Delivered, in slightly altered form,  to The Karl Jaspers Society, Annual Meeting of the American Philosophical Association (Central Division): Chicago, April 24, 2004


Karl Jaspers and Ontological Reference




Charles Hartshorne once said of St Anselm that here we have a philosopher “whom it has long been fashionable to discuss, but quite unfashionable to study.”[1]  In the case of Karl Jaspers, however, we might say that here we have a philosopher whom it has been fashionable in recent years, among all but a rather select few, to neither discuss nor study. 

It is a curious fact that Jaspers work is not as well known or appreciated as it deserves to be, and it would be a good thing to know how to engage that challenge.  So I begin with the problem that a fresh and uninitiated reader of Jaspers is likely to confront.  There are two levels of such beginners.  One we meet in our intro 101 classes. The other we meet in graduate seminars and faculty receptions.   We can expect a fair proportion of either group to stare blankly at us if (for example) we were to recommend, in between the capers and the cognac, that perhaps they might give some thought to the Encompassing which they themselves are as Existenz![2] I expect that some of them, at that point, might appreciate the old story about Wittgenstein, who is said to have been able to whistle an entire concerto, complete and in tune.  Jasper’s work is not unlike a magnificent concerto.  But to those who have been taught that one of  philosophy’s task is to watch out for beguiling language that baptizes rather than resolves confusion – to them, Jaspers’ words may seem just a bit like whistles.  Like whistling in the dark, perhaps. 

Now there of course is a simple expedient here. We could remind them that reading Jaspers is like learning a new language, and there is no rapid-fire Berlitz-style short-cut.  If you can’t spend the time, you won’t get the benefit.   And you have to spend only a little time to see how little overt sympathy Jaspers himself has for a merely “aesthetic attitude” – as Ricoeur points out.[3]  Aesthetic language is, in principle, replaceable: it varies according to the widely accidental constraints of subjective taste.  Jaspers isn’t doing aesthetics, he’s doing metaphysics. 

But just this distinction I think raises a deeper puzzlement, when we notice that Jaspers isn’t just doing your garden variety metaphysics.  It’s a metaphysics that remains skeptical of all attempts to “grasp” its object, in the way that an epistemological foundationalist for example might.  A metaphysics, one might say, that is skeptical of itself – and just this is what is likely either to worry or delight an outsider, depending upon her philosophical or post-philosophical predilections. At the same time, there seems to be a kind of intended universality and finality about Jaspers’ formulation, because it seems to me that the alternative – which is what I imagine a philosophical outsider reading in here --  would be a merely aestheticized philosophy.   What can we make of this?.

Here is what I make of it. Aestheticized philosophy comes in a number of forms: here I’m thinking of Derrida and especially Rorty, but Walter Pater is a good classical example.  (Naturally it pervades discussions at the MLA.)  I mean here not the notion that philosophical views have an essentially aesthetic side to them – which I think is true and important.  I mean here the notion that this aesthetic side is basically all they have to them.  And clearly this cannot be what Jaspers is up to.  What he’s up to, I think, is a distinction which, these days, flies right past aestheticizing philosophers: the distinction between semantic and ontological reference. 

*      *      *

As a way into this, let me recall some background, as I understand it.  As with so many in his generation, Jaspers was shocked out of his conventional slumbers by the events of 1914.[4] Here, in some ways, Karl Jaspers’ transformation in philosophy paralleled Karl Barth’s reaction to theology around the same time: what had passed for “spirituality” in pre-war culture no longer spoke to a generation whose world was been destroyed in the trenches and towns across Europe.[5]  What up to then had passed for “philosophy” in the academy of Jaspers' student days was no more than “questionable opinions making claim to scientific validity”[6]

