TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Karl Jaspers' Concept of Universal History in the Context of his Age and Ours

The following paper was presented at the 2015 Telos Conference, held on February 13–15, 2015, in New York City. For additional details about the conference, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

Already in the first third of the 20th century, Karl Jaspers began formulating a philosophy that addressed the collapse of Enlightenment concepts of universal history and offered a perspective that could help us reformulate “universal history” as a viable concept. Jaspers’ work in this area is, I believe, underappreciated, and constitutes a realistic “cosmopolitan vision” that could help us address many of the thorny issues of global cultural conflict and diversity that we face today.

Karl Jaspers was born in Northern Germany in 1883 into a liberal Protestant family. He studied law briefly, switched to medicine, and in 1909 started a career as a psychiatrist at the University of Heidelberg psychiatric clinic, where he wrote his first groundbreaking work, General Psychopathology, in 1913. This book, republished many times, gained its illuminating power from Jaspers’ phenomenological perspective—gleaned from Husserl and Dilthey—while summarizing existing psychiatric knowledge, it called for a careful biographic description of every patient, and a realization that “the individual is always more than he knows or can know himself to be, or than anyone else knows him to be.”

Jaspers then shifted from being a psychiatrist to being a philosopher, gaining a professorship in philosophy at the University of Heidelberg in 1921, where he taught until being pushed out of teaching by the Nazis by 1936. Jaspers’ first philosophic work, written under the influence of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Psychology of Worldviews, in 1919, was an exploration of why people can differ so persistently, despite seeing the same “facts.” Bringing Hegel’s “phenomenology of the spirit” down to earth, Jaspers conceived of worldviews as attempts to grasp the whole from an inevitably limited perspective, spurred by the antinomies of existence, and prone to rigidity as frozen ideologies.

Jaspers did not publish anything for eleven years, until in his magnum opus, the three-volume Philosophie (1932), he presented the full elaboration of his Existenzphilosophy. Existenz, following Kierkegaard, is the active, feeling, and thinking interface of an individual with the world, in time. We have three modes of knowing, according to Jaspers: world orientation (science and objective knowledge), Existenz (or the individual becoming self aware), and metaphysics (the realm of transcendence, which for Jaspers we are pointed toward by metaphor and symbols, or what he calls Ciphers, and which we can never fully reach or know). Science should be our lodestar and point of departure, but it cannot supply all the answers we need. It cannot provide us with ethics or values; for that there must be a stretching of the mind, which he called “transcendence.” His concept of transcendence is an extension of a phenomenological Kantianism. Total reality, “being-in-itself” (noumenon) other than appearance or phenomena, is beyond our ken. Metaphysical systems that purport to offer absolute or complete knowledge are simply “shells” (Gehäuse) that protect individuals from the terror of finitude and historicity. Influenced by Jewish thought and also resonant with the later Adorno, Jaspers rejected any totalism as a hubris rooted in fear and an “escape from freedom.”

A third central concept in Jaspers’ philosophy (after Existenz and transcendence) is communication. The quest for both knowledge and selfhood, Jaspers said, requires breaking from the shell of solitude and ideology to engage in the “loving contest” in which individuals strive for openness and honesty in “boundless communication.” In communication “I am revealed to myself, along with the other. . . . [T]his process does not occur in isolated Existenz. It only occurs with another.” Jaspers’ erstwhile friendship with Heidegger (whose work overshadowed his) shaped his thought, as did his close intellectual engagements with his Jewish wife, the sociologist Max Weber, and his student and post-1945 beloved interlocutor Hannah Arendt.

