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Transcendence in European Philosophy

The postmodern era creates its specific conditions for the search for transcendence; this very quest is, however, a certain anthropological constant – it is a component of human life at all the times and in all the geographical regions. „God“, the „super-natural“, the „beyond the world“ are more or less successful but elementary and commonly used words to denote what philosophy – until recently a dominating form of our civilization's thinking -has been trying to elaborate at the level of its conceptual apparatus in terms of transcendence. It does so in a permanent dialogue with non-philosophical modes of relations with that instance. Through its mode of grasping the issue (or rather the mystery) of transcendence, philosophy often reconstitutes itself in a hitherto unparallelled fashion. We can speak of a development of the self-conception of philosophy vis-a-vis transcendence. In the following passage I would like briefly to preview an exposition of the four most outstanding modes or degrees through which, in my view, philosophy has so far opened itself up to transcendence, ie. it has taken the issue of searching for transcendence as intrinsically its own. Starting from such a philosophical background – and, in turn, we will let our insights shed light on that background –, we will proceed to that form of searching for transcendence which is symptomatic for the present era.

1. Plato – Transcendence as Genuine Being

We stand in between being and non-being, yearning for the form of being which will prevail over non-being inside us and in our world.

Paul Tillich

Plato's „discovery“ of the world of ideal substances, crowned with the universal idea of Good, which Plato sometimes designated as „the Divine“ – an imperishable, perfect world, situated above or beyond the passing and imperfect sensually perceptible world – did not originate as a mere dispassionate hypostasis of logical abstractions. The very manner Plato employs to introduce, or rather initiate, us into this supraworld – the form of narrating mythical stories (about a cave, a carriage and pair of our soul, postmortal judgement etc.) – reveals his concept's intrinsic connection with the world of experiences of Greek mysteries. The unbiased questioning of Plato's teacher Socrates aimed at discovering genuine goodness, genuine virtues, genuine life certainties, enquiries which cast doubts on and disrupted the seemingly immediate certainties of an ordinary, conventional life, gave Plato an analytically well-elaborated space to be filled with philosophical re-establishing of the main constants of the orphic experiential religious world: the immortality of the soul, difference between this and the other world, body as a grave of the soul, reincarnation etc. The most profound meaning of the search for transcendence in Greek mysteries – a search taking the shape of esoteric and often drastic initiation rites, breaking through the limits of experience of everyday routines and introducing its participants to the unexplored ground of the innermost ecstatic events wherein each and everyone separately faces contacts with the adored deity, which can allegedly change human postmortal fate – was philosophically deciphered by Plato as essentially consisting in a desire for the ideal: the immortal soul's yearning for its original divine home in which it used to dwell before entering the world and into which it wants to return after death.

According to Plato this desire can be fully satisfied only with the help of a philosophical „care of the soul“ – through a spiritual way of life devoted to philosophical learning. A philo-sophy, conceived in this way as a life practice, is implemented in Plato's school by its „devotees“ through the method of dialo-gical search for answers to the fundamental human questions: concerning genuine knowledge, goodness, love, the best political order in the state, beauty, genuine morality... As Plato writes in his famous Seventh Letter, a confrontation of various opinions may evoke in the human soul a process of „anamnesis“ at the end of which the right solution shall emerge – but not always fully communicable by philosophical means. In this sense, philosophy, including the notion of conceptually conceivable world of ideas, constitutes in Plato's eyes nothing but a necessary propedeutics – this process of live philosophizing, creative analytical work forms a mere „rubbing of woods“ out of which a conceptually no longer definable spark of true cognition may suddenly burst.

A philosophical path to transcendence is thus travelled as a spiritual practice; with regard to it the teaching of ideas is a mere speculative aid marking out the main direction of the road: from the lower to the higher, from the apparent to the real, from the passing to the eternal, from the imperfect to the perfect, from the derived to the original, from ingenuine being to authentic being – from dark to light. Plato was the first philospher who – operating at the level of his own conceptual equipment – attempted to capture the very archetypal plane of human aspiration to rise upwards. Without their esoteric overtones, taken solely at their „literal“ value, Plato's writings remain to be a mere speculative torso with some ration-ally inexplicable elements (as illustrated by the critical attitude assumed by Plato's disciple Aristotle). As a result, Plato's works thus conceived are more of an obstacle than a true guideline for genuine spiritual openness. Nevertheless, as confirmed by the powerful line of Platonism, often overlapping with the mystical level of the human experiencing, and surviving in varying forms until our days, Plato's philosophy has time and again been capable of introducing a profoundly spiritual context from which it had proceeded, and has repeatedly been in a position to stimulate continued development of concepts which, linking up to Plato's philosophy, has been striving for an ever deeper and richer elaboration of what is its virtually paradigmatically determining conception of transcendence as genuine being.

2. Kant – Transcendence as a World of Liberty

Finite liberty in itself expresses something absolute.

