Karl Theodor Jaspers (1883-1969) was a German existential philosopher whose initial profession had been psychiatry. In later life he attained an international reputation owing to his highly publicized statements as a political philosopher in postwar Germany and received several honorary doctorates and prestigious awards honoring his philosophical work for peace, freedom, and humanity.
Jaspers was born into a middle-class family in Oldenburg, northern Germany, on February 23, 1883. The liberal democratic mindset in his family deeply shaped his way of thinking. Jaspers first studied law, but partly owing to pulmonary disease contracted in his youth, he switched to the study of medicine. Due to his illness Jaspers was forced to live a calm and retiring life. Notwithstanding, he passed his exams in Heidelberg with distinction. In 1910 he married the nurse Gertrud Mayer, daughter of a Jewish merchant and sister of his fellow student Ernst Mayer.
Jaspers received his medical degree in 1908. He obtained his second doctorate from the philosophy faculty of Heidelberg University for his book General Psychopathology, still considered an important psychological work today. Beginning around 1910 Jaspers gradually had moved toward philosophy—mainly inspired by his readings of Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, Georg W. F. Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, and S0ren Kierkegaard. His first predominantly philosophical book was Psychology of World Views (1919). By 1922 he had became full professor of philosophy in Heidelberg University.
In 1909 Jaspers made the acquaintance of Max Weber, one of the most important liberals, economists, and sociologists of prewar Germany. Weber was to play a guiding role in Jaspers’s personal and academic development. During the same period Jaspers also met Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukacs, Friedrich Naumann, and Georg Simmel.
Jaspers dissociated from the neo-Kantian philosophy that prevailed at this time and was one the first researchers who fought with insistence for a widening of the scope of philosophical sciences. Jaspers’s main work is chastely titled Philosophy (1932) (Philosophical World Orientation, The Illumination of Existence, Metaphysics). Some further prewar works are Man in the Modern Age (1931), Reason and Existence (1935), and Philosophy of Existence (1938). Jaspers investigated the influences of borderline situations on the human being’s attitudes and described a transcendental theory of the encompassing (das Umgreifende). Jaspers’s attitude toward religion, however, was critical, and he did not consider it essential to philosophy.
Jaspers became deeply involved in the history of philosophy, which he understood as a facet of existential philosophy. He was among the first to think of history beyond the notion of a path of time or a path of ideas. Thus, when considering the heritage of the great philosophers, he replaces the link through time with the link through reason. One could say Jaspers widened the dimensions of history and time by ignoring their strict chronological order and interpretation.
Jaspers also dealt with Friedrich Nietzsche’s thoughts about the eternal return or recurrence of time and the necessary overcoming of weakness and nihilism through such recurrence. Jaspers esteemed Nietzsche’s work, although he disagreed with some parts of Nietzsche’s legacy, particularly in Nietzsche’s interpretations of the existence and role of transcendence. Furthermore, Jaspers was opposed to any thinking of the concept of the superior man.
Another outstanding person in his life was Martin Heidegger, with whom he shared an intense discourse. Nonetheless they quite frankly took very opposite philosophical positions. Jointly they are considered the most important representatives of German existential philosophy—clearly demarcated from Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism. Their relationship abruptly ended the day Heidegger declared his accordance with the aims of Hitler. More satisfying was Jaspers’s lifelong friendship with his former student, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt.
As a consequence of Jaspers’s marriage to a Jewish woman and his declining to collaborate with the Nazi regime, he was subjected to certain restrictions, including the prohibition to teach and to publish. After the end of the war, however, with his reputation intact, he was among the well-regarded academics who helped to refound Heidelberg University, but in 1948 he chose to relocate to the University of Basel in Switzerland out of his dissatisfaction with the political and academic developments in postwar Germany.
Induced by his experiences during the Nazi tyranny, Jaspers had become an increasingly politically thinking person and fought against the quick rehabilitation of former Nazi collaborators like Heidegger. His well-known and controversial book The Question of German Guilt appeared shortly after the war’s end (1946). Jaspers assumed the role of a strong advocate for freedom and purer democracy. Some explicitly humanistic works, such as The Atom Bomb and the Future of Mankind (1961), followed. At this stage he pronounced the importance of an enlightened and educated bourgeoisie to the stability of democratically ruled societies.
Jaspers’s circumscribed influence in modern philosophical theory, especially outside the German sphere, is partly due to the fact that more famous philosophers such as Heidegger and Theodor W. Adorno did not take issue with the greater part of his perceptions and ideas.
Karl Jaspers became a Swiss citizen in 1967. He died in Basel on February 26, 1969.
Matthias S. Hauser
See also Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Heidegger, Martin; Kant, Immanuel; Morality; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Space and Time; Weber, Max
Ehrlich, L. (1975). Karl Jaspers: Philosophy as faith. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.