Monday, 19 March 2012 07:51

Karl Jaspers: Men of Ideas

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Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) was a German Jewish psychiatrist and existential philosopher.  Jaspers worked in clinical psychology, with the mentally ill, but eventually left clinical work and settled for an academic career in philosophy.

While working in the mental health field, Jaspers grappled with efforts to understand whether psychopathology is biological in origin or developed as part of personality development. He did not provide us with acceptable answers to his question. To the present no one has found a definite answer to that question.

There are those who see mental disorder as biological in etiology and those who think that it is learned. In the nature of things, mental disorder is probably both biological in genesis and socially learned. Consider that mental disorders are manifested in social language, albeit confused language. Because it is manifested in a social manner mental disorder must have a sociological aspect to it.  On the other hand, mental disorders are done through biological mechanisms and, therefore, must have biological aspects to them.

Neuroscience is increasingly showing us how the central nervous system works and how disordered aspect of it leads to mental disorders. In schizophrenia, for example, there is putative disorder of the neurotransmitter dopamine, in mania there seem a disorder of norepinephrine; in paranoia, a subject of interest to Jaspers there seem a disorder in fear response and since fear response is mediated by certain neurotransmitters must have a biological aspect to it.

Jaspers did not figure out the cause of mental disorders. Nevertheless, he seems to have left a mark in the mental health field. In his efforts to understand at what point something went wrong with the mental development of his patients, he had them provide him with elaborate biographical information. These days’ mental health professionals take biographical information from their patients. Thus, Jaspers established the biographical approach to patients, having them tell their life’s story and that hopefully enables clinicians to see where things went wrong in their lives and try to fix them. Alas, clinicians have not figured out ways to fix the mentally ill, not yet.

Jaspers could not heal his clients and, in apparent frustration, left clinical work and went to academic work from where he dished out ideas that he hoped would heal the people.  Apparently, philosophers fancy themselves the healers of distressed human minds.

Jaspers the clinician did not heal his patients; Jaspers the philosopher did not heal people, either.  However, he left useful literature for people to read and think about.

Jaspers made his mark is in existential philosophy. He observed that empiricism can only explain so much. There is a limit to what science can explain. In fact, science can only explain the periphery of human existence.

Science explains our bodies, the material aspect of us, but does not really help us answer serious questions like who are we, and what are we living for.

Jaspers concluded that when the individual confronts the limitations of science that he is left to his own devices to come up with the answers that existence asks of us. At this point some persons become depressed, for they wished that there were ready made answers, the type that old time religions used to offer folk. Alas, old-time religions and their spurious answers are no longer acceptable to modern science educated folk. The individual must now answer existential questions by himself.

Like Kierkegaard, who, apparently, influenced him, Jaspers said that if the individual is to avoid despair he must make a leap of faith and believe in something that transcends matter. Meaning and purpose cannot be found in physics but in something that transcends it.

As Jaspers see it, there is something that exists beyond our world of space-time and matter; what that something is, apparently, our five physical senses cannot comprehend.

There is no use denying the existence of a transcendent intelligence, as science does. The individual ought to have an idea of what that transcendent intelligence is and believe it without deluding himself that he has understood its nature.

That transcendent something, called spirit by old time religion, is beyond our rational understanding; it can only be believed as if it is real. That something is not something in our normal conception of something. It is something that encompasses all things. All things mean no particular thing.

Nothingness means not this and not that; not this and not that particular thing means everything. We are nothing; we are not this or that thing, as said by our separated consciousness; we are part of everything, we are nothing.

(One of Hinduism’s Upanishads says: neti, neti, not this not that; reality is not anything that we can conceptualize with our ego consciousness; it is that which transcends separated consciousness, that which transcends the world of multiplicity; it is a unified force. That Unified force, Hinduism calls Brahman. Brahman is himself, yet is his parts, Atman. Jaspers is really rearticulating the perennial philosophy of mankind found in many religions, including Hinduism.)

Jaspers did not consider himself a religionist but he was influenced by Christian mysticism and its postulation that there is a world outside our normal five senses. Meister Eckhart, St John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and other Christian mystics tell us that they had mystical experience whereby they transcended this world and merged with what they call one self, one self that is all selves.

Jaspers believed in mysticism; his concept of transcendence and belief in the unknown unified spirit self is akin to what mystics of all places teach.

Naturally, Jaspers philosophy is attractive to religionists, though he did not see himself as a religionist. Theologians who are drawn to the mystical gravitate to Jaspers writing.

Jaspers writing is actually eastern religion, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc presented in Western philosophical categories. There is nothing in Jaspers that any one who has studied Hinduism would not see in it? In fact, one is tempted to say that Jaspers merely plagiarized Hinduism and Buddhism. Even so, as long as he is useful why make much ado about nothing?

Jaspers perceived the dangers of modern science. Science teaches determinism, that people are the product of their natural world. This is a threat to human sense of freedom. Consider the latest foolishness of science. It tells homosexuals that they do what they do because their genes predisposed them to do so. They have no freedom but to do what they do. Okay. By the same logic, we can demonstrate that criminals inherited genes that predispose them to criminal behavior; we can show that pedophiles inherited genes that dispose them to seek to have sex with five year old children. Should we then permit these behaviors because they were disposed by folk’s gene? Consider what would happen if antisocial behaviors and pedophilia are socially approved.

Science and its determinism propose to take away that which makes human beings, who they are: choice making animals? Jaspers saw the danger inherent in this trend and called attention to it.

Ultimately, what Jaspers is teaching is that there is a transcendental aspect to human beings that science cannot understand, an aspect that can be approached through a leap of faith or meditation.

Belief in this transcendental aspect of us tends to give people hope to live for.  Whether Jaspers is an existential philosopher in the sense of Jean Paul Sartre remains to be seen. Sartre was an atheist who saw no meaning to existence but used an act of will to posit personal meaning and lived for it and did so fully.

Jaspers believes that there is a mystical aspect to us and therefore did not subscribe to the hypothesis that life is meaningless and purposeless.

Life is meaningless and purposeless if we seek ego based goals, but life becomes meaningful and purposeful if we seek transcendental goals, love and care for one another.

As Jaspers sees it, we have inherent freedom to seek the transcendent and live like the gods, or to believe that we are determined and live like animals.


Karl Jaspers. Philosophy of Existence (1932)

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176