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“POSSIBILITIES FOR CONTEMPORARY PHILOSOPHIZING”

(A reflection on Karl Jaspers’ First and Fifth Articles in Reason and Existenz)
Joel C. Sagut

Introduction

How significant is philosophy in our contemporary time? Some pragmatic-oriented people started to
despise philosophy because it no longer bears tangible and concrete effects on human life. People in our
present societies are charmed to pursue careers in sciences, mathematics and especially engineering
because these are believed to be capable of yielding observable and practical effects on human life, in
addition to the fact that they are perceived to be producers of bigger incomes. Hence, a kind of prejudice
against philosophy is beginning to emerge as manifested by the diminishing number of students and
subjects in philosophy even in more advanced universities.

However, aside from the fact that philosophy is a classic discipline, there is something in it that does not
immediately give up amidst these attacks. Philosophy cannot just be simply rendered irrelevant despite
the contemporary paradigms that value the pragmatic implications of things more than anything else.
Philosophy has an indispensable vocation to search for the truth. Hence, it would always remain to be
important because it is meant to guide the human person as he endeavors to understand the realities of
human existence.

With this ambivalent attitude towards philosophy, we need to confront a fundamental question about its
importance to life: how does philosophy uphold the truth and meaning of human existence?

It is along this line that Karl Jaspers’ reflection about the nature of philosophical thinking in our time
becomes truly helpful. The competing claims of various disciplines about truth and meaning have
allowed, especially the natural sciences, to vindicate their own methods while relegating philosophy to
the sidelines. The sciences have successfully convinced our present generation that truth is something
that is proven by our actual experiences of things. The natural scientists have led us to believe that truth
can never be isolated or separated from their laboratories, and it cannot just be simply a product of mere
speculation. Natural sciences claim that truth has to be always validated by repetitive experimentation.

The sciences have erected their banner in truth-seeking so powerfully that our current generation is led to
think that the true thing is only that which is scientific. The unscientific ideas are reduced into mere
fictions, hearsays or opinions which always fall short of the truth. The reign of the natural sciences has
almost reduced philosophy into irrelevance.

Unless philosophy can again prove that it is an authentic reflection about the truth and meaning of
human life, philosophy can hardly reclaim its recognized status among the disciplines. Philosophy must
overcome the perception that all it can offer are opinions and speculations that are, in most cases, not
even grounded on reality. Philosophy must let the people see that she (philosophy) still has the capacity
to stir them into reflection, and influence them to reevaluate the meaning of their existence. Failing to
rethink about what it can do, philosophy can hardly retrieve the prestige that it once had in the course of
history.

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Karl Jaspers’ first and fifth articles of his Reason and Existenz1 remind us about philosophy’s original
vocation. Jaspers observes that in the recent past, philosophy has encapsulated its sets of truths into
several propositions. Truth has been reduced to several maxims that are held as universal, trans-historical
and eternal. However, propositional truths are devoid of its existential significance. This, Jaspers
explained, contributes to the alienation of the “philosophical discipline”2 from human existence. With this
kind of philosophizing, the truth has been isolated from life, and instead of reflecting concrete realities,
philosophical truths were reduced to “fundamentalist doctrines.” Truth is imposed, and any disregard of
“The Truth” is, by logical consequence, false.

In the recent times, many critics have stood against the propositional way of philosophizing. They
vehemently object the propositional philosophy’s3 tendency to undermine human experience in its search
for the “truth.” They believed that a truth-claim that is not mindful of actual human experience is not a
philosophy. They rather argue that propositional philosophy has even contributed to the growing
contempt against philosophy.

