Karl Jaspers (pronounced “Yaspers”) was born23 February 1883 in Oldenburg to Carl William and Henriette Jaspers, a respected family within the community. Carl was a lawyer, the local sheriff for a time, and a bank director.
Jaspers did well in secondary school, which he atttended from 1892–1901. At graduation he had been accepted to the University of Freiburg law school. About this time, Jaspers was diagnosed with heart problems. Doctors told Jaspers to avoid strenuous activity.
After studying law inFreiburg andMunich for three terms, Jaspers moved to Berlin and began to pursure a medical degree. Jaspers leftBerlin for the University of Goettingen, where he studied from 1903 to 1906. Jaspers took the medical exams in 1908.
After receiving his initial degree in 1908, Jaspers interned in the psychiatric ward at a hosptial inHeidelberg. In February 1909 he received his M.D. and psychiatric degrees in Heidelberg, Germany. Jaspers’ doctorate thesis was (loosely translated) “Homesickness and Crime.”
Jaspers married Gertrud Mayer, a Jewish woman, in 1910. His marriage and love for his wife would later influence Jaspers’ view of the Third Reich and the German people.
Among pscyhiatric patients, Jaspers began to formulate a link between psychology and philosophy. Psychoanalysis and existentialism were also linked in the works of philosopherJean-Paul Sartre and analysts Viktor Frankl and Rollo May. Four years after obtaining his psychiatric degree, Jaspers publishedGeneral Psychopathology, a major work on mental illness that remains influential in the field. This 1913 work remains popular within university courses.
World War I, 1914–1918, deeply affected Jaspers, as it did most Eruopeans. He was interested in a number of psychological effects experienced by soldiers and civilians.
In 1916 Jaspers earned a professorship in psychology at Heidelberg. His interest in philosophy continued, as the war dragged to a conclusion. After the war concluded, Jaspers publishedPsychology of the World-View. Jaspers was awarded a professorship in philosophy, also at Heidelberg, in 1921. He was awarded tenure, a “full professorship,” in 1922.
In 1932, he published a collection of thoughts asPhilosophy [of Karl Jaspers]. The work focused on how to study the problem of existence without objectifying man or resorting to mysticism an artificial depth.
The National Socialists did not appreciate Jaspers opinions. In 1933, as World War II began, Jaspers was relieved of most teaching duties by the Nazis. Being removed from the administration, and losing his “full” status did not silence Jaspers.
By 1937 he was completely removed from the classroom and the university. He resented the Nazis and the people so willing to follow Hitler into war. However, Jaspers retained his pride in Germany and its intellectual past.
The government angered that Jaspers spoke about the mistreatment of Jews, prohibited publication of Jaspers’ works in 1943 — as the war was ending.
Jaspers returned to teaching at Heidelberg following World War II. The American administrators reinstated him to the university faculty. Jaspers dedicated himself to creating a new, liberalized, university.
With Dolf Sternberger, Jaspers co-founded the magazineThe Transformation. The magazine pushed a “liberal” agenda, along with a dedication to moral clarity. Jaspers started to attract some anger from the German people, and he did not shy away from this attention.
Jaspers turned his thoughts to how the German people had allowed the war to continue for so long. He explored his experiences and those of Germany in his 1946 workThe Question of German Guilt, a study of how the German populous was led by Hitler and the Nazis.
In 1948, Jaspers relocated to Switzerland, where he taught at the University of Basel.Nietzsche
had taught at the same university.
Jaspers died on 26 February 1969, shortly after his eighty-sixth birthday. He left behind 25,000 letters and more than 35,000 pages of notes and manuscripts.Commentary
Karl Jaspers’ role in existentialism is sometimes ignored, but he was important. He coined the term “Existenzphilosophie” — a forerunner of the term existentialism — and this alone makes his contribution unique. Jaspers viewed his philosophy as active, forever changing. This approach compelled Jaspers to protest any attempt to group him with other philosophers.
It is in the work of Jaspers that the seeds sown byKierkegaard
first grew into existentialism or, as he prefers to say,Existenzphilosophie
. One reason for his opposition to the label “existentialism” is that it suggests a school of thought, a doctrine among others, a particular position.
-Existentialism; Kaufmann, p. 22
Jaspers linked the philosophical movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Kierkegaard + Nietzsche
As a philosopher who came upon the role along a circuitous path, Jaspers’ legacy is a merging ofSّren Kierkegaard andFriedrich Nietzsche. Much like these two predecessors, Jaspers disliked formal philosophy, especially as taught at universities. However, when merging the basics of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche into a foundation for existentialism, Jaspers did take liberties a “serious” philosopher would not have. According to Walter Kaufmann:
To Jaspers the differences between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche seem much less important than that which they have in common. What mattered most to them, does not matter to Jaspers: he dismisses Kierkegaard’s “forced Christianity” no less than Nietzsche’s “forced anti-Christianity” as relatively unimportant; he discounts Nietzsche’s ideas as absurdities, and he does not heed Kierkegaard’s central opposition to philosophy. All the many philosophers since Hegel and Schelling, however, fare far worse: they are at best instructive but lack human substance: “The original philosophers of the age are Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.” The crucial fact for Jaspers is that their thinking was not academically inspired but rooted in their Existenz.
