- Karl Jaspers, a Biography: Navigations in Truth by Suzanne Kirkbright
Yale, 352 pp, £25.00, November 2004, ISBN 0 300 10242 9
Who now still reads Karl Jaspers? Compared to the other still influential giants of 20th-century German philosophy – Husserl, Heidegger, Gadamer, Adorno, Habermas, Arendt, Cassirer and Wittgenstein (I’m including Austrians) – he has faded from the canon. At least in the English-speaking world, Jaspers is now remembered more for his writings on other thinkers, such as Nietzsche or Weber, and his complex friendships with figures like Heidegger and Arendt, than for his own work. A flurry of primers appeared around the time of his death in 1969 but their impact has not withstood the tests of time and fashion. There remain, to be sure, active Karl Jaspers Societies and conference sessions continue to be scheduled, but this is true of practically every intellectual of note who wrote in German and was widely translated.
Vol. 28 No. 12 · 22 June 2006
‘Who now still reads Karl Jaspers?’ Martin Jay begins his review of Suzanne Kirkbright’s biography of the philosopher (LRB, 8 June). Well, we psychiatrists do, or at least we older ones did. His philosophy may have been expressed in ‘turgid idiom’, but his psychiatric masterpiece, General Psychopathology (1913), was not. Most Anglophone readers think it worth buying for the fifty-page introductory chapter alone. If Jaspers’s philosophy was preoccupied with those ‘aspects of the human condition that defied rational understanding’, then it is unsurprising that he was so well suited to the exploration of mental illness. His work is outstanding for its vivid and penetrating descriptions of the seemingly alien experiences his patients struggled to communicate. Jay emphasises the value Jaspers accorded relationships and this is most evident in his insistence on psychiatry as an interaction between two individuals, rather than simply as the exercise of trained observation. His comments may be even more important now, as psychiatry risks drifting into an impoverished and mechanistic scientism.
Warneford Hospital, Oxford