Instead of those “questionable opinions,” what Jaspers sought was a “perception of reality.”[7]  But what Jaspers found turns out in fact to be quite different from what we usually take to be a perception.  Jaspers insists that understanding (Verstand) can never, as a Cartesian might assume it can, grasp the object that would set our philosophical doubts to rest.  Jaspers’ project is much more radical than Descartes’.  Jaspers comes to see that philosophy grasps after what it cannot finally reach, as in our efforts at self-knowledge.[8]  So the problem is not so much the errors in transmitted belief, as Descartes had supposed: the problem is in the very architecture of thought itself, which can no more see or even think the self than the eye can gaze directly at its own organ of sight.  This is because the “answer” to philosophical questions (rightly posed) is not a proposition uttered truthfully about the self, but a self-disclosure in the actual process of transformation, of self-transcendence. 

Now there are two things to say about this.  (1) First, in this process along the way, the ride is not typically a smooth one.  As a psychiatrist confronting the impact of the War’s devastation, Jaspers could see this very clearly.  What’s at stake is more than epistemological doubt: what’s at stake is existential doubt, where “my existence is revealed to me as being….a complete shipwreck (Scheitern).”[9] The Great War was an emblem of this foundering, which unhinged any thinking person’s confidence in our powers to grasp and actualize our most devout projects. “Happiness is bound to pain, actualization to risk and loss”[10] – or at very least, that was the indelible experience of Jaspers’ own generation.

(2) Secondly, though Ricoeur thinks that Existenz itself, for Jaspers, is bound up in the despair and guilt associated with foundering, Charles Courtney [11] I think shows that this need not be so, and that in fact religion’s concern over redemptive freedom is not left unaddressed in Jaspers.  Courtney’s point is that Ricoeur mistakes Jaspers’ diagnosis of a problem for its solution.  Ricoeur takes what Jaspers has to say about the contingent relation of existence to transcendence – which, historically speaking, might not even exhibit the Germanic “introspective conscience of the West”[12] we admittedly do find in Jaspers -- and then Ricoeur mixes this up with what Jaspers has to say about the relation of Existenz to Transcendence.  Courtney proposes a kind of “structural reading of Jaspers” whereby foundering makes room for the further revelation of transcendence, culminating in peace and serenity.  This is a triadic movement -- from foundering, through the “leap” of self-being, to the peace that passeth all Verstand (understanding) – a form that can be made to fit a narrative of spiritual formation we might borrow from, say, St John of the Cross.   The important message here is that there is real salvation even in suffering.

And this brings us back to aestheticization, most prominently expressed these days by Rorty.  For Rorty, there simply is nothing out there, or in here, or anywhere else “with which we ought to be in touch.”13] For Rorty, there is nothing to self-disclose -- and that, Rorty thinks, is a good thing: “A postmetaphysical culture seems to me no more impossible than a postreligious one, and equally desirable.”[14] Rorty’s view is one that is flattened onto the axis of world-orientation.   In hearing that Existenz “soars upward” and “knows no death,” and “is in time, but is more than time,”[15] Rorty is likely to hear nothing more than a rather weak attempt at poetry.

Well, let’s consider what we miss if we appropriate a Rortyan view of things.  As humans, we wouldn’t need to worry about missing out on despair and suffering.  Our best-laid plans are still not likely to turn out the way we’d like, no matter what our views are on representation and glassy essences.  But, as Rortyans, our private despair can be managed despair -- we can learn to feel better about ourselves, and perhaps after a while, we learn to love our inner victim and appreciate how we don’t need to be run by its obsessive questions, once we see that “a philosophical question is not solved; it dissolves.”[16]  Rorty offers “just a bit of ad hoc philosophical therapy,”[17] to put a stop to certain kinds of questions -- not to only the questions Jaspers also wants not to ask (e.g., How can we “cognize” Existenz?),  but also to the kinds of questions through which, as Jaspers says, we can “approach even closer to the truth.”[18] Jaspers would probably say that the important philosophical questions are neither solved nor dissolved; they are certainly not productively avoided.  Jaspers travels through suffering and “approaches even closer to the truth.”  Rorty seems to dissolve the terms under which suffering has any real existential bite.

