Karl Jaspers Tells How It Is

I judge a serious thinker by how well he understands the present situation. Many of them aren’t much help. My first breakthrough was reading Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses – where he writes about mass man. He put this concept on my mental map. Most existentialists have ignored Ortega, but Jaspers in The Philosophy of Existence also speaks of a mass mentality, even though he never mentions Ortega by name. His description of the mass mentality is better than Ortega’s because it is more profound. Ortega’s, by contrast, is easier to understand.

Perhaps I should provide more of an introduction to Jasper, explaining how his work has been translated from German (the English language suffers by comparison) but I will just throw you in and let you swim on your own. The following passage begins on page 3:

Existenz is one of the words for reality, with the accent Kierkegaard gave it: everything essentially real is for me only by virtue of the fact that I am myself. We do not merely exist; rather, our existence is entrusted to us as the arena and the body for the realization of our origin.

Already in the nineteenth century, movements with this turn of mind kept recurring. People wanted “life,” wanted “really to live.” Instead of wanting merely to know, they wanted to experience for themselves. Everywhere, they wanted the “genuine,” searched for “origins,” and wanted to press on to man himself. Superior men became more clearly visible; at the same time, it became possible to discover the true and real in the smallest particle.

If for a century now the tenor of the age has been entirely different –  namely, one of leveling, mechanization, the development of a mass mentality and universal interchangeability of everything and everyone where no one seemed to exist any longer as himself, it was also a stimulating background. Men who could be themselves woke up in this pitiless atmosphere in which every individual was sacrificed as an individual.

They wanted to take themselves seriously; they searched for the hidden reality; they wanted to know what was knowable; and they thought by understanding themselves they could arrive at the foundation of their being.

But even this thinking frequently degenerated into the frivolous veiling of reality that is characteristic of the leveling process, by perversion into a tumultuous and pathetic philosophy of feeling and life. The will to experience being for oneself could be perverted into a contentment with the merely vital; the will to find the origin into the mania for primitivism; the sense of rank into a betrayal of the genuine orders of value.

He wrote this in 1937, just after being dismissed by the Nazis, but he could just as well wrote it in the 1970s, when all kinds of new age movements were flourishing. As he says, it was an interesting time – but it did not last.

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Stoned on Philosophy

Does this sound like fun? After all, stoned implies a drug trip. And it is not a bad analogy – you do feel like you are in another world: a strange new world with terrifying (and fascinating) possibilities. But the comparison with drugs will not take you very far.

The effect of drugs can be (more or less) predicted – or at least it can be predicted that something will happen. The effects of philosophy are something you just wander into by accident – and can just as easily wander out of again. In that way it is like a spiritual trip: amazing insights occur, that you immediately want to share with everyone – and then they vanish.

Existential philosophers had the advantage of using literature (novels and plays) to tell their story in another way. But for me Karl Jaspers, who came into philosophy from psychiatry, has had the most impact. I am reading his Philosophy of Existence and it is hitting me right in the gut.

It is no use telling you to read him too. You have to wander in the wasteland for awhile first. And few want to do that.

I can only think of the saying “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” Except he may not appear – or he may only lead you astray.

Doing It Right

This is something that has always obsessed me – and is the main reason why I could not stand the high-tech world, where I worked from 1980 until 2001. It was not the technology, I loved that – but the people, who insisted on doing things wrong.

In any area of expertise there are always ways of doing things better – and it doesn’t take a genius to find out what these are. This is how mankind has always prospered – by doing things better. There should be no arguments about this – and as a matter of fact, there never are.

Instead, people stubbornly do the wrong thing anyway- knowing intuitively that this is what they are supposed to do. If anyone got in the way (such as me) he was simply mowed down – or to use a biblical term: cast into the outer darkness – and ignored (like an Old Testament prophet).

To put this another way: we are now concentrating on destruction, not construction – and we are carefully ignoring this – the most important distinction that we should be aware of.

My guide here has been Karl Jaspers and his concept of Existenz. From his Being Unsatisfied as an Expression of Possible Existenz:

Unless one is unsatisfied with the mere performance of a task in an ideal entirety – can possible Existenz utter and undertstand this dissatisfaction. It is never motivated by generally valid reasons; those rather tend to induce contentment and tranquility in the totality of mundane existence permeated by the idea thus spiritualized.

