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The five lectures that constitute Reason and Existenz were delivered at the University of Groningen, Holland, in the spring of 1935. In these lectures, the author knits together the various themes that are elaborated in his many philosophical writings. Reason and Existenz is thus both a helpful summary of and an excellent introduction to the author’s philosophy.

Ezistenz and Philosophy

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Jaspers defines philosophy as the elucidation of Existenz (Existenzerhellung). (The term “Existenz” is retained because the English “existence” is not its equivalent.) This elucidation of Existenz needs to be sharply contrasted with any attempt at a conceptualization of Existenz through objectively valid and logically compelling categories. Jaspers denies that a unifying perspective of the content of existential reality is possible. Nevertheless, a clarification of or elucidation of Existenz as it expresses itself in concrete situations can be productively undertaken. According to Jaspers, the philosopher is the one who strives for such clarification.

Jaspers finds in the concrete philosophizing of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche a profound exemplification of the philosophical attitude. Both, in their interest to understand existential reality from within, had serious reservations about any program that intended to bring thought into a single and complete system, derived from self-evident principles. Any claim for a completed existential system affords nothing more than an instance of philosophical pretension. Existenz has no final content; it is always “on the way,” subject to the contingencies of a constant becoming. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, in grasping this fundamental insight, uncovered the existential irrelevancy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s system of logic. It was particularly Kierkegaard, in his attack on speculative thought, who brought to light the comic neglect of Existenz in the essentialism and rationalism of Hegel. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche further laid the foundations for a redefinition of philosophy as an elucidation of Existenz through their emphasis on the attitudinal, as contrasted with the doctrinal, character of philosophy. They set forth a new intellectual attitude toward life’s problems. They developed no fixed doctrines that can be abstracted from their thinking as independent and permanent formulations. They were both suspicious of scientists who sought to reduce all knowledge to simple and quantifiable data. They were passionately interested in the achievements of self-knowledge. Both taught that self-reflection is the way to truth. Reality is disclosed through a penetration to the depths of the self. Both realized the need for indirect communication and saw clearly the resultant falsifications in objectivized modes of discourse. Both were exceptions—in no sense models for followers. They defy classification under any particular type and shatter all efforts at imitation. What they did was possible only once. Thus the problem for us is to philosophize without being exceptions, but with our eyes on the exception.

Encompassing and Being

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At the center of Jaspers’s philosophizing is the notion of the Umgreifende. Some have translated this basic notion as the “Comprehensive”; others have found the English term, the “Encompassing,” to be a more accurate rendition of the original German. The Encompassing lies beyond all horizons of determinate being, and thus never makes its appearance as a determinable object of knowledge. Like philosopher Immanuel Kant’s noumenal realm, it remains hidden behind the phenomena. Jaspers readily agrees with Kant that the Encompassing as a designation for ultimate reality is objectively unknowable. It escapes every determinate objectivity, emerging neither as a particular object nor as the totality of objects. As such, it sets the limits to the horizon of humanity’s conceptual categories. In thought, there always arises that which passes beyond thought itself. Humanity encounters the Encompassing not within a conceptual scheme but in existential decision and philosophical faith. This Encompassing appears and disappears only in its modal differentiations. The two fundamental modes of the Encompassing are the “Encompassing as being-in-itself” and the “Encompassing as being-which-we-are.” Both of these modes have their ground and animation in Existenz.

Jaspers’s concern for a clarification of the meaning and forms of being assuredly links him with the great metaphysicians of the Western tradition, and he is ready to acknowledge his debt to Plato, Aristotle, Baruch Spinoza, Hegel, and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling. However, he differs from the classical metaphysicians in his relocation of the starting point for philosophical inquiry. Classical metaphysics has taken as its point of departure being-in-itself, conceived either as Nature, the World, or God. Jaspers approaches his program of clarification from being-which-we-are. This approach was already opened up by the critical philosophy of Kant, which remains for Jaspers the valid starting point for philosophical elucidation.

The Encompassing as being-which-we-are passes into further internally articulated structural modes. Here empirical existence (Dasein), consciousness as such (Bewusstsein überhaupt), and spirit (Geist) make their appearance. Empirical existence indicates oneself as object, by virtue of which one becomes a datum for examination by the various scientific disciplines such as biology, psychology, anthropology, and sociology. In this mode of being, one apprehends oneself simply as an object among other objects, subject to various conditioning factors. One is not yet properly known as human. One’s distinctive existential freedom has not yet been disclosed. One is simply an item particularized by the biological and social sciences for empirical investigation.

