Kirkbright, Suzanne

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Kirkbright, Suzanne


Born in North Yorkshire, England. Education: Surrey University, B.Sc. (honors); Aston University, Ph.D.


Office—School of Languages and Social Sciences, Aston University, Aston Triangle, Birmingham B4 7ET, England. E-mail—[email protected]


Writer, translator, and educator. Aston University, Birmingham, England, professor, 1995-2007.


European Institute for International Affairs (Heidelberg, Germany), Institute of Translation and Interpreting (Milton Keynes, England).


Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow, 2000-2004.


Border and Border Experience: Investigations into the Philosophical and Literary Understanding of a German Motif, P. Lang (New York, NY), 1997.

(Editor, with Rüdiger von Gürner) Nachdenken über Grenzen, Iudicium (Munich, Germany), 1999.

(Editor) Cosmopolitans in the Modern World: Studies on a Theme in German and Austrian Literary Culture, Iudicium (Munich, Germany), 2000.

Karl Jaspers: A Biography: Navigations in Truth, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 2004.

(Editor) Karl Jaspers, Italienbriefe 1902, Winter Verlag (Heidelberg, Germany), 2006.


Historian Suzanne Kirkbright, a former professor at Aston University, has written the first biography in English of German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969). In Karl Jaspers: A Biography: Navigations in Truth, she presents what critic Charles Bambach, writing on the Notre Dame Philosophical Review Web site, considered a ‘sympathetic’ and even ‘reverential’ portrait of a philosopher who has fallen out of fashion in the twenty-first century but, according to some thinkers, deserves renewed interest.

Born in Oldenberg in 1883, Jaspers trained as a physician and became interested in psychiatry. His research into the roots of mental illness, however, drew him toward philosophy, and he abandoned medicine at age thirty to devote his career to that subject. He is considered a pioneer in existential philosophy, which he examined in his book The Psychology of World Views. In 1922 Jaspers won an appointment as a professor of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, but in 1933 the Nazi government demanded that he be prevented from participating in any administrative duties there and in 1937 he was stripped of his professorship. His marriage to a Jewish woman, Gertrud Mayer, made him an enemy of the Nazi state. The couple remained in Heidelberg through World War II, sustaining each other through writing and reading.

When it seemed inevitable that Gertrud would be arrested, the couple made a mutual suicide pact. As it turned out, U.S. troops liberated the city just days before Heidelberg's remaining Jewish population was scheduled for deportation. As Jaspers noted in remarks quoted by Jonathan Ree in the Times Literary Supplement, ‘A German cannot forget that he owes his and his wife's life to Americans.’ At the end of the war, the U.S. administration placed Jaspers in charge of reconstructing the university, but in 1948 the philosopher and his wife moved to Basel, Switzerland. He was troubled by the problem of German guilt and political responsibility for the war, making this subject the theme of his book The Question of German Guilt.

In her biography Kirkbright draws on previously unpublished correspondence that sheds light on Jaspers's early life with his family; his friendships with philosophers Max Weber, Hannah Arendt, and Martin Heidegger; and his relationship with Gertrud. ‘Nowhere is [Kirkbright] more convincing,’ wrote Bambach, ‘than in her analysis of the Jaspers' shared struggles during the Nazi years when, because of their ‘mixed marriage,’ each was in desperate danger from the Gestapo.’ But while the critic noted that the book shows Jaspers to have been ‘the consummate voice of integrity’ and the ‘ethical conscience for German humanist values in an age of military and technological upheaval,’ and that Kirkbright ‘succeeds in drawing an intimate portrait of this eminently private bourgeois thinker,’ the critic concluded that Kirkbright's decision not to ‘situate Jaspers more broadly in the rich intellectual world of twentieth-century German thought’ detracted from the book's usefulness in assessing Jaspers's philosophy.

Ree, in the Times Literary Supplement, commended Kirkbright's effort to find out what lay beneath the ‘austere mask’ that Jaspers used to retain his privacy, but felt that her ‘unpretentious’ biography does not sufficiently illuminate the philosopher's personality. ‘If Jaspers enjoyed a rich and rewarding inner life,’ wrote Ree, ‘it remains as hidden as ever.’ Bambach, by contrast, felt that Karl Jaspers focuses to a fault on the personal. ‘While readers interested in Jaspers will glean helpful insights about his life from this painstaking reconstruction of his private diaries and intimate family correspondence,’ wrote the critic, ‘they will learn little here about the philosophical works themselves."

Kirkbright, who researched her book while an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow at the University of Heidelberg, has also edited Jaspers's Italienbriefe 1902 and has written Border and Border Experience: Investigations into the Philosophical and Literary Understanding of a German Motif. She has also edited two volumes of German cultural criticism.

Kirkbright told CA: ‘The connection between learning a foreign language and writing in one's own language is a valuable one. The closer the acquaintance with another language and culture, the more one is inspired to develop one's working knowledge of the home culture and language.

"Of my books, I gained the most pleasure from working on the relatively small German edition of Karl Jaspers' family letters from Italy. The publisher, Winter Verlag, created a wonderful and highly collectable volume that exactly corresponded to the idea I had of this book—I believe that is quite rare nowadays.

"It is difficult to anticipate the echo from academic writing and research, especially with a still relatively unknown thinker and writer such as Karl Jaspers. However, I hope that readers will feel they learned something new about the subject in general—and, who knows, perhaps they may even be inspired to read some of Jaspers' philosophical works!"



Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, spring, 2005, James Hart, review of Karl Jaspers: A Biography: Navigations in Truth.

Library Journal, December 1, 2004, Henry L. Carrigan, review of Karl Jaspers, p. 121.

London Review of Books, June 8, 2006, ‘Against Solitude,’ p. 31.

Modern Language Review, April, 1999, Suzanne Kirkbright, ‘Die Sprache in Der Philosophie Von Karl Jaspers,’ p. 595.

Times Higher Education Supplement, October 21, 2005, ‘A Thinker Uncompromised,’ p. 29.

Times Literary Supplement, April 22, 2005, Jonathan Ree, ‘Concrete Decisions to Stay Alive,’ p. 28.


H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online, (September, 2005), Daniel Morat, review of Karl Jaspers.

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, (October 30, 2007), Charles Bambach, review of Karl Jaspers.

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Kirkbright, Suzanne

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