Monday, 9 July 2012

Existential Communication, part 3

We can now begin to see more clearly why Thornhill summarizes 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 tries to give an account of human freedom which ‘resists’ both Kantian ‘formal-idealist’ and Heideggerian ‘objectivist’ preconditions. Thornhill emphasizes that the precondition of truthful existence is for Jaspers ‘a recognition of uncertainty, and this uncertainty is given exemplary form in speech’. Speech for Jaspers, as Thornhill writes, is ‘an activity in which consciousness is liberated from its prior (juridical) reification in idealism, but in which it also maintains a distinction against the objectively instituted orders of freedom posited by more avowedly anti-idealist thinkers’, such as Heidegger. Referring to the second volume of Philosophy, Thornhill cites Jaspers’ argument that the ‘necessity of existential communication’ is always an expression of freedom, and it is therefore always ‘objectively incomprehensible’. As we have seen, Jaspers 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’.  Jaspers argues, moreover, that because speech is (in Thornhill’s words) ‘by character relative, uncertain and interpretively open’, it constitutes ‘the only medium in which human existence can describe or enact its own relative, uncertain and interpretively open relation to its ideas’. This is why, to summarize, ‘whilst Kant reflects both the foreclosure and the possibility of metaphysical truths by outlining a doctrine of equal, universal, and anti-authoritarian law as the foundation for free, truthful humanity’, Jaspers, ‘for very similar reasons, outlines a doctrine of tolerant communication’.

In order to understand more fully how such a theory of tolerant communication underpins Jaspers’ conception of worldly human freedom and liberalism, we can return to his thinking on revelation, and the relation of his thought as a whole to contemporaneous political theology. Jaspers’ ‘most central interest’ in theology, Thornhill notes, is revelation; revelation is ‘at the heart of all his debates with his theological contemporaries’. Jaspers viewed revelation as it is generally conceived by religious thinkers, Thornhill writes, as ‘the key example of a hypostatic belief-system, which confers falsely absolute objectivity on its contents, and which is absolutely at odds with his own existential theory of transcendent(al) uncertainty’. Jaspers therefore sought to reconceive of revelation as - in Thornhill's words - 'an ongoing and uncertain aspect of human existence, which must forever be relatively, spontaneously and communicative(ly) redisclosed'. Such a relative and spontaneous interpretation of revelation is for Jaspers the basis of true belief; of 'philosophical belief'. Thornhill identifies Jaspers as outlining here a 'tantalizingly unexplored position in the broad tradition of theological/anthropological inquiry', because he is seeking to supplant the typical model of submission to concretized 'revelation as law, or as the ground of law', with his own model of an ongoing, uncertain hermeneutic realization of the originary truth which revelation constitutes. 'The reinterpretation of this truth is not a mere re-declaring of primary truths, but a course of reflexive and communicative human fulfilment.' Jaspers' assertion that the originary truth which revelation constitutes is, as Thornhill puts it, 'a truth which is internal to the experiences, thoughts and words of people', along with his sense that 'the realization of the primary truths of revelation still awaits completion', hence introduces a liberal anthropology of tolerant communication, or the possibility of free human praxis to the religious concept of revelation. Jaspers' opposition in this way to acceptance of concretized revelation as law, Thornhill notes, was 'directed very generally against Catholic theologians, and very specifically against the conservative Protestant theologians of inter-war Germany'. It also offers 'a striking counterpoint to certain more conservative perspectives in Jewish political theology': Thornhill references Leo Strauss.      

