. In (true) speech, ‘a cognitive process occurs in which thinking is not formally separated from praxis or experience, but in which thinking still maintains a specific inner coherence and identity against pure experience and action’. Speech for Jaspers, Thornhill summarizes, ‘transposes the foundation of idealism into an ongoing experienced process: in speech, the human relation to truth (ideas) is not realized before, but through experience’.

For Jaspers the (post-)idealist development of a human relation to truth is bound up with our freeing from objective certainty. He suggests, as Thornhill puts it, that ‘The more I decide  to act in accordance with the unconditioned logic of my existence (ideas)’, ‘the more I disengage myself from any objective a priori certainty about what it means to exist, or about the final truth of my existence’. This emphasis within his thinking on our freeing from objective certainty, is a central reason why the theory of existential communication represents, as Thornhill notes, perhaps ‘the most important philosophical innovation instituted by Jaspers’, and also ‘the crucial dimension in his transcendental anthropology’. For Jaspers, Thornhill writes, the ‘progress from worldly orientation towards reflexive transcendence’ is a process in which the subject’s relation ‘towards its own objective positions, ideas and convictions, and therefore also towards its fellow human beings, detaches itself increasingly from any realized or nameable structure’. This coupling of the ongoing process of reflexive transcendence with a freeing from objectivity or formalization, Thornhill sees, is closely related to Jaspers’ theorization of unfinished interpersonal communication:

‘My truth, Jaspers claims, is a manner of being-towards-myself in which I consider myself as a quality which is neither formal, nor purposive, nor objective. The realization of this truth, however, has its only objective outcome in a manner of being-towards-others: only in an uncertain, relative and communicative disposition towards others can I begin to explain my own unstable experience of myself as possible transcendence.’   

Thornhill repeatedly returns to the connection which Jaspers’ thinking traces between truth and uncertain communication. ‘Human beings begin to speak truthfully to each other, he implies, when they reflect upon those components to their experience which cannot be objectively explained or categorized, and where their cognitive/experiential forms are radically questioned and altered.’ Or again: ‘The precondition of truthful existence, he explains, is a recognition of uncertainty, and this uncertainty is given exemplary form in speech.’ Jaspers’ communication theory thus suggests a privileging of dysfluency, given that – as Thornhill continues – ‘speech enacts this uncertainty and implies its possible resolution’. It is as if the fraught lived experience of dysfluency, or any other form of ‘failing’ communication, itself points towards a fluency, or harmonious speech, which marks transcendence. He quotes here from Jaspers’ Reason and Existenz : ‘The imperfection of communication and the weight of its failing become the openness of a profundity, which nothing can fulfil but transcendence.’

Crucially, Thornhill underlines how Jaspers’ concern with the sort of true, harmonious communication which signals or presages transcendence, separates his theory of communication from both Habermas’ theory of speech-acts and Heidegger’s concept of everyday language. For Jaspers true communication – Thornhill writes – is a ‘particular quality and integrity of the spoken word’, and is therefore ‘not possible in the common contexts of practical life, but only in momentary dialogues, in which interlocutors set themselves decisively beyond their everyday objective forms’. Again citing Reason and Existenz, Thornhill notes Jaspers’ statements that true communication ‘is manifest in the “elevated moments of apparent complete harmony”, which anticipate a “perfect truth and timeless oneness”’. ‘Communication is thus, in its metaphysically valid form,’ Thornhill concludes, ‘a privileged existential harmony between certain people: it is not a uniform means for the interpretive coordination of action’.

Thornhill seeks to explain Jaspers’ work as ‘a seminal position in the development of the transcendental, communicative line of philosophical anthropology, which is directly opposed to the anthropological and political positions which have emerged from Heidegger’s philosophy’. Jaspers’ writings, Thornhill sees, hold a ‘communicative vision of existential totality’ – a totality articulated in phrases such as ‘perfect truth and timeless oneness’. For Jaspers, Thornhill stresses, the ‘attainment of such transcendence’ or transcendental unity is ‘an essentially communicative process, in which free interaction in linguistic or cultural discourse illuminates the limits of objective and categorial fixity’. Speech ‘is always a hermeneutic of possible transcendence, and possible transcendence always requires speech’, precisely because, in its ‘relative, uncertain and interpretively open’ character, human communication is both ‘a reflection of the impossibility of truth’ and, as ‘an ongoing attempt to articulate truthfulness’, is ‘the only practically possible expression of transcendence’.

