Karl Jaspers Biography


(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...

(The entire section is 2125 words.)