The second structural mode of the being-which-we-are is consciousness as such. Consciousness has two meanings. In one of its meanings, it is still bound to empirical reality. It is a simple principle of empirical life that indicates the particularized living consciousness in its temporal process. However, we are not only particularized consciousnesses that are isolated from one another; we are in some sense similar to one another, by dint of which we are disclosed as consciousness as such. Through this movement of consciousness as such, one is able to understand oneself in terms of ideas and concepts that have universal validity. Dasein, or empirical existence, expresses a relationship of humanity to the empirical world. Consciousness as such expresses a relationship of humanity to the world of ideas. Ideas are permanent and timeless. Therefore, one can apprehend oneself in one’s timeless permanence.

The influence of the Greek philosopher Plato upon the thought of Jaspers becomes clearly evident at this point. People participate in the Encompassing through the possibility of universally valid knowledge in which there is a union with timeless essences. As simple empirical consciousness, people are split into a multiplicity of particular realities; as consciousness as such, people are liberated from their confinement in a single consciousness and participate in the universal and timeless essence of humanity.

Spirit constitutes the third modal expression of the Encompassing which-we-are. Spirit signifies the appetency toward totality, completeness, and wholeness. As such, it is oriented toward the truth of consciousness. It is attracted by the timeless and universal ideas that bring everything into clarity and connection. It seeks a unification of particular existence in such a way that every particular would be a member of a totality.

There is indeed a sense in which spirit expresses the synthesis of empirical existence and consciousness as such. However, this synthesis is never completed. It is always on the way, an incessant striving that is never finished. It is at this point that Jaspers’s understanding of spirit differs from that of Hegel. For Hegel, spirit drives beyond itself to its own completion, but not so for Jaspers. On one hand, spirit is oriented to the realm of ideas in which consciousness as such participates and is differentiated from simple empirical existence; on the other hand, spirit is contrasted with the abstraction of a timeless consciousness as such and expresses kinship with empirical existence. This kinship with empirical existence is its ineradicable temporality. It is a process of constant striving and ceaseless activity, struggling with itself, reaching ever beyond that which it is and has. Yet it differs from empirical existence in that empirical existence is unconsciously bound to its particularization in matter and life, by virtue of which it can become an object in a determinable horizon. As empirical existence, people are split off from each other and become objects of scientific investigation. Spirit overflows every objectivization and remains empirically unknowable. It is not capable of being investigated as a natural object. Although it always points to its basis in empirical existence, it also points to a power or dynamism that provides the impetus for its struggle toward meaning and totality.

It is through the Encompassing being-which-we-are that one has an approach to the Encompassing as being-in-itself. Being-in-itself never emerges independently as a substantive and knowable entity. It appears only in and through the being-which-we-are. In this appearance, it is disclosed as a limit expressing a twofold modification: the world and transcendence. The being-which-we-are has one of its limits in the experience of the world. The world in Jaspers’s philosophy signifies neither the totality of natural objects nor a spatiotemporal continuum in which these objects come to be. It signifies instead the horizon of inexhaustible appearances that present themselves to inquiry. This horizon is always receding, and it manifests itself only indirectly in the appearances of particular and empirical existence. It is never fully disclosed in any one of its perspectives and remains indeterminate for all empirical investigation. The Encompassing being-which-we-are has its other limit in transcendence. Transcendence is that mode of being-in-itself that remains hidden from all phenomenal experience. It does not even manifest itself indirectly. It extends beyond the horizons of world orientation as such. It remains the completely unknowable and indefinable, existentially posited through a philosophical faith.

