At Home with the Great Philosophers

Retrieving the first volume of Karl Jaspers’ magnum opus The Great Philosophers involved a brisk hike up three city blocks to the state library. It was worth the trek. The German thinker was an original theorist in his own right but, like Etienne Gilson, was generally more successful as a historian of philosophy.

Jaspers is an excellent writer. He conveys an enthusiasm for philosophy, coupled with sensitivity and nuance, which few thinkers are capable of. Take for example the introduction to his brief study, Way to Widsom:

What philosophy is and how much it is worth are matters of controversy. One may expect it to yield extraordinary revelations or one may view it with indifference as a thinking in the void. One may look upon it with awe as the meaningful endeavour of exceptional men or despise it as the superfluous broodings of dreamers. One may take the attitude that it is the concern of all men, and hence must be basically simple and intelligible, or one may think of it as hopelessly difficult. And indeed, what goes by the name of philosophy provides examples to warrant all these conflicting judgments.

Another twentieth-century scholar, whose popular History of Philosophy has remained in print steadily since it appeared seventy years ago, is the Jesuit Frederick Copleston. And while I am much closer in outlook to the Catholic priest, I don’t find his books nearly as intellectually accessible or stimulating as those of Jaspers.

I say that he was at his best when analyzing the thought of others than expounding his own vision of the universe. His attempts at building a “Jasperian” system (including his theory of an “Axial Age” in human intellectual development) filled many volumes, yet  never really caught on. It is even more neglected than the grandiose and impotent positivist metaphysics of Auguste Comte.

For me, Jasper’s greatest shortcoming lay in his stance toward “organized religion.” His assessments of Christian ecclesiology are marked by a combination of hostility and superficiality. (The irony is that, unlike many contemporaries, he was an unwavering critic of atheism.) These differences aside, we still have much to learn from a man who says:

We hope to enter into the world of the great philosophers, to make ourselves at home in it, because it is in their company… that we can attain to what we ourselves are capable of being.

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