Jaspers, Karl (1883–1969)

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Karl Jaspers was one of the architects of contemporary existentialism and one of the first philosophers to use the term existentialist. He was a prolific writer with a prolix style that is often inelegant, superficial, sentimental, and unclear and that over the years showed itself to be repetitious. Yet careful and extensive reading of his works shows him to be a rigorous and responsible thinker. Appearances notwithstanding, he was perhaps the most systematic of all existentialist philosophers. His philosophy is neither linguistic analysis nor metaphysics. It can be best characterized as a disciplined and organized description of the critical fringes of human existence, such as impenetrable limits, unmitigated freedom, and the experienced indefinite expanse of space, time, and consciousness. Jaspers fulfilled the commonsense image of the philosopher through his vital concern with the contemporary political situation and his trenchant reflections on the threats to man's integrity and fulfillment posed by twentieth-century social, economic, and political institutions. He spoke with authority to the nonphilosophic mind because of his deep and successful roots in medicine and psychology. He was suspicious of contemporary overconfidence in science and, as an antidote, stresses the irrational in man. As Jaspers saw it, philosophy begins where reason has suffered shipwreck. Philosophy is an activity, a becoming, not a state of being or a body of facts. Philosophy is philosophizing. To appreciate philosophic insights we mustas Socrates and Sigmund Freud sawarrive at them ourselves. We must live philosophy, since we cannot meaningfully paraphrase its conclusions. Genuine philosophy arises directly out of the problems confronting the individual philosopher in his existential, or historical, situation. General problems are mere derivatives. Philosophy need not be metaphysics; it can only illuminate some of the potentialities of an individual existence, an existence that is ineffable, unique, and free.

Jaspers was influenced especially by Immanuel Kant, but also by Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, whom he admired because they were prophets who articulated the structure of their existence, because they were not academic philosophers, because their thinking welled up directly from their personal existence, and because they illustrated the axiom that philosophic thinking begins in the attempt to communicate to another the nature of one's Existenz. The influence of Edmund Husserl is also apparent, although it is perhaps unconscious, since it is mostly unacknowledged. Jaspers used Husserl's method of descriptive phenomenology and adopted Husserl's concept of intentionality as a central function of the self. Furthermore, Husserl's ideas of the transcendental ego and transcendental consciousness conform to Jaspers's descriptions of the inner self (Existenz ) and the outermost boundaries of the world (das Umgreifende ). Jaspers's religious thought, although it ignored Aristotelianism and Scholasticism, was deeply influenced by Plotinus, Giordano Bruno, Benedict de Spinoza, and Friedrich von Schelling and gives a modern phenomenological restatement of many of the classical religious intuitions of humankind.

Life and Works

Jaspers was born in 1883 in the East Frisian city of Oldenburg. His father was a banker, constable, and jurist. Jaspers studied law at the universities of Heidelberg and Munich, and medicine at Berlin, Göttingen, and Heidelberg. He received his MD from Heidelberg in 1909, upon completion of his dissertation on Heimweh und Verbrechen (Nostalgia and crime). Immediately upon graduation he became a volunteer assistant in psychiatry at Heidelberg. His first major work, Allgemeine Psychopathologie (General Psychopathology, 1913), is a book on methodology showing the merits and limits of various psychological procedures and descriptions. In 1916 he became professor of psychology at Heidelberg. Shortly after World War I he published his Psychologie der Weltanschauungen (Psychology of world views; 1919), which consists of descriptions of many different attitudes toward life. It is based on Wilhelm Dilthey's Typologie der Weltanschauungen and marks Jaspers's transition from psychology to philosophy. He later called it the first genuinely existentialist work. Both of these early works were based on his medical experience.

He received a professorship in philosophy at Heidelberg in 1921, after declining similar offers from the universities of Kiel and Greifswald. In 1932 he published his magnum opus, the three-volume Philosophie, which is a detailed development of the notions of transcendence and Existenz. In 1937 he was relieved of his duties by the National Socialist regime, but was reinstated in 1945. In 1946 he was named honorary senator of Heidelberg University, and from 1948 on he taught at the University of Basel in Switzerland. In 1958 he was awarded the German Peace Prize at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The first volume of his Philosophische Logik appeared in 1947. Throughout his life, Jaspers was greatly concerned with communication. Personal relationships had great philosophic significance to him. In addition to his parents, particularly significant persons in his life were his teacher Max Weber, his friend Ernst Meyer, and Meyer's sister Gertrud, who became Jaspers's wife. Since she was Jewish, Jaspers lived, through her, the agony of the Jewish people during World War II, and this led him to publish in 1946 his reflections on the question of German guilt, Die Schuldfrage, ein Beitrag zur deutschen Frage.

Any classification of Jaspers's views into traditional philosophic disciplines is artificial. For purposes of exposition, however, such an expedient is necessary.


Jaspers's method is generally skeptical. It consists of the exploration, description, and analysis of first-person experiences. These form the basic data for philosophical generalizations and are for any person the sole source of his information about reality. Jaspers goes far beyond René Descartes in emphasizing the epistemological primacy of subjectivity: My thinking begins and ends with subjectivity, since awareness, as Kant saw, always consists partially of interpretations. Although the results of these descriptions do not form a universal ontologythey apply, strictly speaking, to my own self exclusivelythey are nonetheless verifiable inasmuch as egos may compare experiences. Jaspers follows Kierkegaard in describing immediate experiences (which consist not only of sense data but also of love and anxiety, hope and despair) and examining their ontological import. Since he describes fringe states of consciousness, areas of experience that are difficult, perhaps even impossible, to focus sharply, his language necessarily becomes ambiguous.

There is no certainty either in philosophy or in science. I am forced to depend ultimately on the intuitions and decisions of my own ego. Science is not an ultimate form of knowledge because it excludes the observer, because it is replete with unexamined and often erroneous assumptions, and because one method of inquiry is insufficient for a complete world picture. Although the spirit of scientific inquiry is an antidote to dogma in religion, politics, and philosophy, it gives us only surface knowledge, which is, at best, a workable mythology.


The nature of the self is discovered through illumination of existence (Existenzerhellung ), which discloses the possibilities of man, that is, the possibilities of an entity seeking understanding of self and of being. Existenzerhellung yields access to the questioner himself. Ordinary modes of perception and cognition, which imply a subject apprehending an object, always bypass the real self (the Ursprung ). The real and valuable, that is, the authentic, in man is called Existenz. Existenz, the genuine self, is nonobjective and unique. It is infinitely open to new possibilities and inaccessible to traditional philosophical investigations. Although Existenz is that crucial aspect of human existence that cannot be conceptually delimited, it is nonetheless clearly experienced: It can be lived; it is illuminated through philosophical reflection; it can be communicated. Existenz is the experience of the total freedom that defines man; it is the experience of the infinity of possibilities for styles of life; it is, finally, the experience of loneliness that cries in the wilderness. Existenz is the eternal in man, while Dasein (not to be confused with that which Martin Heidegger designates by the same word) is his temporal dimension. Dasein is that aspect of man that has describable characteristics and is accessible to theoretical reflection. To confuse mere Dasein with the authentic ground of my being, Existenz, is crass materialism and leads to shipwreck, while to ignore Dasein altogether leads to nihilism. A tension (Spannung ) between the two is the golden mean.

Man is alienated from his world. He comes from a dim past and goes into an indefinite future. Life is a flux in which he seeks anchor. Existence is rich in mysterious paradoxes and antinomies, such as those of freedom coexisting with dependence, communication with solitude, good with evil, truth with falsehood, happiness with grief, life with death, and progress with destruction. Authentic Existenz is disclosed through reason (Vernunft ), while intellect (Verstand ) concerns itself with the pragmatic management of existence. Verstand is satisfied with practical results, while Vernunft engages in endless searching. Man is both Vernunft and Existenz.

Existenz is limited by impenetrable boundaries (Grenzsituationen ). To experience these and to exist are one and the same, since despair can be, in the last analysis, a cognitive and elevating emotion. A defining characteristic of man is his finitude, which he experiences as the limits to his existence. Jaspers's analysis of these boundary situations is the existential formulation of the problem of evil and has been most influential. Authentic existence will push back these limits as far as possible and then accept and bear them. Death is one of the most dramatic of these barriers. It is the source of anxiety, but it also elevates the spirit because it emphasizes the urgency of living authentically without postponement. Consciousness of the inevitable presence of death gives man courage and integrity: It gives him an authentic perspective on the things that matter most. Guilt is another important boundary situation. Man not only feels guilty but, because of his total freedom, is guilty. He always could have chosen otherwise. Ultimate guilt cannot be removed: It must be accepted and can thereby become constructive. Our guilt demonstrates the power that our freedom has over our destiny. The boundary of "situationality" is the fact that we are partially thrust and partially choose ourselves into a particular human condition. We can be inauthentic and inevitably fall into these situations or be authentic and make them happen. Other important boundaries are chance, suffering, and conflict.

Freedom is central to man; it leads to the overriding importance of choice, which becomes the problem of moral responsibility.


For Jaspers, ethics is the exploration of the experience and the potential of free will. Freedom is identified with choice, awareness, and selfhood. To choose means to be free, and man's freedom is his being. I am only to the extent that I choose freely. To be is to be conscious that one is free. I do not choose life's meanings; I do not "define" man, as Jean-Paul Sartre contends, since I am limited by my historicitymy past choices bind me. But within these confines my freedom is total. Freedom is experienced as both spontaneity and action; it is thus more important to act and be an homme engagé than to observe and be a theoretician. To know and use my freedom is the raison d'être of Existenzerhellung. Whenever I choose, I act, I am conscious of my action, I am aware of the values involved, I take chances (since the consequences of my choice are often uncertain), and I realize that commitment to some values is unavoidable.

The presence of anguish adumbrates the sacred nature of my freedom. Since each choice carries with it the accumulated weight of previous decisions, the first choice overshadows all others. Consequently, guilt is the inevitable concomitant of my freedom. My original choice (Urentschluss ) bears down on my subsequent existence and assumes the role of original sin. I am accountable for that first choice, so that to be responsible means to have accepted that guilt. In addition, I am ceaselessly confronted with the choice between sacrificing my integrity for the sake of a longer life or surrendering myself to my authentic existential possibilities. The inherent difficulty of these choices leads to further guilt, which I may alleviate by imagining absolute standards and then approximating them. But in my heart I know there are no fixed standards and that absolutism is therefore a rationalization: the boundary of guilt is indeed impenetrable.

Anguish also appears when I realize I may lose the promise of my possibilities. But that same anguish gives me the urgency and courage to choose with my full being to implement the authentic potential of my Existenz. I reach this pedagogically expedient brink caused by anguish when 1 recognize the limits of scientific thought or when I am faced with critical decisions. Confronted with the abyss, I may accept a philosophic or religious orientation, I may act as if I did not recognize the existence of the abyss before which I stand, or I may adopt the nihilistic position that judges these problems to be meaningless.

Subjectivity is essentially intersubjective. I am only to the extent that another Existenz reflects me. Jaspers describes true communication as the feeling that men have known each other since eternity. My own freedom is in essence the search for the "loving strife" of communication with another Existenz. In fact, the search for Existenz cannot be accomplished in the abyss of absolute estrangement. Existential philosophy is self-disclosure through communication, even being itself, although it can be represented only in ciphers as symbols, is made transparent solely through authentic communication (Existenzursprung ). Existential communication is neither friendship nor psychotherapy; it is not fusion, esteem, or unanimity; it is, strictly speaking, as with Existenz itself, ineffable.

But in the end, human existence is a failure. There is no escape from man's limits (the limit of death in particular), yet man is condemned to endless striving. In this dreadful paradox between finite existence and striving for infinity, man finds the ultimate symbol of his salvation, which is transcendence.

Metaphysics and Theology

Jaspers maintained that just as ethical considerations grow out of philosophical psychology, so religious answers emerge from metaphysical descriptions of being.

He follows Kant in criticizing the usual arguments for the existence of God. He rejects theism, pantheism, revealed religion, and atheism alike. All these are but symbols (ciphers), and we are in danger of taking them literally. Phenomenological descriptions of the fringes of inward and outer experiences give us the only accurate understanding of the intuitions that metaphysics and theology have traditionally attempted to articulate.

