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Karl Jaspers: The Shipwreck of Existence
"Man is always more than
whatever can be known about him." (p. 194)
I recently visited Heidelberg,
and asked to visit the library of the psychiatric clinic, where Jaspers had
worked on his classic text, General Psychopathology. I was accompanied by the
chairman of the department of psychiatry, a mild-mannered man. As we reached
the entrance to the nineteenth century building, he stopped and began to talk
about Nazi euthanasia. He gestured to a small round monument, with the names
of 17 patients, first names and last initials. "When I became chair in
1989," he said, "I had that sculpture installed in honor of the victims.
We were able to retrace the entire lives of 17 of the thousands of victims from
our department; and we put their names there, as long overdue penance."
He paused. "After the war, my predecessors did not want to revisit the
killing. The chairman during the Nazi period arranged it all; he was imposed
by the party on the department in 1933, and he committed suicide in
1945." Not knowing what to say, I remarked, "You must be proud of
what you finally did." The tension seemed to break: "I am!" he
said with a smile, as we entered.
up at the building, the top floor, which is the third, is the library, bounded
by arches all along its front windows. Inside, those arches look out onto the
wonderful mountain vista that is everywhere in Heidelberg. The library as in
the midst of some renovation, but there it was. Not dark and wood-colored as I
had anticipated, but light and small, smaller than your typical American
elementary school library. As a member of what might be considered something
of a Jaspers cult in the world of academia, I stood a moment: here the man
worked, here, with these few books. I picked out a few at random, late
nineteenth century and early twentieth century tracts only known to psychiatric
historians: Greisinger, Wernicke, Kraepelin, Jaspers himself.
left the library, I felt like Hegel's valet, getting to know the man began to
lighten the weight of image.
died in 1969, at age 86, famous in his native Germany. But for the rest of
the world, Karl Jaspers remains only partly known: he was that friend of
Heidegger's, who fell out with him over Nazism, or perhaps that teacher of Arendt,
who encouraged her liberalism.
He is, in the
world of the intelligentsia, of academic philosophy, a vague figure; but there
is another place where he is an equally ambiguous presence. It is an unusual
place; not the clean auditoria of academic lecture halls; rather, the old and
worn hallways of psychiatric hospitals. Jaspers is likely better known among
psychiatrists than among philosophers. Here is the paradox: perhaps the
greatest existential philosopher of our age was not really a philosopher at
all, but a physician, a psychiatrist, a man who, fully trained, turned his back
on his profession so he could understand the nature of Being.
is the last existentialist, the other existentialist -- not Heidegger or Sartre
or their reflections -- dead for a generation, and more unknown than ever.
this breach steps the first full length English biography of Jaspers, written
by Suzanne Kirkbright, a lecturer in German at Aston University in Birmingham, UK, who
conducted this work as Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow at Heidelberg University. Kirkbright's
fluency in English and German makes this biography especially valuable for
English-speaking audiences. She also obtained the support of Jaspers' last
research assistant and controller of the Jaspers archive in Marburg which
allowed her to access to diaries and correspondence and even some unpublished
manuscript pages that have never before been translated. Her scholarly care is
excellent, with abundant footnotes which provide the original German
translation for quotations or paraphrases in the text, as well as an extensive
appendix providing transcripts of many of Jaspers; original letters in
German. This is both the strength and the limitation of this biography. It
provides access to material about Jaspers heretofore unknown, but it appears to
largely limit itself to such material, thus not providing useful information
that could have been obtained from other sources.
reviewer is always tempted to ask a writer to have written a book other than
the one she wrote. Such criticisms are useless when made after the fact,
though they might have been helpful in the actual process of manuscript
revision. When faced with the life of a great man, like Karl Jaspers, no
biography can be complete or satisfy the special interests of specific
readers. Especially with a mind as encyclopedic as his, and interests as
wide-ranging, readers of Jaspers' biography will approach it from different
perspectives. Perhaps this biography is best approached in Jaspers' own
spirit: "All that we know of a person is always a particular aspect
seen from one point of view and never the whole man." (p. 162) Kirkbright's
point of view is mostly the private Jaspers revealed in family correspondence
and unpublished manuscripts. This is fascinating, but excluded are those
aspects of Jaspers that are more public, and previously expressed either in his
autobiographical material or in his own published works.