The discontent of possible self-being has broken through mundane existence and cast the individual back upon himself, back to the origin that lets him deal with his world and, with his fellow, realize his Existenz.

The important point here, which he only touches on, is how business has become our religion – one that demands ourselves as living sacrifices.

Until recently, I stayed in contact with an engineer friend in Silicon Valley. I knew him well, and attended his wedding dinner – an extravagant affair in Chinatown in San Francisco. I liked him – you could not help but like him – but he never seemed to get the hang of who is was or where he was going. In the last ten years he must have worked at nearly that many unsuccessful start-ups in the Valley.

He was like many other people I have known – their lives made no sense, and eventually they broke off contact with me, because they knew this unconsciously – and knew I knew it too.

Being Unsatisfied as an Expression of Possible Existenz

This is more Karl Jaspers, my last posting on him was Experience Cannot Broken Down Into its Components. This guy says so much in so few words he blows me away – at one point I nearly passed out in a restaurant, dripping sweat and with snot dripping out of my nose – as I related in A Basic Realization Can Be a Terrible Shock.

Lately, I have been spending some time with my siblings – something unusual in itself because we have not been close for a long time. Without really wanting to, we have gone back to the subject of religion – the curse of our early lives. My brother and his wife have been going through a difficult period: they have left their own life to serve the church – something that has happened many times in the history of our family, going back for over a hundred years. The results have not always been pretty – as my immediate family knows all too well.

This morning, I am reading the section Being Unsatisfied as an Expression of Possible Existenz – the title of this posting. He speaks of the need each of us has to have our own origin. We have to live and act in the mundane world, but that world is never enough in itself. I quote:

The choice of my tasks and my striving for accomplishment are simultaneous manifestations of another origin…While I devote my empirical individuality to my finite tasks, my possible Existenz is more than that empirical individuality, and more than the objective, realistic impersonality of my political, scientific, or economic achievements.

Although its essence is realized solely by this participation in the historical process of mundane existence, Existenz is at war with the lower depths of the encompassing world in which it finds itself. It is against those depths that, failing in the world, it seeks to hold its own in the eternity of intrinsic being.

I could go on, there is a wealth of meaning here, but what I want to give you is the flavor of his thought.

Religion is part of the search for ultimate meaning – but except for the exceptional few, it has not delivered what it promised.

Experience Cannot Broken Down Into its Components

This is one of the fundamental assumptions of the business world: basically a mechanical, and even inhuman, world.

This observation is so simple it hardly needs saying – but so important it needs saying constantly.

Take an extreme example: sex. Can a sexual experience be completely described (or broken down) into its physical sensations? Can any experience, for that matter, be completely physical? The answer is obviously “No.”

At one level, we are talking about the difference between mind (or consciousness) and the brain. How on earth do they correlate? We haven’t a clue, but we know they are not the same thing at all.

But even more is involved: what Karl Jaspers calls Mundane Existence and Existenz. Or physical reality and transcendental reality. I quote:

I may crave the world as the font of my joy of living. I can indeed not exist without this craving, but as an absolute impulse it becomes self-destructive; it is against this impulse that my possible Existenz warns me to detach myself from the world lest I become its prey.

This world is the business world, which has become our whole world. Which is destroying us.

A Basic Realization Can Be a Terrible Shock

I had been wondering why people never got the big picture. They could sometimes focus very well on part of the picture, but could not see the wider view.

Saturday I got my answer – and it was dramatic, as I related in my posting Companies That Cannot be Fixed. I wasn’t thinking too well at the time, and I am just now, two days later, able to write about it.:

Yesterday, I had a serious mental and physical collapse while eating in a restaurant. I had been reading Karl Jasper’s Mundane Existence and Existenz when I started to sweating profusely, and sat there only semi-conscious with the snot drooling out of my nose. Fortunately, no one panicked – and about 30 minutes later I was able to stagger home and put myself to bed.

As I said, I was drifting in and out of consciousness, but one thought was clear “This is the sickness unto death. I have heard of this, but now I know what it feels like.” I had to walk by the taxi stand on the way home (about five blocks) and they were all staring at me in amazement. I must have been quite a sight.

The human mind/body combination is not capable of such a shock. One day later, I was barely able to take my dried laundry down from the line.

Our problems have become too big for us to even comprehend – and we are physically unable to comprehend this.