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Death, ‘Deathlessness’ & Existenz in Karl Jaspers’ Philosophy by Filiz Peach

Kurt Salaman cheers himself up by considering Karl Jaspers’ views on death and the experience of the eternal in life.

Forty years after his death, the psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers continues to be influential, but is not that widely understood. This book gives a profound exposition and analysis of his existential philosophy. It mainly focuses on his concept of Existenz and its relation toTranscendence.

Unlike other existentialist thinkers such as Heidegger or Sartre, Jaspers never wanted to construct a metaphysical system of Being. He rejected such ‘ontological’ systems as rigid cages which restrict the dimensions of Being to the objective, that is, to the rationalisable experience of being in this world, and ignore transcendent (that is, higher and ineffable) dimensions of Being.

For his own existential philosophy, Jaspers’ aim was to indirectly outline the metaphysical features of human Existenz – which means, what it’s like to experience being human in our full freedom – and to encourage every individual to realise his or her own authentic self-being by a subjective existential activity of thought which isn’t objectively describable. But the indescribability of this subjective state he thought we should aim for poses a serious problem for any effort to give an adequate account of the metaphysical aspects of Jaspers’ philosophy. Nevertheless the author, Filiz Peach, lucidly explains Jaspers’ basic anthropological and metaphysical concepts (the Boundary Situation, Existenz, Transcendence, Historicity, Existential Communication, Encompassing, Unity and Eternity) by referring to the broader context of his philosophizing and to similar ideas in the philosophy of Plotinus, Kant and Kierkegaard. She focuses especially on the question: What does Jaspers mean when he argues that a human being can experience ‘deathlessness’? Peach points out that this clearly has nothing to do with standard religious conceptions of immortality. Rather, deathlessness is one of the basic aspects of the so-called Augenblick experiences. Meaning literally ‘in the blink of an eye’, an Augenblick is a momentous, decisive but fleeting instant which impresses an individual so deeply that he or she quite literally experiences eternity within a moment of objective time. The Augenblick deathlessness experience is defined by Peach as “one’s momentary, existential timeless experience that can manifest itself as eternity in objective time in the world.” Further, she interprets this ‘eternity in time’ as “One’s timeless existential experience of eternity that occurs when eternity cuts across time at one single point, ie is transverse to objective time. This eternal point represents the present ‘now’.” So we could even say that in the Augenblick we experience the eternal nature of the present.

A basic thesis of Jaspers in this context concerns the act of existential self-realisation or of ‘true selfhood’, where a human being understands and implements the full freedom of their Existenz. In this self-realization the individual also encounters Transcendence, experiencing his or her true self as a ‘gift from Transcendence’. A closer look at the various contexts in which Jaspers speaks of Transcendence makes clear that he means by this term a transcendent source of all Being. He also uses other expressions for this source, including “absolute Being”, “ultimate Being”, “absolute Reality”, “Being as such”, “Being-in-itself”, “the All-Encompassing”, “God”, and “the Deity.”

This may raise the question of whether Jaspers is arguing for a religious position after all. But for Jaspers, Transcendence is a reality beyond observation, that cannot be researched by scientific methods or proven by rational argument. Transcendence cannot be grasped by our categories of thinking: it resists objectivization by cognitive processes. Transcendence can be neither naturalized, nor anthropomorphized. Every attempt to rationalize or embody Transcendence in concepts must necessarily founder. So for Jaspers, Transcendence, ie absolute Being or God, is hidden forever and cannot speak to us through mediators in an objectifying language such that its nature is set or defined, nor by an act of revelation as religious belief systems presuppose. This is a counterargument against proposals to interpret Jaspers as a religious philosopher.

It is a merit of this book to show by many sophisticated and subtle arguments that Jaspers’ idea of deathlessness must be interpreted outside of a religious framework. Another merit is the scrupulous explication of basic concepts of Jaspers’ philosophy in an analytic style. This analytic approach to Jaspers recommends this book to philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition, and not just to Continental or existentialist philosophers.

© Prof. Kurt Salamun 2009

Kurt Salamun is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Graz, Austria.

Death, ‘Deathlessness’ and Existenz in Karl Jaspers’ Philosophy by Filiz Peach, Edinburgh University Press, 2008. 224 pages, £55, ISBN: 978-0748625352.

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