Rio Preisner

But in terms of practical relationship with transcendence, Plato's metaphysical hypothesis of the world of ideas, a proto-type of all other metaphysical hypotheses relating to transcen-dence, is a somewhat ambivalent contribution. It is the best mode of securing for transcendence, within the framework of concept-ual thinking, both utterly firm, unshakable status and a guarantee of intellectual accessibility, and just by means of that to discredit it as transcendence. A speculative idea serves as a permanently available instrument to help our process of anamnesis of what cannot be recorded by any idea; but it is precisely for this immanent accessibility that a speculative idea invites us to indulge in abandoned forgetting of what it relates to or ultimately in casting doubts on its referential mission. Having become a substitute, it is later rendered unnecessary. Philosophy which has for long centuries operated within a closed world of speculative ideas becomes, together with that world, dead for a live, non-speculative contact with transcendence and thus for the possibility of its different conceptual treatment.

It was Immanuel Kant who first succeeded – at the level of peak philosophical argumentation – in overstepping that extensive intellectual horizon of constructing transcendence. Kant's spiritual background was Christianity, and in it its cardinal accent, which – drowned by traditional ideological artefacts – could have hardly been heard in academic thought at all: the conception of the relationship with trancendence not as an attitude primarily towards a subject of study or worship but rather as something one „comes to learn“ only after one manages to tune in one's deeds with it (with Him). (Cf. Jesus's: „Not everyone who calls me 'Lord, Lord!' will enter the Kingdom of heaven; but only those who do what my Father in heaven wants them to do.“ Matthew 7, 21) This non-speculative, volitive and ethical relationship – which has to this day been often jeopardized in the tradition of Christian philosophy and teology with neo-Platonistic explications, gnostically reducing spirituality's coherent practicality to matters of consciousness, knowledge and speculation – finally received in Kant's work a principled philosophical expression in the sweeping notion of the primacy of practical reason.

While for theoretical reason the attainment of transcendence is – as systematically proved by Kant – a futile struggle to achieve an unattainable logical certainty, practical reason sees transcendence as its own immediate prerequisite, a guarantee of its freedom, its good will. To act reasonably means to act morally, in accordance with the will enacted by the rules valid in the „realm of purposes“ – in the world common to all free beings „headed“ by God. Therefore, in Kant's perception trans-cendence is not an endlessly distant external instance to which our speculation is heading in vain but rather a universally common internal environment in which we directly participate through that portion of our being which is not subordinated to the laws of nature but to freely observed moral laws. Transcen-dence enables and guarantees our freedom – our espousal of good.

3. Jaspers – Transcendence as the Origin of Existence

Human being is evidently far less anchored and secured in itself than is generally bargained for.

Romano Guardini

Having penetrated the education of many European genera-tions, the optimistic radiance of the Kantian model of the straightforward path leading towards transcendence through rational moral improvement was radically extinguished in the 20th century. After the outbreak of the irrationality of war, there appeared in the experiences of Jaspers's generation a helpless awareness of contradiction existing between what ideally „should be“ and what there „is“. A gap emerged between immanence and transcendence. A priori rational solution is very difficult to be applied efficiently to bridge that gap under situations replete with strife, death, suffering, and guilt. It is vital to find a bridge, geared to carry the whole irrational burden of extreme conditions. Philosophical reason, which formulates the given problems, can no longer be a reason operating in the traditional elevation into the abstract. In a reflected way, it should be established as the reason of a concrete human exist-ence proceeding from the experience of its own being and strug-gling for its own and yet universally communicable spiritual illumination.

Karl Jaspers does confirm that transcendence can be rendered comprehensible even through the notions of classical conceptual thinking but only indirectly, as something that cannot be grasped through this kind of thinking; by using the method of analogy, paradox, tautology, questions which cannot be safely and unequivocally answered we will attain at least a formal under-standing of transcendence, which however – only following the failure of conceptual thinking – creates space for existential fulfilment. Analogically, even personally experienced situations of failure offer the possibility of perceiving them not only in terms of self-ensuring mundane here-being (Dasein) but of accepting them as „extreme“ situations – seen from the viewpoint of free existence. This particular level of human being, noted for the fact that when involved in it man becomes fully himself, is attained – according to Jaspers – precisely through searching for transcendence.

