Jaspers, Karl

views updated May 14 2018


JASPERS, KARL (18831969), was one of the most influential German thinkers of the twentieth century and a founder of modern existential philosophy. Born in Oldenburg, Jaspers studied law and medicine. After writing several works on psychopathology, he turned to philosophy, and in 1920 he became a professor at Heidelberg. He was dismissed from that position by Nazi authorities in 1937; after 1948 he taught at Basel, where he died.

For Jaspers, philosophizing is an effort to understand and to express the authentic experience of realities that can never be conceptually explained and are not objectifiable; therefore it cannot pretend to be knowledge in the same sense as scientific knowledge. Jaspers accepts the Augustinian maxim "Deum et animam scire cupio" (I want to know God and the soul), but neither God nor the soul are possible positive objects of metaphysical speculation. Their place is taken respectively by "the all-encompassing" (das Allumgreifende ), or transcendence, and existence. The latter, even though it reveals itself in one's empirical being (Dasein ), is not a psychological subject, not an empirically accessible reality, and the former is not God in the sense of any mythological tradition. Still, both realities are known not only negatively, not only as a realm of the unknown beyond knowledge, but they are inseparably linked with each other: The transcendence is there only for existence; it opens itself to one insofar as one is able radically to experience one's freedom. The presence of the transcendence cannot be described in metaphysical or scientific language; in other words, one does not hear God's voice in the empirical word. It speaks to humans through ciphers they can meet in all forms of being: in nature, in history, in art, in mythology. Yet ciphers are untranslatable. Therefore, in vain does one try to grasp God in metaphysical doctrines or in the dogmas of an institutionalized religion. The language of mythology, too, is a way that humankind has tried to commune with the transcendence, but this language is sui generis, it cannot be converted into a philosophical system. Therefore, Jaspers totally opposed Bultmann's project of "demythologization," which, he argued, implied that myths are theories in disguise, that they could be translated into a profane tongue so that a theologian could salvage elements that are acceptable to scientifically trained "modern man" and discard the "superstitious" rest.

Myths, according to Jaspers, are the means by which people gain access to ultimate reality, and although they have no empirical reference, they are an indispensable part of culture. All attempts of positive theology to reach God in metaphysical categories are useless; so are efforts to express the transcendence in the dogmatic formulas of one or another confession. But a personal existence, in an effort of self-illumination, is able to meet the transcendence as a pendant of its own reality. Existence is not a substance within the empirical word and it cannot survive death; it nevertheless reaches eternity as moments of timelessness within empirical time. Therefore, existence cannot avoid the ultimate defeat; one's death cannot be given a meaning. Still, the radical awareness of one's own finitude is not necessarily a reason for discouragement: In the very acceptance of inevitable defeat one finds the way to being. While existence and the transcendence become real only in an encounter which is expressible in ciphers, and not in any scientific or theological knowledge, this encounter does not make one's communication with other people or one's living participation in historical processes unimportant. One can never isolate one's self entirely from empirical realities, from history, and from one's fellow human beings; quite the contrary, it is only from within, not by a kind of mystical detachment, that people can understand their relationships with infinity; and yet, this understanding can never take the form of "objective" knowledge.

Jaspers tried, in his historical studies, positively to assimilate the entire history of European philosophy which, from various angles, supported his intuition. Both those who stressed the radical irreducibility of personal existence to "objective" reality (Augustine, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche) and those who attempted, however awkwardly, to grasp unconditional being conceptually (Plotinus, Nicholas of Cusa, Bruno, Spinoza, Schelling, Hegel) represented in his view the human effort to cope with the eternal tension between one's life among things and one's desire to reach the ultimate.

In interpreting religious phenomena Jaspers rejected all positivist or scientific attempts to reduce them to needs that might have an anthropological, social, or psychological explanation. On the other hand, he refused to believe that a rational theological or metaphysical enquiry might elucidate them. Both institutionalized Christianity and the tradition of the Enlightenment were unable, in his view, to express properly the relationship between existence and transcendence.


Works by Jaspers

Allgemeine Psychopathologie. Berlin, 1913. Translated by J. Hoenig and Marian W. Hamilton as General Psychopathology (Chicago, 1963).

Die geistige Situation der Zeit. Berlin, 1931. Translated by Eden Paul and Cedar Paul as Man in the Modern Age (London, 1933).

Philosophie. 3 vols. Berlin, 1932. Translated by E. B. Ashton as Philosophy (Chicago, 1969).

Vernunft und Existenz. Groningen, 1935. Translated by William Earle as Reason and Existenz (New York, 1955).

Der philosophische Glaube. Zurich, 1948. Translated by Ralph Manheim as The Perennial Scope of Philosophy (New York, 1949).

Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte. Zurich, 1949. Translated by Michael Bullock as The Origin and Goal of History (New Haven, 1953).

Die Frage der Entmythologisierung. Written with Rudolf Bultmann. Munich, 1954. Translated as Myth and Christianity (New York, 1958).

Works about Jaspers

Bollnow, O. F. Existenzphilosophie und Pädagogik. Stuttgart, 1959.

Piper, Klaus, ed. Offener Horizont: Festschrift für Karl Jaspers. Munich, 1953.

Saner, Hans. Karl Jaspers in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten. Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1970.

Saner, Hans, ed. Karl Jaspers in der Diskussion. Munich, 1973.

Schilpp, Paul A., ed. The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers. New York, 1957.

Leszek Kolakowski (1987)

Jaspers, Karl

views updated May 18 2018


Psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883–1969), who was born in Oldenburg, Germany on February 23, became one of the most important representatives of existential philosophy. He died in Basel, Switzerland on February 26.

Jaspers developed an existential analysis of technology in two distinct phases. His early conception of technology, which he put forth in Man in the Modern Age (1931), revolved around the transformation of human society into a mass, mechanized culture. His initial assessment of this transformation was negative. He wrote of the demonism of technology, describing technology as an independent power that had been summoned into existence by human beings but that now has turned against them. According to Jaspers, technology transforms human society into a mass culture, alienating human beings from themselves and from the world around them.

Jaspers considered mass-rule a byproduct of the close interaction between technological development and population growth, which results in a vast number of human beings whose existence becomes utterly dependent on technology. This dependency requires a quite specific social and cultural formation. Besides a mechanization of labor, society needs a smoothly operating bureaucratic organization in order to keep functioning. Society becomes a machine itself, described by Jaspers as The Apparatus.

This apparatus of workers, machines, and bureaucracy increasingly determines how human beings carry out their daily lives. It has two different but related effects. First its system of mass production fosters a homogenization of the material environment in which human beings live. No attachment is possible to mass produced objects, which only exist as exemplars of a general form and are primarily present in terms of their functionality. Second the apparatus approaches human beings not as unique individuals, but as fulfillers of functions who are in principle interchangeable. Both effects of the technological transformation of society impede human beings from being present as authentic existences, and from living their lives authentically and in existential proximity to the world around them. From an existential point of view, therefore, technology deprives human beings of their highest possibilities.

After World War II, Jaspers's analysis of technology changed course. Rather than viewing technology as a threat to authentic human existence, in The Origin and Goal of History (1949) and The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man (1958), Jaspers saw technology as what was at stake in it. He concluded that technology is ultimately neutral or no more than a means for human goals, because it is incapable of generating its own goals. This neutrality makes human beings responsible for what they make of technology: Technology requires human guidance.

Jaspers no longer considered demonism to be an intrinsic property of technology, but a result of the fact that humans have handled it as an end in itself, rather than a means for human ends. To overcome this demonism, therefore, humanity needs to ask itself the question of what it wants to do with technology. The task for human beings is to reassert sovereignty over technology.

This sovereignty, according to Jaspers, requires a reversal in thinking in which technological thought, or intellect (Verstand), is transformed into an existential way of thinking that he calls reason (Vernunft), and in which individuals are present authentically as themselves. Only this way of thinking will allow humans to experience the situation in which they find themselves as their situation, for which they are responsible. Reason can turn the contemporary situation into a task, and allow humanity to seek new goals for applying technology.

Jaspers's later perspective allowed him to discern not only a threatening side of technology but also ways in which it opened up new existential possibilities. These include new proximity to reality, by understanding the laws of nature lying behind the functioning of technology; recognition of the beauty of technological constructs; and making use of the possibilities opened up by media and transportation technologies, which allow humans to experience the Earth as one whole for which they can feel responsible.

Jaspers's analysis is important as an existential philosophy of technology. Yet in light of later understandings, his separation of technology and society—with autonomous technology dominating society or a sovereign society guiding technology—has become problematic. An existential analysis of technology should take as a starting point the interrelationship of human existence and technology, and investigate how technologies mediate the ways in which human beings realize their existence, by impeding specific aspects of human existence and creating space for new ones.


SEE ALSO Existentialism;German Perspectives.


Jaspers, Karl. (1931). Die geistige Situation der Zeit. Berlin: Göschen (Band 1000). Published in English as Man in the Modern Age, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul. (1973). New York: AMS Press.

Jaspers, Karl. (1932). Philosophie. Berlin: Springer (3 volumes). Published in English as Philosophy, trans. E. B. Ashton (1969–1971). Chicago: University of Chicago Press (3 volumes).