-Existentialism; Kaufmann, p. 23
Maybe it was his willingness to discard the prominent themes of both men that allowed Jaspers to create something unique and exciting.Kierkeaard’s
Christianity was central to his writings, yet Jaspers had no difficulty dismissing Kierkegaard’s faith.Nietzsche’s
“anti-Christian” tone was dismissed with equal ease by Jaspers.
Philosophy in Academia
Jaspers shared an important opinion withKierkegaard andNietzsche: academic philosophy was unoriginal and lacked any true value. Kierkegaard regarded philosophers at the universities with some suspicion, believing they distorted the concept of Christianity. Nietzsche considered the professors state employees, and as such unwilling to challenge socially accepted beliefs, no matter how wrong. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard both believed professors prone to attempt to justify whatever was currently popular. Jaspers wrote:
As the realization overcame me that, at the time, there was no true philosophy at the universities, I thought that facing such a vacuum even he, who was too weak to create his own philosophy, had the right to hold forth about philosophy, to declare what it once was and what it could be.
- fromOn My Philosophy; Jaspers
University professors are, to this day, under pressure to lecture upon popular topics and ideals. There is no such thing as an “alternative” point of view; too often professors join to promote an “alternative” to such an extent that it become the norm within the lecture halls. Quite simply, to be a respected academic it becomes essential to challenge societal norms. Since such challenges are expected by the public at large and by other “educated” people, the challenges to accepted values and ideas are hallow. A philosopher is expected to promote enlightened ideas knowing those ideas will be rejected as part of an elaborate social ritual.
While others occupied themselves with the study of philosophy, Jaspers encouraged his students to engage in the the act of “philosophizing.” For Jaspers, debate and discussion were more important than analyzing what was written in the past or how two famous men might relate on a theoretical level.
The only significant content of philosophizing, however, consists in the impulses, the inner constitution, the way of seeing and judging, the readiness to react by making choices, the immersion in historical presentness, which grow in us, recognize themselves, and feel confirmed on the way past all objective contents.
- fromPhilosophie; Jaspers
It is true Jaspers published dozens of books, many nearly 1000 pages per volume. However, his books are a series of lectures and thoughts. Jaspers did not use diaries or metaphors; he was not a novelist. Jaspers’ works exist to encourage debate; he called this an attempt to “light fires” for debate and discussion. According to Kaufamann, the real mark of Jaspers would be his willingness to dismiss his own massive body of works as meaningless for anyone else. Jaspers was not trying to convince anyone to adopt a philosophy, but to think and ponder his or her own Existenz.
States of Being
Jaspers’ works present a system in which there are two states of being: the Dasein and Existenz. Some students are confused by these terms, as Dasein is the name used by Heidegger for a different conceptual framework. Dasein is existence in its most minimal sense; Dasein is the realm of objectivity and science. Notice objectivity is considered a simplistic approach to discovering the nature of existence and the self.
Existenz is “authentic” being. As withKierkegaard
, we find that Jaspers emphasizes the importance of decision making and freedom in defining the individual. Total freedom for Jaspers translates into the same infinite possibility to redefine the self Sartre would describe in his responses to psychoanalysis. Freedom to make a decision apart from all previous decisions results in a sense of alienation and loneliness — again, the responsibility of creating a self is a major one.
There are limits to our freedom, according to Jaspers. These limitations exist as “boundary situations” including death, suffering, guilt, chance, and conflict. Jaspers did believe there was a certain randomness to fate; chance situations arise forcing one to react in a manner not consistent with true freedom. Death stands apart from other boundaries as it is both the source of dread and the reason many choose to experience pleasures. Without death, there might not be a reason to search for pleasure.
If Existenz is a subjective state of being, how can it be evaluated and analyzed by the individual? Jaspers suggests social interactions offer guidelines that individuals either adopt or reject. In other words, Existenz is a solitary state derived from the values of society. As withSartre’s idea of “mirrors” (“Hell is other people!”), Jaspers writes of the self as “reflection in someone else’s authentic self.” Unless we know what others think and expect of us, we cannot decide who we are or want to be.
Jaspers, therefore, presents a view in which all people depend upon society for self-definition, even if the act of definition is a rejection of society’s values. No one is truly apart from society. In the extreme, a hermit defines his or her self as a complete rejection of social structures, but here is no “hermit” without a society from which to seek shelter. As a result, individuals experience a constant sensation of conflict: a desire to define the self freely while requiring society for that definition.
Leaps of Faith
Karl Jaspers was a man of faith, but not a traditional Christian. His break with tradition was a rejection of the formality and complex nature of organized religion, not a rejection of a supreme power or divine nature. Jaspers, much likeKierkegaard, recognized his own faith lacked any basis in logic. This “leap of faith” for Jaspers represented a free choice to believe in an existence greater than that detected by science.Works
General Psychopathology, Essay: 1913, (English, 1963)
Man in the Modern Age, Essay: 1931
Philosophy, Three Texts: 1932
Reason and Existenz, Essay: 1935, (English, 1955)
Existenzphilosophie, Essay: 1938
The Question of German Guilt, Essay: 1946