Karl Jaspers: Biography, Philosophy, Works And Phrases

Karl Jaspers  (1883-1969) was one of the most important German philosophers of the 20th century and one of the main promoters of existentialism. His works focused mainly on the concern of the human being about his own existence and the meaning of it.

As with so many of his contemporaries, Jaspers had to try to go unnoticed in his native Germany due to the occupation of the Nazi regime, with which he suffered a conflictive situation. This fact, and the nature of the regime that was established in his country by force, led him to develop a new way of thinking which he called “world philosophy.”

One of the main objectives of Karl Jaspers was to change the conception that existed in the field of psychiatry about mental illnesses, since he was not satisfied with the official definition. To do this, he developed what is now known as the “biographical method”, a way of investigating the history of patients to better understand the origin of their symptoms and problems.

In the field of philosophy, Karl Jaspers drew on the works of existentialists such as Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Most of his theories were centered on the idea of ​​individual freedom, which in his case is associated with a confidence in the meaning of life that is not based on objective or empirical data.


Early years

Karl Jaspers was the oldest of three brothers. His father was a lawyer descended from shepherds, who had managed to change the course of his family and become one of the first to achieve a certain level of wealth. His mother, Henriette Tantzen, also came from a humble family.

During his childhood years, Jaspers was a delicate child with numerous health problems. As a consequence of all the illnesses he suffered during this time, he ended up developing bronchioectasis as a teenager, which caused heart problems at a very young age. All of these ailments played an important role in the development of his adult life.

In 1901 Jaspers enrolled at the University of Heidelberg. Although at first he began to study law, this subject was never very fond of him. Because of this, shortly afterwards he changed his specialty and trained in medicine at the universities of Berlin, Heidelberg and Göttingen.

In February 1909 Jaspers got his medical degree. A year later he married Gertrud Mayer, whom he had known during his years as a student.

Jobs in the field of psychiatry

Once he graduated as a doctor, Jaspers began doing research on a voluntary basis in the psychiatry unit of the University of Heidelberg. Jasper chose to go through the tasks of his position at his own pace and without a schedule, and only work with patients and cases that he found interesting.

In exchange for getting these conditions, Jasper had to agree to work for free; but this arrangement seemed adequate to him since his main interest was to learn more about the field of psychiatry. At this time, the study of the mind was considered an empirical discipline but its foundations were not yet well established.

Thus, when Jaspers entered the world of psychiatry, the focus was above all on the diagnosis of the different mental illnesses that were common at that time. However, there were practically no therapeutic methods, and the experts did not have a universal language with which they could share what they were discovering.

During his years in the field of psychiatry, Karl Jaspers tried to develop a universal lexicon that would allow us to talk about existing psychiatric diseases, in addition to trying to find a therapeutic approach that would allow solving the most important ones. For this he relied on phenomenology, a direct research method that is based on the description of phenomena according to the way in which they are experienced.

Jasper soon established a great reputation as a researcher, and made many discoveries that advanced this discipline. One of the most important points of his career in this field was the publication of the book  General Psychopathology , in which he summarized several of the most innovative methods in the discipline.

Step to philosophy

In 1913 Jasper became part of the faculty of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, as it included the department of psychology. Little by little, exposure to the ideas that moved in this environment made his thinking maturing and getting closer and closer to this discipline.

In his book  Psychology of World Visions (1919), despite not wanting to enter the field of philosophy, his opinions ended up dealing with this field. Furthermore, the postulates in this book were predecessors to Jaspers later ideas. In it, his main intention was to try to clarify the relationship between scientific research and philosophy.

During the invasion of the Nazis, Karl Jaspers was one of the few philosophers fortunate enough not to have to flee the country. However, during this time he had to work hard not to attract attention, because he had very contrary ideas to those of the regime.


In his later years, Jaspers grew closer and closer to the field of philosophy and existentialism. He passed away at the age of 86 in Switzerland, after having become one of the most influential thinkers of his time.

Jaspers philosophy (thought)

In the field of philosophy, most authors frame Jaspers within existentialism, mainly due to his ideas about individual freedom and because he based his work on those of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.


The philosophical theories of Karl Jaspers started from empiricism. Pairto this thinker, when we investigate reality we can find the frontiers of what the scientific method can bring us. At this point, people can fall into nihilism, or transcend negativity and reach a state that Jaspers called “transcendence.”


For Jaspers, nihilism came from not fully accepting the reality in which we live. However, if we are able to come to terms with the idea that we can never know everything and that we cannot reach the answers to the most important questions in life, we can move to the state of transcendence.

In the state of transcendence the greatest discovery is that of our individual freedom. Only by facing this fact directly and overcoming the fear it provokes will we be able to reach the state of authentic existence.


For Jaspers, the concept of transcendence refers to that which exists beyond time and space. Although he did not consider himself a religious person and in fact rejected all organized religions, his thinking greatly influenced many contemporary theologians.

Other contributions

On the other hand, Karl Jaspers wrote a multitude of texts on the risks that elements such as modern science, technology, and the economic and political system presented to individual freedom.

Finally Jaspers was very critical of the Nazi government both during its uprising and after World War II ended. In fact, in his last years this philosopher dedicated himself to trying to find a way in which the German people could take responsibility for what had happened and clean up their guilt.

Published works

Karl Jaspers wrote a multitude of books of different fields, styles and complexity. Some of his works are extremely difficult to understand, and therefore have not yet been translated into other languages. Others, like his book  Philosophy is for the Common Man , were informative.

Here we will see some of the most important works published by Karl Jaspers.

–  Philosophy of existence (1971).

 The origin and objective of history  (1949).

Nietzsche: an introduction to the understanding of his philosophical activity  (1965).

Reason and existence  (1955).

The future of humanity (1958).

General psychopathology  (1997).

Featured phrases

– «What has happened has been a warning. Forgetting it is part of our fault. We must constantly remember it. It has been possible for this to happen, and it may happen again at any time. Only with knowledge can we prevent it.

– «Deciding to become a philosopher sounds as absurd to me as deciding to become a poet».

– «What is important cannot be isolated. We reach understanding in a circular movement starting from concrete facts and going towards the whole that includes them, and we start again from the whole until we arrive at the particular facts ».

– “All democracies demand a common public education because nothing makes people more similar than having the same education.”

– «In the same way that primitive man believed that he was face to face with demons and thought that only by knowing their names he could dominate them, contemporary man has to face incomprehensible facts that mess up his calculations. ‘If only I could understand him,’ he thinks, ‘I could make him my servant.’


  1. “The existential philosophy of Karl Jaspers” in: Future Learn. Retrieved on: February 22, 2020 from Future Learn: futurelearn.com.
  2. “Karl Jaspers Quotes” at: Brainy Quote. Retrieved on: February 22, 2020 from Brainy Quote: brainyquote.com.
  3. “Karl Jaspers: biography of this German philosopher and psychiatrist” in: Psychology and Mind. Retrieved on: February 22, 2020 from Psychology and Mind: psicologiaymente.com.
  4. “Karl Jaspers” in: Britannica. Retrieved on: February 22, 2020 from Britannica: britannica.com.
  5. “Karl Jaspers” in: Wikipedia. Retrieved on: February 22, 2020 from Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *