Who now still reads Karl Jaspers? Compared to the other still influential giants of 20th-century German philosophy – Husserl, Heidegger, Gadamer, Adorno, Habermas, Arendt, Cassirer and Wittgenstein (I’m including Austrians) – he has faded from the canon. At least in the English-speaking world, Jaspers is now remembered more for his writings on other thinkers, such as Nietzsche or Weber, and his complex friendships with figures like Heidegger and Arendt, than for his own work. A flurry of primers appeared around the time of his death in 1969 but their impact has not withstood the tests of time and fashion. There remain, to be sure, active Karl Jaspers Societies and conference sessions continue to be scheduled, but this is true of practically every intellectual of note who wrote in German and was widely translated.
There is little, then, to suggest that Jaspers’s legacy as a thinker has widespread currency among the main theorists in the humanities. Although a number of his concepts may still be knocking around – for example, Grenzsituation (a boundary or limit situation) – they were too often expressed in a turgid idiom, sprinkled with cumbersome neologisms, that betrays a sensibility far removed from ours. Concepts such as ‘The Encompassing’ or ‘Absolute Consciousness’ or Existenz (the mark of a non-objectifiable self, as opposed to mere existence, which allows man to be turned into an object for scientific inquiry) sit uneasily with the often ironic and cynical mindset of our age. Jaspers’s defence of ‘authentic’ human existence had already been powerfully criticised as vacuous by Adorno in Jargon of Authenticity in the 1960s. His belief in a cipher-script composed of non-interpretable symbols that were impossible to distinguish from what they symbolised – myths, religious doctrines, speculative truths and the like – suggested a faith in linguistic transparency that has been jettisoned by a wide variety of critics since the ‘linguistic turn’. Nor does his condemnation of Freud for having robbed patients of their dignity by stressing the role of the unconscious have much traction, even now, when psychoanalysis is under attack. It is hard to imagine serious contemporary philosophers writing books entitled The Future of Mankind, Way to Wisdom, The Origin and Goal of History or The Spiritual Situation of the Age. As a result, Jaspers’s Existenzphilosophie, which he sought to distinguish with uneven success from its near cousin, Existentialism, has only modest resonance in a modern world that has nonetheless still to solve many of the riddles it set out to explore. As Michael Ermarth, the editor of the last two volumes of Jaspers’s Great Philosophers, acknowledged a decade ago, ‘there can be no “Jasperism” or doctrinal edifice built on his thinking. As with Socrates, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, his real message is incompatible with discipleship.’
There is, however, still something intriguing about Jaspers and the life he led, both private and public, during one of the most turbulent periods in modern history. Appropriately for someone who stressed the importance of personal Weltanschauungen (one of his earliest works was on the psychology of world-views), who valued friendship and love relations above all else, and pondered the special responsibility of intellectuals in dark times, the trajectory of his long life is as instructive as the ideas he put forward during it. Unlike his sometime friend Heidegger, he never compromised with political evil, nor did he allow his fascination with aspects of the human condition that defied rational understanding to descend into a rant against reason itself. However much he had learned from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, he resisted the lure of irrationalist decisionism, in which general moral standards were deemed irrelevant in the choice of actions.
When Germany desperately needed moral guidance after the war, Jaspers was one of the few non-émigrés – or rather uncompromised inner émigrés – who had the authority to provide it. Having somehow survived the Third Reich with a Jewish wife he refused to abandon, and having been deprived of his professorship at Heidelberg, Jaspers could tackle the question of guilt and complicity head on. Although bitter former Nazis such as Carl Schmitt dismissed him as a ‘repentance preacher’ (Bussprediger) and later commentators have found fault with aspects of his analysis, he was the first major figure to grapple with the enormity of the Nazis’ crimes, without, however, abandoning his faith – rooted in a mandarin respect for the value of Bildung – that something decent could be salvaged from German culture. In so doing, he helped reconcile many of his countrymen to the loss of national unity as a price they deserved to pay. It is, it seems, hard to dispute the admission by Arendt in a letter to Kurt Blumenfeld in 1952 that Jaspers the man was always ‘better’ than what he wrote.
We already know a great deal about Jaspers from his own autobiographical writings, voluminous correspondence, reminiscences by former students such as Wilhelmine Driescher, and previous biographies, beginning with Hans Saner’s the year after his death. The appearance of a new Life is nonetheless a welcome event. Suzanne Kirkbright is not, however, a trained philosopher, and her biography will not do much to reignite interest in Jaspers’s thought. When, for instance, she claims without comment that ‘what Jaspers extracted from Husserl’s notion of “intentionality” was a principle that words and meanings are all, on some level, subjected to transposition by individual preference,’ she does not inspire much confidence in her grasp of the philosophical tradition and Jaspers’s place in it. Intentionality, after all, means that mental states such as perceiving, desiring, believing or fearing are always directed to an object, whether real or imagined, which has nothing to do with our subjective preferences. At times the murkiness of Jaspers’s worst prose seems to infect her own attempts to present his thought, and she often lurches from point to point. A paragraph about Jaspers’s vexed friendship with Heidegger, for example, is followed by one that runs: ‘In July 1923, Jaspers commented on the ludicrous pace of inflation when he announced to Gertrud that Springer’s fee to publish his essay The Idea of the University was 5.5 million Marks, yet this amount was merely sufficient for a short period.’
Still, Kirkbright has drawn on some new sources, most notably unpublished family letters (printed in the original German as an appendix), to considerable effect. It is moving to see the young ‘Kally’ dealing with the life-threatening bronchiectasis which almost overcame him before he was 30, and explaining his career switches from law to medicine to philosophy, and negotiating the dangerous waters he entered when he fell in love in 1907 with Gertrud Mayer, the sister of his closest friend Gustav Mayer, a match that was further complicated by their religious differences. The details of the trials they endured during the Third Reich – Gertrud had to go into hiding and only narrowly escaped deportation when Heidelberg was liberated – testify to the depth of their commitment to each other.
No less poignant, but far more vexed, was the relationship Jaspers had with his younger brother, Enno, whose dissolute behaviour, financial troubles and drug habit increasingly estranged him from the sober and responsible Karl. Jaspers, drawing on his psychiatric training, seems to have done all he could do to help Enno, and he was shattered to receive a bitter and sarcastic suicide note from Enno on 8 March 1931 that blamed the family for worrying more about money than his survival. Here was a limit-situation, a testing of the Existenz that goes beyond humdrum living. ‘As far as I can think back,’ Jaspers had written in his Philosophical Autobiography, ‘I would be moved by the experience of mutual comprehension and incomprehension with others . . . in spite of parents, brother and sister, in spite of friends, I was consumed by the yearning for a kind of communication beyond any chance of misunderstanding, beyond everything merely provisional, beyond all limits of the all too self-evident. Man can only come to himself when he is with his fellow man, never by knowledge alone.’ Enno’s suicide showed him how fragile that hope might be.
But even after the devastating loss of his brother, Jaspers continued to bet on the power of communicative interaction: ‘limitless communication’, as he often called it. As Arendt was later to comment, he was ‘the first and the only philosopher who has ever protested against solitude, to whom solitude has appeared “pernicious” and who has dared to question “all thoughts, all experiences, all contents” under this one aspect: “What do they signify for communication?”’ His faith in its power may have been the reason he never publicly repudiated his troubled friendship with the explicitly anti-communicative Heidegger, even after the latter’s decision to lend his intellectual prestige to the Nazi regime. Kirkbright includes a letter sent shortly after Heidegger’s notorious Rectoral Address in which Jaspers even cautiously praised him: ‘Your grand design of placing the starting point in Greece has once again impressed me as a new and self-evident truth. Here you are in agreement with Nietzsche, but with the difference that one may hope that what you say will one day be actualised in a philosophically interpretative manner. This gives your speech its convincing substance.’ Their friendship was soon under strain, however, and Jaspers confided to his wife that he had lost trust in Heidegger, whose recklessly naive hope den Führer zu führen (‘to lead the leader’) he did not share. But Jaspers never fully abandoned his tortured, often implicit dialogue with Heidegger, even when Heidegger said nothing to protest against Jaspers’s dismissal from Heidelberg in 1937 or polemised against Jaspers’s interpretation of Nietzsche as a non-ideological critic of positive wisdom. After 1945 the two men didn’t meet again and Jaspers’s testimony was instrumental in preventing Heidegger from teaching in the immediate postwar period, but he never managed to write the definitive account of their philosophical and personal relationship, and withdrew the essay he had written on the subject for a 1957 collection dedicated to Heidegger’s philosophy.
Far more fruitful was Jaspers’s warm relationship with the remarkable pupil he shared with Heidegger, Hannah Arendt. Kirkbright devotes her final chapter to the ‘Hannahkind’ and her frequent presence in Jaspers’s household in Basel after he was reunited with his wife in 1949. Although they disagreed on some issues, Arendt’s devotion to and esteem for Jaspers – ‘citizen of the world’, she admiringly called him – never diminished. He repaid it, coming to her defence, for example, during the storm over Eichmann in Jerusalem. Her own work was enriched by the tacit adoption of Jaspers’s distinction between Existenz and mere existence, which she understood in terms of the difference between action and behaviour. Even more important to Arendt was Jaspers’s belief in the communicative, intersubjective quality of meaningful action, which allowed her to break free from the inclination to solipsism in Heidegger’s earlier work.
The same lesson was learned by another eminent German thinker, Jürgen Habermas, who goes unmentioned in Kirkbright’s book, but who has perhaps the strongest claim to have inherited Jaspers’s mantle as moral conscience of his nation. Habermas has assumed the role of public intellectual warning against the excesses of nationalism and the lures of anti-rationalist obscurantism, and he has also fleshed out and explored the implications of a philosophy based on the privileging of communicative interaction over egological self-interest or self-fashioning. Like Jaspers, he favours a cosmopolitan over a nationalist identity, and refuses to denigrate social scientific inquiry in favour of philosophical speculation, preferring a mutually enriching dialogue between them.
Habermas, who began his teaching career at Heidelberg in 1962, has often drawn on Jaspers’s legacy. As early as 1958, he acknowledged the importance of the ecumenical theme of communication in Jaspers’s work, while chastising him for ignoring the ‘reality of that objective life context which is made by human beings and yet stands over against them as an alien force’. In 1978 he returned to Jaspers’s 1931 treatise, The Spiritual Situation of the Age, and invited a group of leading German intellectuals to address the same problem. Habermas faulted Jaspers for, among other things, trying to speak the language of ‘haut bourgeois culture criticism’, but nonetheless contended that ‘what has not become obsolete . . . is the duty of intellectuals to react with partiality and objectivity, with sensitivity and integrity, to movements, trends, dangers and critical moments.’
In fact Habermas’s collaborative enterprise – there are 13 contributors to the 1979 collection – embodies Jaspers’s notion of ‘limitless communication’ more fully than a virtuoso performance by the philosopher himself ever could. Jaspers’s vision of the university was more elitist than Habermas’s, a reflection of the distance travelled between Weimar and Bonn. But insofar as he helped prepare the way for a postwar philosophy that went beyond the existential pathos of his early work and left behind the more dubious political implications that other Weimar thinkers drew from their post-rationalist philosophies of existence, he merits our continued admiration.