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Karl Jaspers

Karl Jaspers (1883 - 1969) was a German psychiatrist and philosopher who had a strong influence on modern theology, psychiatry and philosophy.


Jaspers was born in Oldenburg in 1883 to a mother from a local farming community and a father who was a jurist. He showed an early interest in philosophy although his father's experience with the legal system undoubtedly influenced his decision to study law at university. It soon became clear that law was not something Jaspers particularly enjoyed and he switched to studying medicine in 1902.

Jaspers graduated from medical school in 1909 and began work at a psychiatric hospital in Heidelberg, where Emil Kraepelin had worked some years earlier. Jaspers became dissatisfied with the way the medical community of the time approached the study of mental illness and set himself the task of improving the psychiatric approach. In 1913 Jaspers was given a temporary post as a psychology teacher at Heidelberg University. The post later became permanent and Jaspers never returned to clinical practice.

Contributions to Psychiatry

Jaspers dissatisfaction with the popular understanding of mental illness led him to question both the diagnostic criteria and the methods of clinical psychiatry. He published a revolutionary paper in 1910 in which he addressed the problem of whether paranoia was an aspect of personality or the result of biological changes. Whilst this was not a new idea in itself, his method of study was unique. He studied several patients in detail, giving biographical information on the people concerned as well as providing notes on how the patients themselves felt about their symptoms. This has become known as the biographical method and is now the mainstay of modern psychiatric practice.

Jaspers set about writing his views on mental illness in a book which was published as General Psychopathology. The two volumes which make up this work have become a classic in the psychiatric literature and much modern diagnostic criteria stem from ideas contained within them. Of particular importance was Jaspers' belief that symptoms (particularly of psychosis) should be diagnosed by their form rather than their content. For example, in diagnosing an hallucination, the fact that a person experiences visual phenomena when their is no sensory stimuli to explain it (form) is more important than what is seen (content).

Jaspers felt delusions could also be diagnosed in the same way. He argued a belief should not be considered delusional based on the content of the belief, but only by the way in which such a belief is held (see delusion entry for further discussion). Jaspers also distinguished between primary and secondary delusions. Primary delusions are defined as being autochthonous or arising out-of-the-blue and not being comprehensible in terms of normal mental processes, whereas secondary delusions may be understood as being influenced by the person's background or current situation. Jaspers considered primary delusions as ultimately 'un-understandable' as he believed there was no coherent reasoning process behind their formation. This view is not without controversy, and has been criticised by the likes of R. D. Laing and Richard Bentall who stress that taking this stance can lead a therapist into the complacency of assuming that because they do not understand a patient, the patient is deluded and further investigation on the part of the therapist will be fruitless.

Contributions to Philosophy and Theology

Although he rejected explicit religious doctrines, Jaspers influenced contemporary theology through his preoccupation with transcendence and the limits of human experience.

In Philosophy (3 vols, 1932), Jaspers gave his view of the history of philosophy and introduced his major themes.

He viewed philosophy as an effort to explore and describe the margins and limits of experience, and he used the term "the encompassing" to refer to the ultimate limits of being.

Jaspers also wrote extensively on the threat to human freedom posed by modern science and modern economic and political institutions.

Another important work was Philosophy and Existence (1938). For Jaspers, the term "existence" designates the indefinable experience of freedom and possibility; an experience which constitutes the authentic being of individuals who become aware of "the encompassing" by confronting suffering, conflict, guilt, chance, and death.

"Transcendence" is the term Jaspers used to identify God in the intense emotional experience of human beings.

See also