Karl Jaspers, on the other hand, believes that philosophy must flow from an authentic reflection about the
actual existence of man. Hence, he calls it as Existenz philosophy.4 He says, “in Existenz philosophy, out of
the decisiveness of our fundamental bases, the clarity of a life related to Transcendence should again
become communicable in thought, as a philosophizing with which we actually live.”5

Through these words, Jaspers argue that philosophy can no longer be a single, complete system to be
brought out as a presentation of concepts that represent the thought of great thinkers. Jaspers warns us
against the temptation of creating “systems of philosophy.” He believes that a system destroys
philosophy. There can only be a philosophy of an individual person. A philosophy is a person’s
articulation of a particular encounter with the world.6 It is an attempt to name that which the person
discovers as he faces his own existence. This does not however mean that philosophy should not talk
about concepts. Jaspers only says that we refrain from talking about concepts as if the concepts that we
attach to a philosopher is his philosophy. Philosophy to be real should not be conceptual, and it should
never be reduced to a system. Jaspers himself says, “Concepts which were originally reality pass through
history as pieces of learning or information. What was once life becomes a pile of dead husks of concepts
and these in turn become the subject of an objective history of philosophy.”7 Jaspers believes that
philosophy has to proceed in the manner that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche 8 developed their own. It has to
be a product of one’s confrontation with his world rather than of one’s complacent adherence to the

1
Karl Jaspers, Reason and Existenz. (USA: Noonday Press, 1955). Henceforth, this work shall be
referred as RE.
2
We could rather however say that a “philosophy” that is solely grounded on propositional
truths betrays its own nature and is, properly speaking, not really a philosophy. Philosophy can never be
reduced to the fundamentalism of propositional truths.
3
The term “propositional philosophy” is hereby used to refer to a particular brand of philosophical
discipline that is mostly concerned with the exposition and elaboration of propositions that are traditionally held as
true. Jaspers believe that this is a disservice to the entire philosophical discipline because the attempts for
elaboration can hardly provide us with fresh philosophical insights. As such, this could not really be treated as,
strictly speaking, philosophy.
4
RE, 128.
5
RE, 128.
6
Jaspers said, “philosophical activity is fully real only at the summits of personal
philosophizing… objectivized philosophical thought is a preparation for, and a recollection of, it.”
http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/jaspers.htm. Retrieved last
December 16, 2007.
7
http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/jaspers.htm. Retrieved
last December 16, 2007.

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already accepted sets of truths or concepts. Jaspers himself has even said, “It is as though we again
sought on these paths of philosophizing the quietude of Kant and Spinoza, of Nicolas of Cusa and
Parmenides, turning away from the ultimate unrest of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. But still these latter
philosophers remain as lighthouses still burning, perpetual indicators of directions, without which we
would relapse into the deception of supposing there were teachable philosophic doctrine or contents,
which as such are without power.”9 Real philosophy is born in the actual struggle through life, in seeing
that in life there could be events that may not be fully comprehended and yet have to be articulated. It is
in this encounter with life itself that we should build our philosophy.

The tension between the rational and its opposite (the non-rational)

Jaspers has noted that the history of philosophy reveals the tension between the realm of the rational and
that of its opposite, the non-rational. He cited as an example the highly rational articulation of the Greeks
of ancient philosophy who are also at the same time confronted by the irrationality of Fate. Jaspers said
that this tension has even gone further until the time of Christianity where the desire to rationalize the
faith through theology is also accompanied by faith’s assent to mystery. Christianity has articulated the
irrational especially in the language of Providence whereby a Christian openly accepts that there are
things that are beyond his capacity to understand but fall within the providence of God, and hence have
to be accepted and obeyed.

In other words, in man’s tendency to rationalize the environment, the reality of the non-rational also
emerges at the same time. “All philosophizing which would like to dissolve Being into pure rationality
retains in spite of itself the non-rational.”10 And further he says, “even in the most radical defiance of
reason, there remains the minimum of rationality.” 11 Human persons could never really escape their
tendency to employ the use of reason as they confront the world around them, and as they want to
understand the reality that lies beyond them. Yet, at the same time, it is a fact that human persons are also
obviously unable to rationalize everything in their world. There would always be something that goes
beyond one’s comprehension.