Jaspers, Karl. (1949). Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte. Zurich: Artemis. Published in English as The Origin and Goal of History, trans. Michael Bullock (1953). London: Routledge; New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Jaspers, Karl. (1958). Die Atombombe und die Zukunft des Menschen. Munich: Piper. Published in English as The Future of Mankind; also as The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man, trans. E. B. Ashton. (1961). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jaspers, Karl. (1994). Basic Philosophical Writings, 2nd edition. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Jaspers, Karl

views updated May 29 2018


Philosopher; b. Feb. 23, 1883, Oldenburg, Germany; d. Feb. 25, 1969, Basel. Jaspers established himself as one of the leading existentialists of his time, although he himself did not accept the label existentialist. He followed his father into the study of law (1901), received his doctorate in medicine (1909) and married Gertrud Mayer in 1910. He worked as a scientific assistant in a psychiatric clinic, where he applied the methods of phenomenology to clinical psychiatry. He became a lecturer in psychology in 1913, and there began his transition from psychology to philosophy. He obtained his first post as lecturer in philosophy in 1916 at Heidelberg. In 1921 he was named professor of philosophy at Heidelberg. During this time he developed a friendship with Martin hei degger, which ended because of their differences over the growth of the Nazi party. He remained at Heidelberg until 1937, when the Nazis forced him to resign. He was reinstated in 1945, where he worked to rebuild the university and urged a national acknowledgment of guilt for the horrors of Naziism. Disappointed with the response he received, in 1948 he moved to Switzerland and became a professor at the University of Basel. He advocated a political unity to the world wherein various entities could live together in peace. His disapproval of the manner in which German democracy was developing after the war caused him to surrender his passport in 1967 and apply for Swiss citizenship.

Thought. When a student once asked him by what label he would like to be known, he retorted: "by that of a philosopher." For Jaspers philosophy was philosophizing and arose out of the philosopher's own life situation. Philosophy is not a body of knowledge accessible to consciousness in general, but rather a thoroughly personal struggle to understand life and by that activity to rise above objective knowledge (Dasein ) to Being-for-oneself, where a person is conscious of the limits of science and of his basic freedom as a responsibility. To exist authentically, one must also accept his individual and collective pasthis historicityand make his free decisions with this in mind. Furthermore, communication with other unique existences of the present and of the past is a condition of self-fulfillment, a requirement of the good life.

Jaspers's special contribution to modern philosophy is his analysis of the critical fringes of human existence, what he calls the "limit-situation" (Grenz-situation ). Limit situations, such as the death of another and one's own projected death, suffering, conflict, failure, and guilt lead the self to the edge of transcendence. As the objective world falls to pieces, personal existence is in a position to hear the voice of transcendence. At this level, faith becomes operative. Faith must not be considered a sure, objective, and communicable conquest of reason. Philosophy can only point to an experience of God; each person is left to himself for the last step. Being-for-oneself brings with it access to this intuitive cognition, a type of experience not to be equated with traditional mysticism. For Jaspers, contact with transcendence comes in rare high moments through reading "ciphers." Myths, religions, and philosophies are commentaries on the original ciphers: nature, history, and personal existence. None of these reveal a definitive truth about transcendence. On the other hand, they are the means through which one must acquire his personal convictions about the ultimate meaning of life.

In describing the limit-situation Jaspers tells us that every human being faces two unsettling experiences. First are the antinomies. These refer to the irreducibility of life to thought. The constructs of reason are always a distortion of the particularity and progressive character of truth. Second are the experiences constituting the limit-situation proper. These are the experiences on the boundary of our empirical existence (freedom, suffering, death, guilt). Here we become aware of the limits of objective thought.

Limit-situations can be resolved only by experience, not thought, because they involve contradictory poles (freedom-destiny, good-evil, life-death). Human existence is suspended between the law of the day and the passion of the night (i.e., between objective thought and existential aspirations). It is in the acceptance of this tension that the subject transcends mysticism and positivism and finds his salvation.

Bibliography: Main works. Allgemeine Psychopathologie (Berlin 1948). Psychologie der Weltanschauungen (Berlin 1925). Philosophie, 3 v. (Berlin 1956). Works in English. Man in the Modern Age, tr. e. and c. paul (London 1951). Reason and Existenz, tr. w. earle (New York 1955). The Perennial Scope of Philosophy, tr. r. manheim (New York 1949). The Origin and Goal of History, tr. m. bullock (New Haven 1953). "On My Philosophy," tr. f. kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, ed. w. kaufmann (New York 1956) 131158. Literature. p. a. schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers (New York 1957). b. welte, La Foi philosophique chez Jaspers et saint Thomas d'Aquin, tr. m. zemb (Paris 1958). p. ricoeur, Gabriel Marcel et Karl Jaspers: Philosophie du mystère et philosophie du paradoxe (Paris 1948). k. piper, ed., Karl Jaspers' Wirk und Wirkung (Munich 1963). c. wallraff, Karl Jaspers: An Introduction to His Philosophy (Princeton 1970). j. f. kane, Pluralism and Truth in Religion: Karl Jaspers on Existential Truth (Chico, CA 1981). l. h. ehrlich, Karl Jaspers: Philosophy as Faith (Amherst 1975).

