A thinker uncompromised

Karl Jaspers, A Biography
October 21, 2005

Karl Jaspers was a highly influential German intellectual in the middle decades of the 20th century, and his thought shaped an unusually wide range of intellectual disciplines - from psychology to epistemology, from political and constitutional theory to religious philosophy. In recent decades, however, it has been unfashionable to write about Jaspers. Today he is remembered chiefly for his friendship with Martin Heidegger in the 1920s and for his early writings on psychopathology.

One reason why few people read Jaspers today is because, unlike many of his contemporaries, his work does not have an air of political intrigue or compromise. Heidegger's name, for example, is eternally connected with Nazism, and Georg Lukács cannot escape the Stalinist shadow.

By contrast, in the 1920s, Jaspers was attached to the liberal-conservative fringes of German parliamentarism, and his philosophy was most influential in the prosaic political climate of the late 1940s and 1950s. At this time, he was a prominent supporter of the hallmark policies of Konrad Adenauer's Government: of Western orientation, Chancellor democracy, the social-market economy and commitment to the democratic legal state. He later renounced his fondness for Adenauer and, in the 1960s, advocated a "legal revolution".

However, his philosophy often struggles to find appreciation as anything more than the theoretical basis for a musty liberalism, and his name lacks unsettling or inspiring associations. Gradually, though, this disdainful attitude is changing, and Jaspers's work is beginning to get due recognition. Suzanne Kirkbright's biography should greatly strengthen the case for a revised approach.

At times, the conception of this book is questionable. It tends to presuppose a wide and informed interest in Jaspers's thought, and it does not systematically examine his philosophy or explain why discussion of its subject matter is necessary. However, it has numerous merits that easily outweigh such reservations.

For those who know little about Jaspers, it offers a compass for understanding some of the milieux that have formed modern German intellectual history. For instance, it expertly evokes the discussion groups in Heidelberg before and during the First World War, in which Jaspers engaged in debate with, among others, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, Ernst Bloch and Lukács. For more seasoned interpreters, it offers a wealth of unpublished material that illuminates in detail the trajectory of Jaspers's thought. It expands our knowledge of his exchanges with Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, and its analysis of his relations with the neo-Kantian philosophers around Heinrich Rickert and Emil Lask provides important clues to some of the central themes in his work.

The most important aspect of the book, however, concerns Jaspers's political stances. Interpreters who have promoted a reading of Jaspers as a seminal philosopher of German democracy will find much support here. Many may find that he was more democratically committed than they imagined: few, for example, will have suspected that he supported the German Social Democratic Party before 1914. The discussion of his reception of Weber's heroic liberalism is very informative, and the controversies surrounding his slightly aberrant political publications in the last years of the Weimar Republic are well reconstructed.

More detail might have been provided about his political role after 1945.

Nonetheless, the significance of Jaspers's political interventions is always appropriately accentuated, and a clear picture emerges of an unjustly neglected thinker who contributed greatly to the formation of the democratic consensus that is now at the heart of German politics.

Chris Thornhill is professor of German, King's College London.

Karl Jaspers, A Biography: Navigations in Truth

Author - Suzanne Kirkbright
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 360
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 300 10242 9

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