Existenz and Reason

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All the modes of the Encompassing have their original source in Existenz. Existenz is not itself a mode, but it carries the meaning of every mode. It is the animation and the ground of all modes of the Encompassing. Thus, only in turning one’s attention to Existenz can one reach the pivotal point in Jaspers’s philosophizing. In Existenz, one reaches the abyss or the dark ground of selfhood. Existenz contains within itself an element of the irrational and thus never becomes fully transparent to consciousness as such. Consciousness is always structurally related to the universal ideas, but Existenz can never be grasped through an idea. It never becomes fully intelligible because it is the object of no science. Existenz can only be approached through concrete elucidations—hence, Jaspers’s program of Existenzerhellung. Existenz is the possibility of decision, which has its origin in time and apprehends itself only within its temporality. It escapes from every idea of consciousness as well as from the attempt of spirit to render it into an expression of a totality or a part of a whole. Existenz is the individual as historicity. It determines the individual in one’s unique past and unique future. Always moving into a future, the individual, as Existenz, is burdened with the responsibilities of decisions. This fact constitutes one’s historicity. Existenz is irreplaceable. The concrete movements within one’s historicity, which always call one to decision, disclose one in one’s unique individuality and personal idiosyncrasy. One is never a simple individual empirical existent that can be reduced to a specimen or an instance of a class; one is unique and irreplaceable. Finally, Existenz, as it knows itself before transcendence, reveals itself as freedom. Existenz is possibility, which means freedom. Humanity is that which one can become in one’s freedom.

As the modes of the Encompassing have their roots in Existenz, so they have their bond in Reason. Reason is the bond that internally unites the modes and keeps them from falling into an unrelated plurality. Thus Reason and Existenz are the great poles of being, permeating all the modes but not coming to rest in any one of them. Jaspers cautions the reader against a possible falsification of the meaning of Reason as it is used in his elucidation of Existenz. Reason is not to be construed as simple, clear, objective thinking (Verstand). Understood in this sense, Reason would be indistinguishable from consciousness as such. Reason, as the term is used by Jaspers, is closer to the Kantian meaning of Vernunft. It is the preeminence of thought that includes more than mere thinking. It not only includes a grasp of what is universally valid (ens rationis) but also touches upon and reveals the nonrational, bringing to light its existential significance. It always pushes toward unity, the universal, law, and order but at the same time remains within the possibility of Existenz. Reason and Existenz are thus inseparable. Each disappears when the other disappears. Reason without Existenz is hollow and culminates in an empty intellectualism. Existenz without Reason is blind, incessant impulse and irrational striving. Reason and Existenz are friends rather than enemies. Each is determined through the other. They mutually develop each other and through this development find both clarity and reality. In this interdependence of Reason and Existenz is an expression of the polar union of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Apollonian, or the structural principle, dissolves into a simple intellectual movement of consciousness, a dialectical movement of spirit, when it loses the Dionysian or dynamic principle. Conversely, the Dionysian passes over into irrational passion that burns to its own destruction when it loses its bond with the Apollonian.


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The reality of communication provides another dominant thesis in the philosophy of Jaspers. Philosophical truth, which discloses Existenz as the ground of the modes and Reason as their bond, can be grasped only in historical communication. The possibility of communication follows from the ineradicable communality of humanity. No one achieves humanity in isolation. People exist only in and through others and come to an apprehension of the truth of their Existenz through interdependent and mutual communal understanding. Truth cannot be separated from communicability. However, the truth that is expressed in communication is not simple; there are as many senses of truth as there are modes of the Encompassing being-which-we-are. In the community of one’s empirical existence, it is the pragmatic conception of truth that is valid. Empirical reality knows no absolutes that have a timeless validity. Truth in this mode is relative and changing, because empirical existence itself is in a constant process of change. That which is empirically true today may be empirically wrong tomorrow because of a new situation into which one will have passed. All empirical truth is dependent upon the context of the situation and one’s own standpoint within the situation.

As the situation perpetually changes, so does truth. At every moment, the truth of one’s standpoint is in danger of being refuted by the very fact of process. The truth in the communication of consciousness as such is logical consistency and cogent evidence. By means of logical categories, one affirms and denies that which is valid for everyone. Whereas in empirical reality, truth is relative and changing because of the multiple fractures of particulars with one another in their time-bound existence, in consciousness as such there is a self-identical consciousness that provides the condition for universally valid truths. The communication of spirit demands participation in a communal substance. Spirit has meaning only in relation to the whole of which it is a part. Communication is thus the communication of a member with its organism. Although each spirit differs from every other spirit, there is a common agreement as concerns the order that comprehends them. Communication occurs only through the acknowledgment of their common commitment to this order. Truth in the community of spirit is thus total commitment or full conviction. Pragmatic meaning, logical intelligibility, and full conviction are the three senses of truth expressed in the Encompassing being-which-we-are.

