The works of Karl Jaspers are generally lecture transcripts.
He encouraged the discipline of philosophy to return to issues of life,
as it is lived, instead of being isolated within universities.
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Read their works!
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from The Existential Primer. Full lists of citations appear at the end of each page. Present tense is used when referencing a published work, while past tense is favored on these pages because the major figures are… dead. Inline citations take the form (Author p. page) with no year. A title is included if there might be confusion as to the work. Quoted long passages appear indented with the <blockquote> tag and cited in the format:
Author, p. Page
Karl Jaspers (pronounced “Yaspers”) was born 23 February
1883 in Oldenburg to Carl William and Henriette Jaspers, a respected family
within the community. Carl was a lawyer, the local sheriff for a time,
and a bank director.
Jaspers did well in secondary school, which he atttended
from 1892–1901. At graduation he had been accepted to the University of
Freiburg law school. About this time, Jaspers was diagnosed with heart
problems. Doctors told Jaspers to avoid strenuous activity.
After studying law in Freiburg and Munich for three terms,
Jaspers moved to Berlin and began to pursure a medical degree. Jaspers
left Berlin for the University of Goettingen, where he studied from 1903
to 1906. Jaspers took the medical exams in 1908.
After receiving his initial degree in 1908, Jaspers interned
in the psychiatric ward at a hosptial in Heidelberg. In February 1909 he
received his M.D. and psychiatric degrees in Heidelberg, Germany. Jaspers’
doctorate thesis was (loosely translated) “Homesickness and Crime.”
Jaspers married Gertrud Mayer, a Jewish woman, in 1910.
His marriage and love for his wife would later influence Jaspers’ view
of the Third Reich and the German people.
Among pscyhiatric patients, Jaspers began to formulate
a link between psychology and philosophy. Psychoanalysis and existentialism
were also linked in the works of philosopher Jean-Paul
Sartre and analysts Viktor Frankl and Rollo May. Four years after obtaining his psychiatric degree,
Jaspers published General Psychopathology, a major work on
mental illness that remains influential in the field. This 1913 work remains
popular within university courses.
World War I, 1914–1918, deeply affected Jaspers, as it
did most Eruopeans. He was interested in a number of psychological effects
experienced by soldiers and civilians.
In 1916 Jaspers earned a professorship in psychology
at Heidelberg. His interest in philosophy continued, as the war dragged
to a conclusion. After the war concluded, Jaspers published Psychology
of the World-View. Jaspers was awarded a professorship in philosophy,
also at Heidelberg, in 1921. He was awarded tenure, a “full professorship,”
In 1932, he published a collection of thoughts as Philosophy
[of Karl Jaspers]. The work focused on how to study the problem
of existence without objectifying man or resorting to mysticism an artificial
The National Socialists did not appreciate Jaspers opinions.
In 1933, as World War II began, Jaspers was relieved of most teaching duties
by the Nazis. Being removed from the administation, and losing his “full”
status did not silence Jaspers.
By 1937 he was completely removed from the classroom
and the university. He resented the Nazis and the people so willing to
follow Hitler into war. However, Jaspers retained his pride in Germany
and its intellectual past.
The government, angered that Jaspers spoke about the
mistreatment of Jews, prohibited publication of Jaspers’ works in 1943
— as the war was ending.
Jaspers returned to teaching at Heidelberg following
World War II. The American administrators reinstated him to the university
faculty. Jaspers dedicated himself to creating a new, liberalized, university.
With Dolf Sternberger, Jaspers co-founded the magazine The
Transformation. The magazine pushed a “liberal” agenda, along
with a dedication to moral clarity. Jaspers started to attract some anger
from the German people, and he did not shy away from this attention.
Jaspers turned his thoughts to how the German people
had allowed the war to continue for so long. He explored his experiences
and those of Germany in his 1946 work The Question of German Guilt,
a study of how the German populous was led by Hitler and the Nazis.
In 1948, Jaspers relocated to Switzerland, where he taught
at the University of Basel. Nietzsche had
taught at the same university.
Jaspers died on 26 February 1969, shortly after his eighty-sixth
birthday. He left behind 25,000 letters and more than 35,000 pages of notes
Special thanks to Christina B. for the German text, which
allowed me to add to the this chronology. My German skills and Babel Fish
combined leave something to be desired, so I am hoping the information
is properly translated.