Jaspers’ theory of communication, Thornhill emphasizes, is thus integral to his attempt to recuperate the metaphysical as a concrete moment in human life. It is in speech, Jaspers indicates, that (in Thornhill’s words) ‘concrete human existence experiences itself practically as a possibility for radical otherness to its worldly and cognitive forms’, and ‘reflects itself theoretically or metaphysically on that basis’. Jaspers’ communication theory refuses Kant’s ‘formal limiting of human existence against metaphysics’, and what Thornhill calls Jaspers’ ‘metaphysic of communication’ positions itself as ‘an alternative to the limiting of metaphysical contents through the regulative or “legislatory” functions of transcendental reason’. On account of Jaspers’ attempt to ‘radicalize the metaphysical content of idealism’, as Thornhill puts it, and to ‘replace transcendental idealism with an experiential, and thus communicative idealism, in which formal antinomies of reason figure as the vital antinomies of experience’, speech for Jaspers ‘articulates an unrealized metaphysical/anthropological perspective against the realized juridical unity in which metaphysical contents are resolved by Kant’. Thornhill argues that Jaspers’ notion of communication as an ‘experimental corrective to idealism’, represents ‘a crucial innovation in the development of models of intersubjectivity, speech-hermeneutics and the theory of consciousness’. He also proposes that Jaspers’ attempt to ‘think beyond the antinomies of idealism’ by converting transcendental idealism into an experiential/communicative idealism, ‘for which the unity of consciousness is never resolved’, can be identified as ‘an attempt to avoid the (allegedly) false overcoming of idealism in Heideggerian ontology’.

As Thornhill notes, ‘The only path beyond the reification of life and reason in formal idealism is, Jaspers indicates, to retrace the steps which originally led to idealism: thus to reinterpret the metaphysical legacy itself.’ Yet Jaspers, Thornhill writes, clearly ‘stands out as a significant early thinker in the tradition of post-metaphysical, post-idealist intersubjectivism’, because his ‘hermeneutical turn’ replaces the formal cognitive structures of idealism with ‘an interpretive-existential concept of truth, which sees truth as the interpretive and communicative expansion of consciousness, not its formal limitation’. Jaspers’ argument that (in Thornhill’s words) ‘the human only begins with the end of idealist reification’, means that humanity ‘can only begin to interpret itself where the form of Kantianism is allowed to unfold as a narration of substantial human becoming, not as a reified set of intelligible relations’. Yet for Jaspers, as Thornhill emphasizes, the communicative freedom or communicative transcendence which represent such personal becoming, can never be realized:

‘The communicative foundation of Jaspers’ […] theories of freedom and transcendence is based precisely on the fact that he does not believe in absolutely valid individual self-transcendence. It is precisely the fact that the particular can never be proclaimed as the universal, that praxis can never be ideal, which grounds Jaspers’ theory of communicative transcendence.’

Jaspers’ hermeneutic-existential Kantianism holds that, as Thornhill puts it, ‘the antinomy of particular experience and total unity of knowledge cannot be genuinely overcome through any manner of personal experience’: it is ‘only in the existential interpretation of its antinomical limitedness that individual life has any access to the terms of its own transcendence’. Providing an example of such existential interpretation, Thornhill refers to the ‘communicative experiences of freedom’, which offset ‘the given order of human form and function’ by enabling humanity to become – in the early terms of Psychology of World Views – ‘a life in suspension [Schwebe]’, and to detach itself from what Thornhill calls ‘the modes of [reified] inner compulsion which form its life’. Yet such communicative freedom ‘is never realized. The dissolution of objective form occurs only in the relativity of communication, and such communication is principally defined by the fact that it is always incomplete.’

To be continued...incomplete...

No comments:

Post a Comment