However, there is also the will to communicate Reason and Existenz. The communication of Existenz never proceeds independently of the communication in the three modes of the Encompassing being-which-we-are. Existenz retains its membership in the mode of empirical existence, consciousness as such, and spirit; but it passes beyond them in a “loving struggle” (liebender Kampf) to communicate the innermost meaning of its being. The communication of Existenz is not that of relative and changing particulars, nor is it that of an identical and replaceable consciousness. Existential communication is communication between irreplaceable persons. The community of Existenz is also contrasted with the spiritual community. Spirit seeks security in a comprehensive group substance. Existenz recognizes the irremovable fracture in being, accepts the inevitability of struggle, and strives to open itself for transcendence. Only through these movements does Existenz apprehend its irreplaceable and essentially unrepeatable selfhood and bind itself to the historical community of selves who share the same irreplaceable determinants. It is in existential communication that the self first comes to a full consciousness of itself as a being qualified by historicity, uniqueness, freedom, and communality.

Reason plays a most important role in existential communication. Reason as the bond of the various modes of the Encompassing strives for a unity in communication. However, its function is primarily negative. It discloses the limits of communication in each of the modes and checks the absolutization of any particular mode as the full expression of Being. When empirical existence is absolutized, the essence of humanity is lost; one is reduced to an instance of matter and biological life, and one’s essence becomes identified with knowable regularities. One is comprehended not in one’s humanity, but in one’s simple animality. The absolutization of consciousness as such results in an empty intellectualism. One’s empirical reality is dissolved into timeless truths, and the life of the spirit remains unacknowledged. When spirit becomes a self-sufficient mode, the result is a wooden culture in which all intellection and creativity are sacrificed to a communal substance. None of the modes is sufficient by itself. Each demands the other. Reason provides the internal bond through which their mutual dependence can be harmoniously maintained.

Philosophical Logic and Faith

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For Jaspers, the truth of Reason is philosophical logic; the truth of Existenz is philosophical faith. Philosophical logic and philosophical faith interpenetrate, as do Reason and Existenz themselves. Logic takes its impulse from Existenz, which it seeks to clarify. Philosophical logic is limited neither to traditional formal logic nor to mere methodology; it prevents any reduction of humanity to mere empirical existence or to a universal consciousness. Philosophical logic is negative in that it provides no new contents, but it is positive in establishing the conditions for every possible content. Philosophical faith, the truth of Existenz, confronts humanity with transcendence and discloses one’s freedom. Philosophical faith is contrasted with religious faith in that it acknowledges no absolute or final revelation in time. Transcendence discloses a constant openness in which humanity apprehends itself as an “inner act,” more precisely, an act of freedom. Faith is an acknowledgment of transcendence as the source of humanity’s freedom. The highest freedom that humanity can experience is the freedom that has its condition in a source outside itself.


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Additional Reading

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

Kaufmann, Walter. From Shakespeare to Existentialism. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1960. This fine review of existentialism includes a chapter focused on Jaspers. Kaufmann’s penetrating scholarship dispels some misunderstandings of Jaspers and places him in the context of the existential movement with respect to Friedrich Nietzsche in particular, while sharply criticizing Jaspers’s own understanding of Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud.

Olson, Alan M., ed. Heidegger & Jaspers. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994. The work of Heidegger and Jaspers is presented and studied.

Samay, Sebastian. Reason Revisited: The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1971. An examination of Jaspers’s philosophy, particularly with respect to the relations of subject and object, being and reason, and transcendence. Very detailed, but somewhat dated in his conclusions about the influence of Jaspers’s thought.

Schilpp, Paul, ed. The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers. Rev. ed. Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1981. In addition to an autobiographical summary, this book offers commentaries by twenty-four prominent scholars who critically examine many diverse aspects of Jaspers’s work, such as death, guilt, suffering, communication, history, citizenship, religion, art, and psychopathology. They address their remarks directly to Jaspers, who replies. Bibliography.

Wallraff, Charles F. Karl Jaspers: An Introduction to his Philosophy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970. A fine introductory study of Jaspers’s life and thought, including a critical analysis of his terminology and a useful bibliography.