For anyone who has a glimmering of what Jaspers is talking about, I think, something philosophically interesting – no, riveting -- is happening when we ask the questions that limit situations elicit.  Something new is being generated.  What’s missing with Rorty, and with aestheticization in general, is the ontological power to do that.  For Rorty, transcendence is a trope.  For Jaspers, transcendence is “the power through which I am authentically myself.”[19]  In Jaspers, we have reference to the power to bring into existence what religious language calls the transformed self. 

*     *     *

Ontological power I think has to do with ontological reference, which I want here to contrast to the ordinary analytic notion of descriptive reference (which is what Rorty is concerned about).  Semantic reference is what we use when we fix the object designated by our words -- ‘the one table in that corner.’  The term’s reference is of course a specific physical entity I can see with my own eyes, and so the analogy with perception is paradigmatic.  And Rorty is probably right when he notes that this has been the standard model for cognition in general[20] – which is the aim that has driven theories about descriptive reference: the idea that we can formulate true sentences that map onto a cognizable, independent world. 

But, once again, what Jaspers “discovered” was no ordinary perception.  (“Illumination” in this case is perception only by analogy.)  And this fact is opaque to strictly descriptive considerations.   Consider for example the following dilemma which I imagine arising from the back of some seminar room.  It is this: Does Jaspers’ own description of Existenz aspire to finality, or does it not?  Though Jaspers rejects the pretensions of exclusivist philosophy,[21] and though he appears to hold that all statements lack finality,[22] does he not still utter statements that at least reach toward an essential, final portrayal of Existenz?    Jaspers certainly speaks as if it does.  But he also maintains that every claim to finality is false.  Is he then being inconsistent, and is this a sign that Jaspers has actually undermined his claim to be provide a description of the diachronic structure of Existenz?    This sounds like a version of the Liar Paradox – where the Cretan announces that all Cretans are liars.[23] 

Now I don’t want to follow too far into the analysis of this skeptical suggestion,, which I think misses the point anyway.  What’s interesting about it is what it fails to capture.  For what Jaspers also says is that the illumination of Existenz “goes beyond the universal”: “The universal as merely universal here remains hollow, as it were, and its sense is misleading.”[24]  Jaspers took only part of the linguistic turn in philosophy.[25]  We can’t do without language, he might say, but mere language misses something, and that’s also what descriptive reference -- what Ricoeur also calls “identifying reference”[26] – fails to capture.  And I strongly suspect, though I’m not going to press the point here, that  the indication of this may be the semantic puzzles which, like the Liar Paradox, are generated by the self-reference which self-disclosure employs.[27]

 “Existenz is illuminated for us without being cognized.”[28]  But a cognition can fail without the reference failing as well.  Here then is another kind of reference which is implicated in the moment of self-disclosure, when “I come to myself in my philosophizing.”[29]  This is ontological reference, and it involves an extremely primal discursive function.  God is said to have performed this in Genesis (“And God said, let there be light…”) In some societies, tribal elders “call” (call upon) the deity through sacrifice, prayer, and ritual, but first of all through naming; and it is crucial to get the name right (as the First Commandment in Deuteronomy makes very clear).   As with descriptive reference, ontological reference can yield either referential success or referential failure.  But in this case, when intended reference fails, what’s at issue is not a fit between world and word, but rather a fit between self-reflective existence and possibility which is mediated by the word being employed.   

There would be a number of points to make here, time permitting, but one of them is certainly that this “possibility” is not a merely logical possibility – indicated by a certain modal operator in symbolic logic[30]   But when Jaspers declares that attentiveness toward Existenz “directs me back to its possibility,”[31] surely he is not telling us to learn modal logic!  When we describe the illumination of Existenz, we are describing something quite different from this.  No, Jaspers is directing us into the ontological precondition of actually moving out of the doubt and despair – the “first transmutation” (as he calls it).[32]  Thereafter, “in inner action,” Existenz becomes fully appropriated, as “the actuality of real action”[33] in the “surging upwards”[34] of self-being.  This is said to be a passage from doubt into deliverance, into the assurance of Being --  “That there is Being suffices.”[35]  But between those two poles, between doubt and assurance,” there is the leap from doubt and despair. 

