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Karl Jaspers: Confucius as a paradigmatic individual thinker

The psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) primarily engaged with Asian philosophy after the Second World War. He wrote about Confucius in the postwar era as part of his theory of the “axial age” in Vom Ursprung und

Ziel der Geschichte (1949; English: The Origin and Goal of History, 1953) and his portrait of paradigmatic thinkers in Die mafigebenden Menschen: Sokrates, Buddha, Konfuzius, Jesus (1957; English: Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus: The Paradigmatic Individuals, 1962).

Jaspers’s 1949 work postulated, as part of his philosophy of history written in the shadows of Hegel’s teleological conception of history and the devastation and loss of the Second World War, a decisive period of the mutually independent coemergence of higher levels of post-mythical human consciousness in philosophy in the diverse milieus ofChina, Greece, India, Israel, and Persia. These are not identified with primitive mythical thought but have their own rationality and reflectiveness concerning the human condition. Philosophy is consequently not intrinsically and exclusively Western as it was for Husserl or Heidegger (see Chapters 5 and 6). His approach to non-Western thought is closer to that of Misch in seeing in it multiple forms while, at the same time, embracing their inner unity in kinship with the idea of a perennial philosophy. Jaspers echoes older premodern conceptions of philosophy in a modern form by understanding it, as we saw in Misch earlier in this chapter, as an expression of the human condition. It is a basic quality of humans as communicative individual animals to question, reflect, and seek understanding and meaning. Jaspers privileges philosophy’s Western development—interpreted as a progressive achievement of science and technology, liberty and individuality, and historical consciousness—in this and his other works on the philosophy of history.

Jaspers elucidated in the 1957 work the “fundamental” teachings of Confucius. He wrote in a letter to Hannah Arendt concerning this work that one goal was to protect Confucius from his Sinological banalization and the other to show the fruitfulness of his thought.68 According to Jaspers’s portrait, communication as the “life element” of human nature in Confucian thought: “Ren is humanity and morality in one. The ideogram means ‘human’ and ‘two,’ that is to say: to be human means to be in communication.”69 That is, ren A contains the radicals for human (ren A) and two (er ^), implying the mutuality of human nature, sociality, and the ethical compartment of benevolence. The Analects presents ren both descriptively as a fundamental aspect of human nature and prescriptively as its normative ideal that human behavior typically fails to realize.

Jaspers justifiably notes the fundamental ethos of ren in the Analects and Confucian philosophy. He envisions ren not only communicatively but more mysteriously as the “encompassing”—Umgreifende, a central concept in his thinking of existence—all-embracing “source of the absolute untainted with experience” that gives customs, habits, and laws their measure and value.70 It is an elusive notion, as Jaspers notes. What then is ren? Analects 12:2 defines ren as “loving people” (airen §A), a teaching with universal scope that even a Western philosopher might potentially comprehend.

Jaspers, in contrast to Buber, emphasized the universality of the Confucian teaching of benevolence, and—due to this universality rooted in the communicative nature of humanity—maintained that, unlike Jesus and the Buddha who an average Westerner could not authentically imitate: “Socrates and Confucius point to pathways that we too can travel, though not as they did.”71 Jaspers’s image of Confucius is not that of a mystic, prophet, or saint. There is no revelation or prophecy; Confucius expresses and enacts the encompassing through community and communication. His reverence for heaven and respect for ghosts and spirits primarily has an ethical function rather than religious character.72 Confucius is accordingly a Socratic-like thinker who reflects on the situation of life, critically investigates and seeks the truth, and resolutely chooses and lives the good life.73

The Confucian teaching can be adopted in diverse cultural milieus for Jaspers in that it seeks a moral transformation that it attuned to the moral capacities of human nature. Confucius’ teaching remains pertinent as it seeks to mold and build a world by renewing the principles of the past, rooting the new in the old without allowing the past to stifle the present.74 The norms of antiquity are orientational; they are to be acquired, made the present’s own, and enacted anew.75 Our contemporary situation is one of fashioning a world, in relation to multiple pasts, in negotiating a complex multicultural context of diverse and conflicting claims.

Jaspers’s sympathetic reconstruction attempts to do justice to Confucius as a philosopher with universal significance. It has its boundaries inasmuch as it perpetuates the myth of the great original individual thinker who stands separate from and is misinterpreted by the subsequent degenerate “dogmatic” institutionalized tradition.76 Following the philosophy of primordial origins, which Jaspers interprets psychologically and individualistically in contrast with Heidegger, Jaspers supposes that the individual thinker must have been greater than the subsequent fallen tradition that could only have persisted with the inspiration of a great original source.77

Along with the language of communication and the encompassing, Jaspers employs an existentialist rhetoric of decision, will, and resolute individuality in the face of the either-or of one’s existence to describe these eminent thinkers that are distant to them. This interpretive strategy allows Jaspers to appreciate the paradigmatic universality of non-Western philosophers—he also wrote of the Buddha in the same volume of The Great Philosophers as well as Laozi and

Nagarjuna in the third German volume on “origin-orientated metaphysicians”— to an extent by separating them from the concrete institutionalization and transmission of their teaching.78

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