that as it may, there are at least three different readerships for this book,
each of which will have a particular point of view.
are first and foremost the philosophers, who will focus on Jaspers as an
exponent of the Continental school in phenomenology and existentialism (mostly
as expressed in his book Philosophy, 1932).
are the psychiatrists, who experience Jaspers through his introduction of
phenomenology into psychiatric thought and practice (as described in General
are the intellectuals of various hues, who are interested in his political
theory (Man in the modern age, 1931), his critique of Nazism (The question of
German guilt), his philosophical faith (Way to Wisdom, 1955), his history of
philosophy (The Great Philosophers), and his relationship to Martin Heidegger
and Hannah Arendt.
covers all this material to a lesser or greater degree, with more success in
some arenas than others.
came away with a number of impressions.
importantly, until reading this biography, I had not realized how much Jaspers'
medical illness had affected his thinking. Early in his childhood, he was
diagnosed with a lung disease. At the time, such illness was always feared to
be tuberculosis, which for most was a death sentence. Kirkbright conveys quite
well the fear and anxiety engendered in Jaspers the child and in his family
given his medical illness. She brings out the major influence of a family
friend, Dr. Albert Fraenkel, who diagnosed and treated Jaspers and who provided
the psychological support as well that the young man needed to try to go out
into the world despite his illness. This doctor determined that the young Karl
did not have tuberculosis, a great relief for him and his family. But he also
diagnosed a chronic illness, bronchiectasis, that would imped his physical
ability to function throughout his life. Dr. Fraenkel and the family expected
that Karl would not survive beyond the decade of his 30s.
the young Karl Jaspers entered high school and university years with the belief
that he would die young. The seriousness with which Jaspers took his life, and
his focus on the deep existential facts of life, are perhaps more
understandable given this context. Hence perhaps his central metaphor for
life: the concept of shipwreck, and the need to make the best of those
circumstances. ("It is not by enjoying perfection, but only through
suffering in the knowledge of the world's unrelenting nature, and,
unconditionally, by remaining true to the self in communication that possible Existenz
can achieve what may not be planned and what becomes nonsensical as a wish: in
shipwreck to experience Being." p. 235). Indeed, he was always
independent, refusing to join cliques of other boys. His interest in science
and medicine likely stemmed from his admiration for his doctor and for his wish
to understand more about his illness. Yet, from the beginning, he was most
fascinated with philosophy, understood for him as an attempt to
"philosophize", to take life seriously and think about its meaning.
Hence his move from psychiatry to philosophy in later years was not really a
change in direction but the playing out his life-long philosophical seriousness.
we all know Jaspers lived a long life, but he lived it with marked impairment
of physical abilities. He could not take long, strenuous trips frequently;
while he walked daily, he could not exert himself physically beyond a certain
point. He was limited by congestive heart failure secondary to his
restrictive lung disease. An analogy might be to a coal miner with black lung
disease. Jaspers' illness was a central feature of his life, which Kirkbright
brings out nicely.
fact about his life that struck me was the extent of his closeness to his
father, Karl Jaspers Sr. The father was an artist and also quite
philosophically oriented. Jaspers' letters to his parents were not only
personal in content but also often read like his books: extensive discussions
of philosophical concepts were included. Both his father and his mother read
his works and commented on them. Despite the fact that he lived most of his
life away from his parents, Jaspers clearly always remained a loyal and earnest
son to them, never rebelling or apparently even conflicting in any way.
