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In the Philosophy of Karl Jaspers

Joel C. Sagut

When we talk about transcendence in the philosophy of Karl Jaspers, it seems that
we are confronted with two possible meanings. First, the word transcendence
seems to suggest a particular state or being that is beyond what is perceivable by
the senses. This is the transcendence that goes beyond our grasp and
comprehension that is, the transcendence which at the same time is Unknown.
Analogously, the transcendence can be likened to beings that are non-worldly like
the spirits, the angels and significantly the Divine, the Transcendence. There seems
to be a striking contrast between this form of transcendence and that of the human

In another sense, the transcendence is also about something human. The notion of
transcendence aptly describes the reality of human existence. It speaks about a
human person’s own journey to create himself/herself. Transcendence is about a
struggle in actual life. It speaks about the series of confrontation that a human
person has to face and undergo in order to form himself/herself as a person.
Transcendence is about human growing. It is about going beyond boundaries and

I believe that the issue of transcendence, though can be classified according to the
above-given distinction, is basically about describing human life. Both senses of
transcending, as the Divine and as an act of growing, are descriptions of a human
person’s journey towards his/her Being. To transcend suggests a person’s
discernment so that one may find the Being of his being.

But to speak of transcendence as an act of outgrowing the old self, we describe the
human person’s journey towards his/her authenticity. Hence, to transcend is first to
acknowledge the presence of boundaries and definitions that are surpassed or
overcome in the act of transcending. In fact, transcendence attests that human
limitations are neither absolute nor fixed. The limitation of human existence can
even hardly be named so that it is really very difficult to define which things are
proper to humans and which are beyond the realm of humans. Can there really be
things that are non-human in a sense? Peculiar to human existence is the fact that
human persons have the capacity to push their limitations further and become what
once they were not. Human persons have the capacity to extend beyond
themselves. They have the capacity to grow and outgrow their old selves. In fact,
human life is basically about growing, and the outgrowing of our old, immature and
less perfect ways.

In our class discussions on Jaspers, among the many other things that have truly
struck me is this particular aspect of transcending. It allows me to understand
better my own human existence. If there are many reasons to become optimistic
about life, then one is the fact that human existence is capable of transcending.
Human existence is never fixed, and we are never condemned, as if by obligation,
to a particular and limited way. Whoever or whatever we are at the moment is
never a finished product yet. This is precisely the beauty of our human existence:

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we have varied possible ways of living our life and we always have the chance to
mature and grow. No matter how dismal our life may be, we can still believe for a
better tomorrow precisely because we know that we can work to improve our future
because we are the ones who are truly responsible or accountable for the kind of
life that we wish for our own.

Hence, we can say that the human person is never condemned to who he/she is. A
human person is always formed by the kind of choices that he/she makes, and
he/she can continuously recreate himself/herself as long as he lives. Perhaps this is
the reason why Martin Heidegger once said that “death” is the culmination of one’s
own existence. The culminating character of death is not just about its being the
“end” of existence. Rather, the death of the human person actually defines the kind
of life that this person has created and recreated through his/her limited but
enigmatic existence. The death may rob the person of another chance to recreate
and grow but, at the same time, such death has also already defined the kind of life
that the person has lived. Further, the kind of life that is created in death is a
product of a constant will towards transcendence, that is, an unending process of
dying to oneself and growing up to a new being, of erasing old boundaries even if it
would mean facing the new ones.

Strikingly, I have come to a realization that Jaspers’ philosophy can also be named
as a philosophy of “transcendence.” Jaspers calls his own philosophy as Existenz
philosophy and he basically speaks about the “human person’s journey towards
his/her own transcendence.” Hence, I would like to argue that Jaspers’ philosophy
may also be seen to have revolved around the idea of transcendence. In what would
follow, I intend to mention several words that are oftentimes identified as part of
Jaspers’ vocabulary and relate these words with the idea of transcendence.

Existenz and Transcendence

An author claimed that in Existenz, we become. Existenz is the human person

actualized. Jaspers himself claimed, “decision makes Existenz real…”1 This suggests
that the kind of person one becomes is a product of the series of choices and
decisions that he/she has taken. Man as Existenz is distinguished in Jaspers from a
dasein because of the fact that the latter is identified by Jaspers only as the factual
person, that is, the bodily person that is here and now and has no guarantee of
owning his/her own existence. The dasein of Jaspers is the being that is busy with
the day to day affairs, and is occupied by his mundane concerns. Jaspers’ dasein
does not ask the relevant question of his Being. He can be compared to Heidegger’s
“das Man” that is, the being whose Being is never a concern for himself/herself.