Doubt and despair constitute a form of perceived powerlessness, and though the way out cannot be simply thought “in pure objectivities,”[36] isn’t it the case that objective can be said about it, which shows forth at the level of empirical psychology?  Here, I think, we pass from logical possibility to the experience of ontological potency – to real “power.”  This is essentially a religious idea.   And the possibility that philosophy might actually provide an access to ontological power – now that’s interesting.  I think it might even make somebody exited enough to spill the cognac or choke on the capers.

Jaspers considered himself a Protestant, “guided by the Bible and by Kant,”[37] so it is not surprising to begin to hear almost Evangelical resonances in some of his language, as when “the call is sounded to transcend.”[38] In a similar vein, Jaspers’ project has to do with ontological power, articulated through non-Rortyan ontological traits of human freedom, in statements that are philosophically indispensable – they mean to exclude their logical contradictories.  Accordingly, it seems to me that Jaspers is formulating a highly minimalized language of “objectivism” -- “the basic conviction that there is or must be some permanent ahistorical matrix or framework.”[39] This may not be an actualized framework.  But Jaspers seems to think that there is a semantically fixed structure to possibility and its relation to existence, which philosophy can disclose.  For what is the alternative?  Is it not  aestheticization? 





Bernstein, Richard J. Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

Courtney, Charles. " Reading Ciphers With Jaspers and Ricoeur." Unpublished paper, 2003.

Hartshorne, Charles. "Introduction to Saint Anselm: Basic Writings," translated by S. N. Deane. 2d ed., 1962.

Jaspers, Karl. Karl Jaspers: Basic Philosophical Writings. Edited by Edith Ehrlich, Leonard H. Ehrlich, and George B. Pepper. 2. Atlantic Highlands NJ : Humanities Press, 1986.

———. "On My Philosophy," edited by Walter Kaufmann, 158-85. New York : New American Library, 1975.

———. Reason and Existenz. Translated by William Earle. Noonday Press, 1955.

Jaspers, Karl, and Rudolf Bultmann. Myth and Christianity: An Inquiry Into the Possibility of Religion Without Myth. New York: Noonday Press, 1958.

Ricoeur, Paul. Oneself as Another. Translated by Kathleen Blamey. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

———. "The Relation of Jaspers' Philosophy to Religion." In The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers, edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp, 611-42. New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1957.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

———. "On Ethnocentrism: A Reply to Clifford Geertz." In Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth. Vol. vol. 1 of Philosophical Papers, 203-10. Cambridge University Press, 1991.

———. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

———. "Response to McDowell." In Rorty and His Critics, edited by Robert B. Brandom, 123-28. Malden MA: Blackwell, 2000.

Seiple, D. "Schleiermacher and Barth: Self-Transcendence and Neoliberalism." In Reading Schleiermacher: Essays in Honor of Michael Ryan, edited by C. Jeffrey Kinlaw and Edwina Lawler. Lewiston NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004 (forthcoming).

Stendahl, Krister. "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West." In Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays. Philadelpha: Fortress Press, 1976.

Waismann, Friedrich. "How I See Philosophy." In Logical Positivism, edited by A. J. Ayer, 345-80. New York: Macmillan, 1959.

[1] Charles Hartshorne, "Introduction to Saint Anselm: Basic Writings," translated by S. N. Deane, 2d ed. (1962).

[2] Karl Jaspers, Karl Jaspers: Basic Philosophical Writings, edited by Edith Ehrlich, Leonard H. Ehrlich and George B. Pepper, 2 (Atlantic Highlands NJ: Humanities Press, 1986), 154.

[3] Paul Ricoeur, "The Relation of Jaspers' Philosophy to Religion," in The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp (New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1957), 267, fn 61.

