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Karl Theodor Jaspers

Karl Jaspers
Full name Karl Theodor Jaspers
Born February 23, 1883(1883-02-23)
Oldenburg, Germany
Died February 26, 1969 (aged 86)
Basel, Switzerland
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Existentialism, Neo-Kantianism
Main interests Psychiatry, Theology, Philosophy of History
Notable ideas Axial Age, coined the term Existenzphilosophie, Dasein and Existenz

Karl Theodor Jaspers (February 23, 1883 – February 26, 1969) was a German psychiatrist and philosopher who had a strong influence on modern theology, psychiatry and philosophy. After being trained in and practicing psychiatry, Jaspers turned to philosophical inquiry and attempted to discover an innovative philosophical system. He was often viewed as a major exponent of existentialism in Germany, though he did not accept this label.



Jaspers was born in Oldenburg in 1883 to a mother from a local farming community, and a jurist father. He showed an early interest in philosophy, but his father's experience with the legal system undoubtedly influenced his decision to study law at university. It soon became clear that Jaspers did not particularly enjoy law, and he switched to studying medicine in 1902 with a thesis about criminology.

Jaspers graduated from medical school in 1909 and began work at a psychiatric hospital in Heidelberg where Emil Kraepelin had worked some years earlier. Jaspers became dissatisfied with the way the medical community of the time approached the study of mental illness and set himself the task of improving the psychiatric approach. In 1913 Jaspers gained a temporary post as a psychology teacher at Heidelberg University. The post later became permanent, and Jaspers never returned to clinical practice. During this time Jaspers was a close friend of the Weber family (Max Weber also having held a professorship at Heidelberg).[1]

At the age of 40 Jaspers turned from psychology to philosophy, expanding on themes he had developed in his psychiatric works. He became a renowned philosopher, well respected in Germany and Europe.

After the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, Jaspers was considered to have a "Jewish taint" (jüdische Versippung, in the jargon of the time) due to his Jewish wife, and was forced to retire from teaching in 1937. In 1938 he fell under a publication ban as well. Many of his long-time friends stood by him, however, and he was able to continue his studies and research without being totally isolated. But he and his wife were under constant threat of removal to a concentration camp until March 30, 1945, when Heidelberg was liberated by American troops.

In 1948 Jaspers moved to the University of Basel in Switzerland. He remained prominent in the philosophical community until his death in Basel in 1969.

Contributions to Psychiatry

Jaspers' dissatisfaction with the popular understanding of mental illness led him to question both the diagnostic criteria and the methods of clinical psychiatry. He published a revolutionary paper in 1910 in which he addressed the problem of whether paranoia was an aspect of personality or the result of biological changes. Whilst not broaching new ideas, this article introduced a new method of study. Jaspers studied several patients in detail, giving biographical information on the people concerned as well as providing notes on how the patients themselves felt about their symptoms. This has become known as the biographical method and now forms the mainstay of modern psychiatric practice.

Karl Jaspers: Allgemeine Psychopathologie, first print 1913.

Jaspers set about writing his views on mental illness in a book which he published in 1913 as General Psychopathology. The two volumes which make up this work have become a classic in the psychiatric literature and many modern diagnostic criteria stem from ideas contained within them. Of particular importance, Jaspers believed that psychiatrists should diagnose symptoms (particularly of psychosis) by their form rather than by their content. For example, in diagnosing a hallucination, the fact that a person experiences visual phenomena when no sensory stimuli account for it (form) assumes more importance than what the patient sees (content).

Jaspers felt that psychiatrists could also diagnose delusions in the same way. He argued that clinicians should not consider a belief delusional based on the content of the belief, but only based on the way in which a patient holds such a belief (see delusion for further discussion). Jaspers also distinguished between primary and secondary delusions. He defined primary delusions as autochthonous meaning arising without apparent cause, appearing incomprehensible in terms of normal mental processes. (This is a slightly different use of the term autochthonous than its usual medical or sociological meaning of indigenous.) Secondary delusions, on the other hand, he classified as influenced by the person's background, current situation or mental state.

Jaspers considered primary delusions as ultimately 'un-understandable,' as he believed no coherent reasoning process existed behind their formation. This view has caused some controversy, and the likes of R. D. Laing and Richard Bentall (1999, p. 133-135) have criticised it, stressing that taking this stance can lead therapists into the complacency of assuming that because they do not understand a patient, the patient is deluded and further investigation on the part of the therapist will have no effect. Huub Engels (2009) argues that schizophrenic speech disorder may be understandable as Emil Kraepelin's dream speech is understandable.

