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Forgotten existentialist | Aeon

Looking for food in the ruins of Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, 1945. Photo by Werner Bischof/Magnum Photos

Looking for food in the ruins of Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, 1945. Photo by Werner Bischof/Magnum Photos

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Forgotten existentialist

Sartre gets much of the credit for existentialism. Karl Jaspers not only preceded him, but offered a way out of despair

by Deborah Casewell + BIO

Looking for food in the ruins of Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, 1945. Photo by Werner Bischof/Magnum Photos

Existentialism has had many alleged births. Famous ones include the melancholy of Søren Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen, Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, and the Parisian glamour of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1945 lecture ‘Existentialism Is a Humanism’. There are also less famous ones: one is the constant interplay of biography, theatre and philosophy in the work of Gabriel Marcel; another is the slow brew of psychology and philosophy in Karl Jaspers’s Heidelberg.

That the latter is comparatively unknown is a strange quirk in the history of philosophy. After all, his work initiated one particular strain of French existentialism, and it is not an exaggeration to say that behind every famous existentialist thinker in the early half of the 20th century lurks Jaspers.

Jaspers’s thought was avidly discussed in French philosophical circles in the 1930s, not least as it was developed concurrently along Heidegger’s own existentialism. Yet his philosophy is comparatively neglected, appearing only to set the scene before the real existentialists get there. Indeed, in setting out his own account of existentialism, Sartre’s survey of the field mentions that there are Christian existentialists, specifying both Marcel and Jaspers as Catholic. While the former was definitely a Catholic, and a key originator of French existentialism, Jaspers was not – he hailed from a particularly Lutheran part of Germany; and, although a cursory study of his philosophy shows that he often refers to God, a closer look reveals no denominational markers. This mislabelling and misunderstanding seems to be Jaspers’s fate: even in his native Germany, his philosophical reputation was soon eclipsed by Heidegger’s, and influential figures such as Theodor Adorno and Georg Lukács were critical or dismissive of his thought.

Jaspers is then something of a forgotten father of existentialism. However, perhaps being a forgotten father of a philosophical movement is impressive considering he was not a philosopher in the first place. Born in 1883 in Oldenburg, Jaspers initially studied law before training to be a doctor. Although interested in philosophy throughout his studies, in particular Baruch Spinoza and Immanuel Kant, he specialised as a psychiatrist. During his studies in Heidelberg, he met his wife Gertrud, who hailed from an Orthodox Jewish family. Despite his focus on medicine, even in his clinical and theoretical work in psychology, his engagement with philosophy persisted. Notably, his first book, a psychiatric textbook Allgemeine Psychopathologie (1913), took the philosopher Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology as a starting point for understanding and categorising mental illness, as well as drawing on Wilhelm Dilthey’s distinction between understanding and explaining to develop his approach to psychiatry, writing in the preface that the task of the psychiatrist is ‘to learn to observe, ask questions, analyse, and think in psychopathological terms’.

Despite the success of this book both in Germany and abroad, Jaspers moved away from psychiatry: first to psychology, then to philosophy. From 1919 onwards, he both taught and wrote on more overtly philosophical topics, bringing them into conversation with psychology. This is clear in his book Psychologie der Weltanschauungen (1919), or ‘The Psychology of Worldviews’, a transition work between psychology and philosophy. In this book, he sought to lay out and explore basic psychological dispositions and mental attitudes. Human mental life is constituted by a division between the subject and the object, and our other antinomical worldviews spring from this original antinomy. Those worldviews and their construction are not neutral, and the task of human existence is to come up to the limits of our worldviews, and be able to confront and choose more authentic possibilities. Often, the psychological analyses are punctuated by discussions of Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche – in particular, Kierkegaard’s stress on the choice that each individual must make and commit to.

The importance of this text for his thought is that it introduces one of his most influential ideas – that of boundary or limit situations (‘Grenzsituationen’). These are situations in which the subject experiences dread, guilt and anxiety, where we experience a lack of unity and stability: ‘everything is fluid, is in the restless movement of being in question, everything is relative, finite, split into opposites, never whole, absolute, essential,’ as Jaspers put it. Although a negative experience, these situations allow the human consciousness to confront its limits and restrictions, and move beyond them.

