The Timeliness of Karl Jaspers' Thought

Kurt Salamun's Karl Jaspers. Zur Aktualität seines Denkens --a Review


Sigrid Koepke




he editors of Negations have chosen Karl Jaspers' thought as one of their "springboards" for discussing and recovering the tradition of 20th century social criticism. Although Karl Jaspers' career spanned a critical period in German history (from the Weimar Republic, through the Nazi regime, the postwar period, the birth of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland, and into the 1960s), and his philosophical work reflected on numerous social and political issues of the time, he has not been widely studied in the United States. One of Jaspers' main concerns throughout his career --to which American scholarship has paid little attention-- is his thought regarding the status of education, particularly higher education, and the reform of the German university. While his writing about this topic reflects not only his stance towards modernity, but also introduces the reader to Jaspers' Weltanschauung, even recent scholarship and the latest publications [i.e., Hannah Arendt Karl Jaspers: Correspondence, 1926-19691 and Heidegger & Jaspers (1994) ], fail to evaluate the strong connections between Jaspers' considerations regarding the university and his philosophical work. Although the essays that Kurt Salamun collected under the title Karl Jaspers: Zur Aktualität seines Denkens (Karl Jaspers: The Timeliness of his Thought) do not provide a comprehensive study of Jaspers work, they do open the possibility of learning about his Weltanschauung and his thought regarding modernity in historical context as well as an insight in the reception of his work by addressing a broad spectrum of his philosophical writing. The articles that Kurt Salamun brings together in this volume are the main papers which were given at a conference (November 6 to November 9, 1989 in Graz, Austria) organized by the Österreichische Karl Jaspers-Gesellschaft to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Karl Jaspers' death.


Introducing his collection of essays, Salamun emphasizes that Jaspers should not only be seen as one of the two main figures in German existential philosophy, but also as a thinker who addressed questions in a wide range of fields, including ethics, religion, history, education, science, technology, culture, and politics. Of particular interest are, according to Salamun, Jaspers' concerns regarding the ethos of humanity which he expressed in his philosophizing about extreme situations (i.e., death, suffering, guilt, etc.) and his continuous striving for a philosophical elucidation of "authentic interpersonal communication." Although Salamun, for this anthology, selects those conference papers that address, among other topics, both of these concerns, he puts his main emphasis on the essays which invoke the question of if and how "timely" Jaspers' thoughts are today (1989), before he presents, in a second section, some additional essays which compare Jaspers' thought with that of other thinkers. And, while Salamun introduces each of the papers and explains their stance and significance in regard to Jaspers' work in his brief prologue, he does not provide a general introduction to Jaspers. However, since I believe that Jaspers is less well known in the United States than he is in the German speaking realm, I find it necessary to include a brief overview of his life and work in my discussion of Salamun's book in order to help the reader in situating Jaspers' thought in relation to the historical context and in understanding how Martin Heidegger's thought on education and the university system influenced Jaspers. By offering this background information before I address the essays in Salamun's collection, and then focusing on Jaspers' thoughts regarding education and the German university, which are addressed in a number of the essays, I hope to provide for the American reader a view into an aspect of Jaspers' work that, as I see it, has not received the attention it deserves.

Karl Jaspers, who was born in 1883 in Oldenburg (northern Germany), did not come to philosophy on the ordinary path. Rather, he studied psychiatry and worked as an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Heidelberg (1916-1921) before he became a professor of philosophy (without ever attaining a doctorate in philosophy) in Heidelberg (1921-1937). He explains his interest in and his eventual turn to the humanities as a result of his hospital work at a time when he was a young psychiatrist:

Stagnation of scientific research and treatment was widely held in German psychiatric hospitals. The great institutions for the insane kept growing more hygienic and imposing. The lives of these unfortunates, unchangeable in essence, were managed for them... For the subject matter of psychiatry was man, not just his body --or indeed, his body least of all, but his soul, his personality, his self... Our subject was also that of the Geisteswissenschaften. They had developed the same concepts, only far more subtly and distinctly. One day we were taking notes of utterances made in states of confusion or paranoid talk, and I told Nissl, "We must learn from philologists." 4

Shortly after this incident, Jaspers was asked to write a text, a "General Psychopathology," and it was during his preparation of this work, that Jaspers became influenced by the thoughts of two philosophers, Edmund Husserl's phenomenology and Wilhelm Dilthey's call for a psychology that would be "descriptive and analytical" rather than theoretically explicative (6). Recognizing that philosophical studies could not be directly applied to science, Jaspers argued that "the psychopathologist must concern himself with philosophy not because it might teach him something positive as regards his field but because it clears the inner space for the possibilities of knowledge."5

