Hannah Arendt thought of Karl Jaspers as a Socratic figure, and argued he was the only successor Kant ever had. His work on philosophy as a fundamentally dialogic activity had a lasting influence on Arendt’s work throughout her career. And yet, Jaspers’s work has long been underappreciated in the Western canon. Today, amidst a renewed interest in Existentialism, though, his writing is receiving attention from a younger generation of scholars interested in Existentialism and the legacy of Hannah Arendt. This week Carmen Lea Dege offers a short profile of Jasper’s legacy in Psyche magazine:
Jaspers is one of the very few existentialist thinkers who did not seek to master, tame or conquer the unknowable and finite condition of human life. Instead, he tried to cultivate a relationship to this essential quality of life and engage it on its own terms. He repeatedly insisted that ‘I do not accomplish my freedom. I did not make myself. I do not exist by my own means.’ Rather, I depend on the freedom of others and the complex makings of a fragile world. Only because our lives are contingent and vulnerable can we experience love, freedom and purpose as something meaningful. The attempt to prove love or catch the ephemeral presence of beauty would likely take away the experience. Already in his Psychology of Worldviews (1919), Jaspers argued that it is ‘precisely this uncertainty of all contents which, for us finite beings, defines the only way to spiritedness, intellectuality and vitality.’ While order and stability are necessary for human existence, they alone would turn us into machine-like puppets. What we come to understand in moments of happiness, loss and tragedy is that we cannot possess meaning, we cannot own who we authentically are or determine our identity. Uncertainty was not something to overcome for Jaspers. He rather considered it the ground of ideas such as freedom, truth and justice that can be defined only negatively, through what they are not, or not yet.