Contributions to Philosophy and Theology

Most commentators associate Jaspers with the philosophy of existentialism, in part because he draws largely upon the existentialist roots of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and in part because the theme of individual freedom permeates his work.[citation needed]

In Philosophy (3 vols, 1932), Jaspers gave his view of the history of philosophy and introduced his major themes. Beginning with modern science and empiricism, Jaspers points out that as we question reality, we confront borders that an empirical (or scientific) method simply cannot transcend. At this point, the individual faces a choice: sink into despair and resignation, or take a leap of faith toward what Jaspers calls Transcendence. In making this leap, individuals confront their own limitless freedom, which Jaspers calls Existenz, and can finally experience authentic existence.

Transcendence (paired with the term The Encompassing in later works) is, for Jaspers, that which exists beyond the world of time and space. Jaspers' formulation of Transcendence as ultimate non-objectivity (or no-thing-ness) has led many philosophers to argue that ultimately, Jaspers became a monist, though Jaspers himself continually stressed the necessity of recognizing the validity of the concepts both of subjectivity and of objectivity.

Although he rejected explicit religious doctrines, including the notion of a personal God, Jaspers influenced contemporary theology through his philosophy of transcendence and the limits of human experience. Mystic Christian traditions influenced Jaspers himself tremendously, particularly those of Meister Eckhart and of Nicholas of Cusa. He also took an active interest in Eastern philosophies, particularly Buddhism, and developed the theory of an Axial Age, a period of substantial philosophical and religious development. Jaspers also entered public debates with Rudolf Bultmann, wherein Jaspers roundly criticized Bultmann's "demythologizing" of Christianity.

Jaspers also wrote extensively on the threat to human freedom posed by modern science and modern economic and political institutions. During World War II, he had to abandon his teaching post because his wife was Jewish. After the war he resumed his teaching position, and in his work The Question of German Guilt he unabashedly examined the culpability of Germany as a whole in the atrocities of Hitler's Third Reich.

Jaspers's major works, lengthy and detailed, can seem daunting in their complexity. His last great attempt at a systematic philosophy of Existenz — Von Der Wahrheit (On Truth) — has not yet appeared in English. However, he also wrote accessible and entertaining shorter works, most notably Philosophy is for Everyman.

Commentators often compare Jaspers' philosophy to that of his contemporary, Martin Heidegger. Indeed, both sought to explore the meaning of being (Sein) and existence. While the two did maintain a brief friendship, their relationship deteriorated - due in part to Heidegger's affiliation with the Nazi party, but also due to the (probably over-emphasized) philosophical differences between the two.

The two major proponents of phenomenological hermeneutics, Paul Ricoeur (a student of Jaspers) and Hans-Georg Gadamer (Jaspers's successor at Heidelberg) both display Jaspers's influence in their works.

Other important work appeared in Philosophy and Existence (1938). For Jaspers, the term "existence" (Existenz) designates the indefinable experience of freedom and possibility; an experience which constitutes the authentic being of individuals who become aware of "the encompassing" by confronting suffering, conflict, guilt, chance, and death.

Political views

Jaspers valued humanism and the continuity of integral cultural tradition in political spheres. He strongly opposed totalitarian despotism and warned about the increasing tendency towards technocracy, or a regime that regarded humans as mere instruments of science or ideological goals. He was also skeptical of majoritarian democracy. Thus, he supported a form of governance that guaranteed individual freedom and limited government yet was rooted in authentic tradition and guided by an intellectual elite.[2]

Jaspers' influences

Jaspers held Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to be two of the most important figures in post-Kantian philosophy. In his compilation, The Great Philosophers, he wrote:

I approach the presentation of Kierkegaard with some trepidation. Next to Nietzsche, or rather, prior to Nietzsche, I consider him to be the most important thinker of our post-Kantian age. With Goethe and Hegel, an epoch had reached its conclusion, and our prevalent way of thinking - that is, the positivistic, natural-scientific one - cannot really be considered as philosophy.

Jaspers also questions whether the two philosophers could be taught. For Kierkegaard, at least, Jaspers felt that Kierkegaard's whole method of indirect communication precludes any attempts to properly expound his thought into any sort of systematic teaching.

