Theodor Jaspers (February 23, 1883 – February 26, 1969), a
German psychiatrist and philosopher, 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 jurist father. He showed an early interest
in philosophy, but his father's experience with the legal system
undoubtedly influenced his decision to study law at university.
It soon became clear that Jaspers did not particularly enjoy law,
and he switched to studying medicine in 1902.
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 gained a temporary post as a psychology teacher at
Heidelberg University. The post later became permanent, and Jaspers
never returned to clinical practice.
the age of 40 Jaspers turned from psychology to philosophy, expanding
on themes he had developed in his psychiatric works. He became
a renowned philosopher, well respected in Germany and Europe.
In 1948 Jaspers moved to the University of Basel in Switzerland.
He remained prominent in the philosophical community until his
death in Basel in 1969.
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.
not broaching new ideas, this article introduced a new method
of study. Jaspers 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 now forms the
mainstay of modern psychiatric practice.
set about writing his views on mental illness in a book which
he published as General Psychopathology. The two volumes which
make up this work have become a classic in the psychiatric literature
and many modern diagnostic criteria stem from ideas contained
within them. Of particular importance, Jaspers believed that psychiatrists
should diagnose symptoms (particularly of psychosis) by their
form rather than by their content. For example, in diagnosing
an hallucination, the fact that a person experiences visual phenomena
when no sensory stimuli account for it (form) assumes more importance
than what the patient sees (content).
felt that psychiatry could also diagnose delusions in the same
way. He argued that clinicians should not consider a belief delusional
based on the content of the belief, but only based on the way
in which a patient holds such a belief (see delusion for further
discussion). Jaspers also distinguished between primary and secondary
defined primary delusions as autochthonous meaning arising without
apparent cause, appearing incomprehensible in terms of normal
mental processes. (This is a distinctly different use of the term
autochthonous than its usual medical or sociological meaning of
indigenous.) Secondary delusions, on the other hand, he classified
as influenced by the person's background, current situation or
considered primary delusions as ultimately 'un-understandable,'
as he believed no coherent reasoning process existed behind their
formation. This view has caused some controversy, and the likes
of R. D. Laing and Richard Bentall have criticised it, stressing
that taking this stance can lead therapists 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 have no effect.
to Philosophy and Theology
Most commentators associate Jaspers 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.
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
faces a choice: sink into despair and resignation, or take a leap
of faith toward what Jaspers calls Transcendence. In making this
leap, individuals confront their own limitless freedom, which
Jaspers calls Existenz, and can finally experience authentic existence.
(paired with the term The Encompassing in later works) is, for
Jaspers, that which exists beyond the world of time and space.
Jaspers' formulation of Transcendence as ultimate non-objectivity
(or no-thing-ness) has led many philosophers to argue that ultimately,
Jaspers became a monist, though Jaspers himself continually stressed
the necessity of recognizing the validity of the concepts both
of subjectivity and of objectivity.
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.
Mystic Christian traditions influenced Jaspers himself tremendously,
particularly those of Meister Eckhart and of 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"
also wrote extensively on the threat to human freedom posed by
modern science and modern economic and political institutions.
During World War II, he had to abandon his teaching post because
his wife was Jewish. After the war he resumed his teaching position,
and in his work The Question of German Guilt he unabashedly examined
the culpability of Germany as a whole in the atrocities of Hitler's
major works, lengthy and detailed, can seem daunting in their
complexity. His last great attempt at a systematic philosophy
of Existenz -- Von Der Wahrheit (On Truth) -- has not yet appeared
in English. However, he also wrote accessible and entertaining
shorter works, most notably Philosophy is for Everyman.
often compare Jaspers' philosophy to that of his contemporary,
Martin Heidegger. Indeed, both sought to explore the meaning of
being (Sein) and existence (Dasein). While the two did maintain
a brief friendship, 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
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.
important work appeared in 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.
in relation to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche
Jaspers held Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to be two of the most important
figures in post-Kantian philosophy. In his compilation, The Great
Philosophers, he wrote:
approach the presentation of Kierkegaard with some trepidation.
Next to Nietzsche, or rather, prior to Nietzsche, I consider him
to be the most important thinker of our post-Kantian age. With
Goethe and Hegel, an epoch had reached its conclusion, and our
prevalent way of thinking - that is, the positivistic, natural-scientific
one - cannot really be considered as philosophy.”
also questions whether they can be taught. For Kierkegaard, at
least, Jaspers felt that Kierkegaard's whole method of indirect
communication precludes any attempts to properly expound his thought
into any systematic teaching.