The invitation of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche

In the history of philosophy, Jaspers noted, there are two thinkers (Kierkegaard and Nietzsche) who have
endeavored to establish the balance of reason and the non-rational. Jaspers said that the emergence of
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche was also accompanied by a particular turn in the reality of the Western man:
“a destruction of all authority, a radical disillusionment in an overconfident reason.”12 Hence, one striking
character of the two is their doubt towards the so-called scientific men (the experts). Jaspers noted that
“both suspect truth in the form of scientific knowledge.”13 The experts have the tendency to believe that
everything in the world can be explained, and can be subjected to experiments and scientific
investigation. The experts hold that the world is comprehensible. But Jaspers has lamented over the
experts’ incapacity to experience the “maturity of that critical point where everything turns upside

8
“Their (Kierkegaard’s and Nietzsche’s) earnestness and absoluteness overpower us as standards
although we do not follow them in their content. That we owe something new to Kierkegaard and
Nietzsche – the possibility of laying the deepest foundations – and yet that we do not follow them in their
essential decisions, makes up the difficulty of our philosophical situation.” (Jaspers 1955: 129 –
parenthetical notes were added).
9
RE, 130.
10
RE, 20.
11
RE, 20.
12
RE, 23.
13
RE, 25.

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down.”14 What the experts ironically fail to understand is the fact that there are things that escape man’s
absolute comprehension.

However, despite their critique against reason, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are not also abrogating reason
altogether. They too agree that to perceive Being happens only through interpretation and so Being comes
to man also only through reason. But such interpretation cannot be total. It cannot be so comprehensive as
if it can speak the entirety of Being. Whereas they believe that reason interprets the existence of man, they
also posit that interpretation is always partial, continuous and even endless.15 For Jaspers, man confronts
his existence and articulates it through his use of reason. But the human person has to be made aware
that the interpretation, even if it seems to be decisive, is but temporary and it can change anytime. With
the finite nature of every interpretation, the philosopher is cautioned to be incessantly vigilant of his own
existence because he knows that his articulation of it continues through time.16

The Need to Interpret through the exception

Jaspers has noted that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are not really the exemplars of their time. They are
even sometimes ignored by their contemporaries. They too have not left a particular school of thought or
a particular philosophical system. But they are studied even long after their deaths. They continue to
haunt the minds even of the contemporary men. For Jaspers, these two, though they are the exceptions of
their era because they dared to think differently, can serve as our inspirations in the way we do
philosophy today.17

Philosophy has to cease from being a mere naming of concepts [from mere handing on or passing down
of a philosopher’s doctrine (content) from one generation to the next]. Philosophy has to transform into a
real reflection (interpretation) of existence. A philosopher has to become constantly attentive to what
Jaspers calls as the ciphers, as those which can point to the human person the possibilities for the future.
The task of the philosopher is to confront the Encompassing, the Infinite possibilities, to which he could
project himself, and to begin a journey towards transcendence. With this kind of philosophizing, we must
not forget to discern and decide for our purpose, for our direction, for our reasons. In journeying towards
the unknown future, we must continue to ask: what else could come from here? Where would I like to proceed?
What would I like to do? For us to become authentic philosophers, we have to constantly push ourselves in
order to make decisions that can bring us beyond our boundaries. To philosophize is to journey towards
the beyond. Hence he says that to philosophize is Existenz, that is, to reflect on the actual experiences of
human existence.

Jaspers describes his lecture on Reason and Existenz as follows: “this lecture has no intention of surveying
the whole, but rather of making the present situation perceptible by reflecting upon the past. No one
knows where man and his thinking are going. Since existence, man, and his world are not at an end, a
completed philosophy is as little possible as an anticipation of the whole.”18 He further says, “the

14
RE, 26.
15
Jaspers said, “The age of reflection has, since Fichte, been characterized as reasoning without
restraint, as the dissolving of all authority, as the surrender of content which gives to thinking its
measure, purpose and meaning, so that from now on, without hindrance and as an indifferent play of the
intellect, it can fill the world with noise and dust… reflection cannot exhaust or stop itself. It is faithless
since it hinders every decision.” (RE, 31).
16
“Philosophy as thought is always a consciousness of Being which is complete for this moment,
but which knows it has no final permanence in its form of expression.” (RE, 48).
17
Jaspers said, “through them, we have become aware that for us there is no longer any self-
evident foundation. There is no longer any secure background for our thought.” (RE, 46).
18
RE, 48.

