German-speaking Philosophers – Portraits

Karl Jaspers – Philosophy as the Illumination of Existence

Karl Jaspers; © Lorenz ViereckeKarl Jaspers; © Lorenz ViereckeThe truth of philosophy is philosophizing as a radical way of existence and the illumination of existence. Hardly anyone has lived this conviction more sincerely than the German philosopher Karl Jaspers. His thought was dedicated to a searching and questioning orientation in a world that had become profoundly questionable. He was the co-founder of the philosophy of existence (Existenzphilosophie) – and one of the most prominent critics of German post-war politics.

Jaspers was born in Oldenburg in 1883. After studying medicine, he began working in 1909 as an assistant at the Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic. His post-doctoral thesis, General Psychopathology (Allgemeine Psychopathologie, 1913) is still regarded as one of the classic texts in the subject. Jaspers switched to philosophy in 1922. In that year, on the strength of his book Psychology of World Views (Psychologie der Weltanschauungen, 1919), the University of Heidelberg appointed the philosophical autodidact to a Chair in Philosophy.

In 1932 Jaspers published his three-volume main work, which bears a title that is as beautiful as it is short: Philosophy (Philosophie). Five years later the Nazis forced him into early retirement because he refused to separate himself from his Jewish wife. Both remained in Germany despite the fact that they had to reckon with being arrested and sent to a concentration camp at any time and that a publication ban was imposed on Jaspers in 1938.

The couple finally left Germany only later, mainly because they were profoundly disappointed by the way in which the Federal Republic dealt after the end of the war with the recent past. In 1948 they moved to Basel in Switzerland, where Jaspers was Professor of Philosophy until 1961 and where he died in 1969, two years after relinquishing his German citizenship and accepting Swiss citizenship.

Getting existence to speak

Recommended reading: Karl Jaspers' “Einführung in die Philosophie. Zwölf Radiovorträge”, 27th edition 2008; © Piper VerlagJaspers is a profoundly radical thinker – radical not in politics, but in his will to honesty and integrity. Like his model Sören Kierkegaard, and like the early Martin Heidegger (with whom Jaspers was bound by a deep friendship before this foundered when Heidegger let himself be elected the first Nazi rector of the University of Freiburg), he wanted from philosophy answers to the existential questions of life. Philosophy should go whole hog; it should turn to actual life, interpret (individual) existence and get it to speak – in a word, philosophy should “illuminate” existence.

Philosophy must be purified and refined into a philosophy of existence. It must pose the question of being and analyze human existence, but without objectifying this existence, as do the sciences, in a false concreteness. For the sake of existential truthfulness, it must renounce even objective and absolute truth. Strictly speaking, it therefore leads to no objective result, and is possible and meaningful only in the form of an existential reasoning. Only in this way can philosophy show what it alone, according Jaspers, can show in the scientific-technical age: “the truth, the meaning and the goal of our life”.

The truth of human existence, according to Jaspers, reveals itself especially in “borderline situations” such as illness, death or guilt. In these situations, which the individual is incapable of altering and whose common characteristic is suffering, man runs up against his limits, experiences directly the loneliness of existence, and loses every certainty except that of his (own) existence. At the same time, these situations, and only these, make possible a unique insight: what matters above all is the individual, “his attitude towards himself, his life, the self-decision of the existing individual”.

The opportunity of failure

Borderline situations show who a human being is and what he is capable of. They confront man with the possibilities of “authentic self-being”, and so with his freedom and his responsibility. Even in failure, man becomes aware of his freedom. Failure is one of the possibilities of human existence; it is even one of its conditions. Whoever fears failure fears life, for, according to Jaspers, the central challenge of existence consists precisely in the risk of failure: not simply to accept factual existence, but to question it and to live possible existence as real existence.

Borderline situations, along with wonder and doubt, are for Jaspers the true origin of philosophy because they are so closely bound up with the experience of transcendence. This experience is possible only in the enigmatic form of never fully decipherable signs (Jaspers calls these Chiffre or “ciphers”) in which something beyond man suggests or indicates something completely Other that can never be fully grasped. Failure is one of these ciphers; God is another.

All great philosophers have, according to Jaspers, thought and spoken in ciphers because the absolute and the truth cannot be represented and communicated in any other form. And all have spoken in one way or another of an “Encompassing”. Jaspers’s doctrine of the Encompassing, developed mainly after the Second World War, discusses the experience of a transcendent feeling of security, communicated even in failure, without dissolving this into a theology of completeness or perfection. Even and precisely in failure, maintains Jaspers, man can first really experience genuine being and that he is a part of a whole which is more primordial than he is and which supports without preserving him.

Philosophy that is not political...

For Jaspers, one of the forms of the Encompassing is community. In fact, existence in his view is always directed to the other and is possible only as collective practice. Only in community is there something such as freedom, and only in community are reason, truth and philosophy possible. Man is free to the extent that others are free.

Perhaps this linkage of communication, freedom and philosophy was the real, the philosophical reason, for Jaspers’ continually increasing political engagement as a writer from 1945 to his death. He firmly believed what in Germany is highly controversial and what Heidegger refused to accept throughout his life, namely that philosophy must become political and that the philosopher must take a position in political questions.

As a representative of the “other Germany”, Jaspers soon became a moral authority. His greatest concern was the safeguarding of freedom. He saw it threatened by totalitarian systems, the nuclear armament of the two world powers and their policy of political blocks, but also by disturbing developments in his own country such as the repression of Nazi crimes by the national memory and the emergence of oligarchic structures of government, developments which he observed and commented upon critically. He looked on democracy as a “way to freedom”, not as a state of already achieved freedom that needed only to be managed. He was convinced that whoever desired to maintain and improve democracy must monitor and criticize it. Hardly anyone did this more courageously and more unrelentingly than did Jaspers.

Bernd Mayerhofer
teaches political theory and the history of ideas at the University for Political Science in Munich.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
February 2010

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Dossier: Kierkegaard 2013

Foto: Søren kierkegaard, drawn by Niels Christian Kierkegaard
With “Kierkegaard 2013”, the world celebrates the 200th birthday of Søren Kierkegaard. The Danish philosopher’s life and work play a big role in Germany, too.


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