Karl Jaspers and the language of transcendence

In January 2015, after the massacre of twelve people at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, the words “Je suis Charlie” became a ubiquitous collective expression of solidarity. Inside Nazi Germany, as his Jewish wife Gertrud began to despair of the fate of her beloved homeland, the psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers tried to console her with a similar phrase: “Ich bin Deutschland”.

Jaspers lived an extraordinary life, of which his experiences in the Third Reich were formative. He was born in 1883, with an incurable disease that was expected to kill him by the age of thirty – the same age at which he published his monumental psychiatric textbook, General Psychopathology. Remarkably, Jaspers lived until the age of eighty-six, which allowed him to pursue a second, philosophical career.

As a couple in what the Nazis called a “mixed marriage”, Karl and Gertrud became uncomfortably familiar with anti-Semitism. They bravely decided to remain together in Germany, surviving by restricting their lives and social circle. Although dismissed from his professorship at Heidelberg and banned by the Nazis from teaching and publishing his philosophy, Jaspers kept writing. As he would later reflect, “Germany under the Nazi regime was a prison”, but “the hidden life of thought” remained.

Philosophically, Jaspers can be viewed as the first of the great German existentialists, but his approach was more scholarly, responsible and historically informed than many of his colleagues’. Like all existential phenomenologists (students of the structures of lived experience), he was deeply influenced by the Kantian distinction between the world as it is in itself and the world as it appears to us. It follows from Kant’s insight into our imprisonment in appearance that we have no means of comparing reality as it appears to us with reality itself, so the “phenomena” of lived experience are what phenomenologists like Jaspers study. Jaspers wrote in a somewhat Hegelian, systematic form, but the content of his philosophical work strains against the limitations of such formal systems. His French colleague, Jean Wahl, described this “struggle” between form and content in Jaspers’s philosophy, which “always stands outside the system and breaks it”. As Jaspers’s restricted life inside Nazi Germany was a form of resistance to dogmatism, so too was his hidden life of thought.

“What we are accustomed to call Karl Jaspers’s philosophy,” wrote the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, “is in fact a description of the acutely and incurably painful human condition.” Reality as a whole, which Jaspers calls “the Encompassing”, has three modes: the empirical world, existence and transcendence. Human life spans two interdependent modes: existence and transcendence, neither of which are objects of knowledge. Together, they “encompass” the empirical world. Existence and transcendence are essential for understanding that world but, since they are not objects, they don’t explain it scientifically. Rather, in Kołakowski’s phrase, they “confer legitimacy on it”, give it meaning.

Jaspers defines human beings as displaying “possible existence”. Existence is what we evince when we define ourselves in terms of our radical existential freedom to decide on who we are and the nature of our engagement with the world. We could say that existence belongs to the “subjective” side of the Encompassing, whereas transcendence belongs to the “objective” side. But Jaspers insists on their interdependence: there is no existence without transcendence, and, as examples of “possible existence”, we realize ourselves only in the presence of transcendence. The subject–object split is a useful distinction, not a dichotomy.

It is impossible to provide a complete empirical explanation of the world, and there is no Supreme Being to help us explain it. In Jaspers’s thought, transcendence supplants the idea of God as a being. Unlike the god introduced by some philosophers to provide naive explanations for the existence and nature of the observable world, transcendence is not an entity among others. We cannot prove its reality scientifically, nor deduce it via logical arguments. The presence of transcendence is necessary to confer meaning on the human world, but we encounter transcendence beyond the limits of knowledge. The word “transcendence” evokes the ineffable. It refers to the concept of what, like the smell of coffee or the experience of seeing green, cannot in principle be captured or fully expressed in words. Yet we must keep trying to evoke it because the attempt is essential to human self-realization.

If transcendence isn’t an object and cannot be known or spoken of, how can we encounter it? Jaspers suggests several ways, but most importantly transcendence “speaks” to us – not like Yahweh out of the whirlwind and the burning bush, but in code, a system of signs called “ciphers”.

Ciphers are not symbols. Symbols are objects that represent other objects, objectifying them in a symbolic representation even though they may be fictional objects that don’t exist outside the symbol. An objective depiction of a skeleton symbolically represents another objective reality: death. But a cipher evokes transcendence, which lies beyond the subject–object distinction and is no representable object. A cipher can be quite mundane, serving as a point of focus revealing some inexpressible aspect of transcendence: a work of art, a religious myth, a ritual performance, a guttering candle. Ciphers make transcendence accessible to us the only way it can be, but they don’t reveal it the way it “really is” – since transcendence isn’t purely objective, there’s no such way. So, despite being made accessible, transcendence remains hidden.

This implies that literal interpretations of religious mythologies, for example, block us from reading them as ciphers of transcendence. Ciphers are available to everyone, but superstitious and dogmatic ways of thinking blind us to them. It misses the point to read the four (very different) Gospels as historical fact in the same way that it’s wrong-headed to view a painting as an accurate representation of a real event. Although paintings and biblical texts may be more or less factually accurate, their import lies elsewhere. Symbols can be be translated into a non-symbolic language, but this is not so with ciphers. It’s always possible to state, in other terms, what a symbol “really means”, ciphers are untranslatable. As Jaspers argued in his published debates with the New Testament theologian Rudolf Bultmann, religious myths are ciphers, not symbols. It’s impossible to “demythologize” religious myths (translate them into secular terms, as Bultmann attempted) without hollowing out their religious meaning, leaving only an empty shell behind. Ciphers can be experienced, but they remain indecipherable. It is precisely by remaining indecipherable that ciphers guard transcendence from all kinds of dogmatic misreading.

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