Philosophical Faith and Revelation
Augustine of Hippo: A Biography
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, to history as a whole, to God. It may be that what Jaspers is saying does not, from a logical point of view, go beyond what Kant said about metaphysics, about the use of concepts that get their purchase from their application to the phenomenal world in discourse upon what goes beyond the limits of possible experience.
The outstanding sign that something has gone wrong in their application is the occurrence of antinomies, as in what Kant took to be the traditional proofs for the existence of God. Jaspers says more or less the same thing. For instance, he remarks of such concepts as “progress” and “evolution,” which have a genuine application within history, that “what is to the scientist a special aspect, subject to proof and of limited validity, becomes a cipher if it is applied to history as a whole.” If we subject the cipher to logic’s press and screw, or if we attempt to justify it by the use of inductive arguments, it comes to pieces in our hands. But this only happens if we expect of the ciphers of history the same logical behavior as that of the concepts we apply within history.
There is a difficulty here. Jaspers wants at one and the same time to argue that “progress” or “evolution” applied to history as a whole is a pseudo-concept and that such ciphers are nevertheless indispensable to metaphysical and religious discourse. In this discourse they are only dangerous if their character as ciphers is forgotten, as too often happens (so Jaspers believes) in the writings of traditional theologians. Also, it seems important to maintain that the concept of cipher does not itself have the character of being a cipher. If it were, what Jaspers says would be self-stultifying.
WHAT THEN is the role of the ciphers? They liberate us from the narrow world of middle-class materialism, of ignoble commonsense, of religions that claim truth for a particular revelation (“philosophical faith must give up the reality of revelation in favour of the ambiguous movement of ciphers”). “The one Transcendence speaks, to those that hear and see it, in the diversity of historic ciphers and is inaccessible as the real One.” The tragedy of our time is that “our modern, public, common intellect seems to be all but hermetically sealed against the reality of Existenz and Transcendence.” To live in the mode of Existenz is—to borrow from the Glossary in The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers (edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp, New York, 1957)—“being a self suspended between itself and Transcendence from which it derives its being and on which it is based.” We may gloss this, though some may find this explaining the obscure by the more obscure, as saying that human subjectivity, that which is spiritual as distinct from that which is psychological, does not fall under any empirically determinable concept. Instead, it has to be spoken of indirectly, in cipher. The ciphers, understood as such and not degraded into concepts that have an empirical reference, liberate us from the historical religions from which we derive many of the ciphers but within which the ciphers are degraded, and enable a free philosophical faith to be the ground of decision and action.
The step goes from bondage to corporeal concepts and sensory fears to freedom in the realm of ciphers. This is where the existential, original decisions for eternity are made.
The danger of our time is that with the shedding (inevitable, so Jaspers would argue) of the religious traditions in which historically the ciphers have been embodied, the ciphers themselves are discarded.
In the past ciphers mattered. Their energies moved the faithful…. Embodiment was for the masses, and not a subject of inquiry for the thinking believers, the philosophers…. The cipher language was the public language. It was the air you breathed. Today…the cipher language is no longer tied to embodiment. Embodiment cannot be maintained unchanged in a world illuminated by scientific realism.
That philosophical faith, mediated by the ciphers, is possible at all, except accidentally and for this or that exceptional man, is something Jaspers seems not quite sure about and is for him strictly a matter of faith and hope.
That today the cipher language withers along with embodiment is a calamity of our time. The air we breathe is not only diluted but polluted by concepts of scientific superstition. An insight into the nature of ciphers is the premise of their chance to regain their old existential vigour and wealth of language.
It seems that Jaspers is trying to make two points. The first is the fundamentally Kantian point, however much it may be dressed up in Kierkegaardian language: that where moral issues, questions of decision, are concerned, we have to bear and, as it were, live through the logical predicament in which we find ourselves when we employ concepts beyond the limits of possible experience. For Kant the crucial case is the need simultaneously to posit the empirical, phenomenal self subject to the determination of psychological laws and the free, noumenal self that is a necessary postulate of moral discourse. The second point is concerned with the situation of men in a culture ruled by the concepts and models of the natural sciences. In such a culture the human stature is diminished, man is no longer thought capable of freedom and tragedy, of risking a decision “for eternity.” The freedom of the world of ciphers restores to man that seriousness and weight enjoyed by ancient or medieval man but absent from the man of modern technological society. This time, however, the ciphers are entertained, can only be entertained, just as ciphers and not, as once they were, under the form of concepts having a determinate reference.
JASPERS seems to make no attempt seriously to face the difficulties of a philosophical kind that arise from his attempt to make the ciphers both meaningful and, strictly speaking, pseudo-concepts, poetic ways of talking. A sufficient illustration of his being content with a good deal less than logical rigor in his talk about ciphers is provided by his adopting, within a few pages, two positions which cannot both be true. He first maintains that ciphers do not refer to anything and that the language in which they function is a closed system. (I do not raise any question as to the intelligibility of this position.) “Ciphers mean a language that is heard in ciphers alone, that does not refer to something else, and whose speaking subject is unknown, unknowable, untraceable.” On the other hand, he also maintains that ciphers do point beyond themselves. He speaks of the cipher as “a signpost” and says of each cipher that it “requires us to realize its limitations, to feel what lies beyond it.”
His second point about ciphers is less obscure but offers just as many difficulties. The cipher only comes to us as embodied, that is, as this or that particular historical form, as, for example, in the myths of the great religions. For us, crudely for man since the Enlightenment, these embodiments cannot be taken in the same spirit as by those men who accepted the cipher in its particular historical embodiment, as, for example, the early Christians accepted that complex of ciphers that is the Judaeo-Christian sacred history. We are compelled, by the rise of the historical method, of the natural sciences, of the post-Kantian philosophy, to be demythologizers. But Jaspers himself is well aware that when the embodiment goes the enchantment of the cipher goes too, at least for most men.
At most, the ciphers seem to have a role in the life of a philosophical elite. In practice this surely represents rather a suburban middle-class religion, without content and without commitments of any specific sort, than a faith for which a man can live and die. It is plain that Jaspers is an impenitent bourgeois individualist. He is still involved in the senseless opposition between man as social and man as individual.