Wednesday, 18 July 2012


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.

              Jeanne Hersch                  
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.


  1. Just to clarify for my own sake, when you / Thornhill have used the term 'ideas', generally, throughout this series, are you meaning ideas in a colloquial sense or ideas as in Kant's transcendental ideas of God, the unity of the world, and the immortality of the soul, or something else peculiar to Jaspers? specifically in your third to last paragraph.

    Also, and I don't quite know how to ask this without sounding dumb, but would you say that for Jaspers his theory of communication explained the transcendent in human life or vice versa? I mean, I know he went from psychiatry to philosophy, which suggests to me that his thoughts on communication probably derive from an earlier interest than his 'existential' aspirations, but it's also possible that his existential aspirations are what brought about the disciplinary switch. (A similar question engrosses me in my Kierkegaard studies, where I see K's initial orientation as aesthetician, and his final orientation as, essentially, theologian, but am sometimes stymied in the middle works whether I am reading aesthetic criticism that makes use of religious categories or theology that makes use of aesthetic categories.)

  2. Maybe the last question seems like a false choice, but I rather think it isn't and that it makes a difference for the basic import of one's interpretation.

  3. Hi Robert, it's good to hear from you again. I'll try to clarify your points, though do please bear in mind that this will be in brief note form and derived from my memory of Thornhill's work alone: I do not yet know Jaspers' work from many other secondary sources, and have only read one or two of his primary texts so far. I recommend a consultation of Thornhill's outstanding book on Jaspers for further help.

    'Ideas': generally here I'm using this in the sense of Kantian transcendental ideas; there's also a background in Platonist Ideas with Jaspers (whereas Heidegger is more grounded in Aristotle or materialism). Thornhill details this.

    I suppose that basically Jaspers views communication as an attempt to articulate, or in some way to capture our experience of, the transcendent quality of humanity and human experience; I don't think he would go so far as to say that communication could ever 'explain' the transcendent. In fact quite the reverse: Jaspers stresses that communication continually fails to explain anything, though at least it tries - just like when you see a stammerer experiencing a severe block, you become intrigued and wonder what it is they are struggling so much to communicate. Obviously c. 1900 there were many philosophers of language who had similar preoccupations (perhaps Mauthner, Ferdinand Ebner...); I hope to be able to explore some of these figures on this blog.

    I am fascinated by the relation of Jaspers' theory of existential communication to his early psychiatric work: the principle of dialogism is obviously a key link, as is the idea that mental crisis tends to promote an interest in transcendence (Philip K. Dick is an obvious reference here).

    In an important sense Jaspers' interests always were philsophical: Kantian. I know his reading of Husserl was part of Jaspers' shift from (unpaid) profesional psychiatry to professional philosophy. This may be to do with concepts of world-views: this is something else I want to explore. Jaspers' key early work regarding the transition from his psychological theorizing to his existential philosophy was the book 'Psychology of World Views'. Unfortunately this isn't yet translated into English, though the Karl Jaspers Society of North America has now put out a call for translators.

    I see that Thornhill draws interestingly from 'Psychology of World Views': for instance stressing how Jaspers' 'very early existential psycology already borrows extensively from Kant's theory of ideas'. He quotes:

    'We seek the totality of causes, the generic whole of the various forms, the entirety of the spatial world, when we, guided by the idea of the totalities, continually move forwards, as long as the idea motivates us and is not destroyed by an incorrect, premature, anticipating conclusion.'

    In this sense for Jaspers existential philosophy, like psychiatry, is essentially about self-transformation in the sense of liberation from reified world views, obsessives thought patterns or ritualistic experiences: as Thornhill puts it, 'Psychology of World Views' argues that 'every form of human life is motivated by transcendental ideas, through which existence seeks to think beyond the particular objective limits of its worldly being'.

    This reply is becoming a bit of an essay, but it's good for me to try to clarify some of this here. Thanks.

    I'm largely ignorant about Kierkegaard but I would suggest (if you can face it! (I can't(yet))) a reading of Adorno's 'Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic', if only because that text is a key moment in the 1920s German reception of Kierkegaard within which Jaspers was prominent. Adorno's critique of Kierkegaard is probably also applicable to Jaspers (I think Thornhill says Adorno indeed made this critique of Jaspers in 'Negative Dialectics').

  4. Thanks, those are very helpful comments.

    So, to amplify just a bit more on the "ideas" thing, if you don't mind, when you say that Jasper's has a more platonic take on the Kantian ideas than Heidegger, do you mean that he views them as more active in the epistemological commerce between mind and its objects? (For lack of a better way to put it.) Just as, if a gun were put to my head and I were asked what the difference between Platonic and Aristotelian ideas were, I would say that Platonic ideas are more active in somehow involving themselves in the existence of that of which they are ideas, while Aristotelian ideas are a negative remainder to which nous penetrates when considering a kind. So (I'm just trying to understand out loud how this applies to Kant's ideas) to take the example of the idea of human immortality, in its function for Kant in moral life, an Aristotelian take on that would be that moral life somehow discloses the necessity of the idea, while a Platonic take would be that the idea in some ways causes (or contributes to the cause of) moral life? I know I'm being imprecise; I'm just trying to understand.

    Thanks for this series, by the way. I doubt I would have interested myself in Jaspers (ever) without it.

  5. Yes, the absence of Jaspers from contemporary philosophical consciousness is a crying shame: much of the impetus behind Thornhill's attempt to bring his work into the mainstream is to do with his bafflement at the precedence of Heidegger within the university today (Heidegger as distributor of a sort of vapid Hobbesian amorality which underpinned New Labour irresponsibility as much as Thatcherite free-marketism), and his boredom with the obsession (in the UK at least) with Benjamin and Adorno over the last 15-20 years. Marxists, he shows, were unfairly dismissive of Jaspers' 'bourgeois' liberalism - which is in fact (as I will try to stress in relation to Tillich and Barth) not nearly as staid as it is commonly thought to be.

    The gun to the head: a very good description of UK (Oxbridge)educational methods. In a 1-on-1 supervision there's nowhere to hide; it's kill or be killed. Hence the ultra-competitiveness and the perpetuation of about the most hierarchical society in the world. Sorry for getting bitter again!

    I'm no big shakes on Aristotle etc. Following Thornhill, I only understand Aristotle as someone who was anti-ideas: 'Aristotle conceives of Being as a quality which can only be falsely abstracted from experience, and which can not be condensed in ideas or essences.'

    But what you say is interesting. I can only repeat Thornhill's point that Jaspers' communicative hermeneutics is an attempt at/to think an 'ideal praxis': it rests on the conviction that true praxis is always guided by ideas. The flipside of this is that in his theory of human existence 'people reflect true ideas through experience' - ie it is our lived experience that enables us to consider and interpret ideas - 'and then disclose these experiences through communication'. Jaspers thinks that ideas (theory) and being (praxis) can be connected - if imperfectly, relatively - in existentially truthful speech or truthful civil-political discourse.

    Thanks again for the dialogue!