Karl Jaspers saw being as polarity: It is the all-embracing out of which all comes to exist, but it is also the vast consciousness within. Where being appears, is world; where being is immanent, is consciousness. Jaspers’s thinking about being is like meditation about a web that embraces, sustains, and brings forth all, including oneself. All-embracing totality melts away when one approaches it as an object of research. For example, a living human being’s true nature disappears when one attempts to understand human beings in terms of anthropology. To understand humanness, one must be human—just as it is necessary to experience art in order to know art.

Next, Jaspers focuses on the nature of truth. Where variant truths clash, one can discern three basic variants. First is the truth of “being-there” (living), which is a function of staying alive and expanding life. This truth validates itself through practical usefulness. This truth has neither general validity nor compelling certainty. This truth supports living; its untruth is what damages, limits, and paralyzes life. As life changes, so does its truth change; hence, this truth remains a relative concept. Self-interested life speaks on condition of promoting its own existence. It speaks as in combat with other interests or as identity with other interests. Every life already contains its demise; being-there contains no lasting happiness.

The second truth is the truth-of-intellect, which is part of a locked whole. My true self never becomes my property; it develops. I experience myself as moving and changing through time. Truth-of-consciousness takes its compelling nature from empirical evidence; truth-of-intellect is conviction. Truth-of-intellect validates itself when the thought fits into the totality of ideas and, by fitting into it, also corroborates the totality of ideas. As intellect, an atmosphere of a concrete and unified entirety speaks. The speaker and the one who comprehends what is spoken are parts of this atmosphere.

Finally, the third truth, truth-of-existence, is simple immediacy that does not need to know itself. Existence experiences truth in faith as having broken through “being-in-the-world” to transcendence, to which true self returns. Truth-of-existence yields actualized consciousness of reality. Communication occurs in loving combat—not a combat for power and dominance but a combat for obviousness and clarity.

All truth is in the polarity of “exception” and “authority.” Exception challenges common truth;...

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Sources for Further Study

Ehrlich, Leonard. Karl Jaspers: Philosophy as Faith. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975. An analysis of Jaspers’s understanding of philosophical thought as the expression of faith, in the underlying unity of the subject and the objective, examining such key themes as the role of freedom and transcendence.

Horn, Hermann. “Karl Jaspers, 1883-1969.” Quarterly Review of Comparative Education 23, nos. 3/4 (1993): 721-739. Several parts of this review of Jaspers’s ideas on education elucidate concepts from Philosophy of Existence.

Jaspers, Karl. “On My Philosophy.” In Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, translated by Walter Kaufmann. 1941. New York: Penguin Books, 1975. Simple and straightforward in tone, style, and content, this essay echoes several themes from Philosophy of Existence.

Kirkbright, Suzanne. Karl Jaspers: A Biography. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. Kirkbright draws on Jaspers’s lifelong diaries and correspondence to portray the philosopher whose work on truth, integrity, and interpersonal communication was so starkly contrasted by the Germany of his times.

Thornhill, Chris. Karl Jaspers: Politics and Metaphysics. New York: Routledge, 2002. Examines the epistemological, metaphysical, and political work of Jaspers, who, according to Thornhill, deserves more attention in the context of hermeneutics, anthropological reflections on religion, idealism, and metaphysics.