In his further philosophical quest, Jaspers, who had become strongly influenced by Kant's phenomenology of being, developed a particular interest in thought which takes place within an infinite context, in an "open horizon"6 and in the question of "what is Being."7 With this question, Jaspers moved close to another important thinker of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, whose main philosophical quest was to "raise anew the question of the meaning of being." And, while "Heidegger and Jaspers are often associated because they... chose a fundamental treatment of the question of man as their point of departure,"8 it is more important for this brief biography of Jaspers and the following discussion of "education" in Salamun's essay collection to mention the relationship of these two thinkers, which, as I see it, not only helped Jaspers' in developing his thought, but also led to his position in postwar Germany.

From the time of first meeting Heidegger in Husserl's house (Spring 1920), Jaspers, who still was seen as an outsider in philosophical circles, felt drawn to the thought of Heidegger, who, being nine years younger than Jaspers, had been introduced to Jaspers as the "phenomenological child" by Husserl's spouse. The two men immediately established a special bond; they saw themselves in solidarity against the older generation. And, in 1921 after Heidegger had commented on Jaspers' book, Psychologie der Weltanschauungen, Jaspers wrote to Heidegger: "In my opinion, out of all the comments I saw, it is yours which digs deepest to the roots of the thoughts. I was deeply impressed." In 1922, Jaspers again wrote to Heidegger and suggested a meeting; he invited Heidegger to Heidelberg: "It would be nice if we could spend some days and philosophize during certain hours in which we could test and further our "Kampfgemeinschaft" (fighting unit)." The visit did take place, and the two men indeed strengthened their friendship that, although mostly conducted through letters which dealt with philosophical questions and current day affairs, would last for the years to come. How closely related and yet distinct their evaluation of "the state of affairs" regarding social questions, the state of the German university, and philosophy had become in 1933 can be seen from their respective ideas about the university reform. A comparison of their statements regarding this reform is the topic of one of the essays in Salamun's book --"Jaspers' Thesen zur Frage der Hochschulerneuerung" (1933) in Kritischem Vergleich zu Heidegger's Rektoratsrede by Hans Saner. However, before I evaluate Saner's article, I want to return to a more general review of Salamun's anthology.

Although the essays draw on works from Jaspers' whole career, I want to argue that all the contributions focus, in various degrees, on concerns regarding the difficult social and political situation and the Weltanschauung that Jaspers developed in the 1920s and 30s and that he expressed in Die geistige Situation der Zeit12 (The Intellectual Spiritual Situation of our Time).

Die geistige Situation der Zeit (1932), a little volume that the G^schen Verlag commissioned at a moment when Jaspers was about to finish his three-volume work Philosophie, allowed Jaspers to "speak of politics grounded upon the total moral-spiritual situation of [his] age." 13 Jaspers believed that it was not possible to give his readers a historical survey of the present, but that by focusing on the "situation," as he called it, he could "engross the reader, call to his attention, [and] teach him to see."14 And, what he wanted his audience to "see," were the effects of modernity which transpired after the French Revolution and the technical/industrial revolution. For Jaspers, these two historical events, by changing the social structure and calling into question the self understanding of human beings, made it necessary to rethink concepts like authority, freedom, faith, and education (Bildung). In his own contribution to the conference Kurt Salamun tries to explain Jaspers' Weltanschauung regarding all those topics. He summarizes the "liberal-enlightening dimension in Jaspers' thought" as a result of his upbringing in a liberal home and in the enlightened environment of the time 46). Moreover, according to Salamun, it was the upbringing and education at this particular moment in time that allowed Jaspers to take his oppositional stance against traditional views and to develop a Weltanschauung (which he presented in Die geistige Situation der Zeit) against dogmas, against holism, against foundationalism, and against monism.