[j. k. luoma/

l. a. blain/eds.]

Karl Jaspers

views updated May 29 2018

Karl Jaspers

The German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) wrote important works on psychopathology, systematic philosophy, and historical interpretation.

Karl Jaspers was born in Oldenburg, close to the North Sea coast, on Feb. 23, 1883. His father was a prosperous bank director. After graduation from the gymnasium in Oldenburg, Jaspers studied at Heidelberg, Munich, Berlin, and Göttingen.

Though he lived to be 86, Jaspers's health was always fragile. From early childhood he suffered from bronchiectasis with cardiac decompensation. This required him to organize his limited energies with great care. Yet he accomplished much teaching and writing under these limitations and was helped greatly, particularly in his writing, by his wife, Gertrud Mayer, whom he married in 1910.

In 1909 Jaspers received the degree of doctor of medicine and began to specialize in psychiatry. For 7 years thereafter he worked in the psychiatric clinic attached to the university hospital in Heidelberg. It was here that Jaspers began to work out a classification of basic personality types. This work, influenced further by discussions with his friend Max Weber and by the latter's theory of ideal types, culminated in Jaspers's first major work, General Psychopathology (1913). With this work Jaspers acquired a position on the psychology faculty at Heidelberg.

In this first major work Jaspers discovered one of the essential themes of his thought: "Man is always more than what he knows, or can know, about himself." From Immanuel Kant, Jaspers learned that man, the source of all objective inquiries, cannot himself be known—in his entirety—through objective inquiry. All scientific views on man are limited and partial. But, following SØren Kierkegaard, Jaspers began to develop a way of describing what lies behind these objective inquiries—the unique individual, or, as he called it, Existenz.

In his next major work, The Psychology of World Conceptions (1919), Jaspers explored the range of fundamental world views, in relation to which individual men find their own identity. He also began to explore those "boundary situations" in life that force individuals to face up to the meaning of their unique existence. These include the awareness of one's sexuality; suffering and conflict; shame, betrayal, and guilt; and the death of loved ones and the awareness of one's own death. In this way Jaspers brought to the fore that concentration on the individual self and its experiences that has come to be the distinguishing mark of existentialism. In 1921 he was given a chair in philosophy at Heidelberg.

Jaspers himself always placed alongside the emphasis on subjectivity an equal emphasis on shared reason in all its forms, particularly in the sciences. The philosophical task is first to come to grips with the basic modes of objectifying reason, then to understand the forms and methods by which the objectifications are made, and finally to relate these forms to the human subjectivity from which they arise. Philosophical thought then rises to the "encompassing," the ultimate reality that contains both the objects and the acts of thinking within itself.

In the works of his maturity, Philosophy (3 vols., 1932), Philosophical Logic (1947), and Philosophical Faith (1948), Jaspers develops a view of philosophy as a never-ending search for this total vision. No such vision is or can be complete and final. Supporting the limited attempts is a philosophical faith in truth and communication which preserves the thinker from dogmatism and intolerance of other attempts. Jaspers's philosophical faith also maintains that man, finding himself dependent and inadequate, is open to a transcendence that grounds and supports his existence and maintains his freedom.

These opinions were put to a severe test after the Nazis came to power. Always critical of Nazism, Jaspers was forced to retire in 1937 and forbidden to publish in 1938. His wife, who was Jewish, was under constant threat, and the couple had already been scheduled for deportation to a death camp when the U.S. army entered Heidelberg in April 1945.

Jaspers took a chair of philosophy at Basel in 1949 and spent the next 2 decades writing on such topical questions as German guilt, demythologizing the Gospels, and the atom bomb, in addition to large-scale historical works. He died after a stroke on Feb. 26, 1969, in Basel.

Further Reading

The fundamental book for approaching Jaspers is The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers, edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp (1957). It contains a lengthy "Philosophical Autobiography" by Jaspers and two dozen important descriptive and critical essays on his philosophy, together with his replies and a bibliography complete to early 1957. Charles F. Wallraff, Karl Jaspers: An Introduction to His Philosophy (1970), is useful.

Additional Sources

Ehrlich, Leonard H., Karl Jaspers: philosophy as faith, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975. □

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