When man reflects on his freedom, he experiences it as a gift; he dimly knows that he does not stand alone. That gift, in turn, points vaguely to an ultimate horizon as its source and foundation. Awareness of transcendence also originates in the consciousness of our finitude: Through our boundaries we recognize the infinite possibilities within us. In general, the world itself points to a region beyond. Transcendence is thus experienced as the intimation of a power by virtue of which man himself exists. Confronted with these clues, man is free to pursue or to ignore them.

Jaspers uses the term encompassing (das Umgreifende ) to designate the ultimate and indefinite limits of being as we experience it in all its fullness and richness, limits that surround, envelop, and suffuse all there is. It is the ultimate experienceable horizon. He uses the expression "being-as-such" to mean the encompassing or the totality of being as it is thought, conceived, or conceptualized, while he reserves the term transcendence to mean man's personal, devoted, and committed effort to reach the encompassing. In other words, the encompassing manifests itself in at least three modes: the total encompassing of the world, the encompassing that is the empirical world of ordinary and scientific experience, and the encompassing that is one's own self. Although we are at a loss to describe its essence, we can say of the encompassing that it is. In a sense, I and the world are identical with the encompassing. In it, the severance between subject and object disappears, since both are manifestations of the same encompassing. On similar grounds, the encompassing (and this then applies to Jaspers's reinterpretation of God) can never be viewed as one object among many. It is all of being as well as all the differentiations within being. It is likewise beyond idealism, materialism, positivism, and naturalism, since all metaphysical positions are events within the encompassing but do not in any way delimit it. Therefore, in Jaspers's view, God, the unthinkable (das Undenkbare ), becomes Rudolf Otto's "wholly other." I cannot grasp conceptually the encompassing that I am; similarly, the world is not exactly an illusion, since it is the only language through which the encompassing can reach me. The ultimate encompassing envelops both the I-pole and the object-pole of experience.

Man can search for transcendence by various means. He can explore the world, as science does. In that way he achieves a worldview. Or he can search for it by examining the relation between himself and the world, as we find it in epistemology, ethics, and psychology. He thereby achieves illumination of Existenz. Finally, he can search for God, in which case he deals directly with the problem of penetrating being itself. But he must never succumb to the error of identifying the encompassing with a particular substance or substratum of the world.

The encompassing manifests itself through the "footsteps of God," through analogical predication, through symbols, or, in Jaspers's own words, through ciphers (Chiffren ), a notion borrowed from Pascal. The encompassing is like the horizon that is the perennial goal of the sailor: It always shows itself and yet is forever inaccessible. The major purpose of metaphysics is the disclosure of the ciphers that manifest encompassing, but in the end, metaphysical elucidation of the ciphers is a highly personal undertaking. Ciphers may appear suddenly and spontaneously in the presence of empirical facts, for example, an overwhelming mountain. They may appear in art forms, in religious myths and dogma, and in theological disputations; they may become manifest in the symbolism of the history of philosophy and its metaphysical systems; and finally, they may appear through reflection on the mystery of being as well as on the death that awaits every man.

Jaspers's religious prescription is called philosophic faith (philosophische Glaube ). It consists of the convictions that man is open to transcendence and consequently wills infinity; that there is in fact a transcendence to the ordinary world; that personal freedom is to be maintained and respected; that man, as he finds himself, is inadequate; that man can rely on help from transcendence; and that the world is grounded and supported. To reject faith means to hold that the immediate world is all there is, that man's destiny is fully determined, that man is perfectible and alone, and that the world is self-supporting. Although there are significant similarities between Jaspers's philosophical faith and that of traditional Christianity, he rigidly opposed the absolutism of the latter to the openness and toleration of his philosophic faith. The Bible, for example, is a highly suggestive instrument for his philosophic faith, especially through its ciphers of one God and its emphasis on love, on choosing between good and evil, on the eternal in man, on the ordered and yet contingent universe, and on the image of God as the refuge. Nevertheless, transcendence is discovered through doubt, not reassurance: There can be no rational justification for the final leap of faith, even for a philosopher.

See also Bruno, Giordano; Descartes, René; Dilthey, Wilhelm; Doubt; Existentialism; Heidegger, Martin; Husserl, Edmund; Intentionality; Kant, Immanuel; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Phenomenology; Plotinus; Psychology; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Subjectivity; Weber, Max.


works by jaspers

Allgemeine Psychopathologie. Berlin: Springer, 1913. Translated from the 7th German ed. by J. Hoenig and Marian W. Hamilton as General Psychopathology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963.