We can now see more clearly how what I am calling Jaspers' liberal anthropology of tolerant communication, enabled him to reconceive historical freedom and responsibility. Thornhill helpfully distinguishes Weber's concept of historical responsibility (as 'a means of securing worldly authority'), from Jaspers' conception of historical responsibility as 'an essentially communicative attitude and mode of praxis'. For Jaspers, Thornhill explains, a human's 'unique historicality [...] only legitimizes itself insofar as it reflects forms of commonality and experience, the disclosure of which requires truthful communication'. In its emphasis on 'the transcendentally communicative essence of historical uniqueness', Jaspers' thinking is indebted to Dilthey's transcendental historicism. Here we could also remember how Jaspers' concept of (philosophical) belief, as Thornhill writes, 'always contains an interpersonal communicative dimension'. 'The disclosure of human transcendence in revelation only truly becomes revelation as it is spoken by people amongst themselves.' This is because of the tolerant quality of communicative humanity; because 'only in an uncertain, relative and communicative disposition towards others can I begin to explain my own unstable experience of myself as possible transcendence'. One freedom enabled within Jaspers' liberal anthropology of tolerant communication is thus the freedom to communicate interpretively on human transcendent possibilities; yet for Jaspers such tolerant hermeneutic communication also enables us to think possibilities of historical freedom and responsibility. Indeed it enacts historical freedom and responsibility: in Jaspers' view, (philosophical belief entails that) particular historical moments of transcendentally interpretive conversation clear space for histories of openness and equality. Jaspers, Thornhill notes, 'bases his hermeneutic on the conviction that God - as a quality of human transcendence - is hidden, and that all qualities of God can only be suggested as non-formal, non-material ways of being between people'; moreover, the 'hiddenness of the interpreted truth founds a way of being towards others in liberality, tolerance, freedom and historicality'.   

Thornhill shows how Jaspers’ concern with the freedom to communicate interpretively on human transcendent possibilities, or with the freedom of human thought to access what Thornhill calls ‘the uncertain historical conditions of its transcendence’, underpins the theory of democratic republicanism expounded by Jaspers in later works such as his 1961 book The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man. Jaspers, Thornhill notes, asserted that ‘democracy has its legitimacy over other forms of government because it provides a situation in which human thinking is able to develop its own resources of tolerance, culture and responsibility’. Democratic order ‘at least offers the chance that human thinking might communicatively open itself towards others in committed historicality and responsibility’. The sort of responsible truthfulness embodied and enacted by hermeneutic communication is not possible in non-democratic orders (such as have come to determine the education system now); democracy alone ‘is able to sanction a sphere of free communication which is not directly regulated by the technical, political or ideological imperatives of state and economy’. Whilst Jaspers thought that in non-democratic orders, as Thornhill writes, ‘the access of human thought to the uncertain historical conditions of its transcendence is invariably obstructed by the imposition of technical and ideological commands on the processes of human thinking’, like Arendt, Jaspers in Of Truth indicated that ‘human thought and action, if unregulated by technical strategy, create a world of spontaneous but utterly committed historicality and responsibility’.

Thornhill goes on to expound the relation of Jaspers’ theory of communicative transcendence to his democratic humanism. Thornhill argues that in their conceptions of the human, Heidegger and Lukács take up positions which are ‘closely united against Jaspers’. For Jaspers, Thornhill maintains, both Lukácsian totality and Heideggerian Dasein see human truthfulness as ‘an objective unity of knowledge’, in which ‘the elusive diremption of ideas and objective life, which (for himself) always defines true humanity, is superseded by a unifying practical, and thus anti-humanist, authoritarian ontology’. For Jaspers any attempt – such as Heidegger’s or Lukács’ – ‘to postulate a mediated (ontological) totality in historical knowledge’, is ultimately to resort to what Thornhill calls ‘a falsely mystical notion of uniform truth, in which knowledge is fixed in inner-worldly practical objectivity and endless time’. Lukács, Heidegger and Jaspers, Thornhill notes, all conceive of ‘the totality or unity of knowledge, in which reflection is perfectly united with its phenomena, as the ultimate ground and motive of human thinking and of humanity’. Yet for Jaspers objective totality ‘is always false totality’, and the riven, failing, non-objectified process of communicative transcendence which works towards unified knowledge never achieves such totality. ‘Any attempt to collapse the primary antinomy of human being into the processes of a unitary worldliness, he thus implies, destroys the truth of humanity itself.’ Thornhill adds: 

‘[Jaspers] always indicates that these unities of knowledge and reason can never be finally realized, and that meaningful humanism is always the consequence of the exteriority of unified knowledge to objective human praxis. Because the unity of knowledge cannot be reached, he implies, humans must define themselves communicatively in the uncertain historicality of relativity and tolerance, which reflect (but do not fulfil) a striving for totality or unity.’ 

