In the last of this series of posts drawing heavily on Chris Thornhill's work on Karl Jaspers, I want to present a summary of Thornhill’s account of a central concept within Jaspers’ thought: that of foundering or failing (Scheitern). Probably the most fundamental context within which Thornhill addresses Jaspers’ concept of failure, is that of what Thornhill calls Jaspers’ and Kierkegaard’s ‘respective fusions of negative-anthropological and negative-metaphysical positions’. Influenced by Jaspers’ student Jeanne Hersch’s work on metaphysics and ontology in Jaspers, and discarding both Leonard Ehrlich’s description of his thinking as ‘negative theology’ and Sebastian Samay’s categorization of his thought as ‘negative ontology’ – though he does not contest Samay’s characterization – Thornhill suggests that we view Jaspers’ work as collapsing the universal metaphysics of Kantianism into a ‘negative-anthropological metaphysic’. Thornhill sees Jaspers as making ‘a clear Kierkegaardian addition to his basic Kantian position’. Kierkegaard’s theology, Thornhill notes, correlated a ‘negative anthropology’ – ‘in which the conditions for authentic human-being recede ceaselessly into the indeterminate, suffering interior of the historical person’ – with a ‘negative metaphysic’ which views the transcendent essence of humanity as a quality which can only be addressed as a ‘manifest absence’. Thornhill identifies a similar correlation within Jaspers’ thinking, resulting in a comparable negative-anthropological metaphysic.
Jaspers’ reconstruction of Kant asserted, Thornhill writes, that ‘the possibility of transcendence enters human interactions as a telos, which draws life progressively out of its material orientations’. However unlike Kant, Thornhill argues, Jaspers also asserts that humanity ‘only has truthful access to the possibility of its own transcendence insofar as it reflects upon the impossibility of this possibility: in its failure (Scheitern)’. Partly determinant as it is of Jaspers’ communicative, negative hermeneutic liberated from objectivist preconditions, his negative-anthropological metaphysic maintains, as Thornhill puts it, that ‘human life only constitutes itself through processes of transcendent (self-)interpretation which cannot be accomplished in the modes of action and existence which are open to it’. Referring to Hersch’s explication, Thornhill adds that for Jaspers, ‘The metaphysical moment of transcendence […] exists only in a relation of unattainability to human reflection, and as such it describes both the unity and the absolute end of all determinations of human-being’. Thornhill also shows how Jaspers’ negative-anthropological metaphysic moves on from Kant’s philosophy of religion, and his ‘theory of religious unknowingness’. For Jaspers takes the absence of positive human knowledge about God as (in Thornhill’s words) ‘the fundamental experiential basis of human existence itself’:
‘In his response to Kant’s scepticism, Jaspers thus replaces the formal uncertainty of God, which is at the core of Kant’s critique of metaphysics, with an experiential uncertainty, which interprets transcendence as an elusive possibility of human life, and which ceaselessly refers humanity to a pained experience of its own antinomies and limits. The lack of a positive knowledge of God is for Jaspers, therefore, not an index of the formal limits of reason, but an experience of the limits of existence.’
For Jaspers, metaphysical transcendence – Thornhill summarizes – ‘is thus never present: it is self-interpretation against the limit of this absence’. Jaspers’ subjection of ‘the tradition of occidental metaphysics to a hermeneutical (anthropological) reconstruction’ in this way, enlists the aid of his theory of ciphers of transcendence. Thornhill’s account of Jaspers’ thinking here quotes from the third volume of Jaspers’ Philosophy :
‘Human speculation, he asserts, interprets its innermost (metaphysical) essence in what he calls the ciphers of transcendence. Ciphers are “being which brings transcendence to the present”, and which permits human-being to interpret fleetingly its primary transcendent origin. “Wherever I read the cipher”, Jaspers explains, “I am responsible, because it is only through this that I read my self-being […] I attempt to tear myself out of the constant falling; I take myself in hand; I experience the decision, which emanates from me”.’
