Philosophical Faith

Philosophical Faith, according to Karl Jaspers, provides each person a way of understanding the world and their place in it. Unlike religious belief, there is no need for a special revelation from a prophetic figure nor any required dogma to express universal truths. Rather, philosophical faith stands on the basis of critical reflection upon my own experience of the lifeworld. Such a faith or belief (German Glaube) encourages openness to the possibility of Transcendence without requiring the dogmas, liturgies, and/or a priestly class.

Rather than being a total substitute for religion, philosophical faith can complement most sacred traditions. Jaspers thought that religious communities, for all of their negative history, foster a sense of belonging along with a support network for comfort through the darkest hours and guidance through confusing situations. Nonetheless, the negative history of dogmatic fanaticism, restrictive legalism, and violent oppression associated with certain religious elements remain.

Where such dehumanizing forces marginalize “non-believers,” philosophical faith provides a path to open-ended communication from within genuine hospitality. I do not require of myself or of anyone else blind belief in that which cannot be understood by contemplating experience. This allows me and anyone else engaging philosophical faith to build from a belief that each person partakes of something greater than mere individual survival. Each singular person as free-possibility can achieve great things by heeding the vocation of humanization.

By embracing the burden of my humanity–that I am free and therefore responsible for my actions–Jaspers’ concept of philosophical faith inspires me to discover my ownmost meaning in life.

In comparison to all that is mediated by the understanding, philosophic faith is immediate:

“…If faith is neither solely content [object] nor solely an act of the subject, but is rooted in the vehicle [of] phenomenality, then it [faith] should be conceIved only in conjunction with that whIch is neither subject nor object but both In one, with that whIch manifests itself in the dualIty of subject and object. 

“We call the beIng that is neither only subject nor only object, that is rather on both sides of the subject-object split: das Umgreifende, the Comprehensive [the Encompassing]. Although It cannot be an adequate object, it is of this, and with this in mInd, that we speak when we phIlosophIze…

“…Philosophical faith… looks on all formulated and written philosophy only as preparation or recollection, only as inspiration or confirmation. Hence no meaningful philosophy can be a self-contained conceptual system. The conceptual structure is never more than half, and attains to truth only if, in addition to being conceived, it is embodied In the thinker’s own historical existence…” 

Karl Jaspers, The Perennial Scope of Philosophy. Trans. Ralph Mannheim London: Routledge, 1950, 14-15.


  1. I would define faith as “hoping that something is true if the evidence is not sufficient AND it has not been shown to be utterly implausible”.

    Do you agree with this?

    1. Jaspers in this particular text is attempting to locate philosophizing in relation to two key kinds of understanding: religious and scientific. Philosophizing makes use of empirical probability and spiritual conviction to disclose what is existentially possible.

      I agree with your definition in so far as it concerns a religious attitude that does not ignore but welcomes scientific discovery.

      I suppose the question would be, should we give the most “weight” to the tangible or the intangible? Or should we find the path that gives us the golden mean to take on each in their proper relation?

      As a former Augustinian, I am always open to being corrected about the tangible by natural and social science. But I am also aware–with Augie, Plotinus, Airstotle, and Plato–that we must “take on” the most speculative limits–even there can be no final demonstration for the intangible (Freedom, God, Immortality). They are possibilities with which I must struggle.

      Here is a bit more from Jaspers’ Der philosophische Glaube (Unfortunately, I am using the English version. I don’t have the German one at hand):

      “Faith that springs from the Comprehensive (das Umgreifende) is free, because it is not fixed in any finite thing that has been made into an absolute. It has a character of indetermination (i.e. in reference to what can be stated-I do not know whether and what I believe) and also of the absolute (in practice, in the activity and repose that grow out of the decision).

      “To speak of it requires the basic philosophical operation, which is to ascertain the Comprehensive by transcending the object withIn the object[,] thinking that remains for ever inevitable, l.e. to break through the prison of our being that appears to us as split into subject and object, even though we can never really enter into the sphere outsIde It.

      “There is something In us that resists this basIc operation
      and thus resists philosophIcal thought itself. We strive always for something tangible. Hence we erroneously take philosophical ideas for object knowledge. As a cat falls on Its four paws, we fall upon the tangIble object. We fight against the vertigo of philosophy, against the intimatlon that we should stand on our heads. We wish to remain ‘sane’, holding on to our objects and evadIng the rebirth of our nature In the act of transcending. ” [p. 22 of the English translation]

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