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Possibilities for Contemporary Philosophizing

Possibilities for Contemporary Philosophizing

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Published by Joel Sagut

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Published by: Joel Sagut on Jul 01, 2009
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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.



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 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.



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 “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.



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 RE, 26. 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 selfevident 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 RE, 48. 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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