In contrast to his dasein (or Heidegger’s das Man), the human person as Existenz
claims his/her own uniqueness as a being. The Existenz has accomplished the
process of owning, of defining, his/her Being through the quality of the choices that
he/she takes.

Karl Jaspers, On My Philosophy,,
Retrieved last March 11, 2008. This was taken from Walter Kaufman’s (ed.), Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to

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Our decisions certainly create our person. When we struggle to make a choice and
own full responsibility of the taken choices, we are making ourselves more and
more unique. This unique and singular, yet responsible, person is the Existenz, and
as Existenz the human person feels the real weight of the choice taken. As one
person views the Encompassing in the horizon, his perception of the things that he
values also poses on him the strong demand of deciding for the self. But when the
person takes the decision, some of these decisions are even painful because there
are decisions that may bar the person from other choices. But a person who is
Existenz bears and understands, and even appreciates, this pain. A person who
wants “to become” would not escape the pains of decision-making.

Existenz and the limiting situations. Since decisions are sometimes painful, some
people are paralyzed by their fears of the pain and are led into indecision. When I
was younger, I often hear the warning about the danger of drifting. The drifters are
those people whose lives rest only on the complacency of their assured existence.
The drifters are the dwellers. They never move on because they are afraid of
leaving their own comfort zones.

I believe these drifters are among the victims of indecision, and they are among
those whom Jaspers would refer as the dasein, or the das Man in Heidegger. Drifters
are voluntary prisoners. They seemed to have exhibited their freedom because of
the seeming contentment that they manifest, but in reality they are paralyzed by
their own fears. They refuse to move out of their comfort zones not because they
have experienced total meaning or Being in there, but because they are afraid that
they might be hurt if they are to let go of some things which they had already
traditionally cherished.

I believe that the warning against becoming drifters is an apt reminder for all. It
warns us not to ignore the reality and the demands of our day to day existence.

But there are aspects in man’s existence that sort of force the person to take
decisions. In fact, ironically it seems, the limiting situations, according to Jaspers,
are even our own ticket to full expression of freedom and thereby journey towards
authenticity and transcendence. Man as Existenz is sometimes forced to confront
his/her Being, even at times through a kind of an imposition, because of some
elements which Jaspers have termed as the limiting situations.

What then are these limiting situations and why do they push the person toward
his/her transcendence and authenticity? According to Jaspers, the limiting situations
are: death, suffering, struggle and guilt. 2 As I have mentioned, I believe that these
limiting situations are ironic because they are the means or ways for a person to be
liberated and to practice authentic freedom. When a human person is confronted
with these limiting situations, he/she can hardly escape it. The human person is in a
sense forced to face his/her own existence. He/she can no longer remain in her
complacent state in the comfort zone. The idleness of the person’s existence is in a
sense ruptured so that he/she is left with no choice but to confront the present. As
an example, when a person is confronted by the reality of death, either through the
death of a very dear one or his/her own approaching death, such reality of death
cannot be ignored. No matter how hard one may try to escape it that reality would
Notes, from Wm. L. Reese.

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continually haunt him/her. In other words, when death becomes a reality and not
just a concept to a person, the person is forced to face his present for it can never
be ignored anymore. The same is true with the other limiting situations. One’s guilt
brings the person to his present, as no one can totally escape guilt once the guilt
has stricken him/her. Suffering and struggle also brings the person to his/her
undeniable present. These realities impose the present “situation” to the person.
There is no way of escaping them.

It is in this sense that these limiting situations bring the person to his/her Existenz.
No one can continue to simply drift away when death is approaching. The coming
death would somehow force the person to ask questions that are vitally related to
his/her existence. The question about the sense of life, and the meaning of one’s
existence, can never be ignored once the limiting situations set it. Hence, we say
that these limiting situations bring the person to his Existenz, or we say that
through these limiting situations, the person becomes Existenz.

In man’s Existenz we can also see his continuing journey towards transcendence. As
man leaves his comfort zone, and as he/she ceases from simply drifting along, the
person embraces a new reality about his/her Being. In a sense, the person leaves
behind the old self and embraces a new one. In other words, every man as Existenz
is also transcendence. Every effort to take a stand and to define one’s Being
through one’s choices and decisions is also a concrete and necessary step to
journey to transcendence.