1883 February 23
Born to Carl William and Henriette Jaspers in Oldenburg.
Attended school in Oldenburg, studying humanities.
Enters the University of Freiburg to study law. He remains for three
Diagnosed with a heart ailment; advised to avoid physical strain.
Studies medicine in Goettingen.
Receives M.D. and psychiatric degree at Heidelberg, Germany.
Marries Gertrud Mayer, a Jewish German. His loyalty to her would
later lead him to criticize the National Socialists, including Hitler.
Publishes General Psychopathology, a major work on mental
illness that remains influential in the field.
Given a professorship in psychology at Heidelberg.
1922 April 1
Given a professorship in philosophy, also at Heidelberg. The full-professor
standing allowed more dedication to studies and writing.
Relieved of teaching duties by National Socialists.
Returns to teaching at Heidelberg following World War II.
Publishes The Question of German Guilt, a study
of how the German populous was led by the Nazis.
Moves to Switzerland to teach at the University of Basel.
1969 February 26
Dies in Basel.
General Psychopathology, Essay: 1913, (English, 1963)
Man in the Modern Age, Essay: 1931
Philosophy, Three Texts: 1932
Reason and Existenz, Essay: 1935, (English, 1955)
Existenzphilosophie, Essay: 1938
The Question of German Guilt, Essay: 1946
Karl Jaspers’ role in existentialism is sometimes ignored,
but he was important. He coined the term “Existenzphilosophie” — a forerunner
of the term existentialism — and this alone makes his contribution unique.
Jaspers viewed his philosophy as active, forever changing. This approach
compelled Jaspers to protest any attempt to group him with other philosophers.
It is in the work of Jaspers that the seeds sown by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche first
grew into existentialism or, as he prefers to say, Existenzphilosophie.
One reason for his opposition to the label “existentialism” is that it
suggests a school of thought, a doctrine among others, a particular position.
- Existentialism; Kaufmann, p. 22
Jaspers linked the philosophical movements of the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries.
Kierkegaard + Nietzsche
As a philosopher who came upon the role along a circuitous
path, Jaspers’ legacy is a merging of Søren
Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Much like these two predecessors, Jaspers disliked formal philosophy, especially
as taught at universities. However, when merging the basics of Kierkegaard
and Nietzsche into a foundation for existentialism, Jaspers did take liberties
a “serious” philosopher would not have. According to Walter Kaufmann:
To Jaspers the differences between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche seem much
less important than that which they have in common. What mattered most
to them, does not matter to Jaspers: he dismisses Kierkegaard’s “forced
Christianity” no less than Nietzsche’s “forced anti-Christianity” as
relatively unimportant; he discounts Nietzsche’s ideas as absurdities,
and he does not heed Kierkegaard’s central opposition to philosophy.
All the many philosophers since Hegel and Schelling, however, fare far
worse: they are at best instructive but lack human substance: “The original
philosophers of the age are Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.” The crucial fact
for Jaspers is that their thinking was not academically inspired but
rooted in their Existenz.
- Existentialism; Kaufmann, p. 23
Maybe it was his willingness to discard the prominent
themes of both men that allowed Jaspers to create something unique and
exciting. Kierkeaard’s Christianity was
central to his writings, yet Jaspers had no difficulty dismissing Kierkegaard’s
faith. Nietzsche’s “anti-Christian” tone
was dismissed with equal ease by Jaspers.
Philosophy in Academia
Jaspers shared an important opinion with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche:
academic philosophy was unoriginal and lacked any true value. Kierkegaard
regarded philosophers at the universities with some suspicion, believing
they distorted the concept of Christianity. Nietzsche considered the professors
state employees, and as such unwilling to challenge socially accepted beliefs,
no matter how wrong. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard both believed professors
prone to attempt to justify whatever was currently popular. Jaspers wrote:
As the realization overcame me that, at the time, there was no true
philosophy at the universities, I thought that facing such a vacuum even
he, who was too weak to create his own philosophy, had the right to hold
forth about philosophy, to declare what it once was and what it could
- from On My Philosophy; Jaspers
University professors are, to this day, under pressure
to lecture on popular topics and ideals. There is no such thing as an “alternative”
point of view; often professors join to promote an “alternative” to such
an extent that it becomes the norm within the lecture halls. Quite simply,
to be a respected academic it becomes essential to challenge societal norms.