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contemporary problem is not to be deduced from some a priori whole; rather it is to be brought to
consciousness out of a basis which is now experienced and out of a content still unclearly willed.”19

In short, when Jaspers reflected about the possibilities of the contemporary way of doing philosophy, he
was insistent on the philosopher’s attentiveness to his present. The present is where man lives and creates
his life. This is the non-rational part of philosophy: to be engaged, as it were, in what is happening at
present. It is part of philosophizing to feel the agony of those who suffer, to rejoice with those who are in
triumph, to fight the cause of the oppressed, to seek for justice for those who are marginalized, to
experience the beauty of art and music, and I think, even to practice the faith of a believer. To
philosophize, one has to be fully conscious of his present, of his situation, and of his context.

However, Jaspers also realized that those who are overly emphatic about the present also missed an
important aspect of philosophizing, our projection for a future. He admits that every mode of
philosophizing could not totally dispense the use of reason. The present is so varied and enigmatic. Part
of philosophizing then is to create a whole, a unity, out of the multiplicity of the present. This is where
reason plays its role. Reason however should not be conceived as mere objective thinking.20 Reason is
one’s grasp of beings that bring out the latter’s existential significance. It is that which pushes the variety
and multiplicity of Existenz towards a kind of unity, even if such unity can never really be achieved.21

Jaspers believes that philosophy has to be rooted in the selfhood of the human person. The philosopher
perceives Being as the Encompassing, which is a horizon of infinite possibilities. When Jaspers was said
to contend that philosophy is “primarily an activity in which people gain illumination into the nature of
their existence and that content and doctrines are relatively unimportant,”22 he probably means that
philosophizing is simply an articulation of humankind’s journey towards freedom and authenticity. The
future of mankind surely depends on the kind of interpretation that we give to the ciphers of the
Encompassing. Our future depends on the decisions that we presently assume as part of our own journey
to Existenz.

CONCLUSION

How important then is philosophy in our time? This is a question that concerns not just philosophers but
all of us. All of us do philosophy. We do it daily. Philosophy is practiced in every act of choice, in every
moment of decision. When humankind takes a leap from its old self to its new being, philosophy spells its
significance.

Philosophy is man’s basic and fundamental search for the truth. But such truth has now ceased to become
propositional. Rather, philosophy reflects on the truth by confronting the person’s present existence, and
discern for the proper things to be done.

The human civilization is in a continuous journey. We could not but decide for the future of our race
because the moment that we cease deciding for ourselves, we are also endangering the continuous
existence of our race. In all these moments of decisions, how can we ignore the value of philosophy?

Karl Jaspers insisted on Existenz philosophy because this is the kind of philosophizing that can properly
guide humankind to its future. When our present generation is confronted with so many questions in the
areas of morality, medicine, technology, and even human reproduction, philosophy is held responsible to

19
RE, 48.
20
John K. Roth, ed., World Philosophers and their Works. (California: Salem Press, Inc., 2000), 950.
21
Roth, 951.
22
Roth, 945.

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remain true to its vocation. Philosophy would cease to become relevant if it fails to speak about these
things.

Then, who would ever say that the business of philosophers is passé? Philosophers would never run out
of things to ponder upon. The business of philosophers will only be gone if the philosophers themselves
would shrink back from their vocation to think. But as long as humanity continues to exist, and as long as
there are people who continue to embrace the vocation “to meditate, reflect, and think,” then the business
of philosophy can never become obsolete.

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