[4] Before that he had been “untroubled by general happenings and without political consciousness,” during an era that had proven to be “naïve despite all its sublime spirituality.” Karl Jaspers, "On My Philosophy," ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: New American Library, 1975), 160.

[5] D. Seiple, "Schleiermacher and Barth: Self-Transcendence and Neoliberalism," in Reading Schleiermacher: Essays in Honor of Michael Ryan, ed. C. Jeffrey Kinlaw and Edwina Lawler ( Lewiston NY : Edwin Mellen Press, 2004 (forthcoming)).

[6] Jaspers, "On My Philosophy," 159.

[7] Jaspers, "On My Philosophy," 159.

[8] “If man wants to grasp himself directly, he ceases to understand himself, to know who he is and what he should do.”  Jaspers, "On My Philosophy," 168.

[9] Jaspers, Basic Philosophical Writings, 64.

[10] Jaspers, Basic Philosophical Writings, 332.

[11] Charles Courtney , " Reading Ciphers With Jaspers and Ricoeur" (Unpublished paper, 2003).

[12] Krister Stendahl, "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West," in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays (Philadelpha: Fortress Press, 1976).

[13] Richard Rorty, "Response to McDowell," in Rorty and His Critics, ed. Robert B. Brandom ( Malden MA : Blackwell, 2000), 123.

[14] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), xvi.

[15] Jaspers, Basic Philosophical Writings, 63.

[16] Friedrich Waismann, "How I See Philosophy," in Logical Positivism, ed. A. J. Ayer (New York: Macmillan, 1959), 354.

[17] Richard Rorty, "On Ethnocentrism: A Reply to Clifford Geertz," in Philosophical Papers, vol. vol. 1, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (Cambridge University Press, 1991), 209.

[18] Karl Jaspers, Reason and Existenz, translated by William Earle (Noonday Press, 1955), 137.

[19] Jaspers, Basic Philosophical Writings, 155.

[20] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).

[21] Especially what he calls religious “catholicity.” See Ricoeur, "The Relation of Jaspers' Philosophy to Religion," 631.

[22] Jaspers, Basic Philosophical Writings, 65.

[23] It can be true only if it’s false.  If we conflate the notions of finality and semantic falsehood, then Jaspers might be read as saying something like: “All statements are (in some way) false, and this one (in some way) is not.

[24] Jaspers, Basic Philosophical Writings, 67.

[25] “For the thinking that illuminates Existenz has two sides, one of which, by itself, is untrue (the solely universal), and the other, by itself, is impossible (mute Existenz)” (Jaspers, Basic Philosophical Writings, 67).

[26] Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, translated by Kathleen Blamey (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 57.

[27] Perhaps this is what Jaspers has in mind in saying that “Another way of expressing Existenz through universal categories is by means of the logical contradiction of statements in which, however, an actuality is present…by making it impossible for the understanding objectively to fixate and define Existenz.” See Jaspers, Basic Philosophical Writings, 69.

[28] Jaspers, Basic Philosophical Writings, 71.

[29] Jaspers, Basic Philosophical Writings, 65.

[30] Perhaps this other possibility can be semantically designated as well – perhaps this is what the philosophy of Existenz qua philosophy does.

[31] Jaspers, Basic Philosophical Writings, 65.

[32] Jaspers, Basic Philosophical Writings, 66.

[33] Jaspers, Basic Philosophical Writings, 66.

[34] Jaspers, Basic Philosophical Writings, 65.

[35] Philosophy 3, 206, as quoted by Courtney.

[36] Or else Existenz loses “the actuality of real action.” See Jaspers, Basic Philosophical Writings, 66.

[37] Karl Jaspers and Rudolf Bultmann, Myth and Christianity: An Inquiry Into the Possibility of Religion Without Myth (New York: Noonday Press, 1958), 78.

[38] Jaspers, Basic Philosophical Writings, 68.

[39] Richard J. Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), 8.