A worldview is a shell that then insulates us from experiences that challenge our worldview

Faced with a boundary situation (which here includes death, suffering, chance and guilt), Jaspers wrote that:

the actual – thinking, feeling, acting – human stands, so to speak, between two worlds: before him the realm of objectivities, behind him the powers and abilities of the subject. His situation is determined from both sides, before him the object, behind him the subject, both infinite, both inexhaustible and impenetrable. On both sides lie decisive antinomies.

From this situation, one must act, and transcend those boundaries. This ‘living process’ (‘lebendige Prozeß’) involves casting off the worldview that you have come to the limits of, and creating another. Much like a hermit crab, a worldview is a shell that we enclose and encase ourselves within. That shell then insulates us from experiences that challenge our worldview. The task of psychology is to engage with this tendency in human nature, and bring the subject out of these shells (‘Gehäuse’). However, it is not that we are then without worldviews, but we exchange them constantly, in a process. The exchange of a worldview is simultaneously a dissolution and a re-founding, ‘not a one-off process but instead always a new Form of living Dasein,’ as Jaspers put it. That process of dissolution and reconstitution is necessary, as ‘without resolution there would be torpor, without encasement, annihilation’. Although not overtly a work of existential philosophy, traces of this work persist in Jaspers’s later, more existentialist oeuvre.

This shift in focus led to a change in his academic position. Initially appointed to teach psychology at Heidelberg, he was given a professorship in philosophy in 1922. During his time in Heidelberg, he began an exchange of letters with Heidegger, and they kept up a correspondence that later became strained when Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in 1933. Despite the impact they both had on existentialism in Germany and France, their later relationship was marked by criticism and disagreement. On Heidegger’s recommendation, Jaspers also supervised Hannah Arendt’s doctorate on the concept of love in Saint Augustine – and formed a friendship with her that endured until his death. Other connections at Heidelberg included the sociologist Max Weber and the philosopher Ernst Bloch.

The changing climate in German universities during the rise of Nazism had repercussions for Jaspers: as a result of his personal views and his marriage, he was removed from teaching in 1937 and placed under a publication ban in 1938. Unable to leave Germany or find positions elsewhere, he and his wife kept cyanide capsules to hand in case they were arrested. As his reputation, postwar, was largely untarnished, Jaspers became a renowned public figure, albeit politically rather than philosophically. He then achieved renown by writing texts on democracy, on the idea of the university, an exploration of personal, collective, and metaphysical German guilt and responsibility, and on the questions raised for humanity by the existence and use of nuclear weapons. However, dissatisfaction with German political life led him to relinquish his German citizenship and move to Basel, taking up Swiss citizenship.

Philosophically, Jaspers is most renowned for his philosophy of existence, or ‘Existenzphilosophie’, which is laid out in his three-volume work Philosophie (1932). Despite laying it out as a philosophy of existence, he does not see this as a work of existentialism. In the epilogue to the third German edition of Philosophie, he remarks that he thought he had invented the term ‘existentialism’ during his publication ban, only to find, post-1945, that it had in fact turned up in France, attached to a philosophy that was similar in some way and yet also different from his thought. Jaspers distanced himself from Sartre’s existentialism, seeing that this philosophy was neither one he anticipated nor sought to pursue. However, Jaspers’s thought contains many themes that can confidently be said to be key to existentialism: a focus on the individual, the importance of particular emotions and states, the call to decide something about oneself, and a mandate to live authentically.