Regardless of whether the individual author directly calls on Die geistige Situation der Zeit (as Alfons Grieder (16) does in order to remind current day philosophers that Jaspers' analyses of his time should not be seen as "merely sociological,") or if the references are merely implicit, the contributors to the conference seem to agree that Jaspers' evaluation of the 1920s and 1930s is relevant even now (1989) at a time when the political situation has changed from that which played so strongly into Jaspers' writing. However, in opposition to Grieder's statement, I want to argue that the reader of Salamun's book will not find a collection of philosophical treatises on Jaspers' thought, but rather that they will encounter the various authors' sociological and political concerns based on and explained through Jaspers' work. In this respect, all the authors find Jaspers relevant and helpful for today's situation--even if they do not necessarily agree with Jaspers' applications or conclusions. The strongest contention with Jaspers' view that can be found in many of the articles concerns his belief (Glaube) in science and technology, a view that Grieder calls "Wissenschaftsaberglaube"--a pun that denotes a "superstitious belief in science." While I understand Grieder (and many of the other writers) as seeing Jaspers as a thinker who succumbs to Wissenschaftsaberglaube, not all contributors share this view. Salamun, for example, wants to show that, resulting from his perception of science (Wissenschaftsverständi) Jaspers engaged in a lifelong critique of the "superstitious belief in science." However, even Salamun cannot completely agree with Jaspers' view regarding science; he admits (seemingly reluctantly) that "Jaspers' understanding of science shows a strong positivistic stance" (49).

For most of the authors it is apparently more difficult to apply Jaspers' thought regarding science to current day views than it is with his other topics. Jaspers' definition and treatment of "limit situation" (Grenzsituation) and of "philosophical faith" (philosophischer Glaube), for example, seem to many of the contributors helpful in describing and dealing with contemporary topics. For Nelly Motroschilow, a Jaspers' main achievement was not only that he coined those new terms, but that he provided the basics for a new philosophical theory that allows us today to predict limit situations in the life of humanity, to analyze and diagnose them, and to further public discussion that will eventually lead to a positive turning and a change of the situation.

It is only a short step from the "public discussion" alluded to by Motroschilowa to the whole question of "communication" in Jaspers' work that some of the other articles apply to current day (1989) politics and possibly a united Europe. As the authors in Salamun's collection see it, communication in Jaspers' use of the term is not only important for political topics, but also for other social, cultural, and historical questions. And, to show this aspect and the contemporary relevance of Jaspers' thought regarding these fields, George B. Pepper sets out to show the "relevance of Jaspers' axial period for intercultural studies" (70) in the context of a hermeneutic discussion. Trying to claim a hermeneutic dimension of Jaspers' work, Pepper has to admit that "there is no extensive discussion between Jaspers and any hermeneutic philosopher." However, in order to support his point, Pepper, like the other contributors in their respective papers, is willing to take a detour: Pepper chooses to use Habermas' critique of Jaspers (followed by his discussion of a dialogue between Habermas and Gadamer) to build his argument--a method that the reader might find difficult to follow since it is not Habermas, but rather Gadamer and his hermeneutics that Pepper wants to compare to Jaspers.

While I do not agree with Pepper's approach of bringing together Jaspers' and hermeneutics by way of Habermas and Gadamer, I want to point out that other essays in the collection make more helpful connections not only between Jaspers and Habermas, but also with the most prominent German hermeneut, Martin Heidegger, who had a personal as well as a philosophical relationship with Jaspers. Moreover, since both Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger formulated their respective thoughts regarding the reform of the German university, the article by Hans Saner "Jaspers' `Thesen zur Frage der Hochschulerneuerung' (1933) in kritischem Vergleich zu Heideggers Rektoratsrede ("A Critical Comparison between Jaspers' Thesis Regarding Questions of Reforming the Universities and Heidegger's Rectorial Address.") opens to the reader the possibility to see Jaspers' thought in the context of social, cultural, and political questions during a critical time in German history and explains the direction of Jaspers' later work.

Jaspers' wrote his "thesis regarding questions of reforming the German university" in fact as a reaction to Heidegger's "Rektoratsrede," after Heidegger had mailed him a copy of that speech. But, as Saner points out, while Jaspers told Heidegger in a letter about writing this response, he never mailed either the thesis to Heidegger, or the letter regarding the same topic to the minister of education (both documents were found in Jaspers' estate). Nevertheless, how important the status of the German university was to Jaspers becomes obvious from his writing on this topic at various points throughout his life. Jaspers' publications about a reform of the university go as far back as 1923 when he wrote a small volume under the title Die Idee der Universität (The Idea of the University) and continue throughout his career until, in 1961, he participates in a new edition of the book. Moreover, in the preface of this new edition, Jaspers states

The idea has remained the same; one has to hold on to it (either we accomplish to maintain the German university through a rebirth of the idea, deciding to realize a new form of the organization or it [the university] will find its termination in the functionalism of gigantic schools and training facilities for scientific technological specialists.

