by Scott Bradley
by Scott Bradley
Discussing in Reason and Existenz how Kierkegaard and Nietzsche contributed to humanities' modern understanding of itself, Karl Jaspers quotes the former: "The something I am...is precisely a nothing...Existenz at that critical zero...between something and nothing, a mere perhaps." Nietzsche, he tells us, called himself "a philosopher of the dangerous perhaps."
This is existentialist philosophy, of course, but I find its parallels with philosophical Taoism both amazing and wonderfully helpful.
"Existenz" is purposely kept in the German in an attempt to convey its special meaning as that uniquely human possibility as opposed to traditional ideas of existence. Existenz in the human being is only a possibility, not a given. Existence is a given. Authentic existence (existenz) is the perpetual realization of that critical zero where I both am and am not. Similarly, the awakened Yan Hui tells us "it turns out I have never begun to exist." He knows no definitive 'me', no true fixture in time. He is 'unfixed'. He wanders in the freedom of "a mere perhaps".
This is for me the heart of the matter, a summation of this mystical way. Yet I have presented it only to introduce Jaspers' discussion of something in the character of the writing of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, a characteristic I think I share. "Possibility is the form in which I permit myself to know about what I am not yet, and a preparation for being it," Jaspers writes.
Both philosophers understood that they wrote about "a mere perhaps"; they expressed in their writing their sense of being both a something and a nothing, a becoming. "Thus, in their thinking about the possibilities of man, both thinkers were aware of what they themselves were not in their thought. The awareness of possibilities, in analogy to poetry, is not a false, but rather a questioning and awakening reflection." Ever I feel the need to tell you that I offer only what for me also is but "a mere perhaps".
Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche died in their forties, the former lonely, unloved, and unappreciated, the latter, insane from tertiary syphilis. Jaspers died in 1969. I close with this only to offer a perspective which might help us to now return to critical zero.
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