Karl Jaspers: A Dissenting Existentialist

The German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) does not figure prominently in post-modern commentary. There are two reasons for this. Traditionalists will find his nineteenth-century liberalism lacking in incisiveness (and orthodox Christians have long faulted his deistic theology). Meanwhile, those on the left will consider him reactionary. By the time of his death, Jaspers was already something of an intellectual relic. Yet he did exert considerable influence on his contemporaries. Joseph Ratizinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) was indebted to Jaspers for his critical analysis of Marxism, Freudianism and neo-Kantianism.

According to E. L. Allen’s study of existentialism, Jaspers preferred the free market over socialism. Likewise, his enthusiasm for democracy was tempered by a healthy skepticism, viewing it (in Allen’s words) as “a rare and rather unsuccessful experiment in political techniques” in Western history. The German thinker was often accused of elitism. Certainly his idea of democracy was influenced more by the ancient Athenian model than the Rousseauistic utopia. Whatever his short-comings or his relative obscurity today he offers thoughtful evaluation of the ideas that shaped the world we live in.

Jaspers was an important existentialist writer whose insights are arguably more helpful than those of Jean-Paul Sartre. He recognizes that our use of freedom is not inherently good. Likewise, his rationalism diverged from the optimism of most Enlightenment thinkers by maintaining that “Reason is not there by nature, but is only real through a resolution.” Man has to capacity to abuse or abdicate his reasoning powers. Finally, while Jaspers firmly believed that a valid philosophical system must take into account the latest empirical data; nevertheless, he knew that science has its limits. There are human desires that it cannot satisfy. Also, the technician can easily be mislead by his narrow specialization, as happened to many experts under Hitler.

Jaspers was a trained psychiatrist, yet he quickly broke ranks with the secular dogmatism of Freud and his followers.

It is evident that there is a perverted section of humanity in the world today that longs for ‘liberation.’ Psychoanalysis gives it an illusory liberation which is as untrue as the humanity of which it is a reflection.

As for the theories of Karl Marx, his initially mild assessment gives way to indignation.

Marx became a prophet in a God-forsaken world in the forms appropriate to this world. He appeared as the herald of science, but of a science that is in fact not a science at all. He came as one who commands in the name of history, not in the name of God. The monstrous falseness of this alleged unity of faith, science and action, of the attempt to prove and justify everything by dialectic seems totally transparent, but the mere fact that such a faith exists is enough to fill one with horror and amazement, for only destruction and purposeless violence can spring from the attempt to give reality to an absurdity.

For further reading, I recommend Jasper’s brief and accessible treatise, Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time (1952).

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