As far mundane being is concerned, transcendence is taken for a kind of chimera of „the other world“. But existence tends to experience transcendence here and now, as eternity which embraces time, which – in spite of its absolute heterogeneity – is not disparate but rather pervades with its relationship everything there is. Keeping in touch with transcendence, existence will brighten up, in understanding transcendence people are interconnected, becoming capable of intrinsic communication. Transcendence therefore is reality only for existence: the latter enquires, the latter also understands an answer. „Transcendence shall never enter a blind soul“ to whom extreme situations as well as all the other ciphers of transcendence are concealed by routine survival. „Cipher“ is a trace, „vestigium Dei“, an intermediary of the „speech of transcendence“. There is nothing that could not become a cipher; even metaphysics, if interpreted from existence, not from mere reason, constitutes this self-presentation of transcendence into immanence. Thanks to this self-presentation man actually starts – according to Jaspers – really loving the world. Human being's principal uncertainty and lack of safeguarding in the world, however, does not change itself in the relationship to transcendence; what does change is the fact that destructive impacts do not lead to decline but rather to fuller being, to a free claim to be out of origin of one's own self. – From the abyss of death we return to ourselves. Existence as a rebirth endowing man with greater abilities to bear his own fate – this is reminiscent of the harsh and illuminating depth of ancient mysteries. Many indications are that this time philosophical reason has penetrated it almost to the very bottom. Man has to suffer his way whole through to freedom; that path is lined with crises and catastrophes man does not choose of his own will. Therefore, existence is not a self-assertion in the sense of satisfying one's needs and emancipatory aspirations; it is not sovereignty which constitutes a measure unto itself. Its fundamental freedom conceals an act of being grasped from some different quarters.

Since in his existence man becomes his own self in his total dignity and value, mundane being is in no way devalued – it is penetrated anew. Transcendence-God does not approach existence as a mere factor of complementing or enriching; it is the found-ation of implementing existence, experienced as what man can never become but what is „donated“ to him in the form of power through which he is himself.

The spiritual background of Jaspers's philosophy is formed by no special religious confession. His conviction is an exclusive „philosophical faith“ which essentially aspires to forestall any possibility of confusing transcendence in its concealment with the manifest religious image. In our century brimming over with idols, religious mediocrity and false prophets Jaspers's philosophy stands guard over the open possibility of encountering transcedence independently of anything from the world.

4. Lévinas – Transcendence or The Other One

The idea of God is for us an unthinkable idea.

Maurice Blondel

Unlike Jaspers, Emmanuel Lévinas sees a guarantee for preventing the thinking of transcendence from sinking into the structures of immanent knowledge, ie. guarantee of preserving a live relationship with transcendence, precisely in a religiously determined faith, specifically in a faith whose cardinal message lies exactly in eliminating all the false certainties and in introducing man to the only certainty of absolute commitment to the One who baffles any absolute knowledge. The metaphysical desire, so powerfully kindled by Auschwitz and Gulag – to put it in the words of Beatitudes: the desire cherished by the poor and the weeping who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the desire of the pure in heart who are persecuted for righteousness's sake, the desire of those who suffer for their mercy, the desire of all peace-makers for the indestructible, absolute kingdom of such peace – can no longer be turned only to the God of an parlour philosophical creed; it calls on the God of the multitudes, the Lord of history. That is why the philospohical striving towards transcendence, in case of the Jewish thinker Lévinas, has broken through to this ultimate dimension. The preceding philosophical insights into the issue of genuine being, of freedom, of the origin of existence seem to be mere indications; standing behind all this for Lévinas is Him. Living, acting, obliging. Inaccessible to the austere religious fundamentalism, which adores the dead letter, and elusive to philosophical speculation which clings to practising a dead system. Lévinas as an explicator of the Talmud and Lévinas as a philosopher inseparably personifies a possible penetration of two universalities; he demonstrates that the faith and experiences of monotheistic religion can be immediately made accessible through philosophical concepts – without either philosophy or transcendence having to cease being themselves.

Nevertheless, philosophy is forced to overstep its existing framework (inherited since ancient times) whose determining centrepiece has always been, expressly or implicitly, a cogitating I, and a determined content what this I finds thinkable. Lévinas's Copernican turn towards the Other One represents a turn towards thinking of the „unthinkable“, which as God and as neighbour transcends my active cognitive intentions. Instead of Me the Other One becomes the determining centre of my philosophizing – it is what binds me to responsibility still before I can think of that. Transcendence, in Lévinas's interpretation, is not embodied into an idea, into an object, into a background; „the spirituality of transcendence does not coincide with the assimilatory act of consciousness“. Relationship towards transcendence – as an act of recognition of its absolute initiative – is not cancelled out but rather evoked and stimulated by an awareness of its unthinkability. On the contrary, what is totally graspable in the act of thinking can serve as a refuge for retreating from transcendence, as a material for ontological defence (related to mere being) against that to whose claim man is defencelessly exposed at the level of ethical commandment. Lévinas's priority given to ethics before ontology is reminiscent of Kant's priority of practical reason to theoretical one, as well as Jaspers's interpretation of metaphysics from the viewpoint of existence and Plato's fervour for the incommunicable. All these thinkers were aware that a certain mode of thinking, to use Lévinas's term – intentionality -, fails when confronted with transcendence.

In Lévinas's consequential and systematic treatment, transcendence is what has always principally baffled the ambition of thinking to have reality under its control. That what is thought directly touches on the thinking agent, evoking in him love, awe and responsibility. It is not a concept but relationship that provides a gateway to Transcendence.

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