Transcendence and Empathy

Jaspers also emphasized the value of communication in arriving at a truth. But one
reality about communicating is the fact that there is another person to whom we
communicate. In empathy, the realization of the presence of the other brings with it
the invitation for us to be involved with the other. Without our involvement with the
other person, we are again imprisoning ourselves within our own selfish ego.
However, with the reality of one person empathizing with the other, we see a clear
instance of transcending, for in such a case there is a person who moves away from
his/her enclosed selfish self toward the reality, even if it’s a mysterious reality, of
the other.

As mentioned in one of the lectures in class, empathy began with the arts where the
audience is led into imitating the actors on stage. In empathy there seems to be an
established connection between the self and the other. Such connection allows one
to imitate or at least mimic the other. In the absence of such a connection, the
mimicking becomes meaningless for it has only acquired its meaning from the
original act on stage.

In intersubjectivity through empathy, we could somehow also speak of that

connection. The one who mimic must at least have an idea of the meaning
conveyed by the other for without such understanding there can be no ground for
the mimicking. But more important than that understanding is the possibility of a
“communion of being” whereby the person somehow glimpses on the Being of the
other. When I allow the other to commune with my being, I develop a kind of
intuition about the Being of the other person. Communication becomes easier and

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can even be facilitated non-verbally. In this instance, there is another kind of
transcendence. For such communication would not be realized unless I begin that
journey from my closed self to the other person. There is in a sense, a mutual
openness, whereby each has allowed the other to understand or grasp the meaning
of the communication.

Arguably then, we can say that man as transcendence is visibly seen also in the fact
that man is Existenz. The journey towards Existenz and transcendence is a
synonymous journey whereby the person takes choices and decisions that
eventually create and define the “self.” However, it is the very nature of this
transcendence in the human person that its product is never final. Transcendence is
always an on-going project/task for the human subject and it can never be
completed until the person’s death. Transcendence is a never ending work and man
has to do it again and again. In the same way, man as Existenz is also a being that
is never complacent about its Being. The meaning in life is continually redefined
and recreated. The person’s day to day existence allows him to expand and renew
his own horizon and perspective in life, and such expansion is also never ending.
The person as Existenz could never be a complacent being. Rather, he/she is one
that continually searches for things that could bring him/her meaning. That is why,
a person in Existenz also needs to be attentive and never be complacent about
his/her own existence.

But as man journeys in life, there is also another reality (incomprehensible and
ungraspable) that engulfs his/her being. Marcel somehow also speaks of this when
he talks about mystery, which he also isolated from a mere problem because of the
simple fact that the former can never be resolved by any form of technical
application of the already formulated truths. Rather, even in Marcel, the mystery is
always beyond that which can be grasped by men. In Jaspers, this mystery or the
Unknown is yet another form of transcendence, or more aptly, this is the

Encompassing, Ciphers and Transcendence

Transcendence as the Unknown can be properly taken as the Divine. However, for
people who may deny the reality of a Divine, this can be taken as Jasper’s
Encompassing. This is the kind of horizon that envelops man’s existence. The
Encompassing is unknown and ungraspable precisely because it can never be
exhausted. In our search for that which is true, we view the horizon in front of us.
The Encompassing lay before us a variety of possibilities, and yet it remains to be at
a distance. Ironically, when we begin our journey to get nearer to the
Encompassing, we also realize at the same time that it also moves with us. We can
never get nearer to the Encompassing precisely because it also moves with us and
ultimately the distance in between is never overcome. Yet despite this difficulty,
new vistas have already emerged. These new vistas provide us new data for our
choices and decisions. In other words, the Encompassing also somehow serves as
basis for our decisions. The way we view the Encompassing allows us to decide for
our present, and yet, our decision remains to be a part of that Encompassing and in
no way can our decision become final, absolute and all-pervading. Our decisions are
just that: glimpses. They are mere provisional or tentative definitions of our own
horizons as we take our personal views of the all-pervasive Encompassing.

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The reality of the Ciphers:

If the Encompassing cannot be overcome, then our desire to grasp things totally is
in vain. We can never define the absolute truth precisely because the truth
surpasses all definitions. Hence, if we are deprived of the possibility of the absolute
truth, we are to contend ourselves with the provisional norms afforded us in our
encounters with the Encompassing. The Existenz of the human person is dynamic
precisely because truth is never final.

