Karl Theodor Jaspers (February 23, 1883 - February 26, 1969) was a German psychiatrist and philosopher who had a strong influence on modern theology, psychiatry and philosophy.
Jaspers was born in Oldenburg in 1883 to a mother from a local farming community and a father who was a jurist. He showed an early interest in philosophy although his father's experience with the legal system undoubtedly influenced his decision to study law at university. It soon became clear that law was not something Jaspers particularly enjoyed and he switched to studying medicine in 1902.
Jaspers graduated from medical school in 1909 and began work at a psychiatric hospital in Heidelberg, where Emil Kraepelin had worked some years earlier. Jaspers became dissatisfied with the way the medical community of the time approached the study of mental illness and set himself the task of improving the psychiatric approach. In 1913 Jaspers was given a temporary post as a psychology teacher at Heidelberg University. The post later became permanent and Jaspers never returned to clinical practice.
At the age of 40, Jaspers turned from psychology to philosophy, expanding on themes he developed in his psychiatric works. He was a renowned philosopher, well respected in Germany and Europe, and he remained prominent in the philosophical community until his death in 1969.
Contributions to Psychiatry
Jaspers dissatisfaction with the popular understanding of mental illness led him to question both the diagnostic criteria and the methods of clinical psychiatry. He published a revolutionary paper in 1910 in which he addressed the problem of whether paranoia was an aspect of personality or the result of biological changes. Whilst this was not a new idea in itself, his method of study was unique. He studied several patients in detail, giving biographical information on the people concerned as well as providing notes on how the patients themselves felt about their symptoms. This has become known as the biographical method and is now the mainstay of modern psychiatric practice.
Jaspers set about writing his views on mental illness in a book which was published as General Psychopathology. The two volumes which make up this work have become a classic in the psychiatric literature and much modern diagnostic criteria stem from ideas contained within them. Of particular importance was Jaspers' belief that symptoms (particularly of psychosis) should be diagnosed by their form rather than their content. For example, in diagnosing an hallucination, the fact that a person experiences visual phenomena when there is no sensory stimuli to explain it (form) is more important than what is seen (content).
Jaspers felt delusions could also be diagnosed in the same way. He argued a belief should not be considered delusional based on the content of the belief, but only by the way in which such a belief is held (see delusion entry for further discussion). Jaspers also distinguished between primary and secondary delusions. Primary delusions are defined as being autochthonous or arising out-of-the-blue and not being comprehensible in terms of normal mental processes, whereas secondary delusions may be understood as being influenced by the person's background, current situation or mental state.
Jaspers considered primary delusions as ultimately 'un-understandable' as he believed there was no coherent reasoning process behind their formation. This view is not without controversy, and has been criticised by the likes of R. D. Laing and Richard Bentall who stress that taking this stance can lead a therapist into the complacency of assuming that because they do not understand a patient, the patient is deluded and further investigation on the part of the therapist will be fruitless.
Contributions to Philosophy and Theology
Jaspers is typically associated with the philosophy of Existentialism, in part because he draws largely upon the existentialist roots of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and in part because the theme of individual freedom permeates his work.
In Philosophy (3 vols, 1932), Jaspers gave his view of the history of philosophy and introduced his major themes. Beginning with modern science and empiricism, Jaspers points out that as we question reality, we confront borders that an empirical (or scientific) method can simply not transcend. At this point, the individual is faced with a choice: sink into despair and resignation, or take a leap of faith toward what Jaspers calls Transcendence. In making this leap, the individual confronts her own limitless freedom, which he calls Existenz, and can finally experience authentic existence.
Transcendence (paired with the term The Encompassing in later works) is, for Jaspers, that which is beyond the world of time and space. Jaspers' formulation of Transcendence as ultimate non-objectivity (or no-thing-ness) has lead many philosophers to argue that ultimately, Jaspers was a monist, though Jaspers himself continually stressed the necessity of recognizing the validity of the concepts both of subjectivity and of objectivity.
Although he rejected explicit religious doctrines, including the notion of a personal God, Jaspers influenced contemporary theology through his philosophy of transcendence and the limits of human experience. Jaspers himself was influenced tremendously by mystic Christian traditions, particularly those Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa. He also took an active interest in Eastern philosophies, particularly Buddhism. Jaspers also entered public debates with Rudolf Bultmann, wherein Jaspers roundly criticized Bultmann's "demythologizing" of Christianity.
Jaspers also wrote extensively on the threat to human freedom posed by modern science and modern economic and political institutions. During World War II, he was forced to abandon his teaching post because his wife was Jewish. After the war, his teaching position was restored, and, in his work The Question of German Guilt, he unabashedly examined the culpability of Germany as a whole in the attrocities of Hitler's Third Reich.
Jaspers' major works, lengthy and detailed, can be daunting in their complexity. His last great attempt at a systematic philosophy of Existenz -- Von Der Wahrheit (On Truth) -- has yet to be published in English. However, his shorter works, most notably Philosophy is for Everyman, are accessible and entertaining.
Jaspers' philosophy is often compared to his contemporary, Martin Heidegger. Indeed, both sought to explore the meaning of being (Sein) and existence (Dasein). While the two were friends briefly, their relationship deteriorated - due in part to Heidegger's affiliation with the Nazi party, but also due to the (probably over-emphasized) philosophical differences between the two.
The two major proponents of phenomenological hermeneutics, Paul Ricoeur (a student of Jaspers) and Hans-Georg Gadamer (Jaspers' successor at Heidelberg) both display Jaspers' influence in their works.
Another important work was Philosophy and Existence (1938). For Jaspers, the term "existence" (Existenz) designates the indefinable experience of freedom and possibility; an experience which constitutes the authentic being of individuals who become aware of "the encompassing" by confronting suffering, conflict, guilt, chance, and death.