Thornhill sees Jaspers’ philosophy to be ‘a fractured, antinomical ontology’, ‘whose triadic conception of human life’ – in terms of levels such as orientation, illumination and metaphysics – is ‘rendered internally fluid by the fluidity of being itself, and of the absolute in being’. ‘“With the insight into the fragmentary nature of being”, he explains, “the demand for an ontology ceases and transforms itself into an impulse to obtain being, which I can never acquire as knowledge, through self-being”.’ In other words, as Thornhill puts it, ‘Only insofar as we experience and recognize the inevitable crisis (Scheitern) of our attempts to interpret our transcendent origin do we actually begin to approach this origin.’ Jaspers thus ‘de-objectifies the truth-claims of metaphysics’, so as to replace them with the self-interpretations undertaken by shattered humans. Thornhill continues:
‘Orientation, illumination and metaphysics are thus ways in which being is present to human consciousness. But none of these, ontologically, is being. Being, rather, is present only negatively, as a series of possible implosions in the order of human consciousness, in which consciousness is referred to its own limits.’
Thornhill distinguishes between such implosions in ‘objective logic’ – limit-situations such as ‘death, guilt, suffering and anxiety’ – and implosions in ‘subjective logic’. Crucially, in subjective logic, these implosions are ‘decisions’, through which ‘human life decides interpretively to reflect upon its own possibilities (ideas), acts in a manner which accords with these, and thus places itself upon a more unified level of reflection above its habitual practical and cognitive orientations’. In other words, as Thornhill summarizes, ‘Transcendence is accessible only to a decisive hermeneutic, which stands in the absolute limit-situation of human existence, interpreting transcendence through its own crisis.’ For Jaspers the ‘truthful hermeneutic of transcendence’, in Thornhill’s words, is ‘also a self-hermeneutic of individual crisis’. Thornhill quotes once more from the third volume of Jaspers’ Philosophy : ‘“Failing [Scheitern]”, Jaspers argues, “is the encompassing ground of all cipher-being. Seeing the cipher of the reality of being arises from the experience of failing”.’ Jaspers’ argument is grounded in his sense that, as Thornhill puts it, ‘Transcendence discloses itself as a response to the existential questions which I ask about myself, but for which – ultimately – no answer can be found in the world.’
‘My knowledge of my own absolute crisis releases me from any conviction that I can obtain cognitive or objective certainty about the conditions of my life. For this reason, however, it also prepares me for the evanescent interpretation of my transcendence in ciphers. The meaningful interpretation of the cipher, therefore, is possible only for being, which is “shattered as existence” and which “finds its ground in the being of transcendence”.’
We have already explored – in earlier posts – Jaspers’ understanding of foundering in terms of the imperfect communication which can begin to explain transcendence to humanity. Whilst Kierkegaard saw ‘the temporal presence of God’s absence only in closed interiority’, Thornhill notes, Jaspers sees ‘the presence of God’s absence as disclosed in the absolute, and yet absolutely believing, relativity of interpersonal communication’. You could say that speech, for Jaspers, is at once necessarily decisive and necessarily dysfluent; just as, whilst for him philosophical belief (as Thornhill writes) ‘has its only hold in the ciphers of transcendence’, 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’. Necessarily dysfluent communication exemplarily enacts and enables recognition of our existential and cognitive uncertainty: the ‘imperfectibility of all communication’, Jaspers asserts in Reason and Existenz, reflects the ultimate inadequacy of ‘every shape of truth in the world’. But whilst human communication for Jaspers is a reflection of the impossibility of truth, enacting our existential uncertainty, the committed quality of existential communication also implies the possible resolution of that uncertainty: Reason and Existenz states how, ‘The imperfection of communication and the weight of its failing become the openness of a profundity, which nothing can fulfil but transcendence’. Necessarily failing, existential communication thus nonetheless forms what Thornhill calls ‘an ongoing attempt to articulate truthfulness: it is the only practically possible expression of transcendence’.
To be continued.