Psychologie der Weltanschauungen. Berlin: Springer, 1919.

Die geistige Situation der Zeit. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1932. Translated by Eden Paul and Cedar Paul as Man in the Modern Age. London: Routledge, 1933.

Max Weber. Oldenburg: Stalling, 1932.

Philosophie, 3 vols. Berlin: Springer, 1932.

Vernunft und Existenz. Groningen: Wolters, 1935. Translated by William Earle as Reason and Existenz. New York: Noonday Press, 1955.

Nietzsche. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1936. Translated by C. F. Wallraff and F. J. Schmitz. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1965.

Descartes und die Philosophie. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1937.

Existenzphilosophie. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1938.

Die Idee der Universität. Berlin: Springer, 1946. Translated by H. A. T. Reiche as The Idea of the University. Boston: Beacon Press, 1959.

Nietzsche und das Christentum. Hameln: F. Seifert, 1946. Translated by E. B. Ashton as Nietzsche and Christianity. Chicago: Regnery, 1961.

Die Schuldfrage, ein Beitrag zur deutschen Frage. Zürich: Artemis, 1946. Translated by E. B. Ashton as The Question of German Guilt. New York: Dial Press, 1947.

Philosophische Logik, Vol. I: Von der Wahrheit. Munich: Piper, 1947. Partially translated by Jean T. Wilde, William Kluback, and William Kimmel as Truth and Symbol. New York: Twayne, 1959.

Der philosophische Glaube. Zürich: Artemis, 1948. Translated by Ralph Manheim as The Perennial Scope of Philosophy. New York: Philosophical Library, 1949.

Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte. Zürich: Artemis, 1949. Translated by Michael Bullock as The Origin and Goal of History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1953.

Vernunft und Widervernunft in unserer Zeit. Munich: Piper, 1950. Translated by Stanley Fine-Godman as Reason and Anti-reason in Our Time, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1952.

Einführung in die Philosophie. Zürich: Artemis, 1950. Translated by Ralph Manheim as The Way to Wisdom. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1951.

Rechenschaft und Ausblick. Munich: Piper, 1951.

Über das Tragische. Munich: Piper, 1952. Translated by H. A. T. Reiche and others as Tragedy Is Not Enough. Boston: Beacon Press, 1952.

Die Frage der Entmythologisierung. Written with Rudolf Bultmann. Munich: Piper, 1954. Translated as Myth and Christianity. New York: Noonday Press, 1958.

Wesen und Kritik der Psychotherapie. Munich: Piper, 1955.

Über Bedingungen und Möglichkeiten eines neuen Humanismus. Munich, 1956.

Die Atombombe und die Zukunft des Menschen. Munich: Piper, 1957. Translated by E. B. Ashton as The Future of Mankind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Die grossen Philosophen. Munich: Piper, 1957. Translated by Ralph Manheim as The Great Philosophers. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1962.

Plato, Augustin, Kant. Munich, 1957.

Philosophie und Welt. Munich: Piper, 1958.

Freiheit und Wiedervereinigung. Munich: Piper, 1960.

Wahrheit und Wissenschaft. Munich, 1960.

works on jaspers

Bollnow, O. F., Existenzphilosophie und Pädagogik. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1958.

Ehrlich, L., and R. Wisser, eds. Karl Jaspers Today: Philosophy at the Threshhold of the Future. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988.

Olson, A. M. Transcendence and Hermeneutics: An Interpretation of Karl Jaspers. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1979.

Samay, S. Reason Revisited: The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1971.

Saner, H. Karl Jaspers in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten. Reinbeck: Rowohlt, 1970.

Schilpp, P. A., ed. The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers. New York: Tudor, 1957.

Schrag, O. O. Existence, Existenz, and Transcendence. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1971.

Tilliette, X. Karl Jaspers: Théorie de la vérité, Métaphysique des chiffres. Foi philosophique. Paris: Aubier, 1959.

Walraff, C. Karl Jaspers: An Introduction to His Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970.

Young-Bruehl, E. Freedom and Karl Jasper's Philosophy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981).

Peter Koestenbaum (1967)

Bibliography updated by Thomas Nenon (2005)