Karl Jaspers

1883-1969. German existentialist* philosopher. He read medicine at Heidelberg, where he became a lecturer in psychology before promotion to the chair of philosophy there in 1921. Jaspers was relieved of his duties by the Nazis in 1937, but reinstituted in 1945. His position under the Nazis was made all the more acute by the fact that his wife was Jewish. From 1948 he taught at Basle. Already in his medical studies he was influenced by philosophy, and he used Husserl's phenomenology and Dilthey's descriptive analytical psychology.

As a philosopher Jaspers developed an independent approach, though he paid considerable respect to the classical philosophers of the past. He early rejected the view that philosophy is a branch of science. He was equally opposed to the idea of the omnicompetence of science. Though science has its proper place, it does not disclose the meaning of life. Philosophy is a type of thinking which is not compelling and does not have the universal validity of the natural sciences, but which nevertheless leads the thinker to himself. It arises out of his inner activity and awakens sources within him which give ultimate meaning. For Jaspers, Existenz-philosophy is “the way of thought by which man seeks to become himself.” It does not cognize objects, but elucidates the being of the thinker.

Jaspers held that there is no law of nature or history which determines the way of things as a whole. The future depends upon the decisions and deeds of men, in the last analysis of the individual among the billions of men. He stood apart from institutional religion and regarded the concrete forms of religion as symbols or ciphers. He spoke of “the Encompassing” (das Umgreifende) to denote the Being that surrounds us and the Being that we are. It is neither subject nor object, but contains both. The transcendent denotes both the source and the goal of our existence, out of whose depths alone we become authentically human. Although often difficult, Jaspers regarded philosophy not as a specialist study, but as a way of thinking for all who seek illumination of “the Ground within us and beyond us, where we can find meaning and guidance.” It is virtually an alternative to religion.

Among the English translations of Jaspers' writings are Nietzsche and Christianity (1961), Truth and Symbol (1959), Philosophical Faith and Revelation (1967), and (with R. Bultmann*) Myth and Christianity (1958).

P. Koestenbaum in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, IV, pp. 254-58; P.A. Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers (1957): containing an autobiography, twenty-four studies, a reply by Jaspers, and a bibliography; C.F. Wallraff, Karl Jaspers: An Introduction to his Philosophy (1970). See also bibliography under Existentialism.