When hemmed in by guilt, suffering and death, we come up decisively against the finite reality of our existence

Jaspers’s distancing from a more popular idea of existentialism has much to do with the aims and ends of his philosophy of existence. In the three-volume Philosophie, the aim is to explore how to exist in the world philosophically. Rather than an act of reasoning, philosophy is an activity: it is a relationship towards the world. The three volumes of Philosophie can be seen as instruction manuals. They start from the position of the self, which finds itself immediately within a world, and from there one has to find out how to exist, rather than what existence is. The three volumes of his Philosophie each deal with different aspects of human existence and engagement in the world: orientation, existence, and metaphysical transcendence, as well as forms of knowledge associated with those aspects (objective knowledge, subjective self-reflection, and symbolic interpretation of the metaphysical). These stages of existence are continuously bound together with one another – we find ourselves in the world, we question ourselves and find we cannot ground or justify ourselves, and we look beyond ourselves to find the truth of existence.

Following on from his earlier psychological explorations, the focus in his philosophy of existence is on the individual and our relationship to the world around us. The individual is within the world but not at one with the world. However, as the individual is situated in the world, we cannot entirely separate ourselves from the world. We are torn between our individuality and the wholeness that the world seems to offer. Certain situations remind us of this more than others. As before, these are boundary or limit situations, here demarcated as guilt, suffering or death. We can never avoid these situations: life is never free from suffering or feelings of guilt, and we cannot escape death. In them we come up against the antinomy between ourselves and the world. We may feel we are subjects who have an infinite capacity, who feel boundless but, when hemmed in by guilt, suffering and death, we come up decisively against the finite reality of our existence.

In these situations, we have to act. We cannot stagnate or just remain in them, we have to either transcend these situations or not. We can cement ourselves further in ‘Dasein’ (mere existence) or transcend into ‘Existenz’. That movement of transcendence, of making a decision about ourselves, then brings about a new relationship to the world in which we have found ourselves.

That movement, which then becomes a continuous process, is what it means to exist philosophically. We have to decide something about ourselves, settle something for ourselves, and do so without any certainty or outside affirmation, or objective knowledge. To be in Existenz is to exist authentically. I either allow the course of things to ‘decide about me – vanishing as myself, since there is no real decision when everything just happens – or I deal with being originally, as myself, with the feeling that there must be a decision,’ wrote Jaspers. Grenzsituationen or limit situations offer us the opportunity to become ourselves, as when we enter them with open eyes and decide for ourselves in relation to them, then we ‘live philosophically as Existenz’.

It is all well and good to say that we must make this movement, but what exactly do we move towards, and how do we do it? It is helpful to view this movement as a Kierkegaardian leap of faith translated into a more-or-less everyday psychological occurrence. There are other Kierkegaardian aspects to this movement too, not least how it is marked by anxiety. However, we do not quite remain suspended over 70,000 fathoms à la Kierkegaard, as Jaspers sees that Existenz provides us some relief from that. That relief is connected with his own particular take on God, who metaphysically grounds the movement of transcendence.

Jaspers’s aim in relation to God is not to believe, but to have a faith that is a movement towards something in which we should believe. In transcendence there is a movement towards unity and stability, but this movement can never reach its end. This constantly delayed knowledge is how we are to engage, symbolically, with the metaphysically transcendent, which is communicated to Existenz in ciphers. Within the world, we can identify traces or ciphers of transcendence – found in art, aspects of religion, nature, and philosophy. As ‘there is no identity of Existenz and transcendence’, transcendence does not and cannot come directly to Existenz. Instead ‘it comes to mind as a cipher, and even then not as an object that is this object, but athwart all objectivity, so to speak,’ Jaspers wrote. The cipher ‘mediates between Existenz and transcendence’.

The cipher further illustrates the restive, moving nature of Existenz: it brings transcendence to mind but not in a way that transcendence, God or the cipher becomes fully known or an object for the mind. Instead, ‘never to approach the hidden God directly is the fate which a philosophical Existenz must bear. Only the ciphers speak, if I am ready,’ wrote Jaspers. The answer to human existence can never be given as it is always still arriving. Instead, we are that which always strives beyond ourselves. An aspect of this is that we also actively take part in this communication of transcendence, immersed in a shifting and polyvalent cipher-writing.

