Herr Jaspers and Existenz

The German psychiatrist and philosopher, Karl Jaspers was born on this date in 1883. Although he rejected the label, Jaspers is regarded as an founder of Existentialism and a thinker who had a considerable influence on theology, philosophy, and psychiatry.

Many observers have pointed out the similarities between existentialist philosophy and Buddhism.  I am not sure they are that similar, however, and personally, I am a bit suspicious of Western philosophy because I always seem to find some hint of theism lurking in the depths, as opposed to Buddhism, which I feel is quite atheistic.

I think Jasper’s rejection of the existentialist label had to do with his view of ontological systems, which he saw as restrictive. Jaspers called his philosophy Existenzphilosophie or “Existenz-philosophy.”

Although he maintained that no precise objective definition of “Existenz” was possible, it refers to a state of freedom in which authentic being can be experienced. On one hand, Existenz is the fact of human existence, and on the other, “Existenz is not a kind of being; it is a potential being.” This latter meaning implies freedom in that as the ground of being, Existenz is a field of possibilities. It also refers to a sense of responsibility for one’s actions. Existenz is transcendent, not an external object, and being transcendent it is a reality that is beyond our ability to fully apprehend it.

In On My Philosophy, Jaspers wrote,

Man, however, is not a sufficient separate entity, but is constituted by the things he rices his own. In every form of his being man is related to something other than himself: as a being to his world, as consciousness to objects, as spirit to the idea of whatever constitutes totality, as Existenz to Transcendence. Man always becomes man by devoting himself to this other. Only through his absorption in the world of Being, in the immeasurable space of objects, in ideas, in Transcendence, does he become real to himself. If he makes himself the immediate object of his efforts he is on his last and perilous path; for it is possible that in doing so he will lose the Being of the other and then no longer find anything in himself. If man wants to grasp himself directly, he ceases to understand himself, to know who he is and what he should do.

Again, we can see a number of parallels to Buddhist thinking. In fact, I probably would have paid little attention to Jaspers had it not been for his connection to Buddhism, specifically an essay he wrote on Nagarjuna. When I was first trying to fathom the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy of that 2nd Century Buddhist thinker I found the essay (in The Great Philosophers) immensely helpful. I have quoted from it before, and I do so again today. Here he discusses Nagarjuna’s concept of sunyata or “emptiness”:

Emptiness permits the greatest openness, the greatest willingness to accept the things of the world as a starting point to make the great leap. Indifference toward all worldly things also leaves every possibility open. Hence the tolerance of Buddhism toward other religions, modes of life, views of the world. The Buddhist lives with all theses as expressions of a lower, worldly truth, each equally satisfactory as a point of departure toward higher things. This unrestricted openness attracts men . . .

Western reason presents an analogy to this Buddhist mode of thought, which is as infinitely open as emptiness. Both listen, both respect the opinions of others. but the difference is this: the Buddhist Sage goes through the world like a duck; he no longer gets wet. He has transcended the world by dropping it. He seeks fulfillment in an unthinkable unworld. For Western man, however, reason finds its fulfillment, not in any absolute, but in the historicity of the world itself, which he gathers into his own Existenz. Only in historical realization, becoming identical with it, does he find his ground; he knows that this is the source of his freedom and of his relation to transcendence.

Jaspers loses me at the end because I am not sure if he is suggesting that Western reason is preferable, nor am I convinced that historicity, which I believe he means as an awareness of the past, is absolutely crucial for obtaining freedom. I think a sense of now is far more important, since now is where we are experiencing existence.

But that aside: Happy Birthday, Herr Jaspers!


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