But, while a reform of the German university system can certainly not be divided from political issues and Heidegger and Jaspers in 1933 did not share the same political ideas, Saner holds that their views regarding the university reform are not "necessarily political." Saner admits that Jaspers' restraint in publishing his views might be a result of his status in Hitler's Germany (Jaspers' wife was Jewish), but he places more emphasis on Jaspers' doubtful and skeptical reactions towards those reforms that were already taking place. Furthermore, Saner also interprets Heidegger's neglect of Jaspers' response not as driven by political motives, but rather as based in doubts regarding Jaspers' philosophical view. As Saner sees it, the main difference in the goals of the two thinkers is that Heidegger wants to base the German university system on Greek thought and argues for the university as the place of intellectual legislation, while Jaspers insists on cultural education, communication, and freedom as the foundations of the university. There is however another question that Saner raises: were the two speeches in their cores national socialist or did they further national socialism? Understanding the Rektorats Rede in its consistency and discipline on the one hand as far above everything else produced in the field of party literature and, on the other hand, as deeply embedded in the fundamental ontological context of Nazi literature, Saner holds there is no conclusive answer regarding the question of national socialism in Heidegger's speech. In the case of Jaspers' response, however, Saner holds that in its programmatic, semantic, and metaphysical approach the speech is not close or sympathetic towards national socialism at all. However, Saner critiques Jaspers' response for foreshadowing a totally unbelievable distance from reality and the desire of ignoring to see the truth when he holds that "the enemy is not the political power but rather ignorance, animosity against knowledge, and blindness" (184).

In my reading, Saner by evaluating Jaspers' outlook in 1933 as unworldly and starry-eyed, implies that Jaspers' paper, at least as far as it concerns the educational system during the time of national socialism, is no longer relevant for current day thought. And yet, without changing his major goal, Jaspers continued to write about the German university system long after the political situation had changed. Unlike some of the other authors who contributed to Salamun's volume, Saner does not stretch and bend Jaspers thought to fit current day questions. However, by focussing exclusively on one of the papers (and moreover, on an unpublished letter) regarding Jaspers' thought on the German university rather than including Jaspers' works from other, particularly later, publications that deal not only with the German university but with education in general, Saner foregoes the opportunity of showing his readers if Jaspers' view was indeed unworldly and starry-eyed or if his ideas possibly could help us today in changing our education and university system--a topic that remains to be as important today as it was when Jaspers wrote his first paper on this subject in 1923.

Moreover, by looking at the various essays in Salamun's Karl Jaspers. Zur Aktualität seines Denkens, I want to argue that Saner is not the only one who does not make explicit how Jaspers' thought remains relevant today--an objective of this book as well as of the conference in Graz at which the papers were given. While the articles take up many of Jaspers' ideas, and thereby raise the audience's interest in learning more about Karl Jaspers, it seems to me that those readers who have no or little previous knowledge of Jaspers' thought learning more about the work and thought of the contributors to the conference than they will learn about Jaspers. Those who are interested in applying Jaspers' philosophy to current day topics may be better served by first consulting the writings of Jaspers himself and learn about his peculiar place in pre-war Germany by looking at those publications that evaluate his relationships with Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt.





1 Hannah Arendt. Karl Jaspers: Correspondence, 1926-1969. (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1992)

2 Olson, Alan M. Ed. Heidegger & Jaspers. (Temple University Press, 1994)

3 Salamun, Kurt. Ed. Karl Jaspers: Zur Aktualität seines Denkens. München: R. Piper GmbH, 1991). All future references to this text are contained in parenthesis in the text.

4 Karl Jaspers: "Philosophical Memoir" in Karl Jaspers: Basic Philosophical Writings. (Atlantic Heights: 1994) 5

5 Jaspers, 20

6 Jaspers, 22

7 Jaspers, 25

8 Jaspers 35

9 Safranski, Rüdiger. Ein Meister aus Deutschland. (München: Carl Hanser, 1994) 144

10 Safranski, 147

11 Safranski, 147

12 Jaspers, Karl. Die geistige Situation der Zeit. (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1978)

13 Schilpp, Paul Arthur. Ed. "Philosophical Autobiography." in The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers. 2nd ed. (La Salle, Ill. : Open Court Pub. Co., 1981, c1957) 60

14 Schilpp, 60

15 Jaspers, Karl. Die Idee der Universit