Thornhill explores how Jaspers’ view of communication as ‘a gradual event of interpretation in which consciousness experiences, interprets and begins to articulate its own possible founding totality’ (in Thornhill’s words), points towards Habermas’ ‘development of communication as a means of salvaging reason from its idealist reification’. The critique of neo-Kantianism underlying Jaspers’ theory of communication has ‘exemplary character for subsequent communication-theoretical innovations’, because whilst, for Jaspers, communication becomes ‘the medium in which the ideal/metaphysical components of human-being can be disclosed’, it remains ‘of fundamental importance’ for him that ‘these elements are never pre-stabilized as a prior unity of being’. Jaspers’ existential-hermeneutical approach, Thornhill sees, anticipates Habermas’ communication theory’s critique of the idealist process of reification, when Jaspers 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’. Whilst never categorically abandoning ‘the idealist precondition that human consciousness has an ideal structure against being itself’, and thus holding to Kant’s recognition that ‘the true is not real, and that human praxis is not true praxis unless it is motivated from sources which are outside itself (by ideas)’, Jaspers resists the reificatory result of Kantian idealism ‘merely to trace the ideal limits of human consciousness against the sources of its truth’ (in Thornhill’s words). Kant’s formal-rational attempt to define the relation of consciousness towards truth does not, for Jaspers (Thornhill writes), ‘give a sufficiently full account of the diverse ways in which human-being can experience and articulate its origin, unity and ideality’.

This is why, Thornhill sees, speech emerges within Jaspers’ thinking as an ‘eternally unfinished event (not a prior or ideal unity) in which humans relate most truthfully to their own practical and epistemological determinants (ideas)’; humans ‘become truthful through the spoken disclosure of a relation to their ideas, not through the prior formalization of this relation’. For Jaspers, speech ‘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’. This process – that of reflexivity, as it is redefined within Jaspers’ ‘communicative-hermeneutical reconstruction of Kantian notions of reason’ – is ‘not a solitary cognitive agency, but a practically self-clarifying, and essentially other-including way of disposing oneself towards the truths of experience’:

‘Existentially committed speech, he claims therefore, is a mode of interaction in which human experiences can disclose and interpret their transcendent(al) components. [...] Speech is […] therefore conceived by Jaspers as a medium of ideal praxis, in which practical reflection and ideal self-illumination originate from each other, and in which the ideas of human knowledge clarify themselves through the praxis of human experience.’

Crucially however, Thornhill maintains that though this quality of existential communication as ideal praxis ‘generally opens the ground for a communicative critique of formal reason’ such as Habermas’, it does not enable his existential philosophy to ‘move seamlessly into the positive hermeneutics of speech later associated with Habermas’. Jaspers’ reconstruction of Kant’s epistemology ‘only as a negative hermeneutic of possible unity’ means, Thornhill argues, that Jaspers does not – unlike Heidegger, Arendt and Habermas – ‘see spoken reason as the foundation for positive agreement, or for the positive disclosure of the world. Rather, he sees truthful speech as the elucidation of the inner transcendent(al) possibilities of consciousness.’ Such an elucidation is a negative one. Thornhill suggests that Jaspers ‘actually moves close to a negative-hermeneutical counterpart to Adorno’s negative dialectics’, in that Jaspers’ negative hermeneutics can be seen as ‘a way of imagining the metaphysical unity and totality of consciousness as a condition which (against Kant) cannot be formally excluded from reason, but which (against Hegel) cannot be stabilized as an objective order of knowledge’. ‘Such unity, thus, can only be negatively interpreted, as truthful absence’. Because Jaspers’ communicative existentialism holds that – perhaps rather as for dysfluent speakers – ‘at no time […] can speech place consciousness in a unitary relation to truth’ (as Thornhill puts it), Jaspers, like Adorno, can be seen developing a philosophical position ‘subverting both Kantian epistemology and Hegelian phenomenology, which does not incorporate consciousness in positive or juridical form, and which sees the truth of consciousness only in the self-interpretation of fleeting appearances’.       

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