Karl Jaspers

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Jaspers, Karl


Born Feb. 23, 1883, in Oldenburg; died Feb. 26, 1969, in Basel. German existentialist philosopher and psychiatrist.

From 1902 to 1908, Jaspers studied medicine at the universities of Berlin, Göttingen, and Heidelberg. In 1908 he began working as an assistant at a psychiatric clinic in Heidelberg; he then taught at the University of Heidelberg, where he was professor of psychology from 1916 and professor of philosophy from 1921. In 1937 he was dismissed and was barred from teaching; he returned to it in 1945 and was at the University of Basel from 1948.

Jaspers’ medical works were chiefly devoted to questions of general psychopathology, such as the difference between the psychopathological process (mental illness) and pathological personality development, as well as the concept of dementia (1910), the analysis of perceptual illusions (1911), and the phenomenological school of psychiatric research (1912). In his General Psychopathology (1913), Jaspers proposed a revision and refinement of psychiatric concepts on the basis of analysis of mental patients’ experiences; he contrasted psychiatry, an applied discipline, to psychopathology—a scientific one. After 1915 he withdrew from research in psychiatry; his subsequent works were concerned with the analysis of the psychopathological aspects of development of the creative personality—specifically, A. Strindberg and V. van Gogh (1922) and F. Nietzsche (1936).

After the defeat of fascism, Jaspers gained great popularity with the liberal intelligentsia of the Federal Republic of Germany; he spoke out for political morality in various works aimed at the general reader, the first one being The Question of German Guilt (1946), which caused a sensation. In the 1950’s, Jaspers’ conservative liberalism tended toward anticommunism, whereas in the late 1960’s he was sharply critical of the antidemocratic and revanchist tendencies in Bonn’s politics (for example, in “Where Is the Federal Republic Heading?”).

Jaspers holds a dual place in the history of thought. He originally aspired to a “burgher” humanism. For Jaspers, Kant symbolized intellectual integrity; Goethe—cultural breadth. Also linked to these ideas, which clearly set him apart from M. Heidegger, were Jaspers’ admiration for the civic and intellectual love of freedom in ancient Greece, his sympathy toward B. Spinoza, and his attacks on clericalism. But Jaspers’ most important intellectual experience at the start of his philosophical journey was his sense of the crisis facing traditional “burgher” culture. In spite of his antipathy toward Kierkegaard’s “gloomy fanaticism” and Nietzsche’s “extremism and fury,” Jaspers was influenced by their ideas. He defined his intellectual labor not as “philosophy” but as “philosophizing,” stressing the incomplete and open character of the mental process, wherein questions predominate over answers. In Jaspers’ opinion the time we live in has lost the spiritual capacity that allowed Plato, Spinoza, or Hegel to derive a harmonious system “from the source”; our age must content itself with fragmentary insights. On the other hand, it is only through “philosophizing,” according to Jaspers, that one can comprehend human reality in the age of crisis.

Jaspers’ conception of being is threefold: (1) objective being, or “being-in-the-world”; (2) Existenz, or man’s nonobjectifiable “being-as-such”; and (3) transcendence, or “the encompassing”—the unattainable limit of all being and thought. Thought with regard to “being-in-the-world” is “orientation-in-the-world”; thought with regard to Existenz is the “illumination of existence”; and thought with regard to transcendence is “metaphysics,” which expresses its inexpressible object through “ciphers.” Jaspers avoids the concept of the symbol, associating it with the traditional religious practice—which he rejected—of objectifying transcendence. In spite of his conflict with theology, to which he opposes the ideal of “philosophic faith,” Jaspers’ ontology is obviously close to traditional theism.

According to Jaspers, the interrelatedness of one’s Existenz and another Existenz is realized in the act of “communication”— that is, a profoundly intimate and personal communication in “truth.” “Communication,” which is the central concept in his world view, is raised by Jaspers to the rank of criterion of philosophic truth and is identified with reason. For Jaspers, moral, social, and intellectual evil is primarily deafness to another’s Existenz and incapacity for “discussion,” which takes the form of fanaticism as well as of superficial and impersonal mass communication. This thesis is equivalent to the very specific political position of individualistic liberalism.

The meaning of philosophy, Jaspers maintained, lies in the creation of universal means of “communication” between countries and centuries, overriding all cultural boundaries. Such linking of different ages is possible because of the achievements of the “axis age” (eighth to third centuries B.C.), which was the age of both the early Greek philosophers and the founders of Asia’s most important religious and philosophical traditions. The “axis age,” according to Jaspers, laid down for all times the universal precept of personal responsibility that was the common source of Eastern and Western culture; it is therefore necessary to renew one’s connection with this precept and seek new “ciphers” for the old, lost, and newly recovered truth.

Jaspers’ entire philosophy expresses the crisis of traditional liberal-individualistic humanism at the same time that it seeks to comprehend the crisis and realizes the impossibility of escaping from it.


Die geistige Situation der Zeit, 3rd ed. Berlin-Leipzig, 1932.
Philosophic vols. 1–3. Berlin, 1932.
Vernunft und Existenz. Groningen, 1935.
Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte, 3rd ed. Munich, 1952.
Rechenschaft und Ausblick. Munich, 1951.
Die grossen Philosophen, vols. 1–2. Munich, 1957.
Die Atombombe und die Zukunft des Menschen. Munich, 1962.
Der philosophische Glaube angesichts der Offenbarung. Munich, 1962.
Gesammelte Schriften zur Psychopathologie. Berlin, 1963.
Chiffren der Transzendenz. Munich, 1970.


Gaidenko, P. “Filosofiia kul’tury K. laspersa.” Voprosy literaturv, 1972, no. 9.
Karl Jaspers. Edited by P. A. Schilpp. Stuttgart, 1957.
Karl Jaspers: Werk und Wirkung. Edited by K. Piper. Munich, 1963.
Karl Jaspers in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten. Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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