Philosophical Faith and Revelation
by Karl Jaspers
Harper and Row (Religious Perspectives Series), 368 pp., $15.00
Augustine of Hippo: A Biography
by Peter Brown
California, 463 pp., $10.00
The layman’s notion of what a philosopher ought to be differs greatly from that of the professional and academic student or practitioner. Karl Jaspers is an excellent example of the layman’s philosopher. His remarks sound deep and strange and yet in some indefinable way informative. They reverberate and they console. He seems to be talking about how the world is and how a man ought to live. If we move from the philosopher to the man, placed in the context of history and the German nation, then we find him a person of noble character. His record vis-à-vis the Nazis is creditable, quite unlike the record of the other notable German existentialist philosopher (more admired by some at least of the professionals), Martin Heidegger. He is interested in everything. He has written an informative work on Nietzsche. To judge from the number of his works translated into English, or at least into a kind of English—this is not to criticize translators who are given a virtually impossible task—he is read widely in England and the United States.
Philosophical Faith and Revelation, the latest of his works to be translated, has been praised in extravagant terms by someone as intelligent as Hannah Arendt. All the same, it is undoubtedly and sadly true that among most English and many American philosophers, especially those for whom Wittgenstein, Malcolm, Black, Quine, et al. are names of power, his writings would be thought rather closer to Ralph Waldo Trine’s In Tune with the Infinite than to the recognized classics of modern philosophy, such as Wittgenstein’s Investigations, Elizabeth Anscombe’s Intention, Professor P. F. Strawson’s Individuals, Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, Sartre’s L’Imaginaire, Ryle’s Concept of Mind.
This reviewer finds it impossible to admire Jaspers’s performance as a philosopher. He lacks logical rigor and (much more important) the ambition to achieve it, and these lacks are not compensated for by any notable intuitive performances. He is to the existentialist tradition a kind of death-mask, but one that is so poorly molded that it betrays no genuine likeness of what was once alive. All the same, what he writes is full of interest, for he does succeed in identifying a range of problems, especially in the philosophy of religion, that are neglected by more precise and less ambitious philosophers. A very German intelligence and sensibility are put in the service of a kind of grand tour of problems in the philosophy of religion. The comment on the monuments surveyed is sometimes gnomic, sometimes obscure, sometimes paralyzingly commonplace, sometimes acute.
As good an example as any of Jaspers’s approach to the philosophy of religion is to be found in his doctrine of the “cipher” (Chiffer). What the doctrine seems to convey is this. Concepts that have a straightforward use and status in empirical discourse cannot be grasped in the same way when they are applied, to take some characteristic examples, to the universe as a whole …