In the influential The Origin and Goal of History (1949), he presented his theory of the “Axial Period” in human and world history, a period roughly 800 to 300 BCE in which what he called the philosophic or “spiritual foundations” of humanity arose in three independent places: the West (both Occidental and Oriental or Near East; Greece, Iran, and Palestine), India, and China. What do the Jewish prophets, Socrates and Plato, Zoroaster, Buddha, Confucius and Lao-Tse have in common? All were individuals who created new ways of thinking that went beyond myth to logos or theory, beyond mere existence and acceptance of the status quo to critical reflection and an asking of radical questions—in essence, this was the worldwide birth of philosophy and “spiritualization” and a reach for the transcendent. Jaspers concept of the Axial Period has found both wide acceptance (it is used as an organizing principle in many “world history” textbooks) and has inspired illuminating comparative historical and religious sociology such as that of Robert Bellah and Schmuel Eisenstadt. It has also provoked many empiricist objections (Jaspers was quite loose in his chronology) that reflect contemporary trends quite skeptical of any imposition of “universality” upon the vast diversity of the human experience.

But what is very often overlooked in considerations of Jaspers’ concept of the Axial Period is that his idea is indeed philosophical, and not intended to be primarily descriptive and empirical. It is normative and ethical in nature. History has one goal and one origin, and universality is something to be striven for, not an automatic feature of “History.” Jaspers’ concept of “historicity,” different but similar to that of the phenomenological Heidegger and hermeneutic, contextualist Dilthey, makes “universal history” not what history necessarily was or will be, but what it contains as a potential and could be.

Regarding religion, Jaspers was a nonbeliever who, however, identified with Christianity as his heritage (especially its biblical, Judaic foundations). The very term “Axial” as applied to history originated, Jaspers pointed out, with Hegel, who saw Christ as the divine incarnation and the transformative moment in human history. But, as Jaspers noted, “the Christian faith is only one faith, not the faith of mankind. . . . [T]his view of universal history suffers from the defect that it can only be valid for believing Christians.” The real axis must then be universal, as interpreted in the essential spiritual-philosophic meanings of the most significant religious and foundational thinkers of world history. Shaken in his faith in Western culture during the depth of Nazi barbarism in the 1940s, Jaspers was nourished by turning to Chinese and Indian wisdom traditions. Philosophic truth for Jaspers is never a singularity but emerges from the engaged communication of those who will have a plurality of truths. When one realizes that religion consists of metaphor, symbol, and ciphers of transcendence as a process, then appreciation for the diverse scaffolding and metaphoric meanings of diverse religions and communication becomes possible.

The problem of tolerance for cultural diversity or “multiculturalism” and whether Western values of human rights and freedom of speech have universal applicability also can be wisely approached from a Jaspersian standpoint of phenomenological humanism. Respect for the limitations of our knowledge and openness to what Jaspers called the “Encompassing” means tempering arrogance with epistemological humility and an eagerness to dialogue. Does Jaspers’ seemingly “relativistic” attitude to diverse cultures and worldviews leave us no way to defend, much less promote, “Western values”? Here Jaspers’ pioneering work in world philosophy and what has been called his “cross cultural hermeneutic paradigm” offers us a way of envisioning how this could proceed. Refraining from totalistic claims and unconscious Eurocentric pretension should not prevent us from an active, engaged communication in which Western ideas of freedom and human rights are ardently put forward and asserted. If it is in the nature of human being to think reflexively and critically, and if as Jaspers once wrote, “whoever is a human being is at the same time a philosopher,” then while it may be a faith that a semblance of world unity can be reached, it is at least a philosophical, not a blind or dogmatic faith.

Finally, in the defense of liberty and the struggle against new totalitarianisms (which again, as Russell Berman has recently observed, have roots in the same Western irrationalist, illiberal world view which Heidegger embraced), Jaspers emphasis on how “most of us”—most us of meaning most human beings globally—”dread the freedom of selfhood” can guide us in the analysis and understanding, not just the condemnation, of authoritarian creeds and movements. Jaspers’ political writings, and in my view those also of his student Hannah Arendt, contain a wealth of insights and cogent analyses not only of the social-cultural roots of illiberal and totalitarian movements that could be applied to the “Daesh death cult,” but also the obstacles that mass society places on the way to a future world wide democracy and federation of republics as originally imagined by Immanuel Kant. This goal, to be consciously chosen and worked for, is what Arendt said in her memorial service eulogy for her mentor in 1969 Jaspers embodied in his life and work—a carrying forward of “reason, freedom and communication” in history.

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