Though Jaspers was certainly indebted to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, he also owes much to more traditional philosophers, especially Kant and Plato. Walter Kaufmann argues in "From Shakespeare to Existentialism" that, though Jaspers was certainly indebted to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, he was closest to Kant's philosophy.

Jaspers is too often seen as the heir of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard to whom he is in many ways less close than to Kant...the Kantian antinomies and Kant's concern with the realm of decision, freedom, and faith have become exemplary for Jaspers. And even as Kant "had to do away with knowledge to make room for faith," Jaspers values Nietzsche in large measure because he thinks that Nietzsche did away with knowledge, thus making room for Jaspers' philosophic faith"...

This is supported by Jaspers' essay "On My Philosophy" (link below),

"While I was still at school Spinoza was the first. Kant then became the philosopher for me and has remained so...Nietzsche gained importance for me only late as the magnificent revelation of nihilism and the task of overcoming it."

People influenced by Jaspers


  • Psychologie der Weltanschauungen
  • Philosophy of Existence - ISBN 0-8122-1010-7
  • Strindberg and Van Gogh: An Attempt of a Pathographic Analysis with Reference to Parallel Cases of Swedenborg and Holderlin - ISBN 0-8165-0608-6
  • Reason and Existenz - ISBN 0-87462-611-0
  • Way to Wisdom - ISBN 0-300-00134-7
  • Philosophy Is for Everyman
  • Man in the Modern Age


  • Jaspers, Karl (1953). The Origin and Goal of History. translated by Michael Bullock. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 
  • Jaspers, Karl (1955). Reason and Existenz. translated by William Earle. New York: Noonday Press. 
  • Jaspers, Karl (1997). General Psychopathology - Volumes 1 & 2. translated by J. Hoenig and Marian W. Hamilton. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press. 


  1. ^ Radkau, Joachim Max Weber: A Biography. 1995. Polity Press. p29.
  2. ^ Karl Jaspers - Later Works: The Politics of Humanism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Further reading

  • Bentall, Richard (1999). Why There Will Never Be a Convincing Theory of Schizophrenia. In S. Rose (ed). From brains to consciousness? Essays on the new sciences of mind. London: Penguin Books. Bentall criticises Jaspers' un-understandable-concept in a section (p. 133-135) entitled: There is meaning in madness, or why Jaspers was (mostly) wrong.
  • Engels, Huub (2009). Emil Kraepelins Traumsprache: erklären und verstehen. In Dietrich von Engelhardt und Horst-Jürgen Gerigk (ed.). Karl Jaspers im Schnittpunkt von Zeitgeschichte, Psychopathologie, Literatur und Film. p. 331-43. ISBN 978-3-86809-018-5 Heidelberg: Mattes Verlag.

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Man is always something more than what he knows of himself. He is not what he is simply once and for all, but is a process...

Karl Theodor Jaspers (23 February 188326 February 1969) was a German psychiatrist and philosopher. Among his most well known contributions is his idea of the Axial Age [Achsenzeit].



We cannot avoid conflict, conflict with society, other individuals and with oneself. Conflicts may be the sources of defeat, lost life and a limitation of our potentiality but they may also lead to greater depth of living and the birth of more far-reaching unities, which flourish in the tensions that engender them.
  • Reason is like an open secret that can become known to anyone at any time; it is the quiet space into which everyone can enter through his own thought.
    • As quoted in Philosophy for a Time of Crisis : An Interpretation, with Key Writings by Fifteen Great Modern Thinkers (1959) by Adrienne Koch, Ch. 18, "Karl Jaspers : A New Humanism"
  • I approach the presentation of Kierkegaard with some trepidation. Next to Nietzsche, or rather, prior to Nietzsche, I consider him to be the most important thinker of our post-Kantian age. With Goethe and Hegel, an epoch had reached its conclusion, and our prevalent way of thinking — that is, the positivistic, natural-scientific one — cannot really be considered as philosophy.
    • The Great Philosophers (1962)
  • The interlacedness of the two heterogeneous origins [Remark: This refers to the origins of governance: (1) necessity to work cooperatively, (2) the fight between man and man] prevails as the fundamental characteristic of governance. Therefore even any true community, being successful somewhere between boundaries for a common purpose, elsewhere becomes in theory a means for misleading, used to interpret and cover-up actually existing power. Again and again things are named by their contrary and are hidden. In that manner, under the pretense of communication - the open discussion - people are interrogated and commands are given, under the pretense of freedom and voluntariness behavior is enforced, in the coat of pure ethics the evil is carried out, under the pretense of truth lies and fraud are committed, and all values valid at any one time are, depending on the situation, either applied or ignored. [Remarks: "Herrschaft" = "governance" or "leadership", "Gewalt" = "power" or "violence"]
    • On Truth (1948), Pt 2, Ch. 3, II, B, 3, b)
  • It is the search for the truth, not possession of the truth which is the way of philosophy. Its questions are more relevant than its answers, and every answer becomes a new question.
    • Way to Wisdom : An Introduction to Philosophy (2003) Ch. 1, What is Philosophy?
  • We cannot avoid conflict, conflict with society, other individuals and with oneself. Conflicts may be the sources of defeat, lost life and a limitation of our potentiality but they may also lead to greater depth of living and the birth of more far-reaching unities, which flourish in the tensions that engender them.
    • As quoted in Turning Conflict Into Profit : A Roadmap for Resolving Personal and Organizational Disputes (2005) by Larry Axelrod and Rowland Johnson

