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Karl JaspersReview - Karl Jaspers
A Biography--Navigations in Truth
by Suzanne Kirkbright
Yale University Press, 2004
Review by S. Nassir Ghaemi, M.D.
Feb 15th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 7)

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.

Looking 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. 

As I left the library, I felt like Hegel's valet, getting to know the man began to lighten the weight of image.


He 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. 

He is the last existentialist, the other existentialist -- not Heidegger or Sartre or their reflections -- dead for a generation, and more unknown than ever.


Into 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.

A 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. 

Be that as it may, there are at least three different readerships for this book, each of which will have a particular point of view.  

There 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). 

There are the psychiatrists, who experience Jaspers through his introduction of phenomenology into psychiatric thought and practice (as described in General Psychopathology, 1913).

There 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.

Kirkbright covers all this material to a lesser or greater degree, with more success in some arenas than others.

I came away with a number of impressions.

Most 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.

So 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.

As 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.

Another 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. 

In 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 suggestive.

Jaspers' 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 Plock 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 "Self-murder").

The 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. 

But 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. 

            His relationship 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 biography.

            As a 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.

            I realize, 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:


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