contrast, Jaspers younger brother Enno was a rebel. Enno fought in World War I
with heroism, but was mostly a failure in peacetime, unable to secure stable
successful work in business, and unable to maintain a constant intimate
relationship. Enno was not intellectual, unlike his brother and parents, and
he was also less rationalistic in his attitudes towards life. He was quite
careless with money, which ultimately let to a great deal of conflict with the
somewhat stingy Karl and with his generally generous parents. Ultimately, Karl
and his parents decided to cut him off financially, and Enno committed suicide
in middle age. The death of Enno is perhaps the second greatest tragedy of
Jaspers' life, the first being the suffering he and his wife endured in the
Nazi era. Enno left a suicide note that quite directly laid the blame for his
death on his parents and brother for their financial stinginess: "The man
is dead; the ducats are saved." In reading the biography, I was struck by
apparent signs of psychopathology: Enno had periods of severe depression, and
then periods of hyperactivity when he seemed to be most financially impulsive.
Suicide tends to be uncommon in those without underlying mental illness or drug
abuse. Enno's life and death suggested to me that he may have suffered from a
condition like manic-depressive illness. Kirkbright does not state this, nor
apparently did Jaspers ever suggest it, but the documentation in this book is
relationship with his father was excellent, almost too good to be true, and
with his brother it was quite ambivalent. The third most important personal
relationship, which Kirkbright highlights quite well, is with his wife,
Gertrud. She was Jewish, which led to the strain of trying to get both sets of
parents to agree to a mixed marriage. Jaspers' family was quite liberal and
after some initial hesitation did not object. Gertrud's family was
conservative and part of the Jewish religious leadership in her home region,
but her father soon consented. Jaspers and Gertrud had a very close
intellectual relationship; she apparently was the main interlocutor for Jaspers
as he fleshed out his ideas and wrote his manuscripts. Much like his father,
she served as a constant intellectual as well as personal companion. " We
have spent our lives philosophizing," he would say with satisfaction in
later years. The extent of their intimacy is most clearly expressed during the
Nazi years. During most of that time, she was exempt from being arrested due
to her marriage to a German. Jaspers, on the other hand, was demoted in the
university and eventually dismissed in 1937 due to the same fact. From 1937 to
1945 Jaspers' career was over. He and his wife almost never left their home at
66 in Heidelberg. In their bathroom cabinet, they had a bottle of
poison, and they had agreed to commit suicide together if she was ever arrested
(planning a "Free death" which he distinguished from
day of suicide or arrest seemed near just before the Americans finally
liberated Heidelberg. Suddenly, Jaspers, convinced his career had ended
and on the verge of suicide, became one of the few German leaders who was
viewed as clean of Nazi collaboration. He became a leader in the Heidelberg
community and in Germany at large in trying to orient the nation to the
post-war era. He immediately set about discussing the question of German guilt,
and began a dialogue that is still not finished today.
then in 1948 Jaspers and his wife accepted an invitation to Basel Switzerland
and remained there until his death in 1967. Why did Jaspers leave Germany to go
to Basel, especially at a time when he was at the peak of his university power
and his national prestige? Many Germans apparently resented him for his
"desertion" when he was most needed in the post-war period. This is
perhaps the one question in Jaspers' personal life that I felt Kirkbright
failed to elucidate. Why did he leave? She does not answer this question, and
without that answer, the final decades of his life seem quite anticlimactic.
One comes away with the impression that perhaps Jaspers' greatest failure in
his life was his failure to step up as the principal public intellectual of
post-war Germany. He receded into the shadows voluntarily again,
after having initially been forced into them in the Nazi era. He left the
public stage open for Heidegger's later re-emergence, and perhaps it is this
mistake, more than anything else, that diminished Jaspers' impact for modern
philosophy. Perhaps there is no evidence to clarify this problem. Perhaps
another Jasperian dictum applies here: "Absolute truth, and with it, freedom,
is never attained. Truth is on the way."