Man in the Modern Age (1933)

As translated by Eden Paul and Cedar Paul (1951)
One who would influence the masses must have recourse to the art of advertisement. The clamour of puffery is to-day requisite even for an intellectual movement.
  • The general fellowship of our human situation has been rendered even more dubious than before, inasmuch as, though the old ties of caste have been loosened, a new restriction of the individual to some prescribed status in society is manifest. Less than ever, perhaps, is it possible for a man to transcend the limitations imposed by his social origins.
  • The 'public' is a phantom, the phantom of an opinion supposed to exist in a vast number of persons who have no effective interrelation and though the opinion is not effectively present in the units. Such an opinion is spoken of as 'public opinion,' a fiction which is appealed to by individuals and by groups as supporting their special views. It is impalpable, illusory, transient; "'tis here, 'tis there, 'tis gone"; a nullity which can nevertheless for a moment endow the multitude with power to uplift or destroy.
  • The masses are our masters; and for every one who looks facts in the face his existence has become dependent on them, so that the thought of them must control his doings, his cares, and his duties.
    Even an articulated mass always tends to become unspiritual and inhuman. It is life without existence, superstitions without faith. It may stamp all flat; it is disinclined to tolerate independence and greatness, but prone to constrain people to become as automatic as ants.
  • When the titanic apparatus of the mass-order has been consolidated, the individual has to serve it, and must from time to time combine with his fellows in order to renovate it. If he wants to make his livelihood by intellectual activity, he will find it very difficult to do this except by satisfying the needs of the many. He must give currency to something that will please the crowd. They seek satisfaction in the pleasures of the table, eroticism, self-assertion; they find no joy in life if one of these gratifications be curtailed. They also desire some means of self-knowledge. They desire to be led in such as way that they can fancy themselves leaders. Without wishing to be free, they would fain be accounted free. One who would please their taste must produce what is really average and commonplace, though not frankly styled such; must glorify or at least justify something as universally human. Whatever is beyond their understanding is uncongenial to them.
    One who would influence the masses must have recourse to the art of advertisement. The clamour of puffery is to-day requisite even for an intellectual movement. The days of quiet and unpretentious activity seem over and done with. You must keep yourself in the public eye, give lectures, make speeches, arouse a sensation. Yet the mass-apparatus lacks true greatness of representation, lacks solemnity.
  • The would-be climber must be able to make himself liked ... please his superiors — avoid showing independence except in those matters wherein independence is expected of him by his chiefs... the winners in the race have qualities which disincline them to allow others to be their true selves. Hence the winners snub all those who aim at adequate self-expression, speaking of them as pretentious, eccentric, biased, unpractical, and measuring their achievements by insincere standards.
  • At the parting of ways in the life-order, where the question is between the new creation or decay, that man will be decisive for new creation who is able on his own initiative to seize the helm and steer a course of his own choosing — even if that course be opposed to the will of the masses. Should the emergence of such persons become impossible a lamentable shipwreck will be inevitable.
  • Imminent seems the collapse of that which for millennium has constituted man's universe. The new world which has arisen as an apparatus for supply of the necessaries of life compels everything and everyone to serve it. It annihilates whatever it has no place for person seems to be going undergoing absorption into that which is nothing more than a means to an end, into that which is devoid of purpose of significance.
  • Today war seems to have undergone a change of meaning, insofar as it is not a war of religion but a war of interests, not a war of conflicting cultures or civilizations but a war of national areas, not a war of human beings but a technical struggle of machines one against another and all against the non–combatant population.
  • If the result of a war is to change nothing, but only to destroy, with the mere result that a group of human beings who do not differ notably from the conquered acquires preponderant advantages for the future, there is lacking the affective strength of an existence that has inspired faith, of an existence whose destiny would have been decided by the war.
  • The possibility of peace, on whose behalf many are working, might perhaps become actual because the technical advances in offensive weapons make the prospect of a European war so disastrous, and because, if the nations were at grips again, even the victorious aggressor would be ruined. But there still remains open the possibility of a new war which, more dreadful than any that have preceded it would make an end of contemporary Europeans.
  • It is questionable whether there does not exist in man an obscure and blind will to make war; an impulse towards change, towards emergence from the familiarities of everyday life and from the stabilities of well-known conditions — something like a will to death as a will to annihilation and self-sacrifice, a vague enthusiasm for the upbuilding of a new world.
  • The vicious circle of dread of war which leads the nations to arm themselves for self-protection, with the result that bloated armaments ultimately lead to the war which they were intended to avert, can be broken in either of two conceivable ways. There might arise a unique world power, brought into being by the unification of all those now in possession of weapons, and equipped with the capacity to forbid the lesser and unarmed nations to make war. On the other hand, it may arise by the working of a fate to us still inscrutable which, out of ruin, will disclose a way towards the development of a new human being. To will the discovery of this way would be blind impotence, but those who do not wish to deceive themselves will be prepared for the possibility.
  • The mass-man has very little spare time, does not live a life that appertains to a whole, does not want to exert himself except for some concrete aim which can be expressed in terms of utility; he will not wait patiently while things ripen; everything for him must provide some immediate gratification; and even his mental life must minister to his fleeting pleasures. That is why the essay has become the customary form of literature, why newspapers are taking the place of books... People read quickly and cursorily.
  • When language is used without true significance, it loses its purpose as a means of communication and becomes an end in itself.
  • In old days the plastic arts, music, and poesy were so germane to man in his totality that his Transcendence plainly manifest in them. ... What is to-day obvious to all is a decay in the essence of art. ... the opposition to man's true nature as man.
  • Man, if he is to remain man, must advance by way of consciousness. There is no road leading backward. ... We can no longer veil reality from ourselves by renouncing self-consciousness without simultaneously excluding ourselves from the historical course of human existence.
  • "There is no God," cry the masses more and more vociferously; and with the loss of God man loses his sense of values — is, as it were, massacred because he feels himself of no account.
  • Man is always something more than what he knows of himself. He is not what he is simply once and for all, but is a process...
  • In the life of the mass-order, the culture of the generality tends to conform to the demands of the average human being. Spirituality decays through being diffused among the masses when knowledge is impoverished in every possible way by rationalisation until it becomes accessible to the crude understanding of all.

On My Philosophy (1941)

As published in Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre (1956) edited by Walter Kaufmann.
The more determinedly I exist, as myself, within the conditions of the time, the more clearly I shall hear the language of the past, the nearer I shall feel the glow of its life...
  • My path was not the normal one of professors of philosophy. I did not intend to become a doctor of philosophy by studying philosophy (I am in fact a doctor of medicine) nor did I by any means, intend originally to qualify for a professorship by a dissertation on philosophy. To decide to become a philosopher seemed as foolish to me as to decide to become a poet. Since my schooldays, however, I was guided by philosophical questions. Philosophy seemed to me the supreme, even the sole, concern of man. Yet a certain awe kept me from making it my profession.
  • Our questions and answers are in part determined by the historical tradition in which we find ourselves. We apprehend truth from our own source within the historical tradition.
    The content of our truth depends upon our appropriating the historical foundation. Our own power of generation lies in the rebirth of what has been handed down to us. If we do not wish to slip back, nothing must be forgotten; but if philosophising is to be genuine our thoughts must arise from our own source. Hence all appropriation of tradition proceeds from the intentness of our own life. The more determinedly I exist, as myself, within the conditions of the time, the more clearly I shall hear the language of the past, the nearer I shall feel the glow of its life.

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