Karl Jaspers Biography

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(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: In his early career, Jaspers played an important role in establishing the foundations of clinical psychiatry, and in his mature years he was one of the major philosophers to lay the groundwork for the existential movement. After World War II, he attempted to develop a world philosophy which would promote human unity based on freedom and tolerance.

Early Life

Born and reared near the North Sea in Oldenburg, Karl Theodor Jaspers was the eldest of three children in an upper-middle-class family whose ancestors had lived in northern Germany for generations. His father was a successful lawyer who served as President of the City Council as well as a bank director. Never in good health, during childhood Jaspers suffered from serious diseases which developed into a chronic dilation of the bronchial tubes, and this led to cardiac decompensation (the heart’s inability to maintain normal circulation). These severe health problems meant that Jaspers had limited energy for physical activity, leading him to think seriously about the significance of human existence.

In his early years of school, Jaspers was not an especially outstanding student, but he did gain a reputation for a spirit of independence. Having a strong dislike for discipline and regimentation, during his high-school years he was in constant conflict with the school authorities. In 1901 and 1902, he studied law at the Universities of Heidelberg and Munich, but, not finding this field compatible with his interests, he decided to study natural science to learn as much as possible about the universe. Between 1902 and 1908, he studied medicine at the Universities of Berlin, Göttingen, and Heidelberg. After passing the state examination to practice medicine, he wrote his dissertation Heimweh und Verbrechen (1909; nostalgia and crime). In 1909, he took a job as a volunteer research assistant at the psychiatric clinic of the University of Heidelberg, a position that he held for six years; in 1910, he married Gertrud Mayer, an attractive German Jew who was the sister of his closest friend.

Life’s Work

At the Heidelberg clinic, Jaspers chose to work in his own way, at his own pace, and with his own choice of patients. He was allowed this independence because he agreed to work without a salary. Jaspers was very dissatisfied with the conditions of clinical psychiatry, especially the emphasis on organic medicine, the limited attempts at therapy, and the failure to consider individual differences. In his clinical work, Jaspers was influenced by Edmund Husserl’s method of phenomenology—the direct observation and description of phenomena with the attempt not to depend upon causal theories. His first published book, Allgemeine Psychopathologie (1913; General Psychopathology, 1963), was one of the first serious attempts to present a critical and systematic synthesis of the modern methods available in psychiatry, making Jaspers one of the best known of the psychiatrists of Germany.

In spite of this success, Jaspers’ interests were moving in the direction of general philosophy; the same year that he published his book he was able to enter the philosophical faculty as the specialist in empirical psychology at Heidelberg. Although his work was not appreciated by Heinrich Rickert and other philosophers at the university, his academic advance was rapid. By 1921, he was a full professor of philosophy, and in 1922 he occupied the second chair of that field.

Jaspers’ intellectual development was reflected in his published lectures Psychologie der Weltanschauungen (1919; psychology of worldviews). In this work, Jaspers investigated the limits of the philosophical knowledge of humankind, and he anticipated all the major themes of his later works. Emphasizing the differences between philosophy and science, he argued that the latter was based on empirical data, providing objective facts that are apodictically certain. In contrast, Jaspers considered philosophy to be directed at subjective insight into the nature of being, using intuitive methods that resembled Oriental mysticism. His system, while founded on belief, recognized the validity of modern science, seeking for a philosophy that would transcend scientific knowledge while remaining free of any dogmatism. Jaspers believed that human existence was the center of all reality, and he argued that in contrast to inanimate objects, human existence included the freedom for self-determination.

Jaspers developed these germinal ideas during the 1920’s and early 1930’s, and during these years he worked in association with Ernst Mayer and Martin Heidegger. In 1932, he published his three-volume work, Philosophie (Philosophy, 1969), which was his most systematic account of the so-called existential philosophy. Jaspers argued that philosophy was primarily an activity in which a person gains illumination into the nature of his existence, and that content and doctrines are relatively unimportant—not to be considered as objectively true or false. Influenced by Søren Kierkegaard, he used the term “existence” to refer to a sentient subject (or soul) possessing self-awareness and freedom. Although rejecting theism and divine revelation, Jaspers sought for a vague form of transcendence which was not knowable by empirical data, with the individual finding hints of this reality through symbolic “ciphers” as found in myths or religious teachings. In the realm of ethics, Jaspers focused on the goal of “authentic existence,” which primarily meant to seek truth and to stand by one’s convictions.

Jaspers seriously underestimated the appeal of National Socialism, and he was taken by surprise when Adolf Hitler assumed power in 1933. Unlike many academicians, he made no concessions to the Nazi government, and, unwilling to forsake his Jewish wife, he became an enemy of state. Until 1937, he was allowed to teach and publish, and his book Vernuft und Existenz (1935; Reason and Existenz, 1955) developed the key concept of “the encompassing,” which referred to the spiritual and material reality which surrounds human existence. When removed from his professorship at Heidelberg, he was allowed to present a final group of lectures, published in the short book Existenzphilosophie (1938; Philosophy of Existence, 1971). While emphasizing metaphysics, these lectures did contain anti-Nazi implications in the defense of individualism, the advocacy of seeking truth, and the focus on spirituality.

In 1942, Jaspers received permission to emigrate to Switzerland, but his wife would have been required to remain behind. He refused to leave without her, and she was soon forced to hide in the home of friends. lf arrested, both of them had decided, they would commit suicide. In 1945, he learned that his deportation was scheduled for the middle of April, but fortunately American troops occupied Heidelberg two weeks before the appointed date. Although disillusioned by the Nazi period, Jaspers used this time to write a revision of the General Psychopathology and to complete his large book on logic, Von der Wahrheit (1947; of truth).