Kirkbright also addresses
Jaspers' relationships with others, like Heidegger and Hannah Arendt and Max
Weber, with an amount of detail that is informative, though not to a degree
that was as revealing as her descriptions of his family relationships.
to Max Weber is essential to understanding who Jaspers was, especially as a
thinker but also as a man; what William Osler called "the silent influence
of character upon character". After his father, Max Weber appears to be
the strongest influence on Jaspers, both in his personal rectitude and in his
political liberalism, but also in his direct impact on Jaspers' university
career. Kirkbright demonstrates how Weber was the main influence on helping
Jaspers settle into a philosophy appointment despite lack of formal training in
that field. Jaspers further took sides with Weber against the chairman of
philosophy, Karl Rickert, in their intellectual disagreements about what
constitutes philosophy and science. Weber was a constant presence in Jaspers'
psyche. Even in old age, he relates to Hannah Arendt that he dreamt that Max
Weber had visited them upon returning from a world trip. "Shouldn't you
perhaps re-read Max Weber on the archetype (and on other things too)?" the
older Jaspers advised Arendt (p. 233). Such pearls are frequent in this
psychiatrist, I felt ambivalent about the section of the biography that deal
with his clinical years. The details about what he did and who he interacted
with, based on his letters, were informative. But, if I had not previously
studied his General Psychopathology with care, I am not sure I would
have understood the description of its basic ideas that Kirkbright provides. I
read the General Psychopathology as providing three basic ideas to psychiatry:
first, the importance of phenomenology as a basic method, i.e., paying
attention to the subjective experience of patients, and not only their
objective manifestations; second, the concept of the erklaren-verstehen
distinction (the relevance of meaningful understanding in addition to causal
explanation); and third, most importantly, the idea of "methodological
consciousness" which I have relabeled pluralism to emphasize the concept
that no single method is sufficient for all circumstances, but that a single
method should be chosen (based on more strengths and fewer limits) for any
specific problem or condition in psychiatry. Instead, Kirkbright appears to
focus on a good deal on the doctor-patient relationship and the importance of
empathy. I am not certain if her description stems from differences in the
original first edition, which I assume she used in German, compared to the
English translation of a later edition, on which I base my comments. However,
it would seem to me that some of these ideas must have been present in the
original edition, and they do not come out clearly in the biography.
I would have to
suggest the same in relation to many of his other philosophical concepts, such
as limit-situations or the Encompassing. The book sheds some light on the
context in which he wrote about some of those ideas, but the ideas themselves
are not as clearly described. There are also some aspects of Jaspers' life
that Kirkbright leaves out, apparently from on an understandable scholarly wish
to focus on her primary sources. However, some richness of detail might have
been lost in that manner. For instance, in the Great Philosophers essay
on Einstein, Jaspers tells an amusing story about how he had inquired about
possible support from Einstein for asylum in the US during the Nazi era.
Einstein had apparently replied that he could not write a letter of support
because he could not comprehend Jaspers' work. While Kirkbright discussed
other attempts to go overseas during the Nazi era in useful detail, such as the
potential move to Oxford that was eventually rejected by analytic philosophers
in the UK, she left out the Einstein episode. It may be that other such facts
are available in the Jaspers corpus that might have added to the biography.
however, this kind of critique is asking for something other than what the
author intended or was best positioned to provide. Kirkbright provides an
excellent personal biography of Karl Jaspers, the man, based on new primary
sources, which also sheds a great deal of light on Karl Jaspers, the thinker.
For the ideas of the thinker, one has to go to his actual writings. In other
words, as an intellectual biography, an exposition of his ideas, this work is
limited. But as straight biography, a revelation of the man, it is excellent.
For those, like
me, already intrigued by him, the biography is a major advance in the English
literature. For those, like many, who have only a passing familiarity with him,
perhaps it will stimulate enough interest that they will seek out his most
accessible works, like the incomparable Way to Wisdom, to see how this
uncommon man transformed his life's struggles into some amazing thoughts.
© 2005 S. Nassir Ghaemi
S. Nassir Ghaemi MD is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at
Harvard Medical School, and author of The Concepts of Psychiatry (Baltimore,
MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).
Address correspondence to: S. Nassir
Ghaemi, MD, Cambridge Health Alliance, Department of Psychiatry, 1493 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA 02139. Phone: 617-591-6108. Fax:
617-591-6008. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.