A NOTE ON KARL JASPERS
A NOTE ON KARL JASPERS
D. R. Khashaba
I have been reading Karl Jaspers’ Way to Wisdom, translated by Ralph Manheim, and was pleasantly surprised to find him expressing views that I have been advancing from my first book onwards. I venture to say that among modern philosophers Karl Jaspers alone, in my opinion, had a clear conception of the nature of philosophy proper. I cull the following sentences from Ch. 1, “What is Philosophy?”
“For the scientific-minded, the worst aspect of philosophy is that it produces no universally valid results; it provides nothing that we can know and thus possess.”
“The certainty to which [philosophy] aspires … is an inner certainty in which a man's whole being participates.”
“The circuitous paths travelled by specialists in philosophy have meaning only if they lead man to an awareness of being and of his place in it.”(Where Jaspers speaks of ‘being’ I speak of ‘reality’.)
“… the essence of philosophy is not the possession of truth but the search for truth … Philosophy means to be on the way. Its questions are more essential than its answers, and every answer becomes a new question. … But this on-the-wayness … contains within it the possibility of … perfection. This perfection never resides in formulable knowledge, in dogmas and articles of faith, but in a historical consummation of man's essence in which being itself is revealed. To apprehend this reality in man's actual situation is the aim of philosophical endeavour.”
“Every philosophy defines itself by its realization. We can determine the nature of philosophy only by actually experiencing it. …Only by thus experiencing philosophy for ourselves can we understand previously formulated philosophical thought.”
“Philosophy is the principle of concentration through which man becomes himself, by partaking of reality.”
“… its conscious elaboration is never complete, must forever be undertaken anew and must at all times be approached as a living whole.”
All of this agrees completely with what I have been advocating in all my writings and all of it is consistent with Jaspers’ insightful reading of Plato. In Appendix II, “On Reading Philosophy”, Jaspers writes: “Plato achieved the clearest communication of his thoughts, but he communicated them in such a way that the mystery of philosophical endeavour becomes speech while remaining always present as mystery. … Plato achieved the summit beyond which, it would seem, man cannot pass in his thinking. … He has always been misunderstood, for he has no doctrine that can be learned and his teachings must always be acquired anew.”
But regrettably that exhausts the area of our agreement. I find myself in substantial disagreement with Jaspers on two major points:
(1) Jaspers sees a very close connection between philosophy and science. He speaks of philosophy as “a method of inquiry”. I insist that philosophy and science are radically distinct and must be strictly kept separate. Jaspers says that philosophy’s “relevance is limited to a special sphere of the knowable.” On the contrary, I say that philosophy is concerned with what can never be the subject of knowledge. To underline the distinction between science and philosophy I say that while science yields objective knowledge, philosophy, and philosophy alone, gives understanding.
(2) Jaspers believes in a transcendent God. I insist that we can have no factual knowledge or rational assurance about the world outside us. The notion of God is a precious element of human culture but it must be acknowledged as a creation of the human mind, whose whole reality is in the mind. In Ch. 2, “Sources of Philosophy”, Jaspers says that “the mind in itself is empty, dependent on what is put into it”, and again that “… the independent mind is barren, lacking all content.” To my mind this does away with all philosophy. It is the glory of humanity, and probably its bane, that we create the content of the mind.
On these two points, but especially on the second point, my position is diametrically opposed to that of Jaspers. Further on in the second chapter he says, “In ultimate situations man either perceives nothingness or senses true being in spite of and above all ephemeral worldly existence. Even despair, by the very fact that it is possible in the world, points beyond the world.” For me, the true being (reality) philosophy leads us to is our own inner reality.
The chasm between Jaspers’ position and mine comes out clearly when he goes on to say, “Or, differently formulated, man seeks redemption. Redemption is offered by the great, universal religions of redemption. They are characterized by an objective guarantee of the truth and reality of redemption. Their road leads to an act of individual conversion. This philosophy cannot provide.” For me, philosophy goes as far as we have a right to go. For enlightened human beings philosophy must supersede religion — not negate religion as materialism and scientism do, but absorb the essence of pure religion, discarding all dogmatism and superstition.
Jaspers acknowledged that Kant refuted all theoretical proofs of the existence of God but follows him in nevertheless holding on to the belief in a transcendent God. Jaspers is more consistent but less rational than Kant: more consistent because he – so far as I can see – gives up all hope of proof, taking refuge in revelation, and that is where he is less rational than Kant who remains within the scope of reason though his reasoning at this point is flawed.
All post-Kantian German philosophers betrayed Kant. They all engaged in dogmatic metaphysics. But in this they were in a way following Kant himself, for Kant was the first to betray his transcendental system when he manoeuvred to keep his belief in God and personal survival. Kant was not justified in this. One may either discard reason and believe in divine revelation or consider the notion of God a creation of the human mind, a myth, albeit a myth which, acknowledged for a myth, forms a most precious contribution to human culture.
It was not my intention in this note to discuss Jaspers’ philosophy, but only to point out the remarkable agreement I found between Jaspers’ conception of philosophy and the views I have been advocating. I was drawn to comment on the points where my position differs radically from Jaspers’ but will not go further into this here.
Cairo, December 11, 2015.