Since such challenges are expected by the public at large and by other
“educated” people, the challenges to accepted values and ideas are hallow.
A philosopher is expected to promote enlightened ideas knowing those ideas
will be rejected as part of an elaborate social ritual.
While others occupied themselves with the study of philosophy,
Jaspers encouraged his students to engage in the the act of “philosophizing.”
For Jaspers, debate and discussion were more important than analyzing what
was written in the past or how two famous men might relate on a theoretical
The only significant content of philosophizing, however, consists in
the impulses, the inner constitution, the way of seeing and judging,
the readiness to react by making choices, the immersion in historical
presentness, which grow in us, recognize themselves, and feel confirmed
on the way past all objective contents.
- from Philosophie; Jaspers
It is true Jaspers published dozens of books, many nearly
1000 pages per volume. However, his books are a series of lectures and
thoughts. Jaspers did not use diaries or metaphors; he was not a novelist.
Jaspers’ works exist to encourage debate; he called this an attempt to
“light fires” for debate and discussion. According to Kaufamann, the real
mark of Jaspers would be his willingness to dismiss his own massive body
of works as meaningless for anyone else. Jaspers was not trying to convince
anyone to adopt a philosophy, but to think and ponder his or her own Existenz.
States of Being
Jaspers’ works present a system in which there are two
states of being: the Dasein and Existenz. Some students are confused by
these terms, as Dasein is the name used by Heidegger for a different conceptual
framework. Dasein is existence in its most minimal sense; Dasein is the
realm of objectivity and science. Notice objectivity is considered a simplistic
approach to discovering the nature of existence and the self.
Existenz is “authentic” being. As with Kierkegaard, Nietzsche,
and Sartre, we find that Jaspers emphasizes
the importance of decision making and freedom in defining the individual.
Total freedom for Jaspers translates into the same infinite possibility
to redefine the self Sartre would describe in his responses to psychoanalysis.
Freedom to make a decision apart from all previous decisions results in
a sense of alienation and loneliness — again, the responsibility of creating
a self is a major one.
There are limits to our freedom, according to Jaspers.
These limitations exist as “boundary situations” including death, suffering,
guilt, chance, and conflict. Jaspers did believe there was a certain randomness
to fate; chance situations arise forcing one to react in a manner not consistent
with true freedom. Death stands apart from other boundaries as it is both
the source of dread and the reason many choose to experience pleasures.
Without death, there might not be a reason to search for pleasure.
If Existenz is a subjective state of being, how can it
be evaluated and analyzed by the individual? Jaspers suggests social interactions
offer guidelines that individuals either adopt or reject. In other words,
Existenz is a solitary state derived from the values of society. As with Sartre’s idea
of “mirrors” (“Hell is other people!”), Jaspers writes of the self as “reflection
in someone else’s authentic self.” Unless we know what others think and
expect of us, we cannot decide who we are or want to be.
Jaspers, therefore, presents a view in which all people
depend upon society for self-definition, even if the act of definition
is a rejection of society’s values. No one is truly apart from society.
In the extreme, a hermit defines his or her self as a complete rejection
of social structures, but here is no “hermit” without a society from which
to seek shelter. As a result, individuals experience a constant sensation
of conflict: a desire to define the self freely while requiring society
for that definition.
Leaps of Faith
Karl Jaspers was a man of faith, but not a traditional
Christian. His break with tradition was a rejection of the formality and
complex nature of organized religion, not a rejection of a supreme power
or divine nature. Jaspers, much like Kierkegaard,
recognized his own faith lacked any basis in logic. This “leap of faith”
for Jaspers represented a free choice to believe in an existence greater
than that detected by science.
Jaspers, Karl; The Great Philosophers: The Foundations Trans.
Manheim, Ralph [1st American ed.] (New York: Harcourt, 1962)
Jaspers, Karl, and Arendt, Hannah; Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus:
The Paradigmatic Individuals (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1985)
Kaufmann, Walter; Existentialism: From Dostoevsky
to Sartre (New York: Meridian, Penguin; 1956, 1975, 1989) ISBN: