(December 5, 2014)



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A few weeks ago the “Community” church Pastor, Jonathan Garland, said to me that he was considering using the word “existentialism” in his sermon. A listener overheard and asked, “What’s existentialism…is that individualism?” (That question surprised me, for he closely answered his own question—with some possible qualifications.) The Pastor, hurrying to begin the Service, gave a short and correct etymology that included Kiekegaard’s influence--though I felt the need to add that there was a difference between being existentialistic and existentialism. The “Pastoral counselor” did well in the moment, and he wisely refrained from using the word in his sermon. Sense then I’ve wondered if I could give a philosophically short answer to something historically complex. This Web-page is that effort.

Howard Clinebell, pastoral counseling author, once wrote that pastors might find something beneficial in the existential perspective. I have somewhere a response-letter from him stating an interest in my clinical application of Karl Jaspers’ Existenz to counseling alcoholic patients in the Northwest Indiana Alcoholism Clinic. That perspective can contribute to the empathic relationship. This is said here to show the relevancy of being existential, and the superficiality of its growing common misuse by VIPs trying to be highfalutin academicians.

One more thing to show that the perspective is primarily reality based; Jaspers’ clinical experiences show that both feet are tethered to reality while leaps of faith are made, but even those are true to history’s contributions. For example, he is being faithfully existential when he says that the true homosexual is one born with both gender-organs, and thus there is a real basis for confusion (His General Psychopathology).

Jaspers does not borrow the word Existenz, for it is a German word; it’s also a Danish cipher that Jaspers choose with due respect to his time-space individualistic precursor, Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard defines it clearly in his publicized Postscripts, and placed it on the landscape of the public domain. One cannot say Jaspers borrowed any substantive conceptualizations from Kierkegaard, but there is an identification with his critical-protestant thinking. He sees and shows the influence that Kierkegaard had/has in Western (occidental) culture.

That cipher has a meaningful religious history. Its home is the West’s far-north geographical region far enough from Rome to resist and cultivate the matrix-soil of the Reformation. It’s in Denmark that “the Protestant doctrine soon gained the ascendancy” (George Park Fisher, The History of the Christian Church, NY, Charles Scribners Sons, 1915, p 311.). Protestantism became tit-for-tat masculinized treachery. Jaspers would wilily use such a word with therapeutic meaningfulness to support his “philosophical faith” to distinguish such from a “faith” that needed constant reform--to avoid the return of an inherent use of force to establish exclusivity.

Existenz (German) carries the feminine gender; plural is Existenzen, still feminine; Existenzieren feathers off into the neuter and takes on a mode of an intransitive verb—a neutrality that cannot be objectified. (Cassell’s New German and English Dictionary, by Karl Breul, Funk and Wagnalls Company, NY, 1939, p. 186).

To show the significance of gender, take the German word “sceptic”, meaning doubt, and in the feminine gender; “sceptic” becomes in substance doubt with a flare of the masculine gender as it congeals, and as a doctrine it becomes scepticism and one could say substantively and aggressively masculine (Ibid. 546, German, and 509, English). Now look at Jaspers’ use of “scepticism” and “scepsis”: “Scepsis is an indispensable way of philosophizing….It is a sceptical approach rather than scepticism….” (Philosophical Faith and Revelation, Collins, London, 1967, p. 85).

The feminine gender here has linguistic significance. I mean words can hurt or resolve. Nearly half a century ago I wrote: “A depth of gratitude will always be more restrained than ought to be for Existenz—the matrix—and the rational and emotional nourishment made possible by the same.” (Karl Jaspers’ Existenz Philosophy and the Possible Application to Counseling, Dissertation, Lincoln Christian Seminary, Lincoln, Ill., 1968, Preface). Maternal affection masculinized can have sublimating effects. That matrix-effect, that experience, is like the Gertrude-Jaspers sublimation process that gave love a central role in Jaspers’ communicative-consciousness.  

Remember that here’s something to forget: “Forget linking gender to a specific meaning or concept” I mean forget that! But remember that the Latin for “existence” has an emerging quality in that truth is relative and complete at each “evolving” equilibrium level until punctuated like with a traumatic pontifical opinion.

Now, let’s make a brief reference to the use of Existenz vs. existentialism in Kierkegaard’s postings (“Postscripts”). Existentialism is system for system’s sake, and in Kierkegaard’s “unscientific postscript” he makes light of the allegiance to system as such in a fashion showing how one might make fun of academia’s claim that science is so close to knowing how life began, that we might as well say we know. Making light of the quest for system not truth, He says,

“…now that the System is almost finished, or at least under construction, and will be finished by next Sunday…” “…the system...this very moment has more to offer than God…this very moment it has more, to say nothing of next Sunday, when it is quite certain to be finished….”
“The systematic Idea is the identity of subject and object, the unity of thought and being. Existence, [Existenz] on the other hand, is their separation” [and with that the Existenz is a non-gendered self suspended between itself and the transcendent—not forgetting the source “God”].
 (A Kierkegaard Anthology, edited by Robert Bretall, Princeton, 1946, p195ff).

Jaspers says that he prefers to refer to his philosophical faith as the biblical faith. He therefore continues standing with Kierkegaard’s mission, agreeing on:

“An existential system cannot be formulated….Existence itself is a system—for God [emphasis mine]; but it cannot be a system for any existing spirit. System and finality correspond to one another, but existence is precisely the opposite of finality.” (Ibid. p.201).

Kierkegaard was the Protestant’s protestant, the prophetic voice within the Danish State Church. That Church’s lack of ethics was mild compared to the history of the Catholic Church—though not denying a share in treachery like the massacre of Stockholm. Lillian Marvin Swenson said:

Naturally this has been seized upon by Catholics as proving that S.K. might have found his way into the true Church, had he lived a few years longer. …it can be argued Kierkegaard’s way of thinking was fundamentally and irrevocably Protestant…

And so the argument also can be made that this Kierkegaard-Existenz includes its theological and NT Christian history and was/is not diluted in the Jaspers-Existenz. 

Actually, it’s existentially animated (clinically based and tried) because Jaspers is the most systematic of the existentialistic thinkers, and makes the existenz-theological declarative perspective an alternative to the protestant tendency for non-directive or passive counseling. He’s so systematic he’s Thomas Aquinas’ nemesis. Jaspers took great care to make sure no exclusive dogmatic establishment could leap on any loose string and stake a toll-claim between the individual and God (regardless of where individuals have there names written).

Information: The “General Index” of Jaspers’ General Psychopathology lists “Existenz” but cross references to “see Existence itself”. A fine explanation of Existenz is found in the Chapter “The Human Being as a Whole”, Page 760. “Our life derives from a source which lies far beyond our human existence…” (GP, The University of Chicago Press, 1963.)


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