After the German surrender, Jaspers spent most of his energies in trying to provide a theoretical basis for the rebuilding of the universities and in helping to promote the moral and political rebirth of the nation. In the book Die Idee der Universität (1946; The Idea of the University, 1959), he called for the complete denazification of the teaching staff and for the return of the autonomous university of the years before 1933. Believing that an acknowledgment of national guilt was necessary for a moral rebirth, in Die Schuldfrage (1946; The Question of German Guilt, 1947) Jaspers argued that those who actively participated in crimes against humanity were morally guilty, while those Germans who passively tolerated Nazi crimes were only politically responsible. He hoped that the German people would accept this sense of collective guilt and responsibility, allowing for a higher level of democracy and moral sensitivity. Jaspers was disappointed when his writings did not appear to have any impact on the emerging society, and thus in 1948 he accepted a professorship in philosophy in Basel, Switzerland. Many Germans bitterly resented his emigration.

Jaspers was convinced that the modern developments in science and nuclear weapons meant that nationalism had become a dangerous anachronism and that it was necessary for humankind to strive for a new unity based on a world confederation, a project which was elaborated in Die Atombombe und die Zukunft des Menschen (1958; The Future of Mankind, 1961). This utopian dream would be accomplished gradually through democratic means, and in the short term Jaspers supported the United Nations and decolonization. Radical change would require a new mode of thinking, to which Jaspers referred as “world philosophy,” with the fundamental ideas developed in Der philosophische Glaube angesichts der Offenbarung (1962; Philosophical Faith and Revelation, 1967). Since all thinking ultimately relies on faith, Jaspers looked to humanity’s commitment to a common transcendence approached through the ciphers of various cultures, resulting in a new attitude of tolerance.

In formulating his world philosophy, Jaspers took a renewed interest in the history of philosophical thinking, writing the erudite book Die grossen Philosophen (1957; The Great Philosophers, 1966). In the work Vom Ursprung and Zeit der Geschichte (1949; The Origin and Goal of History, 1953), one of Jaspers’ most important contributions was the concept of the axial period (from 800 to 200 B.C.), during which time the religious and philosophical foundations of the existing civilizations came into being.

With his ambitious aspirations for humanity, Jaspers was disappointed with developments of the postwar world, especially with the conservative climate in Germany. He wrote a bitter critique of German democracy in Wohin treibt die Bundersrepublik? (1966; The Future of Germany, 1967), a book that was widely criticized in West Germany. In response, Jaspers returned his German passport and applied for Swiss citizenship. In 1968, his physical condition deteriorated rapidly, and he died early in 1969, three days after his eighty-sixth birthday.


Although Karl Jaspers rejected the label of “existentialism,” he was one of the philosophers who had a great influence on this diverse movement in the postwar period. As a popular teacher for a long period of time and as author of thirty books, Jaspers inspired large numbers of students to think about the meaning of human existence and to engage in the act of philosophizing. Never attempting to establish a school of thought or to argue the truth of particular doctrines, Jaspers is not remembered for particular ideas as much as for a general style and mood in metaphysical speculation.

Authorities agree that much of Jaspers’ thought was rather vague and ambiguous—at times contradictory. Since he emphasized the subjectivity of the individual thinker, not making a clear distinction between truth and knowledge about the truth, his philosophy can be classified as a form of idealism, and he was a strong critic of materialism, positivism, and scientism. Although not committed to any particular religion, he expressed a mystical temperament, appearing to be overwhelmed by a generalized spirituality that he considered to be the ground of being. He tended to use common words, such as “existence,” in a specialized sense, and some of his favorite words (for example, “the Encompassing”) are open to multiple connotations and interpretations. When Sebastian Samay once asked Jaspers what he thought about some of his commentators, Jaspers replied: “Their work is excellent, but you know, they are much too clear. They have tried to do away with many of my ambiguities.” In the postwar years, however, Jaspers’ works in philosophy and government are more readable and cogently argued, reflecting his growing concern for the social values of reason, justice, and democracy.

Although Jaspers always insisted that he was not a hero during the Nazi era, he clearly demonstrated much moral courage in standing by his wife and refusing to renounce his convictions. In like manner, he demonstrated considerable strength of character in doing productive work in spite of a weak physical condition. As much as for his philosophical and psychological writings, Jaspers deserves to be remembered for these personal characteristics.


Ehrlich, Leonard. Karl Jaspers: Philosophy as Faith. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975. An analysis of the importance of belief in Jaspers’ thought, emphasizing the themes of freedom, ciphers, and the transcendental ground of being.

Jaspers, Karl. “Existenzphilosophie.” In Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, edited by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Meridian Books, 1956. Contains three concise essays by Jaspers: “On My Philosophy,” “Kierkegaard and Nietzsche,” and “The Encompassing.”

Reinhardt, Kurt. The Existentialist Revolt. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1960. An interesting and readable summary of the major ideas of Jaspers and five other thinkers who are classified as existentialists.

Samay, Sebastian. Reason Revisited: The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1971. A critical interpretation of Jaspers’ thought, emphasizing that Jaspers does not usually provide answers for the questions he asks. Samay is especially critical of his use of reason and logic.

Schilpp, Paul Arthur, ed. The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers. New York: Tudor, 1957. Following Jaspers’ “Philosophical Autobiography,” the book contains twenty-four critical essays with Jaspers’ “Reply to My Critics.” This is perhaps the most important scholarly source available in English.

Wallraff, Charles F. Karl Jaspers: An Introduction to His Philosophy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970. The best introductory study of Jaspers’ life and thought, including a critical analysis of his terminology and a useful bibliography.