If transcendence is fixed in the mundane world and categories, that results in shipwreck

This is an interpretative task that can never be completed but that we are nevertheless drawn to. For example, we ourselves write a cipher as we relate to a God that is personal to us. God, as transcendence, always remains remote from us, but we create our own cipher of God, in which transcendence comes closer to us. This never brings us to God, and nor does it resolve the tension. However, that movement plays out in the world as an ‘enthusiasm for the beauty of existence’. After all, we cannot escape the world nor should be want to and, Jaspers wrote: ‘I really love transcendence only as my love transfigures the world.’

This is not to say that his philosophy is a religious philosophy. For Jaspers, any religious philosophy makes God, and therefore Existenz, known. In doing so, life is then decided for you, rather than you finding it yourself. Instead, Existenz must remain inconclusive, and God must be, and ever remain, a mystery. We do, however, have to have faith. But not in the God of the philosophers nor of theology, but instead in ‘the being of a transcendence realised in each Existenz, yet veiled from all’. Faith is not rest or stability, it is a constant tension between itself and unbelief. The idea of God promises oneness, freedom and self-origination, and we are able to ascertain the true philosophical idea of God only as thinking fails. From that, we know that God is, but not what God is. We relate to God in the movement of transcendence but, as God is hidden and unknowable, that movement is an uncategorisable but constant demand. The character of each individual Existenz is therefore one of constant choice, restlessness, and movement towards the divine. It has to be oriented towards God for, if transcendence is fixed in the mundane world and categories, that results in shipwreck (‘Scheitern’), in failure.

Jaspers’s system demands God – existentially, personally, and psychologically – but refrains from speaking of the being of God. As such, Jaspers differentiates between religious existence and philosophical existence. Our relation to the transcendent and to God must not come at the expense of the inconclusiveness and the activity of philosophising. The deity, in Jaspers, must be searched for and related to, even as it remains necessarily hidden, and this emphasis on human freedom is another thread binding him to existentialism. Religious and mystical existence, on the other hand, means sacrificing your authentic choice to transcend, or removing yourself from the world in which you find yourself.

Jaspers’s existential philosophy is open to religious philosophy, but his stress on the unknowability of transcendence and the delay in the cipher abstracts the divine in his thought. Yet when we think of existentialist philosophy, aside from Kierkegaard, it is not something we think as directed towards the divine. It does, however, contain many other typical aspects of existentialist thought: a stress on anxiety, the awareness of death, the importance of the individual choice, and the freedom to make it. I would say that this is one of the many reasons why we should still read Jaspers today. Jaspers gives responsibility and an end to that freedom, and provides a way out of despair and anxiety while not sacrificing the restlessness in existence.

Secondly, his thought provides a helpful anchor in exploring the history of existentialism. It is here that Sartre’s mischaracterisation of Jaspers as a Catholic existentialist helps. That Sartre thought this – most likely due to Marcel’s use of Jaspers – sheds light on how his narrative about what existentialism is and how it came to be is not necessarily reliable. Through attention to Jaspers, we can see that what became known as French existentialism could easily have been something else: one still about the self and its choices, but with a self that is not as alone and abandoned in the Universe.

All this makes Jaspers hard to categorise and systematise, which is arguably a reason he is not widely read or known. His philosophy is for the individual, and his presentation of the individual reaching ever-hopefully towards an unknowable God requires more faith than a philosophy that just relates to the world. Yet, paradoxically, that focus beyond the world is what is of value – remaining in the world, and reaching only towards the world, broken and imperfect as it and we are, perhaps does more frequently lead to failure and shipwreck.

Following his philosophical path, by necessity, leads to uncertainty and a certain restlessness, a certain inchoateness, rather than straightforward optimism or decisiveness. That is another reason why, although Jaspers had a huge impact on the development of existentialism, his thought was not taken up in the same way that Heidegger’s or Sartre’s was. That, along with his turn towards more popular philosophy and political engagement, has relegated his more sustained philosophical work to a particular time and place in the development of existentialism. But then that may be the final lesson Jaspers teaches us – his philosophy can take us back to ourselves, to life, and help us live it as self-aware individuals trying to find meaning.

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