But if truth is dynamic, how are we to approximate our path when we are
confronted with the inexhaustible Encompassing? This is where Jaspers introduced
the idea of the ciphers. The ciphers are also in themselves in a way mysterious, and
they are not clear perceptions of things. These are not well-defined formulae for
problem solving, but at the same time, the ciphers are pointers that help the person
to take an informed and owned decision. It somehow guides the person as he/she
treks his path towards the Encompassing. To describe it, even if in a sufficient way,
in our concrete human existence, the ciphers can be likened to events in our life.
These allow us to see the sense of what we had done so far and to project about the
things that we may possibly do in the future. The ciphers are, in a sense, signposts
in our journey. They facilitate our reflection by hindsight, and allow us to project
about what is to come.

With the ciphers, our decisions are taken from the resources of our personal,
individual existence, and this makes our decisions singular and unique. Utilizing the
ciphers of our existence, we are gifted with the possibility to make our decisions
ours, rather than base our choices on the formulations of generally held standards
which are proposed by what Jaspers simply calls as the consciousness in general.
For a human person to become existence, his/her choices have to be his/her own.
This only happens when that person takes heed of the ciphers of his/her own

If we talk about transcendence as facilitated by our choices, then our transcendence

is not a blind expression of freedom. Though the reality cannot be absolutely fixed,
we still ground our decisions to the reality of our existence. When we transcend, we
don’t just simply give up our old selves, but we rather do this by heeding the
directions and guidance of our own existence. These guides are our ciphers.

Transcendence as “The Transcendence”

Lastly, when we talk about our human existence, there is that undeniable fact that
our existence is engulfed in a reality which we could never exhaust no matter how
much we would try to comprehend it. The Unknown always stand at the background
of our given perception about reality. In every perception, we are also confronted
with the realization that something more is still hidden from us. The realm of the
Unknown is what we refer to here as the Transcendence.

I included a reflection about the reality of the Unknown or the Transcendence as a

reaction to criticisms against faith. Faith may not readily be taken as an antonym to
authenticity. The person’s faith does not diminish his/her freedom.

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In the same way as people make their decisions via their awareness of the
Encompassing, believers also find road to authenticity in the practice of their faith.
The realization of the reality that lies beyond human cognition provides a strong
basis for the reality of faith. As Marcel would even argue, no hope is present when
there is no danger captivity. No hope is present when there is no threat of despair,
and a person only becomes hopeful if he/she continues to believe and live despite
the seeming impossibilities of his/her finite existence. It is along this line that we
can argue for the necessity of faith in Jaspers. The faith of the person affords him to
hope for a reality that may not be readily perceivable. Aware that his knowledge is
limited, the person now becomes open to the reality of the Unknown, the
Transcendence. When critics say that a believer already possesses an answer to a
question about a reality before the question is actually asked because the believer
uses his faith as the ultimate answer, they fail to appreciate that in faith, nothing is
certain. In faith, the person opens himself/herself up to something that is not
known. Our faith in God is not real if we are not aware that God may not be real at

What is important for believers is the fact that as they shape their life, they do so in
an attempt to concretize the Unknown God. This is the reason why discernment in
religious life and in the life of any believer is very important. There is always that
question and issue about discerning the will of God, because in every single event
in the realm of existence, the will of the Divine is open to countless possibilities.
Authenticity runs parallel with discernment. Without discernment, faith ceases to be
faith and it rather becomes dogmatist and fundamentalist.

Authenticity and Transcendence

Speaking about the philosophy of Karl Jaspers then, we could not but talk of the
issue of transcendence because it opens up our discussions about other related
issues such as choice, freedom, the limiting situations, the ciphers, Existenz, and
even the reality of faith in God. The meaning of a person’s life rests on the
continuous transcendence of the self.

This ultimately brings us to an issue that is common among existentialist thinkers

that is, the issue of authenticity. Authenticity, as defined in Martin Heidegger,
another existentialist thinker, is the constant asking of the whoness of the Dasein.
This whoness constitutes the person’s Being. Although Jaspers’ dasein is different
from that of Martin Heidegger, precisely because Jaspers considers the dasein as
the man who is merely present here and now, and who does not necessarily thinks
and asks about its Being, Jaspers still maintains that the human person asks the
meaning of his existence, and such act of questioning constitutes the person’s

Authenticity refers to the person’s search for his own BEING. As a person searchers
for Being, he/she has to pull together the two senses of transcendence, that is, he
has to create and authenticate himself through his choices (I am what I chose
myself to be), and at the same time, he starts his journey towards the beyond, or
the unknown. It is in this constant struggle for the beyond and with the Unknown
that the human person gains the opportunity to create himself/herself. We may call

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this as both the expression of freedom and religious discernment, but in these acts
of responsibly owning our decisions and choices and in finding God’s will in life, we
continue in our journey through life and strive toward living an authentic human

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